In the way that other children were raised on lightning bugs and kick-the-can and constellations, I was raised on cities at night.
At first, the quiet, frightening strangeness of the first time you witness your home–the one you hardly think about as you count gum blobs on the way to school and home again–transformed by the blanket of thick darkness, the store windows closed against the outside, the cars diminished to the yellow lights of free taxis zooming up abandoned avenues… it’s jarring, to say the very least. I remember distinctly my father’s hand enveloping mine, an embodiment of the familiarity that allowed me to enjoy my new surroundings as we walked home from odd nights spent somewhere else: dinner at my grandparents, Christmas parties at a neighbor’s house. For anything else, a cab would drop us at our doorstep, and I would be too tired to even glance right or left as I unfolded myself from it, drawn to the yellow light of the building lobby like a moth or aforementioned firefly, too much in my own world to realize that the familiar streets were no longer the ones I knew.
I pretend to myself that the way that I see cities at night now–the familiarity, the ease of fading from day to night in a world and a life where they truly are one and the same, as I walk home from school under the veil of twilight and roll out of bed in the morning before the sun has peeked over the edge of the Parisian horizon–is the way that I’ve always seen them. But if I’m honest with myself–something, as I writer, I need to constantly remind myself to do–I remember, sometimes, when I’m shocked by my own sobriety as I step out into a crisp, Paris evening, to see the city as it is, as New York was, once, an unknown place filled with the magic of darkness.
It’s easy to trick myself into believing that who I am is who I always was. It’s one of the reasons I’m glad to have the diaries that make me squirm at my own naïveté: my own words don’t lie, and if they do, even that is telling. I pretend to myself that I was always as familiar as I am with negotiating my way around darkened street corners, finding the last train or last bus to return me to my doorstep, but sometimes, I get caught in one of those moments that reminds me of who I was, that I’m not so far from the child who craved the comfort of nighttime rides into the city, tucked into the backseat with my three siblings, nestled under a blanket as Beethoven escorted us over the Triborough bridge and into unknown territory of northern Manhattan.
I pretend, too, that the comfort food I remember from my teenage years is what I was raised on, though I know it wasn’t. By the time I was 17, my mother had branched out from her original repertoire–mainly because certain members of my family had decided to expand their diets of all-white foods–and simple things that used to be on the weekly rotation: green beans and spaetzle, roasted chicken, plain pasta with parmesan cheese–had disappeared.
I do remember pot pie, though: there’s no way I’m wrong about that one. I remember eating my sister’s peas, and I remember being the only one who liked cooked carrots; I definitely remember pot pies–individual servings with gravy so hot it burned your tongue, but it was impossible to wait, as the pastry crust poked with a fork started to absorb the liquid inside.
I’m still as impatient–too impatient for pastry. I made my version in the style of a cottage pie, with mashed potatoes spread over the top in lieu of crust, but it was just as delicious as I remember.
As for Paris, she’s back to her usual self now, though as I escorted myself back from dinner a few nights ago, I got that little inkling, remembering what it was like when cities at night were to be discovered. I let it envelop me as I ignored the tram in favor of walking myself home under the veil of night.
Chicken Pot Pie
1 tsp. olive oil
1 whole chicken breast (2 halves)
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. herbes de provence
350 g. potatoes
1 clove garlic, whole, unwrapped
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup milk
salt to taste
Cover the potatoes and garlic with cold water. Heat over high heat until boiling, then cover and reduce heat to medium. Cook for 20 minutes, until the potato is cooked through.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken breasts until browned on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Remove to a plate. Add the onion and carrots, as well as a bit of chicken broth if necessary to keep from sticking, and sauté until soft, 5-10 minutes.
Add the chicken back to the pan along with the broth. Cook until the chicken is cooked through, 15-20 minutes.
Remove the chicken and shred with two forks. Add back to the pan along with the peas, flour, pepper and herbes de provence. Stir and cook 2-3 minutes, until thickened.
When the potatoes and garlic are cooked through, drain and return to the pot. Mash over low heat to remove excess moisture, then mash in the milk and butter, as well as salt to taste.
Pour the filling into a baking dish and cover with the mashed potato. Broil until the potato is browned on top.