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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We havethe 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.
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.
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.
Here’s something about living abroad: it offers the gift of perspective. You start to see most things not as the default way, but as one option among many. Time away creates room for inspection, the chance to hold each culture up to the light.
For a few years I had one foot in France and the other in the United States, with the wobbly balance only natural in such a position. The glimmer of my adopted surroundings quickly wore off and I spent enough time in the States to never feel like I completely left. Frankly, I pined for home. I missed the ease, convenience, and comfort. I missed people who understood–quite literally–where I was coming from.
It took one entire year away, my usual trips home all cancelled, for this to sink in: I live in France. It’s visiting Missouri that has made this point so strongly. Since being back, I’ve had the strange sensation of being a visitor in my own town, my own country, of no longer quite knowing how things work.
In past years, I’ve described my life in France as slightly off, comparing it to the practical joke where someone moves all the living room furniture a few inches from where it usually sits. The victim bruises a hip, stubs her toe on the coffee table, and wonders at her sudden clumsiness. So too with living in a foreign culture that on first glance resembles your own. Walk around long enough and you’ll keep stubbing your toe, without any obvious clue to what’s wrong.
Jokes don’t translate. Assumptions prove incorrect. Beliefs about the world go challenged. Text messages get analyzed. You acquire a squint of suspicion, always wondering if you’re missing something or doing it wrong, in realms as varied as errand-running and relationships.
You want to trade places with tourists–you want to return to guidebook French, ignorance and bliss. You want to taste the best of the place and return with a memory like a found treasure. Instead, you stew in the waters of an inscrutable, adopted culture, becoming bitter and tough.
Here’s what I think now, on the other side of this process. These emotions are normal. Many of them are necessary to work through and wrestle with. It is unavoidably complicated–leaving one home, making another. The culture we grow up in leaves an indelible stamp, not something to be washed away one summer in the salty waves of the Mediterranean. We bring a lifetime of accrued, implicit beliefs with us wherever we go. Attitudes and assumptions about liberty, money, privacy, politics, relationships, food, and much more have all been influenced to some degree by our culture, so of course there are going to be clashes should we settle down in a new one.
Some of these clashes merely puzzle, some of them really hurt. Acquiring French fluency didn’t remove this tendency, nor did marrying a French citizen, nor having a French baby, nor the stamps in my passport securing continued legal presence in France.
What did help is neither glamorous nor surprising, but it is worth remembering: time. Just that. At some point in the past year, I gave up. I stopped trying to bring the US to France. I stopped expecting these two places with different pasts, people, and politics to feel the same. There were no big epiphanies–rather, I ran out of energy and stopped fighting. I let French culture change me. Slowly.
I’ve made peace with my accent and the aggressive rules of politesse. I never drive, but walk or take the train. I shop local–at the open-air market when I can–and only buy what I can carry in my arms or stuff in a stroller. And it turns out, I like it that way. As a family, we’ve taken up the national sport of picnicking and we soak up the slower paced, closed-on-Sunday culture. We live in the center of town in an apartment (so different from the acres of land I played on as a child). We spend weekends looking for treasures at the huge open-air antiques market, rifling through copper madeleine molds and vintage escargot platters. We observe the sacred hour of apero, and I finally have a Carrefour store card–if that doesn’t say “settled,” nothing does.
It is being back in Missouri that has me thinking about all these new rituals and routines, for in Missouri, I keep stubbing my toe. The knowledge that was in my bones, the things I did for a decade with my eyes closed, reappear as mystifying puzzles. I have, to my surprise, new second-nature knowledge. The old is nearly atrophied. I fumble with money and gas pumps, I barely remember to tip, I drive with the caution of the elderly. In conversation, I search for the English translation of a French word I like and come up short, settle for a cousin. Politics, prices, portion sizes. All these things (and many more, surely, that I haven’t identified) are little jolts, evidence of how the familiar can become the foreign and vice-versa.
Everything seems new to me.
Costco quantities. Cultural Christianity. Roadside hay bales painted in red, white, and blue Trump support.
Delicate white fans of Queen Anne’s Lace. Darting hummingbirds. Cicada exoskeletons poised in a frozen march along tree branches.
Everything outside these windows moves if you look at it long enough. There are garden spiders, groundhogs, sunsets that streak the sky violet. Violent thunderstorms strike with operatic drama and then slink off like nothing happened, leaving behind blistering sunshine and a thick cloud of humidity.
Yes, these are gifts: to see what was once home through the eyes of a traveler. To make a home in a place I once studied in textbooks.
It’s good to be back. It will be good to go back. Both are true.
A first birthday is a powerful marker of time. When you have a baby, you have a new way to measure a year: in weight gain, in consonant sounds, in sleep patterns and in spoonfuls of purée. Each month takes on new color.
In August, Clara laughed. In January, she ate bananas and avocados. In May, out popped a gap-toothed smile. In July, she hugged me back. Constant surprises.
I filled an album with first-year photos and we flipped through it with great fascination. Most change is sneaky. This kind of change is bold and blatant, letting us in on the secret. Clara’s transformation over one year holds as much drama as a time-lapse of an exotic flower–from nothing seedling to gorgeous bloom in minutes, like magic.
Some friends (also multicultural couples with very young children) came over to celebrate on Bastille Day, the day before Clara’s actual birthday on the 15th. The plans were last-minute, made less than a week before when we were picnicking in the park under Lebanon cedars, the kids playing on blankets.
Keeping the birthday low-key, just Victor and I, suddenly seemed a shame. We needed to celebrate this wild year. It wasn’t just Clara who had changed. We had survived a year of thinking like parents, solving new problems, creating a family culture (which, for awhile, just meant we played rock-paper-scissors to determine who had to change an absolutely vile diaper). My friends were enthusiastic, understanding the significance of this day–especially, maybe, when living abroad–and so it was planned.
We had a little fiesta. I hung up the sunny decorations my mom had thriftily sent from the States in separate standard envelopes. Adriana, who’s Mexican and American, and who seems to have a natural talent for celebration, brought pico de gallo and guacamole and rosé. As soon as she arrived, she stood in my kitchen frying cheese quesadillas for a crowd. Victor made empanadas and prepared mangos and pineapple. I made tre leches cake with luscious whipped cream on top (made by shaking cold cream in a chilled jar like there’s no tomorrow–in the absence of a mixer, try this–it works!).
Seven adults and three people between the ages of one and two was about all our small apartment could handle. The three little ones played, crawling and stumbling over each other, flinging toys, eating fruit. The rest of us sat wherever there was room, sweating as the 4 pm July sun burned through the windows. We balanced plates just out of reach of six chubby fists. The cat, in shock, fled the scene.
When Clara was just about depleted, we hurried her to her highchair. We sang–first in English, then in French. Victor and I, the sweaty, joyful, proud parents, grinned for the camera while Clara sobbed, overwhelmed by so much noise and attention. Things were better when we cut her a fat square of tre leches cake. She gobbled down every crumb, whipped cream dotting her nose. We served seconds of cake before the babies brought the afternoon to a close by collectively deciding it was time for a nap.
It is a new skill, this learning how to follow a conversation with one eye always on a small, ornery person–or a couple of them. This anticipating danger or just the likelihood that someone will pitch a toy off the balcony if given the chance. As our guests stood to leave they surveyed the scene with some regret.
“I feel bad…your house was perfect when we got here and look at this!” We looked. It certainly made an impression, that was true. Victor said it perfectly when he responded, “Well, I think we’re just going to have to get used to this.”
Clara, in her first year, has accompanied me to the Louvre, to Abbot Kinney boulevard, to a blues festival, to a crowded Kansas City BBQ restaurant. When she turned one I saw the end of all that. Or at least the end of the ease of all that. There’s to be no more letting her sleep in a stroller as we linger over coffee or dinner. Her presence will be felt.
The past few weeks have seen her throwing food–motivated by a simple fascination with gravity. She’s been emptying any box or basket she can find of all its contents. Helping herself to a snack from the pantry. Pouring water on the ground and playing in it. Producing quite a terrifying troll-growl when she wants more grapes. She gets bored, now. She likes sitting in her stroller but it must be rolling, giving her new sights to see.
We’re going to have to get used to this.
Her new skills and capabilities bring new joys as well as new frustrations–for her, for us. But the other night while I am putting her to bed after a tiresome afternoon, I hold her close and think that it is like holding the future. She is pure possibility. She smells of her dinner–butter and parmesan on pasta. She looks up at me in the evening dim, bright round face glowing like the moon. She lays her cheek against my collarbone. The curls at her neck are damp from the sweat of summer. I think–savorthis! I think–this, here, is the good life.
After a month and a half, our quarantined life feels totally normal–and not. It depends on how much news I’ve been reading that morning. I’m finding the familiar rhythm of mealtime a relief. No matter what’s happening in the news, you’ve gotta eat. Probably now more than ever, I am glad I know how to cook.
I’m not alone in this. I see peers punching down their worries in the form of homemade bread. I see enthusiasm over the humblest bubbling stew. “Quarantine cooking” feels much more elemental than most trends. What’s cool right now? Self-sufficiency. Nourishment. Beans.
While I’ve always loved the results of time spent in the kitchen, in this slowed-down springtime I appreciate the process just as much. Cooking is an end in itself. I purposefully choose labor-intensive projects, recipes that require kneading and rising, two-hour simmers, long lists of spices. Cooking is tangible enough to wake me up from the stupor of an internet binge or a foggy morning. It’s my one cherished chore.
I like the messes. Turmeric-stained fingertips, focaccia dough bursting out of its bowl, clouds of flour, the firework crackling of potatoes in hot oil.
I don’t love cleaning them up. But that is a part of the lifecycle of this beloved routine: the discipline to empty the sink even when it doesn’t seem to matter. This is something I’ve learned: like getting dressed in the morning, like putting on mascara for another day spent indoors, doing the dishes is an act of hope. I have grown some truly spectacular mold in my time, and I know that a neglect of my surroundings typically belies inner distress.
These days, I leave the mold to the Roquefort. I cook good food, elaborate food, pretty food, even though it’s just the two of us. We use the nice plates–white ceramic platters my mom scoped out at Emmaus–like it’s a party and not just another evening on the balcony.
Food is how we celebrate. We can’t stop in at a trendy bar, linger on a terrace, walk along the rivers, spend the weekend in the countryside. Instead, we dream about menus. On the rainy morning of my birthday, we walk to the Turkish butcher down the street to pick out a giant steak for two. We eat it deeply seared, crackling crust, with roasted radishes and tarragon butter. We eat cross-legged on the floor, our movie on pause because this meal deserves our undivided attention.
For dessert: big slices of a vanilla-bean-speckled cake I had made the day before while chatting with my mom and grandma on Facetime. Separated by thousands of miles, we follow the same recipe, delight in the same alchemy of nutty browning butter. I hold the cake to the camera so they can see if it springs back up after the pressure of my index finger. They tell me it needs a few more minutes.
We had planned, just over a month before, to do this in person, but the compromise is sweet. We adapt. They eat a slice of birthday cake warm from the oven, an indulgent breakfast, while I put mine aside and start working on dinner.
All this extra time inside has given grocery shopping a certain allure. There are often long lines outside the big supermarkets, but smaller produce-heavy markets are mostly quiet. We learn from the news that producteurs are facing a serious demand problem. Shoppers have flocked to shelf-stable comfort foods, leaving delicate spring produce to wilt and flounder. Cameras pan over the brilliant leafy floor of a greenhouse filled with endives that no one wants, tiny strawberries that are delicate and perfect and unwanted.
Producers are also lacking the necessary manpower to realize seasonal harvests. Stone fruits are growing overripe on trees. The problem is so concerning that in March, the French government called on laid-off employees to find temporary work in the fields.
It seems like a good time to fill my bags with things I’ve never cooked with. Fruits and vegetables de saison are gorgeous, abundant, and affordable besides. I grab kohlrabi, tarragon, radishes, fresh peas, fava beans. I bring home potted herbs one at a time, starting a straggly table-garden of thyme, basil, and parsley.
Victor and I both enjoy “cooking” for Clara, blitzing part of our dinner to a thin purée. She likes almost everything, from hummus to the lone, shriveled zucchini forgotten at the back of the fridge. Steam it, blend it, jar it–she is my secret weapon to avoiding food waste. Last weekend we had a mezze meal featuring several small plates from a Persian cookbook. I blended the leftovers and put them in small bowls for a baby-mezze, introducing Clara’s palate to dill and mint and pomegranate molasses, dishes that tasted sour and sunny.
While I make most of our main meals, Victor cooks for me too. It’s enough to plant the idea in his head (“you know what sounds really good…?”). His signature dish: restaurant-quality mushroom risotto. He cooks on special occasions–like Saturdays–on which he sometimes wakes me up with a chattering baby and a warm blueberry muffin. When one of us is in a funk, the other might take out a cookbook from our growing collection, saying, “Make me something,” knowing that the basic tasks required–level flour, peel potatoes–are grounding, essential. That a carefully-made meal (and cleaning up afterwards, let’s not forget) is a small rebellion against apathy.
In our home, we prove again (as has been proved in every culture, a lesson I never get tired of) that food is love.