life lately: liminality & key lime pie

We celebrated my birthday this week, with steak and roquefort butter and key lime pie. It made me pensive, as milestones tend to do, and specifically I was remembering two years ago, when I turned 25 and was six and a half months pregnant. My growing belly broadcast a reality that I couldn’t fathom. I was someone’s mother.

Clara didn’t have a name. We’d made the choice not to learn the sex of our baby, for the surprise of it, which meant she was “the baby,” a big question mark. The birth loomed off in the unknowable future and I viewed it with dread and disbelief. Motherhood was great and beautiful in theory, and I loved kids and was a big supporter of having them.

In theory.

In reality, the liminal stage between post-grad and parent was painful. It looked like fear and regret, blood tests and vomiting, loneliness and scrolls through reddit pregnancy forums.

This birthday, 27, I am five months pregnant with a boy. We’ve named him Silas James. The future is uncertain as ever but the emotions surrounding this pregnancy (always a liminal stage in itself) couldn’t be more different. We don’t have to make the major leap from not parents to parents. We love this baby already, in a way that’s not merely theoretical or supposed. The familiarity of the process is comforting. What’s more, on good days or bad days or any day, there’s a funny, cuddly, almost-two-year-old to snuggle with.

At the bords du Saône in Villefranche
Clara looking for ducks and swans
Chilly and windy but I’m pretending it isn’t

In other news, the country continues to observe le confinement. Most shops and all restaurants are closed, and there is a 7pm curfew and 10km distance restriction (preventing us from going to Lyon, which is disappointing). But happily, it was announced last month that Villefranche is one of the most dynamique cities of its size despite the lockdowns and restrictions. Villefranche has retained 83% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic. In this brief reportage, people cite the convenience of having a kilometer-long main street and good relationships with businesses as some of the reasons why Villefranche has continued to thrive. We love living right on Rue Nationale; it’s one of the reasons we decided to take the leap and buy our apartment. Of course, now that stores have been closed again for several weeks at the time of this writing, the dynamism of the downtown has definitely taken a hit.

Street between home & the grocery

As always, I’m cooking a lot and appreciating the fact that we have neighbors with whom to share meals or a drink at a moment’s notice (both easily and legally). Last month we met Catriona, the latest addition to our English-speaking island. She’s an Irish college student living and teaching in Villefranche for the school year, and I admire her grit for sticking out her assignment, school closures and all. We joke that she’s Clara’s best friend because Clara was instantly at ease around her and lights up whenever she’s here.

I’ve been visiting the local market regularly and paying attention to seasonality. Perfect Gariguette strawberries are as sweet as candy and will cheer you on the gloomiest day. Last week I bought my first poulet fermier, a chicken straight from the farm. The butcher lopped off its head and feet with a cleaver and asked if I wanted to keep them or the organs. I declined. I need a French grandma to teach me what to do with them. I slathered the chicken with Caesar dressing and roasted it, then served with lettuce and fresh baguette croutons. Highly recommend.

A few other highlights over the past few months of cooking:

Paprika. This five-dollar app is life-changing. In one streamlined platform you can plan your meals, keep your grocery lists, and, my favorite part, save all your favorite recipes. The app pulls the recipes from the web in a matter of seconds, and you can update them with your own notes. I find it’s great for concentration to be able to cook from my phone without ads flashing and videos playing. I’ve also noticed that I’ve become a more streamlined, efficient cook and shopper thanks to the app. No more wasted trips to the store. I get all my groceries on foot, so I really appreciate this.

Instant Pot carnitas. The instant pot was a birthday present (thanks grandma!) and I’ve just proved I can use it without any explosions. Juicy and quick-cooking, these carnitas outdid my favorite recipe of three years.

Key lime pie. Especially when pregnant, I crave all things sour and citrusy, and have been dreaming about making this pie for the past month as a birthday treat. Alison Roman’s recipe from Dining In didn’t disappoint. It is supremely tangy, with a crunchy, salty crust made with coconut oil and graham crackers (I used McVitie’s, easier to find here). It was a timely pie to make as Victor had already planned to give me an electric citrus juicer and I was able to squeeze every drop from the limes. We start every morning now with orange/blood orange juice, so much cheaper than the jus d’orange pressé from the boulangerie and absolutely luscious.

Chorizo pasta takes just a handful of ingredients and has crazy flavor. I add several handfuls of greens like spinach or broccoli rabe to the sauce.

Alison Roman’s eggplant parmesan is worth doubling. I made this twice in one week.

Baked camembert. In 20 minutes you have a delightful treat that makes a random weekday lunch special. We like drizzling olive oil, honey, and thyme on top.

Clara is proving to be a delightful toddler. In the past few months we’ve taken her on picnics, hikes, to a farm, and on her first Easter egg hunt. Chick basket in hand, she toddled around the park collecting eggs that we’d grab out of her basket and hide again when she wasn’t looking.

We’ve seen Clara’s comprehension of words and routines grow greatly over the past few months. I’ve really enjoyed watching our family pidgin language develop. No one on the outside would understand it, but in our family, “two” means “more,” and to signal it, you hold up one finger.

Clara is eager to help us with whatever we’re doing, and I’ve read recently that it is precisely this tendency that you want to encourage in order to have a pleasant, easy-to-live-with child.

For decades, scientists have documented a surprising phenomenon: In many cultures around the world, parents don’t struggle to raise helpful, kind kids. From ages 2 to 18, kids want to help their families. They wake up in the morning and voluntarily do the dishes. They hop off their bikes to help their dad carry groceries into the house. And when somebody hands them a muffin, they share it with a younger sibling before taking a bite themselves.

You can find kids like this in a huge range of cultures, scientists have documented: from hunter-gatherers in the Arctic to farmers in the Andes, from pastoralists in Kenya’s savanna to fisherfolk in the Philippines.

I realized there are two key practices that parents all around the world use to teach children to be helpful and cooperative. And yet many American parents (including the one writing this essay) often do just the opposite.


Are We Raising Unhelpful, Bossy Kids? Here’s The Fix –Michaeleen Doucleff

When I happened upon this article, I realized that we were already doing what the author recommends, but there wasn’t anything particularly intentional about it. Reading this encouraged me to add more ‘subtasks’ into an average day and to encourage Clara’s efforts to help. She used to reach into the dishwasher and hand me a spoon to put away, and now, a month later, she helps me unload everything (after I quickly remove any knives). She can fetch her own bowl and bib, and get the cat a treat. She also helps me unpack the groceries, item by item, and in some fashion, she helps fold the laundry. She helps her dad “paint” and goes with him to the boulangerie, where she hands over the coin in exchange for a baguette. I’m thrilled that helping us is (at least right now) as fun for her as any toy.

Entertainment-wise, two things have stood out lately. I’m still thinking about psychological thriller “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” by far the most original and interesting film I’ve seen all year, from the director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It’s one of the most true-to-life portrayals of a person’s interior life that I can remember seeing.

I raced through the book “What She Ate” by Laura Shapiro, which looks at the lives of six famous/infamous women in history through the lens of their relationships with food. What did they like to eat? Who did they cook for? The book gives an insight into Eleanor Roosevelt’s frosty marriage and young Eva Braun’s relationship with Hitler, among many topics.

Last thing, for now. Another seemingly-endless liminal stage has come to a close: the renovations of our top floor. Four months of Victor’s blood, sweat, and tears went into this and we are celebrating! I am writing this from my new perch: a sunny window seat just long enough to stretch out in. Meanwhile, Clara pads across the pretty new parquet as fast as her feet can carry her. Thanks to yesterday’s installation of a baby gate up here, we are both tranquille.

life lately:inching towards spring

the ducks of Parc de la Tête d’Or

We’ve been blessed lately by a spate of sunny days that make it hard to remember what I was complaining about a month ago. (There’s a lesson in there somewhere.) Things are changing color, trees display their first tentative buds. The days quietly stretch out, waking from winter slumber.

The world feels full of possibilities, hope, renewal. The city might burst into song like a musical. Nevertheless, the 6 pm curfew still stands, as do the tired limitations: no places to gather. Nowhere to go for coffee or cocktails or a meal. We’ve had little in the way of updates about what’s to come. We joke that they (the powers that be) have simply forgotten about us. Jean-Michel, you did tell them the curfew ended two weeks ago? Euh

The bright side of all this is the renaissance it encourages, that of good old-fashioned hospitality. Coffee and cake in a cozy living room instead of the middle of town. An all-evening apéro with the next-door neighbors. And picnics, a joyous mess for the toddler and parent alike. Eat with your hands: chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles and foil-wrapped focaccia sandwiches still warm from the oven. Crumbs tossed to ducks.

This was our weekend, and it was perfect.

Otherwise this month we’ve gotten outside as much as possible, even on the really chilly days. We’ve hiked in forests and on paths I don’t know the names of. We just jumped in the car and drove into the hills of the Beaujolais, stopping at trailheads and when we saw cows close up. We have an old-school running stroller given to us by Victor’s parents. It can handle anything. (Though Clara is wanting to walk by herself these days.)

Walks with Kelly & Clara in Villefranche

To warm up back at home, we would bake. My mom said it was the right time to let Clara help, and she was right. She can stir with a whisk or wooden spoon, pour pre-measured ingredients, and test the batter. In addition to huge, floury messes, we made: pear muffins, banana muffins, a Dutch baby, Trader Joe’s pumpkin cookies from a mix I brought back in my suitcase, and Alison Roman’s Tiny Salty Chocolaty Cookies (the stuff of dreams).

I hope all this activity will help inspire in Clara an appreciation of food and the art of getting it on the table. I think it’s working, because already I’ve noticed things disappearing from my kitchen and popping up in hers (a bag of Korean chili flakes, an orange, an onion, the spoon that goes with the rice). The other day I noticed her trying to hack into a real apple with the wooden play knife that came with her “pink retro kitchen set.”

In other news, I completed what should be my last administrative task (as relates to living in France) for a long, long while. It was simple–a change of address on my carte de séjour, but still required a trip to the préfecture in Lyon and an hour-long wait in a packed room. After that, we couldn’t do much in the city for fear of curfew issues, but we did manage to visit Supermarché Asie in Lyon and stock up on things like tamarind paste, Shaoxing wine, fish sauce, and many kinds of noodles. I found everything I need to make several restaurant favorites at home. I’m loving the blog Woks of Life and in particular, the recipes for Pad thai, bibimbap, drunken noodles, and sesame chicken. They also have a great article on how to stock your pantry specifically for Chinese cooking.

Our renovation project is coming along. It helped to have two weeks of professional help with the floors. There were a few days where seven guys worked together on the project, which seemed so extreme we joked the Seven Dwarfs were doing our renovation. I can’t wait to keep showing this place some badly-needed love and see what it turns into. Here are Victor and Clara at a flooring store, negotiating parquet prices. You can see she’s really part of it. She leaned forward on her papa’s lap, hands clasped, and occasionally shouted no! or au revoir! at the employee. A tough customer.

Better go chase some daffodils. Until next time!

life lately: cruel January

January is the cruelest month. In every place I’ve ever lived, even the South of France, it is bleak. It is the color gray. It is lassitude and chapped hands, seasonal depression and teeth-chattering chill. I wish we could skip it altogether.

In France we are currently under a strict 6 pm curfew. This would feel utterly strange if there was anywhere to go, anything to do. If it wasn’t freezing cold and dark by 5:30. If we didn’t have a toddler who went to bed at about that time anyway. As it is, we just have to make sure we are on the road in time when visiting friends in Lyon, and vice-versa.

I’m dreaming of sunnier days. But I suppose the anticipation is part of what makes those days so sweet. It’s not all bad anyway. Here’s what we’ve been up to:

January is packed with family birthdays. Victor turned 31 this year and we celebrated with friends, toddlers, tres leches cake, and a big pot of carnitas. I gifted him a board game–Imaginarium–that, two weeks later, we are still trying to figure out how to play. This may become the family fruitcake. In any case, we live right next to a board game shop (really popular in France) and I sense a full and thriving game cabinet in our future.

Vic’s 31st birthday

The covered market is a short walk from our home. Open six days a week, it’s a nice winter outing. It’s loud and jovial and there’s plenty for babies to look at. It has taken me years to find my footing at a French market. Can I touch that or do I have to ask? Quatre-vingt-what? How do you say pomegranate? I never had any idea what something should cost or how many grams I needed. I was a market wallflower, stopping only for something simple and inconspicuous: a carton of eggs, a kilo of nectarines. Today I can hold my own, follow my list without giving up and slinking away in shyness. My favorite non-produce stand–so far at least–is the place selling farm-fresh crottin de chèvre, small round goat cheeses that are sorted by color, from bright-white to ash-colored, depending on age. I can never remember which one we like the best so I gesture at a cheese and let it fall to chance. We are never disappointed. You have to hack into the dry ones with your sharpest knife, but they melt in your mouth, luscious as butter.

Saturday night it snowed (for the first time, finally!) and Sunday when I made my way to the market I noticed that everyone (and their dog) was slipping and sliding all over the sidewalks. The thing to do was to adopt a cautious, lurching penguin-walk so as not to fall on your face. This made me feel a sense of camaraderie with my fellow pedestrian–and also cracked me up.

Slippery snow leading up to the Hôtel de Ville

We started (and finished) watching French crime drama Lupin. It’s a retelling of a classic French story featuring the talented Omar Sy. It is something you’ll want to race through and it brings up some interesting ethical questions to chew on.

I’ve been making a lot of Israeli, Palestinian, and Tunisian food. So much so that we keep running out of harissa. Some favorites lately:

Lablabi: chickpeas in a thin broth spiked with harissa and toasted cumin. You fry cubes of bread in oil (we like sourdough) and spoon the soup over. You can top it with poached eggs, cilantro, green olives. I use this recipe.

Lablabi

Hummus and baba ghanoush. There are so many ways to make hummus, but our personal favorite comes from Adeena Sussman’s brilliant cookbook Sababa. It includes more tahini than chickpeas and a teaspoon of citric acid instead of lemon. She calls it Magical Hummus both because it’s wonderful and because it hails from HaKosem (“The Magician”), a restaurant in Tel-Aviv. Sababa was my Christmas present last year and it has brightened up two winters so far. Flipping through this book never fails to lift my mood–no exaggeration! If you’re needing a little sun, I highly suggest getting your hands on a copy. Make the triple-ginger persimmon loaf or the salted lemon spread (or the sesame chicken schnitzel or the falafel or…).

Palestinian roast chicken and green beans with olive oil and tomatos from Yasmin Khan’s book Zaitoun, another favorite. Zaitoun is full of accessible, quick-to-put-together recipes and interesting stories about people and places.

On a similar theme, on Sunday Victor and I spent a few hours making challah, the Jewish braided bread. It was a fun project, though our braiding technique needs work. We used this video to guide us through. The next morning I made it into French toast with blood oranges and crème fraîche.

Pain perdu with oranges
Zaitoun & Sababa

We have the coolest neighbors. Kelly and I both love baking and speaking English (she’s a teacher in training). Instant friends. We spent a long afternoon baking and decorating gingerbread houses in December (when travel restrictions still prevented us from venturing much further than the grocery store). It is incredibly cozy and handy to have friends in your own building. A real blessing.

A new neighbor moved in just a few weeks ago, and…he’s also an English teacher! What are the chances? I don’t mind speaking French at all but this little anglophone island we’ve created makes me feel even more at home here. He and Victor have a lot in common and I sense a lot of apéros in our future. Every now and then we drop our cat Jojo off at his house for a playdate with his kids, to their mutual delight.

Two cozy rituals: making chicken stock and lighting a fire. There were many surprises (both delightful and bizarre) that we noticed when we visited our apartment for the first time back in May. One of the delightful ones: a mammoth wood-burning stove. It’s able to heat our entire home. Sitting in front of the fire with a magazine while aromatic chicken stock bubbles away on the stove? There’s nothing cozier.

Audiobooks and podcasts are my constant companions in the work of the home, in laundry-folding and dishwashing. I like apologetics podcasts such as Unbelievable? from England, in which Christians and atheists/skeptics debate all manner of topics. My latest audiobook to recommend is Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness. Short stories that surprise, startle, and stick in your head (for years, probably). In hard copy, I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since high school, for the first time voluntarily. Really enjoying it.

Our home is now full of cute things, which is a bonus to having a baby. Our living room is probably a mess, but it’s a very sweet, colorful mess. You might have to step over an array of crocheted vegetables, a family of tiny velvet animals, or a fingernail-sized pair of high heels belonging to a bunny. We have a toy French press, toaster, sports car, grand piano… even so, one of Clara’s favorite things to spend time doing is reading (you know I’m happy). She puts dozens of her books on the floor and sits atop the pile to read, like a dragon guarding its gold. Our collection of Petit Ours Brun books is growing thanks to Clara’s Mamie. Victor’s mom kept all his old books, most of them featuring this lovable, ornery bear cub. We have them now, many marked with VICTOR: Christmas ’91 or something similar. Clara gets to watch the show too (it’s the only thing she watches, the only show she knows exists). When the theme song plays she twirls and claps like it’s the grooviest thing she’s ever heard.

Vintage Petit Ours Brun
Crocheted veggies made by Clara’s great-aunt

Clara’s patois brings a lot of joy and laughter to all. What you understand her to say will depend on your native language–you’ll hear either voilà! or all done! Is that alors or hello? Not even her mother knows for sure. She interacts with strangers much more readily than six months ago. Ah vwa! she hollers from her stroller as she hears me trade goodbyes with the pharmacist, butcher, or grocer. She and Jojo have a sibling relationship, which we think is good for Clara. It ranges from her giving him a spontaneous kiss to shouting his name in a tattletale voice–see? Very typical. They’re both napping right now. He takes the rocking chair, she’s got the crib.

Clara gets mail from Grandma, so much that she’s learned the word. “Maa!” she cries, when I surprise her with a puffy envelope. “Maa!” My mom has developed a great hack with international shipping costs: turns out a standard letter-size envelope can deliver all sorts of surprises beyond just a greeting card. Clara has unwrapped CDs, colorful socks, a tiny tote bag, paper snowflakes, a velvet stocking, a Curious George book, and handmade toddler-sized pot holders.

Playing with Calico Critters

Victor has been working on our apartment. The upstairs is hurting for renovation, so Victor has been tearing out old floors and knocking down walls for almost two months now, in addition to his day job. His work ethic is amazing. It’s long, hard, dusty, noisy, frustrating physical labor. It’s difficult to imagine the space as clean and fresh and beautiful, like we’d like it to be. But–just like January, it will end. Spring is coming.

Us on New Year’s Day

if walls could talk

We can hear the bells from our living room. Every time they ring I get a tiny thrill. I glance outside at the pigeons and red clay rooftops and just for a second, it’s another era. It’s time travel (no sacrifice of electricity or indoor plumbing required). Our oldest, grandest neighbor, the collegiate church Notre-Dame-des-Marais of Villefranche-sur-Saône began to take shape in the 13th century.

I’ve visited many impressive cathedrals in many European cities, but I’ve only visited, that’s the thing. This one, in the town where we’ve purchased a home and committed to stay, feels personal. Ours. It’s what I see on my way to our favorite boulangerie, on the way back from Monoprix, when leaving the library, when taking Clara to the playground that’s practically in the church’s shadow. It’s a neighbor, a friend; it’s what makes Villefranche look like Villefranche.

Most probably, it will remain here long after we’re gone. Such a strange, lonely thought. It’s almost as if we are the characters in the church’s drama, and not the other way around. Made by men, yet this place will outlast us all.

We are small in its shadow. I have to crane my neck, up, up, to take in the spire. How indifferent the church seems. How above it all. How outside the cares and constraints of time.

Look how it has loomed here in times of plenty and times of paucity. It has seen horses trot down the cobbled streets and much, much later, twentieth-century trains whistling down the length of the Rue Nationale. Today it presides over a busy shopping street. Drivers blast hip-hop and pedestrians amble, arms full of shopping bags and sandwiches and cell phones. Pampered little dogs in jackets stroll with their smartly-dressed owners. In summer, there are sidewalk sales and gelato stands. In winter, crêpes and mulled wine and Nordmann pines.

What neighbors has Notre-Dame-des-Marais known? Stables, blacksmiths, apothecaries? Today, in a wonderful example of anachronism, the church faces a trendy bagel-sandwich café and an upscale men’s clothing store.

For how many eras will this gorgeous, fearsome thing stand? It has never lived and will never have that privilege…but it has lasted. It has weathered blizzards and heat waves and perhaps provided shelter from any number of storms. It has been a stoic host: baptisms, weddings, funerals–standing strong, immoveable, through all the rites of passage that mark a human life.

composting the details

While avoiding writing today, I found a book on my shelf from the eighties called “Writing Down the Bones.” My copy is yellowed and studded with bookmarks–receipts, clothing tags, and the business card of a Californian sculptor. It’s not really my copy, but my grandma’s, and the book’s history only adds to its mystique.

Hundreds of books are around that tell how to avoid bad writing. Here is one that tells how to create good writing. What a pleasant surprise.

The quiet of nap time is precious. When my baby sinks into solid afternoon sleep, I often freeze, unsure which venture to pursue. Today I resolved to write, but when no subject sprang to mind, I started flipping through “Writing Down the Bones.” I liked its cursive script and cover image showing a black pool of spilled ink dotted with stars.

I know this approach rarely works. It’s far too easy to spend an hour casting about for writing wisdom in lieu of actually writing. This time, however, I read something that helped make sense of my scribblings.

In the section titled “Composting,” Natalie Goldberg writes:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring.

Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”

This is true of writing about new motherhood while in the midst of it. Everything is fresh, compelling, but there is no perspective. I’m rarely more than a room away from Clara. I yearn to write about this baby, source of great inspirationjoywonder, but as soon as she’s asleep, the coffee’s hot, and the room is quiet–I have nothing to say. I don’t know what it all means. I’m trying to write about Paris in Paris.

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.”

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

It’s not just new motherhood. When I try to write about anything that friends say belongs in a book, the obvious writing material, I sit intimidated and wordless before the page. I write differently; I write scared, leaning on clichés to parse big emotions. After a few painful minutes or hours, I delete everything, annoyed at the vast gulf between what I want to say and what I can say.

I’m better off sticking to details. Like that old joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Tiny sensory details have always seemed both accessible and vital to me, as if my life in some way depended upon this collecting of a few of the moments that make up a day or a few of the characteristics that make up a person.

I can’t ignore that tug, to get something on the page. Each moment, especially on these precious baby-full days, is as flighty and ephemeral as the monarchs I’ve seen fluttering high outside my window, gone before I’ve had time to really look. With a notebook and pen I can trap something of these days under glass, examine them more closely.

“Often I will stab many times at something I want to say,” Goldberg writes. She spent months attempting to write of her father’s death. One day, finally, “all the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity– a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.”

I can’t write about “motherhood,” full stop, right now. It’s perfectly sufficient to record something of my daughter’s sticky, chubby hands, something of her delight at crawling in the grass, something about the strains and surprises and messes that make up these days.

I can take ten minutes a day. Over months or years, I can stab many times in the general vicinity of what I want to say. In time, surely, disparate details will fuse and something bright and lovely will rise out of this compost.