The other night at dinner, I told my husband about something, and he informed me I had told him the same thing just the day before. Of course, it isn’t as if he has anything new to tell me, either. Just like everybody else in the world, stuck at home. Well, no–the lucky ones are stuck at home while the brave continue to keep the world moving forward, so we still have electricity and running water and enough food. Which is more than about a billion people had on a pre-Covid-19 good day.The top photo translates to “underwater bridge,” which seems to negate the very point of a bridge. Actually, it’s a culvert that usually is above the stream, except for when you REALLY need it. Somehow, the concept of an underwater bridge seems appropriate right now. The title reflects my gallows humor at the moment: the song from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”Are you also losing track of the days? It isn’t even as if I thought it was Thursday or Saturday; I had no idea at all. What does one do on Fridays? I don’t remember. Oh, yeah–the recycling goes out. Otherwise, all the things that made one day different from the next have evaporated, and now each day is nebulous–a shape-shifting fog. We are trying our best to eat well. Homemade pizza. Squash risotto with sautéed zucchini. Crispy tofu with mushrooms, peppers and avocado. Our avocados were still too hard to make into a guacamole, so I added some tahini-miso sauce (a tablespoon of tahini, another of miso, another of honey, another of sesame oil and two of olive oil). The key to the tofu dish is to cook things separately but to reuse the same pan. First the mushrooms. We like to get them very brown and borderline crispy. To do that, let them steam off the moisture before you try to stir them. They went into a bowl, a tiny bit of olive oil was added, then the peppers and onions were cooked until softened. Into a bowl, more oil and the tofu was cooked.To get tofu crispy, pat it dry with paper towels. Cut it into pieces. Put some corn starch (maybe three teaspoons? I just eyeball what looks like it will coat the pieces) and curry powder and a little salt in a plastic container with a tight lid. Shake to mix. Add the tofu and shake to coat it. When you cook the tofu, make sure there’s enough oil or it won’t get crispy.The nice weather has lent itself to weed-pulling, but the other day (which day? who knows) I overcame my aversion to sewing and made us a stash of masks. I should make some more to give to, say, the couple who operate the village grocery, or the bakers at the boulangerie, who are keeping us all as comfortable as possible, considering. The next time it rains…It is crazy how quiet it is. It’s always quiet here, but wow. Birds. A rooster. A far-off dog. No cars. No planes. Yesterday there were a bunch of helicopters; probably the army training–there’s a very doomsday-looking area in the mountains that’s for training not far away. And on the weekends, the peal of gunshots as hunters go after boars. The season ended March 31, so it’s once again safe to go off the road and onto the backwoods paths. Speaking of which, long ago, I climbed the rock wall on the edge of some woods and realized, as I looked for a way to get back down, that the paths I was traipsing along were made by boars. That same woods now has a sign saying it’s going to be the site of a new solar farm. I am furious. Just across the F-ing road is a gigantic fallow field where vineyards were pulled out several years ago. It’s just sitting there, bare and basking in the sun. Why tear down a stand of trees? I’m sure it’s all about who was willing to sell the land. As much as I’m in favor of renewable energy and solar farms, it seems very counter-productive to tear down a pine forest. I also suspect that the new housing development just meters away plays into the calculation. People don’t take kindly to boars running through their yards. I’m on the side of the boars. “Development” is the euphemism for destruction. Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
Life under lockdown is about the same in the south of France as anyplace else. Boring! No–like others in the countryside, we have the benefit of being able to go outside without worrying about viral load. Stay safe and do share how you’re coping.
Yesterday I ventured to the supermarket. I didn’t want to go right at the open, figuring I’d be in line behind elderly early birds, and why not let them just go ahead. While on Wednesday it was warm enough to open all the windows to the brilliant sunshine, yesterday brought driving rain that turned to sleet and then to big, fat snowflakes. Surely the prospect of standing in line in such weather–our first snow, five days into spring–would drive away the weak of heart.
There was a line anyway. Two masked guards kept us corralled behind barriers, barking to stay two meters apart. I got glared at by a few waiting shoppers, probably because I didn’t have a mask. I did have a scarf (I’m in France after all), and I pulled it up over my nose and mouth. That steamed up my glasses completely, as if I weren’t already blind enough, and the scarf didn’t stay up anyway. I didn’t take a purse; just a card in my zipped pocket. Less to disinfect later.
The guards barked some shopping protocol, but what with the masks, the shoppers talking and the guards’ strong accents, I didn’t catch much. Something about so many people per aisle, and only two people waiting per checkout. Nobody obeyed anyway. The cheese and yogurt aisles (there are two cheese aisles and one yogurt-only aisle) were the most crowded. Fresh produce also bustled. You have to weigh your produce on one of the scales in the produce section, and enter on the touch screen (ICK) what it is, then it spits out a price tag that you stick on the bag. Anybody waiting their turn for the scale at the required distance got cut in front of by people who didn’t want to wait. Maybe clueless? Maybe not.I profusely thanked the cashier for her service. Nobody was behind me in line. I spent about 40 minutes in the store, and it only took me that long because I don’t usually go to that supermarket but the Carnivore does, and I needed to get some of his preferred stuff: pâté, rillettes. I forgot to buy junk food or comfort food and am regretting it sorely. The experience was supremely stressful. Is this what it was like during the war? Waiting in line? Wondering whether you would get home to your loved ones? I would get home, but would I be bringing in the enemy? This enemy is microscopic yet bigger than anything we’ve ever faced. In his address to the nation a week ago, President Macron said France was at war with the virus. A war where the danger isn’t hidden snipers but hidden germs. A war with a rising body count but no bullets. A kind of neutron bomb that is destroying the population without destroying buildings. Things still look normal, but in a closed-for-the-holiday kind of way. A temporary pause that is turning out to be less and less temporary.Today I soaked all the reusable shopping bags in bleach and hung them out to dry in the sun.
Last night I watched TV with our kid, who hasn’t been out at all since schools closed. I went out three times: for groceries, to do laundry, to donate blood. Our kid has gone running but nothing else. I worry about the effects. Is my internal terror showing, spreading? As we watched “The Good Place,” about two episodes in I stopped being shocked at the lack of social distancing. I forgot all about the virus. Life felt normal. We discussed the kid’s English homework, in which a verb exercise included a participle used in the text as an adjective. My kid skipped it (oversight, I suspect, rather than outright mistake), and was devastated not to get a perfect score. We went over the grammar of the situation, and my kid argued via email to the teacher and got the point restored. I was so proud. Speaking up isn’t easy for some people. I left my kid’s room to go to bed and suddenly got slammed with reality again. The world without a cure was still out there. We were still cowering in our house. The illusion of normalcy shattered. We can speak up but the virus won’t listen.
The restrictions keep evolving. We could go out for exercise, but, as I heard on the Earful Tower podcast, in Paris people were dressing as joggers to just go out. (I do sympathize. We have a big yard, whereas many Parisian apartments are smaller than just the bedroom of La Suite Barbès–the bedroom alone is 35 square meters, or 350 square feet.) To tamp it down, we are now confined to one kilometer from our homes and to exercise of 20 minutes. I might be defiant and take my walks; I can duck into a vineyard and off the road if I hear a car coming, or even take quite a long walk on narrow paths. Even without the lockdown I never encounter anyone on these back roads. The point is to avoid contact with other people; so much better on back road, regardless of the distance, than to stay in my kilometer perimeter in the village, with everybody else doing the same.The day before I took laundry to our empty AirBnBs, since I have neither repaired nor replaced our stupid Samsung washer. Seven loads. Two machines. It took all day–machines here heat the water, so cycles take up to three hours for really hot water. Technically I should have gone to the local laundromat. I went there a couple of times when our machine first broke down. It is a tiny but bustling place, always with people waiting their turn, in tight quarters. No sink for hand-washing, or for cleaning the counter or the chairs. I would have to take my own bleach-soaked rags for wiping off the selection buttons on the machines. Would I also need to wipe out the inside of the machines? I would not want to put my basket on the counter nor on the floor. All of it grossed me out. Instead I put the laundry into duffel bags and drove to the apartments in the safe space of my own car, hauled it upstairs without seeing anybody, and sat in the gorgeous space, windows open, while the machines turned. Nobody but me has been in there. A safe space. But technically not allowed. Rules that make sense for cities (take your laundry to the nearest laundromat) don’t make sense here. I managed to not see any gendarmes.
Laundry clean, groceries stocked, I plan to hunker down with my loved ones for as long as possible before sticking my head out of our cozy foxhole again.For perspective, Katherine Anne Porter wrote about the 1918 pandemic in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” among the few literary works about the influenza, merged with the anxieties about the other war, World War I, that was also raging.
Since Tuesday, when France closed almost everything, I have awoken to birdsong rather than rush-hour traffic. It’s quiet all day and even more so at night, except for the various animals that live in the woods along the nearby river–owls hooting and who knows what else. When the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the noise and air pollution suddenly absent, it feels like utopia. We putter around the house and yard, deep-cleaning everything. The piano moved and its backside vacuumed, something I tend to do only when the tuner is about to come. Weeds pulled. More weeds pulled. A Sisyphean task.
The dystopia isn’t far. Calls to friends, especially the ones who live alone. Everybody hunkered down. So many worries. The sun is shining brightly but there is a dark cloud menacing all of humanity.
This shutdown feels like everybody is treading water. A terrifying metaphor to me. I can’t swim. I hate water. Our pool is just shoulder-deep but I avoid it unless we’re in a canicule (heat wave). I can paddle its width but not its length. I can’t tread water.
We went to the supermarket on Monday afternoon. It was strange. There were parking spaces but inside it was bustling. Everybody very intense. Canned goods, pasta, frozen vegetables mostly gone–just the fancy brands left. No baker’s yeast. Plenty of flour and sugar and butter. Disinfecting wipes all gone. Toilet paper aisle diminished but not empty. Promotions on fresh stuff like yogurt–they want to move it before it’s a loss? And huge lines to check out. We waited for close to an hour. Everybody a cart’s length apart. Nobody pushed. Nobody tried to cut the line (unusual). Everybody was patient, polite and quiet. Only a few shopping carts really piled high; most people seemed to get only what they need. Why do people buy bottled water? We are in a developed country with decent drinking water! My kid spotted somebody with two shopping carts. The exception. We gave some coins to the homeless man at the mall entrance for karma. How, where will he survive? Will he survive?
A quick run yesterday to the village grocery. Groceries remain open. The government doesn’t want people to freak out about food. I wanted to have food for two or three weeks in case I got sick; what would my family do? But we hadn’t gotten chocolate (most important for mental health), so I picked some up locally. Tape on the floor to keep people the required distance from the couple who operate the store. They seemed stressed. Unhappy. They don’t want to be heroes. They are young, and I hope they won’t get sick. Their mothers also tend the shop to give them a break; I suspect that will be stopped.
At first, like many, I thought the fears were overblown. Just stay home if you’re sick. Sick or not, wash your hands a lot. Lay off la bise. It’ll be fine. But I saw with my own eyes and heard from others tales of incredible selfishness and carelessness. People do not stay home if sick and they do not wash their hands.
One person counseled taking Tylenol before flying to evade fever detection–as if that individual’s desire to make a flight were more important than the health of the other hundred or four hundred people on the flight and the thousands working at the airport or passing through.
A doctor friend, in mask and gloves like all the medical office workers, had a patient who was coughing like mad. The doctor offered the patient a mask, and the patient refused! WTF! “I won’t be able to breathe with that. I just have bronchitis,” the patient protested. As if the doctor, or all the unmasked patients in the waiting room, didn’t mind getting bronchitis! Especially now! And this was not a doctor who treats things like bronchitis but a different kind of specialist.
A person in delicate health had a visitor who had the flu (the regular, snotty-nosed kind). The visitor coughed constantly (phlegmy, not dry) without covering her mouth and never once washed her hands after blowing her nose. Luckily the person and all other household members had been vaccinated against the flu. I’d been lax about flu vaccinations in recent years but no more. We did get shots in November. It wasn’t covered, so I shelled out €10 apiece. Well worth it. I can’t wait to get the one for the coronavirus, as soon as it is developed.
Vaccines work. I saw it firsthand when I lived in Africa. There was a mission run by Italian priests and Polish nuns that educated and trained kids who had been paralyzed by polio. The kids were amazing. They would play soccer, hauling themselves around the field like lightning despite being on crutches. They learned trades like shoe repair. I went back 15 years later with a colleague. We stayed at the fancy hotel I never could afford before, a base for mountain-climbing, which we were there to do. I asked the concierge about the mission. She said it was still there, but now just had kids with birth defects. “There’s no more polio,” she said (in a tone like “what kind of dinosaur is this chick?”). I broke down crying. The idea of no more polio was just so emotional. Vaccines work. We went to the mission and gave the nuns fistfuls of euros.
A tangent: I also remember urging my friend to hurry up because it was getting late, and it would take a good 30-45 minutes to walk back to the village, then we’d have to walk along the fence of a wildlife refuge to the hotel. There were lions in the refuge. It would be dark in half an hour. But sunset on the equator is sudden, like a light switch, and at that instant the sun was blazing. My friend didn’t believe me, said I was overreacting. I said, LIONS. We hustled, but when a pickup came along, I waved it down frantically. The cab was full of people already, but the driver said we could ride in the back, with a bunch of sheep. My friend was not happy (me either; I keep my distance from animals). I made her get in. Even with the ride, it was so dark by the time we got to the final track to the hotel that we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Clearly we met no lions. That doesn’t mean I overreacted.
In 2009, I had to do research on pandemics. It was in a business context, about handling disruptions. It was just after SARS, at the time of the H1N1 flu, which hit children and pregnant women worst. There were vaccines, which helped rein it in, but as a result of that success many people said there was a needless panic. Here is what one expert, a globally recognized epidemiologist, told me:“In last 30-40 years there is a gathering and grave concern that the same antecedent causes that created climate change and historic droughts and famines are all caused by same conditions and a new group of viruses, especially pandemic viruses, have begun to emerge. Too many people are behaving unconsciously in the world. As we cut down green swaths of forest that separate animal and human habitats, we live in each others’ microclimate. So diseases that once could find that quiet reservoir now jump from animals to humans with increased rapidity.”He also said: “There is an increasing risk of unknown or barely known diseases emerging, and we lack people who are trained, we lack surveillance reporting systems that are simple, cheap, easy and replicable.”That was in 2009. The experts knew this could–would–happen, but like Cassandra, they were ignored. Even a week ago, people here were pooh-poohing the situation. I spoke to someone in the U.S. just a few days ago who told me it’s a hoax, fake news propagated by libs, panic fueled by the media, nothing to worry about. The fact that so many Italians are dying is pretty much proof that this isn’t a liberal hoax. The speed with which things are changing gives me whiplash.
Before all this, I realized I needed to apply for French citizenship. I’ve been saying it for about four years, but I didn’t actually do it. It was like living happily in a couple without being married and suddenly seeing the benefit of tying the knot. So I ordered all the birth certificates and such and took the French test. I knew I would pass; my worry was making stupid errors as someone who touch-types on a QWERTY keyboard having to use an AZERTY keyboard where the keys are in the “wrong” place. One needed 43% correct to pass. My average was 562 out of 699, or 80%. I got 95% on written comprehension and 92% on oral comprehension–better than I expected–and 64% (!!! possibly the lowest grade of my life, physical education aside) on written expression and 70% on oral expression–both humbling. The written test was an essay for or against mobile phones. I needed to use French expressions but couldn’t think of any that were relevant. Anyway, I passed. I wonder about another test taker, a young man, about 20, who grew up in a village in Morocco and who moved to Carcassonne when he was in 6th grade. I asked which schools he’d attended and he looked at the floor and said he never went to school here, that he had to work to support his family. Clearly his French was fine, but would he manage to write a well-organized essay, not having finished school? He showed up two hours early for his test (we had staggered times). I hope he passed with flying colors. If I had a business, I would want to hire him. Two hours early!Anyway, I got my results on Wednesday and spent all day Friday tying up the last bits of my dossier. I just needed to request an attestation from the income tax department. The notary was mailing an attestation saying we own our house. And today, very bad news: all the post offices are closed and mail is suspended. That means I can’t get my attestations, which must be originals, no scans or printouts. I also can’t buy the certified mail envelopes I need to enclose with the dossier, not even online–no delivery. Nor can I send anything. I have until the end of April, otherwise my documents will be more than three months old and I’ll have to re-order them all (and the UPS delivery cost a small fortune). I’ll also have to re-take the French test, but you have to wait six months between tests. Maybe they’ll make exceptions, and allow for more time. I was so proud of my dossier, too, in an expanding folder with labeled tabs, each with checklists of the documents for that section, in the order specified by the government.
I can start the dossier over again if need be. There are other, bigger worries that are out of my hands, that will arrive inexorably, virus or not. It is not the time or place to dwell on those.
The uncertainty about the future feels like the days after Sept. 11, when it seemed like the world was ending. In fact, the world as we knew it did end. Things didn’t get better; other tragedies followed. But ensuing airport security aside, many people weren’t affected by Sept. 11. This coronavirus is going to affect every single human.
Be smart. Stay home. China stopped the virus through draconian, authoritarian, dystopian measures; if people in democracies continue to fail to stay home voluntarily, draconian measures might follow. Don’t let us get there. Do something positive with this time. A hobby. Le Bon Coin (the Good Corner), the French equivalent of Craigslist, has a campaign right now (because buying stuff on it is impossible at the moment–social distancing!): le bon geste (the Good Gesture), where you can put up offers or requests for things like help with homework via Skype, picking up groceries for someone, dog walking, etc. At the very least, make a list of the people you know who live alone or who are elderly and call them regularly. Send them photos, if they have a phone or computer.
We have to stay out of the way of the health-care system until a treatment and/or vaccine is found. Going out is just selfish.Your coronavirus stories welcome in the comments.
On a recent trip to Montpellier, the street art really wowed me. I’ve previously posted about the pretty garlands strung across the narrow medieval streets. They were still there, along with others that I found amusing.Coming out of the underground carpark, I headed down the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle and, though I’ve been there before, only noticed for the first time the playground that looked as if it had been designed by Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t find who designed it, but I did learn that it was installed in 2008 and the structures, including delightfully unsafe climbing (see French attitudes about safety here), are supposed to be related to music.The city encourages the street art. I love it. Little surprises, like small gifts or serendipitous wonders, that prompt a smile. I think they enhance, rather than detract, from the old buildings of the historic center.
The art isn’t just painting. There are tiles all over, too. FYI, a hot-air balloon is called unemontgolfière in French, after the Montgolfier brothers who invented them.There’s plenty of old art, too.Still looking down, there were designs painted on the sidewalks or streets related to whatever business was there. I walked past several before finally taking photos of these bars, across the street from each other.
Something about street art warms my heart and makes me feel surrounded by gentle souls. It’s whimsical, not aggressive. I suppose too much could become twee. But in the midst of these buildings and streets so heavy with history, a little whimsy is a welcome jolt of modernity, livening up the old without tearing it down. It’s democratic, free for all, no ticket required.Is street art a thing where you live?
Quite unrelated: I made my blette (Swiss chard) recipe even easier. For a long time, I made the recipe I’d found in a magazine: little packets, which are very pretty for guests. Then I tweaked the recipe, adding a can of white beans, for protein, to make the packets into a vegetarian meal. Then, to get rid of the tedious process of folding up the packets, I did the same recipe but as a kind of blette lasagne, layering the leaves with the stuffing. Finally, I just chopped up the chard and mixed it with the stuffing. The result is below. A horror for the Carnivore, who likes each ingredient to be separate and whose lowest critique of a dish is “mish-mash.” But I love one-dish meals, and now this one is even easier. Same recipe–just cut up the greens and sauté them with the stems and onions until they’re soft.
What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.
The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.
The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.
We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.
We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”
On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).
To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.
The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.
I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.
We’ve been doubling down on vegetarian meals, cooked from scratch. I want to share some of the recipes that have been hits.
Until recently, it has been hard to find vegetarian options at restaurants, especially here in France profonde. Even salads would be topped with gizzards, duck chitlings and foie gras. When I would ask for something without any of that, the waiters would be quizzical, like, that leaves the frisée, which is just for looks and not much to eat. The concept of other vegetables and beans was not dans l’air.
Suddenly, everybody has vegetarian options, as well as vegan and gluten free. We rarely eat out but I enjoy looking at menus posted outside restaurants for ideas. My main sources of ideas, though, are the Jow app (I wrote about it here), Marmiton, Smitten Kitchen, Bon Appétit and the New York Times (we subscribe to the last two–support journalism, including food journalism, by subscribing!). Bon Appétit has a series called Healthy-ish with lots of yummy ideas.
Another thing I do is make traditional dishes and replace ground beef with beans, mushrooms or both. I was listening to the podcast “The History of English,” which recently looked at “The Forme of Cury,” possibly the first cookbook in English. The host noted all the feast days and other days when meat was forbidden, and it added up to about half the year. People lived mostly on bread, used to scoop up a stew of vegetables, some fish and, when allowed, bits of meat. Bigger animals were for richer people. I know an elderly lady who insisted that beef and lamb were “noble” meats but pork and chicken were not. She also was very affected by having lived through World War II and the aftermath; anything that was scarce during the war was good, and everything they ate then (cabbage, beets) was bad.
I think these things affect how people eat today. It isn’t just in France, or Europe or the West–when I lived in Africa it was a big deal to serve guests meat and beef was considered “better” than chicken. People there tended to eat a stew of beans, maize and vegetables twice a day, every day, except for meat on Sunday.
Anyway, reducing or eliminating meat consumption is really going back to tradition, a tradition that is much, much longer than the meat-centric meals we now consider traditional.Here are some of my favorite recipes that I’ve made recently, in random order (we do not eat pasta on consecutive days, twice a week max). In fact, I’m kind of running through my saved folder on Instagram, which is heavy on NYT and Bon Appétit.
Cauliflower tacos with cashew crema from Bon Appétit. OMG. This is my favorite recipe on the list. Have made it a couple of times. Ate it all before getting a photo. Who wants to shoot a picture when you’re hungry? I just wish we had fresh tortillas and not Old El Paso. This is a sheet-pan wonder that is very easy. I made some pickled onions for crunch instead of radishes, which I didn’t have. You use what’s on hand!
Cauliflower bolognese from Bon Appétit. Pretty good. I found the cauliflower flavor to be strong, but that isn’t a bad thing. The “meat” is mushrooms.
Kale pesto with whole-wheat pasta from Bon Appétit. “Whole-wheat pasta”–DUH. Always. Kale is very hard to find in France profonde, so we tried it with frilly cabbage. Too cabbage-y. Must try again with other green winter vegetables, such as blettes (Swiss chard). We’ve made pesto with a mix of spinach and basil, but basil is out of season. Sniff!!
Creamy butternut squash pasta with sage and walnuts from New York Times Cooking. I’ve made this a few times. SO GOOD. I used sliced almonds instead of walnuts. Sage from the garden. Had this last night and didn’t want to make broth so used pasta water. It all works.
Crispy tofu with maple-soy glaze from Bon Appétit. This is great. I added a bunch of stir-fried vegetables, because….more vegetables. The point about cooking undisturbed is essential–turn too soon and it will stick. Didn’t have fresh ginger and used ginger powder; maybe fresh would be better but it was still delicious. To keep the tofu from getting soggy, I removed it when crispy, stir-fried the vegetables, then returned the tofu and poured over the glaze.
Farro with crispy mushrooms and sour cream from New York Times Cooking. This was the basic idea and I made it differently. I had some leftover millet-cauliflower mush (recipe in Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”), and used that for the base. Did the crispy mushrooms and leeks, and added a couple of sweet peppers (I know they are expensive in the U.S., but here they are cheap). No dill in the garden, so used fresh parsley, which is growing like gangbusters.
Mushroom Bourguignon from New York Times Cooking. Another big winner. If you are making polenta, it’s a good idea to pour what isn’t in your dinner dish into a greased cake pan so you can slice leftovers into pretty squares. Polenta sets up fast, and if left in a bowl results in unappealing blobs. No pearl onions in the pantry? Just add more regular ones.
Roasted yams and chickpeas with yogurt from Smitten Kitchen. I definitely should do more sheet-pan dinners. This was so easy. I threw in a bunch of accessory vegetables–broccoli, zucchini, fennel. Also swapped out the yogurt with a drizzle of almond butter, which is so good it’s criminal.
Lastly, one that’s just made up on the spot. Crispy tofu with vegetables in a curried tomato sauce, over rice. Cut a couple of blocks of firm tofu in half lengthwise; wrap in paper towels and let them dry (even better–put something heavy on top to squeeze out even more water). Mix some cornstarch with some curry powder in a liter/quart-size container with a tight lid. Set aside while you cut up a big pile of vegetables into about the same size/shape so they cook evenly. I also did mushrooms.
Start the rice–1.5-2 times the water for the amount of dry rice. A cup of dry rice is enough for two people, unless you want leftovers. You can replace part of the water with coconut milk for extra-yummy rice. Cover and bring to a boil; let it keep boiling (turn it down so it doesn’t boil over), still covered, until you see holes in the rice. DO NOT STIR. Turn off the heat, keep covered and let it finish steaming, about 20 minutes.
Pour a little oil (I use olive…whatever) into a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms. DO NOT STIR. Let them cook a good while, until the juices start to dry up, then turn them.
Meanwhile, cut the tofu into small cubes (about 1 cm). Put into the container with the cornstarch mix and shake well to coat all the cubes. Remove the mushrooms to a bowl, add a little more oil to the same skillet and cook the tofu. Let it cook all the way to brown before turning. I am not so fussy that I will turn every little cube on every single side. Two or three sides browned is good enough. Remove to a bowl.
Add a little more oil to the same skillet. Cook your vegetables, starting with onions (put on the lid to make them sweat). Add garlic, then other vegetables, starting with the hardest ones. So carrots go in before zucchini because they need a couple of minutes extra to cook.
Pour in a can of stewed tomatoes or diced tomatoes. If the tomatoes are whole, break them up with your spoon. Add some curry paste, to your taste. I used a ton of Indian curry paste, but sometimes I do it with Thai curry paste. They taste completely different. Such an easy way to change things up.
When the sauce is reduced a bit, return the mushrooms and tofu to the skillet to heat them up. Serve over the rice.
I’ll do some more recipe lists/recommendations as I cook (if I remember to take photos. All those bento shots are because I didn’t take a picture until I was putting away the leftovers).
Meanwhile, what is going on with the weather? We had 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius) earlier in the week. Today it’s 55 F (13 C), so it seems chilly, until you remember that it’s FEBRUARY. The almond trees are in full bloom, like ballerinas dancing across the countryside. The daffodils, even in the north shadow of the house, are ready to pop. Crazy. It’s hard not to enjoy the warm sunshine, but it’s worrisome. Et chez vous, comment ça va?
This week was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I kept thinking back to my visit there years ago. It was haunting in ways I couldn’t have anticipated and that I haven’t been able to shake in the nearly two decades since.The entrance is famous. The railroad tracks, too, especially for anyone who has seen “Schindler’s List.” The familiarity of a place one has never been before is a punch in the stomach. I didn’t want it to feel familiar.I visited on a gorgeous spring day. Some friends and I made a weekend excursion to Krakow and, being serious intellectuals interested in history and culture, included a trip to Auschwitz. The train took us through the lush, rolling hills of the Polish countryside. As we walked the grounds, butterflies danced through the air and birds sang. I have read that when the camps were packed with people, there wasn’t so much as a blade of grass, much less wildflowers bobbing in the breeze. Did people hear the birds sing beyond the barbed wire? The movies seem to always be set in winter, almost black and white even when shot in color. But what of those balmy days when the wind carries the syrupy perfume of freshly cut grass? What a cruel juxtaposition, to see the stars above at night or feel the spring breeze or hear a bird sing and to know the universe is brimming with beauty, and yet they are trapped in a living hell. A living nightmare.Unfortunately, in the 75 years since the end of Auschwitz, genocide has not ended. It is always a delicate subject to bring up other cases, or other mistreatments. The point is not to compare; each case is monstrous for those who suffered. But if we think genocide is wrong, then it is wrong no matter who the target is, and we should push back against creeping “otherization” that strips people of their humanity, that treats them as a block to be expelled without exceptions. Because one cruelty leads to another. History might not repeat itself but it rhymes.The National Public Radio show “Fresh Air” ran an interview with Laurence Rees, author of the book “Auschwitz: A New History.” You can listen or read the transcript here. National Public Radio delivers uniformly excellent reporting. Support them if you can. Journalism–the real thing, with reporters who dig for facts–is what keeps us free.That top photo is one that haunts me most. It’s in the bathroom–it shows the long trough sink, and the squares are soap holders, with ridges so the soap doesn’t sit in water and melt. It sums up the insanity of Auschwitz: a place where soap was valued but human life wasn’t.I am not in a position of authority here. I am not Jewish and didn’t know about the Holocaust until high school when I read Anne Frank. On the other hand, the whole point is the universality of our humanity. Everybody should care. We all must remember.
Good riddance, Gloria. Spain and southern France were pummeled earlier this week by Tempête Gloria, which flooded a bunch of places, including Carcassonne, where the Aude river ran into the streets despite having a large floodplain where vineyards, vegetable farms and parks are adapted for soaking up surplus water.
We didn’t get out much, because il tombait des cordes (literally, it was raining ropes–imagine rain falling so hard it seems like ropes–but more akin to raining cats and dogs). Now the sun is out again and it’s in the mid-50s F. As you can see from the photos, even bad weather here is pretty mild, except when we get three months of rain in two days, and even then it wasn’t cold.
I’m seeing lots of young women wearing black tights or semi-opaque nylons with white athletic shoes and skirts, like in the top photo. Sometimes the skirts are short, sometimes long like the one above. I don’t follow sneaker trends but hers seem unusually spiky. Also, the guy next to her has some very colorful Nikes.Winter white is another trend. The young woman’s white skirt, this woman’s white pants. Do you wear a sweater as a scarf? It gives her a nice color accent, and, hey, if it turns out to be colder than she thought she can put on the sweater for an extra layer. Practical!A white coat. Her boots were interesting but my toes hurt just looking at those heels. Another white coat, with white boots. And a scarf. Always a scarf. Even on men. Hanging insouciantly.You also can coordinate your white coat with your white dog. However big it looks, in reality it was bigger. HUGE.Red is even more popular as a coat color. Note that the top of her bag is red. This coat had a lovely swing to it as she walked, thanks to the pleats in the back.All-in for red.She looked so good–straight posture, good haircut, shiny shoes, cleverly tied scarf, that red coat. Also red accents, on the right, or all blue, on the left. The audacity of a red artificial flower in her hair–I love it. I want to sit and have coffee with her and hear all about her life, because I bet it’s interesting. Not easy to see, but she’s wearing a long red pencil skirt with flat red boots.A monochrome look also is popular. This woman paired gray glen plaid pants with gray high-tops and a gray coat.A different neutral–camel. Her bag was in the same Burberry-esque tartan as her scarf. For all I know, they’re both real Burberry; I didn’t ask to check the lablels. Boots and coat both camel. It all went with her hair, something I noticed with lots of women, especially redheads. French women pay attention to which colors work for them and they make the most of it.She was just one of the redheads I noticed wearing coppery colors. There were several others whose photos didn’t turn out. Once you notice one, you see so many! What impresses me is that this shade is hard to match, and it isn’t always on trend, so you can’t just walk into a store and expect to find what you want in that shade. They must collect and curate constantly, making sure what they choose will last several seasons.This is quite a different shade of red, and it matches her coat exactly. She gets points for confidence.Another example of flamboyance, with an oversize hat and a furry coat. You don’t wear that to blend in. She also looked like she would be interesting.
How do you cope with winter? Do you hunker down in black and wait for it to be over, or do you have a fantastic, fun coat that makes you happy every time you put it on? I’ll cop to being boring in black–black sweater dress with black leggings, black boots, black bag, and either a brown or dark gray coat, depending on the weather. I have fewer and fewer clothes as time goes on, and wearing forgettable clothes makes them seem less monotonous. Are you also a minimalist or, like some of the examples here, more flamboyant?
Marseille is such an interesting city. New nestles against very, very old. Even in the rich areas, grit never feels far away. All kinds of art is everywhere.I already knew to beware of cars with 13 license plates. The départements of France are numbered, in alphabetical order, so Aude, where I live, is 11, and the Bouches du Rhone, home to Marseille, is 13. Cars with 13 plates treat red lights as mild suggestions. Right of way goes to the biggest car or the driver with the steeliest nerves. Turning left from the right lane, in front of other cars, is normal. Any space big enough to fit the car is a legitimate parking place, even, say, a sidewalk. Turn signals on cars with 13 plates do not work except when they are in the left lane on the autoroute, blinking impatiently for cars ahead of them to move over so they can pass, pedal to the metal.
Driving in Marseille is thus a white-knuckle experience. But the city fathers have made much of the city center off-limits to vehicles. As a result, where it’s bad, it’s very, very bad, but where it’s pedestrian it’s wonderful. Except for the motorcycles and motorbikes, which do what they please. I was happy for the GPS to guide me to an underground parking garage, so I could relax a little.It was mid-December, but the weather was mild. A small Christmas market was next to the ferris wheel at the port, encircled by barriers and guarded by security officers who tried to strike a balance between stern and holiday-jolly. Fake firs flocked with fake snow juxtaposed with apartment balconies dripping with brilliant red geraniums, real. A few veiled women pushed strollers through the mostly deserted market, whose stalls were exclusively dedicated to provençal santons.
Marseille has a rich selection of the universal Instagram/Pinterest-driven all-female restaurants featuring vegan poke bowls and cafés roasting their own coffee served by burly men with beards and buns. Such places haven’t yet turned up in Carcassonne, so it was fun to try them out. Brooklyn is everywhere but in France most profonde.
I’ve wanted to see Mucem since it opened in 2013. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations incorporates part of the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, with a very cool cube designed by Roland Carta next to it. The cube looks like it’s made of laser-cut paper doilies, but it’s actually fiber-reinforced concrete.
The outdoor spaces at Mucem are open to the public for free. Clean, quiet, beautiful. I was surprised there weren’t throngs of people, especially on a mild December afternoon. If I lived in Marseille, I would get nothing done because I would spend all my time on a chaise longue, admiring the vista and watching people.
Mucem had these exhibits: a collection of toys made in Marseille between the end of the 19th century and the late 1970s; an exhibition on Afghanistan, including one of the blue burqas that imprison women there, its yards of knife-pleated fabric going round and round, and many multi-media installations; an abécédaire, or A-to-Z, on the theme of luck and chance; and a retrospective on Jean Giono, whom I’d never heard of but who was a noted novelist whose experiences in World War I made him a pacifist to the point of being accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. There was another exhibit, very surreal, with famous paintings remade as, say, a puzzle or a refrigerator door, and books whose titles twisted the those of the classics. It was fun to spot the jokes.
The old fort was amazing to see up close. As Marseille goes, it isn’t very old–the oldest bits of the fort go back to the 1100s. By contrast, the city was founded by the Greeks around 600 BCE, though there are traces of human habitation well before that.
Afterward, I strolled through the neighborhood called le Panier, or the Basket, the oldest part of town, settled by the intrepid Greeks.
Going back toward the ferris wheel, the architecture was a feast for the eyes, an open-air museum of sculpture.This isn’t a very useful post–no recommendations other than Mucem and Dr. Max Ginger Healthy. My only recommendation is to walk and look and smell and walk and walk and walk. You will not lack for places to eat and drink and shop. I like serendipity, a sense of being an urban explorer.
Our previous washing machine was more than two decades old when it gave up the ghost. We replaced it with a relatively high-end eco-friendly high-tech Samsung model just over three years ago. Better to pay more for a name brand and to buy the larger, fancier model, which should hold up better over the long run, we reasoned. But the machine is already kaput, just a couple of months after the warranty expired. Planned obsolescence?
We called a technician, who said it was probably the electronic card, which is not fixable. We could buy a new card, but it would cost as much as a new machine. He said the manufacturer coated the card in resin so that repairmen can’t, say, fix a loose connection—you have to replace the entire card. These machines are computers these days, the technician said. You can’t just open them up and fix what’s broken. You have to replace the whole thing.
I am doubly disgusted because it’s the vaunted environmentally friendly model. I call BS.
Yesterday afternoon, I encountered some protesters waving banners. Mostly I saw the imposing vans of the CRS, the most serious unit of law enforcement, which were parked in front of the préfecture, a preferred spot for those venting their anger at government. The protesters were outnumbered by shoppers (the biannual soldes–sales–just started) and were overwhelmingly older. A sea of gray hair. A few chants, some whistles blown. Mostly a party. Later, the cafés were full of protesters having an early apéro, in high spirits.
The protests are over a change to the French retirement system. I mentioned before that there are a bunch of special categories that allow people to retire much earlier. President Macron wants to eliminate them. He also wants to make a system of points, because unlike in the past, future workers are likely to change jobs numerous times and points would not only make calculating retirement more uniform across different types of work but also would make it easier to get credit for all time worked.
I sympathize with this. I have had 16 jobs at 14 employers (twice I was laid off and then hired back when something opened up; in once case my original job was automated out of existence). I’ve spent the last 15-ish years running my own business; before that I spent 11 years at the same employer. Prior to that, four years at one job. Before that, a couple of years at most at each place, mostly part time, two or three jobs at once. It was a preview of what many workers do today, piecing together a living from a collage of part-time jobs. I’ll get a pension only from the place I worked for 11 years. Sure, I contributed to U.S. Social Security at those other jobs, and that will help, if it still exists when I retire. And I’ll get something for my 15 years of contributions to the French system, though at the moment it stands at a grand total of €2,000….per year. At all those early jobs, either I didn’t qualify for the retirement programs because I was part-time or I didn’t stay long enough to be “vested,” under the pre-401(k) programs.So the point system would help all those people who similarly are changing jobs or working part-time and not getting credit toward retirement. But all those who had special exemptions would lose them, and no VIP ever wants to give up his right to cut to the front of the line.
There’s another angle, which I’ve only started to hear addressed in the news. The other part of pension reform requires people to work longer. The official age now is 62, with a bunch of exceptions. This age will go up progressively over time, until, for those born in 1965, it will be 64. There are more details, but that’s what the strikes are about and things keep changing, so we’ll not wade into the weeds just yet.“Âge pivot,” “régle d’or,” “bonus-malus” and points aside, the bigger issue is that it’s all fine and dandy to say that if we live longer we need to work longer…but work where? Just try to find a job after age 45. And it gets worse with age. Job postings for “senior” positions ask for advanced degrees and five to seven years of experience. Senior after five years? It seems to be code for “older workers need not apply.” Especially when nearly all job applications start with an online form. Plenty of older candidates just drop off earlier experience, but if you’ve spent a decade at a job, how do you shorten it to that five-to-seven-year window? Meanwhile, employers can simply filter for only candidates with the correct number of years of experience. That isn’t age discriminiation, is it? Nothing was said about age. It’s just an unbiased algorithm. (I hope you hear the sarcasm dripping here.)Increasingly, friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic are confiding their worries about whether they’ll be able to stay employed until they can reach retirement age. I certainly know many, many talented, hard-working people who have been laid off in recent years, in their mid-50s. These are mostly in the U.S., and the U.S. comes up often in conversations with French friends as the nightmare scenario—the older people working in Amazon warehouses because they don’t have a pension and can’t get a job anywhere else. Or the greeters at Wal-Mart.
Now there’s more talk about how to keep French workers trained or retrained, even after age 50. Clearly there will have to be a mind shift. Older workers might not be on top of the latest technology because after you’ve switched and upgraded and switched and upgraded, at a certain point you just want the damn stuff to work and not require new ways to get to the same old stuff. Older people are slower, younger ones complain, and studies show that may be the case, but they tend to have better strategies that allow them to outperform their faster and younger co-workers. Overall, productivity and reliability are more consistent in older workers.Separately, I almost literally ran into a lady yesterday while I was out jogging. She informed me she is 89 years old (immediately–it was “Bonjour! I’m 89!”). Just adorable. Tiny. Walking nice and straight. We chatted a while and I told her she was my role model–being healthy and active for a whole life. My 30-day challenge is going along bumpily. I still haven’t dared a cartwheel, and I meditated but once, but otherwise I am more or less sticking with it. Some days are better than others. I never manage to do all the things. Not yet anyway. BTW, two people gave me very similar advice about meditation: just lie still and breathe. Let the mind shut down. It will get easier over time. My first (and best) yoga teacher used to have us do this, in the “corpse” position, without all the New Age blah blah. Just quiet. It was very soothing and afterward I felt at first disoriented, being so incredibly relaxed, but then reinvigorated.
Please do share your thoughts about planned obsolescence of appliances and humans, as well as your stories about progress on your own New Year’s resolutions.