Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rockin' It My Way

Mais oui, I'm still here... I have no excuse really for my recent extended absence(s), aside from the fact that I've been lacking in motivation, focus and confidence enough to express my thoughts coherently and eloquently.

But that's neither here nor there at this point: I'm here, I have a lot on my mind, and now I want to get (some of) that out there into the blogosphere. So here goes...

About a month ago, Michelle over at Scribbit gave me a shout-out as a Rockin' Girl Blogger. (No, I promise I didn't forget! It's just taken me some time to get around to it...) I wanted to take the opportunity to share the love, because it always feels good to know that someone out there is reading, and it's even better to share some great reads with others. Thank you again, Michelle, for thinking of me and for sharing my modest little blog with your readers.

Now, mind you, my blogroll grows and expands as the days go by, but I have to admit that I do tend to spend a lot of my time on expat blogs, probably because I can relate to a lot of them, I feel a sort of bond, and we all make up a kind of community around here. But as you can see from my sidebar, I certainly don't limit myself to those blogging from France! I have a lot of favorite reads, but today I want to honor some gals I've come across in the past few months and who I feel definitely deserve to be singled out for their creativity, their consistency, their sense of humor, their sincerity -- plus much more!

* Amy at Chitlins and Camembert - Amy's been blogging from France for almost two years (if I'm not mistaken, and according to her archives!) and she is a daily read for me, not-to-miss. From chronicling her experiences in having a baby (and now two!) in France (and how much this costs, broken down fee by fee) to buying and refurbishing a house in the French countryside, Amy always keeps me entertained, and she adds in a great sense of humor with her pragmatism and sincerity. She just makes me smile... I hope to have the opportunity to meet her one day!

* Wendy at A Baguette on My Table - Another blogger I admire for her gutsiness and honesty, Wendy really knows how to use her writing to get a point across. And she doesn't mince her words! But this is what's so refreshing about her: Wendy shares with us how much she has evolved in her experiences here in France as a single mother, and now as a woman who has found love through blogging. I admire her in more ways than one! She's heading off for new adventures in the UK pretty soon, but I'm sure she'll have lots more to share with us along the road.

* Little Fugitive in France - A little gem in the wilderness, that perle rare that is far too often unfound or overlooked, Little Fugitive writes the way I believe she must play her music -- an artist at heart, she conveys her emotions through her words and shares what is going on in her mind with grit and passion. When I finish reading one of her posts, I have to sit back and think about it for a moment, let it sink in and wrap around me. She definitely has a gift, and like I said, I imagine her music must be an even stronger expression of this talent. Perhaps one day I'll get to see her perform, if I'm lucky!

* Reb at Uh Oh Spaghettios - I tumbled onto Reb's blog a few months back, and I love how she shares little personal accounts of her life as well as the progress her daughter is making in the language arena. As a lover of children's books myself, her recent posts about her daughter's discovery of and new interest in books warmed my heart...

* Emily in France - I had the pleasure of meeting Emily this past spring when she and a friend came to Paris for a visit, and Emily is just as down-to-earth and warm in person as she is on her blog. She shares with us, once again, her adventures, trials and tribulations in France, specifically in the Haute-Savoie region in her case, in a beautiful town called Annecy.

* And, last but not least, my dear friend Jenn at NPLI, who will make you laugh guaranteed, and if you are not reading her yet, run-do-not-walk over to her URL to get your daily giggle. She knows how to tell a tale, dialogues included, and she's a fab artist to boot. All that in one adorable package! Canadian by birth, she's come a long way since she arrived in France more than 10 years ago, and she has a lot to share with us as a result, as an expat, a mom, a professional, and an artist. Words cannot express how lucky I feel to have met her in the blogosphere.

So that's it for now... If you don't already know these blogs, I hope you'll enjoy diving into them as much as I do! So much talent, so little time...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Taste of Home

Saturday afternoon I prepared a simple summer lunch for my boy and me, happy and relieved that for once we could spend a weekend together and just relax and wile the time away, doing nothing in particular. We so rarely get to do this! I had been to the local market in the morning and had stocked up on some much-needed fruit and veggies, including the requisite melons and peaches for this time of year, as well as some end-of-season mara des bois strawberries and some lovely tomatoes. Probably not my best market run by far, but still a fair one, with enough goodies to keep us set for at least a few days.

I also treated myself, for the first time in a while, to two cheeses from the fromager, something I don't do very often simply because the cheese can sometimes be quite pricey. I try to save excellent cheese like that for special occasions, like when we have guests over for dinner -- but this weekend together seemed like a special occasion to me, so I splurged. We already had some coulommiers in the refrigerator that some hotel guest had asked my boy to throw out (*gasp! the horror!*) and which he slipped into his bag and brought home. So I picked up a nice chunk of vieux comté and a small sliver of gouda au cumin. I was also tempted by a chèvre but figured I better limit myself, because the last time I went crazy on the cheese we never finished it and it stayed in the fridge for far too long. (I have to add here that this cheese splurge was also partially inspired by the wonderful posts over at Chez Loulou, who has a weekly cheese celebration, and Amy at C'est la me... who does some occasional wine and cheese pairings.)

So we had our melon et jambon de parme combination along with these lovely cheeses, some fresh bread, as well as a simple baby spinach salad mixed with cherry tomatoes and a shallot-infused vinaigrette. Simple, fresh, but filling. The night before I had thrown together the same salad I had brought with me to Katia and Kyliemac's Bastille Day picnic: tomatoes, cucumber, feta cheese, fragrant olive oil and cilantro. I swear, I never tire of summer meals! (Can you tell?!)

Midway through the meal, it hit me that I was dying to make my mother's famed Steamed Shrimp Macaroni Salad -- it had been far too long since I had thrown together a batch, and I had just so happened to pick up some shrimp on my morning shopping trip. Of course, this recipe is difficult to replicate here in France, namely because I don't have easy access to the key "secret" ingredient: Old Bay seasoning, something any true Marylander and Chesapeake Bay resident has in her kitchen closet/pantry. But lo and behold, I had (for once) cunningly picked up a bottle of the seasoning last summer and had been waiting for just the right opportunity to make good use of it.

Now, every summer I get a craving for the one thing I simply cannot have here in France, and the one food that I always say I so desperately miss: Maryland steamed crabs. I unfortunately won't be making it back home this summer for my crab fix, but shrimp comes a close second. And like I mentioned in my earlier post, the pathetic tourteaux they have here just don't come anywhere near the beauty of Maryland crabs, and of course they are all missing the spices the crabs are steamed in back home. Over the years I've gotten more and more addicted to spicy food, and now Old Bay just seems like child's play to me -- but it does pack a punch if you're not used to the spicy stuff! And I know the French don't tend to like spicy things in general. (On a side note, this reminds me of a French joke I heard ages ago, "Manger épicé en même temps, ce n'est pas facile" which is basically just a silly play on words -- it sounds like "Manger et pisser en même temps, ce n'est pas facile"... Translates to "Eating spicy food at the same time isn't easy" but also sounds like "It's not easy to eat and pee at the same time" -- Don't mind me, guess that was altogether off-subject -- but it made me laugh to myself!)

Oh, so getting back to the subject at hand: my mom's shrimp salad recipe! I did copy it down years ago, and like I said, I don't get to dig it out all that often, but I decided I need to start making more dishes that remind me of home and that may also be appealing to my boy and his family. This salad of course makes for a great vacation dish, is a big hit at picnics, and given the fact that I'm trying to assemble some good vacation recipes for my trip down to the Atlantic Coast in August, this seemed like the perfect addition. It's easy and quick to put together (the longest part is probably just peeling all the shrimp and dicing the veggies) and you can make lots of it at once! Depending on how much you need, of course. My mom's recipe serves about four as an accompaniment, less as a main dish.

In fact, this recipe may appeal to those back home in the U.S. who can get their hands on the Old Bay seasoning, but for my expat readers here in France, it may leave you wanting! I'm afraid I don't have any suggestions for a substitute, aside from perhaps some paprika or a spice of your choice -- but again, to my mind, it just wouldn't be the same. In fact, the shrimp at home in Maryland is actually steamed in Old Bay, and then of course my Mom adds more into the recipe, so it's doubly delicious!

So without further ado (finally, I know!), voilà the classic Steamed Shrimp Macarani Salad:

1 pound (about 500 grams) steamed shrimp, peeled and deveined
8 oz. elbow macaroni (also not quite the same in France, but any pasta resembling macaroni is fine, of course!), cooked, drained and rinsed
3/4 cup mayonnaise (again, my Mom's notation here is for "Hellman's real" mayonnaise, which just makes me chuckle... in France, of course, most people make their own mayonaisse, but I'm not going to quibble with that -- and I have to admit that I cheated and used bottled mayonnaise myself)
2 tbsp. vinegar
1 tbsp. mustard (also not the same here -- I brought back some French's mustard from home, but I imagine Dijon would work just fine, although it might just give it all the more of a kick!)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper (2 pinches)
1/2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning, or to taste
1 cup sliced, chopped celery
1 cup chopped green or sweet red pepper
1/4 cup chopped onion

In a large bowl, stir together mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper until smooth; add in Old Bay seasoning last. Add macaroni, celery and onion; toss to coat well.

At this point, I cut the shrimp in half, and sprinkle some additional Old Bay seasoning on them, as they haven't been steamed in the spice here in France. Then you add the shrimp into the salad, stir together once again, cover and chill in the refrigerator until serving.

Enjoy! I don't know about you, but this sure reminds me of home...

Monday, July 9, 2007

Weekend Wedding Away

Oh, thank goodness for our brief weekend away to attend a friend's wedding! I seriously didn't think I would ever get myself out of the doldrums, and if it weren't for this little trip, I may have spent the better part of the weekend in the apartment AGAIN, feeling sorry for myself... *Ahem* And thank goodness that the weather gods finally decided to cooperate and grace us with some sunshine -- I have a feeling that les mariés were pretty relieved about that too! ('Course, some other "famous" weddings most likely benefited from this gracious interlude of heavenly weather as well...)

We actually left la région parisienne on Friday evening, after having a quick dinner at home and throwing our things together in a couple of overnight bags. We hit the road kinda late, though, and didn't arrive in Argenton-sur-Creuse until almost 2:00 in the morning, believe it or not. (I originally thought the wedding was closer to Paris, but it was actually about a 3 1/2 hour drive, in the Centre region of France, in the département called Indre, as seen in the map to the right.) My boy likes to take his time on the road (which is a rarity and a blessing in this country, trust me!) which I definitely don't mind, especially in the dark. But as I've mentioned before, I have a heck of a time keeping my eyes open, so after we arrived at the hotel, called Le Cheval noir, I groggily tumbled out of the car and up the stairs to our tiny but very practical room.

After giving my boy a hard time about throwing together the weekend details at the last minute, I now have to give him credit for pulling it together marvelously. He got us a room for 2 nights, miraculously, when I was convinced there might not be anything available at such a late date. And Friday evening, before leaving, we also both put our heads together and chose a nice gift at a Culinarion shop near my work: a lovely wine carafe and a set of expresso cups. His friend has actually been married before, so we knew that the couple wasn't going to need a lot of basic essentials, but we figured that these gifts would pretty much make anyone happy. His friend Bernard is quite the wine afficionado (of course, what Frenchman isn't, you might ask?!) and he also likes a good café serré -- so we thought this would work well. We were at a bit of a loss, both of us, because we haven't been to any weddings in quite some time, and as they didn't have a liste de mariage, we didn't know where to begin. Turns out we weren't the only ones who found this to be a challenge: the marié's other témoin didn't know what to get either and actually ended up writing them a check. Money is always acceptable, apparently!

We woke up fairly early Saturday morning, after a short night's sleep, had breakfast at the hotel and rushed down the road to Orsennes, where the wedding was to take place. Or shall I say that my boy rushed me down the road?! We left with what seemed like plenty of time, but for some reason he was convinced we were going to be late, so he was furious at me for not being ready exactly when he wanted to leave, at 10:15. But the wedding was at 11:30, and he had told me the night before that the town was only about 20 minutes away from our hotel... If he wanted me to be ready sooner, why didn't he fib about the delay or the amount of time it would take? I figured allowing for an hour was plenty of time, but on this point we wholeheartedly disagreed. So I was a bit befuddled, to say the least. Granted, there was some traffic with the Saturday morning markets, but once we hit the backroads outside of Argenton, we were fine. We made it to Orsennes in just under a half an hour, at 11:00, with a half hour to spare. Of course, if catastrophe had struck and we had found ourselves stuck in traffic, there would have been hell to pay -- and I would have never heard the end of it! But thank goodness that wasn't the case...
He was in such a hurry that morning that I don't even think he shaved. Luckily for my boy, you can't really tell! That's the German blood in him, I think... As we climbed out of the car in Orsennes, I wondered if I shouldn't talk him into slipping into a nearby salle de bains to do a quick shave. But then I came to my senses. Heureusement. We didn't need any more quibbling. Details, details. When will I learn?

The typical French civil ceremony was brief but quite nice, nothing in particular to note. As my boy was a témoin, he played a central role in the process. And I don't think he's done this in a long time -- if ever -- so that was probably one of the reasons he was so nervous. But all went well, and the mariés came outside in a tiny shower of rice. We took our cars down the road to a picturesque point where everyone took photos overlooking the river Creuse. Afterwards we headed to a local hotel-restaurant where the reception was to be held, and the next few hours were spent gorging ourselves on wonderful food, wine and champagne. The restaurant overlooked La Creuse, and with the fabulous weather things just couldn't get any better. After a lovely salad with goat's cheese as our entrée, we savored our beef filet and then dug into an incredible dessert, a pavé au chocolat avec coulis à l'orange, as you can see above. This was incredible -- probably one of the best chocolate desserts I've had in a long time. And I can be pretty picky! If a fondant is too rich, or the texture isn't right, I'm often disappointed. But the texture of this delicacy was smooth, onctueux, chocolatey without being too rich. The perfect ending to the meal.

We lingered a bit and enjoyed the moment, the sunlight washing through the windows, and then rushed out to the waiting boat to take a tour of La Creuse... A really nice way to wrap up the festivities! Most of us were ready for a nap by then, so I dozed quite a bit while we made our way down the river, with fortifications on the banks, some rocky cliffs, and riverside campsites where families were settling in for their summer vacations. We saw a few boats, but not a whole lot -- maybe the bad weather of the previous weeks had scared people away. Either that or summer just hasn't fully set in yet.

But I spoke too soon with regard to the end of festivities -- in fact after the hour-and-a-half promenade, we got into our cars once again and drove around the area, briefly stopping to take in some local sites, including this castle, called the Château de Breuil-Yvain, as I later found out.

I took some exterior photos around the site; apparently the castle is privately owned, and people actually live there, so we couldn't visit the interior. We saw a young gal driving an impressive lawnmower around the grounds, and although I thought she might shoo us off the property, she didn't say anything. When we returned to Orsennes for the cocktail hour around 7:00, I noticed a poster in one of the local cafés and realized that it was indeed the same castle -- apparently they have plays, spectacles and other forms of entertainment there throughout the year. I wonder if they rent it out? Perhaps one can still attempt to rival the Parker-Longoria nuptials at Vaux-le-Vicomte...

The cocktail hour extended into a full-fledged dinner, to our surprise... Two wedding meals? Well, why not? We knew we were staying the night in the region, but this was still unexpected... More champagne, and then some of my favorite wine, an ice-cold Riesling -- I even asked Bernard if he had me in mind when he chose it! He knows full well how much I enjoy Alsacian whites. He winked and said bien sûr -- anything to make me happy! And what goes better with a dry Alsacian white but a stunning plateau de fruits de mer...? I focused on the shrimp at first, but then soon realized I had lost time and only managed to sneak in one langoustine, before devouring a few raw oysters (which my boy cracked open with a knife; I kept expecting oyster to splatter across the table) -- something I never enjoyed before living in France. The only disappointment I find in seafood platters here are those horrendous tourteaux -- what's the point? They look huge, but then when you break open the shell there's practically no "meat" inside... I don't know how those poor crabs carry around all that shell weight! Give me a Chesapeake Bay crab any day. I guess I really am a Maryland girl at heart.

Something that I really loved about the café-restaurant where we had dinner was the unique artwork on the walls, all pieces most likely donated by local artists. There were also murals on the walls themselves, and some great quotes, scribbled in large handwriting. It was a tiny, intimate, convivial setting, and if you ask me, there's no better way to enjoy a wedding meal and to share the moment with friends and family.** The quote above is from Paul Eluard, a late 19th-century, early 20th-century French poet, in his "Capitale de la douleur". Roughly translated: "The curve of your eyes embraces my heart..."

Friday, July 6, 2007

Déchirée, Paralysée

Wavering back and forth between so many emotions these days, I just don't even know how to begin to express what's going on in my head and my heart. I've tried to reserve this space here more for sharing events or activities in my life, or from to time some reflections of my own on said events... But these days, for some inexplicable reason, I can't seem to get it out there, put it down, understand why my insides are so jumbled and why I find myself an emotional yo-yo on a daily basis.

And I can't even concretely put any words to it all... That's why I guess I've been so absent in recent times. Not sure as to whether I should share what's going on inside of me, so frightened of coming across as ungrateful, obscure and neurotic. Although I guess that last word is pretty apt in my case. I wish I could express my feelings more eloquently, really hit the nail on the head with the right tournures, like some bloggers manage to do with such aplomb. But, unfortunately, I guess that's not my strength.

Last week I tried to chalk up all this emotional confusion and chaos to hormones, to the ups and downs of my monthly cycles, but I know that's not my only problem. I need some objective give-and-take, some exchange with someone outside of my own sphere of influence and some input as to how to go forward without spoiling the good things I really have going on, which really are there; I'm just having a hard time seeing them. I spend my time constantly trying to relativiser, putting things in perspective and telling myself that I am blessed and lucky in so many ways, but it's just not enough... I need some goals, something focused and clear to aim towards in the coming months. I need to reassess.

It's funny, because last Friday I had one of my euphoric moments, just after lunch, some retail therapy, some nice finds that momentarily cheered me up and brought me out of my funk. I even came back to my desk at work and thought, "You know what? I'm going to stop focusing on the negative, really see only the positive, look forward with a strong outlook, a great perspective. I'm going to stop being so pessimistic, so torn and paralyzed by fears."

But this didn't last very long. I'm not sure why. I even thought about how I was going to apply this positive outlook to my blog, share more of the good things going on in my life, and my reactions to other blogs I enjoy. And I still have that floating around in my mind now, but for some reason the need or desire has (temporarily, I hope) drifted away.

And so I find myself plagued by these erratic emotions, and I know a lot of it has to do with my feeling of stagnancy in my current situation, which I try not to dwell on here, or even to describe in any concrete manner. We all need goals, I guess, and although one of mine includes having a family, I think I'm also lacking a fulfilling goal in the here and now -- something I always had to guide me while I was a student. Perhaps that's why I've always jokingly said I was a better student than I am an adult in the real world, particularly professionally speaking.

It's on the days that I'm busiest, of course, that I don't have time to reflect too much on the negative, that I see things in a brighter light. When I can throw myself into cooking, and find that it fulfills me or gives me a sense of accomplishment, then I am okay, for a bit... Other days I escape into books or movies, music, and these distract me from the matters at hand, namely whether I will ever have a true focus in life, an actual career. I've always hated that question, when you first meet someone, as to what you actually do "for a living", rather than who you are. I hate that we must be defined by how we spend our times in an office all day long, or in the case of those who work from home, what we do with our time in front of a computer. I've always hated that people don't want to know more about what makes us who we are, what makes us tick, our background and upbringing, our interests, passions, preoccupations... This is something that has followed me, haunted me, for years. When meeting someone new, if his/her first question is what I do for a living, this turns me off, and I'm sorry to say that I will often write this person off, not dig any further myself, because it's a bad sign as to what that person really wants to know or wants to share about life in general. I'd much rather be asked about my loves, my passions, how I spend my time...

And maybe this is because, inherently, I lack that all-important focus. Yet I have so many interests -- that's probably my biggest problem! So many interests, no single, solid strength to carry them all into a worthwhile profession. Or none that seems clear to me at the moment (or has seemed clear in quite some time). I've considered teaching English over the years, I even tried it for a time. Not for me. (In fact, given my love for French, I'd probably be a much better French teacher. But try teaching French in France as a foreigner... The eternal catch-22...) I've worked in various different sectors, with varying professionals, and I don't think the corporate world is for me either. Private sector, public sector... UGH. In fact, I'm probably an artist at heart, lost at sea, trying to find a way to put my actual passions to work for me constructively. But I've never found that specific path, and part of my problem is perhaps that I haven't looked for it hard enough. All I've ever known, for years and years, is that I love French -- the language, the culture, the civilization... And I know I'm not alone in this; it's perfectly unoriginal. And whereas many of my friends and peers, both in my personal sphere and in the blogging world, came to France to be with the one they love, following them in the building of a life here, I came here, first and foremost, because this was where I wanted to live. It was my dream, in fact, to live and love in France. And I did find some love along the way; in fact, I've probably been most distracted and diverted by my love affairs over the years more than anything else. They have, in their own way, kept me from finding that particular vision, that sparkle, that single element that would help to define me as a unique individual, a person in my own right. Because I've felt that I've had so much love to give, and I've ached for so much love in return.

I know I love children, I love children's literature, I love many forms of art and music, particularly all those attached to France and French culture. But I've never found the perfect "professional" outlet for these interests. And the one time that I may have been close to finding that outlet, the circumstances were miserable (keeping me awake at night, giving me nightmares) and not motivating enough to keep me there. So now I float adrift, mucking my way through my days, métro-boulot-dodo, praying that this won't last forever, but not knowing whether to change directions, to start over again, to continue to plug away and hope for a change brought about by fate, or to turn things upside down and take new risks with regard to my current situation... and outlook. And not even knowing how to do that. Asking myself so many questions. I seem incapable of just living in the moment. Preoccupied by the possibilities and options, but not being able to act on them.

Torn, paralyzed.