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!

the joy of quarantine cooking

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 img_0887idea 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.

balcony, equality, fraternity

In France, we’ve been observing le confinement for over five weeks. The first few days felt pre-apocalyptic in their uncertainty, with raided stores and raging rumors. We added a few bags of potatoes and the ubiquitous dried beans to our already well-stocked pantry. Uneasy, we wondered if we needed more–crates of bottled water, a tank full of gas. 

The whiff of survivalism seems silly now. Those of us who stay home (a lot of us, as half of France’s private sector workers are now unemployed and others are working from home) have by now found a new normal. Society still functions–quietly. While we can leave our houses–on brief outings that are supposed to be limited to grocery-getting, one hour of modest exercise, and the like–the streets are often still. From my limited perspective in one neighborhood of Lyon, people seem to be settling in at home instead of testing the new restrictions.

I walk, like I always do, but now I don’t leave the house until I’ve completed an online attestation that protects me from being fined should I cross someone in law enforcement doing côntroles. The form includes my name and address, my reason for going out, and my departure time. When you check the “exercise” box, the description stipulates that you don’t venture more than 1 km from your home. It’s already normal, just something we do now. As Draconian as it sounds, I’m not sure how strictly police enforce these rules. Infractions garner a penalty that’s hefty enough to dissuade, but I’ve yet to see any enforcement in our area.

On one of my walks (for sunshine, for fresh air, to think, to stop thinking…) I discover a sprawling university campus. I go there most days–alone, with Clara, with Victor. It’s less than ten minutes away. At most times of the day it’s ghostly quiet, with a near-empty tram sliding through every half hour. Sprightly orange poppies and regal irises lend the campus the air of a celebration nobody showed up for.

I wonder about the rest of the city but have no “excuse” to see it. Lyon, for me, has shrunk to this campus, a web of grocery stores, and to my own apartment building. Back at home, our living room balcony faces dozens of balconies from the neighboring buildings, which encircle several divided courtyards and lots. Savoring a few square meters of balcony air–the only outdoor space where we don’t have to keep an eye on our distance and our watches–I’ve come to feel I know my neighbors without having spoken to them. The characters in all those anonymous boxes have grown familiar.

Along with many neighbors, we’ve upgraded our balcony experience. I started the confinement by soaking up sweet spring air from the concrete. Now, a couple of Monoprix lounge chairs later, we are about one Campari cocktail away from feeling like we’re on vacation in Italy on any given sunny afternoon. Now that the days have really warmed, we’ve seen bright parasols bloom open like new flowers. People slather on tanning oil like a sacred ritual. Men lie out in tiny Speedo shorts.

It’s easy–and unavoidable–to people-watch from up here. I come to expect seeing the long-haired little girls who run their scooters back and forth across their skinny balcony every afternoon. The young couple talking over shared cigarettes, their space decorated with cacti and draped with hammocks. There’s the little old lady in the windbreaker, huge dark glasses, and sensible shoes, who walks efficient laps around the parking lot twice daily.

There’s the girl I only ever see in the middle of a jumping jack, the girl holding an endless yoga pose under a tree, the man who is never not talking on the phone and smoking. Occasionally I catch the sound of a church-style organ. It’s probably a keyboard effect, but whatever it is, the music is soothing, lending an undeniable gravitas to my afternoon reading and cold cup of coffee.

Windows stay ajar all day long and you can tell when it’s lunchtime purely by the drifting music of clinking silverware and conversation. It’s just enough noise to create a sense of camaraderie, but not enough to catch any specifics. Usually.

The time is again marked at 8 pm, when people flock outside to cheer for the medical personnel working to manage the crisis–a ritual promoted by news networks (#OnApplaudit). Kids suffering from cabin fever are urged to express themselves at this hour by guileful parents, one assumes–they stand outside, these skinny, shirtless little boys, and jump up and down and scream their lungs raw. One neighbor blows some kind of horn–ridiculous in its volume and solemnity–like he’s announcing the start of a medieval war. 

From the balcony, you might forget all about the virus. Here, pandemic panic is invisible, but for the gloves and masks some people wear as they wheel their collapsable grocery carts, laden with spring leeks, back into the complex.

Invisible, but for the ghostly absence of la bise. I see neighbors on the ground heading toward each other for the friendly cheek-kiss greeting, pure instinct, maybe the cultural rite of the French–only to change tac and merely shout ça va? as they walk in a wide circle of caution around the other. 

Centuries of custom forgotten, unlearned in just a couple of weeks. When will people faire la bise again? After a couple of weeks, the new parameters seem mundane, unexceptional. That’s the strange part. Until le nouvel ordre, we’ll be sheltering behind the bars of our balconies with the rest of our familiar, unknown neighbors, everyone smoking, tanning, cheering, chatting, eating, writing, waiting, praying.

it takes a city

acs_2435In “The Case for Raising Kids in the City,” published last fall, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias argues that while America’s major cities have developed a reputation as playgrounds for the young and unattached, they have plenty to offer families with children. 

I wanted to clap when I finished reading his persuasive list. We’re not in America, of course, and some of the economic factors and social ideals are a little different, but much of what Yglesias says transfers just fine to a vibrant European city like Lyon.

It’s all uncharted territory for me–the raising kids part and the city part–and it was inspiring to read that these two things might go together just fine. Yglesias writes:

Virtually anything you could say on behalf of city-living as a strategy for a fun-loving single 20-something also applies to life as a boring dad in his late thirties, as an excitable 4-year-old, or as a teenager. If you like walkable neighborhoods; “third spaces” that aren’t shopping malls; cultural amenities; short commutes; and non-chain restaurants, then America’s cities are where those things are found.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

I grew up among the flat expanses of the Midwest. As a teenager, I noticed the lack of third places in the community for people my age, though I didn’t know there was a term for it. My friends and I just complained there was nothing to do. Teenagers drove to the historic town square, sat on the tailgate of someone’s truck and presumably drank beer. That didn’t hold any appeal for me, nor did pacing the aisles of Wal-Mart, the other popular way to pass the time.

Third places are those social oases separate from the first main social environment, home, and the second, the workplace. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote that these places restore us, support us, make us happy. In France, tabacs and cafés function as a third place. In England, pubs often play this role. In small-town America, the third place could be the donut shop, bowling alley, barbershop, or the local Elks Club.

The youth, however, don’t have many choices. I craved somewhere I could go just hang out; make a private phone call away from my family. Somewhere I could talk if I wanted to or just read and write when I didn’t. A low-pressure environment to chat and get to know people in a way that whispering during a biology lecture didn’t allow for.

By the time I got to college, I was starving for third places and spent much of my time in them. One of my favorites was the hybrid of a café, bar, indie cinema, and record store. There were always grad students writing, professors having lunch, and people leaving the theater area to stop at the bar for a glass of wine. I’d meet with friends purposefully, or run into people I knew by chance. Either way, it felt like a home, and I was often more comfortable at places like this–alone but not–than at my actual home with roommates.

Third places seem like the kind of thing that will be important for parenting life, too. I don’t know what or where they’ll be, yet, but I like knowing that an abundance of these places exists here, and as Yglesias puts it, they’re not all shopping malls.

I’m interested in how my daughter’s experience with urbanity will differ from my own. The way she’ll play in a park instead of in a huge backyard with hay bales. The way we’ll walk and take public transit instead of driving the ubiquitous minivan around town. Even silly things, like the way elevators–which can hold a hint of glamor for the rural child–will be so totally commonplace.

Into my twenties, I found cities intimidating, intriguing, and somewhat unaccessible. I remember my first trip to a big city when I was old enough to appreciate it. Paris, when I was 16. The main disappointing takeaway was that my year of French didn’t come close to translating. I was irrevocably American.

At the same time, I couldn’t suppress the glee when I saw things as banal as taxis and pigeons. It was all so cinematic, so foreign, and not just because we were in France, where the voltage fried my hair straightener and the hotel breakfast included cute little packets of Nutella. No, more than the French-ness, it was the noise, the rush of people, the dizzying traffic, all so new. New, too, this strange feeling of anonymity.

It took me years to feel really at ease among the frenzied choreography of a city. Depending upon how long we stay and where we go next, this will be Clara’s normal: dodging Vespas, navigating the metro with ease, attending public culture events, hearing the music of multiple languages. I like this for her, that she’ll likely be braver than me. Maybe she won’t spend all her time wondering at “the real world” glimpsed in books and movies, because it will seem like she already lives there. She’ll be acquainted with people from many countries and backgrounds. Her library will include both Petit Ours Brun and Curious George. She’ll have two lexicons available when expressing herself. She might be one of those little kids who likes Camembert.

It fascinates me, how different our stories will be. I chose this cross-cultural life that she inherited. I wonder what kind of marks a place leaves on a person, if the rural-ness of my upbringing forever differentiates me in some way. I wonder if Clara, too, will crave to make a home somewhere far away, or if she’ll feel right at home where she is. 

act in haste, repent at leisure: a cautionary tale in four haircuts

They say talking to houseplants helps them grow faster. I want to know: does this work on hair? I’m cajoling it, pleading with it. Occasionally my words turn threatening.

fabric scissors needle needles scissors
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It started innocently enough–just a gateway trim at the place down the street. Four cuts later, I have battle scars, bad memories, and a deep distrust of salons.

Be careful–I beseech you–who you let near your hair.

My parents are visiting, sharing Clara and almond croissants with me for a few weeks. I take the opportunity one morning near the end of their visit to slip out and get a haircut. New year, new me. I’m hoping to rediscover the chic lob I had senior year of college.

I’ve booked an appointment through an app. The place was rated highly, but it’s shabby, with hair all over the floor, despite the fact that I seem to be the only customer. The stylist pops her gum and looks at me listlessly.

“Have a seat.”

A half hour later (the fastest haircut I’ve ever had), I’m staring at my reflection in a dirty mirror. It’s not shocking–I still have lots of hair–but the cut is too blunt, not the most flattering angles. It doesn’t hang well, but I still look like me.

II

A few days later, I hop off the metro with Dad and pop into a salon chain to see if they have a minute to thin out my hair and improve the last cut, nothing major. A tall, friendly woman ushers me to a seat and gives me the once-over.

“Oh lala. Who cut your hair?” She asks.

“Oh, some lady…” I don’t know what to say. “We just moved here.”

“Mon dieu…I’d say she cut it with her eyes closed.” The woman shakes her head.

The back is totally uneven, she tells me, and it’s all too blunt. The cut doesn’t work with my face. She tells me I look like a Playmobil.

A few minutes later, I am walking down the street with a spring in my step and a next-day appointment with Blandine for a complete hair overhaul. I greatly prefer her frankness to the apathy of the first stylist. She’s got a plan.

III

Blandine is snipping away furiously. She’s not slowing down. It’s looking okay, and hey, she clearly has a vision–but then–she keeps going, cutting off more and more hair until I’m cringing at every snip. It seems like too much, but I won’t be able to tell until it’s done. When she gives my hair a final pass with the blowdryer, I don’t know what to say.

“Voilà! This is a vast improvement. Perfect for your face shape.”

My face must resemble Paul McCartney’s, because this shag haircut would be right at home on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

My hair is shorter than ever before in my life, and she has cut about ten layers into my former all-one-length style. This haircut has attitude, a mind of its own. I like my hair to submit to my will, not the other way around. This haircut defies gravity. I look like one of those pouting, dated ladies on a tacky salon poster. I yearn for one hour earlier, when I was a Playmobil.

Blandine is pleased with her work. She shows me off to everybody in the salon, deriding my former appearance and talking about the miracle she just worked. Okay lady, it wasn’t that bad. People compliment the cut, but I detect surprise in their eyes. I just smile back sheepishly, yearning for the privacy of my own bathroom, where I can take stock of the damage.

“You’re not the same person!” she says. “Your husband won’t recognize you!”

I think she’s right. (New year, new me, indeed.)

I have a good husband, however, a kind husband. He assures me I’m beautiful.

I tell him I appreciate it but I really think I look like Paul McCartney.

He bursts out laughing. From time to time he walks past whistling “Yellow Submarine.”

IV

This time Victor makes the appointment. Traditionally, he’s much better at research. He says this place looks classe and it’s worth a try. My family walks me to the salon and  continues on to get groceries. I feel badly to have usurped our plans with my hair. Four times. Then again, it will end naturally soon enough. I don’t have much left.

Giacomo from Rome has longish salt-and-pepper hair and a serious face. He’s exactly who you want on your side in a crisis. He rushes me over to a chair. I don’t need to explain.

“Non, c’est pas bien,” he says in his low, quiet voice. “This is all wrong. The person who did this didn’t consider the texture of your hair. C’est pas possible.

He tells me it’s going to have to get even shorter, but he’s going to do a Vidal Sassoon-inspired thing. I am slightly cheered by the notion that something stylish might still be possible. It is clear Giacomo knows what he’s doing. He cuts hair like Michelangelo sculpting the David.

When he’s finished I want to kiss him but settle for a firm handshake. I tell him I no longer have the envie to hide under a rock.

“Don’t hesitate to come back if you have the least trouble,” he says.

I do have the least trouble. Styling it proves complicated, as I am not a swarthy Italian with flawless instincts. At least I am not too embarrassed to leave the house. At least I am not a Playmobil.