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My dad has always loved cars. Growing up, our driveway was a rotating display of new models. Every few years, he’d trade in a car and try out something different. He wasn’t one to get attached to things. Mom’s live-by philosophy is, “Save it for a rainy day.” Dad’s one-liner to live by is, “Out with the old, in with the new.” Once, he came rumbling home in a sparkling white Iroc Z28, complete with a glass t-top and louvers on the back windshield. It only seemed fitting that our garage should house for a bit, a classic American sports car. This was South Carolina after all. If it wasn’t a truck covered in mud, the next hottest thing to own was a camaro.
Besides the benefit of always breathing in that new-car smell, we kids were lucky enough to have all the latest glossy automobile magazines and brochures as reading material. Over breakfast I’d learn about horsepower and hydrolics, engines and pistons. Between bites of Captain Crunch I’d discuss the details with my siblings; The new Eagle Talon can now go from 0 – 60mph in 10 seconds…… Sometimes my breakfast would offer life insights like; drivers with red cars often drive faster than average and thus have higher insurance rates. If we were carpooling with neighbors and their car had trouble starting, I’d be the 9 year old in the backseat saying, I think your alternator’s shot. These brochures and magazines broadened our knowledge of all the vehicular options out there in the world.
Despite all the exposure to cars, I never got too excited about them. In my mind, shiny enameled metal, double mufflers and extra air-intakes were no match to sidewalks. I loved sidewalks. (still do! In fact, the sidewalks of New York are such a bonus! Try running on the sidewalks of a French village. It’s impossible….but that’s another story.) My hometown, especially back then, didn’t have many, and I always dreamed of the day I could walk on sidewalks to get around. South Carolina has no need for sidewalks. It is too hot to be walking around outside and everything is too far away from wherever you are. Staying in the safety of an air-conditioned car is the chosen way of transporting yourself to the safety of an air-conditioned building. In such conditions, your mode of transport is just an extension of yourself.
When I was fourteen, my dad had just installed my brother into a new Saab Turbo. The car was sporty, safe, and stylish. It easily represented my brother’s practical nature and his love of driving fast. My sister had inherited the flashy Iroc-Z and was happily cruising around town at night. It was the perfect showy car for a teenage girl who wanted to be noticed. Back then, you could get your driver’s permit at age fifteen, and my dad was preparing to invest in his youngest daughter. Like all parents, he wants the best for his children. He asked me what my dream car was. What sort of machine did I want to represent “me”?
Without needing to think, I knew it was: The Classic Volkswagon Beetle.
Dad would never agree to getting me a used car. There were no guarantees of safety or performance in a used car. And since, at that time, the new Beetle was still nonexistent and the old Beetle was not an option, I blurted out my next best answer. The Toyota Tercel.
Dad was disappointed with my answer. It was so basic, just a thing with four wheels and an engine with no power. Didn’t I want a car that was awesome? Nah. I wanted to use the sidewalks, and if forced to use a car, something simple was fine by me.
It’s not the first time I sensed disagreement between my budding life views and my dad’s. When I was eight, I had begged my parents to move us out of our stand-alone home with the huge front and back yards. I had this idea that we should live in the only small apartment complex our town offered (to my knowledge) at the time. The apartments were right next to my elementary school and pretty close to my parents’ restaurant. Just think! I could WALK to school – on a SIDEWALK! I remember my dad saying, “Why would you want something that small when you already have this nice big home?”
In the end I didn’t want any car at all. I was happy to share the family car. I knew I was going to leave the state after high school and a having an extra car around just seemed like it would become a burden for everyone. Of course I moved to a place that had great public transport and nice wide sidewalks. At university, I was finally able to fulfill my dreams of walking from my apartment to class. Things were finally right in my world.
I’ve actually never owned a car. My high school days were my driving glory days. My dream car, after all these years, is still the Volkswagon Beetle. I’d also be happy with the classic Mini, or the classic Fiat as well. I guess little cans on wheels with go-kart engines are my thing.
If cans on wheels are my thing, it makes me wonder if I’m setting high enough standards for myself. Cars have become the common analogy to express quality. When I was working in retail design, the mannequins my company sourced were always dubbed as “The Rolls Royce of mannequins”. At the coffee counter where I learned how to pull shots, certain espresso machines are regarded as “The Cadillacs of Espresso Machines”. Such comparisons are thrown around all the time.
In all honesty, I truly do lead a Mini of a lifestyle. I putt-putt along and can pack my entire life into a small one-bedroom apartment.
Last month I was surrounded by the big-wigs of pastry. The Maserati’s and the Bentley’s of sugar and cream were around every bend in Paris. I lunched on Pierre Hermé macarons and supped on Conticini’s Paris-Brest. After a year of indulging in the luxury world of sweets, you’d think that my taste buds would have altered their preferences, that they’d demand that I keep up with this higher standard of tasting.
Not so. When I landed Stateside, my first real craving for pastry hit me when I saw a Dunkin’ Donuts – the Chevy of American junk food. And after a day on the counter they really are “like a rock”. A classic glazed doughnut dumped unceremoniously into a paper bag made my eyes get wide with happiness. Yum!
My Mini life.
My Chevy doughnut.
At least I went for the full size/oversized doughnut and not for the donut holes. Otherwise, I’d really be forced to question my standards.
The boulevards and streets of Paris were spun by a highly caffeinated spider – starting from the Palais de Justice in the center, and working crazily clockwise out and around. By the time the caffeine wore off, the spider was calm and relaxed, ending its wild spin in the southeast corner of the city by the large tranquil park, Bois de Vincennes.
At every intersection handfuls of monuments, statues, and tourists are caught up in this web of Paris. Newlyweds just beginning their stories stand fragilely under the weight of ancient history. They gaze at their crumpled maps, already lost. The base of the statue at Place de la Nation is covered with amateur graffiti and littered with beer bottles and plastic containers, while up in the sky the Republique is being pulled in to the city by two bronze lions, with Liberty and Work as her faithful companions.
This mix of old and new is everywhere. Some of it is iconic, like the glass pyramid jutting out of the courtyard of the Louvre. This image can be found magnetized to millions of refrigerators worldwide. My favorite symbol of old and new is how the Eglise de la Madeleine, which was constructed in 1842 with a classic Roman temple façade, has now become the new temple of gourmet food. All around the square one can indulge in chocolates, caviar, wine, fois-gras, and fancy pastries. Against the Roman-esque architecture of the church, the patisserie house of Fauchon screams its presence in glossy black and glaring pink. The hot pink umbrellas and chairs on the sidewalk pop like a modern art installation. The pink tinted glass doors silently slide open, welcoming you to their cool quiet world of “the good life.”
Their classic pastries have a modern take. For example, their Baba au Rhum is not just a dry biscuit, rehydrated in rum syrup. Instead, it is in a cylindrical glass , soaking in a light citrus syrup. It’s been capped off with crème mousseline and a straw pokes through the concoction, allowing you to slurp up the syrup. The rum has been reserved in two little syringes, to be injected as strong or light as you wish. The entire presentation was clean and elegant.
The concept of eating a soggy biscuit isn’t that appealing to me, but I keep trying the baba’s around town, hoping to be surprised. Fauchon was tempting me with their beautiful cakes; the mysterious looking black and blue fig tart, and the eclairs decorated with Mona Lisa’s eyes. Out of all the things I could’ve tasted, I chose the Baba au Rhum.
It could’ve symbolized Paris and city living. The syrup at the bottom of the glass representing the people, and how we creep up – soaking up all resources until we can somehow get to “the top”, that elusive place where the elite are, where the view is better, the air is fresher, and life is supposed to be sweeter. Here it all was, handed to me in a glass, with cream that sat at its rightful place on the top.
I thought about these things as I took my first sip. The citrus tang cut through the sugar syrup. Like the lady of the night, standing under the beautiful Porte Saint Denis, waiting for a customer. Her garish make-up in sharp contrast to the graceful arch of the grand gate. Slowly I injected the rum, watching it roll off the surface of the cream, collecting around the edges of the biscuit at the bottom of the glass, like the city grime that gets pushed away down into the gutters by street cleaners.
Next, my spoon dug through the soft biscuit. It wasn’t completely soggy as there was still resistance and structure. I was reminded of how the French speak to tourists. Their English is soft and curved at the ends, but there is the slightly pushy note that comes through when they ask, “Would you like to add the tip?” (on top of the service fee that is already included in your final bill).
The cream I saved for last. Minimal and simple, it ended the whole tasting experience in a soft richness. I had made it to the top! I looked up from my deconstructed dessert at my surroundings. A little ironic that here at Place de la Madeleine, the well-heeled tourists were snacking on madeleines, those little cakes shaped like seashells. Because this square is where all the elite caterers have chosen for their address, just by being here Fauchon was also announcing that they too had made it to the top of the catering world. And for me, by choosing to eat here, I was saying that I knew what a little taste of life at the top could be like.
Tilting the glass with one hand to get a good angle with my other hand, I scooped up the last remnants of cream around the rim of the glass. I was holding Paris in my hands; the crooked streets, the tiny hidden shops, the smells of croissants baking at 5am, the streetlamp’s pool of light revealing lovers locked in their own world-reluctant to let the sun rise, the man that wheels his piano around town playing for change on random street corners, the grand boulevards, the sumptuous architecture, the old piano factory that is now divided into artist studios….all these things on the tip of my spoon, all of which I had devoured.
Paris, you belong to me now.
Her mosquito bites were itching but she tried to ignore them and act like she was paying attention to her boyfriend’s rambling. He was always rambling and telling stories with no punch lines or purpose. He found himself funny. She found it all pointless. It was the only time he actually talked so she felt she better act interested, otherwise they would be just two people, eating Chinese food, staring silently at each other across the table, with their bored 3 year old son between them, playing with the chopstick wrappers.
“The cat just flew into the air! It couldn’t figure out how to stand with tape on its paws, so it kept jumping around. Hilarious! You shudda been there Lizzy.”
Mustering effort, she smiled in response. “you should’ve been there too, dumb-ass” she thought. Vince had a way of turning other people’s stories into his own. She had heard this story last week at their mutual friend’s backyard barbecue and knew that Vince had not been there to witness the joke.
Without having anything to talk about, she looked to her son for an escape. He was making faces at a little girl at the neighboring table. The two kids had been smiling at each other. Now, the girl was sullen. Lizzy looked around and saw a wrinkled chopstick wrapper on the floor next to the girl’s chair. “Jayden,” she scolded, “don’t throw things. It’s not nice.”
Vince watched the mother of his son. She gently wiped the sweet and sour sauce off Jayden’s cheek, brushed his hair from his eyes. She cut the cubed chicken into even smaller cubes and fed him patiently. Her eyes were full of sadness and love. How come Lizzy never looked at him like that? Only looked at him with sadness these days, no love. He wanted to make her laugh again. She had the cutest laugh that always ended in a cute snort when she was really happy. It seemed like it had been years since he had heard her snort. He had hoped the cat story would draw out a giggle, but all he had received was that leaden smile which he hated. “Look at me! Not Jayden!” he wanted to shout. Since when had he become jealous of his own son? He sighed and fell deflated against the curved back of the chair.
He never used to sigh like that. Life was fun once. They used to surf together and camp out on sandy beaches under the stars. With only five dollars between them, they had dined on grilled corn and had shared one beer for dinner. It didn’t take much back then to be happy, to snort and giggle. Just a tent, some waves, and lots of love making.
“Watch Jayden. I’m going to the restroom.”
She got up and took her time, walking slowly through the tables, making her way to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant. What a perfect name for a place. Rest- room. A real rest. A five minute break from life, away from that table full of food, responsibility, and past decisions. They really shouldn’t be eating out. Even though two combo meals came to a grand total of $14.95, it was still a splurge. Rent was due in two weeks and her paycheck would be less this pay period because she had not been able to make it in to a few of her waitressing shifts due to a twisted ankle.
In the restroom, she saw her face in the mirror. Her reflection was still full of youth but she had white strands sprinkled throughout her brown hair now instead of sun streaks. Her skin looked pale and she remembered when she had been bronzed. Shorts and bikini tops had made up her wardrobe. Now it was stockings and pumps along with her restaurant uniform. She had been proud of her tans that had never faded. Now, the only light her skin was exposed to were the fluorescents in the kitchen at work. She washed her hands twice to buy some time. Upon walking out she caught one last glimpse of herself in the mirror then stopped. Turning to face the mirror straight on, she watched herself let her hair down. It came down in big waves. Vince loved it when she wore her hair loose. She shook her tresses pulled her shoulders back, and made her way back to reality.
Upon opening the door she already heard Jayden’s high shrieks. From across the room she saw their son flailing his arms, trying to attack the little girl at the neighboring table. The little girl was fighting back. Where were the little girl’s parents? Why was Vince sitting there with that smirk? No time to question the particulars, she ran up to the two toddlers and separated them. The girl stomped off to join her parents, wherever they were, but not before managing to scratch Jayden’s cheek. A red welt was beginning to form and Jayden had started to wail. He latched on to his mom’s neck and howled.
Lizzy accusingly regarded Vince. “Why didn’t you stop them?” Jayden was crying so loudly she had to scream at Vince.
“Because it was funny!” Vince screamed back.
“You think this is funny?”
“Yeah – two little kids duking it out IS funny!” Vince had been particularly proud of his son because the little girl had launched corn at Jayden, and Jayden had responded by fighting back. His son was no wimp and he had wanted to see how far his son would go to defend himself.
Jayden had already forgotten the pain on his cheek and was now sobbing because his parents were fighting. They were always screaming at each other. Maybe if he screamed louder they would stop. He clawed at his mom’s hair, trying to get her attention.
Vince looked at Jayden clutching Lizzy’s thick brown curls. He wanted to do the same. He wanted to hold on to her, put his cheek on her breast and cry. Damn! Since when did he become jealous of his own son?
A slight Chinese girl approached the table with the check and two fortune cookies. She didn’t want to interrupt the family but it was best that they pay their check and leave. They were disturbing the other diners.
Lizzy distracted Jayden with the cookie and let him crack it open. The fortune was the best part of any Chinese meal. She remembered when she had eaten Chinese three years ago with Vince. She had just discovered she was pregnant and they had celebrated by splurging on Chinese food. Seems like they had started a little tradition with that. Her cookie that night had read, “A surprise is waiting for you.” They had taken it as a good sign, as if they could rely on a little package of sugar, flour, and butter to foretell their futures. Lizzy had just discovered that fortune this morning as she was cleaning out her wallet. Seeing it again had filled her regret. She didn’t want to resent her son, as he was the only source of her happiness these days, but she couldn’t help herself. To rid herself of the guilty feelings, she threw the fortune away, even doubling back to the trashcan to make sure it was buried well underneath all the other scrap paper and banana peels.
Jayden’s cookie read, “A fresh start will put you on your way.” Lizzy thought about this and contemplated getting a new outlook on life. No more being tired. No more being angry. She wanted to be fresh and new again – like she was before when life was just full of sand, sea, and endless summer days.
“Hey look! Remember this fortune?” Vince held out the little slip of paper from his cookie. A surprise is waiting for you. “You should keep this,” Vince said, handing the fortune over to Lizzy. She dutifully slipped it back into her wallet, which was destined to carry these words around for a little longer, maybe forever. There was no way to go back and change past decisions.
Lizzy held up Jayden’s fortune for Vince. “It’s time for me to get a fresh new start.” She looked at Vince and noticed his broad shoulders. She used to love falling asleep on those shoulders, her hand draped across his trim surfer’s waist. She thought about making love to him tonight. That’s what she needed. A fresh start begins with an orgasm. They used to have so much fun together.
Vince watched his pretty girl holding their beautiful boy. They walked to their car together silently, lost in their own thoughts. Vince buckled in his son, who was now calm and sleepy. If Jayden stayed this way, there was a chance he could make love to Lizzy tonight. During the ride home, Lizzy put her hand on his thigh and he looked over at her. She was smiling like her old self again. He covered her hand with his own and hoped his fortune cookie surprise would come true.
You can make your own fortune cookies and fill them with messages as nice or as mean as you desire.
This is actually a recipe for almond cookie tuiles, but you can easily manipulate and shape them into cookies. Make sure you have all your paper slips written out and ready, because fast action is required as soon as they are baked.
small metal spatula to spread cookie batter
triangular spatula to lift off cookies
circle stencil (you can make this yourself by cutting a circle out of thick paper or a plastic lid)
200g powdered sugar
200g almond powder
200g egg whites (room temperature)
Cream the butter. Add the powdered sugar. Careful! You want an even mixture but don’t add too much air.
Alternate adding egg whites and almond powder until all is incorporated. The completed mixture should be like thick frosting.
Make a stencil of a circle, about 4 inches in diameter. On a Silpat or silicon mat, smear a thin layer into circles, using your stencil. It’s like spreading peanut butter on toast. When the mat is full, bake at 300 F for 8-12 minutes. It should be golden colored. Remove from oven and quickly lift each cookie with the spatula. Place paper slip in the center, fold the cookie around it like a taco shell. Then take the two points of the taco shell and bend towards each other. You can pose each one over the edges of an egg carton. when it cools, you will have crunchy homemade fortune cookies!
I went to fill in the address on my luggage tag and realized that I had no address to put there. If my bag were to be lost, where would I want it to be sent – Yssingeaux? St. Bonnet le Froid? Istanbul? Antibes? Home to New York? But I won’t be there for some time yet….
The whole conundrum made me ask another question, “Where exactly are you going, Lisa?” These life questions such as “What is your destination?” can pop up in odd places. I’m detached from all places at the moment, floating around Europe chasing clouds of sugar and cream. Vacation has started, which means the great pastry chase has begun. My thoughts only wanted to go as far as dessert. I didn’t want to think about the FUTURE.
I stared at the luggage tag so long my friend asked me if the pen was out of ink. She laughed at me, took the pen and filled in her own address. It’s nice to know that even if I’m completely lost one day, there’s a friend who will be there to welcome me (and my stuff).
Traveling simplifies your life in certain ways. You have to whittle everything down to the bare essentials. Toothbrush, shoes, something clean to wear. It’s interesting to see how others pack their bags because it shows their choices and their priorities. Elaine arrived in France with half of her suitcase occupied by the biggest fluffiest heaviest robe. Comfort and warmth are good things to pack. Stephanie arrived prepared with a Swiss Army Knife, so she’d be ready to have a baguette and cheese at any given moment. I packed my watercolors, tape, scissors, and various types of papers. Not very practical, but there’s always time for an art project! AND, thanks to my husband, I have a very handy super bright flashlight.
Now that I’m in motion again and off to another destination, I’ve had to repack and reprioritize my things. The art box made the cut. I kept the sushi rice seasoning but I chucked the hiking shoes. The hiking shoes were heavy! My cowboy boots are heavier, but there was no chance I’d ever throw them out. I may be uprooted but there is still some remnant of a Southern Country Girl in me. So now, wherever I end up in the world, I’ll be able to kick up my cowboy boots, paint a picture, and eat sushi, and I’ll never be in the dark. Awesome.
My favorite thing to eat while traveling is junk food. If industrial store-bought junk isn’t junky enough for you, you can combine a few things and make it even junkier! Oh – I mean “more delicious!”
My favorite munchie snack is to take some plain cereal, like corn pops and corn flakes. Mix them together.
In a bowl, melt ½ jar of peanut butter with ½ stick of butter and ½ bag of chocolate chips. Stir in some cinnamon. Pour over the mix of cereal and stir until everything is evenly coated. Next, add about 2 cups of powdered sugar and mix until all is evenly coated. Pack in individual sandwich bags, and bon voyage!
I read too much Little House on the Prairie when I was a kid. I romanticized what it would be like if I lived like Laura and her family. It left me with the impression that in the winter, I could pour syrup in the snow and it would harden in to candy. Also, it made me believe that if I lived next to a bubbling brook, we wouldn’t need a refrigerator to chill our watermelons in the summer.
Yesterday, I was even further out in the country than I already am. My friend, Florian, was showing me his family vacation home, which looked like a scene straight out of Little House on the Prairie. It was a shack nestled into the tall grass. The clearing was surrounded by tall pine trees, undulating on top of the rolling hills. Just outside was his family’s strawberry fields. Three generations of strawberry farmers means they’ve earned their place on the 3 Michelin Star tables of Restaurant Regis et Jacques Marcon. Impressive. Next to the house was a real bubbling brook! It is the source of a river, but I don’t know which one. The house does not have running water or electricity. It is necessary for them to come to this brook and gather water, then heat it to take showers and wash dishes. At the source, the water gurgles up out of the ground, then swirls into a dip in the ground, about the size of a large washtub. Then the water travels down, making a path between the moss and through the woods.
The water from the little pool was so clean, clear, and crisp. It would be the PERFECT spot to chill some watermelons. I grew up in “the country” but THIS was so country it was hard to believe. Either I had traveled back in time or I had arrived on a movie set.
We didn’t have any watermelons to chill or eat, which was too bad. Florian grew up eating melons by chopping them in half, scooping out the seeds, then filling ‘bowl’ of the melon with the French equivalent to Moonshine. He would then scoop up the liqueur infused melon with a spoon, using the rind as a bowl. This country style sure is different from my city style.
In New York City, getting a watermelon back home is already a workout. It’s heavy and clunky. You have to heave it around on the subway and walk up and down stairs. Once it is in your apartment, you have to cut it up and pack it away. There just isn’ t enough space to leave a full watermelon in the fridge. Every time my Love shows me love by bringing home a big fat watermelon, we look at it in awe for a minute - then we transform it into little cubes that go into square stackable containers, that take up the minimum amount of refrigerator space.
Once upon a time, I had more freedom with my watermelon. When I was kid, watermelon signified summer and endless days in the sun. Here’s a slice of my childhood…….
The only way to get to the watermelon was to climb out of the pool and scorch your bare feet on the patio before crossing through the back entrance and into the safety of the kitchen. I peeped out of the water across that vast expanse of grass and concrete, eyeing my goal: the screen door.
“C’mon Lacey, let’s go” I said as I hopped out of the pool with cat like agility. She followed and we stood on the warm wooden floorboards of the pool deck for a moment, gathering our courage. “One..two…THREE” we said in unison, and off we darted. Our feet slapped against the concrete, leaving a trail of little wet footprints that would quickly evaporate under the noonday sun. We jumped over the two brick steps and onto the cool stones of the covered porch, prancing to stamp out the burn and shake off the dirt before entering the house.
The spring on the screen door creaked upon opening. Stepping gingerly into the house, we wiped our feet on the doormat then proceeded to tip-toe towards the kitchen. Mom didn’t like me bringing friends into the house. The rule was to play outside at all times, never inside. Dirt was the enemy. By tip toeing and hunching over, we made our bodies smaller, all efforts to being less invasive to the cleanliness around us.
The air-conditioner kept the house a frosty 68 degrees. Within seconds, the chlorinated pool water seemed to crystallize on our goosepimpled skin. “I’m just going to get some watermelon and leave,” I whispered to Lacey. Nobody was home and there was no reason to whisper, but a normal speaking voice felt inappropriate. Lacey sort of hung back by the kitchen table, unwilling to step fully into the kitchen proper. “I want a big piece,” she whispered back.
I tugged at the magnet-free refrigerator door to reveal a whopper of a watermelon on the bottom shelf. There wasn’t much else in the fridge, except for some soy sauce, oyster sauce, and a few eggs. The inside of the fridge was almost a reflection of the inside of our house. There wasn’t a lot around, just the necessities. My small nine year old hands pushed the watermelon to the edge of the shelf, letting it roll into my arms. Heaving it up to the counter I then grabbed a chair to stand on so I could be at the right height to cut down into the watermelon’s juiciness.
Out of a drawer I pulled out our standard kitchen knife, which was a large rectangle of steel, sharpened to a dangerous blade. As a kid, I was already deftly using a butcher knife to peel fruit, smash garlic, or cut through chicken bones. Like almost everything else in the kitchen, the knife (and the watermelon) was from my parents’ restaurant. Amongst the cheerful yellow cabinets and tomato vine wallpaper, the stainless steel commercial pans and bowls were conspicuously out of place on the laminate countertops.
*Whack*, the blade cut through the watermelon with ease. I quickly chopped off two hunks then wrapped the rest in plastic wrap before putting the remainders back in the fridge. Wetting some paper towels, I mopped up the juice that had dribbled on to the counter and tossed them into the garbage can. “Let’s get out of here. It’s freezing,” I said as I replaced the chair I had been standing on back to its spot at the table.
We grabbed our watermelon slices and ran back outside, the screen door slamming behind us with a bang. It was our cue that we could be loud again. “Race ya back to the pool,” I yelled, already halfway to the patio. We did our little ow-the-concrete-is hot dance back to the pool deck. We sat side by side, toes dangling in the water while slurping and eating. “I betcha I can spit my seeds farther than you,” Lacey challenged. “No you can’t.” I countered. We spat our seeds into the grass, neither of us keeping track of the distances.
Mom and Dad wouldn’t come back from the restaurant until three o’clock to bring us lunch. We had hours to play and spit and fill the outside air with noise.
Truth, like morality, is a relative affair. There are no facts, only interpretations.
The truth is, today I had bread and cheese for lunch with a mug of wine. That doesn’t sound like a healthy lunch, especially since I’m going to be on a beach in a bathing suit in a couple of weeks, but the deeper truth is that the wine was already open and I needed to drink the rest of it before it went bad. Also, Stephanie had given me the cheese. I was so touched that she thought of me while she was out shopping, and we all know that anything seasoned with love tastes better. For that reason, I must eat the cheese as soon as possible.
We all have our ways of believing in things, just to make ourselves feel better about our choices. Snobbery works wonderfully with our capacity to create illusions. When I was little, I ate the Chinese food my parents fed me and tried to understand the music they listened to. I had this great desire to be more Chinese. I thought that pagodas and a language made of characters of ink on silk was so much more exciting than having 2 cars and swimming pool in the back yard. Not that I didn’t enjoy my American childhood. I have great memories of swimming all afternoon, then running into the kitchen to spray some Easy Cheese on some crackers to refuel before going back out to launch myself onto the Slip ‘n’ Slide. The snob in me told me that when I grew up, I’d leave Small Town America behind. I believed in this illusion that everything was better ‘out there’. When I finally did get my opportunity to live in Asia, I started to notice their version of snobbery. They loved being Chinese more than I loved wanting to be Chinese. They also loved locking me out of their circle. I may look like them, but they told me straight out and unapologetically, “You’re not Chinese.” This had the funniest affect on me. Suddenly, I became patriotic and embraced all things American. I went from, “Ní hăo” to “You could never hip-hop like me!” I had a new illusion to cling to that told me everything was better back home.
There’s snobbery and then there’s anti-snobbery. A Snob believes that they have something that is better than others – either their job, their clothes, their tastes, their education, their opinions, maybe their entire life. The Anti-Snob loves celebrating the lowbrow culture and unpretentiousness to a point where they create their own clique. What they are doing is essentially the same; it’s just the other side of the coin.
My memories of growing up as a minority in the South are good and bad. I have pride for my hometown and also disdain. Here in France, sometimes seeing a large group of Americans can fill me with love and annoyance. I’ll love that I’m hearing a familiar English accent yet I’ll dislike how they’re so loud. Since I can’t decide which side of the coin to stand on, for now I’ll just let the coin spin.
I see this struggle in others as they search for their own identities. My friend’s sister is now with a Frenchman. We’ll call him F. Apparently, F’s family is completely snobby and won’t even touch peanut butter pie, even though it was made by their daughter-in-law. Peanuts aren’t popular in France. They are eaten with aperitifs, served with your drinks before dinner. Grander more elegant nuts find their ways into French food, like hazelnuts and pine nuts. My friend understands the cultural difference but sometimes you meet people and just want to slap them around a bit. You want to tell them to be adventurous. If you live in another country, at least let yourself live a little and try the local cuisine. But they look like they are holding fast to their ‘peanuts only for aperitifs’ rule. They go on and on about how much better French cheese and French food is. My friend is going to serve them the most Anti-Snob food she can think of for their next dinner together. She’s thinking Cheez Whiz and Marshmallow Fluff.
The truth (my version of it) is that there is nothing really better here or there. Whether your life revolves around a plot of land, a green lawn, a car, the kids’ after school schedules…..or your life is full art, traveling, exotic foods, and fancy labels….we still all want the same thing. We want a happy reason to wake up in the morning, and at night we want to go to bed feeling like we spent our days as useful purposeful people.
Nachos And Cheese – instant and industrial style
an Anti-snobbery recipe
· pop into the closest convenience store.
· Buy a big bag of corn chips.
· Buy a jar of Cheez Whiz.
· Put the jar in a microwave and marvel at how it melts into the perfect gooey consistency. Appreciate the fact that this stuff was scientifically engineered to be perfectly dip-able!
· Open the bag of chips with a satisfying pop. Also note that the air in that bag is not just air. It’s a mixture of gases that does not contain oxygen. This is another magic scientific and industrial way of keeping those chips fresher on those shelves longer.
· Ignore the hydrogenated oils and whatever else you can’t pronounce. Happy dipping!
cherries and almonds
A man who has drive and passion is exciting. On the other hand, a man who has passion that is rooted in his ego along with a streak of competitiveness that makes him mow down any person, even his girlfriend, to come out on top and be “right” is just plain annoying.
Once, I had the great misfortune to date the annoying type.
It was just the two of us standing on the platform waiting for the train to San Francisco. He noticed my large tube of rolled up drawings and approached me. I noticed his funny jeans that looked like a mix between acid wash and crinkled paper. I have an obsession with paper and tape, which is partly why being an interior designer was quite perfect for me at that time. I love taping paper down to my drawing board to begin each new idea. He said hello. I said, “Hi. Nice jeans.” He said, “Yeah, I got them because they look like paper.”
He had me at “paper”.
We commuted into the city together, exchanging tidbits about ourselves. He was carefully editing while he spoke, because the picture of himself, which he presented to me was quite different from the one I discovered later. By the end of the train ride, I was already daydreaming about how perfect things could be. He was an architect. I was a designer. We would build beautiful spaces and a beautiful life together. It’s funny how much that word, ‘paper’ carried me away.
The first thing I should have noticed was that he was always talking about how unique he was. I credited his self-centered view of the world to “confidence”. He rambled on about his project in Dubai. He told me he had lived in Canada, Hong Kong, Washington D.C., Seattle, and now San Francisco. All those addresses and jobs in just a few years. This should’ve alerted me to the fact that he had commitment problems, but again, I mistook his A.D.D. and believed that he had a huge appetite for life. I adore traveling, and here was a guy who really got around!
He pulled out a snazzy leather notebook and with his micron technical pen, he wrote his email for me. It read, outadabox. Then, at the bottom of the page, he gave me his autograph. With a flourish, he signed his name with a monstrously huge A for Andy. Then a large K.O.
“What’s the K.O. stand for?”
“They call me Knock Out. And it’s outadabox because you should always think outside of the box. Get it?”
….huh? was all I was thinking, but that paper was really blinding me because I continued in my foggy daydream for quite a while. Oh the things you can talk yourself in to when you’re young.
After the glow of the first meeting faded, we began to fight as only two designers can. Walking down the street one sunny day, we came across a the incredibly cute Volkswagon Beetle. It was parked right outside a café that had a huge green awning. He commented on how he’d never seen a car painted in such a pale shade of green.
I replied, “It’s because the car is actually white. The green awning is casting a light green shadow over the car.”
Because he is a guy who is supposed to know his colors, he set out to prove me wrong. We bickered about it for about five minutes, standing on the sidewalk, walking around the car, flailing our arms as we pointed to the sun, the awning, the shadows. We provided quite a show for the people in the café watching us. Finally, he stopped a lady passing by and asked her what color she thought the car was.
“well, it looks a little green, but it’s probably the shadow.”
His eyes lit up. “Ah hah! She said it was green!”
“no, but she said it was probably the shadow!”
This would have continued for days but I let it drop and walked away. There just wasn’t any way to win with Andy.
The worst possible thing you could do with Andy was go to IKEA with him. With his design background he’d have the need to point out how every thing was a copy of some other famous design. We bought a large armchair for his apartment. Just ONE chair – for him. As we carted it into the elevator, I noticed how huge the elevator was. It was almost the size of his entire apartment. I voiced my thoughts to him, which was met with silence. When the doors opened to the garage level, Andy said, “That elevator was huge! Did you notice?”
“I just said that! It’s probably at least ninety square feet.”
“No you didn’t. The elevator is more like 120 square feet anyway.”
And I got sucked into a stupid argument once again, fighting for my point of view, trying to make him believe me once – just once!
Almost every architect I know says they would love to be a chef if they had to choose a second career. Playing with your food is similar to designing – the structure, the colors, the presentation…. He was no exception and thought that he could be a chef. He often cooked me pasta jazzed up with sun dried tomatoes, or maybe he’d throw some cheese into a can of beanie weenies.
Andy may have one-upped me on his collection of addresses and fancy companies worked for, but when it came to food he was clueless.
One day as we were eating Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice-cream, he commented that every time he ate cherries, he tasted almonds. Another argument ensued, with me stating the obvious: Cherries are cherries. Almonds are almonds. This argument lasted for months and would reappear each time a cherry or an almond came across our plates. One day, as we were touring the botanical gardens, the docent showed us a baby cherry tree. He started talking about its genus and species. I counted down the seconds, fully anticipating Andy’s next question.
Right on cue, Andy chimed in, “Excuse me Sir, Do you notice that cherries and almonds taste the same?” The docent replied that cherry trees and almond trees are distant cousins, but they came from the same genus. If you trace the roots far back, there is a slight relationship between the two, but the fruit of the two trees are very different. He jokingly ended his biological historic account by saying, “Maybe you have the gene that can detect this relationship.”
“I have the GENE!” Andy was ecstatic. No matter how much I tried to tell him that it was a joke, he was convinced that he was special, that he had unique taste buds which could detect family tree relationships between plants.
Because I found this hilarious, I started to play around with him. He was so predictable. At dinner with my brother, I purposely sprinkled almonds over the veggies. “Matt, watch this. He’s gonna say it!” And sure enough, after a few minutes, Andy started his whole story of being one of the only people who was gifted with this ability to taste and detect how trees can have cousins. Andy never tired of repeating this story, even to me.
After living in San Francisco for a year, he packed up his things to move back to Seattle. He had accepted a job with a prestigious retail design company.
“What about us?” I asked.
“You’ll come to Seattle one day. I know you’ll love it there.”
I had no intention of moving to Seattle. It was smaller than San Fran. Colder. Foggier. I didn’t say I wouldn’t go, but decided that I’d at least help him drive his stuff up to there and check out the town.
It was warm in San Francisco the day I helped him load up the U-Haul. After the last box was in the van, I stayed down on the sidewalk to keep watch of his stuff while he made a last sweep through his old apartment before we set off. The drive up was uneventful and when we arrived to Seattle we were greeted with wind, fog, and rain.
As we started to unload the van I searched for my coat. I knew it hadn’t vanished in the fog.
“Andy, did you see my coat?”
“Was it in the apartment in San Francisco?”
“oooh. There was a coat on the floor, but it wasn’t mine. I didn’t know whose it was so I left it there.”
He was too busy thinking outside of everyone else’s box that he was stuck in his own box. At that moment I knew that he could believe white was green and that cherries were almonds. I didn’t care to correct him anymore because I was through with Andy with the big A. Back in California it was cherry picking season. If I could have my pick of any cherry out there, why settle for a delusional cherry that thought it was an almond?
Cherry Salad with Honey Yoghurt Dressing
Cherry picking season is back! Time for a salad. Try mixing fresh pitted cherries, walnuts (or almonds…your choice), and goat cheese into your salad greens. Top with a little Honey Yoghurt dressing. You’ll fit into your bikini and be beach ready in no time…
Honey Yoghurt Dressing:
1 cup of yoghurt
3 tbsp honey
1 tbsp olive oil
Dash of white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients well and pour over salad. Yum!
I stared at my little pile of laundry and thought about the hike up the hill. That dreaded hill! Everyday, twice a day, I had to walk up that hill to get to work, and unfortunately the coin laundry was at the top of the hill as well. Even with a day off from work, there was no day off from the hill.
Then I thought of Genna, Yasemin, and Elaine. They were all in Paris together. It didn’t take long to make my decision. Laundry at the top of the hill? Or friends, pastries, and Paris?
I chose Paris. It was 9pm when I decided to go. I don’t have a car and with no bus in this town, it’s hard to escape; but by 3am I had bummed a ride to Lyon to catch the first 5:30am train to Paris. At 8:30am, Elaine was still asleep and I jumped on top of her to scare and surprise her awake. Bonjour!
For me, making split second decisions is sort of like brushing your teeth after eating candy. It makes sense! I don’t like to mull over things. When I am forced to mull over decisions, I turn glum. Of course, I still realize the importance of thinking things through clearly, I just don’t always do it.
Once, after being on vacation in Singapore for only 2 hours, I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s move here!” Impulsive, am I? ….naaah….. But my enthusiasm must have been a little contagious, because Ben actually did consider it, only just for a minute - but he did consider it!
Some people proceed with caution in life. I tend to yield and do the little rolling stop. I’ve ended up way off the mark a few times, a little lost and freaked out. Sure, I had to expend some time to back track and find myself again, but I don’t think I’d do it any other way if I had to do it all over. Overall, I find that breaking free from routine every so often brings upon some surprising discoveries. This past time in Paris, I ran into a food blogger that I recognized from his photo on his home page. He documents all the pastries he eats in Paris. From his style of writing, I felt that he was the kind of guy who is chasing after fame. After talking to him during our stroll from patisserie 1: Hugo& Victor to patisserie 2: Pierre Herme, all he spoke of was about how he may have inspired some new flavor of macaron in Paris. My thoughts of him were confirmed. After he parted from us and was out of earshot, my friend voiced my thoughts by saying, “@sshole”. He had made us both a little sick to our stomachs. If I hadn’t gotten on that train to Paris, I would’ve never shared sugar and disgust with my friends. It’s these sorts of memories that bond you together, that make you laugh, and give you something to talk about over a cup of chocolate. I hope to see my friends again soon…either on a whim or on a well planned out vacation.
Yasemin (and her mom) always says, “Your Character is Your Destiny”. It’s so true that most of us are lucky enough to be in control of our own lives. What sort of character are you? While you’re mulling over it, have some mulled wine. Usually it is made from red wine, but try it with white. It may help bring some clarity to your decisions!
Mulled White Wine
One bottle white wine
2 star anise
cinnamon sticks (as you like it)
Slice the oranges and lemons. Put everything in a pot and bring to a low simmer. Don’t let it boil as it will evaporate all the alcohol. Once it is simmering, remove from the heat. Cover and let it cool completely. Strain. Reheat gently before serving.
Social etiquette is much like the thin papery outer layer of an onion. It easily falls away when it’s rubbed the wrong way. Example: our social education instructs us to greet people with a “hello”. I can tell if I’ve rubbed someone the wrong way because suddenly they’ll stop saying hello to me. This rude behavior is always justified by the offended person saying, “I can’t be fake. If I don’t like someone then I can’t pretend that I do.” So they drop the social etiquette and make a point to avoid all eye contact - blatantly ignoring the people they dislike. This has happened to me a few times. Sometimes it happens from the start, within the first moment of meeting someone. When this happens, I’m never sure how to fix the problem. I just continue on as normal and I remember the rules of etiquette during all interactions, and hope that I don’t give them more reasons to carry on their grudge. Sometimes things become normal, sometimes they don’t. Life goes on.
When you’re in an environment where you speak the same language as everyone else, it’s easy to drop your Ps and Qs and be the rudest person you want to be. You can curse, you can swear, you can be offensive. However, imagine trying to express yourself in a foreign language in which you have only a limited vocabulary. Here in France, all of us foreign interns were taught to say, “Pardon, S’il vous plait, excusez-moi.” You can’t exactly be rude to someone when you’re saying, “please.” Humans are funny creatures though, and even without language, we will find ways to express our true feelings.
Sometimes in the kitchen, I hear a polite “Pardon” and then I get a shove. I’m sure my coworker would like to tell me to “move your ass out of my f*cking way”, but she is trapped within the limits of her textbook French. Instead, she politely asks to be excused while pushing me aside.
And how does one differentiate themselves to stand above the crowd when you can’t communicate in the same language? I’ve noticed this same girl going out of her way to pour coffee for the chef. She’ll even run to the refrigerator and get chef a yogurt or a pudding for lunch, and she’s always rewarded with a “Merci…c’est gentille.”
In the beginning she had me fooled with her sweet smile and timid voice. Now, after two months of working side by side, the first layer of etiquette has disappeared and the next layer is started to peel away. Her competitiveness is starting to show. She has stopped speaking to me almost entirely and the only question she asks me now is, “What recipes did you make today?” I don’t understand the concept of competing against others, especially in a restaurant kitchen where working as a team is of utmost importance.
I’ve discovered a way to counter her bizarre behavior though. I just have to keep my paper layer of etiquette intact. I never shove back. I don’t roll my eyes at her. I just step aside and offer a little help, which she’ll accept with a polite, “Thank you.” Which goes to show that even without language, a helping hand goes a long way.
Just like how you can turn an offensive person into a sweetie that says “Thank you”, you can turn the offensive onion into a dessert as well. The strong smell of an onion is reduced when boiled in milk. Here is a onion dessert recipe that I saw on Mouthfuls. Someone try it out and tell me how it goes!
60g white onions(the large white ones that arent too pungent)
juice of 1 large lime
1 lt milk + more for boiling the onions the first time.
1 tbsp rosewater
a. wash raisins and set aside.
b. soak pistachios. leave for 30 mts. then peel outer skin.
c. peel onions. cut into thick rings.
d. soak for 3 hours in water that has the juice of 1 lime.
e. after 3 hours of soaking, boil in fresh water.
f. drain. repeat but boil the onions in some milk.
h. milk + sugar > boil until mixture thickens.
i. add the plump raisins and softened pistachios.
j. add the onions and simmer for 5 minutes
k. add the rosewater at the very end.