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

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.

the last garden in france

Today’s post is a little different. I’m sharing the essay I wrote for a World Nomads travel writing contest (effectively the contest of my dreams). The prize includes a fully-funded trip to Argentina and a workshop with NYT contributor Tim Neville. I wrote on the theme “Making a local connection.”


635435bb-24d2-407d-a2f3-ab8f5ecfe99eI never imagined gardening could produce such passion, fervor, and urgency. Then I moved to Montluçon and next door to Monsieur C, a man who speaks exclusively in exclamation points, wears overalls and a sun hat, and jabs his finger at you when he speaks–and he’s usually talking about his garden.

For a week he had beseeched me, in his apocalyptic way, to come visit his backyard, “the last true garden in all of France.”

You must see it! Before it’s too late!

In early spring, the yard burst into white-bloomed glory. I could appreciate the view from my kitchen window, but Monsieur C wouldn’t relent. I followed him to the garden.

He showed me the white cherry tree that produced delicious fruit–and was crawling with bugs. C’est pas grave, he assured me: when you eat it, just close your eyes!

He bemoaned the plucky little birds that peck at his asparagus, and he revealed the leeks, hidden under a screen to keep flies away. This way, he said, I can enjoy them longer than anyone else! Aha!

He spoke often of his superior methods. I didn’t have to wonder if the neighborhood rivalry ever got ugly: I already knew. The cheery white cherry tree was enough of a reminder never to underestimate Monsieur C.

He was giving me a ride in his sputtering Citroën when he slammed on the brakes in front of a house several blocks from our street.

See that cherry tree? Finger jab. That is one good-looking cherry tree, he said. I agreed. He then told me a story. He had once asked the gardener to let him have a branch; start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C cried, and he wouldn’t take my money!

One late night, he crept through the fence, snipped a branch from the tree, and roared off.

An older widower as traditional as Norman Camembert, Monsieur C was set in his ways. His ways were the best! But hidden behind the ornery exterior was a sweetness.

I’d see it when he would knock on my door, offering a couple of ripe clementines or a boxed éclair. He had a budding friendship with a crow. His face lit up when he told me how “Coco” had swept away the bread he’d left for her on the patio. The cats that assembled, eager for scraps, weren’t treated as kindly. Oh! He’d yell, hitting a pot with a spoon.

My French neighbor presented his garden like a proud parent. And he was proud: of his land, his home, his cherry tree. I don’t know about the last true garden in all of France. But I think I met one of its last true gardeners.


Some details have been changed due merely to space constraints. Capping a story at 2,500 characters was hugely challenging for me. (2,500 characters is what I need for like a grocery list)

World Nomads announced the winners today, and I was not among them. I knew it was a long shot. My story is quiet. It doesn’t benefit from taking place in one of the sexy destinations du jour. Is it even “travel”? In the traditional sense, maybe not. Still, I dared to hope.

I hoped that someone would take a chance on me, believe that I have something worth saying. Hoped to be frolicking with Argentinian llamas in one short month.

Disappointment hurts, it really does. But what I also know is that hope and effort are worth the risk. I wrote “The Last Garden in France” in February, at a time when I was feeling down about pretty much everything. I dragged myself to work and back like I was underwater. I wanted– I didn’t know what I wanted. Having a deadline and a word limit gave me something to focus on and care about.

I started writing more, getting into a solid routine. I slowly whittled down my story into a lean piece of around 480 words, a wonderful exercise in concision. My parents read each draft, suggesting ways to kill the odd extraneous adjective.

I read “The Portable MFA” and Stephen King’s “On Writing” and the David Sedaris collection “When You are Engulfed in Flames.”

I wrote everyday, edited old stuff, mined my memories. I took myself seriously. I rediscovered a passion.

It’s interesting how finding out that I lost today felt like a punch to the gut.

I am reasonably happy, reasonably healthy, and I still don’t know where I’ll be in the next 6 months. In other words, nothing has changed. (Except for me, just a little).

Maybe the sudden pain is the feeling of hope evaporating. But maybe that’s what hope does when you don’t need it anymore.

This contest got me writing, and that’s one place I’m hoping to stay.

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stranger things: the hitchhiker’s guide to the auvergne

It’s a dreary early-spring day in the Auvergne region in France. At some unknown stretch along the highway, I sit at a rest-stop cafeteria table eating bad baguette sandwiches with two strangers.

We sit and chew hard bread and wilted lettuce in companionable quiet. Cold rain splats against the windows and I shiver in my damp jacket and jeans.

I have no idea where we are. I wonder what I would do in the event of separation: just me and my purse and my portable that is dead.

But I am unaffected. I am bold.

(Really, I’m desperate).

I’m a BlaBlaCar rider.

Much like raw milk cheese, BlaBlaCar is a French invention unlikely to appear in the United States. Less delicious than Mont d’Or but certainly more practical, BlaBlaCar is a service that connects riders with drivers in a searchable and safe incarnation of hitchhiking. BlaBlaCar meets a real need as a cost-effective way to travel long distances, say one to ten hours of routemont-dor

The website and app are available for free. Drivers set the price per journey, which includes one seat in the vehicle, and BlaBlaCar takes about a 12% cut. BlaBlaCar now has a presence in 18 countries, but the US is not one of them. As a Business Insider article explains, BlaBlaCar’s effectiveness depends upon a strong public transport infrastructure, making it a brilliant fit for France and Germany, while hypothetically leaving American users stranded.

Unlike Uber, which has exploded in American cities, BlaBlaCar doesn’t work like a taxi service. Drivers input their routes, say, from Paris to Lyon, and mark four or five stops they could make along the way. Rarely do they stray from meeting points, which could include a major train station in each city they pass through. Users can take a bus, tram, or metro to meet the driver and then to hop to their final destination.

This wouldn’t work well in the US, where the meeting point could be miles away from where you are; the drop-off point miles from where you want to be.

Living, as I do at the time, in a quiet corner of the already-quiet center of France, I use BlaBlaCar to fill the gaps in train schedules. Montluçon is already under-serviced in terms of transportation, and I’ve watched resentfully over the year as routes to and from major cities have simultaneously decreased in availability and risen in price.

Today, I’m using BlaBlaCar to get home from Lyon. The rest-stop sandwiches mark the halfway point.

In the morning, I sent my mom to the airport and headed with my bags to the Croix-Rousse. Traditionally the silk workers’ neighborhood, it offers a nice view of the rest of the city–or it does when it’s not pouring buckets. After several metro changes, my wet hair plastered to my face, I drag my suitcases into an old-fashioned belle-époque café where everyone knows each other, even the dogs in their raincoats, and the day’s newspaper is thrown around with cheerful abandon.

Cyril, who I know by first name and through a few staticky phone conversations, told me to meet him around the mairie of the 6 arrondissement. A BlaBlaCar truth: he who possesses the vehicle shall make the rules. Instead of meeting him at the Part-Dieu, Lyon’s major train station which is conveniently located just down the street from my hotel, I lug my bags through metro stations, across a halfhearted market, and up a hill. There it is, the city hall: I think. I inhale a couple of cappuccinos and try to warm up.

Cyril is late. He calls me every twenty minutes with updates–something about a bouchon. Finally, he arrives, driving a sinister and decidedly un-French white van. He is thirtyish with a lumberjack beard and cold-weather gear. He helps me with my bags. From the outside, it seems I’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and sleep during the trip. But when Cyril opens the door, I see that there are only three seats in the cab. As the latest addition to the van of strangers, I am relegated to the middle, feet necessarily perched on the raised platform, knees practically to my nose.

Cyril’s van and his route are highly in-demand. As we drive, Cyril makes and answers phone calls and negotiates exact pick-up times with other riders. We let a girl out in a Flunch restaurant parking lot and pick up one guy on the side of a highway.

I am still in the middle feeling like an oversized child, but I am just glad to be going home and saving fifty euros doing it. I don’t exactly have money to burn. Today’s ride was a third of the cost of the only train that would get me from Lyon to Montluçon.

Road trips are good for thinking. One thing I think about: I am not used to depending on strangers. That’s what I think, anyway, before I realize that is a totally false impression cultivated from an American sense of possibility and individualism. I am not used to depending on strangers–overtly. Really, other people make my coffee and grow my tomatoes and fix my car, yet I still maintain a sense of independence that has been stripped away while I live in France. I become very quickly aware of how often my well-being depends on the kindness of a bus driver or waiter, a random dog walker or fellow diner. And when it comes to travel, I now depend on this updated, tech-based version of hitchhiking.

I’ve ridden with Cyril, Dominic, Valérie, Fred, Karim, Arthur…sometimes Mary and I ride together and we talk about our plans as if these people are our friends. Wanna stop for espresso? Dominic’s running late. The fact that we know them only by first name points to the strange intimacy of road tripping with strangers.

Do you sit in the front or the back? Should you sleep or maintain polite conversation? How likely is it that you and your conducteur will be belting out show tunes and exchanging emails by the end of the ride?

The answer to these questions is not évident. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking about the driver’s motivation. Sometimes it’s simply money; a way to help them justify the expense of weekend trips to see a boyfriend. Sometimes it’s company, a way to spice up an eight-hour drive.

Company comes at a cost: it’s both good and awkward. There’s a strange self-consciousness that comes from the fact that the rider and driver will be publicly rating and reviewing each other after the trip. Sometimes when I scatter croissant crumbs on the seat or fail to really engage with the driver, I scramble to atone for what could be perceived as poor company. No one wants to lose at this game of Rent-a-Friend. BlaBlaCar feels a lot more personal than Uber and other comparable services.

As such, BlaBlaCar does its small part to prepare users for possible personality differences. When users create a profile, they are urged to designate their preferred level of chatter: from Bla to BlaBlaBla, or, it might be stated, the likelihood that you will annoy the person sitting next to you.

Your rating on the website could prove important: drivers can reject ride requests, and some days there might be but a single BlaBlaCar leaving from your location. There’s a small element of personal marketing when you’re competing against others for transportation rights.

Ooh, he’s cute. Mary and I discuss potential drivers (which fully illustrates the lack of thrilling activities available in our town. We joke that we’ve become really boring). Why did they reject me?!” Personal.

I wonder how often two people have met and fallen in love over the course of a BlaBlaCar ride share. It would make a lot of sense, I think. People have clicked for less than similar music tastes.

I certainly did not find love. I did, however, find a not-so-secret admirer, a good fifteen years my senior, who wrote me a review on the site. In it, he praised our belle and enrichissante conversation. I was a person both interesting and sympathique (to borrow the French syntax). And he wanted to get dinner sometime.

When I saw it, I snorted. Beautiful and enriching? He must’ve been talking about the sound of my snoring. The car was crammed with four twenty-something girls, and, sitting in the back, I could barely hear his eager questions. He tried to make eye contact in the mirror, not paying as much attention to the road as I would prefer, so I decided to feign sleep until Lyon. Still, and much to the annoyance of the very-awake Mary beside me, he wasn’t deterred. Is Jessica cold? Does she mind if I smoke? Does she have enough room back there? 

She’s asleep, came the flat response.

You won’t always click with your BlaBlaCar driver. You probably won’t find love.

But for the frequent, tired traveller, the service offers an element of humanity unmatched by the TGV. With a ride-share, you will not be spit out on the train tracks in an unknown city. You will have a chance to hear someone’s story, learn about a new region, get advice and restaurant recommendations. Unless they would rather shut up and drive. And that works too.

In a time when technology has the troublesome side effect of isolating humans into tiny virtual worlds of our own creation, I am cheered by this opportunity to, quite simply, talk to strangers. It meets a real transportation need, and a subtler need too: the need to connect with people. As a lonely American transplant, I appreciated these miscellaneous encounters.

Sometimes they were awkward or embarrassing. They were boring, or else really pleasant. They were human.

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