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.

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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

röstigraben: crossing the invisible potato border

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Matterhorn mountain as viewed from Zermatt

One day during our honeymoon in Switzerland, we drove to Täsch and then took a train to Zermatt, which is where you visit if you want to see the famed Matterhorn, sometimes referred to as the Mountain of Mountains, or Berg de Berge in German. As we walked Zermatt’s long main street to reach the lift that would take us to the Matterhorn “glacier paradise,” we noticed that signs were all in German. In the windows of Bäckerei were Grittibänz, those cute golden bread men. We were greeted with hallo instead of bonjour.

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I was delighted that only an hour’s drive from our French-speaking base of Crans-Montana could have us land in a town that felt so completely German. What I didn’t find out until later was that, during our short trip, we had crossed what’s known in Swiss German as the Röstigraben. Rösti is a simple Swiss potato dish, like a big hash brown. Röstigraben (potato ditch, essentially) is a lighthearted term for the barrier that divides the French and German-speaking parts of the canton. It is not merely linguistic, but often refers to differences in attitude and voting habits by the people on either side (think Bible Belt, or New Yorkers vs Southerners). Similarly, there is a term for the divide between German-speaking Switzerland and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino: polentagraben.

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The Matterhorn looms over Zermatt. The mountain is an iconic symbol of the Swiss alps with its distinctive crooked-pyramid shape. It’s the mountain you find on a bar of Toblerone, and its Disney copycat in Anaheim has drawn many fans, who get to “bobsled” down the twists and turns of the small-scale depiction. To my eyes, the mountain has personality, a quirky look that reminds me of Harry Potter‘s Sorting Hat. If I am to characterize the Matterhorn, though, I would be wrong not to mention its dark side. Scaling the heights of the Matterhorn has tempted climbers since 1865, when it was first successfully ascended. (Though this success is relative. Seven men attempted the climb, only three made it back).

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This ascent of the Matterhorn marked the end of the “golden age of alpinism,” since the mountain was one of the last major peaks in the Alps yet to be ascended.

In Zermatt today is a small cemetery at the foot of a church. It seems to contain only the graves of those who have lost their lives trying to tackle the Matterhorn or other nearby mountains. The Matterhorn itself has claimed about 500 lives since its first “successful” ascent. Some of the graves are decorated with gear, such as a small iron cross looped with rope and an ice pick.

We didn’t have much time to look around, though, as we needed to get to the gondola. It was approaching noon, and the ride to the top would take a full 45 minutes. At that altitude, nighttime comes early and falls like a hammer.

The Matterhorn Express is billed as the “world’s highest 3S cableway.” The brochure promises it’s “like flying.” At 82 CHF a pop (about 72 euros right now), we thought it better be. Funnily enough, that was practically the budget option. There are cars offering champagne and comfortable leather seats or a full fondue meal, should you so choose. Talk about lunch with a view. ACS_1428

Once at the top, we stepped out of the gondola and into Italy, just over the border. The “glacier paradise” is a real feat of engineering: there is a restaurant, gallery of ice sculptures, and cinema, inside of an actual glacier. One of the features of a glacier is that it is subject to motion, probably a very slow descent down the mountain. If temperatures should ever cool dramatically, I’m guessing there will be no more glacier paradise. But for now, pretty neat. Lunch was simple, some tomato soup and rösti, but pricy. When you think about what it takes to get those ingredients up to that altitude though, I guess it can be forgiven.  ACS_1408

The best part was the view, a panorama where fourteen glaciers and thirty-eight high peaks are visible. I couldn’t stay out on the platform for long. My thin wool coat didn’t do much to combat the 5 degree Fahrenheit wind. When you start to uncomfortably ponder how it would feel to freeze to death, you should go inside.

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First modern travel poster: a depiction of the Matterhorn

Speaking of freezing to death, there is a cool show available on Netflix called The Horn, which we watched with rapt interest after our visit. It’s a docu-series about Air Zermatt, the alpine rescue team employed to rescue errant skiers and others who encounter danger on the mountain. In the first, teeth-clenching episode, the team attempts to rescue a skier who has fallen into a 100-foot crevasse.

winter wonderland: honeymoon in the swiss alps

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Switzerland in a word: cozy. As is my tendency, I had given the country an embarrassingly little amount of thought until I visited. Roger Federer. Watches? I had once been warned away from visiting for a weekend, told there was nothing to do.

But a short visit last week (our honeymoon!) was enough to pique my interest. Over hot chocolate, hot baths, and clean, cold air, I even forgot my aversion to winter. Switzerland (at least, the tiny part that I got to see) is not a bland, no man’s land, but a diverse, adventurer’s country that also happens to be extremely appealing in terms of aesthetics as well as gastronomy.

A few days after our wedding, with the big day still a blur in my mind, we set off on the seven-hour-drive from the outskirts of Paris to southwestern Switzerland.

We were staying in Crans-Montana, a resort town where Victor used to visit with his family. He had fond memories of skiing, warm plates of raclette, and time spent with his grandmother, but hadn’t been back for over a decade, when he was a teenager.

Crans-Montana is located in the Valais, one of the twenty-six cantons of Switzerland. Everyone around us spoke French, though we had to pay in Swiss francs instead of euros: beautiful printed bills on thick paper and shiny silver coins worth as much as 5 CHF apiece. While the Valais is French-speaking, Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansh, in a fascinating example of geographical boundaries influencing language. Where there be mountains, you can probably find some linguistic diversity.

But the causes aren’t all geographic. As this article explains, “Switzerland is a Willensnation, or nation of the will,” where the twenty-six cantons agree to work together, but without an especially powerful central government. As such, no uniquely Swiss language was ever imposed on the different cantons (which were once fully sovereign states).

We had plenty of time to explore our surroundings. We wouldn’t be doing any skiing, as we’d arrived a little early for the season, most likely missing the snow by a mere couple of weeks. Our plan, then, was simple. Hike in the mountains, refuel with stick-to-your-ribs winter food.

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Despite wheezing from a cold and the effect of the thin mountain air, standing at high altitudes next to a rushing waterfall or frosty lake felt exhilarating. Under full sun, the snow glittered. Everywhere were tiny chalets. They dotted the ice-blue mountainsides, looking sweet and lonely. The air smelled of pine. Icicles sat poised on cliffs overhead like daggers waiting to fall. (I always tiptoed past them, remembering what I’d heard about an icicle being the perfect murder weapon.)

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Restaurants sat hidden in hills, far away from the rest of civilization. They catered to hikers and skiers, offering an improbable refuge (and likely, fondue). Inside, these places had low ceilings, lace curtains, folksy printed tablecloths, and depictions of woodland creatures like something out of a wintry children’s book by Jan Brett.

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Swiss cuisine, our regime for the week, was a mash-up of offerings from the surrounding countries. On a menu board next to a typical boeuf bourguignon or German choucroute with sausages, you’d find several varieties of fondue, sausages made from veal, potato rösti (like a big hash brown), raclette (melted raclette cheese served with potatoes, charcuterie, cornichons), and croûte au fromage (like the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever had, eaten with a fork).

We tried everything, even returning to the same restaurant three times when their fondue proved addictive. It’s the perfect date food, the gastronomic equivalent of a hug or a fair-isle sweater.

group date on the DL: adventures in digital friendship, pt ii

When making a questionable decision, it is always reassuring to have an innocent friend to drag along with you. After several days of glumly searching On Va Sortir (a French website for platonic meet-ups), I decided it was time to act.

Over dinner one evening, I showed the website to my friend Rémi. Like me, he was immediately skeptical.

“It gets worse,” I said. I read him an article from a French dating and “séduction” website where a young reporter decided to see if love could be found via OVS meet-ups. Over a year in Paris, she went on dozens of outings.

She never found love, but she did meet a lot of strange people, and could even sort them into types. In any group, she said, there was sure to be the Divorcée, who would monopolize the evening with tales of lost love, recounting the innumerable ways her ex had wronged her. There was always the Shy One, the Weirdo, and the person who was new in town and knew not a soul.

The writer did not mince words with her OVS roast. After we finished cringing, I thought I should tell him.

“By the way, I reserved two spots for an event Friday night.”

T’es sérieuse là ? He laughed nervously.

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Ben oui, I said, cucumber cool. I knew Rémi would never do something like this alone, and I was confident that while he would complain, he would ultimately be a good sport about it. Plus, I had found an event that I thought sounded pretty fun (bowling with Bob just didn’t make the cut).

I had signed us up for a photography expedition. Participants were instructed to bring their camera and “eye.” We’d embark on a walk around the city with the objective of taking themed photos: “winter in Cannes.” Afterwards, we would get a drink and discuss everyone’s shots. There were ten spots to fill.

I teased Rémi about it for the next week. “Can’t wait for Friday when we’ll meet our new best friends!” Really, though, I was looking forward to it. If nothing else, I’d get some good photos.

The day came and I double-checked the event details. Luckily. It turned out the soirée was intended as a discussion of the photos that people had taken at the last event, several weeks ago. No need to bring my camera, in other words. And no night stroll around Cannes. We were meeting directly at the wine bar. Oops.

Somewhat predictably, Rémi tried to beg off, citing post-work exhaustion.

“Ahh, you cannot do this to me,” I said on the phone. I was straightening my hair and applying lipstick. “Pokemon” and “Dave” would be there and I needed to make a good impression.

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He groaned and sounded positively miserable, but I had come to understand, through scrolling OVS, that not showing up to an event at the last minute was an unforgivable sin. It seemed these people had ways of finding you out and getting you back. Like the Mafia.

An hour later, we stood shivering in the dark outside the wine bar, peering in the windows. Inside it was bright and cozy, but we were both buzzing with first-date nerves.

Après toi, Rémi said, holding the door. “You got us into this.”

“But…” I looked for an excuse. “You’re French! It’s less awkward for you.”

He wasn’t convinced.

The place was packed, but I didn’t see any signs advertising “group of people who just met over the internet.”

I leaned towards a bartender with gray hair and hipster glasses and said under my breath, “Um, we’re with a groupe d’OVS ?”

“A what?”

“On Va Sortir.”

“Huh?”

I wasn’t at all sure how this kind of thing was perceived in France, but it felt like a secret. My instinct was to keep it on the DL.

I cleared my throat. C’est un site de rencontre. He then proceeded to ask every group in the place if they were awaiting two strangers who just might be Rémi and I.

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We found them, a small and friendly group of five people, and exchanged cheek kisses. A pretty woman in her late 30s, Rebecca, had organized the event. An expat, she spoke with a Spanish accent and seemed completely enamored by photography. She talked like a professor, discussing the philosophical and aesthetic values that make good photos. For her, it was all about the story. I felt like taking notes.

We procured glasses of Merlot and a charcuterie plate, and then everyone took turns showing off their work via USBs and Rebecca’s Macbook.

Apart from the man sitting next to me, who showed me his collection of professional portraits, everyone was an amateur. So I was stunned to see that these photos were good.

In the series, all five of them, each person had captured Cannes in a different way, though they had all taken the same walk. The professional photographer focused on people on the street–musicians playing for euros, little kids–as well as his fellow photographers, capturing them in the midst of shooting pictures of other things.

A quiet older woman had put together a black-and-white series of what she described as Cannes ‘behind the scenes.’ She showed photographs of construction near the beach, litter, the jagged wood of a boat in need of repair. She had taken extreme close-ups of a single feather, a length of rope coiled on the sand, pigeon droppings. And they were beautiful.

I was perfectly content to sip wine, munch on salami, and admire everyone’s work. At the end, Rebecca gave her opinion on each series, explaining if she thought it worked as a cohesive set.

I was surprised and pleased by all the consideration given, this frank feedback. I’ll take passion over small-talk any day.

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I had halfway hoped for a funny horror story to share.

But there was a bigger surprise in store: I had a perfectly pleasant evening. (So did Rémi).

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I don’t think, though, that this marks the beginning of a thriving OVS-sponsored social life. I might be motivated to try again, if only the website wasn’t so clunky, archaic, and frustrating.

It’s not you, OVS, it’s me and my reluctance to spend hours clicking myself back to the late 90’s.

Better sometimes, anyway, to quit while you’re ahead.

the off-season

In Cannes, land of silver screens, someone has pressed pause. The town sleeps, stirring occasionally to prepare for things to come. Since November, the wind has carried visitors away.

The air holds a bitter chill. Even on sunny days, it lurks in shadows waiting to pounce.

The clink of cutlery and smell of frites at the beachside restaurants have been replaced by the violence of jackhammers. Dingy red carpets mark a safe pedestrian path through construction zones.

At the beach, bulldozers have scraped all that soft sand into small mountains. The beach chairs have disappeared. Scattered in their place are new bags of sand, tires, orange mesh fencing…detritus of a beach facelift.

Closed for congés annuels: the signs dot storefronts and windows. 

I hide out at a café I like, quiet and good for writing. Shelter from the wind. The barista, Jérémie, tells me that in a few months, the place will be packed. In January, I often have it to myself.

On days when the sun peeks through the clouds, shining like hope, I scurry to follow it, sitting outside in a patch of light at one of the cafes near the Hôtel de Ville and the port. These are the people-watching cafes, inhabited by groups of men smoking, travelers toting body-sized backpacks, and stately older women in sunglasses, sharing a glass of wine with no one.

I like the camaraderie, the shared newspaper, the way newcomers greet everyone around them. I like the smoke less, but that comes with the territory. 

Soon, the clouds close in again, impending doom. Shivering, I cross the street to wait for the daily hypnosis of the bus, stunning redundancy. There are people I’ve come to recognize from regular travel: the man with the hair. The woman with the perfume. The curly-haired little boy who busily eats his afternoon goûter, crumbs falling on his down jacket. His feet barely reach the edge of the seat.

We stare like zombies, the bus’s rocky turns and weak light a call to sleep. We are thinking, off in our individual worlds, or else not thinking at all, who can tell.

Soon the city blinks into darkness.

It is the off-season, no doubt about that. This is not the city that never sleeps, but one in hibernation.

It’s my off-season too. Winter does this to me, but I thought maybe I would escape it in the South of France. The listlessness, my mind like some caged animal. The cold fingers. Alas, winter has cast its frozen curse like always.

One day, late January, I am walking to school with the usual frozen toes and bleary eyes. I turn a corner and notice the mimosa trees have burst into bloom, the yellow blossoms a brilliant contrast against the cold blue sky. It’s not quite spring, but the sudden color is a cheerful preview: this season will pass

Not just winter, and the way it shall inevitably surrender to spring, but my own personal winter. This year has contained much joy…and many disappointments. I’m not where I wanted to be, and I don’t know where I’m going. I am not happy. Lonely, yes. Disillusioned. Sick with the constant dull ache of a sinus infection. Challenged by my financial situation. And the worst thought: did I make a mistake by coming here? Did I force something that wasn’t meant to be? Am I wasting my time? 

It’s easy for me to get lost here, staring out the bus window at gray clouds, eating canned soup alone and counting my problems. Forgetting that this, too, is a season.

I’m not happy. Not in the way I had come to count on, to expect, even.

But I am trying.

Working.

Thinking.

Reading.

Writing.

Teaching, to the best of my ability.

Learning, I think. I am just beginning to see that. One day, I expect, I will look back and count all this a victory. Much beauty comes from working through the off-season.