Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese

Hangover Sandwich - Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese

I never post things like this.

In fact, for a food blogger, I don’t write that much about food, at least not here. It’s something I was discussing with a friend of mine who was considering starting a blog, something that, while I’m conscious of it, I don’t really think about all that much.

At the very beginning of my blogging, I wrote a lot about food because I was learning. Every time I tested a new recipe, I learned something — a new way to cut, a new combination of flavors, a new spice that added a different dimension to a dish. And those were the things that I wanted to share on my blog.

But now, for the most part, at least, nothing is new. I can perfect things, try new techniques, experiment with a new recipe for a tried and true dish, but most of the time, I can guess how something is going to taste before I cook it. I’m not saying that I don’t have anything else to learn or try, just that I don’t often do it. The recipes I post here are just what I eat, not necessarily my culinary experiments.

Hangover Sandwich - Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese

Long-time readers will notice, then, that most of the recipes on here follow a trend: plant-based, for the most part, savory, not sweet. The sorts of things you could eat every night for dinner… because that’s exactly what you’re seeing. I don’t develop recipe specifically for the blog, and when I come up with a new dish, it’s pretty much always because it’s something I just want to eat; I don’t really think about what it’s going to look like when it goes up here until it is.

Hangover Sandwich - Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese

Well for once, I’m going to fly in the face of tradition.

Hangover Sandwich - Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese

I made this just to see if I could do it. And yes, I ate it. It was delicious, but it’s not the sort of thing I could — or would want — to eat every day. But hey, there’s a first time for everything.

I had seen sandwiches like this on Pinterest before, but I never really thought I’d actually made one. But one weekend, when I was a bit bored with my giant salads made of herbs and burrito bowls with black beans and homemade salsa, I decided to try it out, just to see if I could, just to try something new.

Hangover Sandwich - Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese

And what do you know — there are still a few tricks for me to learn. Particularly when it comes to hangover-appropriate food.

Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese Sandwich

1 box Kraft Mac and Cheese, prepared with butter, no milk

per sandwich
2 slices white sandwich bread
2 slices American cheese
2 Tbsp. butter
1 egg

Make the Kraft macaroni and cheese. Eat two or three spoonfuls, then put a lid on it so you don’t eat all of it while making the sandwiches.

Heat a nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Add the butter.

Add one slice of bread. Top with a slice of American cheese. Spoon about three spoonfuls of mac and cheese on top of the American cheese. Eat another. Put the lid back on. Place another slice of American cheese on the other slice of bread, and put it cheese side down on the mac and cheese. Smoosh it a little bit so that it sticks together. Cover with a lid and cook for two minutes.

Flip the sandwich over. Crack the egg into the pan and cover. Cook for two minutes.

Remove the sandwich and put it on a plate. Top with the fried egg.

Depending on your willpower, you should be able to make about six sandwiches with one box of mac and cheese.

Chicken Burrito Bowls with Zucchini and Stone Fruit Salsa

Chicken Burrito Bowl

Ah… the Americans have returned. Yes, that is a strange thing to say in Paris — even putting aside the fact that I am American and therefore have no real reason to be commenting on the presence of Americans in Paris. And even more so because Americans are kind of eternally present in Paris. But I mean a special sort of American. I mean the AUP students.

Eiffel Tower from the Tuileries

My alma mater is not the sort of school I get weepy and nostalgic over. I enjoyed AUP, but, at least when I was attending, it wasn’t the sort of school that inspired a lot of spirit. I had that at my elementary school in New York, at my boarding school in Massachusetts (I dyed my hair blue once out of school spirit — remind me to burn those pictures).

AUP is a place that doesn’t exist in a time, because it still exists for me now, 7 years after I graduated. I walk past it nearly every day, on my way to meeting points for tours, on my way to or from the American Library, to and from the gym, to and from the fromager I like to go to who says tu to me and whose 3-year-old son, after a month of not seeing me, has started calling me ça again even though, for a while there, he was calling me Emily.

But even though AUP exists all the time, there is one point in every year, one moment that makes me a little bit nostalgic.

It started, this year, at that very same fromager, as I waited outside with a tour group. Three girls stood inside, choosing cheeses — I know they bought Comté, but I couldn’t say what else they opted for. A boy ran over from across the street, wielding a baguette. They must have been 18, 19 — I know because I felt that way at 18, 19, like I was a real adult, and I had people, I’m sure, looking at me the way that I was looking at them, full of nostalgia and quiet amusement. Probably people still look at me that way now, but that’s beside the point of this particular anecdote.

The boy started recounting his adventures trying to buy “some sort of meat.”

“That shop was more meat to cook, not meat to eat,” he informed them. “The other guys went to the supermarket. I decided not to go in because, well…” He wielded his baguette proudly. I loved him so much in that moment.

The girls nodded knowingly. I wanted to tell them about my favorite charcutier, just around the corner, where the products all come from the southwest and Murielle knows everything and gives you free samples, but I didn’t. Why didn’t I?

Did I want to give them their moment of discovery, their time of feeling like experts digging into the minutia of life in Paris? Have I just become too French to interact with people who have not distinctly invited my interaction? The fromager passed me a piece of Comté as I waited for them to finish choosing and paying. I chatted in French with the Canadian couple I was guiding. These students knew no better. For them, I was just another Parisian.

Louvre at Dusk

They left, presumably to consume the cheese and baguette and hopefully “some sort of meat,” and we finished our tour. I stopped thinking about them until hours later, after I had been to the gym and decided, against my better judgment, to go home in workout clothes, which is one of the main vestiges of my Americanness that I now allow myself.

I was waiting on the platform of the line 6 at Dupleix. They boarded my car with me. I recognized one boy’s all-American face, the brightly colored leggings of one of the girls. I wonder if they recognized me — probably not. I pretended to read my book as I listened to them, seeking and finding their own patterns in the better part of a week that they’ve called Paris home.

Chairs in the Tuileries

“Line 14 is my favorite,” one boy said. The others nodded encouragingly. “It’s just so fast!

“My metro stop is really crowded,” another explained. “But I live in a really residential neighborhood.”

Which stop? Which neighborhood? I wanted to ask, but I kept my mouth shut.

The métro barreled along the tracks, above ground. That’s why I like the 6, though I don’t know if it’s my favorite line. I don’t think I have a favorite line, but did I, once?

“I wonder if this door opens…” one of the girls wondered aloud to herself, fiddling with the handle. She stopped leaning on the door, the one that wouldn’t open until the train turned itself around at Charles-de-Gaulle-Étoile. I didn’t say anything to her either.

Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe - Paris' Historical Axis

I like knowing Paris better than I know New York, knowing it well enough that when I discover some part of it I don’t know, I’m amazed and pleased. But I remember that feeling of wonder, that scrutinizing of the metro maps, that desire for everything to feel familiar and the realization, over and over and over again, of how little I knew.

I remember trying to find a place where I could buy good pâté on my first night in Paris. I remember my first floor picnic with cornichons and hot mustard and goat cheese, alone in my new apartment. I remember desperately, frantically searching for common ground with someone that was in my situation, making friends as quickly as it took to introduce yourself. I guess what’s different is that it’s not my situation anymore.

Alors, ils sont revenus, ceux de la fac américaine ?” I said to my fromager as I paid for our tasting. He smiles. Yes, they’re back. They love it here. They have picnics on the Champ de Mars, 2, 3, 4 times a week. They like to try new cheeses. I help them find what they like.

As I left, turned away from the Champ de Mars towards the 15th, I realized that maybe I do have a bit of nostalgia left, not for a place, exactly, but for a moment, that moment.

The weather is changing again, that unmistakeable feeling of fall. The sun sets earlier. I can’t decide if I need tights or not in the morning. And while this is my eighth season in Paris, my eighth year of leaves changing, yet again, maybe, just maybe, even though I love being a regular, saying to people — because it’s true — that I’m from New York, but this is home, I miss — a little bit — what it was like when Paris was entirely filled with nothing but possibilities.

Chicken Burrito Bowl

I learned that it’s a very American thing to do to mix sweet and savory back when I was at my real person job and regularly cut fruit into the giant salads I would make myself every day for month. Funnily enough, the Country Boy doesn’t seem to mind.

Chicken Burrito Bowl

Chicken Burrito Bowls with Zucchini and Stone Fruit Salsa

Serves 2

For chicken:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 tsp. olive oil (for cooking)
1 pinch nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. onion powder
salt and pepper

For beans:
1/2 pound dried black beans
1/4 onion
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tsp. dried coriander
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. cumin
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce

For salsa:
1 small zucchini, grated
1 peach, diced
2 apricots, diced
1 green onion, thinly sliced
a few slices of red chile
salt and pepper
juice of 1 lime
1 tsp. olive oil

Cooked rice (or cook some rice)

Chicken Burrito Bowl

The night before, soak your black beans in water and combine all of the ingredients for the chicken marinade in a plastic bag. (Leave out the olive oil; you’ll use that for cooking). Add the chicken and seal the bag. Marinate overnight.

When ready to cook, begin by draining the beans, covering them with water, and adding all of the seasonings. Cook for about 1 hour, until the beans are tender. Remove the garlic. (I also remove the chipotle, because TCB can’t stand too much heat.)

Cook some rice. You’re better off trusting your gut on this, because not once in my history of cooking have I ever made the correct amount of rice. I like brown rice, and I like to add some garlic powder and salt to it while it’s cooking.

Prepare the salsa. Place the grated zucchini on paper towels or in a colander while you chop the remaining ingredients. Squeeze out any excess water and then toss it together with everything else. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat the olive oil for cooking the chicken over medium-high heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade and add to the pan. Cook about 4 minutes per side, until browned on the outside but still juicy on the inside. Set aside to cool for about 2 minutes before slicing.

Assemble the bowls. Place a layer of rice on the bottom of each bowl. Top with a heaping scoop of beans, making sure to get some of the juice. Slice the chicken widthwise and place on top. Top each bowl with a spoonful of salsa.

Charred Tomato, White Anchovy, Chimichurri Tartine & 10 Things I Don’t Like About France

Charred Tomato, White Anchovy, Chimichurri Tartine

When I moved to France, I had no image of what it would be like, no wildly romantic notions of France or Paris. In fact, I fell in love with Paris slowly. I kind of prefer it that way.

But like anything — or anyone — you love, there are those irksome characteristics, those things that you just can’t stand. As a bit of a counterpoint to my previous post about things I like about France, here are ten things I really don’t like about the place I’ve chosen — for better or for worse — to call home.

paris

Customer service here sucks. Royally.

I actually am stealing this one from a fellow tour guide, but working in a service industry, you definitely notice it.

Two cases in point.

This summer, the Country Boy and I spent an afternoon in Cambridge. After wandering around Harvard, we decided we could do with an iced coffee and went to Peet’s. We placed our orders, and went to the other counter to wait. TCB had ordered an iced latte; I had an iced black coffee. He received his order. I kept waiting.

“I think they forgot you,” he said, but after living many years with my father, who likes to jump down service professionals’ throats, I decided to wait an extra minute before saying anything. The girl behind us in the line got whatever Peet’s’ version of a Frappuccino is. I continued to wait.

The man making the beverages looked at me. “Are you waiting for something?”

“Yes, an iced coffee.”

And with that, not only did he make my drink, apologizing profusely, and hand it to me, he also handed me a card towards a free beverage in any Peet’s (which I used in Maryland).

TCB was astounded. Frankly, so was I. That just doesn’t happen in France.

In Paris, about 8 years ago, my mother and a family friend came to stay at my apartment. While I was at school, they very kindly went to the Galeries Lafayette and bought me an assortment of bedding. Some of the bedding was mildly superfluous, because I was living in a furnished apartment that already had superfluous bedding. I went to return said bedding to the same store from whence it came. It took three hours, and I think I ended up getting a reimbursement for a third of what was paid. And I got yelled at because I was standing in the way, i.e. in the store.

These stories are illustrative, and they are not the only stories of their kind. There is less of “customer is always right” principle here, and while it doesn’t bother me in some circumstances, like in restaurants, I would like to be able to call customer service and get some kind of service instead of being condescended to.

paris

I do not like general lack of ambition here.

This is a big one, deserving of an essay all on its own, but I’ll try to be succinct in this case.

America is a country where people are always striving. France is a country where people want to be. Just be. Relax. Enjoy. Not that that’s a bad thing… but…

In America, people are constantly talking about their dreams. Their ambitions. Their plans and projects. Everyone is writing a screenplay, starting a business, running a marathon, taking a class. In France, people talk about where they’re going to go on vacation. It’s not that one is bad and the other is good. The French know how to enjoy themselves in a way that I, personally, cannot. I’m incapable of sitting still for as long as most people I’ve met here, and I do recognize that that’s a trait of the French that I could probably stand to learn a thing or two about.

But I’ll admit: I miss that ambition, that drive surrounding me, making me want to push myself even harder. As an American in France, I find, I either need to seek out other expats or just push myself twice as hard.

chambord

In France, whenever you first meet someone, there is a “wall.”

At first it’s subtle, the difference between smiling at the person waiting with you for the bus or ignoring them. Thanking someone for a compliment or rushing into a store because a stranger talking to you has terrified you.

But then it gets a bit more real.

You meet people at parties, once, twice, three times, and still you feel a distance. You don’t feel like you could call them to invite them to a party, even if every time you meet them at a party, you have a great time, and you know that they’re not calling you either.

It’s really, really hard to get to know people here.

Of course, this does have its benefits. Once you break down the “wall,” you have a real friend, not just an acquaintance or a drinking buddy. People select their friends over a period of long study, not after one great night out. But depending on how long it takes for you to break down the wall, France can be a very lonely place.

paris   This is a fairly personal one that won’t ring true with everyone, but it’s a truth for me, so I needed it on the list. I don’t like the fact that in France, there is very little widespread faith or spirituality. I’m not saying I think that there should be more organized religion in France — far from it. I just think that as a country that is so very secular, there is no place, culturally, for even the idea of a higher power. The higher power doesn’t even really need to be a religious one; I’ve met very few French people comfortable with sentiments like, “The universe knows what it’s doing,” “It’s destiny,” “Someone up there is looking out for me.” And as another American expat friend pointed out, explaining Thanksgiving here is particularly difficult because the French have a hard time thanking an unnamed entity, as in the tradition of going around and saying what you’re thankful for, without thanking a person or assuming that the unnamed entity is, in fact, the capital G Christian God. There are definitely problems with widespread Christianity pervading American culture, and that’s another topic for another time. I just don’t see the harm in being thankful or recognizing that not everything is in the control of the self, that some things might be up to God or the Great Spaghetti Monster in the Sky or the Universe, even if you don’t know what form that entity really takes. saint denis In France, the ability to say “no” is an expression of one’s power. If you find yourself facing a fonctionnaire in French, someone who works in the Great Bureaucracy, you’ll find that, more often than not, the answer to your initial question will be, “No.” It’s a way for the person behind the desk to show you who’s holding the reins here — you aren’t going to get done what you want to unless it pleases M or Mme Le/La Fonctionnaire. I find that the opposite is true in America; people show their power by their ability to say yes. It’s in those little glances and the “Let me see what I can do.” The person behind the desk is still just that — a person. The rules might not allow for what you want, but they’re going to bend them for you, because they can. It’s a nuance in the expression of power, but it’s the difference that makes day-to-day tasks like getting a driver’s license or a visa or an official birth certificate either hellish or an unimportant event of your lunch break.paris

I have a favorite story that I tell fairly often about a little old lady I saw once on a bus admonish a young mademoiselle talking very loudly on her cell phone about some party.

Excusez-moi, mademoiselle,” my favorite old lady ever said. “We live in a society. Not everyone wants to hear your phone call.”

God bless little old ladies who say what no one else dares to.

That being said, there is something that I find a bit irksome about the idea that we are owed certain things because we live in a society. It’s a line that wavers for me pretty much daily. It’s not that I think certain things should not be available to people living in a society — things like education and healthcare. But then there are people who complain about not having enough unemployment when they’re clearly able to work but don’t want to, or people who take too much advantage of free healthcare just because they have a headache or don’t feel like going to work, and that bothers me.

Yes, we live in a society. Yes, that means free healthcare and free education. But they’re still services, and they don’t come out of nowhere. I feel that there is very little respect for these services, especially amongst French people my age, and coming from a place where those services were not widely available, I wish they were respected a bit more. I wish that people thought more often about the strides that had to be taken and the sacrifices that have to me made in order for these societal rights to be available to the general public.

paris 15th arrondissement

Quite a bit of noise is being made about the education system in France lately, and I’m one of the people making (a very small amount of) noise. I’ve been making noise for a while. You see, I do not like the way that things are taught in France.

It took me a very long time to be able to articulate what I don’t like about the education system here, and even now, I’m not sure how clear this is going to be, but here goes: I think that the purpose of the education of children from age 5 to age 10 should be to make them love learning. Yes, they need to learn how to spell and do basic addition, but other than that, just take a child’s natural curiosity and run with it! I can’t see any reason that anyone would want to go about it in any way other than that.

Unfortunately, the French do. The French school system seeks to be as egalitarian as possible, and in doing so gives all children a route education that doesn’t work for a large portion of the students. That means that there are a few students who naturally do well, a few students who work furiously at home because they’re afraid of failure, and a lot of students who end up defeatist and frustrated and left behind by the system.

Yes, it’s free. Yes, as someone who had the kind of education that encourages curiosity as a child, my Master’s degree worked out for me. But no, I don’t like it, and I would have a very hard time enrolling a child in a French school.

musee d'orsay by night In France, a country that seems to know how to make every single portion of a pig delicious — there’s even a saying, “Tout est bon dans le cochon.” Everything in a pig is delicious — the lack of good bacon is somewhat alarming. I bring it back from America in my suitcase and stash it in the freezer for emergencies. Yes, bacon emergencies exist.ivy in paris

While this is beginning to change, the lack of delicious beer in France was confirmed by my recent trip to the States. Come on guys. England is right there. Get your act together.

paris left bank night

And lastly, despite the lack of delicious bacon and delicious beer, it’s decidedly difficult to live a healthy lifestyle in France.

By this, I mean several things.

Firstly, I find that there is less of a culture of outdoorsiness here. It’s harder to find someone who wants to go hiking on a Sunday or a gym buddy here than it is in the States.

I also mean that food is an essential part of the culture here, which is all well and good until you decide you want to lose five pounds. You can’t skip lunch or have a light lunch at your desk, because everyone is going out for lunch. You can’t pick a healthier choice on a menu, because if you ask for sauce on the side, you’ll be laughed out of the restaurant. And if you find yourself eating with a more traditional French family, you’re still going to find that, more often than not, you’re going to be eating a lot of meat, a good amount of starch, and very little vegetable. And while that’s very tasty, that’s just not how I eat most days.

Charred Tomato, White Anchovy, Chimichurri Tartine

 

Charred Tomato, White Anchovy and Chimichurri Tartine

serves 1 as a main or 3 as an apéritif (which is another thing I like about France)

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch parsley
3-4 mint leaves or 1/2 bunch cilantro (I prefer the latter but TCB can’t stand it)
2 tbsp. white vinegar
flaked salt

5 small tomatoes, halved
1 drizzle olive oil
6 white anchovies
3 slices good bread (I used Poilane)
2 ounces goat cheese

Finely chop the parsley and mint together. Add the olive oil and the vinegar and toss. Season with flaked salt and set aside.

Heat a nonstick pan over high heat. Drizzle the cut tomatoes with olive oil and place them, cut-side down, into the pan. Cook without moving for 5 minutes, until charred. Remove and set aside, face up.

Toast the bread and spread with goat cheese. Top with the tomatoes and anchovies. Serve with a dollop of chimichurri, or serve the chimichurri on the side, if you’re into sauce on the side. I won’t shame you for it.

Quinoa, Peach, Balsamic Chicken, Chickpeas, Feta

Quinoa, Peach, Balsamic Chicken, Chickpeas, Feta - Tomato Kumato

I went home this summer.

Paziols - Tomato Kumato

I also went to New York, where I was born, but that’s not what I mean.

It’s hard, sometimes, as someone without roots, as someone who has uprooted themselves and been uprooted so many times, to know what home means. So many times I’ve thought I knew, only to realize once that home disappears and the sense of home remains that maybe that wasn’t home after all.

Paziols - Tomato Kumato

When I talk about home, here, now, about going home, I mean Paziols. And yes, experience lends me to believe that some day, this concept of home will change, that I’ll have a new concept of home, some other idea.

Paziols - Tomato Kumato But as we trundled up the road to that familiar house on that familiar road, as I opened the window just a crack and let the sound of cicadas transform from surprising to white noise to the rhythm of everything once again, I couldn’t imagine how it could ever be different. How this piece of the South of France with its dry, grassy air and its stark blue skies and its odd, ominous winds over the Pyrenees could ever feel like anything but home. Paziols - Tomato Kumato For years, now, departures from Paziols have been bittersweet. “Maybe this is my last year,” I think to myself, every year. Maybe. But it never is. With each summer comes the promise of one more trip down south, to the town that no one has ever heard of, no one but us. Maybe that makes it sweeter; I never think about that when I’m there. Paziols - Tomato Kumato This was the first year I went to Paziols without the promise of 20-some-odd charges running back and forth along the empty road towards the river. The first year that dinner was cooked for six and not for 36. The first year that when we said to ourselves, “Should we go down to the river for a swim?” I could actually come. It was slow, languorously slow. It scared me, but it shouldn’t have. I’m the sort of person who needs something to do every minute of every day, a purpose driving me towards the end of the afternoon. And yet in Paziols, for seven days, I had nothing to do but be, and I loved every moment of it. Paziols - Tomato Kumato It is strange, as a city girl, born and raised, to know that in August I can pick the black grapes on the side of the road and bite through their thick skins to explosions of sweet purple juice. To know where the blackberry brambles are, and how to tell which almonds are bitter and which are sweet. Paziols - Tomato Kumato It’s strange to be able to intuit how to get to the waterfall hidden behind hills and trees, along unfamiliar paths that all wind and twist together behind rows of savage grapevines, when I can hardly navigate my way around Paris most days. The countryside does something different to me, and I love who I am when I’m there. I love what Paziols turns me into. Paziols - Tomato Kumato I’ll admit, some moments I looked up, half expecting to see gaggles of little heads, to say, “Ferme bien la porte !” when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. But most of the time, the new pace felt entirely natural, as though this was what Paziols was always meant to be. As though it had been waiting for me to discover it in this way, to discover what it was to stumble upon a fresh fig tree and know, instinctively, what a ripe fig looked like, even though the Country Boy, who grew up picking fruit off trees, didn’t. Paziols - Tomato Kumato  We walked — early in the morning, late in the afternoon. We went on adventures to places we’d been and places we never had. We lazed by the side of the river, reading books and letting minnows nibble at the dead skin on our toes. We took the car to drive to places that used to be an hour’s walk, and we walked in places that we’d never given ourselves the time to get to know. Paziols - Tomato Kumato I swam in the river, and I didn’t worry about anyone drowning. Paziols - Tomato Kumato Leaving was just as hard as it always is, harder, maybe. I allow myself to get carried away, sometimes, by endings. It’s just so hard to say goodbye, especially when you don’t know when your next hello is. And while I know that goodbye in Paziols nearly always feels like this, it doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye. I can logic my way out of pretty much every emotion, but goodbye is one that I just can’t. Paziols - Tomato Kumato   So goodbye to these views of rolling hills and mountains, of grapevines and platane trees and old stone houses that are barely big enough for one.Paziols - Tomato Kumato Goodbye to hidden waterfalls, to moss-covered riverbeds, to excursions in search of a view and stumbling upon one you weren’t looking for.   Paziols - Tomato Kumato   Hello and goodbye to the Pic de Bugarach; we attempted an ascent and never made it high enough, but I still feel that I got close enough to understand, maybe, why when the world thought it was ending on the 21st of December, it was never going to end here. Paziols - Tomato Kumato Goodbye to Queribus, a crumbling chateau on a mountain peak that has become an old friend.Paziols - Tomato Kumato

Goodbye to a million beautiful views, every way you turn.Paziols - Tomato Kumato  Paziols - Tomato Kumato

Paziols - Tomato KumatoA bientôt. A l’année prochaine, j’espère. Until then.

Quinoa, Peach, Balsamic Chicken, Chickpeas, Feta - Tomato Kumato

Quinoa, Peach, Balsamic Chicken, Chickpeas, Feta

Serves 2

2 chicken breasts
3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup quinoa (I used a red quinoa and bulgur blend)
1 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 16 ounce can chickpeas

1 peach
2 ounces feta
10 basil leaves

Place the chicken breasts in a dish. Cover with the balsamic vinegar. Allow to marinate while you cook the quinoa, turning every few minutes.

Cook the quinoa according to package directions. When cooked, toss with 2 tsp. of the olive oil and the red wine vinegar. Cover and set in the fridge to cool slightly.

Heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add the chicken breasts, reserving the remaining balsamic vinegar. Cook for about 5 minutes per side, until cooked through. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside to cool. Remove the pan from the heat and drizzle in the remaining marinade. Allow to reduce in the residual heat, then set aside.

Cut the peach into slices. Cut the basil into a chiffonade. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Crumble the feta.

Remove the quinoa mixture from the fridge. It should be slightly warm but no longer hot. Add the chickpeas, peach slices, basil chiffonade and crumbled feta. Toss to combine.

Cube the chicken and return to the pan of balsamic reduction. Coat the chicken cubes with the reduction. Add the chicken to the quinoa mixture and toss lightly to combine.

Serve.

Chicken, Blackberries, Feta, Mango, Spinach & 10 Things I Really Like About France

Chicken, Blackberries, Feta, Mango, Red Onion, Spinach

I really like French trains. Not because they’re usually on time, which, in my experience (and contrary to most), they tend to be, and not because they’re inexpensive, which, in general, they are (have you seen Amtrak rates lately? Yikes!). It’s mostly because I like the feeling of riding on a train that can take you through countless different types of countryside, through little villages and big cities.

I like the fact that, for most people in France, riding a train is not a big deal, and I like feeling the same way as they do until I remember that I’m on a train in France, and no matter how long I live here, riding on a train in France will always be cool.

I like that there’s no Internet on trains.

I like riding through familiar scenery, seeing familiar town names, or seeing towns I think I know, but I don’t; they just look like another town. I like imagining what people are doing in the towns that I pass, wondering what the people getting on the train are thinking, where they’re going.

I used to like to get off the train for the two minutes that it’s in the station to try to suck through a cigarette, but since I don’t smoke anymore, I like to watch other people doing it and pretend it’s me.

I like to hear the SNCF lady say, “Cannes, ici, Cannes. Assurez-vous de n’avoir rien oublié dans le train.

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I like the French conception of time, which TCB assures me is uniquely countryside, though I’m not so sure. Knowing what’s normal in different places has ceased being in my purview, seeing as I’ve pretty much romanticized the normal out of everything that used to just be.

Still, I don’t recall anyone in my American life ever talking about time in such wide terms as I’ve heard in France. “We’ll be by in the matinée,” means prepare yourself at 10, but don’t expect me before 11:30. “Let’s try to get to town in the début d’aprèm,” means when lunch is eventually over, we can smoke a cigarette and have some coffee and maybe smoke another cigarette and then mosey in the general direction of town.

To reconcile my type A self with this, I have created general definitions for what these broader terms entail. Matinée, in my mind, is from 9 to 11:45. Début d’aprèm is from 2pm-4pm. Fin d’aprèm is from 4pm-7pm. I have kept this well hidden from my laissez-faire French boyfriend, or had, until very recently, when I made an appointment with a rural beekeeper for the début d’aprèm and started freaking out because we were late for my secret arbitrary accepted arrival time of 2:10pm.

I am not French.

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I really like that France has reasonable air conditioning. I’ve been back in the States for 6 weeks, and I may well have walking pneumonia (or at the very least, the beginnings of an ear infection). My contact lenses are affixed firmly to my eyeballs every evening. And I don’t like carrying a sweater in my already heavy handbag when it’s 99 degrees out.

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I really like la bise.

I haven’t always. I haven’t always been good at it. It’s very hard to suddenly begin to intuit something that everyone else around you has been intuiting since they were too young to speak. At first, I didn’t know if it was appropriate to bise everyone, or just people I knew. Did I actually kiss or just make a kiss sound? Or did I make a sound at all? Some people didn’t, just brushed their cheek against someone else’s. And then it became normal, except when walking into or out of a room with over 10 people. Because then you have to go around, stop everyone else’s conversation, say goodbye, remember who you’ve said hello to.

But then I came back to America and didn’t know what to do when I walked in the room. I started by hugging people, but then do you hug people you don’t know? I did, and sometimes it was unwelcome. So now I’ve started walking into a room and awkwardly raising one arm in sort of a half wave generally directed at the empty far corner of the room.

I miss la bise.

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There’s a general lack of preciousness in France that I appreciate. It’s something that I don’t necessarily always think about until I’m in the States, and I’m struck by the exact opposite.

Case in point? Well… there are a few.

I was watching a commercial in California, for example, that was advertising a brand of soup for cats. I know people who give bottled water to their dogs. And it doesn’t stop at pets. There are just generally a lot of special requests in America, from line-cutting to special ordering at restaurants to other exceptions I can’t quite explain. I’m convinced that the reason that people are so obsessed with ordering dressing on the side or asking for their fish served atop steamed spinach instead of alongside rice or cutting to the beginning of a supermarket line because they have hypoglycemia, you understand,… all stems from a need to feel unique and special.

In France, you’re not a special snowflake. No one is. Ennui, I find, is much more tolerable than special snowflake syndrome.

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There’s a concept in France known as culture générale that I don’t find nearly as pervasive in America. I appreciate culture générale in France. Culture générale is kind of hard to explain in precise terms. I notice it in little ways. The way that most French jokes would be perceived as highbrow, but aren’t. The fact that most people can cite dates of important historical events without Googling. Perhaps the best example was one that a student of mine, the Law Professor, recounted. He said that, in general, French people will never admit to not having read Proust, and will say that they are “rereading” In Search of Lost Time over the summer. I just like it when people aren’t afraid of being smart, I guess. And I’ve always liked when smart is perceived as cool.

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The French have a very strong appreciation of free time. It’s near religious in nature, which for a country that prides itself on being entirely secular may be tough to swallow. But whereas in the States, free time is time to be filled — filled with that screenplay you want to write or that marathon you’re training for or a trip to India to help impoverished orphan girls learn to write, in France, free time is just that: free. I know a lot of people who believe that making plans for their free time wastes it.

It’s been something I’ve had to contend with and battle with a lot since I first moved here. I still don’t have the same love of a lazy Sunday as the Country Boy. I still feel like a waste of life if I haven’t accomplished something. Unlike some of my French friends, I don’t necessarily feel as though I deserve a vacation when I work hard, nor did I really look forward to my vacations in the same way as they did when I was working. But I can appreciate, from afar, the value of giving yourself time off the clock, time where you really are free to do whatever you want, whether that’s something or nothing, without a plan. Maybe someday, I’ll get to a point where I can do that. But if I’m honest with myself, I know I’ll likely be scheduling my “free” time until the day I die.

cheese

I grew up, like many people did, learning about table manners and etiquette. When I was growing up, it all seemed kind of arbitrary, but then I had to learn French etiquette, which, yes, is pretty different from American etiquette, and either because it was foreign or because I was older or for some other reason, I found it fascinating. Why? Maybe because it seemed to make more sense, intuitively, than American etiquette. Or maybe because every time I learned something new, there was a story.

Either way, one thing I have always loved in France is cheese etiquette. Mostly because cheese etiquette is a thing. It exists. That, in and of itself, is awesome.

But I also like the things covered by cheese etiquette, like the fact that whenever cutting a cheese, you’re basically trying as best you can not to screw over the other person’s cheese eating experience. If everyone could just think about not making everyone else’s experiences horrible when they do things, I think 90% of the world’s problems would be solved.

Cheese is a philosophical food.

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The Internet is faster in France. That’s pretty awesome.

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I really appreciate the fact that, in general, in France, children are expected to be a part of society. When an adult walks in the room, the child is expected to engage, at the very least, say hello. On the bus, in stores, whenever a child acts out, I’m constantly hearing parents reminding them not just to behave but the sorts of effects that their actions have on others. “Do you think this lady wants to hear you screaming?” “Stand up; this gentleman wants to sit.” Most adults don’t think of those sorts of things, but it’s nice to hear children being reminded.

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I like a lot of things about France, but there are things I don’t like as well. Like the fact that they think that combining sweet and savory is strange. But more on things I don’t like about France later — that’s a whole other post.

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Chicken, Blackberries, Feta, Mango, Red Onion, Spinach (serves 1)

Dressing:
1 shallot

4 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 heaping tsp. Dijon mustard
8 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

1 tsp. olive oil
1 chicken breast
1 handful spinach
1/4 red onion, finely chopped

1/4 mango, sliced
1/4 cup blackberries
1 oz. feta, crumbled

Make the dressing. Chop the shallot and place into a container. Add the vinegar and mustard. Purée with an immersion blender until the shallot has completely blended into the other ingredients. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the chicken breast. Season with salt and pepper. Sear on both sides until brown, about 4 minutes per side. Set aside.

Place the spinach and red onion in a bowl. Drizzle with some of the dressing; you will have leftovers. Toss. Top with the mango, blackberries and feta. Slice the chicken breast and place on top.

 

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Chicken and Roasted Tomato Sandwich

tomato and chicken sandwich

Sorry not sorry*… I really like my life.

You’re not supposed to say that.

When someone asks you how things are going, you’re supposed to say, “OK.” You’re supposed to say, “All right.” You’re supposed to say, “Good, except…”

Except I can’t. Ever since I left my job and became my own boss, I’ve been thrilled with pretty much everything that goes on in my life, from waking up to riding the metro in the middle of the day to spending my afternoons working at the American Library in Paris. For someone who spent most of my adolescence purposefully angry, being blissful for four months has been a strange, new development. I didn’t much know how to deal with it, except to repeatedly tell the Country Boy, “I love my life. I love my life.”

“I know, baby. I know.”

It’s starting to fall on deaf ears. So now I’m telling you, and anyone else who will listen. I love my life… and I’m not sorry about it.

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I don’t know where we get this cultural necessity to always highlight the things that are going wrong in our lives, the things that aren’t as good as they should be. I know I’m guilty of it too. But there’s something to be said for understanding that you deserve to be happy, for accepting being happy, for enjoying being happy and not apologizing for it. That isn’t to say that it can’t be off-putting for some people, but I don’t mind that quite as much as I used to. After all, no amount of skepticism from anyone else could change the fact that the past four months have been some of the happiest of my life, and I don’t see a downturn anywhere in my future.

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Last night, I met up with some friends, a mix of French and American, different languages sailing across the two tables we shared in the basement of a trendy Parisian bar that I generally wouldn’t go to, because I’m not really a trendy sort of person. But this year, instead of hoping I would see people on my birthday, doing nothing about it and moping around wondering why I wasn’t seeing anyone or doing anything, I decided to do something I’ve been afraid to do since middle school: I threw myself a birthday party.

As I was sitting in the room with a woman I met through my writing workshop here in Paris, sharing delicious spicy fish tacos and enjoying the only cocktail I actually like, I confided to her something I haven’t been able to say out loud, not yet, not until yesterday.

“From now on, when people ask me what I do, I’m going to say I’m a storyteller,” I said. “And that’s what I’m going to do: tell stories.”

Telling stories has, after all, recently become what I do, slowly and without my noticing. It was TCB who recommended that I start doing guided tours of Paris again along with my freelance writing, and as the summer season has picked up, I’ve been visiting Paris’ most famous monuments every day, meeting new people who grin uncontrollably as they walk to the Eiffel Tower, and in between writing pages of my novel, articles about Paris’ food scene and recipes for this blog, I’m telling visitors all of the things I love so much about my adoptive country: its history, its art, its literature. I tell stories with my voice to make coming back to type all the more fruitful. It’s a lovely balance.

Tonight, I was giving a tour, a ghost and legends tour outlining, amongst other things, how scary Catherine de Medici was, and why you never mess with the Templar knights. There was a little girl on the tour, 12 years old, following me around and asking me questions. I know I used to be like that; at some point, I got scared of what people thought of me. I forgot that happiness is infectious, and self-consciousness is evident and therefore useless. I loved how excited she was, how she followed me between stops. She drew me an Eiffel Tower in rainbow colored pencil, and I brought it home with me.

“You’re a great storyteller,” the little girl’s grandmother said as the tour ended. “That was fantastic.”

And I said what Amy Schumer says no woman says. “Thank you.”

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My father has spent most of my life asking me questions appropriate for a Proust questionnaire. “What’s your passion?” “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

And the one I dreaded the most. “Are you happy?”

I never knew how to answer that question. Am I happy now? Am I content? Am I done working towards new things, because I have everything I need? I could somehow always manage to get off the hook with a shrug. There’s no shrugging now.

Yes, I’m happy. No, I’m not content; I hope I never will be. Yes, I’m going to keep working and working and working, to always be achieving goals and looking for new ones, uncovering passions and living them to the fullest. And in all of that, I will remain, I hope, the way I feel today: happy.

I think that’s the best 28th birthday gift a girl could ever give herself.

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Roasted Tomato and Chicken Sandwiches

One of the tours I run is a food tour along the Canal Saint Martin. I made these sandwiches so the Country Boy and I could enjoy them together once the tour had ended.

Roasted Garlic Spread
1 head garlic
1 tsp. olive oil
3 Tbsp. Greek yogurt
salt and pepper

Green Onion Chicken
1 green onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 chicken breasts
1 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 tsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

1 baguette, halved

Roast the garlic for the spread and the cherry tomatoes at the same time. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the cherry tomatoes, whole, in a Pyrex dish and toss with oil, salt and pepper. Cut off just the top of the head of garlic, so that the tops of the cloves are slightly exposed. Drizzle in one teaspoon of olive oil. Wrap in aluminum foil. Roast both the tomatoes and the garlic for 1 hour. Allow both to cool.

When the tomatoes and garlic are cool, squeeze the garlic from the papery skin and smash with a fork. Combine with the Greek yogurt and season. Set aside.

Prepare the chicken. Place the sliced green onions on top of the raw chicken breasts. Cover the chicken with parchment paper and pound the chicken breasts with a meat mallet or rolling pin until they are slightly flattened. The onions should be slightly embedded in the chicken.

Preheat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper, and cook until golden on the outside and cooked through on the inside, about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on how much you have flattened the chicken. Once the chicken is cooked, allow it to cool slightly. If making the sandwiches ahead, for a picnic, allow to cool completely.

Split each half of the halved baguette. Spread one side with the garlic spread, then distribute the tomatoes. Slice the chicken breasts and place them on top. Close the sandwiches, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap if enjoying later. Eat somewhere beautiful, and be happy.

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*Sorry not sorry, Little Sister — I stole your phrase.

Tuna and Cannellini Bean Salad

tuna and bean salad

Isn’t it strange how some foods, some dishes, some flavors are associated with a place in time and space?

Sensory memory is a strange, strange thing. One moment you’re walking down the street, worrying about something that will turn out to be inconsequential, and the next you catch a whiff of something: roasting peanuts or wet paint or a perfume you smelled once on someone now long forgotten, and you’re transported somewhere, some-when, else.

Toronto

I was back in Toronto last week to visit my friends from my first year of university there — the year before I started this blog.

Toronto

It’s kind of hard to believe that that was 10 years ago — arriving in Toronto had me feeling, at once, that it could have been yesterday that I was walking around Little Italy, sitting in Tim Horton’s with a large coffee, stomping snow off my boots in front of one of our favorite pubs… or else that it really was 10 years ago, that I really have changed that much.

Maybe a bit of both.

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I spent one of my days there wandering around the city with the English One, snapping pictures of neighborhoods.

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That was one of the only things that I knew about Toronto before I moved there, before I arrived for orientation — which I remembered suddenly at one point during our trip, was called Frosh Week at U of T, how can you forget things that were once so normal? I knew, even back then, that Toronto was known as the city of neighborhoods, a city defined by the countless delineations within it. Cross this street and you’re in Liberty Village. Now Little Italy. Now Korea Town. Now the Entertainment District. Now the Beaches. I used to know them all. I also used to know all the provinces in Canada. Once, this was home, and now it’s foreign, like so many foreign places.

Toronto Church Street

10 years ago, Toronto was a strange place for me. I was strange in Toronto, had encountered Toronto at a strange time.

After three years at boarding school, I had wanted Columbia University so badly that I was convinced I was going until I got my rejection letter. I had picked my classes, my dorm. I chose U of T almost on a whim, because one of my best friends was going there, because it got me out of the northeast, because they had a good cinema program, because Toronto kind of looked like New York, though not at all. I don’t know how 18-year-olds are supposed to make intelligent choices when we hardly know ourselves yet.

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I was mystified by Toronto this time.

10 years ago, I wandered the city, begging it to be New York. And it wasn’t — like a rebound who’s smart and sweet and funny… but just shows up too soon. And now that New York and I are no longer in love, it’s like I was meeting Toronto again for the first time. And I regret not taking full advantage of it when I was there.

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We spent most of our days rehoofing our old haunts, pointing out the storefront that was once our favorite Thai restaurant, once the Subway where our friend worked, once the building that was home to the lecture we went to. Once. But what I loved even more was this day of wandering, of snapping pictures beneath a blue sky — I got a tan in Canada, if you can believe it — of wondering what it would have been like if I had been in Toronto in a time when I was ready to love it.

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I left Toronto for Cannes the first time, for Paris the second. Toronto was a necessary foothold between America and France, and yet, in my past, that’s all it is. Visiting it as a tourist, I only got glimpses of all the things I’ll miss. Its quirkiness. Its people. Its strange way it has about making me feel at home and foreign all at once.

Oh, and the beer. I’ll miss that a lot.

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But regardless of how I felt about it on this trip, being in Toronto also sent memories flooding back. After all, even though I was missing New York, I was having a lot of fun in Toronto, 10 years ago. I did send myself on forced marches, just like I had at night in New York — though, I’ll admit, I was far more lost in Toronto.

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I did have favorite spots, favorite addresses. I did have sensory memories. The Tim Horton’s smelling of over-steeped tea and maple frosting. The market in Kensington that reeked of pot where I bought strawberries.

And when I got home, this salad, which, I remember, was one of the first recipes I followed, alone in my kitchen in Toronto, as a lunchtime staple.

tuna and bean salad

The recipe itself had far more ingredients when I first made it. I bought them all: the flat-leafed parsley, even though I needed a scant tablespoon or two, the red onion I didn’t know how to dice properly, the olives that would languish and mold on the refrigerator shelf, because I didn’t like olives then, and don’t really love them now either, come to think of it.

It’s been years since I followed a recipe, really. Unless I’m testing a cookbook for a review, recipes have become guidelines for me — I look at them, think of the things I’d change, the things I have, the things that are a pain to buy. It feels as though I’ve always cooked that way, until I think about the recipes I used to make when I was in Toronto.

It’s hard to see ourselves changing, as it happens, but it does. And it’s lovely to be able to take a real trip down memory lane — even if memory lane is an ocean away — to remember who we used to be.

tuna and bean salad

Cannellini Bean and Tuna Salad

1 16 oz. can cannellini beans
4 3 oz. cans of tuna fish, canned in olive oil, drained
2 green onions, finely chopped
1 lemon
salt and pepper
mixed greens

Break up the tuna fish with a fork in a bowl. Drain and rinse the cannellini beans, and toss them with the tuna fish. Add the green onions and season with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Toss until well combined.

Mound the salad on top of the greens. Serve with a lemon wedge.

 

Hotel Stories and A Cheesy, Sausagy Baguette

sausage and mozzarella baguette

I’ve missed my weird part-time jobs.

Weird part-time jobs have been an essential part of my successfully living in Europe for this long.

There was that time I corrected (i.e. rewrote) a lettre de motivation for a girl applying for university and essentially had to stalk her in order to get paid. I had a lot of time on my hands at the time and ended up calling her, repeatedly, and even though she pretended to be her own landlord when I called and then e-mailed me saying her wallet had been stolen, I eventually got my money — all 80 euro of it. Success.

Then there was the time I called about a hundred restaurants to make sure that they were still opened. TCB started making fun of me because I would call and pretend I was going to make a reservation, but then I never would. Then he made even more fun of me because I started just calling and asking if they were still opened, point blank, no nonsense. Much faster.

I once had a job to set up someone’s Internet, but I had to pay the Country Boy to go in my stead, because I realized once I showed up that I didn’t know how to set up Internet, and that the people who call someone to set up their Internet aren’t necessarily too stupid to figure out which cord is the phone line and which cord is an ethernet cable. Sometimes it’s actually hard. Luckily, they took it well, and TCB got 20 bucks out of it.

My most recent in the line of weird jobs is visiting hotels pretending to be a client, like secret shopping but instead, I’m inspecting bathrooms. Some are five-star hotels, where I get a personal escort through the halls, into palatial bathrooms and secret, private executive clubhouses. Others are budget hotels where the person at the front desk hands me five keys and basically tells me to go nuts.

When I first started this particular weird job, I used a weird accent I had concocted that I thought made my plight more believable. In what turned out to be a very convincing version of an American who is still learning French and has memorized a few key phrases, I would tell them that my parents were coming to visit at Easter, and I would like to see a room. I had all sorts of extra details about their trop memorized, just in case.

It took me about two months to realize that no one actually cared. After that, I started speaking with my regular accent, the one that people sort of listen to, and then wait… and then ten minutes or twenty minutes or sometimes a few weeks later ask me, “Where are you from?” “Ça vient d’où, ce petit accent ?” They’re usually surprised to hear I’m American — I apparently don’t have an American accent — but when I ask them where they thought I was from, they never have an answer.

Which, I suppose, is a large part of why I found it so surprising that a concierge at one of the hotels, after I’d spoken maybe two sentences, started speaking to me in Italian. He was Neapolitan, convinced I was Italian too. I russled up my college Italian and managed to say that my father had Sicilian origins. He asked me — in Italian — if I preferred to speak in English, French or Italian. I chose English. He spoke with a faint accent.

I’ve almost forgotten how important it once was to me to be Italian, to be perceived as being Italian, to be part of that group. After all, the first place I sought out when I moved to Toronto was Little Italy. The first recipes I tried to master were tomato sauce and lasagna and tiramisu. For a long time, Italian was more a part of my identity than American was.

And yet I learned, soon after moving to France, that as expats, our secondary identities take a tertiary place. We’re expats, then Americans. Then you can be something else, if you want to. I kind of stopped wanting to, but I don’t know why.

At another hotel on the same day, a manager discovered I was American — through my petit accent, though he first assumed I was German. He told me there was an American intelligentsia who liked France and asked me if I had read any Carson McCullers, printed the page for me off of Wikipedia so that I could look up the works. He told me that he never had any people of color in his hotel, though he sometimes got “Mexicans from California.” Before I even had time to be shocked, he told me that racism wasn’t alive in America, but it was present. When I tried to discuss it with him, I was rebuffed; he had met a lot of Americans, you see. He knew how it was. I folded the Wikipedia page and stuck it in my pocket. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to take him up on his suggestion.

sausage and mozzarella baguette

All this to say, the strange, little part-time jobs are back. In fact, the strange, little part-time jobs are my full-time job now. I’m my own boss for the first time since… maybe the first time ever. I’m not a student. I’m not living at home. I’m not waiting to hear back on a full-time position, or consulting, or doing anything except exactly what I want to. Writing. Translating. And doing occasional strange little jobs, because without the strange little jobs, I wouldn’t have all that much to write about.

I’ve never been so excited to go to work.

sausage and mozzarella baguette

Sausage Baguette (adapted from Lady and Pups)

1 baguette
2 herbed sausages (I used Toulouse sausage, but Italian sausage would be great)
1 400 g can of whole tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pinch red chili flakes
1 tsp. soy sauce
4 ounces mozzarella cheese

Cut the baguette into four sections, or if you have an American sized oven, keep it whole. Cut through the baguette from the top, lengthwise, leaving about an inch in tact at either end of the baguette. You’re going to be stuffing it from the top, and you don’t want the stuffing to leak out the sides.

Remove the sausages from their casings. Heat a large pot and add the sausages, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Cook until nice and browned, then remove, leaving behind the fat. Reserve the sausage.

Add the onion. Sauté for 5-7 minutes, until translucent and slightly browned. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and chili flakes. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the soy sauce and remove the pot from the heat.

Use an immersion blender to blend the sauce. Add the sausage back to the pot.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the baguettes on an aluminum-lined baking sheet. Spoon the sauce into the baguettes. Slice the cheese and distribute over the top. Bake until the cheese is browned and bubbly. Serve.

How the Grinch (ahem… the French Administration) Tried to Steal Christmas and Failed, Miserably. Also, Magret de Canard.

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This is only the second year in the nearly eight that I’ve lived here that I’ve spent Christmas in France, but it’s the first time it happened at least partially by choice.

I could have gone home this time. It was physically possible. I suppose that last time, when the French administration let me decide between going home and giving up my visa or staying and keeping it, I also had a choice, but it didn’t feel like a choice, not at all.

This year, I didn’t have the choice in the way that many people feel like they don’t have the choice every year. My work didn’t want to give me vacation, but I bet if I’d whined enough and to the right people, I would have gotten a few days, even if I would have had to fly back to Paris on the night of the 25th. I could have, in August, when my status story was still unclear, said “To Hell with it” and booked the ticket back anyway, knowing that I’d likely be in the throes of visa woes (I was) and would have had to work customer service anyway while I was home (a grand total of 1 [one] e-mail this year… *harrumph*). But I didn’t.

It’s not that I didn’t want to spend Christmas with my family. I really can’t stress that enough. It’s that life got in the way. It’s that some things seemed more important, this year, than three days back home. And I guess it didn’t scare me as much as it used to, to know that I would be far, because I have a family here, now.

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As a writer, I try to hold on to memories. To feelings. I try to relive them as often as I can, because true experience is at the heart of a really meaningful work of fiction, and if all of those awkward, terrible, wonderful experiences are just fleeting moments… then really, what’s the point of writing anything down at all?

So I keep them. My first day of school, the way my wool socks kept sliding down my legs, how scratchy the grey jumper was.

The first time I felt ashamed, when a friend threw french fries over a second story landing in our favorite diner.

The first time I decided I was going to be kissed, the orchestrating that took place leading up to it, the piece of Big Red gum I chewed and spit out two blocks before I got to the place I’d chosen.

I can remember all those things, but I don’t remember what it was like to feel nervous in the moments leading up to meeting the Country Boy’s parents. I know, intellectually speaking, that I was nervous. I remember asking my boss at the time what sort of wine I could buy for people who lived in the Loire Valley, and him recommending a Saint-Joseph, and not caring how much it cost. I remember not being sure of how to give the wine to them and finally just plunking it gracelessly on the kitchen table. I remember that I spent years afterwards avoiding saying tu or vous, because TCB had told me that vous made them uncomfortable, but they had yet to tell me, to my face, to say tu.

But I don’t remember the moment of meeting them. I don’t remember knowing them in any time that wasn’t jovial and fun and sweet, TCB’s dad making fun of me for drinking more than any girl he’s ever met (and holding it together — no worries, Mom), and TCB’s mom shows me pictures of little TCB growing up and telling me all the stories I never would have known to ask about from when he was small.

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The first time I was stuck in Paris for Christmas, I was fully intent on spending it in my apartment, alone, eating Speculoos spread with a spoon. I told TCB not to tell his parents I was here — I didn’t want them to be burdened by my administrative crisis.

But TCB is a really bad liar. And when his mom asked if my flight had gone well, he couldn’t lie.

His father told me that I had a day to find a train to Gien, or he was coming to get me in his truck. This, from a man who hates Paris.

So I didn’t spend my first French Christmas in Paris. I spent it in Coullons, where it had snowed, and we went to the Christmas market and saw the small church lit up with a life-sized Nativity. That’s where I spent this past weekend, celebrating Christmas with the people who were not only willing to write a letter to the French administration (my sworn enemy, at this point), telling them of my language prowess and cultural integration, but then admonished me for thanking them with a bottle of nice wine.

C’est normal.” It’s normal. She’s like a daughter to us, they said to TCB.

Well, that turned the water works on. Luckily, they weren’t there to see.

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This year, because TCB’s brother wasn’t going to make it for the 25th, we had two Christmasses. We had one in Paris, with mass at Notre Dame and a truly excessive meal, which I did take pictures of and will post, someday. This is what TCB requested we eat — magret de canard and grits. I’d already bought veal, but it feels appropriate to post this recipe here, if only because for our second Christmas, on the 27th, we did eat duck — albeit confit and not pan-seared magret, with the traditional foie gras and scallops and ice cream for dessert, but we were all far too full for more than a clementine

We opened presents by the tree — my almost-in-laws gave me a book on the Normandy débarquement. We drank too much. We ate far too much. We laughed.

If I wasn’t going to have Christmas in the States this year, having like that was really the next best thing.

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Magret de Canard with Pan-Fried Apples and Grits (serves 2)

1 large duck magret
salt and pepper
2 Golden delicious apples

.5 cups uncooked grits
.5 cup water
.5 cup milk
2 Tbsp. mascarpone
salt and pepper

Score the fat side of the duck breast with a knife, not going all the way through to the meat. Place it in a cold skillet and slowly bring it up over low heat. Pour off the fat as it renders off (save this for duck fat potatoes).

Place the grits, water, milk and a pinch of salt in a saucepan. Heat over low heat. Don’t worry too much about them, but give them a stir every once in awhile.

After 20-30 minutes, depending on the heat, start checking the underside of the duck. You want the fat to have become thin and crisp. Once most of the fat has rendered, you may have to turn up the heat a bit to get it to look like this:

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When it does look like that, season the meat side with salt and pepper and flip it over. If you haven’t turned the heat up already to color the fat side of the duck, do it now. At some point while the duck is cooking leisurely and you’re on your second or third apéritif, peel and slice your apples. Leave about a tablespoon of fat in the pan, and add them in with the duck.

Cook until the duck is medium-rare. This will take about 3 minutes on the flesh side over a medium-high heat. Remove the duck and let it rest for about 10 minutes. I like to heat up my toaster oven a bit, turn it off, and leave it in there, where it’s warm but won’t keep cooking. Finish cooking the apples, stirring them occasionally until soft.

Stir the mascarpone into the grits and taste for seasoning. Slice the duck into slices. Serve on warm plates.

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Stories from the Préfecture: My Christmas Present to Myself

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Someday, I promise myself, I’ll write all this down. Someday it will turn into a book. A story. Something funny, where the reader empathizes with the narrator and yet has no idea how to empathize, because how the heck do you empathize with someone who’s putting themselves through so much misery for something so inconsequential?

Long story short, and for a lot of different reasons, I went back to the préfecture this month. I didn’t have to go back until July, so there’s no good reason why I would have gone back now, except that I did, and it was important, to me. Maybe it will make some of you laugh. Maybe it will help some of you. Maybe it will help those close to me understand why I’ve been such a pain for the past few months. Whatever the reason, this is the story.

August

I made the decision to return to the préfecture for a status change just a few weeks before I went in for a renewal, which meant that this year, for the first time in my nearly eight years in France, I’d be going through the process twice. It’s a process that the Country Boy has learned to loathe even more than I do; in my world, only the préfecture is crazy and demanding and slightly terrifying, but in his world, I become a reflection of that which I hate.

I asked a host of questions at that first renewal — I always try to ask questions when I have a person in front of me, because they can’t hang up on you or ignore your e-mail. My questions were pointed and probably quite befuddling to agent #2, because while she didn’t know my plan, I did — I had put aside short-lived thoughts of applying for nationality and had had a heart-to-heart with TCB: we were going to get PACSed.

I would have to wait until getting my recently renewed visa in October before making an appointment to change statuses. That was fine, because paperwork was coming.

The list of required papers to get PACSed as a foreigner was long and involved several different documents proving a negative (never married, never PACSed), which I didn’t think was possible. Apparently, France doesn’t care that you can’t prove a negative. Here, you can and do. Actually, that part was relatively painless — send a request by post, receive the document several weeks later.

But there were crazier documents to track down. I ordered a new birth certificate. I realized through a series of odd events and two different phone calls with the same fonctionnaire trying to make a visa change appointment too early in the game that I had requested the wrong copy of my birth certificate. I ordered a new copy, and, because I had everything else I needed and was ready to go apply for a PACS, I sent my sister a typed and signed letter of procuration that she could show to the officials in New York (and franglaised my way through it because I’ve never written a formal letter in English) and then asked said sister to rush around New York City getting it signed and stamped by two different officials, then scan it and e-mail it to me so that I could have it translated, then mail it to me by overnight post so that I could apply for my PACS appointment in accordance with the schedule I had set up for myself in August.

She did all of the above with grace and poise and in under 2 hours. Score 1 America. And score 9,000 family.

September

By the time we had all of the paperwork assembled for our PACS, some of it was too old to be used; paperwork for a PACS needs to be no more than three months old, but when applying for a PACS in Paris, your PACS appointment is usually about three months after the day that you drop off your paperwork.

Logic.

Ergo, we would have to apply for some of it again, because the perfect timing of the paperwork did not work out exactly as I had planned. Cue first panic attack, whereby I have a meltdown because we were supposed to drop off our PACS paperwork on a randomly designated (by me) Thursday, and now we would have to wait until Friday, i.e. 24 hours later. On a related note, I don’t deal well with the unforeseen.

Also cue the first time that our landlord pissed me off by not sending us rent forms. Which we didn’t even end up needing. But it made me mad anyway. It’s the principle of the thing.

When we finally received all papers, TCB and I were not speaking, because the aforementioned landlord issue had turned me into an illogical banshee and he decided he shouldn’t speak to me anymore, which at the time made me madder but in retrospect was a very wise decision on his part. We went to the Tribunal d’Instance at 8:50 AM in silence — the irony of going to get PACSed while not speaking together because of the assembly of documents for the aforementioned PACS did not escape me.

I stood in front of the doors to block two women who had arrived just after me and were — I was certain — going to cut me in line. TCB smoked a fair distance from me in case of literal Emiglia-explosion.

When the doors were unlocked, I realized the women I was competing with were employees of the tribunal.

Two men were standing in line behind us, ostensibly to get PACSed. They were in their 60s. It made me happy to see them. We dropped off our paperwork and were told to come back with the two documents that were valid now but would not be valid in three months. TCB and I made up without a word.

October

The day had come! (Or the first of many, anyway.) October 16th.

I picked up my carte de séjour and tried to make a new appointment online, but the system would not allow me to make an appointment online, and instead I was told to call a number. Since I hate phone calls even more than I hate the préfecture, I tried again on the 17th. No dice.

I called. I spoke with a delightful* woman who, with grace* and poise* told me that she could not help me, and I should try the woman on line 3. I tried line 3. She sent me back to line 2. I started feeling like I was in a Kafka novel. I got back on the phone with the lady on line 2. She told me she couldn’t help me. She didn’t hang up on me, but she made it very clear to me that the conversation was over.

A month later, I would not be so lucky.

Parallel to all of this — because life was still going on, to some extent — TCB and I had finally planned our dream trip to Normandy in October and had thus taken a Friday off work.

Before driving off into the sunset (or sunrise, really), we went down to the préfecture, again, and asked the woman at the reception desk if I could make an appointment for a visa change — the same thing that the women on lines 2 and 3 had told me in no uncertain terms was impossible, but TCB is less easily swayed than I. She sent me to the 2nd floor, where I was told there were too many people today for him to even consider making me an appointment, but that I could try coming back on Monday. I explained that I would have to work. He told me life’s tough and then you’re dead.**

I tried the downstairs office again and put on a very adult* voice and asked nicely* and calmly* if there was anything she could do. The receptionist gave me a piece of paper with an address on it and told me to write a letter. I asked if I could speak to the person to whom I would be writing the letter in person instead. She handed me another piece of paper with the same address on it, but highlighted it this time.

I left and broke down hysterically crying on the Pont Saint-Michel.

We went to Normandy and had a spectacular time. When we got back, I wrote the letter, had it checked by three people to make it more French, flourishy and eloquent, and sent it.

I tried to stop thinking about a visa change, because at this point, I was certain it would never, ever happen.

*Replacement adjectives for my sanity.

**Copyright Jean Monaco, aka my mother, aka the reason why you don’t cry unless they’re’s blood. Sorry, Mom — there’s a fair amount of crying without blood in this story.

November

In November, I had planned a trip to Prague with my aunt. Based on the timeline I had meticulously made in August, I knew that planning a trip at the end of November might be dicey, but I also knew that if I decided not to go and nothing happened, I would regret it, so I planned the trip, knowing full well that it might interfere with all variety of appointments. Miraculously, it didn’t.

But.

The Friday before my Sunday departure, I came home from work to find a letter in the mail, telling me to be at the préfecture on December 9th with a list of documents. My flourishy letter had worked — I had gotten my renewal appointment!

One small problem. The documents. I had two weeks to get them, and one of those weeks I would be in Prague. TCB totally stepped up and agreed to track down most of them either while I was away or together once I got back — the only one I would have to get alone was an attestation de sécurité sociale, which one usually gets online. Unfortunately, the site was telling me that my social security number — which I had been using since 2010 — did not exist, and I would have to call for more information.

But it was a weekend. Everything was closed. I wrote down the number I could call and took it with me to Prague.

Enter the worst phone call of my life (so far). Apparently for the past two years, while living in a country with socialized healthcare — I haven’t had healthcare. A paperwork glitch from when I finished my Master’s degree and became an employee that could easily be resolved in four to six weeks — TCB was in Paris rapidly assembling more papers to do so — but that meant that I wasn’t going to be able to get that attestation. Since I know that papers are king in France, and since I know that no one here ever offers a life-saving paper of their own accord, I started asking about other attestations — could I get an attestation that I had been paying into the system (since I was…)? Non. Could I get an attestation that said that I was in the process of regularizing my situation? Non. Could I get a letter of any kind saying that I wasn’t a delinquent and that this wasn’t my fault?

Madame, j’ai répondu à vos questions, donc je n’ai plus qu’à vous dire au revoir. Au revoir madame.* Click.

She hung up on me. 45 euros in international calling fees later, all I had to show for my efforts were tears. Lots and lots of tears.

I had a fantastic time in Prague. I knew that when I came back, there would be a scramble, but I was ready for it. Kind of.

*Ma’am, I’ve answered your questions, so I have nothing more to do than to say goodbye. Goodbye, ma’am.

December

I got back from Prague on November 28th. My PACS was December 3rd. It didn’t give me a lot of time for any remaining paperwork.

Luckily, my secret weapon is my Merovingian boyfriend, who has a way of talking to French people that I will never understand. Literally, I once showed a préfecture worker a copie conforme à l’origine of my attestation d’assurance (one of these days, I’m going to do a post on French words expats don’t know in English because WE DON’T USE THEM). She said that I couldn’t use it; TCB said, “Mais si,” and she said, “Oh, you’re right, of course.”

That was the moment I realized that I would never win at this game, and all I could do was try to keep my head above water. The water of my constant tears of frustration.

ANYWAY. I got together as much proof of my continued payment of sécurité sociale as I could, and the morning of my PACS, TCB and I went to the social security office. I showed my social security number on my paychecks and a letter from the head of billing at my company saying that I had, in fact, been paying into the social security system, but no dice.

“I can’t write an attestation for something that I can’t prove in my software,” the very nice man said. “And what’s more, my software is broken.”

I could see TCB, who works in IT, physically holding himself back to keep from crawling over the desk to fix the software of this lovely man who was beginning to remind me of a bureaucrat à la Douglas Adams.

“But sir, please, I have a renewal appointment next week. I didn’t realize that my situation wasn’t regular.”

“Well, mademoiselle, there are certain administrative things that you have to keep on top of, you know.”

Yeah. At that, I started crying.

Which is when the very nice man decided that in order to get the crazy girl out of his office, he could write an attestation attesting that I had a social security number attributed to my name.

Fine! Perfect! Yes! Sign! Stamp! Put another stamp on there! Can someone else sign it? Just pass it around like a birthday card and get everyone to sign! He’s the janitor? I don’t care! He can sign it too!

I took my paper and we left. We bought some Christmas decorations and thought about having a stiff drink, which we did not do; the day wasn’t over yet.

Our PACS was relatively uneventful, save the moment we showed up at our assigned office and saw a piece of paper on the front door, which usually means fermeture exceptionnelle pour grève, but this one was just telling us to go next door. So we did. The woman who was PACSing us inverted my first and last names, got my birthday wrong, and looked like one of those people who wouldn’t react if you exploded a paper bag next to her head. She also spent more time explaining how we could de-PACS than actually PACSing us.

We went to our favorite restaurant for dinner and drank a delicious Crozes-Hermitage. It felt like we were nearing the end.

D-Day

Six days later, I got up very early and had a cup of coffee, but I couldn’t eat anything.

I’m very superstitious about visa day. I spend the entire pre-appointment period thinking of all the things that could go wrong, which in my mind makes it impossible that those things could happen. It usually works; this time it did not. I missed one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After a week of back-and-forthing with our landlord trying to get quittances de loyer that proved that we pay our rent (which we do), and deciding, finally, to meet in person on Tuesday, she called TCB on Tuesday morning letting him know that she had just dropped them off at the post office. Luckily, she didn’t call me, or I might have rendered us homeless. Also luckily, we had several other proofs of residence, including lots and lots of attestations from our insurance company, based in Gien. They’re lovely. We brought them a big box of chocolates last weekend.

TCB tried to be helpful by telling me that we could show the people at the préfecture the repeated bank transfers to our landlord and show that the person we were sending said bank transfers to was the same person on our lease, but I wasn’t sure. I drank another coffee and tried not to throw up in the street.

We showed up at the préfecture at precisely three o’clock. We stood in line for a full hour behind two (2) other people. The line did not move. My back hurt immensely, because I was carrying 10 pounds (not hyperbole) of documents on my back.

When we finally made it to the front of the line, I showed the person behind the desk my convocation. He passed me a piece of paper with a few lines handwritten on it.

“Please pick another date.”

“…What.”

“Software problem. We’re running behind. The earliest is the 7th of January.”

In related news, the French administration needs new software.

“I…”

“While you’re picking your date, I’ll tell monsieur which documents you need to bring.”

I gaped for a while longer, but when it appeared that the woman behind the desk was getting frustrated with me, I picked the 7th. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal — just one more month of waiting — but I didn’t quite believe myself. Just next to me — but seeming about a mile away — I heard TCB say, after the exhaustive list of documents given by the agent, “But… we had all of them.”

The agent looked sadly, pitifully to his colleague. “They had everything.”

Sensing a bit of compassion, I tried to barter. “I can stay till the end of the day, if that helps.”

The woman who had become frustrated with my gaping raised her eyebrows and scoffed. “Or you could have no visa. We could decide not to give you one.”

“The 7th is fine.”

I gathered my folders and we left. I felt tears welling up. I turned to TCB. “I give up.” The tears started coming. I tried to hide behind a wall, which is difficult to do, if you’ve never had the opportunity to try it. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take it anymore.”

TCB tried to get me to calm down, or at least move outside, but the tears were free-falling by then, and I was too embarrassed to walk past everyone else. So I cried, as silently as I could, next to my wall.

I have a vague recollection of the agent, the compassionate one, coming up next to me, asking TCB if I was OK.

“Yes, she’s just disappointed. She’s been waiting since July. It’s stressful, you know.” He spoke with the perfect combination of apology and frankness. The agent nodded; he understood. He went out to smoke his cigarette. TCB managed to get me to the coffee machines.

The agent came back from his smoke break. He said some stuff to TCB that I refused to understand, but 5pm and wait here were involved. TCB looked at me, smiling, and said he’d buy me a coffee.

“Did you understand?”

“No.”

He fed change into the machine and pressed the button for an allongé, no sugar. “Dry your face. Drink your coffee. He said he’d do your dossier at the end of the day.”

And now I was just plain mortified.

I drank my coffee and calmed myself down as best I could. We went back into the first room, where the woman who had tried to take away my visa was staring daggers at me. The room was nearly empty before agent #4 called me over.

It was the fastest préfecture interaction of my life. He barely glanced at our papers. I was scrambling through my Important, Might Be Important and Random Extra Visa Shit folders (and yes, they are labeled as such) trying to give the agent everything he asked for. He was making photocopies — which we’re supposed to make ourselves at 10 centimes a pop — like a pro. And then, the moment of truth.

Attestations de sécurité sociale?

I knew that all I had was my fake attestation from the week before. And TCB, who had brought his whole life in document form, is known for the bizarre pride he has of not having had a carte vitale since 2006.

We were fucked. (Pardon my French.)

I gave him my fake attestation. He asked why I didn’t have a real attestation, and I played dumb. For once, it worked. Then he asked for TCB’s. TCB was still fake combing through his documents. “I don’t have it. I didn’t know. But you can see on my work contracts…”

“Look. You have a dossier en béton. In concrete. But I have to run all new PACS visas past my superior. Wait over there for 15 minutes.”

We went back to the waiting room. Now TCB was nervous, but I knew that there was nothing else to do but wait. The agent had told us that in the worst case, we could drop off any remaining documents to complete our dossier at our convenience. If nothing else, we had moved forward today. We might not be going home with the visa, but it was something.

“Madame Monaco?”

I sat down in front of a terrifying lady who was combing through my dossier. “Why are you applying for a status change? Your visa is good until July.”

“Oh! I actually wrote a letter explaining…”

“Where’s the letter?”

“I sent it. Here. To you.”

“I don’t have it.”

“Well someone must have gotten it; that’s how I got the appointment.”

“And you don’t have a copy?”

I pulled out my phone and started frantically searching my e-mail outbox for an old copy — any copy.

“You got fired?”

“No! No. I just want to leave my job to do freelance work.”

“You’re suffering at your job?”

“I’m not… suffering. No. I just want to do something else.”

“Oh. That’s fine.”

She passes the dossier to agent 4. Agent 4 starts stamping stuff. Stamping is good.

“Sign here.”

I sign. Pass the form back.

“You signed in the wrong place.”

What? We’ve come this far… he’s going to turn me away! I start to panic again.

He laughs.

“Here.” He hands me a new version of the form. “Sign here.

“OK. Thank you. What can we do? How can we — repay you?”

“Put a comment in the comment box.” He grins.

“What’s your name?”

“Agent #4.”

“Thank you Mr. Agent #4.”

“I won’t give you a récipissé, since your old visa is still good. Just come in February and pick up your new visa. Or whenever. After February.” He stamps more things.

“So… that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I still have my old visa.”

“Yes, but the new status.”

“The new status is good. I can… do whatever I want.”

He looks me in the eye.

“You have all of the rights of a French person. You can iron all day, if you want to.”

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After that, we didn’t go out to celebrate. We were too exhausted.

We came home, had a beer, and I made comfort food. Not this comfort food — I was far too tired to take pictures of what I made. I made this, if you’re interested, and it was delicious.

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Salt and Vinegar Fried Potatoes, Mushrooms, Spinach, Soft Egg

300 grams small potatoes
1/3 cup white vinegar

water
2 Tbsp. duck fat
2 shallots
4 tsp. olive oil, separated
300 grams mushrooms
2 eggs
2 handfuls baby spinach
salt and pepper
malt vinegar

Place the potatoes and white vinegar in a pot and cover by one inch with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile, quarter the shallots and toss them with 2 tsp. of the olive oil. Place in a baking dish and place in the oven (use a toaster oven so you don’t waste energy) and roast for 30 minutes.

While the potatoes and shallots are cooking, thinly slice the mushrooms. Add the rest of the oil to a pan and cook the mushrooms until browned. Season with salt and set aside.

When the potatoes are cooked, halve them and heat up the duck fat in the same frying pan as you used for the mushrooms (to keep TCB from asking why you always use every pan in the house while making dinner). Add the potatoes and cook until golden brown and crispy, about 10 minutes.

Remove the potatoes from the pan and add the eggs. Fry to your liking. Runny is good for this dish.

Add a handful of raw spinach to each of two deep plates. Top with mushrooms and potatoes. Finish with shallots and the egg. Season with salt, pepper and malt vinegar to taste. Collapse on couch and eat.