A few days ago, Victor and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary. I love that the day–November 24th–is so near Thanksgiving. It’s one more joyful event in this season of celebrating and yet it comes well before the crowd-crush of Christmas. We marked the occasion with a cheese plate from the neighboring fromagerie–just like last year.
Unlike last year, we know the fromager and he knows us well enough to comment when Clara’s hair grows longer. Unlike last year, when our neighbors were strangers, this year they are treasured friends. We’ve helped each other move furniture, fix appliances, paint walls. We’ve taken care of each other’s children. We share butter, sugar, balsamic. Unlike last year, when we watched the occasional church service on YouTube, this year we are part of an actual church. And finally, unlike last year we are the parents of not only a daughter but also a son, who slept in his bassinet while we devoured the truffled Gouda.
In short, what we were celebrating with our third-anniversary cheese plate was not so much each other as it was the life and family and community we’ve managed to create. Together.
When I was younger, a dreamer with my nose always in YA fiction, I would occasionally save gorgeous white dresses and flower arrangements to my Pinterest boards, but if I didn’t think too much about weddings, I thought even less about actual marriage. In my immaturity, I thought that marriage was about finding a soulmate, the person that made you pretty much perfectly happy. You would feel constant infatuation. You would never be sad or heartbroken or lonely again. It didn’t matter that there was this niggling thought: I don’t know any adults like that. I don’t know any adult couples who seem infatuated with each other. It didn’t matter, because I knew the truth: they must have settled too soon. For me, it would be different. It would be Pinterest-perfect fairy lights and Earl Grey cupcakes and lavender garlands, but forever.
Sorry to spoil it for you but these ideas were wrong, all of them. It didn’t take long to discover that engagement, marriage, all of it, is no refuge from the entropy that touches all of human experience. Little stays perfect for long.
We’ve argued, we’ve fought, we’ve slammed doors. Definitely not perfect. Definitely not always happy. Still. So much good. I hadn’t expected how the blessing of marriage is not so much staring into each other’s eyes and forgetting the world, but rather helping each other engage more fully in the world. Looking back at these first years, I think about the struggles we’ve helped each other through: deep despair, homesickness, spiritual searching and job searching. Worrisome ultrasounds, the unbelievable trial of giving birth, the sleep deprivation of the newborn days. Loneliness. Disappointment. And I think about the fun we’ve so often had through and despite it all.
You can find us, on a typical Saturday, hauling groceries up to our third-floor apartment. No elevator. I’m carrying Silas in the Baby Bjorn and walking slowly behind Clara to ensure she doesn’t fall. I’ve got a bag of food in each hand. Victor has his arms absolutely loaded up with groceries, five or six bags. We both have regurgitated milk on our shirts. Silas is wailing and has been since the car, hungry. Clara is now sinking to the floor, the toddler’s signal for I’m frustrated and I don’t want to do this anymore. She joins Silas in a shriek because why shouldn’t she? I try to nudge her up the stairs so I can take the weight of Silas off my torso and breathe a sigh of relief, but it is like trying to motivate a mule.
We are both of us sweating. I’m probably shaking a little from low blood sugar–a trip to the store always takes longer than we think it will, and it’s well after noon now. We look at each other, raised eyebrows, and we grin. Maybe one of us quotes Psalm 127, says, deadpan: “children are a blessing from the Lord.” We both crack up. These days won’t last forever. Sometimes that reality seems like a relief, other times a great sadness. We keep slogging up those stairs. And we will arrive. And this is marriage, I have found: doing the hard, good things together and even having some fun while you do.
Why is it that white-sky weather always seems so permanent, like it’s the only way things have ever looked, like the bright blue skies and lush warm evenings that you vaguely remember enjoying once before are merely a dream, something that belongs to a different world? Our weekend was frigid and bleached of color, the sky claustrophobic, pressing right up against the windows like piled-up snow.
We made a refuge inside, only venturing out for supplies: flour for bread. Root vegetables for roasting. I unpacked the Christmas box aided by Clara, who wore a wool elf hat and diaper and offered the constant refrain, “This Christmas tree for Jesus, okay?”
Our Christmas box is a humble thing: beat-up cardboard holding a few Christmas books, a hoop wreath I glue-gunned together last year, a tangle of lights, some velvet-covered boules and shiny pomegranate ornaments from Monoprix. Still, it’s more than the sum of its parts. Having a Christmas box to fetch out of the closet means tradition, continuity, nostalgia. It’s tangible proof that a family has existed and made a home together for at least a few Christmases. Memories waft from such a box along with the specks of Christmas dust: the white winter glitter, the crumbs of fake snow, the errant jingle bell. Unpacking this one had the added bonus of transporting me to post-Thanksgiving fun with my little brother. I could hear the Jingle Cats cassette tape we always played to annoy Dad. I could see Spencer crawling inside this ridiculously oversized red velvet stocking we had, making Mom laugh. I could taste the hot chocolate with the tiny marshmallows, remember the elvish satisfaction of carefully unwrapping dozens and dozens of Hallmark ornaments in their red boxes with the artist’s photo on the back.
This will be our fourth Christmas together as a couple, third with Clara, and first as a family of four, featuring new arrival baby Silas James. He’s almost three months old already, has just started to grin and hiccup-laugh, and as I’m watching him and Clara grow, time is passing at a speed unlike any other period in my lifetime. (That probably explains why I’m writing here for the first time in over six months–you didn’t miss anything!–and introducing Silas with no preamble. He is the most lovable, huggable little chunk. Or not so little. He measures at about the 105th percentile for height and weight. More on him soon.)
We’ve all been sick on and off for weeks, further loosening my grasp on time and my ability to remember dates or reply to messages. The apartment has echoed with the harsh chorus of baby coughs and been strewn with wadded tissues, calcifying tea bags, and half-used doses of sérum physiologique, the saline solution that seems to be prescribed in France for just about every ailment. We made quite a group, here a bronchite, there a sinusite… each with our little white pharmacie bag of treatments. This weekend though, we had relief at last: the collective ability to breathe unobstructed. With uninhibited oxygen came real rest. Good fiction, puzzles, slowly reading a Psalm, bread-baking. Practicing the under-appreciated skill of doing one thing at a time. We bought a new oven last week as ours has been impaired and largely ineffective for six months. As soon as it was installed we had one main thought: sourdough bread. After a few days we succeeded in coaxing back to full vigor the starter that had hibernated in our fridge for nearly a year. Victor tested both the starter and the oven with two loaves of country sourdough. While they were cooking, I made pancakes with some of the leftover starter: an easy flavor upgrade.
When I have managed to dart outside with the kids during the last couple of weeks, Silas strapped to my chest and Clara unmissable in her bright Boden “apple tree coat,” I have noted with interest and some melancholy how our world has changed right under our noses. The rich red leaves on those trees outside Carrefour have melted away entirely. The cherry tree by city hall that I think of as confettied and bubblegum-pink has turned orange and gone half-bare. Why are things always changing, and the better question: how does this always manage to surprise me?
I think, as I do just about every couple of months, of Lewis’ writing on the changing of the seasons in The Screwtape Letters. (Context if you haven’t read it: the book is one long letter from a senior devil to his nephew, explaining how they can better tempt and destroy certain human targets. The Enemy is of course God).
And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.
Well, I have to go watch Silas watch the Christmas tree. I leave with a renewed commitment to blogging, because I do miss it, miss collecting the precious details of ordinary life. I am rusty. I want to make writing a habit again, so between stuffed animal tea parties and countless diaper changes, I will be doing my best to publish here somewhat regularly. À la prochaine!
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.
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.