Monday, December 24, 2007

Are We There Yet?

As I get older, I realize that I am somehow reverting back to my childhood in one way or another. Most recently I've become more and more intolerant of long car rides, and I try to avoid them at all costs. I just don't like being in the car! To be honest, I never really have, ever since I was a little girl, but I have vivid memories of the dreaded two-hour (!!) drive to the countryside where we would go camping with my grandparents. Today, of course, a two-hour trip seems like nothing, but it certainly creeped by in the backseat of that beastly hot car, my thighs clinging to the burning material of the seats (not leather, but not plastic -- pleather?!). Even when I drove my own car in Washington, DC, I didn't really enjoy it -- the only part I liked was turning up my favorite music and singing along. But most of the time I was just in a big hurry to get to where I was going, from point A to point B. Which I guess explains the fact that I've never had any particular affinity for cars of any kind, and that I could honestly care less if I never drove again. Unfortunately, I imagine I'm probably not going to be able to get around the need to drive at some point, especially if we end up leaving la région parisienne... A possibility, but not yet a certainty.

Saturday my boyfriend and I took a train from Paris to Le Havre to meet his father, and thankfully we spent the night at his house before hitting the road at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. We drove with his father down to Besançon, where my boy's younger sister and her little family lives. I slept for the first few hours, but had a heck of a time getting into a comfortable position in the backseat. Again, memories from childhood... I know I was lucky to not have to take the wheel, to be honest, because I don't even think I could have handled it. I still haven't prepared for the permis de conduire here, and I know it's something that will eventually be unavoidable. But in the meantime, I just try to be patient when the drive is long and sleep the time away... When lunchtime hit, my boyfriend and his father were both inspired: they decided to make a detour to Vézélay, a village in the Burgundy region with a stunning basilica at the top of a steep hill. I had already been there once before, but was more than happy to visit again -- after a stop for lunch, of course! We were lucky enough to fall on a really nice local bistrot-restaurant called Le Voutenay on the small départémental leading to Vézélay, in a tiny town called Voutenay-sur-Cure. After a brief mix-up in which we managed to find ourselves seated at the gastronomic side of the restaurant, we glanced at the menu, realized our mistake -- and quickly rectified it!

After settling into our seats in a small, simple room on the other side of the restaurant (the "bistrot" side, as they called it), we chose our dishes and were chatting quietly when we noticed that one of the women at the table next to ours had gotten up to open up the curtains in order to allow some sun into the room, which was admittedly a bit dark. Apparently the waitress forewarned her to be careful, but alas -- a bit too late! As the curtain rod tumbled to the floor, the woman quickly jumped out of the way. My boyfriend's father jumped up to give her a hand, and the scene soon became comedic: as the lady climbed up onto a chair to put the curtain rod back in place, Jacques held onto the chair for her to stabilize it. The curtain rod started falling again, and just as it looked like the woman might fall herself, Jacques took hold of her around the waist and helped her lift the rod back into place... My boyfriend and I glanced at each other, our mouths open, a bit speechless at Jacques' bravado and spontaneity. My boyfriend couldn't imagine doing the same thing if he had been in his father's position, and he attributed it to the fact that his father was a doctor and wasn't uncomfortable about grabbing a perfect stranger like that, even if he thought it was to give her a hand (mind you, I don't think she would have fallen -- she wasn't really in danger, but Jacques just did what he thought was right in the moment). But there there was definitely an impetuous element to his gesture. And we all tried to laugh off the moment of discomfort... (It seriously felt like a scene from a sitcom.)

Of course, the woman's husband had been absent during the early part of the incident, as he must have gone off to the bathroom. And he showed up right at the critical moment, when Jacques was giving his wife a hand -- so to speak! He didn't look too pleased, but his wife kept joking about it, brushing things off and saying she felt "flattered" by Jacques' attention and assistance... And ironically, she was American! My boyfriend leaned over and told me to chat with her (something he often does in situations like this) and I felt a bit awkward, particularly after the curtain rod incident. So he asked her where she was from, and we did end up talking for a few minutes about our origins, how long we had been living in France, etc... But I didn't want to drag on the conversation and figured it was best to allow everyone to enjoy their meal. The funny thing is, the subject kept coming back up while we were eating, and my boyfriend and his father persisted in talking about it, while I kept trying to change the subject. "What are you planning on getting for dessert?" I must have asked at least a half a dozen times... The woman's husband then decided he wanted to make an example of me, kind of the "ignorant American just arriving in France," I guess, and he proceeded to ask me if I knew what he was eating... I guess he was trying to be funny, or friendly, or something, but I don't really like those kinds of things, particularly coming from a complete stranger. I would have thought he would have known better, after being married to an American fo 40 years! He went on to say that it was "tête de veau" and implied, with his tone of voice, that it was something he knew an American would never eat. I just brushed it off, said I had chosen duck myself, and told him to enjoy his meal. But underneath I was boiling...

Well, after that déjeuner mouvementé, we drove on to Vézélay, walked up the hill to visit the basilica, and then walked back down to the car. We didn't linger for very long, as it was pretty chilly outside (to say the least!) and we were all anxious to arrive in Besançon. I thought the second half of the trip would be much shorter, but unfortunately I didn't end up sleeping much at all, and we didn't make it to his sister's house until nearly 8:00. I didn't realize they lived right across the street from the village church, which was a nice touch -- I love hearing church bells chime throughout the day!

We've been having a nice, quiet Christmas together, and I've taken a few photos, which I hope to eventually post here on the blog (I've also baked a ton of cookies!). But the next few days are going to be hectic, as my boyfriend and I are taking a train back up to Paris tomorrow morning, and then I will be flying to the U.S. on Thursday to visit my family for New Year's. So I may be "out of commission", so to speak, for a few weeks... Then again, I just realized that this is my first post in almost three weeks anyway, so I guess that's nothing new! I'm going to do my best to become a more consistent blogger in 2008 -- we'll see how long I stick to that resolution.

And on that note, I shall leave you, all my dear friends throughout the blogosphere, and wish you a very Merry Christmas (If you celebrate, of course! Happy holidays to everyone in any case!)... See you in the New Year!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Event-Filled Week(s)

Sometimes these days I can't seem to keep up with things, but then there are other times, in the middle of the day, when I feel like I'm not doing nearly enough -- the irony of our time, I guess... I know that as the holidays approach time is only going to fly by faster, and the end of the month always hits me before I even realize it, with a pile of holidays cards still sitting on my desk patiently waiting to be stamped and sent. This year I'm determined to at least send out my cards to the U.S. by the 15th, holding onto my French cartes de voeux until the New Year -- one of the advantages of the French holiday traditions being that cards are sent in the New Year, and that custom holds that you have until the end of the month of January to get them out to one and all. Of course, in the past I've taken full advantage of this extended deadline, sending out some of my American cards down to the wire (using the French system as an excuse!), but I'd like to improve my card-sending skills, and avoid this procrastination that I appear to have ingrained in me.

Last week I unexpectedly attended several events that turned out to be wonderful experiences, ones I will not soon forget, and I have to admit that it is nice to have these kinds of appointments on my calendar at this time of year, when I'm inclined to get a bit of the cafard if I spend too much time at home alone. The curse of all expats, I guess! On Monday I crossed the Seine for a book-signing at Shakespeare & Co. -- Jeanette Winterson read from her latest book, The Stone Gods, and I couldn't resist picking up several books from her backlist as well, for myself and a few friends. I only just discovered her writing, I have to admit, thanks to dear Lauren, of course, who is my favorite source of wonderful literary (and cultural) inspiration these days. I'm looking forward to plunging into her writing over the holidays, when I'll have some time off from the daily grind and will be able to (finally!) throw myself into a few good novels. For some reason recently I've been having a really hard time reading for pleasure, a pastime that I've always taken for granted. I don't know if it's just the distractions of every day life or other preoccupations that are taking up too much space in my mind, but in any case I'm impatient to dive back into a good book again. I've also been disappointed by a few recent reads, and I have to admit that I count on a good book to pull me in fairly quickly in order to stick it out until the end... Perhaps I'm a bit too impatient and demanding, but I've reached a point now where I've decided that there are simply too many books waiting on my bedside table to be read, and I'm not about to waste my reading time forcing myself to enjoy a book that just doesn't do it for me. Basta -- life is simply too short, and I'm no longer reading out of obligation after all! Although sometimes I wonder if I may have missed my calling...

Winterson's reading was spectacular, by the way -- she was so dramatic and passionate when reading from her text, and she even went so far as to say that she practices a bit beforehand, that it's the least she can do, given the fact that we go out of our way to come to see her read. She really got into it, and climbed up on the table in the back of the shop so that we could all have a clear view of her throughout the reading. When I had her sign my books afterwards, I even picked up a copy of her children's book, The King of Capri, illustrated by Jane Ray -- when I saw it sitting there, tantalizingly, on the table, I knew I had to add it to my growing collection of children's books at home. It's a lovely fairy tale, with all the best elements: gorgeous, colorful illustrations, a story with a moral, and some appealing characters, including a little Italian cat.

Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend an excellent SCBWI France event held at the home of one of the organization's members in the 17th, where Uri Shulevitz spoke about his work for more than two hours (!!). He answered questions and went into great detail about his inspiration, his favorite forms of media when illustrating, his influences and even his most current work, which is to be published in early 2008. I was fascinated and couldn't help taking notes during the discussion, and I left the event feeling uplifted and inspired, convinced that I will soon apply my own inspiration to some drawings once again, and hopefully soon. Mr. Shulevitz's talk focused on the "invisible picture" in a drawing, as he called it, or the empty spaces in between two objects that ties them together, that unify a drawing and bring it to life. He emphasized that the "third picture" inside of a drawing is one that in fact you cannot necessarily see but that is only visible in your mind and is therefore stimulated by the story itself. In that sense, he explained, the meaning of a series of pictures in a story is often beyond the story itself and is made up of the elements that are underlying the story. The bigger picture, in fact, "needs to be fed by what's underneath."

Another point Mr. Shulevitz made during his talk that stayed with me is the importance of making a moment as specific as possible in a picture book in order to make the story itself more universal -- hence, a universal story can be made more personal and even more appealing. I was thrilled to be able to purchase a copy of one of his most famous books, Snow, which won the Caldecott Honor in 1999 and is magical in its use of spare text with enchanting, evocative and incredibly detailed watercolor images. All in all, I had a really wonderful evening, and thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the event, including the delicious meal, the captivating presentation and discussion, and, of course, the company!

Tonight I'm off to attend another book-signing, once again at Shakespeare & Co., so I can pick up a few more copies of Clotilde's wonderful first cookbook. I already have a copy of my own, of course, that I got back in the spring when it was first published (fairly stained and a bit beat-up around the edges!), but I'd like to bring one home to my mom for Christmas, and possibly another for one of my closest friends in the States as well. Here's hoping I can get to the bookshop early enough for a good seat, and that I'll be able to get my hot little hands on several copies of her book! It's always a pleasure to hear Clotilde speak about her cooking and her writing, and her success is such an inspiration. This is one extremely multi-talented, warm, engaging and creative gal -- I have to admit that her blog is responsible for my motivation to finally get cracking in the kitchen. So I know this evening is going to be a particularly memorable event as well! I can hardly wait...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Intrigue of "The Big Sleep"

Thanks to Riana over at These Days in French Life, I came across this fascinating op-ed piece from The New York Times... I have to say, this really got me thinking... And I know we live in an entirely different day and age, of course, and that we are meant to supposedly "move forward" in our approach to modern life, but who's to say that sometimes that act of moving forward might not -- or cannot -- involve a few elements of stepping back in time as well? Or learning from our ancestors and their slower approach to life in order to better preserve the world we live in? And perhaps we could learn to better appreciate our families, all those we love, by detaching ourselves just a bit more from all the material things that tie us to today's society?

I haven't put Riana's lessons to good use yet in my own daily activities, not nearly as much as I'd like, and I fully admit to succumbing to big-city temptations far more often than I should these days... (Yeah, I like some of the finer things too, I won't deny that!) But all that she has accomplished in her Slow Year has really inspired me in my own approach to life, and I will be putting these aspirations into action more and more with time. On that note, I really have conflicting feelings about Sarkozy's approach to certain elements of French society, and how things should change... I've always been a bit "on-the-fence" about my political leanings, and I've never spoken out about them here on my blog, perhaps out of fear of confrontation or disagreement (I've always hated arguments, although I know that French society is basically built on the beauty of debate!). And there are in fact some elements of Sarkozy's proposals that, in theory, make sense and seem to -- perhaps (do you sense my hesitatation here?) -- point us in the right direction. But why is it drummed into us from an early age, in today's society, to work, work, work -- hard and long -- to make more money so that we can, in fact, "be happy"? I know that in today's world we obviously all need to make money, to make a living, to get by, to survive -- but why does this have to be at the cost of our own personal happiness and fulfillment? Why does money have to be ultimately equated with our happiness? More and more I'm questioning this concept, realizing that my own happiness comes from the simplest of things. I'm already tired of the rat race at 33, and I don't even have a particularly stressful job! I'm tired of running after the "almighty dollar" -- or Euro in my case -- I want my happiness and fulfillment to come from those simple things. I know, I know -- you're all going to sigh and say, "You poor thing, but unfortunately, my dear, that's just not the way the world works!" And I guess you'd probably be right...

Or would you? I still have a problem with it. I just don't think I'm wired that way.

And don't get me wrong: I know there's nothing wrong with working hard, being ambitious, accomplishing incredible things. I just don't think I was necessarily cut out to be one of those people. I admire those who do set goals, who make so much happen, who get ahead and make great names for themselves. And I'm certainly not criticizing them. I think it would be great if there could be a better balance of both these kinds of people in the world... And I certainly don't expect anything to be handed to me on a plate, without any effort -- I of course realize that working hard brings great reward as well. But what's so wrong with spending more time with our families instead of working all the time, having in fact different values? Isn't that what a work-life balance is all about? Can we ever escape from this race?

My boyfriend has long said that he agrees with a lot of Sarkozy's principles, but I just don't know if this "work more to earn more" concept really applies to us -- that's the irony of this whole thing! I see how hard he has worked for years in a thankless job that has exhausted him and made him wonder about his own future. But at the same time, his philosophical side has allowed him to find happiness in the smallest, simplest of things, most notably the time he spends with his family and on vacation, away from the craziness of urban city life. It's a contradiction in action: obviously we have to work in that big city to be able to benefit from the comforts of the vacation away, but isn't there a better way of reconciling the two? And I just don't know if I necessarily want to "work more to earn more" myself as I get older... I believe I want more time to treasure the precious, valuable things in life, things that sometimes slip through our fingers faster than we all realize. When my boyfriend's mother passed away less than two years ago, that fact came into focus much sooner than any of us expected -- his father had worked very hard for many years to provide for his family, and after retiring, he planned on spending more time with the ones he loves, doing other things that he loves as well. But then he lost, far too soon, the one person who meant the most to him in the world... These are the curve balls that life throws at us sometimes, but it still makes me question our way of life.

I know that we all must struggle with these questions, and that in a way you may find these reflections of mine fairly clichéd and idealistic -- unrealistic to say the least. And I don't even know if there's a real "point" to my ramblings here today... Except to say that the "stop to smell the roses" approach is one of the main reasons why I fell in love with France! It was what made me feel comfortable here so many years ago, what made me feel at home. I have never really been able to put my finger on it exactly, never been able to describe to my family what kept me here. But I really think that this sense of wonder, this appreciation of the beauty of things around us without feeling compelled to have more at all times, finding happiness with less -- this is one of the primary things that keeps me here.

And to be honest, I'm sometimes a bit frightened that all of that is going to change, and faster than we realize -- far too fast for our own good. I feel lucky to have been able to experience some wonderful things in this country over the last 5-10 years, and very blessed in many ways. And of course I know that France is in need of reform, of improvements on many levels -- but what country isn't? My greatest fear is that this country may become a place that I no longer recognize, a place that it was never meant to be. Do we really want France to turn into another form of America? Please don't misunderstand me: I'm proud of my roots and my heritage, as well as the freedom and democracy that my native country represents, but I call France my home today for a reason. Wouldn't transforming France entirely ruin everything that we have come to know and love about it?

Sorry for this rambling tangent... It was just inspired by the article, and for once I really had to get my thoughts out there.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Now HERE'S a Nice Way to Cheer Me Up...

He had me at "Lunch?" Talk about reading my mind... And raising my wilted spirits, boosting my morale -- all that jazz... The way to a woman's heart is apparently through her stomach as well, at least in my case anyway!

When the phone rang at my desk around 12:30, I picked it up expectantly, recognizing my boyfriend's cell phone number on the raised screen. Perfect timing. It was so nice to hear from him, and even though most of our calls and exchanges throughout the day are completely mundane and inconsequential, this one bode well: he wanted to know if I would like to join him for lunch. After a dentist's appointment in the morning, he had decided to stay in the city a bit longer before taking his time getting back to our apartment in the western suburbs. He had a day off for once, a rarity, and it felt like a real luxury for us to share this time together. We hardly ever go to lunch together, as our lunch hours never coincide and I have to take the métro or bus to get to him anyway, but this time was an exception. Plus, most days I bring some leftovers from home, easier to warm up in our office kitchen and enjoy quietly with a book or with a few colleagues (plus, far more economical, of course!).

We felt like naughty schoolchildren -- or at least I did... When he suggested the brasserie, I couldn't help but say, "Is that really reasonable?" I knew it was exceptional, but it still felt forbidden somehow... But really, how often do we do this? We've been trying to pay attention to our budget, but some days just call for a treat. Today was definitely one of them. After grumbling into work this morning, fighting the crowds at St. Lazare along with hundreds of thousands of other commuters, I definitely needed something to cheer me up. Le Diplomate fit the bill, as it has a couple other times in the past (I'll never forget the time the waitress managed to save me a slice of rapidly-disappearing strawberry tart -- she will forever remain a favorite in my heart! And she still remembers it too...).

We first shared a foie gras aux figues -- heavenly! Really excellent, the best foie gras I've had in a long time. And then on to a fricassée de faisan avec jardinière de légumes... We enjoyed the meal with a glass of red wine, St. Emilion for me and St. Amour for him (I only opted out of the St. Amour because it was served chilled; I just don't like cool red wine! Otherwise, the romantic name is tempting, trust me. OK, you can call me cheesy, I don't care!). And then we shared a fondant au chocolat for dessert. So we managed to make the meal a bit more reasonable by sharing both the entrée and dessert. Still, it was far more expensive than anything we'd usually spend, with a hefty pricetag. But the meal was a nice moment of calm and happiness in the middle of an otherwise hectic period for me right now. So I honestly don't regret one second of it... On the contrary, it brought a broad smile to my face, and put me on a high that I'm sure will last...

At least until I make it back to the Gare St. Lazare to fight my way to the train back home tonight!

** On a sidenote, I managed to get a train around 7:00 last night, and even snagged a seat, which was darn near miraculous... But the only little bémol (I love this expression!) was that as I maneuvered my way down the train's stairs to get off at my station 20 minutes later, I only then realized that I had forgotten my umbrella under my seat (what was I thinking?!). Argh, another umbrella shot to the wind! But it's not as if it was one that I had attached any sentimental value to... I picked it up at Target in the U.S. last year, but it was super-practical in my bag and easy to use. What made me smile once again was when my boyfriend said, "Just think that someone who probably really needed that umbrella figured it was their lucky day." Isn't that a nice way to look at things?!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mon petit déjeuner idéal

Well, this is basically how I like to start out my day on the weekend -- truth be told, I'd love to be able to indulge in this kind of breakfast every day of the week, but in spite of getting up extra early I still can never manage to squeeze in enough time to eat more than a few slices of bread with some coffee before heading off to work. Sundays are my exception, though, and the photo above shows what I love to enjoy, slowly and preferably with a good book (or with my boy!), before lazing around the apartment or heading out, depending on my mood and my motivation level.

This photo was obviously taken a few months back, early September I believe, when it was still peach season, or the end of the season anyway... In today's case, the peach was replaced by a pink grapefruit (complete winter addiction, I can't seem to get enough of them!) and the coffee by a hot chocolate... I can't let a Sunday brunch go by without my oeuf à la coque -- although years ago I would have probably shrunk away in horror from a soft-boiled egg, these days I love scooping out the eggy goodness. Sea salt and freshly ground pepper make it all the better.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a tidbit from one of my favorite meals of the day -- of course, I'm a complete gourmande and love eating any meal, but breakfast just about tops the list for me. Funny thing is, back in the U.S. I loved breakfast too, but it usually consisted of bagels and cream cheese with orange juice, perhaps some coffee too. When I go back home to visit, I do love to have bagels then, but I don't necessarily miss them all that much over here, given the fact that the bread is so good. I've become a bit of a bread snob, though, because not just any ol' baguette will cut it for me anymore -- I like the good stuff! Perfect with salted butter and fig jam, my favorite. The baguette in the photo above is a multigrain one, and my boyfriend and I go out of our way to pick it up from a boulangerie that's not as convenient, but has just about the best bread in our neighborhood. So it's worth the walk in the cold...

Speaking of which, I'm off to toast myself up some warm baguette now, and to prepare some lentil soup. I need something comforting on this freezing Sunday! I plan on staying inside all day long... And if I'm feeling motivated enough, I might just make an apple-pear crumble with ginger. Ohhh, and I even have some speculoos in the cupboard -- the perfect crumble topping! Wake me up when it's time for breakfast again...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Velouté de butternut aux épices

* UPDATED - now with recipe! *

Last Thursday was All Saints' Day, a holiday here in France, so I had a quiet day at home with my boy. Halloween came and went this year and I hardly even noticed, which is unlike me. I usually love to take in the decorations and even attend a party or two, but that just wasn't in the cards this time around... I didn't hear from a friend of mine who usually holds an annual Halloween fête, so perhaps this year something came up -- last year I had a good time dressing up as a chat noir, but unfortunately I didn't yet have a camera so I wasn't even able to immortalize the hilarious moment. I had gone all-out with the makeup, so the look was pretty convincing. A friend of mine did take a photo, but then I never got to see it... Oh well! I sometimes miss the Halloween fun from back home in the States, and although in recent years the French have gotten more into the holiday, it's true that it just isn't quite the same. Granted, there's a lot of commercialism in the holiday itself, particularly in the U.S., but it's still a great opportunity for kids to have a blast dressing in costume. When I used to work in children's books I helped out with organizing a big annual Halloween party, and although I was always stressed about my own costume, I loved seeing the wee ones dressed to the nines, wearing face makeup and enjoying the candy.

Thursday afternoon I took my time preparing a wonderful new recipe (I tend to be very long in the kitchen anyway -- my boy always jokes that we don't eat before midnight some nights, which is only a slight exaggeration!), a spicy butternut squash soup that was rich, creamy and delicious. I have to credit French Saveurs magazine for this little gem, and I'll be sure to include the recipe here later today, once I get my hands on it again. This time around I also had a little helper, because a friend of my boy's came over with his son and he joined me in the kitchen. He watched me making my way around the tiny space, curiosity piqued, and asked all kinds of questions. When I opened up the squash and started cutting it into cubes, he seemed fascinated -- so I asked him if he'd like to help out a bit. "Why don't you start by scraping out all those seeds?" He willingly obliged, and concentrated on pulling out every last one of the seeds with his fingers and putting them in a small bowl. We toasted the seeds in a small pan with some salt, and after cooking down the squash in a mix of chicken stock and coconut milk, we puréeed the soup in a blender, added in the toasted squash seeds, some poitrine fumée, which is basically the French version of bacon, and some fresh cilantro leaves. Valentin, my kitchen aide, rinsed the cilantro while standing on a stool over the sink, as you can see in the photo, and pulled the leaves off the stems. He did this so carefully, and I was blown away by how meticulous he was about everything. When we served the soup at the end, he was thrilled by the result -- even if the curry and the ginger made it a bit spicy! "Ca pique, mais c'est pas grave !" He didn't seem to mind too much, and ate half a bowl on his own, adding in some extra seeds from time to time. The seeds reminded me of the pumpkin seeds my grandmother would roast in the oven when I was a little girl.

I had such a good time making this soup with Valentin, I couldn't resist starting over again on Sunday with a new batch. I had bought two butternut squash at the market last week, so I had enough to make two rounds. Unfortunately, for some reason the second squash had barely any seeds! Good thing I didn't use that one to make the soup with Valentin... Here he is, super-proud of his efforts. He's quite the little cook! Wish I had started this young...

Velouté de butternut aux épices
(Spicy Butternut Squash Soup)
"Délicieusement onctueux !"

1 medium-sized butternut squash
(the recipe doesn't specify weight, but I think that the average-sized squash would do -- the soup only serves about four small bowls, and it is very rich)
1 tablespoon of curry powder (more or less -- this is actually a lot of curry powder, so the second time around I only used 1/2 tablespoon -- depends on how spicy you like it!)
1/2 teaspoon of ginger powder, or 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger
50 cl of chicken stock
1 small onion
10 cl of coconut milk or light cream (crème de fleurette) (again, depending on how creamy and rich you like it)
a few fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons of grilled or toasted squash seeds
4 slices of poitrine fumée, or bacon
30 g of butter
Salt (which I actually found unnecessary with the chicken stock and the bacon slices)

Peel the butternut squash and cut it into small cubes. [Also, reserve the seeds inside the squash -- you can toast these later in a small pan, with some salt if you like.] Peel and finely chop the onion. Warm up the butter in a large pot or Dutch oven and cook the onion on light heat for about 3 minutes, until it is transparent or a bit soft. Add in the ginger and curry powder and cook for another minute or so, while stirring. Add in the butternut cubes and cook them for about two minutes, again while stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula. Pour in the chicken stock and the coconut milk or cream. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and allow the soup to simmer for 20 minutes (until the squash cubes are nice and tender).

While the soup was simmering, I dry-roasted the squash seeds in a pan and then did the same with the slices of poitrine fumée until they were nice and toasty-brown and a bit crunchy.

Mix the soup in a blender or with an immersion blender (I know a regular blender is more high-maintenance, but I find it gives me better results, and the texture of the soup is creamier), add some salt if necessary. You can then serve the soup with a slice of the bacon in each bowl, or you can slice up the bacon into tiny pieces. Sprinkle on a few cilantro leaves and some toasted squash seeds, and voilà -- creamy, spicy butternut goodness!

* I found this recipe in French Saveurs magazine, november 2007.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Now THAT was An Adventure!

So I Vélib'ed for the first time this morning... And although there were a few small hiccups along the way, I had a great time! At least those darn strikes were good for something in the end! (and I so wish I could bicycle to work like that more often...) Now here's just hoping they don't last, because I'd like to return home and sleep in my own bed for once... Apparently the rugby game tonight may have a temporary hand in preventing further extension of the strikes, but who knows how long that will last.

The last few days have seen me trekking around the city, sleeping in friends' and colleagues' spare beds, depending therefore on their kindness and generosity, and traveling to work in the morning by bike or by foot. Wednesday night I had dinner with a friend, who generously allowed me to stay with her and her husband in their adorable apartment in the 11th. I thought I would have to walk from there (between Bastille and the Gare de Lyon) to work near the Parc Monceau on Thursday morning, but as it turns out Line 14 was working perfectly (again, automatic lines like that one seem to be the best solution for avoiding strikes in the future, if you ask me!) and there weren't even that many crowds. I think a lot of people must have ended up staying home to avoid the craziness. But there were also quite a few people on the streets, either hoofing it or cycling away. It was a beautiful, crisp fall morning, the sun was shining, and I must say that I didn't mind the walk from St. Lazare to rue de Courcelles at all... I even had time to stop for coffee and a piece of carrot cake, so I treated myself!

Last night one of my colleagues, who lives on the Left Bank near Denfert-Rochereau, told me I could stay at her place, and it worked out perfectly. I did have to walk to her apartment -- and to be honest with you, once again, I didn't really mind, because even though it was a long walk, it was a pleasant one because it wasn't raining and it wasn't that cold. It took me about an hour and a half, even though she had said it would be less -- but my colleague is a first-class athlete, participating in marathons on a regular basis and walking, running or cycling to work pretty much every day. I was stopped for directions by several befuddled people, either tourists or those who were not used to walking around the city. One poor lady stopped me at the edge of the boulevard St. Germain, just as it hits the Pont de la Concorde, and asked in a daze, "Odéon? Where's Odéon?" I explained that she must have passed it a ways back, because it was in the direction she had been walking from -- and she nodded and mumbled that she had come all the way from Duroc... Yikes! As I passed the crossroads of boulevard Raspail and rue de Rennes, a young guy who appeared to be from Eastern Europe (he had an accent, but I couldn't recognize it) asked me in broken French, "République? Je cherche République..." I was stunned, because République is all the way on the other end of the city, across the Seine, in the northeast -- I tried to explain this to him, and he just looked at me disbelievingly. I think he must have mixed up names or something...

When I got to my colleague's place, we all had couscous for dinner -- she said I was really lucky, because usually during the week she and her husband don't do much cooking (who really has time for it?!), but they had decided ahead of time to have couscous together because she's prepping for a marathon this weekend. So it was nice to enjoy the meal and chat about the strikes, our work situation, and other various and sundry everyday matters.

My colleague loves to Vélib' in to work in the morning, so after dinner she asked me if I was up for it -- and I thought, of course, why not? I had been wanting to have the chance to try out the system for a while, so this was the perfect opportunity -- even if the strikes had crowded up the traffic in the streets, requiring us to be even more vigilant on the bikes. Of course, that's a necessity in any normal circumstances, but we just had to be extra careful. After nabbing two bikes near her building (we were really lucky in this case, because I think we arrived just in the nick of time -- several bikes were damaged, and we got the last two good ones), we set out, but about 25 minutes later we tried to switch them out at another station. For some reason the machine wouldn't accept my card identification code, and after having already locked in the other bike, I needed a new one. The check-in process was pretty simple, but I still needed another bike to make it the rest of the way to work... As luck would have it, two Vélib' employees were stacking damaged bikes on a sort of truck nearby, and we asked them for some help. They were super-friendly, but neither one of them could figure out why the machine wouldn't accept my code. Finally, one of them (a younger chap, with a friendly smile) just swiped his Carte Intégrale on the machine and told me to take one of the bikes -- I couldn't believe it! I was a bit taken aback, and didn't know what to do, because obviously I wanted to use the bike, but I didn't want him to get into any trouble. He insisted that it was okay, and just made me "promise" to return the bike once I got to work! Of course, I said -- that was the plan. Apparently my colleague later explained to me that some people have actually been STEALING the bikes! I couldn't believe that, but then again, I guess I shouldn't be surprised...

So we made it to work, on-time even, and after returning our bikes we dashed into the office. I had been wearing two sweaters and a jacket, so you can imagine how sweaty I was at that point! And my colleague had been patiently waiting for me, looking back and making sure I was following closely the whole time. I know I slowed her down, but we both had a good time in the end. Like I said, a real adventure -- and the brighter side of the strikes for me. But the terrible thing is, I read about a horrible accident today on-line, and this did send chills down my spine... Please, all Vélib' riders out there, soyez vigilants ! It only takes a few seconds...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Morning Mayhem

Ahhhhh, what a morning! And I don't mean that in a good way. I'm no longer used to 6:30 wake-up calls, and I am definitely not a morning person... Have I mentioned that before? The fact that I am decidely NOT a morning person? Well, I'm saying it again. Especially after this morning. I know that you can get a heck of a lot done by waking up early, but my body is just not cut out for it. At least not yet... Who knows, maybe one day that might change (of course, I'm not going to hold my breath!) -- or I may be forced to change myself. But in the meantime, I am fighting against it with every bone in my body.

Especially when the wake-up requires a stop at the local medical lab to get some tests done, something which can't be done directly at the doctor's office here in France. I know we have an excellent healthcare system, for the most part anyway, and trust me -- I'm not complaining. I just wish I could get the lab tests done in the same place where I have the doctor's appointment. So it didn't require crawling out of bed at the crack of dawn to have either some needles stuck in me, or other fun forays into the medical domain...

My boyfriend had gotten up yesterday morning to go have some bloodwork done himself, to check up on his cholesterol levels and make sure he was doing okay. It's a necessity after the health scare he had last April, and we have to monitor his heart condition on a regular basis. And I'm constantly feeling guilty about this, because I'm wondering if I'm not cooking the right things, if I'm not taking care of him as well as I should... Of course, I know stress doesn't help things either, and I'm not responsible for everything. I like him to be happy, so I try to treat him from time to time, but then I get the gnawing feeling that I probably shouldn't have made that sweet chocolate mousse on Sunday... Especially if I had known he was going to have tests done on Monday morning!! Even he didn't think about it, didn't make the connection until he got his results on the Internet today... Argh, the triglycerides are not looking good, and I have a feeling the chocolate mousse definitely didn't help.

So off I went this morning, leaving my boyfriend wandering frantically around the apartment, tearing apart every room in search of his car keys, for gosh's sakes, which he could no longer find in order to move his car from one side of the street to the other... We live in one of those neighborhoods where the cars need to be moved midway through the month for one reason or another... I can't remember why this morning, for the life of me, he has to do that. But if he can't find his keys, he can't exactly move his car, now can he? I decided not to harp on the fact that it seems incomprehensible to me that he could lose his own car keys, as I knew this wouldn't help matters much, and I also knew that if I started looking myself I would get as frantic as he already was, and that wasn't going to help either. So off I went to the lab as planned, did what I had to do, stopped by the good boulangerie near the lab, and brought home piping-hot fresh bread for us to share at breakfast. He had calmed down by then, having found his keys in the interim, but still had to go out to move the car.

While he was gone I tried to put as much of the junk back that he had taken out in his hunt, but still hadn't finished when he walked back in the door -- damn, is he quick! And I'm as slow as a snail... I don't think I was awake yet, that was part of the problem. I got the coffee going, slapped on some makeup so I wouldn't look too dead at the office today, and finally wobbled into the kitchen for breakfast. We were both in crappy moods, and the lost keys hadn't helped. I was of course relieved he had finally found them, but I was pretty sure he would anyway -- and guess where they were?? Ha ha... At the bottom of his tennis bag. I think I could have told him that ahead of time -- I don't know why I didn't think of it... (Jenn, are you reading this? What is it about men again?!?!...)

And of course you would think that getting up so early would allow me to head out of the apartment early to catch the perfect train and get to work well ahead of time, right? Well, you would think wrong... I ran out the door the same time as usual, as I got distracted in the kitchen trying to clean up after our breakfast. Old habits never die... I ran down the street and arrived, out of breath, at the train station, only to see that the train I usually take was going to be five minutes late. Well, perfect, right?! Yeah, I guess, except there was no guarantee that it would get me to work on time...

And, well, I did make it in the end, so that's certainly a relief -- but it's given me a bad taste of things to come... An ominous foreshadowing of events this Thursday in Paris, when a huge grève générale is expected on the whole métro/train/RER/bus system.

Oh, how lucky we are. We knew this was coming, but I have got a baaaaad feeling about it this time around... Anyone remember Fall 1995? Yikes!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Reflections on Friendship

I met a friend last Thursday evening for a drink after work, at a table in a café on the Place Pereire, and we squeezed in so much in just under an hour and a half... I could have stayed chatting much longer, as I wasn't in a hurry that night, but she had to get home to meet her husband. I'm always in awe of how much we have to catch up on when we get together, but then again, I think the last time we met for drinks was in March -- believe it or not! The time just flies, and I'm constantly reminded of when my parents used to say things like that when I was a kid -- how much faster time seems to go by as an adult. This fact has become more and more vivid for me in the past year or so. In a sense, I don't feel my age at all -- I'm dumbfounded by the fact that I am, in fact, in my early 30s -- I feel much younger in my head and in my heart. And then at other times, for example after a long day, when all I want to do is return home and rest, do simple, homebody-type things, I can't help thinking that I'm acting much older than I should, or that my interests and hobbies revolve around older types of things -- like cooking and hanging out at home! A bit ridiculous, I know, but I've realized more and more that I'm just not cut out for the partying scene -- I guess I never have been, but for years I would try to blend in and make myself enjoy things that just weren't my cup of tea. Now I'm realizing that of course there's no shame in that, and I might as well revel in the things I love, no matter what the rest of the world may think.

But the last two weeks or so my calendar has been packed with more "social occasions" than usual, and trust me, I'm not complaining -- I love catching up with friends, having something to look forward to during my long days at work. It's what keeps me going -- isn't that the case for a lot of us? I guess not everyone, because some of you lucky dogs out there actually have jobs and professions that you enjoy, but I just haven't found that niche yet, unfortunately. At least I can say that I'm in a country I love, in spite of all its flaws and frustrations, and that I have a lot of wonderful people in my life who make the long days worth getting past. That's something, isn't it? That and knowing that there is some potential out there for future endeavors, future possibilities -- I just have to keep my mind, my eyes and all the doors open.

But when the social outings pile up, and I have a heck of a time figuring out how to squeeze it all in, that's when I feel like my head is going to explode. And I don't even have kids! I know how hard it must be for folks like Jenn to find a balance for herself and her family. And here I am having a hard time just fitting in enough time for my boy and me. This week is jam-packed with fun, but I also have to be sure to fit in some time doing those necessary things around the apartment, like cooking, cleaning and laundry. Obviously life -- and living! -- are much more important, but then again you certainly want to feel good about the home you're returning to at the end of the day. Such a juggle!

When my friend Sarah and I got together last week, we found ourselves reminiscing about the time we met back in the States, in the late '90s, when I was working for a French company as a marketing assistant. She was an au pair hoping to improve her English and we were both spending time at the Alliance Française in Washington, DC (I didn't want to lose my French, so I was serving wine and cheese, and she wanted to meet fellow French-speakers living in the area). One day one of the guys I was working with at the time saw a photo of us together, and he said, eyes blazing, "I have got to meet her!" I was stunned by his adamance, but I eventually complied, knowing full well that he wouldn't leave me alone until I did... Their first meeting didn't lead to many sparks -- at least I didn't think so! -- but about a week later I received a call in my car, and Sarah told me that they were officially a couple. They had really hit it off, both loving to swing dance and sharing so many of the same interests. It was unexpected, but I was of course thrilled for them.

Fast-forward eight years later, and they are now married and living in la région parisienne. We lost touch there for a while -- life and all that -- but then caught up again about a year and a half ago, and since then Sarah and I have tried to get together to have drinks from time to time. Again, we always have a million things to talk about, and this time around was no exception. In fact, I felt like we were really on the same wavelength in so many ways, and a lot of what she said to me really reassured me about my current fears and concerns, regarding life and the future in general. It's funny how we so often see so many wonderful things in other people, how much we admire and appreciate their qualities, and then in fact they tell us that they see those same things in us. Of course it's a good feeling, but it's also kind of unsettling...

Well, before I head off in some kind of random philosophical direction, let's just say that I'm hoping we can make our evening drink sessions more regular, and not so few and far between. I love the conversations we have, the memories we share, and the thoughts and feelings that get stirred up in these simple moments of friendship.

It's funny, because I've always thought that my memories, of either my childhood or even of more recent years, were never very vivid, but when I actually think long and hard about things, specific images and precise moments really do come to mind. One of them is a party that I attended with Sarah on a July 4th weekend years ago, by the Chesapeake Bay, when a wonderful Australian friend of mine was in town for a few days. We studied together in a program at the Sorbonne for a semester, and he was one of the brightest spots in those months of study. He recently e-mailed me on "our" birthday (we share exactly the same birthdate, both day and year!) to share some pics of his son. There was the whisper of possibility, of something more happening between us several times over the years, but it wasn't meant to be... When he came to visit me in the U.S., he was living in London at the time and I was in the early stages of a relationship. Today he is married with a baby boy, and here I am back in France. I remember the dress I wore that sweltering July night, the strap that snapped when we were dancing, the fact that we had stayed in touch in spite of the distance between us. I really hope I can continue to do the same as time continues to fly by, remembering each other when we can, and catching up whenever life makes it possible.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Very French Moment of Inattention

Last night I ended up staying out again after work, sharing a couple margaritas with a new friend in a nifty Mexican bar in the Marais neighborhood, followed by a couple platefuls of nachos and quesadillas. Haven't had food like that in ages! So it was well worth it, albeit completely unexpected. I had already been out the night before, 'til all hours, cavorting with several gal friends at the Burlesque Revue hosted by Gentry Lane, where I also met some other much more well-known Paris bloggers. But my intention after work yesterday was to touch base on some volunteer work I'm going to be doing for a children's book writer and illustrator organization (SCBWI France) in the coming months. I'm trying to tackle some of this work right now, and I'm just a bit nervous about the whole gig, because I don't want to let anyone down and I want to do a good job -- I just hope I'm going to be able to focus and buckle down when the time comes. But this is the kind of organization I've been wanting to get involved with for a while, so it can only be a good thing, right? Right. I just hope I'm not biting off more than I can chew...

Ahem, so the meeting was set up to touch base with a couple other gals involved in the process, and I was just meant to meet them and chat for a bit. But as they were super-busy and up to their gills in work, they didn't have time to talk logistics. So we decided to save that for another time in the near future, and my friend and I headed out to find a nearby bar to unwind after our respective long days at work (her hopping around town on a Velib' from one assignment to another, me chained to my desk...). A drink turned into a couple drinks, like I said above, and then some nibbles, which resulted in a full-fledged meal. So I didn't make it to the métro station 'til after 10:00. Not a problem under any normal circumstances, but I was really starting to feel the fatigue. I took my normal route home, with a correspondance at Charles-de-Gaulle Etoile for the RER train... And found, once again -- for the second time in less than two weeks -- that the interconnexion at Nanterre-Préfecture was down as some construction work is going on at the Nanterre-Université station. Basically this means that I'm in commuter hell, because I have to turn back around on my tracks and trudge on over to the other side of the station, take the train back in the other direction, make my way over to the Gare St. Lazare, and then take an SNCF suburb train home. Which is just fine and dandy -- when I'm not WIPED OUT and READY TO CRAWL INTO BED. I know, I know: after all, I'm the one who chose to go out, so you're not going to feel sorry for me. But this was the last thing I needed...

So after taking the alternate route back through the train system, as I finally approached St. Lazare on foot from nearby métro Havre-Caumartin, I found myself half-asleep and somewhat distracted by the bright street lamps. My attention was momentarily diverted by the Printemps department store windows, and as I swung my head to the right in that split second, I made the huge mistake of not watching where I was going -- I became a walking hypocrite! Because, in fact, this is a crime that I have found Parisians guilty of on more than one occasion, and it drives me off my rocker... And there I was, becoming the perfect example of what I can't stand. That's right: in that split second, I rammed into a poor unsuspecting woman walking in the opposite direction. Now, I say "poor, unsuspecting" because I feel for her -- I honestly felt bad for my moment of distraction! I felt terrible... But her response shocked me even more: before I could even mumble out an apology or an explanation, she had screeched "Il faut regarder où vous allez... ou changer de lunettes !!!" And when I say screeched, I seriously mean she put a lot of volume into those two lines. I was flummoxed, and it all happened so fast, I didn't even get a chance to respond. Now, again, I know I was in the wrong -- I was perfectly ready to recognize it -- but I honestly thought that this was just a wee bit uncalled-for... Over-react much?! I didn't even get a good look at the lady, but let's just say that she walked so quickly out of my line of vision that I can only assume she was about three feet tall...

When commuting, I go out of my way to follow Paris protocol: I step off the trains to allow other passengers to get off, even when it's not yet my stop, and I do my best to be respectful of others' space. I walk quickly, but I don't push (this is particularly grating, when people shove up behind you to get off at a station). I stand when the trains are crowded, allowing the strapontins to flip back up and free up some more space. But of course I'm not perfect, and every once in a while I find myself guilty of a commuting transgression. But this was totally unlike me -- and again, it was probably a result of my long day.

In any case, in that moment I realized how much I'm becoming more and more "French". Yes, my friends, say what you will, the French are well-known for walking quickly in one direction and looking in another at the same time. I've observed this phenomenon in more than one train station over the years, as well as on the streets, so the fact that I committed this cardinal sin makes me feel even worse. I've also been complaining more and more, a sign of the one of the French culture's favorite pastimes: râler.

But oh well, you never know what the end of an evening will bring you... It didn't tarnish my soirée, not entirely, but I was too tired at that point to dwell on it. I honestly believe that fatigue played a role in my distraction as well, so I'm trying not to feel too bad about it. After all, I'm sure that that particular dame didn't even give the incident a second thought...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Most Amazing Meal

I made the most amazing meal Sunday night... I know, I know -- that sounds so incredibly immodest! But all I can say is that it wasn't due to any particular skills on my part: I think it was simply a question of quality of ingredients, which are oh-so-important, and a good, solid recipe. For once, Elle à table did not disappoint, as it has been wont to do in recent times, leaving me paging through looking for some real inspiration, as well as some recipes that I can actually use on a daily basis. I find that this particular magazine has a bad habit of presenting complicated, fancy-schmancy recipes that just don't hold up over time; they're either fads or of-the-moment trends and I simply don't want to pull them out time and time again to enjoy them. At least, this has been my most recent experience -- because actually, last year at about this time of year, I found loads of ideas in the Elle, and it was one of the motivations that got me back in the kitchen. But then for months on end it would let me down: I would pick it up, purchase the latest issue, and then prepare very few of the dishes. So why did I keep buying it? Good question, especially since now you can get most of the recipes on-line at their website. I guess I was just hoping that something would jump out at me, month after month...

And finally, it has! Part of it is probably this time of year: I've realized that I love the seasonal foods at the market in September, in spite of the fact that the summer is ending and we're having to put fresh peaches and strawberries behind us. They were all pretty disappointing this year anyway, in my humble opinion. But I can't get enough of the figs, I love apples and pears, and we're leading into the perfect season for dishes simmered in a Dutch oven. Yes, that's right: I'm excited to be using my cocotte ! I bought one almost six months ago, and it's just now that I'm able to make great use of it. When I saw the recipe on the pages Friday night, I knew this was going to be my weekend project... Add in the chocolate cake recipe a good friend passed on to me on Friday at work, and I had my own recipe for a Sunday afternoon in the kitchen.

[Ironically, I was convinced that the recipe I used on Sunday would be on-line as well, so I could link to it here, but unfortuantely it isn't! So I'll have to copy it over here...]

Voilà my new favorite dinner menu:

Salade de figues, poires et parmesan
(I adapted this for two persons, but the recipe below is for four)

4 nice-size figs
2 ripe pears
the juice from 1/2 lemon
30 grams of grated parmesan
2 teaspoons of olive oil
a few drops of balsamic vinegar
fresh ground pepper

After washing the fruit, you simply core and cut the pears in thin slices, and the figs in quarters. Then you sprinkle some lemon juice over the fruit, mix it carefully, and then lay the fruit out carefully on plates. Grate some fresh parmesan over the fruit, drizzle on some olive oil and just a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately, with some fresh ground pepper.

And now, la pièce de résistance -- OK, don't freak out here -- it's rabbit! It's my first time preparing it, but it was truly wonderful. I can see some of you cringing now, but rabbit is a wonderfully delicious alternative to chicken or other poultry, and if the meat is prepared the right way, it can be really rich and tender! This recipe was just right.

Râbles de lapin aux carottes et aux pruneaux
(recipe serves four, so we had leftovers!)

4 pieces of the rabbit's "torso", basically -- the back or "saddle" of the rabbit -- 100 grams each
4 slices of bacon (poitrine fumée), 10 g each
6 prunes with the pits removed
12 carottes nouvelles (fresher carrots, still in a bunch)
8 fresh green oignons (also still in a bunch -- these melt and become tender!)
1/2 cube of chicken bullion (or fresh chicken stock, if you have it)
1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small bouquet garni (with bay leaves and flat parsley)
a few extra parsley leaves and some fresh ground pepper

[This takes a little over an hour to prepare in total, including the slicing of vegetables and the simmering of the rabbit in the cocotte, for about 40 minutes.]

You start by wrapping each râble with a slice of bacon; the sweet guy at the poultry stand gave me some ficelle to use to wrap around the râbles, because I didn't know where to find it myself... Then you wash and peel the carrots and the onions. You slice the carrots in thin discs and slice the largest of the green onions in half, leaving some of the green stem on them. Toast the coriander seeds in a hot pan, just to bring out the flavor, for a few minutes, and then reserve them for later. Brown the rabbit in the olive oil in the cocotte for a few minutes, and then add salt, pepper, the coriander seeds, carrots, onions, prunes, the bouquet garni and the 1/2 cube of bullion, crumbled up. At this point, you allow the ingredients to cook for about 5 minutes. The recipe says to pour in only about 20 cL of water, but I actually poured in more than half that -- about a half a liter -- I just wasn't sure if the carrots would cook well without a bit more water. In fact, this might not have been necessary, but I still thought everything turned out beautifully, so I feel like 20 cL is cutting it a bit short.

You allow the dish to simmer for about 40 minutes, and then serve, sprinkling some fresh parsley on top.

(both recipes are from Elle à table, septembre 2007)

So that's how I spent a good part of my day on Sunday. I did some much-needed housecleaning as well, things I had been putting off for weeks, I'm ashamed to say. I finally scrubbed my oven and vaccumed the apartment from top to bottom. It was a great sense of accomplishment, and it laid the foundation for an evening of cooking satisfaction. I baked the gâteau au chocolat in the late afternoon, and then set to work on dinner at around 6:30 or so -- I may have gotten a bit of a late start, but I figured we never eat before 9:00 on Sundays anyway, so it wasn't a big deal.

I had never cooked rabbit before -- I can hear you gulping and gasping now! -- but it was just so good. Tender and tasty, worth the effort. But what am I talking about? There was hardly any effort involved, aside from the prep work: the slicing of the carrots and onions, the wrapping of the rabbit with the bacon... I was also pleased because the family that runs the chicken stand at the market are the greatest, and the father had passed on some string for me to use in my cooking. He explained the different parts of the rabbit, and how they're prepared. I had never heard the word râble before, so this was a new one for me.

The combination of flavors -- what can I say? It was heavenly... I haven't made a main dish that was this satisfying in a long time. My old stand-by these days is a dish that my boy's mother made years ago, one of his all-time favorites: pintades aux pommes et lardons. But this rabbit dish, simmered in the Dutch oven with carrots, spring onions, coriander seeds, parsley, bay leaves and prunes was the perfect concoction. As it bubbled away on the stovetop, the scent of the different ingredients wafted around the apartment and just blew me away. I couldn't wait to dig into it! And my expectations were more than met: the taste was just as good as the scent. My boyfriend loved it. I haven't heard him compliment me on a meal that much in a long time. (And it was even better the next day as my leftover lunch...) He thought the entrée was a bit more suspicious, so he wasn't as excited about that. I actually loved it myself. It was more of a savory fruit salad, a combination of pears, figs and freshly-shaved parmesan, along with a drizzling of olive oil, a sprinkling of fresh pepper and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. He thought it seemed more like a dessert, but of course it's the parmesan that makes it an appetizer. Fresh, fragrant and light -- what could be better?

I took a few photos, but I don't know if they're worth posting, because as I mentioned we ate at 9:00, so obviously there was no more natural light, and the pictures under bright fluorescent lightbulbs leave much to be desired. So you'll just have to imagine them... Trust me, it was unforgettable!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wardrobe Wonder

*UPDATE* Not to be a terrible influence or anything, but aren't the bags on this site drool-worthy? I especially love the Rebecca in grey... Man, am I going to have a hard time restraining cravings if I keep running into stuff like this...

Ah, now THIS is going to be a fun post... Quite the refreshing change from my previous rant-cum-diatribe. The Page Française passed on a sort of wardrobe challenge, and I have to admit that in spite of my recent attempts at cutting back on any consumer spending, I have always had a weakness for nice clothing -- for fashion in general, shall we say... It really depends on my mood, as is the case for many women out there I guess, but I do like to make an effort to look pulled-together, as much as possible, on a daily basis. I guess you could describe my uniform quotidien as classic with a twist... As I mentioned in a recent post, I love accessories, and I also love adding just that little touch to an outfit that makes it a bit more original -- even if most parts that make up the whole are very basic and simple. And then of course there are my lazy days, when I couldn't be bothered to throw anything original together at all. That's when I resort to jeans and a simple t-shirt-cardigan combination. I'm a cardigan girl, for sure. I have more of those than I could possibly remember off the top of my head...

These days I find that reasonably-priced, affordable and yet well-made clothes are virtually impossible to come by... Back in the States I guess I always depended on the constant day-to-day sales (there's always an excuse for a sale over there!) or outlet centers, sometimes splurging, probably more often than I care to admit, on something in particular at regular price, if I was crazy for it. But since I moved to France, or let's just say even more recently, I've been trying to restrain myself from one season to the next because I've finally realized that I do in fact have lots of clothes, and in spite of the fact that styles change from one year to the next, I'm realizing that I can certainly get by with what I have. But oh, the vanity-ridden desire and lust are still there, trust me! I may crave something, but I'm finally learning to apply more restraint to my cravings. And my ensuing actions. I'm hoping my bank account will one day thank me, because for the moment it holds nothing but scorn and resentment for leaving it so empty and alone.

But I have to add here that I go through color phases -- it's quite funny, actually, because whereas one year I may abhor a particular color, the next I might be madly looking all over for the perfect sweater in just that shade, yes that one that I wouldn't deign to wear just a year before. This fall I have to admit that I'm caving for the dark-blue-and-grey combination; I've actually had a passion for gunmetal grey for ages, anthracite as they call it here in France, deep rich grey... I agree that it goes with so much, from navy blue to black to burgundy to red to rich hunter green. And the list goes on. So I imagine that I may very well end up breaking down and purchasing one sweater or pair of pants in grey before the season ends, only because I know myself too well. And now that they're actually selling grey shoes for once (something I sought for years on end...), could they perhaps try to stock at least a pair or two in my size? (I have big feet -- American 10, French size 41). Then again, check that: don't carry my size -- then I may be tempted to spend more money...

So as to what I'm wearing right now? Well, I'm at work, so I'm dressed more "profesionnally" than I would obviously dress on the weekend, but comfortably nonetheless: one of my favorite shirt-dresses, in a khaki velvety material, found at Zara a couple years back; my brown suede boots, a gift from my boyfriend's mother, one of the precious gifts she gave me during the winter when we first got to know each other (we spent the better part of a whole Saturday shopping around Le Havre looking for boots in my size that I actually liked, and she was the most patient, supportive person I have ever met... not to mention wonderful company; I have the best memories of that day) and a thick wool, multicolored Max & Co. cardigan which is blatantly too warm for this early-fall weather, but I like to be prepared for what the Paris weather may unexpectedly bring. You never know what's going to be around the corner... I'm also wearing a beaded necklace from Clio Blue -- I love their jewelry. (I said I was a sucker for accessories after all!) All of this outfit is in what you might term "fall colors", but it's only because last year I was crazy about green in all its glory, so I have sweaters and pants in varying shades of green.

That's my outfit of the day... Tomorrow I will probably feel lazy again, so it will be back to simple pants and a top, more than likely. But today felt like a pretty good day.

I believe I'm meant to tag a few people out there in the blogosphere, and sometimes I have a hard time remembering those who do and those who don't enjoy doing memes, so of course if you're not into it, don't mind me! You can only play along if you feel up to it. So what are you wearing,

Adelyn, Colour Me Crazy, Destination Metz, Jennie, and Joy Suzanne?

Monday, September 17, 2007

To Lille or Not to Lille?

There is nothing more frustrating than a change in weekend plans at the last minute. Don't get me wrong: I appreciate spontaneity and improvisation as much as the next gal. But the constant guessing game, the impossibility of making any fixed plans, is just exhausting. That's why I've gotten into the habit of adding "limiting adverbs", so to speak, to my own descriptions of what my upcoming weekend will include. I find myself peppering my weekend-speak with words like "normally" or "if all goes well..." or perhaps even "well, we might be..." And you fill in the blanks from there. The unsurity is sometimes maddening, and I hate playing a constant guessing game, knowing full well that our plans will, in the end, more than likely change.

In a way I've gotten used to my boyfriend changing his mind or committing himself to more than he can really do in one weekend. It's as if he thrives on spreading himself too thin, as if he thinks he can tear himself into three or four different men, and it doesn't seem to sink in that he simply can't do everything -- and besides, perhaps his girlfriend may not have the same ideas in mind...

This weekend's plan, at least as I originally understood it, was to drive up to his sister's place outside of Lille and to spend some quality time there, relaxing and getting away from the city for a breath of fresh air. I was actually looking forward to being in their big house again, and perhaps even bicycling around the area, like we did once a few months ago. I had a feeling that we wouldn't head out on Friday evening, as he originally projected, because I know how exhausted he can be at the end of a long week. So I wasn't surprised when he told me Thursday evening that we wouldn't leave until Saturday morning...

But then the frustrating element kicked in late Friday night, after we went to see The Bourne Ultimatum together, when he just happened to slip in (comme si rien n'était), ever so nonchalantly, that we would be making a "pit stop" on the way to Lille, so he could play in a tennis tournament, the "final one of the season". Mind you, the last three tournaments have somehow transformed, each time, into the "the last tournament of the season"... But I'm just saying.

Trust me, I have nothing against my boyfriend playing tennis! On the contrary, I know it is one of the things that makes him really happy. It's one of his favorite pastimes, along with swimming. I also know that it's both a physical and a mental release for him, a way of getting out all of that pent-up stress men are so famous for keeping inside themselves, whereas girls like me just can't seem to get enough of releasing it simply by TALKING ABOUT IT. So of course it's a healthy thing for him to be doing, for the most part. But I guess I sometimes feel like our plans together come after his tennis-playing plans, or fall completely by the wayside. We don't actually have that many weekends together, and when we do, the time is precious to me -- it's like an oasis in the middle of the desert of our work-run-rest lifestyle at the moment.

So this interruption in this weekend's plans, for a brief trip away from home, just seemed unjustified and a wee bit selfish in my personal opinion... I don't know; I felt like our time together just wasn't important enough, valuable enough, to merit an entire weekend devoted to it. As a result, when I told him how I felt this time around (something I don't always do, because I don't want to upset the applecart or cause any unnecessary conflicts -- the truth of the matter is that I often bend to his will; I want so much for him to be happy) he got all up-in-arms and defensive, saying that the stop didn't change anything in our plans, that it wasn't really a detour at all, that it was on our way, that I was making a big fuss out of nothing. It just didn't seem that way to me, of course.

We really don't disagree like this all that often, and I honestly don't like to complain -- I mean, I try really hard not to complain about his own activities, because I think it's important that we spend time separately doing the things that we love -- that's what makes us happier when we spend time together, after all! But you have to draw the line somewhere when you have so little time together, n'est-ce pas ?

Needless to say, we didn't end up going to Lille... Our Friday-night discussion didn't reach any kind of truce until Saturday afternoon. We were at a bit of a standstill. To complicate things all the more, he just decided to cancel all the weekend plans, in his opinion because I was making things too complicated. In the end, though, apparently his sister must not have been expecting us anyways, because as it turns out she was going to see their father in Le Havre. Maybe she figured her brother would change his plans at the last minute or something... as usual. Hmph.

Oh, and he did still go play tennis. :sigh:

And then we ended up going to Le Havre too.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Weekend Windup... And A Lemon Baking Frenzy

Our toaster had been on the fritz most of this past week, only producing burnt baguette slices or never even spitting out the bread and subsequently sending smoke swirling all around the apartment... (and as a result I don't know if I'll ever be able to get rid of that smoky smell -- even after airing out the rooms all day on Saturday!) So after doing my regular shopping at the market on Saturday afternoon (trying really, for once, to restrict myself to the things on my list, and perhaps a few extra pieces of fruit, because I had let far too much go to waste last weekend, or things had gone bad far too quickly -- and I really need to stick to a budget!) and picking up some necessities at the grocery store, I also broke down and got a new, but inexpensive, toaster as well.

Now, I know I probably should have tried to get a secondhand one or found out if someone I knew had an extra one on hand, but I will admit here, sheepishly, that I'm an extremely impatient person (have I mentioned that before?!), and I just didn't know if I could hold out for even a few days without my morning toast... So I studied the various boxes on the shelves and figured I didn't need any fancy extras, like plastic prongs to grab the toast -- "a guarantee against ever burning your fingers!" according to the packaging -- or a supposed shelf on top of the toaster for reheating croissants and other pastries... I just needed your basic toaster, albeit with fairly wide slots for baguette-style bread. I managed to find one that wasn't too pricey, but even as I brought it home I felt guilty about the extra expense. I keep thinking of Riana and her Slow Year and how I had hoped to join in as well (ah, good intentions...), and yet I'm struggling with my own nature, fighting with myself and trying to be more economical, knowing that one of these days my spending in the moment is going to catch up with me... I agree that since my move to France I've gradually acquired better eating habits, and I've realized that in fact I need less and less, and I'm trying to cut out extra unnecessary spending. Seeing gals like her accomplish so much and feeling so fulfilled as a result, being happy with what she has and how she can make better use of everything, is a real inspiration to me.

But again, I do tend to use a toaster pretty much every day, so this was how I justified the purchase to myself. I still haven't taken it out of the box, though, because I just want to be absolutely sure I didn't get it on a whim...

In the meantime, I spent the rest of the day baking, and it hit me while I was in the kitchen, totally out of the blue, that I really do prefer baking to cooking on the whole. I've enjoyed getting into cooking over the last two years, after letting someone else do the hard work for so long, but I think that it's baking that really does it for me. And I guess it has something to do with the calming effect kneading dough has on me, actually getting the consistency and the texture just right, feeling it between my fingers and knowing I've done this myself. I know a lot of food bloggers have written beautiful things about this concept, but I think it doesn't really sink in until you've experienced it yourself and sensed the full effect of baking -- that is, if you're anything like me! I know we all have different impressions about these sorts of things, but maybe deep down inside of me I've inherited this quirk from my mother as well. For years I denied the fact that I could even cook or bake, and convinced myself that it simply wasn't in my genes. But that probably had a lot to do with my lack of self-confidence and my simmering self-doubt. It may be the precision of the process (I am a perfectionist, after all), the measuring of the ingredients and getting the balance of ingredients just right that does it for me; or perhaps it's just that first taste, when the cookies or cake have come out of the oven and I realize that something magical has taken place...

And I've got a thing about lemon; who knows why?! I've baked a basic lemon pound cake (or more accurately a quatre-quarts au citron, as I'm following a French recipe and using a kitchen balance) at least a dozen times in the last year, varying it only slightly, adding poppy seeds from time to time or a dash more fresh lemon juice) but it was the discovery of lemon butter cookies that really got me -- the flakiness of the butter, the zing of those grated lemon zests, and the perfect punch of that fleur de sel. The day I started grating lemons for my recipes was like a huge revelation for me -- you mean you actually put the lemon's skin in there?! And how satisfying is it to grate away at the lemon zest? Seriously, what an eye-opener, I kid you not... [and although you may be laughing at me right now, chuckling over there in front of your computer screens, I was reassured to know that I was not alone in this department when I ran into a gal last night who asked me if I had actually used "fresh lemons" in the cake I had baked!]

After baking my lemon cake once again yesterday afternoon and pulling it out of the oven, I couldn't resist diving into Clotilde's lemon butter cookie recipe from her book; I've been wanting to bake these little beauties for months now, but I was always either lacking the motivation or the time. The recipe is a variation of the lemon butter cookie recipe on the Chocolate and Zucchini blog, and I got such a kick out of getting the ball of cookie dough just right between my fingers, kneading it and figuring out whether to add in a dash of cold water or a touch of flour. And when you actually taste the cookies?! Seriously, the perfect balance of chewiness, flakiness and crispiness (is that a word?) all rolled into one! The lemon, butter and salt just sing together. Plus, they're bite-size, so you don't feel as guilty when you eat several at a time. While I was on vacation in Noirmoutier I was seeking out the perfect sablé in the local shops but never came across just the right one. I knew I would be bringing back some fleur de sel, and if there's one thing I firmly believe should be in every kitchen, it's these crystal flakes (they're wonderful with chocolate as well). As a matter of fact, the next time I go home to the States, I've got to bring some home to my mother. I'll make a mental note of that...

Now, my cookies didn't end up looking nearly as perfect as the gorgeous photos of Clotilde's sablés in the book (mine were a bit oddly misshapen!), but what's great about these kinds of pastries is just how appealing the cookies are in their imperfect shape -- there's something rustic and unique about them that emphasizes their homemade, hand-baked simplicity.

And if there's one thing I can say for sure, it's that I will be enjoying Clotilde's book for months, if not years, to come... It took me some time to actually get around to using some of the recipes, but now that I've started, I think I'm going to have a hard time stopping any time soon! So far I've only tried out a few, but I can attest to the fact that her crumble aux courgettes, figues et mozzarella is perfectly marvelous, a taste combination that I never could have imagined on my own but that makes your tastebuds sing. And I'll be testing our her baked ratatouille recipe later on this week. Tonight it's her fail-proof poulet de Muriel, another weekend regular.

My baking saved me from myself this weekend; otherwise, I probably would have gotten caught up in my permanent state of introspection and reflection. I can only hope that the baking, as well as other interests and occupations, will continue to fulfill me and take my mind off heavier concerns in the months ahead.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

An Interview Meme, French-Style

Nearly a month ago, Chez Loulou tagged me for a French meme, and I'm just now getting around to reading her responses as well as preparing my own. I think I'm going to approach it the same way she did, with my answers in English, just because I think the majority of my blogging friends are anglophones, like myself! I like the challenge of reading and writing in French from time to time, but this space is mainly reserved for my own personal reflections, emotions, anecdotes and memories, which in most cases are slotted in the "English" (or should I say American?) part of my brain. From time to time I stop and realize that I've been muttering to myself in French (oh come on, don't tell me you've never talked to yourself before!!) but when I admitted this to a fellow anglophone a few years back he scoffed at me and told me that this couldn't possibly be true... But I swear to you that a certain number of years in a country will do that to you, especially if the language fascinates you and if you are still striving, after all this time, to perfect your pronuncation and your grammatical formation of sentences.

And your verlan, but of course. We mustn't forget important things such as these!

So I've included my mini meme below (aren't these questions quirky?!), and I've tagged some fellow expat bloggers afterwards. Be forewarned -- you may need to work around a few questions, if you're anything like me!


Quelle est votre situation de famille?
I'm living *in sin -- oh the horror!* with my French-German boyfriend, but I was also married in the past. So yes, gulp, that would make me a divorcée. Double horror!

Quelle est votre date d'anniversaire?
August 22nd. And I will now trot out the line I include every time someone asks me my birthdate (although it only works in French, sorry!): Je suis lion, presque vierge.

Vivez vous en ville ou à la campagne?
I currently live in a suburb of Paris, although I also spent a few years in the 18th arrondissement. I guess I've pretty much lived in or near a city all my life, although country life does tempt me from time to time. I just don't know if I could shrug off my urban habits. Then again, many people have done it with much success before me, so I imagine it's not an impossible task.

Quels métiers exercez vous ou avez vous exercés?
Well, as so many other expats in France have emphasized, it's not easy to find work in France. I've done the teaching-English route, but I just don't think it's for me in the long term. So right now I'm doing the bilingual assistant gig, and it has its "moments" shall we say... I definitely don't see myself doing this forever, but I'm trying to figure out what I need to work out to be able to do something more fulfilling, and possibly creative, with my life. I've drifted from one random job to the next and never had a specific path lined up for myself, so those who have a precise ambition and follow their plans to a set goal always blow me away.

Avez vous des allergies?
As was the case with Loulou, I've never been officially diagnosed, and I didn't have allergies growing up. But since my move to France five years ago I've gradually acquired more and more allergies, and the spring season (anywhere from March to June) can be pretty tough for me. When I went to the beach in August something (??) set my allergies off as well, so I had to pick up some more of the same medication I had been taking a few months before. I recently read a fascinating article in Le Monde 2 about how so many people have acquired more allergies in the last 20 years in France, and how a number of environmental factors seem to play a role in this. But at the same time, for some reason there aren't nearly enough allergologues in France, which explains why the wait for an appointment is so long...

Quelle est votre odeur préférée?
I too love lemons, and then chocolate, coffee, thyme, peaches... and my boy. (OK, once again I have a list of favorites, so shoot me!)

Aimez vous les sucreries?
Silly question! Although I don't think I'm as much of a sweeth tooth as my boyfriend, I do love dark chocolate and desserts like crème brulée and île flottante. Otherwise, I have been known to chew on red gummy bears and tagada strawberries! Oh, and macarons -- aaaahhhh...!

Si oui, quelles sont vos préférées?
Oh, I just listed some above, but I also love the combination of dark chocolate with coconut. (Hard to find -- but have you ever had those French Magnum ice cream bars? They make the most AMAZING dark chocolate-coconut bar. Heaven! Otherwise, I would kill for a perfect dark chocolate mousse.)

Quels sont vos goûts culinaires?
Oh, I love a little bit of everything! But French is at the top of my list (guess that's one of the reasons why I'm here!), closely followed by Italian, Japanese and Thai. I also like to try anything new, so I don't shrink away from things I've never tasted before.

Quel genre de musique aimez vous?
Very long list! And difficult to classify -- I love a lot of female artists with incredibly beautiful voices. I'm a big fan of Tori Amos, Annie Lennox (who has a new album coming out! yippee!), Sarah McLachlan, Sinéad O'Connor, Feist, Fiona Apple, Kate Havnevik, and Regina Spektor. I'm into rock, independent music, folk, classical and I have a weakness for movie soundtracks, especially 2046. Also, anything with a piano sound will usually seduce me, since I studied piano for so long and have a special affinity for this instrument. One of these days I've got to try to start playing again...

Quelle est votre couleur préférée?
I've long been mad about red, but more recently I've been wearing more and more shades of green, as well as midnight blue. And gunmetal/steel grey. See, I have a hard time choosing favorites! (Can you tell how indecisive I am?)

Quelle est votre saison préférée?
I do love the warmth, even the heat, of summer above all. But autumn can be a wonderful time, too -- if it doesn't get too cold too fast!

Collectionnez vous un objet quelconque?
Well, not officially, but I recently realized (when some friends who were visiting pointed it out) that I have a set of little boxes on the dresser in my bedroom that originate from different places around the world. So I guess I've sort of been unconsciously collecting them! There aren't that many, though: just a few from France, Spain, the US, Japan and Iraq. And the last two were gifts.

Quel magazine lisez vous?
(Shouldn't that read "magazines"?) When I can squeeze in the time between books, I'm a sucker for French Elle, and I also enjoy Elle à table and Muze (a magazine supposedly aimed at 20-somethings -- I hate the fact that they claim this, when I've been enjoying it for almost a year now and I'm long past my 20s... I also have a blog-post-in-the-making about this mag.) And when I need some pure distraction, I have been known to page through US or InStyle. I need my US celebrity fix from time to time (guilty as charged). But now I try to get most of that from the Internet, of course!

Quel est votre style vestimentaire?
Oh, that can vary, depending on my mood and where I'm going. I guess I tend to be very classic in my taste in general, but with some little quirky touches. I love accessories -- fun, unexpected jewelry and lovely scarves, bags and gloves. I prefer skirts and dresses because I find them more comfortable than pants (I hate things squeezing me around the waist!) but when it gets cold I dread having bare legs -- so not a true fashionista, I'm afraid! I'm also a sucker for a beautiful coat. But my all-time favorite article of clothing is a shirtdress -- so simple, feminine, and easy to wear anywhere. Just makes you feel like a woman!

Pratiquez vous une activité manuelle?
Well, I've recently become more and more interested in cooking. I've always wanted to learn how to sew or knit, but I've never tried my hand at either and I just don't know if I would have the patience. Oh, and I don't know if it counts as "manual" but I used to draw, and I'm desperately trying to get back to it again. I studied art in college.

Quel est votre animal préféré?
I have a weakness for dogs, the bigger the better. My boy has always had a soft spot for bloodhounds, believe it or not! I don't know if we will ever have one, but I think he associates them with the big, wide open spaces of American Westerns.

Quels sont vos loisirs?
Reading, bien sûr. Cinema -- more and more in recent years. (But there are so many older films I still need to check out! I'm eternally grateful to my boy for introducing me to Ernst Lubitsch. I adore Heaven Can Wait and Cluny Brown.) I, too, love to travel and discover new cities. I enjoy listening to music, and I miss being able to turn it up loud in a car while driving. (I try to make up for it at home, but it's just not the same.)

Comment décorez vous votre intérieur?
We have a mix of dark furniture and touches of red and dark green -- but our apartment still needs quite a bit of decorating! If I could do everything myself (if I ever had the time and energy) I would love to repaint the walls different colors, really brighten up things. Then again, I've been trying to declutter and become more zen in recent times, so I would try to limit the amount of furniture in a room.

Avez vous une liste de cadeaux en ligne?
No, not really, but something tells me that perhaps I should -- my brother sent me an Amazon gift certiciate for my birthday, and I guess if I had created a wish list he wouldn't have had to do that! And of course there are always new books and CDs I would love to get my hands on... But these days I'm trying to stick to used books and borrowing, whenever possible.

I guess that's it for now. I had a good time sharing some of my interests -- would Amy, Aralena, Karina, Meredith, Joy Suzanne, Amy or anyone else like to join in?