Friday, May 30, 2008

Yaourt Citron

I spent a significant portion of 6th grade lunch devoted to lemon yogurt.

In my on-going quest to convince my parents that I wanted to be a vegetarian (it started in 3rd grade when Liza and I gave up bologna and hot dogs after my dad warned us of what was hiding inside), I won the battle that yogurt could constitute the main part of my lunch. As much as I had loved roast beef on marble rye with mustard, lemon yogurt was a relief. It was different. It was tangy and comforting as I transitioned into those lonely middle school years.

One day at the Pompidou cafe, I was attempting to use one of Liam's cheques de restaurant to purchase cookies and tea when I spotted this yogurt.

Something about the glass container, the pieces of lemon rind, the salted butter short breads in between spoonfuls and sips of Earl Grey did it for me. It was my new favorite snack.

Devotion to Lemon Yogurt: Part II. Except it's citron yaourt not Dannon Lemon, and the setting is usually a Parisian apartment, not the left-side of the Herberg Middle School cafeteria.

It's this kind of snack that gets me through the waiting for the package. The snack that keeps me calm when Liam's birth certificate arrives from Rhode Island with an apostille attached while my mom drives across Massachusetts secure mine and then drops a small fortune to return it to me by Monday (in order for me to get it to the translator to have it back by the end of the week to give the paperwork to City Hall to wait 10 days for our intent to marry to be public and then, only then, can we set a date).

This kind of snack makes me glad to be here, almost makes me sad to leave.

Last night, as we stood in line to see Sex and The City: Le Film, an American behind us interrupted to ask if we were also in line for it, "the movie starts at 7pm and it's 6:55 and we're still in line!" I re-assured her that this was normal, "this is how they do it" I responded confidently as she wondered aloud when she'll get her popcorn.

It was not lost on me that with less than a month before I depart, on a day I'm fully appreciating small pleasures like yogurt, that I would find myself in a "this is how they do ..." conversation.

I'm not sure that I ever figured out how to make it through middle school, but I'm just figuring it out how to make through living abroad. At least that's what I tell myself.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


For nearly 24 hours I have been in my apartment. No, I didn't poison myself again, and I don't have a cold, I'm just waiting for a package. I gave the person in the US my door code. He didn't include it. The package shows up yesterday with a delivery date of January 1, 1900. I call 4 numbers, 3 in the US to get 1 in France, and give the French operator my door code.

I wait all morning. I invite my writing group for homemade chai and halva rather than risk missing it while at a cafe. I make one girl sit here while I run out to the store to buy milk so that I'm not leaving my door code'd apartment unattended. When I return, a man rings and I let him in. Oil-covered hands with a blue jacket, he says he's here to look at my pipes. In the kitchen. I say, "Pardon, what? " "what?" and then in English, "I will call my landlord. Thank you" and shut the door.

I have friends who have told me this is a scam, but I have no idea if this is true, but he's not my package.

The girls leave at 12:30. I check the status. At 10:20 they tried to deliver it. No code.

I yell at an operator who doesn't speak English, and then at one who does. Do I have to continue to sit here all day I ask? He assures me it's now 'at a special level' which includes a request for re-delivery. 'But I gave you the door code yesterday!' I shout. He assures me this is the right level.

I call Liam to complain, and he's at the Office Depot to 'overnight' my $90 birth certificate to my mom so she can get in her Batmobile and whizz away to Boston in order to pay another $6 to get an Apostille. The signature that verifies the signature. Then she'll send it back to me.

How many times do I need to prove my birth? a new ex-pat asks the other night.

Now I'm asking, how many times do I need to prove the proof?

Liam tells me it will cost 100 euros to send it, and for reasons too boring to go into, this needs to go on the American credit card. While I'm waiting, I'll let you do the math.

Waiting. All day. And maybe tomorrow. Sometimes I can wait: stirring polenta straight for 45 minutes, roasting leeks and spring onions and carrots for stock, fresh ricotta dripping or whole wheat honey bread rising, the anticipation of opening a spring matcha chocolate from Aoki.

Yes, to answer our friends and families questions, we CAN wait to get married, but we want to do it now, and in Paris.

Of course, I have other things to do while I wait for this package for my new job: spreadsheets for moving budgets and packing up art supplies and rolling up maps into travel rolls and devising ways to cook 1/4 c lentils with 1/8 c azuki beans and figuring out a plan for my spice cabinet.

I guess it all depends on what we're waiting for.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I made halva this week for the first time. Took three tree-length stalks of rhubarbe and stewed them in a sour dal served with peppered fry breads. We hosted friends for dinner and served up our favorite dishes from Greece: favas, spicy feta dip, a whole roasted fish with coriander, lentil salad, asparagus with mint. It was a mostly normal week for us.

Except that we've decided to get married. And move to New York. And so, one of these 'normal' days this week I found myself with two pieces of paper certifying to my celibitaire status from the US Embassy sitting in my purse while I sipped the above tea, a favorite mint one by a favorite market. The market near the apartment we lived in our first two weeks here.

I write this looking out my wide-open windows and the sound of construction down the street that has preceded us and will go on without us just the same. I write this with a new to-do list of papers to get together to get married here: birth certificates certified by Massachusetts and translated to French, our rental agreement, proof of our renter's insurance, Liam's livre de famille, all of this for our city hall to publish notice of our intent to marry in order for anyone who wants to to object.

Assuming no one does, they let us set a date.

We're hoping for just the two of us, some oui oui's and then an outrageously expensive French cake to celebrate along with some champagne before I head back to the US first - with my two suitcases of belongings - to a dorm room for the summer.


But I like this week of normalcy, of feeling like we finally do live here, of running down to the English-language book store to pick up a new Parisian eats book, hauling my winter coats to 5aSec to clean before I pack them, spilling chipotle all over the counter and then having the morning to clean it all up.

"This will be an intense transition back to normalcy!" a friend here writes, a friend who was joking last week that here in Paris we are all these shells of our American professional selves. I'm clicking boxes for people interested in teaching, but leaving here to be a Founding Principal at a new school for under resourced students in Brooklyn. She's a Physical Therapist but nannying for less then 20 euros a week. Everyone we know living a life of leisure, but yearning for the routine that our lives that we complained about in the US gave us.

It will be normal, in the next few weeks, to enjoy cups of tea and subsist on my still-lacking French. To pack up everything we have, again, and tote it on a plane and a taxi and a train. To decide that getting married and moving abroad, again, are just normal things for us in the span of a few weeks.


Monday, May 19, 2008

"What's hard for Americans to realize in France ..."

Liam and I whisked through the Marche Bastille yesterday, looking for spring produce for Sunday dinner. We found sticks of rhubarb a meter long, our weekly eggs fresh out of the nest and white asparagus for 7.50 euro a bunch (pictured) that I insisted we get, "this is the kind of thing you can only get in France!"

Adjusting to living here has come in bits and pieces. I spent most of the winter saddened at the loss of chiles and corn and cupcakes and much of the spring yearning for our CSA box and an end to the rain.

After my recent trip to New York, I returned a bit more calm, a bit more adjusted. I don't think it's just the prospect of moving back, or the comfort even that I have now with two job offers in my pocket, but also the idea that one thing I had to realize about living here is that it's temporary, so many times to say "we can only do this in France!"

So I was saddened today to be interrupted as my writing group and I sat drinking cremes in a cafe at the tip of ile St. Louis, giggling over life changes and exploring issues of genocide and questioning whether the protagonist of a yet-to-be-published-novel would ever catch his Moby Cat.

Three American girls sitting in a corner, appreciating our walk over the Seine to this place, acknowledging the beauty of a sunny May day where we can review each other's work and give feedback and determine the best place nearby to get a French lunch, when an American man approaches us.

We'd noticed them, other Americans. In fact, the cafe was full of us this morning, appreciating the tops of Notre Dame sneaking outside of our horizon while we sipped our boissons. We had even shared that we are sometimes embarrassed as we heard a woman next to us ordering more and more loudly in order to make her herbal tea order heard.

So when this man approached us with a good morning, a small bow, "it's a beautiful day" - there was a collective pause.

"I need to share something with you ladies. The thing that we Americans don't notice is how loud we talk," he began, "in France you will notice that Parisians are very quiet, it's just something you come to learn...... " He went on for a minute while my adrenaline and anger battled each other as I tried to think of something to say.

"Are we bothering you?" Andrea asked incredulously, since we were tables and tables away from any other patron.

"Oh no," he backtracked, "but in a place like this your American voices can really carry. Anyway, thank you for taking time to listen to me. Enjoy your day." Another bow.

"It's internalized anti-Americanism!" Emily said, wanting to shout all the ways she's confronted the American stereotypes in her two years here.

"It's historical," Andrea countered, sharing the theory of space.

"He's just insecure," I added, "he's trying to let us little ladies know how to be more parisienne!"

We were determined to continue to sip our cremes and set up a date for next week, hoping someone might stop by and offer us another reprimand, now that we'd written out our responses, our angers, our ability to articulate what is really hard for Americans to realize in France.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Le Diner Etrange

Only in Paris, with a group of French people expected at a dinner themed Le Diner Etrange would the first thoughts of what to cook be peppered, excuse the pun, with the ingredients above.

Chili. Strange to French. Espresso Chili. Strange to the few Americans.
Chiles. A heavy hand with both the whole ones from Passage Brady and the flakes from Istanbul and homemade chili powder.
Spicy Hot Chocolate with the Mayan Chocolate from San Sebastian.
Donuts. Savory ones. Sprinkled in paprika. Sel de cannelle. Fleur de sel.

The strangest event of the day was the 80F temperature while I cooked kidney beans for hours and then melted chocolate into milk before steeping it with some cinnamon and more chile.

What am I doing?
I emailed Dana , why am I cooking these spicy things as I sweat in my 5th floor apartment?

How can I make jello shots out of sheet gelatin? Dana replied, and thus the collaboration of 2 American girls feeding a table of French people strange food began.

I served up fat bowls of the chile, which after cooking all day had the creaminess of mole ("it's a savory dish with chocolate!" I'm later explaining, with the help of the lone Chilean, to a Frenchman. "Chocolat?" he clarifes. 5 times. Then asks for exactly what I mean by the fact that there is espresso in the chili.).

I watched as people picked, very politely, bean by bean, mixing in the creme fraiche as their last hope - "there's more creme!" I offer, but they all assure me they love this chili, before putting it down and blowing their noses.

We 2 American girls and mostly-American Liam have cleaned our bowls and are salivating over the others'.

Dana cooked up amazing broiled shark and a watermelon and feta salad and people picked at the Lemondrop Jello-shots.

I spent a long time re-heating hot chocolate spilled so many times in transit that I was relieved to see Dana pull out shot glasses to serve it with fruit and donuts that failed miserably. Gourgeres. Sans fromage et avec sel de canelle.

"These are quite wet in the middle," a Frenchman cautioned me, "they should be more dry."

I attempted to explain how I didn't know how to use Dana's oven, how the hot chocolate had spilled on the parchment in my bag, and then I dropped it, winking my eye to say .. ."etrange? eh?"

Friday, May 16, 2008

Favas and Other Santorini Specialities

Greek favas are not the painstaking cloudy-sheathed green ones, nor their dried counterpart fatter than thumbnails. These favas are tiny, like moong dal if not actually moong dal: yellow and referred to by many Greeks as chickpeas.

I had been fooled by this faux ami week before in Brooklyn, ordering favas with cilnatro and imagining a pile of green filled with vitamins after a week of whole wheat crackers and camomile tea (all my belly could handle), and here I was again with a hummus-like dip in front of me.

And damn was it good.

We had favas at nearly every stop. Whipped up into a near-soapy mess at Captain Dmitri's and drenched in olive oil, above, at our fabulous hotel Ikies.

After a trip to the lighthouse and pictures on a crumbling-into-the-sea-quickly cliff, we stopped at a road side stand. The woman piled small plates high with capers, caper leaves, olives, and honey. She gave us tiny glasses of regional sweet wine and then a taste of the dry. She pointed out the gorgeous gems of canned produce - tomatoes, caper leaves, grapes, olives - all from the farm behind her, and I tried to explain in my slowest English that we just had carry-on bags. This was lost on her, but we left with a self-corked bottle that came straight from a blue barrel and a bag of favas still with the stones in them.

"You boil ..." she started, as Liam paid out the 6 euros for this bag, "4 of water, 1 of fava" she continues with the other necessary ingredients "2 of oil" (pointing at our shot glasses sticky with wine residue), "not garlic, you scrape" and we offer onion, which she agrees to ... "yes," she concludes, "yes, that's it."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Athens: Alatsi

On Sunday, I sat in Blackbird Parlour watching the hipsters roll by in Williamsburg, reading the Sunday Times with Emily, when I came to 36 Hours in Athens. How bougie is my life that I could say, "hey, I'm going to be there on Thursday!" and so Liam and I found ourselves just a few days later (with lengthy travel back to Paris in between) walking into Alatsi.

I was ready to order whatever the most Rustic Crete cuisine there. Cheese Fries. Except - they're not cheese fries, but rather, potatoes with staka - described by the waiter as 'full of cholesterol' but research shows is either a 'cooked goat butter' or a roux with clarified butter. It was good - like the lightest heaviest cheese fries you could imagine.

We paired this with a salad that he warned had bitter greens but also had pomegranate, candied quince and aged balsamic. [Unfortunately, our bread/oil/olives never came ..]

For dinner Liam and I both had pasta, since we had just gorged on a mezze plate at a cafe overlooking Athens where we witnessed a tourist cut open a water bottle to put her remainders in only to be stopped by the waiters who offered her foil to no avail.

The pasta was fresh made - Liam's was boiled in 'lamb juice' and mine had mostly pine nuts. It was good, not as great as staka but I don't think we did the best ordering here.

We saved room for our first Greek dessert, if you don't count the vacuum-packed baklava on our Olympic Airlines flight: loukoumathes, the donut puffs fried and soaked in sesame and honey and then some semolina halva that was covered in rose petal ice cream and sprinkled with lavender blossoms and closed with a cup of Cretan herb tea.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Macaroni and Cheese Diaries

I first ate Annie's at Liza's house, I'm sure of it. I didn't tell her this when we met for Thai food in Union Square with two purple boxes in my new tote for the return trip home, but when I made it today with French milk, French butter, French kitchen, I thought about my first time.

For three days in a row in New York City, I had macaroni and cheese. Tuesday I found myself between two interviews, waiting to meet Liza, so I took myself to Whole Foods and ate in the 'picnic area' a mediocre version made with my least favorite pasta, bowties. Wednesday I was there again, between more interviews, microwaving Amy's version in the picnic area along with a hefty dose of salad bar. Thursday, in Crown Heights all day for another interview, I imagined iceberg lettuce salads in my vegetarian future but alas, one of the interviewers was coming from Whole Foods and brought along a little 'cake' of mac and cheese that I microwaved straight away in its plastic container in the teacher's room, with a falafel salad on the side.

One night I ate just refried black beans with jack and blue corn chips, another night I was so exhausted it was a few ak-mak crackers and some tea before bed. There were no cupcakes, but in the days I found myself at WF, I also was able to go to the Greenmarket, where I proceeded to try nearly every version of apple cider donut and at a maple stand: syrup, cream and candies.

I'm sure the New Yorkers are tired of apples in May in between a few ramps and sappy slabs of cedar, but I was thrilled with it all - only saddened that I had nowhere to bring great bunches of apple blossoms, dogwood or cherry.

I did pick up a travel mug though, and after I filled it with a japanese green after my picnic, I sat against a chain link fence and soaked up the sun, trying to focus before another interview.