I spend a minimum of three hours a day in train, since I accepted a job that came along with the commute from hell two years ago. The downside of this arrangement is, well, everything, but if there is a bright spot in my train story, it’s that I have lots and lots of time to read. While I always have a book in my bag, it had been a while since I’d read one that actually made me look forward to the trains being delayed because that meant I’d have more time to read. That was until I picked up Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I. Loved. This. Book. Snappy prose, a clever and relatable heroine, all the thrills and disasters that come with living in a big city in your 20’s, the glamour (and myth) of New York in the Golden Age, societal commentary… all there. The NYT did a better write-up than I could, but take my word for it and read Rules of Civility. Like one of the main characters says frequently of Manhattan, it’ll “just turn you inside out.”
At the top of my things-to-do-before-leaving-France list was to head south to see Hazel on the Canal du Midi, my favorite part of France, the place that made me want to move here. So I took three days off this week and hopped a train to Narbonne, arriving with only a one hour delay in the the sunny, beautiful country of the Languedoc region. Life doesn’t get much better than it was over the last three days. I got to play with a cute dog, who happens to be the mom of my little Mac back home. Here she is sporting the new Swiss jewelry I picked up for her in her hometown of Appenzell, Switzerland.
I got to hang out on a boat, on a UNESCO world heritage site. They haven’t yet cut down the trees on the bit of the canal that curls through picturesque Le Somail, so the winding green waterway is still shaded and scenic. (Check out a video interview of Hazel about the Fandango and the Canal du Midi at the 20 minute mark on TF1 here!)
I got to play Scrabble, even though I didn’t get to win. I got to buy olives at l’Oulibo and drink rosé with grapefuit syrup, grocery shop at Métro (a sort of miniature Costco for French restaurant professionals), and spend a few hours reading about cheese.
I got to help cook. A lot. Hazel and her chef Katie were recipe testing for the weeks to come, so we brainstormed and shopped and whipped up everything from mackerel rillettes to a chocolatey hazelnut dacquoise. There were pizzas, caesar salads, peach cakes. There was bourride and fried monkfish and pasta with tomato sauce, brown bread and croissants, potato salad and smoked trout rolls, salmon with buerre blanc, spinach from the farm, cherries from down the road, and risotto with fennel and chestnuts. We bought brindade de Nimes and tarragon plants, and Katie even got the hang of driving on the non-English side of the road. Daniel took a break from tending his new vines to come share some champagne and an apero, and we drank a lot of coffees accompanied by dark chocolate and caramel Michokos. For more on the dacquoise and the rillettes and the cooking that’s to come on the Fandango this season, check out Katie’s blog: http://madamoisellekatiesfoodandtravelblog.blogspot.co.uk/
The three days flew by. And you know what? My little taste of the south almost made me want to stay in France forever. The consolation: we will definitely be back.
My brother made this video for a film class he’s taking at the American University of Paris. It’s a pretty great series of black and white moving pictures of Paris, set to the tune of ‘The kids don’t stand a chance’ by Vampire Weekend.
This weekend was, after what feels like forever, one where I stayed home. I’d been a little sick, and was getting ready for Taylor to arrive on Sunday, so I laid pretty low. But Saturday the sun was out, so I bundled up and went out for my favorite Paris pastime: a long walk with no destination. I wandered by the Moulin Rouge, made my way down to the Grands Boulevards, came back up by Saint Lazare, and at Place de Clichy remembered the weekly organic market that takes place on the Boulevard des Batignolles so I cut through there to walk home. A stop at a market stand for Lebanese food and fresh flowers and I was ready to head home to my couch for tea, medicine and Modern Family.
Sometimes we make things harder than they need to be.
It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.
When it comes to dying even. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic.
No rhetoric, no tremolos,
no self conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Little Nell.
And of course, no theology, no metaphysics.
Just the fact of dying and the fact of the clear light.
So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.
Lightly my darling,
on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag,
With all the snow in Paris making life miserable, a weekend was in order where winter weather conditions were a fun thing. So Saturday was spent in the sun on the slopes at Les Sept Laux in Grenoble.
(check out those sweet Vuarnets!)
Post-skiing, we were wiped, and so the rest of the day pretty much looked like this…
… followed by a rambunctious Saturday evening that looked a lot like this.
On Sunday, it was stormy and snowy in the mountains, so we left our skis in the garage and went into downtown Grenoble to visit a brocante, or antique market. We didn’t find much, except for this goat, which I promptly put in my purse and kidnapped.
(This market stand was selling cheese and diots, which is not an abbreviated form of ‘idiots’ but is a sausage from Savoie cooked in onions and white wine.)
Speaking of goats, we also spotted a taxidermy dahut, a legendary creature that lives in the Alps whose right legs are 7 cm shorter than its left. That means it can only go around the mountain one way, and that it can be hunted just by whistling, since it falls over as soon as it turns around.
Bastien bought some limited production yellow Chartreuse, since he’s stocking up on his hometown elixir of choice before we distance ourselves from the Alps. I recently read an article entitled something along the lines of Why Chartreuse is the Hipster’s Jägermeister. Chartreuse is made in the mountains by monks, supposedly only two of whom know the entire list of herbs it’s made up of. It’s wonderful, and it really doesn’t need be appropriated by any subculture, hip or otherwise. It’s an easy find in lots of Seattle bars (so maybe the hipster thing is true) but if you don’t know Chartreuse and you see it somewhere, give it a try. Just be careful; it’s potent.
Post-Chartreuse and pre-lunch, some foie gras and late harvest wine from Alsace seemed like a very prudent snack option.
In keeping with my new habit of not missing trains, I did not miss my 7:20 train back to Paris. Even though I really wanted to.
This weekend was a get-out-of-Paris weekend, and after work on Friday I took the train (barely made it, per usual) to visit Bastien in Eastern France.
(This is me sprinting for the TGV. It is rarely my fault– I swear!– but I am chronically late for and/or missing trains, which is an expensive mistake to be in the habit of making)
On Saturday, we took advantage of a break in the clouds to go to Nancy, where Bastien went to school and a city that I had only visited once, and that was in the pouring rain so we spent the majority of the day in a bar watching rugby.
This time, we went to a park that had a little zoo. There were monkeys. There was this peacock, who was giving us all his business.
There were deer, which made me think I’d like some antler decor in my next apartment. Is that a terrible thing to think about when you’re looking at the living animal?
Place Stanislas, widely touted as the most beautiful plaza in Europe by people who are from Nancy, was packed with a group of students dancing in costume. The Harlem Shake is alive and well on this side of the Atlantic.
We walked, we got rained on, we drank coffee.
And then we found the central market, and in keeping with my new resolution to spend the rest of my time in France in as many markets as possible, we went in and did what the French call craquer and what WordPress wants to autocorrect to cracker. It basically translates to “splurge” and it started at the dried and candied fruit counter, where we walked away with dried strawberries, candied kumquats, dates with almond paste, and, weirdly, candied aloe vera. It got worse at the Italian counter (saucisson and ham and cheese tasting), and then climaxed at the cheese counter (truffle butter, the end).
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some truffle butter with a spoon.
I’m not going to quote an entire chapter of this book I recently read and fell in love with, but bear with me while I cite a few paragraphs, and then please, please, read An Everlasting Meal by Tamar E. Adler. This book is a love letter to cooking and a reminder that making food is a simple thing, an exercise that carries over from one day to the next that is uncomplicated, inexpensive, and filled with opportunities to share moments around a table with people you enjoy. Those are my favorite moments.
The title of this book comes from the philosophical approach that Adler takes to cooking: that every meal should be a continuation of the one before it. Stop doing things like making something for dinner every night that requires you to entirely restock your fridge and pantry. I grocery shop every day, but I might only buy a handful of spinach, a bag of tomatoes, or a carton of eggs. When you cook in continuity, things just work.
On Monday, I bought roast chicken. The weekend prior I had made pasta (part of our high-carb half marathon prep, but mostly just because I love pasta) that had carrots, onion, and celery in the sauce. I saved all the bits and ends of the vegetables, and after Jay and I made chicken Caesar salads (recipe to come) for the six euro rotisserie chicken’s second night of usefulness, I boiled the carcass (gross word, sorry) with all the vegetable scraps to make stock. Nothing wasted. Then last night, it was a pantry meal. I simmered a can of white beans with bay leaves, garlic cloves, chicken stock, and the rind of a wedge of comté cheese that had recently been finished off. I added them to sautéed leek and carrot (also pasta purchase leftovers), a bit of white wine, a can of peeled tomatoes, and a handful of dark spinach that was the only thing I purchased just for this meal. I added a soft boiled egg because I had eggs. I added grated Parmesan because I had Parmesan. But the soup would have been hearty and satisfying without any one, or two, or three of those components. And I have enough leftovers to add the rest of the stock and invite my brother over to eat on Sunday, with just the addition of a fresh baguette. We need to stop making cooking complicated, stop making eating a chore. These little moments of economy, coaxing comfort and flavor out of the simplest ingredients, are things to savor.
Here’s what Adler has to say about approaching the stove on those days when
finding the closest happy hour sounds like a better idea.
(For the record, I firmly subscribe to the idea that happy hour is always a good idea)
There are times when I can’t bear to think about cooking. Food is what I love, and how I communicate love, and how I calm myself. But sometimes, without my knowing why, it is drained of all that. Then cooking becomes just another one of hunger’s jagged edges. So I have ways to take hold of this thing and wrest it from the claws of resentment, and settle it back among things that are mine.
The first is remembering that ill-tempered as I am, I resent everything sometimes. I get infuriated by the weather and missed trains and missing buttons. I think that cooking must be allowed to swell to contemptible proportions when it seems contemptible, just like other disproportionately terrible annoyances, and then allowed to shrink when it is time.
Then the question is: How do you fall in love with it again, or if it has never made you truly happy, fall in love with it for the first time? My answer is to anchor food to somewhere deep inside you, or deep in your past, or deep in the wonders of what you love.
We have different loves. Mine are foods and words. Others’ are how buildings slant away from dark sidewalks, or how good it feels to solve an equation. I say: Let yourself love what you love, and see if it doesn’t lead you back to what you ate and when you loved it.
It helps me to think of meals I’ve cooked or eaten before, if not for the food, for the light in the room or in the sky when I ate. What the light looked like, or what music was playing. It doesn’t take more than my opening a window, head lifted to the air, for the sound of glass against a marble table, or the rustle of the wind to remind me that I’ve sat at marble tables outside, drunk out of glasses, listened to their light clatter on the table, noticing a rustling wind.
I may not remember what I ate, or whether it was the lunch where I realized I do not like black pepper to have been ground before I use it, or the one where I spilled water in my lap, but I will remember how the day felt on my face, and my creative soft self will have been awakened. So I listen hard. I listen with the purpose of remembering. And this digging into sounds and into days I have heard and felt roots future meals in the unchangeable truths of past ones.
This book is lovely. It’s really lovely. And this description of recalling past food memories to anchor you to a present meal and its preparation is something that rings true for me. The food moment I go back to that is a memory so perfect I wish I could put it in a frame was four (five?) years ago in the backyard of a country home in Provence. We were four at a big wooden table under the shade of fig trees, the heady aroma of wild sage and thyme baking in the Provençal heat, shucking beans and chopping carrots and onions and milky, slippery chunks of mozzarella cheese, prepping a simple lunchtime pasta and hearty dinner soup to take to a birthday party. Staining my hands melted Popsicle purple with vivid beet juice. Listening to Xavier Rudd and soaking in every sensation, from the feel of the rough hewn wooden table we sat at to the sweet and acidic flavor of sun-warmed wine. Fortunately I took photos.
Well, I moved the blog. Why? Because blog.com was terrible, and WordPress seems nice. Plus I’m making a little-bit-late New Year’s resolution to write more on here, and so a fresh start seemed in order. Now I just need to figure out how to get the Pinterest widget up and running and we’ll be good to go…
Part of my blogging resolution involves posting more photos, so here is a picture of the hilarious and only moderately offensive gift my friend Lauren was given by her employer in China for International Women’s Day.
When I move back from France, I know there are a lot of things I will miss. Good baguettes for one euro, everywhere. The sheer quantity and variety of cheese. Amazing and inexpensive wine, the fact that every apartment looks like a Shabby Chic photo shoot set (except mine).
Living here, I’ve noticed that there are some things I really miss about America beyond the obvious (dogs, family, friends, not necessarily in that order). Here is a short list:
1. Dental hygienists do not exist in France.
2. What do you mean I have to take all of my clothes off for the doctor to take my blood pressure? This seems unnecessary.
3. Letter size paper. I am forever accidentally printing letter size documents on A4 sized paper.
4. 4G. Technically 4G happened after I moved, but it exists there, and not here, and so I miss it by proxy.
5. HBO, Netflix, Hulu, free streaming from every network television website. I love you, Project Free TV, but I long for the days of DVR.
6. Television in general. French TV has an over abundance of shows where a bunch of people sit around a glass table under purple lighting in front of a studio audience and discuss issues to. no. end. Perhaps this is an extension of a philosophical tradition. I just want to watch Jeopardy.
7. Football, and I don’t even like football. I guess tailgating is really what I miss.
8. Goldfish crackers. Whole wheat cheddar Goldfish crackers.
9. Good Mexican and Asian food.
10. Holidays! Why do the French not do Halloween?? Why do they barely do Easter, and Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day, and CHRISTMAS?? WHERE ARE THE DECORATIONS, PEOPLE
11. Common courtesy. Okay, okay, it’s the Latin passion for life that makes people pushy, impatient, and opportunistic. I don’t care. Do not cut in front of me in line, and please do not drive over me while I am crossing the street. Four words: Pedestrian. Right. Of. Way.
12. Customer service. Full stop.
13. Enthusiastic American advertising, especially those wild waving arm men at car dealerships and Olive Garden commercials.
14. Whole Foods
15. J. Crew
16. J. Crew