Archive for May, 2010

I am a grocery basket judge.  By this I mean that I like to look in people’s grocery baskets in the checkout line and imagine their lives.  I also feel frightfully superior when my basket trumps theirs. I am not exactly proud of this, just trying to honestly present my actions.  On the days when my basket is bulging with eggs, cheeses, fresh pastas, vegetables and wine, I feel confident that my basket says “Hello, I am a domestic, health conscience person who has many people to cook for, and you?,”  where as on the days that it consists of yogurt, Nutella, and cereal it says, “Hi. I am lame and just eat by myself without even taking time to cook. Got a problem with that?”  Because I usually want to appear as the former, sometimes I think I buy things just because I like how they look, then I find myself having to quickly eat 5 leeks and an entire bag of fresh spinach before it goes bad.

Yesterday I decided I wanted to make ratatouille, but it was mostly because I love how the basket looks packed with beautiful vegetables and ratatouille is the highest concentration of vegetables (the pretty ones, that is) in one spot.   Plus it is impossibly easy to make and delicious.  I have asked around and there isn’t really a set ratatouille recipe, so feel free to just add more/ less of anything according to taste.  Also, make sure to not look like a slob when you go to buy all these beautiful vegetables, because your basket can only speak so loud. (That’s right, now that I have stopped going to the grocery store in my running tights, my supermarket image is complete!)


-Here are all the vegetables I used: 1 eggplant, 2 zucchini, 3 shallots, 2 red peppers, one bunch of garlic (which was much smaller by the time I actually got to the garlic part), and a bunch of tomatoes.  Basically the end goal is to get them all simmering in a pot, so imagine that and it will help you decide exactly how many you want.  The amount that this makes would be a main dish for 3, side dish for 5-6.

-Peel the eggplant, onion, and zucchini. Wash the rest.  Cut all the vegetables into small chunks about 1 cm thick.  I quartered the cherry tomatoes and diced the onions and garlic.

-Toss them with 5 TBS olive oil and some salt and pepper.

-Pour into a big pot or deep skillet. Add about 1 cup of water and simmer, stirring occasionally, until veggies are soft, about an hour and half.  If you feel like it is getting too mushy, taste and decide.

-Can be eaten hot or cold, though I like it best hot, with a sprinkling on Parmesan cheese and big hunks of fresh baguette.

Note on the tomatoes: I used cherry tomatoes because they were on sale. I think you could also use regular or peeled whole canned tomatoes.


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On Fashion

Fashion is taking an unfortunate turn and Paris acts as the frontlines for the massacre occurring to women’s clothing.  It is like, in a moment of postmodern existential nostalgia, we are meshing together all the worst ideas from the trends of the past 30 years. When I go shopping, I am consistently bombarded by endless racks of unattractive beiges, creams, and mauves – colors that don’t look acceptable on anyone in springtime, as they make pale skin look a little sickly.  Shoulder pads are back, waistlines have shot up and given clearance for elastic to reappear on the scene, and I watched a girl go up the stairs in front of me the other day in suede, pleated trousers. Baggy, suede, pleated trousers to be exact. Florals have happily returned form the 90s and everyone’s sandals look like the came from the movie Gladiator. The blazer is back, as well as the full denim ensemble and the belted jumpsuit.  Yesterday I actually say two people whom I originally mistook as Elvis Presley impersonators than just realized that they were à la mode.

I am not saying that there aren’t some lovely things in stores right now, I am just saying that on the whole, you have to wade through a lot of ugly.  I am also saying that I write this from the rational part of my brain.  I know I hate these trends.  But when I am in the street, elbowed by a Parisian wearing 80s castoffs that I last saw in Dirty Dancing, I have a moment of pause.  Parisians are so confident, poised, and assertive, that I experience moments of weakness where I almost find their current fashion not only acceptable, but attractive.  To recover, I come inside and flip through J. Crew, with its Americanized takes on European fashion. Oh colors, solids, co-ordination and proper fit, how I love you!

At least there is comfort in that one most important fashion stable, black. Black is always in. It has always been in.  It will always be in. I am currently in a deep state of flirtation with navy as my new black, but Black and I know that I’ll be back. We always come back to Black.  All winter Paris was a sea of black.  Spring has brought on this wild fashion experiment, but even it can’t squelch black.  The other day I was wearing a black shirt and the youngest girl I babysit, age 5 analyzed my outfit before pronouncing a profound truth, which only a French pre-schooler would already be able to express:  “Black is always an elegant and refined choice. Well done.”

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For those of us who love looking through glossy magazines with picture perfect rooms bursting with floral arrangments and decoration ideas that we will never actually try, but instead merely save in a pile of clippings in some dusty folder, the magazine Marie Claire Idées is heaven.  The family that I nanny for subscribes and so there are always old copies sitting around and I love browsing through them.  I like seeing the perfectly clean little French girls playing on swing sets in their pink Repetto tutus and the children’s arts and crafts projects that only work in a country where kids use a ruler and compass like it was second nature.  I delight in the quantities of tulle, organza, and toile that reoccur ever two pages and I can’t get enough of the tin pitchers spilling cabbage roses onto distressed tables.  I want to live in Marie Claire world.  Today I opened the magazine at random and found a woman riding a white Vespa up the driveway to a French manor house, wearing a billowy white gown that puffs and settles around her beribboned adult scooter like a dream.  She smiles out from a floppy sun hat and giggles at the fact that all around her are flowered hat boxes which have fallen from her vespa and from which tumble bunches of pink flowers.  Why can’t I be the white-gowned-flower-laden Vespa maiden?  In my soul, I truly believe I am her.  But in reality, my white gown would get tangled in my Vespa and I would plunge head long onto the gravel drive as my flower boxes landed on me attracting bees.

But on the cover of this past issue,  Marie Claire had a quote that I loved, that I am claiming for spring, even if I have not the poise, elegance, or Frenchness, of the Vespa Princess.

Pour l’amour des beaux jours

Dites oui à tout

Aux oiseaux

Et aux fleurs

Aux petits riens

Et au bonheur.

“Out of love for fine days, say yes to birds, and to flowers, to little nothings, and to happiness.”

I know it is corny. I know it is cheesy.  And I know that it is pertaining to fabric choices in reupholstering an Ikea chair or organizing the place settings for a garden party. But I don’t care.  Spring is here with summer fast approaching.  The days are long and I want to fill them with all that is lovely: with birds, flowers, little nothings, and happiness.

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Often we visit places where history happened, where battles were fought, kings crowned, feats of daring or honor performed.  I have written before about how much I love that in Paris, how much I love walking through the city with a constant reminder of its history, of the decisions made by its leaders and conquerors.   But this week, I visited perhaps the most important place in Paris’ history, a place where a decision was made to not act, and in this absence, the city was saved.

My boyfriend studied history at college and is always sending me books on the history of Paris.  Obligingly, I read them, and to his credit, I usually love them.   The most recent book he recommended was one called Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  It follows the last weeks of the German occupation during World War II, ending with the allied liberation.  Though replete with tear jerking stories of noble French men and women fighting back to reclaim their city, what really stands out is the portrayal it offers of Dietrich von Choltitz, the German officer handpicked by Hitler to come and raze Paris to the ground in the event of an Allied advance or internal rebellion.  Renowned for his capabilities in this respect and previous war cruelty, he would be the perfect candidate to prevent the city from falling into enemy hands “except lying in complete debris.”  But what happened is another story.  The authors conducted weeks of interviews with Choltitz and what these revealed is a man who became tormented between his military duty, and the knowledge that in doing so he would commit a crime that the world would never forgive. He would stand on the balcony of the headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice  and watch little children playing in the Tuileries Gardens, in between the Louvre and Palais Bourbon, and could not bring himself to destroy this.  Every bridge was rigged to explode, as well as all the important monuments and buildings.  One word from this man and Paris would be destroyed beyond recognition.  And inside of the Hôtel Meurice,  Dietrich von Choltitz chose not to give the order, delaying long enough that the FFI and Allied Forces reached Paris and liberated the city.

James is visiting this week, so we went to have tea in the Hôte Meurice, which far surpasses any hotel I have ever entered.  We sat in the main parlor, where the German officers where paraded out and imagined the American soldiers – boys from Iowa and Nebraska – wandering under the gilded chandeliers.  Then we left and strolled home through the centuries-old beauty that is Paris, appreciating afresh the fact that the city still exists all around us.

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You know you are a Disney princess when you sing and birds land in your hands.  Even Cinderella, long before marrying the prince and getting all the royal glory, had birds alight on her while she sang. Lesson learned from Disney stories:  perfect lives end in cute little birds landing on you, and an early onset of bird perching signals many good things to come.

I realize this is not true for everyone.  One of my best friends lives in mortal fear of most birds.   But the story I am about to tell doesn’t involve the gross birds, the footless mangled pigeons of dubious ancestry that fill Parisian airspace.  I am not talking about the manically devious crows that mar your picnics and who, on more than one occasion, I have watched unwrap crumbled Macdonalds bags in the Luxembourg gardens and remove burger bits with a dexterity that strikes fear in my heart.  No, the birds I encountered yesterday where of the Disney fairy tale variety, colorful, friendly, and drawn in by perfect melodies.

I was walking home from the Hôtel de Ville last night when I paused in front of Notre Dame to listen to some street musicians.  They were two boys, probably not much older than 17 who  were basking up the attention of the crowd that was gathering in the twilight.  One was playing a guitar to accompany his friend who was playing away at a hang. (What is a hang you say?  I had to ask too.  Here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hang_(musical_instrument) )  I have seen people playing them before, but the music usually sounds like the type of thing that is piped through speakers beside a pool and you listen while drinking something that has  a miniature umbrella stuck in the top.  But this duo sounded entirely different.  The perfect melody of the soft acoustic guitar and the tinkling harp/ bell sound of the hang drew me in.  I was not the only one.  After about 10 minutes, two brightly colored birds flew in out of nowhere and landed on the hang player’s head.  He was as shocked as the rest of us, but continued laughing and playing while the birds fluttered back and forth from his head, shoulders, and instrument.  We all waited for some owner to appear and take credit, then badger us for some coins, but no one came.  Finally the birds started making the rounds of the audience, flittering from hand to hand, until drifting up towards the bell tower of Notre Dame to settle for the night.  It was never resolved where the birds came from, or whether they belonged to anyone. But while they were there, they added perfect dashes of color and seemed to bless the perfection of the music by their mere presence.

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Miniature things are exciting to me by virtue of the mere fact that they are small.  Anything that is a microscopic copy of its original has instant appeal for me.  When I was little I was an avid American Girl doll owner (If you don’t know what that is, go to http://www.americangirl.com/index.php  and bask) and I was always on the look out for small sized versions of things to provide a realistic and complete atmosphere for my dolls.   This fascination has never lessened.

France is a miniature paradise.  Everything is available in perfect tiny models, from the ramekins I use for chocolate mousse, to little tart pans, to the microscopic serving sizes that make huge dents in your wallets. But moreover, everything is smaller in general.  The grocery store takes up less space than the frozen food section of Walmart, the cars zip through the streets in the tiny “cute” models that are foreign to my former SUV world, and my walk in closet at home was almost as large as my apartment here. But then again, space is precious in Paris, and a world of small scaled proportions is reflected at every corner. What they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality, precision, and depth.

My friend Laura is visiting this week, and we talked about this as we ate tiny desserts at Ladurée last night.   Each of the 15 bites of my dessert was so perfect that I sat and savored it for an hour, and we slowly consumed our tiny pewter pot of ginger root tea.  Sometimes you don’t need big to impress.  Something small can stop us in our tracks because of its tiny perfect details.

In nature, this is even more true.  Have you ever paused to look at the perfection of a tiny flower or the details on a little shell?  Sunday, Laura and I went to Giverny. I know that I just posted about Giverny, but as Laura is an art major and a Monet fan, we had to make the pilgrimage.  The gardens were as beautiful as before, with huge clumps of giant tulips and long patches of bright flowers.  But what we couldn’t get over where the tiny flowers, the little snails that crawl along the tulips, and the absolute perfection of nature.  Laura pulled out a scaled down water color pad and did some painting and I wandered pilfering delicate pansies.  I love Paris, but it is always refreshing to wander in fields of green in quiet villages. And it is always humbling and delighting to see the diminutive beauty in little details.  What a wonderful Creator and a beautiful creation!

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Wine Problems

No, seriously, I meant wine problems, like in the mathematical sense.

Sometimes, I help the girls with their homework. I say sometimes, because I am not always sure how much of a help I am.  One time the eldest forgot her grammar workbook at school so I was handed the phone as a mother somewhere in the Latin quarter dictated 2 pages of complex text with the adjectives left out so that the students could add tem in the gender appropriate manner.  When I finished, dripping sweat, my 10 year old slave driver scrutinized my pages of much practiced cursive and sighed, then requested I recopy it, using a ruler to make the blanks neater.

But math, I can do.  I think the world problems that elementary students do are very indicative of their society.  The other day the oldest girl was working on the following word problem:

Three friends go to a restaurant. The all get the same menu (a set price for a 2 or three course meal), order a bottle of wine, and two of them finish with an espresso. The bill is 72 Euros.  The bottle of wine being 14 Euros, and the espressos each costing 2 Euros, what was the menu price?

Don’t get me wrong – this is an exceedingly practical word problem for a child growing up in the center of Paris.  But what had me laughing was the wine.  Maybe I am wrong, but I am pretty certain that alcohol is nonexistent in the workbooks of American elementary school children.  I told this to my 10 year old Parisian, and she shrugged her shoulders and then leaned forward and said conspiratorially, “Les français sont fous pour le vin” (“The French are crazy for wine.”).  She then showed me how about one in every eight or so word problems dealt with wine, calculating the number of bottles in a shipment, the glasses in each bottle, how many bottles to have for a dinner party, etc. At first, my sense of propriety and age level sensitivity was shocked. But then again, she is French. I guess there is something to be said for applicable school assignments.

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I have never lived in such awareness of a horizon. Growing up in the country, going to school in the country, I never really studied the horizon because I always lived below it.  But now, by the time I hike up all 137 (I think, Jenny counted – somewhere around there) steps, I am above the skyline and have a perfect horizon view.  The fact that the Eiffel Tower acts as a perfect marker to gauge any changes in the horizon is an added bonus. Ok, so it is a BIG added bonus.  All last fall I secretly and pettily resented that the sun set to the left of the Eiffel Tower and not behind it, thus imagine my surprise and delight when I looked out the window last week and realized that the sun now nestles itself each evening between the Eiffel Tower and the shining golden dome of Hotel des Invalides.  My first though was shock  and fear that the sun had MOVED.  I know of course that there is some scientific reason involving the Earth’s tilt, etc, but having never had a benchmark like the Eiffel Tower, I have just never noticed the sun setting in a different spot.

Last weekend I had the privilege of watching a storm roll in across my horizon.  What could be more impressive, more awe inspiring than watching the heavens regroup into thunder clouds and rain down showers of gold from a sky that was clear not long before?  And then, at the end, we are rewarded with a sunset.

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In the family where I babysit, Tuesday night is crêpe night, without exception. On other nights, the girls have to eat one thing “that has grown” but on Tuesdays, Nutella replaces vegetables.  My first day nannying happened to be a Tuesday, so I was very quickly thrust into the world of crêpe making,  which resulting in one crêpe being launched behind the stove.  But after 8 months and approximately 700 crêpes, I now feel pretty confident in my crêpe making abilities. I think that French women are born with the crêpe recipe memorized, or perhaps they learn it in preschool, but whatever the case, there seems to be a fairy generic recipe, or more aptly, a serious of ratios, that they all know.   I present the recipe a I have been learned it, reading it each week from the fridge where one of the girls wrote it in loopy French cursive with a drawing of me surrounded by piles of crêpes, one of which is flying through the air towards the stove.  This is the recipe broken down to the simplest ratio as decided by the egg. To give you an idea,  when I make it for myself and the girls I multiply it by 4, thus 500 grams flour, which is enough to feed me and three kids for dinner, dessert, and then them again for breakfast the next day.

Mix (which for me means supervise the total war that breaks out among 3 sisters who all feel that life will end if they don’t get to add the eggs):

125 grams flour ~ 1 egg~ dash salt~ 1/4 TBS oil (not olive — vegetable or sunflower)

Add slowly: 1/4 liter milk,  stirring till there are no clumps (For extra light and tasty crêpes, substitute beer for part of the milk.)

Heat a crêpe skillet over medium/ medium high heat. Wipe with an oiled paper towel and use a ladle to pour batter in pan, turning it so the whole pan is evenly coated with a thin layer of batter. Let cook until sides pull away slightly then loosen edges with a knife.  Use a spatula, or be brave and toss the crêpe to cook the other side.  Wipe again with a little oil in between each, unless your crêpe skillet is really good and nonstick.

I usually make  a pile to spread dessert stuff on then at the end make the savory crêpes, which you want to actually assemble over the heat to melt the cheese.  Here are some of my favorite crêpe combos:

-The classic: ham and emmenthal (or swiss) cheese

-Soft goat cheese and sundried tomato

-Soft goat cheese with honey and walnuts

-Nutella with bananas and almonds

-Cane sugar with lemon juice

Bon appétit!

NOTE:  When I made these at home over Christmas, I found that due to the different gluten content in American flour, I needed more milk to make the batter thin enough.

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For the second week of my spring vacation, I headed south to Bordeaux.  My brother Zach came over from England because he not so secretly wishes he spoke French and lived in France.  Who, after living through an English winter and then seeing southern France, could think otherwise?  We decided to stay in Bordeaux, spending one full day and evenings there and then taking some day trips.  I like to think that we saw a lot of Bordeaux but that would be misleading.  We stayed near the old city section whose tiny cobblestone streets and sun drenched churches reminded me of Italy, and we didn’t venture far outside.  In fact, other than the mesmerizing reflection pool along the waterfront, we spent virtually our entire time in Bordeaux in the same plaza.  I don’t even really remember the name, but an old church offered one side and the remaining sides contained quant restaurants with outdoor seating shaded by leafy trees, wide umbrellas, and twinkling lanterns.  All of our meals out in Bordeaux were eating in this plaza.  To be more specific, all of our dinners were eaten in the same restaurant, La Taverne Saint-Pierre.  Stones have fierce loyalty.  Our initial good dinner prompted us to boldly decide that this was the best restaurant in Bordeaux, or at least our favorite.  Zach’s French is rather limited to the enthusiastic “Très Bien!” and so every time the server/owner/ sous chef asked how anything was, Zach would just make appreciative faces and pronounce it “Trrrrrrèèèsss bien!” But then again, it was.

If I thought the pace of life was deliciously slow in Paris, it is nothing compared to southern France.  The trams piddled along at a pace only slightly faster than walking, our hotel casually gave me the key without demanding any form of payment or ID, and our meals lasted late into the night.  I think it is something about the sun that just makes you want to slow down and bask.  One day we took the train to the town of Arcachon to spend the day at the beach.  Expecting all sorts of street side vendors, we instead found ourselves a little pressed to find sandwiches to buy.  But that did mean it was an afternoon of reading and relaxation that one is hard pressed to find at say, Virginia Beach.  Yes, for one afternoon at the beach, we had to bring 2 books a piece because Stones live in fear of finishing a book and not having another to start.

But by far our favorite part of the trip was our day spent in the tiny medieval town of Saint-Émilion, from which come all of these pictures.  Nestled in the heart of Bordeaux’s wine country, Saint-Émilion is a perfect gem of steep stone streets, hidden alleys overhung in flowers, and horizons covered in endless vineyards.  After exploring the village, we rented bikes to cycle through country.  One of my friends in Paris has family who run a vineyard nearby so we peddled over for a visit.  My friend had told me that when she is at Michotte, you seem to step out of time, and nothing could have been closer to the truth.  We had cake and tea in a bright kitchen with the windows open and listened to a brief spring rainstorm before having a tour of the premises.  I was a little sad to hear that people no longer stomp the grapes, but at least at Michotte they are still picked by hand.

I left Michotte and Saint-Émilion thinking that the whole process of winemaking is very reminiscent of the area it comes from.  It is a process, a life that cannot be rushed, that develops its greatest savor after being allowed to rest for a while.  It is a lesson in patience, but more over a lesson in the benefit of doing things slowly, of stepping outside of time so as to best use it.

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