life lately: cruel January

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

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

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

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

Vic’s 31st birthday

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

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

Slippery snow leading up to the Hôtel de Ville

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

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

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

Lablabi

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

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

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

Pain perdu with oranges
Zaitoun & Sababa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with Calico Critters

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

Us on New Year’s Day

if walls could talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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