I was annoyed. Certainly this was an excuse to avoid chores. “Why?” I texted back, knowing full well that phones aren’t allowed in school.
An hour later, my phone rang. I was even more annoyed. Almost nobody has my number, so when it rings, it’s either a telemarketer or a misdial.
It was school. There had been an accident. Please go to the emergency room.
We were led to a flourescent-lit room already crowded with other parents. Nobody knew anything. The panic, the angst, while waiting was terrible.
I brought my baby home a few hours later. Nothing serious; an abundance of caution. (No hospital bill, either, thank you socialized medicine.)
I thought about that day when I heard the familiar news of a school shooting. In America–where else. I can barely type for the tears, imagining those kids, those parents, desperate for another day together.
Are people not yet sick of their children being mowed down? Is that liberty?The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Valentine’s Day has inextricably linked love and chocolate. If you are among the wise folk who avoid restaurants on Valentine’s Day, you can have your cake and eat it too in the serenity of your home.
Zebra brownies have been a favorite since the ’80s; my hand-written recipe dates to then as well. They are the lovechild of a chewy, dense brownie and a silky, dense cheesecake.
I offer you the original and a half-size version that I make in a round cake pan. These are so rich, even the smaller size will last you a few days.
They don’t need frosting. I just did it for company. I prefer a ganache, which is less sweet than, say, buttercream frosting. If you do the sheet-cake version, just cut squares like regular brownies.Zebra Brownies
1 cup (227 g) butter, softened
2 cups (200 g) sugar
1 cup (85 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup (128 g) flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups (225 g) cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cup (300 g) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup (64 g) flour
Brownie part: With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on high speed. Shift to low speed; add the cocoa and eggs and mix thoroughly. Add the flour and vanilla and mix on low.
Cheesecake part: In a separate bowl, whip the cream cheese and sugar on high speed. Add the eggs, mixing on low speed. Add the vanilla and flour, still on low speed.
I used to spread the brownie part, then cover with the cheesecake mix, and swirl them. But now I distribute blobs of the brownie mix around a greased 9X13 cake pan, then pour in the cheesecake mix and swirl the two together. It seems to marble better that way.
Bake at 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius) for 35-45 minutes. It should be moist but not runny.
The half-size option:
1/2 cup (113 g) butter
1 cup (100 g) sugar
1/2 cup (43 g) cocoa powder
1/2 cup (64 g) flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup (12 oz or 113 g) cream cheese
3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup (32 g) flour
Same procedure, but test for doneness after 25 minutes.
6 oz (150 g) dark (70%) chocolate, broken into small chips (the smaller the better)
6 oz or 2/3 cup (15 cl) heavy (30% fat) cream
Put the chocolate in a bowl. Heat the cream to almost boiling (OK if it boils, but it doesn’t have to). Pour over the chocolate. Stir to make sure the chocolate bits are all melted. Let it cool a little–it should be warm enough to pour but not so hot that it will run away. To be fancy, I also added out-of-season raspberries.
Leeks are one of those staples you see sticking out of every typical French market basket. Before I moved here, I had never had them. They’re delicious and nutritious! And cheap. And very easy to cook.
With the recent cold spell (-2.5 Celsius/27 Fahrenheit this morning!), something baked in the oven sounded tempting. A pared-down leek gratin to accompany chicken breasts (steak for the Carnivore, who considers chicken to be a vegetable).
Gratins are a French favorite. As online French culinary bible Marmiton says: “The gratin can be sweet or salty, with vegetables or meat…in short, there isn’t A gratin but tons of different gratins, with something to satisfy everybody.” (BTW, if you click through, keep in mind that entrée means starter in French.)A typical gratin uses béchamel sauce. The butter and flour that go into béchamel add a stick-to-the-ribs quality, but I didn’t want the calories. Cream (light) and cheese would suffice for this week-night side dish.
As Marmiton points out, anything can go into a gratin: “You can even use leftovers to make a pasta gratin, for example.” A gratin can easily become a main dish by adding protein (meat–lardons!–or other). You can throw in chopped garlic, onions, shallots, herbs, spices…. You can use any kind of cheese–emmental, parmesan, gruyère, mozzarella, cheddar, blue…. The point is that gratin is a don’t-sweat-it dish that will be delicious no matter what you use.
Gratins are great for entertaining because they go in the oven and don’t need attention. You can even make individual gratins in ramekins. Super-simple leek gratin
Any other cheese you have that you need to use up (we had some cream cheese and I dropped about 1/2 cup of blobs around)
Butter, salt, pepper
Preheat the oven to 220 Celsius (425 Fahrenheit). Set some salted water to boil in a pot big enough for the leeks (I use a deep skillet).Clean the leeks. Strip off the outer layers. Cut off the root tips, but not too high–you want to keep the connection at the bottom. Remove the green tops and set aside. Slice the white part in half lengthwise. Wash well, going between the layers.Boil the leeks for about 10 minutes.While they’re boiling, butter a rectangular baking dish.
Drain the cooked leeks. Press them a little to squeeze out excess moisture. Lay them out in the baking dish while they’re still hot. Season with pepper (no salt–it was in the water), and any other herbs or spices you like. Pour the cream on top. Cover with cheese. (You can sprinkle with bread crumbs, but … calories.) Bake for 20 minutes.As for the green tops, don’t toss them! Just cut them into fine strips and soak them in cold water. Rub them in the water with my hands to work off the dirt. Then rinse and dry them in a salad spinner. They can go into soups–mine went into a ribollita this week; other times they end up in couscous or chili…. anywhere you use onions, leeks can make a home. The green tops are tough, so they’re best used in dishes that cook a long time, like soups.
First lesson: “At school one learns lots of good and useful things: one learns to correctly speak and write one’s mother tongue; one learns the history and geography of one’s country; one learns above all to know and love chores of all sorts that morality commands us.”So begins a 1919 French home economics book aimed at middle school girls. It was among the trove of treasures we found in various cupboards, cellars and attics of the apartments we renovated. It instructs in detail, well, everything. For example, how to set a table: “First, place a cotton cover on the table, over which you lay the tablecloth. This cover absorbs the noise caused by contact with utensils, and prevents glasses from breaking.”
“Then, you place the plates, leaving an interval of at least 60 centimeters between them. The guests shouldn’t bump elbows or feel restricted in their movements.”
I guess today we have the Internet for these kinds of details, though what’s out there is mostly about selling something.The treasure trove also contained portfolios done by the previous owner herself, on sewing, cutting (separate from sewing!) and layette. Girls were steered along a narrow path 75 years ago.
The ones related to sewing fascinated me. I grew up learning to sew. My mom made a lot of my clothes, very much like Ramona’s in Beverly Cleary’s books. I remember going to the fabric store and flipping through the pattern catalogs, where anything was possible. The suits I wore to my first post-college job I made myself. They were dreadful. And I HATE sewing. But while I might not enjoy it, it is useful to know.
I can’t sew without a pattern (unless it’s a simple rectangle, like curtains), just as I can’t play piano without sheet music. Sewing without a pattern–creating a pattern–is like composing music or at least like improvising jazz. I am in awe.
And then there’s the absolute worst: ironing.
Did you take home ec? I refused. I also refused to take typing, upsetting my mother to no end, though I eventually took it in summer school and now can type as fast as a person talks. I’m still not sure an entire year-long class on sewing, ironing and baby care is a good use of school time, but we might be a lot healthier and less wasteful if people knew how to cook and how to repair their clothes. The wonderful blogger Garance Doré (a must for francophiles!) interviewed Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C., who said that everyone should know how to mend their clothes, to not throw away perfectly good pieces that are, say, missing a button.
The young generation seems to be into DIY; the last time I was in a fabric store here, the other customers were very young, pierced and tattooed. I had the impression they knew not just how to mend but how to create and improvise–play jazz with material.
Many, many people donate blood, yet there’s still a need. I knew this, but there was always a reason why it wasn’t convenient to participate during the local blood drives. Finally my kid challenged me to do it and wanted to watch. No peer pressure is as intense as kid pressure on a parent to bring out our better angels.
So we went one morning after shopping at the market. Several volunteers dressed as big drops of blood were pleading with people at the market to walk down the block to the room where an efficient army of workers was taking donations from a surprisingly robust crowd of volunteers.
I flunked the test, though. I had run that morning (no exercise too soon before or after) and had only coffee for breakfast. I went back after a big lunch. It went smoothly, and afterward we sat at a long table of very French food: cheese, hard sausage, brioche and some industrial baked goods (Breton cookies and palmiers). Lots of juice and water. I had some cheese and brioche and palmiers and drank a lot and figured I was good to go.
We got about a block when my head started to spin. It had been decades since I’d last donated blood. My kid guided me to a bench on the street, and I felt better after a minute. But we hadn’t gone half a block when I got dizzy again. We were in front of a café and I quickly put myself onto a chair on the sidewalk. But I started to slide right off it and couldn’t stop. My kid was trying to get me up. People stared. My kid informed me that people thought I was drunk. Lovely! Some nice ladies went into the café and came out with water and sugar, and I managed to drink it, and eventually perked up enough to get around the corner to our AirBnB apartments, which were empty that weekend. I lay down and waited for my husband to come. No driving home. I would get my car later.
Now I am in the database, and two months later I got a call from the Établissement Français du Sang (French Blood Establishment) asking for more. I learned that I could take an appointment at their offices at the hospital, with no waiting and parking right in front of the door. I got my husband to drive me just in case, but I was fine.
It was even quicker, and I thought gosh, I should do this more often–well, whenever they call. The other donors clearly were regulars.
Although I was tired the rest of the day, I have to admit I felt like a million bucks the day after. I looked up information about giving blood and found out it burns 650 calories, on average, which was a sweet bonus. Especially because you need to eat something decent beforehand (the second time I had a nice protein-rich breakfast of eggs) and will eat something afterward. I do miss those American doughnuts.
You can donate blood every eight weeks, which comes to about six times a year. You give about a liter, or a pint, of blood per donation, which can help up to three people. You also can donate plasma and platelets, which involve a longer process and which can be donated more frequently.
My dad received blood transfusions. He would complain that his “counts were down,” and that he “needed a pint,” as if he had some kind of dipstick and it was akin to glug-glugging in a can of blood like oil into a car. I can’t bring him back, but I can help somebody else.
Travel in winter can be challenging, although off-season can be deeply satisfying–no crowds, cheaper prices, you can really experience the local lifestyle. All it takes is being prepared for the whims of the weather.
Depending on where you’re from, the temperatures might feel downright balmy. According to the site Où et Quand (Where and When), Paris has an average January high of 6 Celsius (43 Fahrenheit) and low of 3 C (37 F), and rain an average of 13 days, or 40% of the time. (For reference, London is nearly identical, with two more days of rain.) Down here in Carcassonne, it’s warmer–average high of 9 C (48 F) and low of 4 C (39 F), with 15 days of rain. However, the sun often comes out even on rainy days (we have 35 more hours of sunshine than Paris). On Saturday’s drive to the market, I needed the windshield wipers and my sunglasses at the same time.
This year, though, we’ve had one tempête (storm) after another. Carmen, David, Eleanor, and a series of nameless storms that have brought unusually warm temperatures, plentiful rain and merciless winds across France and Europe. We went from T-shirt weather (in January!) to four days of intermittent downpours and wicked wind. As I started to write this, the wind had calmed, the sun was out, and it was 9 C (48 F) at 8 a.m. Later, with it was 17 C (62.6 F). An absolutely glorious day.
But when you’ve made your reservations six months earlier, you don’t know whether you’re arriving for the week of unseasonably mild weather or the week of storms. My advice:
Pack layers. Duh. But not just one layer; if you have three sweaters, can you wear them all at once? It can mean the difference between enjoying your trip or being miserable during a cold snap. Wear them together in Paris and separately in Carcassonne.
Have a hood. While a knit cap is good for covering your ears and keeping warm (and not blowing off in the wind), this winter you wouldn’t have needed it (not a problem–a knit cap doesn’t take much space). But what about the rain? A very chic friend of mine abhors umbrellas, and it’s true that it’s a pain to cart one around. She chose coats with hoods that she could just pop up as needed. Water-resistant fabric is even better. Hoods don’t blow off, don’t need to be carried around, don’t mess your hair as much as a hat and are always there when you need them.
Or get one of those little fold-up rain ponchos. Yes, you will look like a tourist. Like a smart tourist, whose trip (not to mention health, coat and bag) wasn’t ruined by some water.
Treat your shoes with waterproofing products before you leave. If you didn’t do this, never fear: they sell the stuff at any shoe store or supermarket here. We have all the mod cons. The downside of doing it during your trip is that it will stink up your room and you have to let it soak in and dry well before wearing the shoes. Plan ahead!
Make sure your bag is waterproof, too. Or have a waterproof pouch for your electronics.
Bring a hat and gloves. They take no space in your bag and make a huge difference to keeping you warm.
Pack a swimsuit. See below.
Think about ways to get out of the weather. My favorite thing to do when traveling is flâner: wandering around, taking in the architecture, shop windows, and above all the people. This is less fun in a storm. Here are some alternatives:
Museums. It may be time to check out some of the more obscure options.
Cafés. You can sit all day with a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. Classic.
Shopping. Duck out of the rain and into some shops, including some that you might have passed by. French shopkeepers often have very clever goods that you never would have thought of. And as for clothes shops, they’re an alternative to people-watching.
Malls, aka centres commercials or galeries. They are mostly in the International Ugly style, but you can be oblivious to the weather. Often they’re anchored by a hypermarket–like a Wal-Mart with groceries and everything else. This can be interesting as a sociological exercise–I am not being sarcastic. The products are different! Most are on the outskirts of towns and require taking a car, bus or taxi to get to.
Malls in Paris here. Carcassonne is more or less surrounded by centres commercials on its periphery: Pont Rouge, LeClerc, Salvaza, Cité 2.
Hit the books. FYI, a librarie is a bookstore and a bibliothèque is a library and a médiathèque has other media besides just books. Either way, you can browse for free, even though you can’t check anything out. Bibliothèques are better for people-watching (the French love books), but bookstores offer the possibility of finding a good souvenir to take home. Bibliothèques also host events–I went to a ballet presentation once.
Paris bibliothèques here. Carcassonne médiathèques here.Get a haircut. This was one of my go-to options on my regular trips to Paris. I would get sick of walking and being cold, and you can only drink so much coffee, so I would find a hair salon that took walk-ins (look for a sign that says sans RDV–without rendez-vous, or appointment). I never went to the same place twice and never got a bad cut. It was delicious, too, to have a nice, warm, shampoo. Nervous? Just get a shampoo and blow-out (shampooing et brushing–sounds like shawm-pwan, kind of) or ask for a trim–une coupe d’entretien. Other possibilities: mani-pedi, massage or hammam (you’ll need a swimsuit for that).
The hammam at the Paris Mosque here. It’s amazing. Separate days for men and women.
Go to church. The Catholic church for centuries had a tighter hold over daily life in France than any king. It was a main sponsor of the arts, too. Some churches have museum-quality paintings and sculptures. The stained-glass windows are full of stories, and the architectural details are fascinating, if you take the time. Some churches have crypts or areas that have been excavated for archaeological research. If you’re lucky, a choir or organist will be practicing while you’re there. Sometimes churches also host concerts, especially in the evenings. The local tourism office can give you details.
In Carcassonne, there’s often a choral group singing at the Basilique Saint-Nazaire in la Cité. And the Chapelle des Jesuits in the Bastide, with exceptional acoustics, has concerts on Thursdays, starting at 8:30 p.m.
Take a class. Tourism offices are good resources for one-off class options. I used to do Argentine tango, but you have to make sure the class takes walk-ins. Yoga and Pilates are easy to find. Cooking is another possibility, but you might have to arrange that at least a day in advance. Classes are also a good way to expand your French vocabulary–usually whatever is being taught is also being demonstrated, so even if your French is basic you can understand.
A wide variety of activities in and around Carcassonne here.
Go swimming. If there’s no indoor pool at your hotel, never fear. There are plenty of public pools, almost always indoors. You will be required to wear a swimming cap, and baggy swim trunks aren’t allowed (hence the famous Speedo reputation).And, of course taste wine. You can find a tour, go to a wine bar (Carcassonne has a large choice) or just visit a wine shop if you can’t get to individual wineries; many offer tastings at reasonable rates.
“I like butter, cream and wine,” and not “peas cut in four,” wrote Paul Bocuse, the French “pope of gastronomy,” who died Saturday, just shy of his 92st birthday.
The father of Nouvelle Cuisine, Bocuse influenced how most of us eat today. Despite his penchant for butter, cream and wine, he gave dishes a lighter twist that is now taken for granted. Lighter doesn’t need to mean bland; he also said that good cuisine isn’t about fancy products but about seasonings, which should be added using one’s fingertips: “Touch is fundamental.”
The story about the birth of Nouvelle Cuisine (New Cooking) is that Henri Gault et Christian Millau, of the restaurant guide that carries their name, had dined–very well–at lunch at his restaurant and it was so good they came back for dinner, asking for something light. Bocuse served them a salad of green beans, cooked but still crunchy, with shallots and olive oil, followed by lightly cooked rock mullet. Gault and Millau were smitten, and declared Bocuse’s style of cooking “Nouvelle Cuisine.”
While the world’s press has given honors to Bocuse’s obituary, the French are, understandably, even more detailed. Here are some nuggets you might appreciate:
Nouvelle Cuisine was one thing, molecular cuisine was too far. Asked in this excellent interview from 2007 what modern thing he refused, he said, “Nitrogen. I don’t see the point. All this foreign food where you have to explain what’s in the dish to the point of indicating in which order it should be eaten: it’s not my thing.” SLAM! Which is kind of too bad, because I’ve talked to Ferran Adrià and he is completely charming.
He added that he liked to cook by instinct, smelling when the meat is done rather than using a thermometer.
Bocuse learned to cook from his father, who taught him to make veal kidneys when he was nine. After serving in the French army during World War II (where he got the tattoo of the coq gaulois on his shoulder, something he liked to show off), he took on several apprenticeships before returning to his family’s inn, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, in a suburb of Lyon. It was owned by his maternal grandfather, and where he was born Feb. 11, 1926.
He got his first Michelin star in 1958, his second in 1962 and his third in 1965, which he always maintained. He eventually renamed the restaurant “Paul Bocuse.”
He was a showman who appeared on television as early as 1976. In 1987, he created the “Olympics of Gastronomy,” the Bocuse d’Or, an international cooking competition that was televised from the start. He was one of the first French chefs to expand overseas: to Japan in 1979 and Disneyworld in Orlando in 1982, followed by many more.
He was out as a trigamist–that’s bigamy plus one. He met his wife, Raymonde, before the war when she was 16; they married in 1946 and had a daughter. Raymonde runs the original restaurant. He added another partner, Raymone, who bore him a son in 1969; the son, Jérôme, has headed the family empire since last year. All I can say about the names is: ?!?!?!? How did he keep that straight? Or maybe it simplified life.
In 1971, he brought in companion No. 3, Patricia, who had a daughter with him. Patricia runs Paul Bocuse Products and handles his image.
It is not clear how he juggled all the restaurants, not to mention women. Although his companions (? partners? lovers?) had serious business roles with him, he had a reputation as a male chauvinist, with a raft of appalling quotes.
One of his signature dishes is Soupe V.G.E. Bocuse made it in 1975 for President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing–VGE–for the dinner celebrating Bocuse’s award of the Legion of Honor; how about that–win an award and you have to cook the dinner! You could call it a chicken pot pie, BUT….
It’s a chicken and beef soup, with foie gras and black truffles replacing potatoes, covered with puff pastry. I found a number of recipes for it:
This one uses 60 grams of truffles, whereas this one uses 80 grams. That’s a difference of €14 euros just for the truffles. This one also uses 80 grams, but I doubt Bocuse used bouillon cubes. You can watch the master himself make his Soupe V.G.E. here.
It is extremely rare that I use any photos but those I took myself. However, I don’t have any of Bocuse; these are from the press packet on his corporate Web site.
Parting words from the master chef: “Classic or modern, there’s only one cuisine: the good one.”
Sometimes you eat something that transports you to heaven, with angels blowing on trumpets and rays of golden light. This chocolate mousse is so light and fluffy, to call it a cloud of chocolate would be too heavy. It’s a dream about chocolate, set to angelic music.
The ingredients are very simple. The keys to success are all in the process. Don’t worry–it’s still easy. A dessert you can whip up in a few minutes. BUT plan ahead. It should be made at least a day ahead, if not two. The air bubbles grow, making the mousse even lighter.
First, you should know the different Schools of Chocolate Mousse. There are the Whipped Cream School, the Egg White School and the fence-straddling Cream-and-Egg School. An all-chocolate French cookbook (Le Chocolate, from Madame Figaro magazine) has FOUR chocolate mousse recipes, in the Cream and Cream-and-Egg camps. A recipe on Cuisine Larousse, as well as one by Alain Ducasse, uses cream, but both count on the egg whites to make the foam (mousse means foam). The Whipped Cream School basically makes something like chocolate Cool Whip–OK for what it is, but lacking the seemingly contradictory qualities of airiness and creaminess that makes chocolate mousse so special.Some recipes mix cream with the chocolate–like ganache–or butter with the chocolate, or both cream and butter. The point is to increase the fat content, for that creamy quality, rather than to whip the cream. The egg whites are what provide the fluff, which is airier and longer lasting than whipped cream. This recipe uses only butter, which is 82% fat; heavy cream is only 36% fat.
This recipe is squarely in the Egg Camp and comes from the great-grandmother of our friend R., who provided the very important passed-down-through-generations tips that make all the difference. (When I asked him about cream in chocolate mousse, he made a terrible grimace!) Another special point is that this recipe uses the egg yolks (some in the Egg School use only the whites), adding to the creamy factor in the way that some ice cream uses custard–yolks are 27% fat.
Before some of you faint over the idea of eating raw egg whites, even chocolate ones, let me point you to Santé Publique France, which in 2015 counted 141 cases of salmonella, with 20%, or 28 cases, linked to eggs, out of a population of 67 million. On the French government’s National Agency for Health Safety of Food, the Environment and Work’s page about salmonella, it cautions that recipes using raw eggs should be kept cold and eaten within 24 hours. That said, chocolate mousse is even the third day. A risk I’m willing to take (though waiting is hard!).
6 or 7 eggs, depending on their size
200 g (7 oz.) butter, cut into small chunks
200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar
200 g (7 oz or 2/3 cup) dark chocolate (at least 60% cacao, which won’t taste like dark chocolate in the end; if you like darker, up the percentage), broken into small bits
Turn on the oven to just warm (60 Celsius or 140 Fahrenheit). Put the butter and chocolate into an oven-proof pan or dish and let it melt slowly in the oven, until the butter and chocolate are very soft but not liquid. R.’s advice: the oven heats the ingredients more gently than the microwave and more homogenously, without having to stir a lot, than a double-boiler on the stove.
While it’s melting, measure the sugar into a large bowl. Add the egg yolks, separating the whites into a separate mixer bowl for beating. Mix the yolks and sugar by hand (important! otherwise it comes out too “hard”) until the mixture is white.
Stir the butter and chocolate so they are completely integrated, then pour into the yolk/sugar mixture. Mix that well.
Using an electric mixer, beat the whites until they are stiff. You can turn it on while you’re mixing the previous step but keep an eye out that you don’t overbeat the whites or they’ll collapse. Anyway, you want the chocolate mixture to cool down before adding the egg whites, or the heat will deflate the eggs and make the mousse too dense. The chocolate mixture just has to be warm enough that it doesn’t get hard.
Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture in batches. Use a wooden spoon or a spatula, and gently guide the batter from the bottom to the top, in one direction! You want the whites to be integrated into the batter, but it’s more important not to have streaks of chocolate mixture vs. trying to get rid of all the little blobs of whites.
That’s it. You can put it into a large serving bowl or into individual bowls. It makes about 10 half-cup servings (small ramekins). If you want to double the recipe, it’s better to do it twice, because you risk over/under beating the egg whites if the volume is too great.
Refrigerate as long as possible. At least three hours, but better is overnight or up to two days. If you have anything smelly in the fridge, cover the mousse tightly with plastic film.
The group “By Invitation Only” has chosen Unity for today’s theme. I had planned to write about a few of the many successes of the European Union, but something came up that struck near to my heart. So bear with me.
When my kid was in preschool, the extraordinary teacher, Mme. L., decided to structure the year as a trip around the world. All the lessons—learning the alphabet, colors, counting—would relate to different countries. Some parents thought it was too much for four-year-olds to learn geography and concepts about other cultures when they should be getting drilled on writing S and E in the correct direction. Maybe even learning how to add. But Mme. L. persisted.
The children made “passports.” They “visited” China, India, Mexico, Senegal and the U.S., and they also talked about other countries. They learned songs, were read stories and ate food from those countries. They learned phrases in other languages. They made musical instruments and miniature houses of the countries’ style.
One day my kid came home with red clay all over. “We made huts today,” my kid explained, going on to describe how the clay walls kept the interiors cool in the warm climate. (BTW, a teacher friend informed me that young kids should always come home from school dirty, as it shows they did things and didn’t just sit like zombies at a desk.)
Mme. L. opened the world to these kids right at the moment when they were curious and not yet inculcated with negative stereotypes. Our village isn’t exactly diverse. Carcassonne is a little better, but it’s a sleepy town with no industry and limited economic opportunities.
One day, I was at a shopping center with my kid when a black man wearing a colorful, beautifully embellished robe walked by. My kid was curious: Which country do you think he’s from? Do you think he likes the weather? The food? Do you think he misses his country?
I was most struck by the fact that my kid’s reaction was not fear or rejection of someone different but interest. Also that my kid knew, at age four, that Africa was a continent with many countries, and that in those countries live individuals who might eat different food or live in different kinds of houses, but who are basically the same as us.
Another time, my kid, surveying the bounty of toys on the bedroom floor, declared gravely, “I am spoiled rotten. Some kids don’t even have one toy.”
Not everybody is lucky enough to have had a preschool teacher like Mme. L.
The title of this post is “Umoja,” which is “unity” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya and of Tanzania.
I have not been to all 54 countries in Africa, but I have visited five and lived in one. They were all beautiful, but beyond the natural beauty what I loved most was the beauty of the people, the culture. How many people have gone on safari and swooned over the animals while shunning the people?
I landed in Kenya in October 1985, as the drought that ravaged Ethiopia was still going strong. That was the famine that killed a million people and that inspired Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World,” which you can listen to here, and the lyrics are here. It’s time to read them again.
I saw many things in Kenya. Lions so close I could hear them crack the bones of the wildebeest they were feeding on. Giraffes grazing with cows. Majestic mountains (the top photo is of the Kibo peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in Tanzania, right on the border). Exotic flowers. I saw incredibly hard-working people, many of whom did back-breaking labor for all 12 hours of sunlight. I saw very devout Christians who didn’t just attend church every Sunday in their best clothes but who walked the walk, taking care of each other though they themselves had so little. I saw very devout Muslims unloading sacks of cement at the port in hot and sticky Lamu, sweating profusely but not drinking a drop because it was Ramadan. I saw a culture where children were revered. Where education was paramount, worth every sacrifice.
I also saw starving children, especially in the north, their empty stomachs distended, their hair orange from malnutrition, their energy too sapped to swat away flies from their faces. I saw their parents, in no better shape, working desperately to save them.
Once, when leaving “Hoggers,” a hamburger joint in Nairobi so devoted to America that it played tapes of a U.S. radio station, complete with the D.J.’s banter and weather and traffic reports between songs, I saw a young man, barely clothed, filthy, ravaging through the trash in the alley outside Hoggers, and stuffing jettisoned food into his mouth. That image will never leave me.
On a trip back many years later, taking the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I was booked into a sleeping car with two other women, both Kenyans. They were businesswomen; we were all about the same age, and we drank Tusker beer and talked about life. At that time, I was just visiting from New York; their lives and mine differed only in the details; the vast majority of our experiences were the same to an extent that startled me. Life is life. Around the world.
Every trip, I visited a former student. Her Christian name was Editor, which her mother, who didn’t speak English, had thought was pretty. Editor was always my favorite. Not my best student, but hard-working and honest and ambitious. She had a coffee and tea farm not far from where she’d grown up. Married, with two kids. She named her daughter after me.
Editor introduced me to her “big sister,” who wasn’t a blood relative at all but a mentor. In an area with no banks, women formed savings clubs, pooling their money and giving the pool to one member. The member would repay it and the pool would go to the next member. Often they would use it to buy a cow, which was not just a kind of savings account but which provided milk that could be consumed and sold, and each year would produce a calf, which also could be sold. Dividends, basically. New women would be brought in, sponsored by established members who were on the hook for their recruits’ repayment. As a result, the older women kept close tabs on their mentorees, helping them work through difficulties.
The “sister” also had two kids. She had a farm, as everybody did or tried to, because growing your own food means you won’t go hungry, whatever else may happen. She also had a job, and so did her husband, so they not only had a car but their house was made of bricks and had electricity and a TV. I lived for two years without electricity and I can attest that having it or not doesn’t make one a good or bad person, but it most certainly makes a person more efficient. The same with running water.
Over dinner, we talked and talked, and I kept thinking that they would have fit right in with my friends in my Midwestern hometown.
My school had about 450 kids. No electricity. No running water—they had to go to a stream at the foot of the hill to get it by the bucket (not easy because it wasn’t very deep). No glass in the windows. About 40 kids per class. Three kids sitting on two chairs at one desk with one book (yes, the poor middle kid had to straddle two chairs, but had the best view of the book). You could hear a pin drop in class–they were there to learn. It was a boarding school. They got up at 6, dressed into their uniforms, cleaned the classrooms (sweeping, then mopping not with mops but with buckets of water wiped up with big rags, on their hands and knees), studied, had breakfast (always a millet/sorghum porridge called uji). Then class. Lunch and dinner were always githeri, a maize-and-bean soup with vegetables, served with ugali (polenta). they got a little meat stew with potatoes or more ugali at lunch on Sundays. They had a little free time after school, spent doing sports or clubs like drama, and then studied again after dinner. There was one kerosene pressure lamp per classroom, and they arrayed their desks for a sliver of light.
I loved them. Even the naughty ones. Especially the good ones. They had many questions about the U.S. They thought it was hilarious that I would go jogging, bizarre that my hair was smooth and my feet soft and that it was crazy that there were people who did so little physical work and who had so much to eat that they had to exercise or they would be fat.
I had a bottle of fresh milk delivered every morning, still warm from the cow, with cream at the top. I had to use it all each day because I didn’t have a refrigerator (that electricity thing again). One day, next to my milk were a pair of flipflops I’d thrown away when the thong ripped a hole in the sole, so they wouldn’t stay on any more. They had been repaired, by hand, by the young man who delivered my milk. Such good flipflops shouldn’t be tossed because of such a small problem.
We’re spoiled rotten.
We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have such abundance that we are choking the planet with our waste. We are terrible stewards but we have the arrogance to tell everyone what to do.
With a little humility, we can see that we’re all in this life game together.
We are the world.
You can find the other contributions to “By Invitation Only” at Daily Plate of Crazy. Please read them all–very different approaches to the same topic.