Saturday, June 13, 2009


Although I have an intense fear of bugs, especially roaches, spiders have never really bothered me very much. Growing up with a biologist dad, I quickly learned how to identify the venomous brown recluse spider, the only dangerous spider in Northeastern Kansas. But even the threat of their necrotic toxin didn't seem to instill any sort of real fear in me (although it probably should have). And as for harmless spiders, no problem! I even found little black jumping spiders kind of cute. Such a statement would make my highly arachnophobic twin cringe, and I'll admit that I've teased her many, many times for her fear of spiders.

Perhaps she would be pleased to know that karma has finally come back to bite me in the ass.

When I've visited France in the past, I've never seen any kinds of spiders anywhere. In the 19th-century foyer in the 7th district, there were none. No spiders invaded the modern foyer in the 18th district. Neither of my apartments in Paris had them. I've never seen a single one at Gaby's house. Even when I took walks in the forests, I didn't ever see any spiders! I was beginning to think France just didn't have as many spiders as the U.S. or that they simply tended to avoid the Paris area.

Boy was I wrong.

One night a month or so ago, I was getting ready for bed and had just removed my contacts. As I was drying my hands, I happened to look down and through blurred vision could see a very dark spot in the corner of the otherwise white walls. What was that? Mud? How had it gotten on the wall? I put on my glasses. It was a spider, but not just any spider. An enormous one. I stood there frozen staring at its dark brown bulbous abdomen and long hairy legs curled up underneath it. Ugh.

Gaby? I croaked. He must have sensed the fear in my voice because he came to the bathroom immediately. I pointed.

Do you want me to kill it? he asked.

Now this might seem like a dumb question to most people, but not to me. I usually cannot stand to kill spiders; they're supposed to be our friends and take care of all kinds of nuisance insects. So usually I just trap them in a jar and take them outside to be released into the wild where they belong. Not this time. The spider was in a corner where trapping it would have been difficult, and I just couldn't imagine trying to fit it underneath one of our narrow glasses. To see if it was alive, Gaby sprayed it with the shower nozzle. It fell on the floor and didn't move.

See? he said, It's not even alive.

Could you spray it one more time just in case?
I asked.

He did. The spider immediately spread out its long long legs and tried to run away, fast. It was probably almost 3 inches long with its leg span and it was heading straight towards me. I tried not to scream. Gaby's shoe came down on it and I closed my eyes and covered my ears to avoid hearing that awful crunch. Brr.

Two days later, we found another one just as big that we had unknowingly killed by closing the bathroom door on it. Fearing we might have a spider problem, I tried to determine where they could be coming from. I covered up a washing machine pipe that's not in use at least to keep them from hiding in there, but hoping that that was their entry point. Right. Then we didn't see any more of them for awhile and I figured that was the end of it.

Out of curiosity, I tried to figure out what kind of spiders they were through different websites. They looked and crawled almost like wolf spiders, but they seemed smaller. I finally found pictures and descriptions that most closely fit our spiders, and apparently they're quite simply referred to as "Giant House Spiders." Great. Huge spiders that regularly come indoors.

Last night we found the latest one, just as big as the other two, in the bedroom, closest to my side of the bed of course and with the beginnings of a thick web to go along with it. Sick. It has since joined its fellow spiders in the arachnid afterlife and I spent a night of fear-induced insomnia. The thought of such enormous spiders crawling on me freaks me out way too much.

So yay. Thanks France. Way to pull a fast one on me, making me think there were no spiders near Paris or just little harmless ones. Instead we've got mini-tarantulas wandering around. Sorry Jill for ever making fun of your arachnophobia.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

La Bière

Beer? Yes, I know. Since I'm in France, I should be talking about their smooth Côtes du Rhônes, bubbly champagne and crisp Sauvignon Blancs. I do sincerely enjoy French wine and still believe the best wine comes from France (sorry California), but today I'd rather put aside this (more sophisticated?) drink and talk about beer in France.

BEER. As the beverage of choice for parties, BBQ's and big sporting events it seems like it should always be written in all capitals. And yet, despite BEER's reputation, the French have managed to avoid any coarse associations in their treatment of it and have somehow made it seem closer The word itself, la bière, is lighter than its English equivalent, the R gently rolling off the back of the palate instead of being swallowed as it is in American English. The gender is feminine.

When I first came to Paris, I made the mistake of ordering une bière without specifying the size and was surprised when they brought out a small yet heavy chalice of 25 centiliters--about a half-pint in the US and less than a can of soda. How darling! The bottles are smaller too which certainly helped explain how my French students could brag about being able to drink 10 to 12 bottles of beer at their parties. Yes, 10-12 cute squat little 25 cl containers (compared to the US' standard 35.5 cl bottles).
Am I being the typical American who likes everything BIG? Yes, I am. And France does offer pints of beer as well. You just have to specify that you would like a grande bière or 50 cl.

France itself makes many beers, although unfortunately, I've tried only a few pretty standard ones. They have Kronenbourg which is like Bud Light (definitely not my favorite) and the Pelforth beers that I tend to enjoy more. Desperados is an odd sort of tequila / beer combination that tastes rather refreshing if you can get past the smell.

But a really nice thing about ordering beer in France is that bars regularly offer the more expensive, harder-to-find beers that the US may or may not import.

I'm a fan of Belgian beers. Leffe is a pretty standard beer with good flavor. There's also the widely available Hoegaarden (in the US too, I know), often on tap here and delicious with a slice of lemon on a hot summer night. Chimay Bleue, one of my favorites, has a rich, deep taste with hints of caramel. And of course there are the fun fruity lambics such as Lindeman's Framboise, a purple raspberry beer and Kriek, a tart ruby-red cherry-flavored beer.
When I ordered one of these fruity beers at a bar, my Irish colleague looked at it in disgust and said, "Ewww...smells like jam! It's like you're drinkin' a cup o' jam isn't it?" But he couldn't resist tasting it and then ordered himself one the next round. It's worth trying, but definitely only in the 25 cl quantities.

Finally, my favorite beer that's available in many Parisian Irish pubs is Kilkenny, a creamy red Irish ale lighter than Guinness but full of flavor. Unfortunately, this beer is not available in the U.S.! So if you're ever abroad, even in Canada, and you like darker rich beers, order yourself a pint.
These are just a few of the beers that I've discovered so far while living in a wine country. Why limit myself to wines? Someday I'll write about my favorite wines, but for now I'm going to stick with my little European (okay...mostly Belgian) beer tour. Cheers!