Thursday, July 31, 2008

Keeping cool

Geez, it's been a hot week! Yesterday, I went to a few Korean shops to buy some spices I've been searching for (with no luck), and had to help a dear old lady find her away around an arrondissement I'm not familiar with. Her face was beaded with sweat and she had to pull me into the shade while I searched my pocket map for the street she was looking for. We chatted a bit (she praised my French skills - yeehaw!) and I pointed her in the direction of her destination (I got the feeling she was reluctant to go wherever she was heading, but man, who wouldn't be reluctant to walk in 9,000-degree weather?). I realized, after talking with her, how much I enjoy practicing my French. Sure, it sucks when I don't have the right words to say, but it feels good to hear my progression and practice the phrases and words I've become familiar with.

So, I didn't stay out very long because, frankly, I was melting in the streets, and the stench of B.O. in the stuffy metro was making me gag. I came home, peeled off my sweaty clothes, threw on what's become my summer house-dress (an old, light, jersey dress) and hung out in front of the fan for the rest of the day. It was too hot to cook, so Gui and I had some tasty cold sandwiches for dinner.

Gui also had leftover, cold quiche (blech!).

Pain campagne makes a good sandwich!

Today was another scorcher and it took so much energy to motivate myself to get some pictures taken that I need for my carte de sejour appointment tomorrow. I also wanted to check into getting a haircut while I was out, but I couldn't stand the heat any longer than necessary and I headed straight back to the shade of our apartment and the coolness of our fans after snapping a sweaty, smile-less pic. It didn't get any cooler and there was no way I was turning on the oven tonight, so we spent a lovely evening in Le Marais enjoying a delicious fallafel and cold Corona in an air-conditioned resto. We wrapped up the evening with cold gelato at the Pozzetto counter where I enjoyed a refreshing watermelon sorbet cone (that I'll be going back for soon) and Gui scarfed down their famous hazelnut chocolate gianduia.

Mmmmm....fallafel.

Sorbet pasteque.


No photos of Gui's ice cream because he finished it in 15 seconds.




Tomorrow, Gui is taking a half-day to come with me to the prefecture for my carte de sejour appointment. With luck, I'll be receiving my récépissé that (ideally) allows me to work until I receive my actual carte de sejour. I'm not holding my breath that anything will go smoothly because, let's face it, that's my new reality and I'm fine with taking the bad with the good...for now. I'm just hoping they have working air-conditioning in their office because then if everything goes wrong, at least I'll have gotten a satisfying respite from this unrelenting heat...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Belle-mère's chocolate cake

Note: Sorry for all the food posts lately...it's what's been keeping me busy!

So, I've discovered that my favorite cake to bake is chocolate cake. After receiving an intimidatingly simple recipe from my MIL, I gave it a shot and ended up with a delicious, soft and fluffy chocolate cake. I've never made a chocolate cake before - not even the boxed kind, not brownies, not cupcakes, and now that I have this trusty recipe, it's going to be a regular around here. I only had three eggs on hand, so I just reduced everything a smidge (except for the chocolate) and it turned out perfectly. Since there weren't any instructions on baking the cake, I took the advice of one of my favorite food bloggers and figured it was ready when it was ready.

I can't wait to try it as a moelleux au chocolat next time, and I'm totally going to look for a recipe for crème anglaise to dress it up a bit, too (as both were so kindly suggested). This time around, it's been a delicious dessert and the perfect accompaniment to café au lait in the morning.




Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A meal like mom's

I find myself noticing more and more ways that I'm becoming like my mom. For instance, I often scoop up a box of Frosties (Kellogg's Frosted Flakes) when I'm craving a bowl and rarely eat them after I've gotten my fix. There's something about those sugary flakes with milk that reminds me of hanging at home with mom. As I start to open up to the world of baking, I notice that it brings about a sort of reflective nostalgia to be in the kitchen baking a cake for no reason at all. My mom used to (and still does) always do that.

"Why are you making cookies, mom?"
"Oh, just because. I felt like having some oatmeal raisin cookies."

I can't wait to get my hands on some oats to try my hand at her soft and gooey oatmeal cookies! A lot of my mom's cooking comes from improvising with what's on hand. I'm not really good at that yet, and I haven't been cooking long enough to know what to sub if I'm missing an ingredient for a recipe or something. Last week, I really wanted to make some rice with the drumsticks I bought for baking. My mom often makes baked chicken rubbed simply with a bit of salt, pepper and flour and serves it with freshly steamed rice and corn or some other vegetable. Even though it's a meal she probably threw together one day out of what she found in the fridge and pantry, it's one of my favorite and most nostalgic meals. As I was preparing to make the rice, I noticed there were still a couple of delicious sun-dried tomatoes swimming in their jar and I decided they needed to be rescued from their loneliness. Trying to recall how my mom makes her famous Spanish rice, I attempted my own version of rice by adding the oil from the tomatoes, the tomatoes chopped and some purple onion along with a few spices. As the smells started to mingle and the pan sizzled, a wave of memory hit me and I was transported to my mom's kitchen, sniffing the air, humming an "mmmmmm" and telling her how good her rice always smells.

The meal turned out perfectly and I know my mom would have loved the rice - it was really amazing. Still, being the ever-so-impatient lid-lifter, I couldn't make the rice cook fast enough! I giggled to myself as I thought of her telling me to "quit lifting the lid because it's almost ready!"



Mom and I always go for the crunchy bits of meat and skin leftover. :)

Gui and I finished the entire pan of rice - it was that good.

The broccoli was great, but next time we're having corn.

Monday, July 28, 2008

House guest

While Gui's cousins are on vacation for a few weeks, we're keeping their cute cat, Mephisto at our place. He's really a lovely cat, but I think he's finding it a little hard to adjust to his new, temporary home. Unfortunately for him, Gui and I live on the sixth floor (5eme en français), and since we don't have a balcony or a proper sitting area outside (like he does at home), he doesn't get to hang out much in the outside world. I feel really bad for him. Every time he goes to an open window, we have to scare him away for fear he might attempt an accidental suicide. And, it's far too hot these days to keep the windows closed during the day.

I don't generally have good luck with pet-sitting cats, having had one die under my watch (the cat had complications from a previous ailment that I didn't know still persisted...it was a devastating experience for me), and my temperament around kids and animals tends to be hyper-sensitive to any possible dangerous scenarios - I let my fears become theirs, so, taking care of a homesick cat is seriously stressful for me.

During the first few nights, he'd sometimes start meowing sadly and loudly which would keep me up for a while trying to figure out what to do to make him better. Gui could see my frustration and suggested a change of scenery. At 5AM the best we could do was show him the stairwell, which actually suited him just fine. The meowing stopped and he's been in slightly better spirits since.

Now, we're taking him out to the stairwell for some regular change of scenery. I've also made a few adjustments to our furniture arrangements and added a mosquito screen to the window rails to prevent any accidental base-jumping, but I'm still paranoid as ever over his whereabouts during the day and his safety while we're away. Too bad it's so impossible to comfortably have a dog in Paris because now more than ever I'm sure we won't be having a cat.



My MacGyvered suicide protection.


Safely peering over - no more jumping on the ledge!

Pique-nique, ultimate frisbee, disco dancing & Le Tour de France

Friday marked the last day of my first French class in Paris. It was a little bittersweet because many of the people I'd come to know in the class had been there with me since the first day, and some were heading back to their respective countries, realistically never to be seen or heard from again. Our teacher organized a picnic after a short tour of the neighborhood around our school. We had decided ahead of time that we'd get the food for the picnic after class, which seriously annoyed the poor young guy at the check-out counter when twelve different people were trying to organize payment for 92Euros of groceries in at least four different languages. Thank goodness I had the foresight to do my shopping separately and paid on my own.

When we got to Paris Plages (the summer beach area in Paris), there weren't any tables left, so we set up shop on a park bench and watched as teenagers with idiots for parents jumped into the toxic river just for kicks. We all loaded up on tabbouleh, chips, salad, hummus, olives, cheese, bread and saucisson. I didn't make it home until after 6pm, which means that our picnic lasted at least four hours. Before everyone left, the Spanish students (there were four and they outnumbered all the other nationalities) made plans to meet up on Saturday night and invited everyone to come for some dancing. The plan, as far as I heard it was to meet at a metro stop at 8pm, then head over to the Fleche d'Or for a live band or DJ. I was stoked because really, we don't go "out" much as far as going to bars or clubs, and from what I hear, lots of Parisians prefer to host parties than get lost in a touristy club where drinks cost as much as a few bottles of wine at the supermarket. Generally, that's the same train of thought I tend to follow, but mostly because I prefer the comfort of being in a controlled environment where I don't have to worry about sometimes creepy strangers trying to grab my butt.

My school.


Paris Plages.


The view from the bridge of Paris Plages.


What Parisians do to cool off in the summer - love it.



Walking around the 19th arrondissement, near school.



Pique-nique.




We ended our Friday with dinner with an old friend from Austin who may or may not be moving back to Paris, and with Ber and Ben who joined us for drinks and the usual witty banter and mindless chatter. On Saturday afternoon, Gui and I met up with friends at Cité International University where I killed myself by participating in a game of Ultimate Frisbee. I wish I had taken pictures because really, folks, seeing me running around catching and launching a frisbee with a bunch of French dudes is a hysterical moment that won't occur often (if ever again). It turned out to be so much fun, though and despite my out-of-shapeness and the immense pain still radiating through my hips, butt and arms, I'm looking forward to the next game (where maybe I'll score more than the awesome three points I scored last time). I just wish I hadn't opted out of phys-ed in high school to do that co-op thing.

Dinner with an old friend on rue de Rivoli.



Really enjoying their frites.


I really enjoyed my fish.


I heart this picture of Gui.

We rested a little after the exhausting game, and then headed out to the Fleche d'Or around 8:40. I was under the impression my old classmates would be hanging out in the bar all night, or at least for most of the night after meeting up at 8pm. Apparently, I was mistaken, and because I failed to be responsible and take the contact number, we hung out at the bar for a little over an hour and decided to give up on tracking them down. I was pissed - at myself for not bringing the number and at the group for not being where they'd told me they'd be. It was a shame, too because the bands we heard were quite good and the place reminded us of an Austin-style venue, with a big outdoor terrace and bar. I'll definitely go back.

We came back home because, frankly, I was upset that the plans fell through and I couldn't be bothered to go to this other party we'd been invited to because I was in such a pissy mood. I decided, now that I had the number, to call and let the group know that I came and missed them and would keep in touch through email, etc. Well, when I called, they said there was a big change of plans because someone showed up an hour late, and they ended up going to another bar and the original plan was to meet at Fleche d'Or at 10pm...wtf? The only possible explanation for my misunderstanding the plan is that they mentioned that part to me in Spanish and I completely disregarded it. Possible and probable. They had pretty much just started their night and were going to grab a bite and then a few drinks before going out for the music. I told them I wasn't sure about going all the way back out there, and truly in my mind I was annoyed and frustrated. But, Gui, being the inhumanly human that he is, convinced me to get over it and go meet up with them like I'd planned to all along. I think he probably regretted his effort to convince me to go back out because the rest of the night pretty much sucked.

We met them for pizza then headed towards the bar, but only five of us ever really made it in. The rest of the group (about five others) were waiting for someone else to show up, and then they decided to pick up some beer to drink before going into the bar, which pissed off the bouncer dude enough to deny them entry. At this point, it was starting to rain, so we stayed in the club for a bit and enjoyed some music from the DJ before Gui and I decided we had enough of the drama and bounced (that's Gui's word, and I'm stealing it for this post). I'm glad I got to see some of them for the last time and I'm really happy to have discovered a rather decent bar/club in Paris, but I still feel like I wasted a little bit of my life going back to meet them a second time. Ah well.

Inside Fleche d'Or - the DJ was meh, but the bands before were really good.


Gui thinking about maybe dancing...


Yep, dancing - like a boxer?



I spent all day Sunday recovering from the murderous pains that erupted throughout my body each time I walked, stood, sat, coughed or breathed. How am I this out of shape?? I walk at least a couple of kilometers a day and I've been known to occasionally break a sweat, so why do I feel like ripping my muscles out of my body after a measly couple of hours of frisbee?? Maybe I'll stretch first next time. Besides loading up on a delicious beans and toast lunch, making a quiche and being an extra couch cushion, I also made it out of the house and down the street to watch the Tour de France ride into Paris. Unfortunately, my memory card ran out of memory just as the riders were making their way in front of me, so I only caught a few seconds of the front of the group. I did manage to catch the yellow jersey, though and a few pics of them riding across the bridge. It was pretty neato even if Gui thought we were joining the beaufs (French rednecks) in watching Le Tour. I never said I wasn't a redneck...

The giant maillot from just outside the sponsor's building.



The riders crossing the bridge.


Apparently, Gui thought it'd be funny to take a picture of the TdF on TV as it lapped the Champs Elysees since I didn't get any photos of my own. :(

Here's the video I did manage to get.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Trying to fall in love with French

This is my last week of French classes, for now at least. I was supposed to be finished last week, but I decided to enroll in another week to round it up to a four-week lesson. Reflecting on how much I've learned in four weeks, I really feel like I've come a long way. I've still got SO much further to go, but I'm more confident in a few of my skills, and I think I've increased the overall versatility of my speech. But, as I said before, I've got a long ways to go.

I still can't fully express myself in French - or even mostly express myself. I find I'm constantly asking how to say something or another in French and repeating the same words or phrases over and over. Many times, midway through a thought that I can't quite get across, I stop and decide to cut myself off for fear of saying the wrong thing or sounding stupid. I know it's all part of the learning process, but it's an exhausting feeling to be defeated each and every day by a language that makes no sense. I found some consolation today in class when a girl who has command of Portuguese, Spanish and English told me of her frustrations with learning the French language. Those seated next to us were also in agreement that the language is so complex and completely taxing. I mentioned that when I was living in Italy, I would find myself dreaming in Italian, thinking in Italian and feeling the language; conversely, it's never been like that for me with French. Sure, I studied Italian for a few semesters, but I never practiced, never listened to Italian radio or watched Italian TV on a daily basis, and I don't ever remember thinking of it as such a laborious subject. What I do recall is feeling like I was meant to speak the language, like it was somewhere in me all along, just waiting to be brought to life. I don't have that same feeling with French.

After class today, I found myself dreaming about moving away from France to Italy or Spain. I don't think that's something Gui and I would ever really do without a really good reason, but it was nice to think of how much easier life might be if I could live in a foreign country and be able to speak the language with comfort and confidence, working and enjoying my life as an "insider" rather than someone trying to figure it out. Then, I could really start my life there - do real work instead of going to school to learn how to read and write and talk; I could do so many things that I dream of doing here, like volunteering and taking music lessons, but instead I find there's always that black cloud of non-fluency looming over, reminding me of my below-par skill set.

I really hope (and plan) to one day master the language enough to get a job and converse freely with friends and family, but I don't imagine that will be anytime soon. A week from Friday, we have my carte de sejour meeting at the prefecture where I believe they'll assess my skill level (or send me somewhere to do that) to determine if language classes will be needed and if so, how much. It's part of this new integration contract they're implementing throughout France. I'm all for getting 200-400 hours of free language classes, and I want nothing more than to find my passion for French like I found for Italian. Yet, some part of me still yearns for the easy way, for a way to bypass months ( if not years) of language classes just to get to the point that I was at eight months ago (geesh! I've been jobless for eight months, who in the world is going to hire me?!). Sometimes I feel like I'm going backwards or not going at all, and it worries me to ponder where my professional life and personal ambitions will be in a year. All I hope is that I'm not still sitting in a class with the same folks trying to figure out how to politely say, "may I please have a baguette and a chocolate eclair?"

Monday, July 21, 2008

A[n extended] weekend of dinner parties

Since Thursday, Guillaume and I have been either hosting dinner chez nous or attending dinner parties with friends or family. Sometimes, it's really nice to have dinner plans already made to prevent the whole "what should we do for dinner" conversation. Usually, the conversation ends with a homemade dinner for just the two of us, which isn't really a bad thing anyway.

On Thursday, we spent some time in Gui's old 'hood, catching up with his childhood friends, including the two hosts who will be getting married next month in La Rochelle. We've been looking forward to their wedding since we were living in California, and as the big day approaches, I'm getting more and more excited about it. It will be the first time I attend a religious marriage ceremony in France, and I'm really looking forward to spending an entire day near the sea, celebrating the marriage of two people who've been together for what I think is over 8 or 10 years - something crazy like that! It was nice talking about upcoming wedding plans and hearing stories from the bachelor party that took place a couple of weekends ago. It's also funny to see Guillaume and his friends act like the boys that they grew up being - always trying to outdo one another in some, exaggerated, unnecessary way and calling each other by the pet names they came up with when they were pimply-faced 15 year olds.








On Friday night, we invited Gui's mom over for lasagne rolls and the not-so-disastrous-afterall apricot tart. The ricotta, spinach and prosciutto stuffed lasagne turned out really well and I even remembered well how to make a yummy bechamel. I'll never doubt myself again! While we were waiting for our coffee to brew, we busted out a birthday gift given to Guillaume from our dear friend, Baptiste. It's a juicer - a fancy red one - that we hadn't tested yet. So, we gave it a go, and voila, freshly-squeezed OJ was produced in seconds!






On Saturday, some other friends of Gui invited us to a dinner party at their place where we found ourselves in an exact replica of the house Gui grew up in. Actually, his old house was a few doors down from where we were dining, and besides a few minor cosmetic differences (i.e. paint color, flooring, etc.), the houses are identical. It was cool to imagine him growing up in the three-story abode, playing outside on the terrace as a child and blaring heavy-metal music from his poster-lined bedroom as a teenager. I also imagined there were many delicious tarts like the ones we dined on made nightly in his mom's kitchen for supper. Despite being exhausted from an early morning rendezvous at the marché, I partook in bit of French conversation and a ton of French tartes. I don't know why I don't make tarts more often - they're so delicious and not a ton of work since you can easily buy the pastry at any supermarket. I think my favorites were the bacon and onion tart and the goat cheese and three-pepper tart, but I found myself replenishing my plate more than twice with a simple vegetable salad of short-stemmed green beans, peas, carrots and mayo - a new salad that I'm adding my regularly-referenced recipe repertoire.






Last night, our soon-to-be-married friends came over to see our place for the first time and they stayed for dinner. This time, I made a shrimp tagliatelle that I adapted from a seafood spaghetti recipe that I've been hoping to test out. I got so lost in the moment that I didn't take any pictures of our dinner, but I did somehow manage to snap a shot of the ingredients I prepared for the pasta. The tomatoes were by far, the most important ingredient of the recipe and THE best sundried tomatoes I've ever eaten. I still have a couple left in the jar that I know won't last more than a day or two on the shelf - they were just phenomenal.



I was explaining to our guests that I'm still learning how to host a proper dinner in France. I told them that it's nothing like at home when, after my mom cooks up an entire meal, it's all placed on the table or counter for everyone to serve themselves, with things like "can you pass the mashed potatoes" and "did everyone get some beans" being shouted across the table. After living through a French Christmas, it's slightly the same idea, but as far as normal dinner parties go, it's rarely an entrée, plât, dessert, café type of occasion - at least in my circle of friends. We usually start (and end) with an aperitif, serve ourselves when the food is ready, eat on the couch, recliner, floor or other makeshift seat and talk about how great the food is, while someone occasionally makes a drink run to the fridge to see if anyone's drink needs replenishing.

Being slightly afraid of being the slightly awkward outcast, I find myself scrutinizing every detail of the dinners I attend in hopes of gaining greater insight into what's expected of me as a host. I've learned that it kind of depends on the company, the number of guests (and how intimate we are with the guests), the time of day and the reason for the occasion in the first place. Generally, I feel more comfortable in a formal environment even when it's not totally called for. I like serving the olives, crackers and mini-cheeses before starting on the entrée and so on. And, the after-dinner coffee and/or tea is my favorite part of the meal - I just need to scoop up another French press or tea pot to be sure I can accommodate all of my guests' requests. Desserts are not my area of expertise, so I'll have to work on finding a good go-to recipe that doesn't require too much effort so I can use it regularly.

After last night's dinner, I am feeling a little more confident about my role as "dinner host" here thanks to one of the best compliments I've ever received from someone enjoying one of my culinary creations. Gui's lifelong friend told me (in half-French, half-English) that the best cooks are those that have been exposed to a variety of different styles of food and cooking and take with them only the best things from each place, each experience; he went on to say that he could tell I was one of those people, or at least I was well on my way to becoming one. It's a similar sentiment that I find myself constantly reinforcing when I worry about my ability to integrate - I don't have to change everything about who I am to fit in, so long as I keep all the good parts.