“Les gens de Paris ont l’air d’être toujours occupés, mais en fait ils se promènent du matin au soir.”
I’ve discovered the writer known as Céline this year, a writer whose name I had heard dropped in the same way you know who Dickens is and can maybe even name a book aside from A Christmas Carol, but you’ve probably never read any. I’ve got Voyage au bout de la nuit waiting for me for my long plane ride home tomorrow, after two days of meandering about Paris, finally one of those gens that Céline draws attention to, the one who looks occupied but is actually just wandering, a flaneur.
My life in France is very un-French; I know, because French people have told me so. I balance full-time work with full-time school and an internship on top of everything. I very rarely find time to do nothing, which was my favorite thing to do in Paris when I first moved here. So who knows if it’s a blessing or a curse that I found out on Saturday evening, when the Artist and I had already returned from extensive Christmas shopping at the Bon Marché, that my flight, meant to be leaving yesterday, had been cancelled, leaving me with two days alone in the city I had nearly forgotten about, to fall back in love again.
But the ground is covered with snow, and there’s a cruel chill in the air. Boots don’t keep out the moist slush that can’t decide if it wants to be frozen or not, so instead I found myself sitting at my window overlooking Porte de Versailles, looking through the new notebook that is embarassingly taking me a much longer time than the last Moleskine I filled in only a few months. In it, I found tidbits from my first three months back in Paris, back this time in what feels like a strangely un-frighteningly permanent way. Some notes are observations about people on my morning métro ride, others hastily scribbled grocery lists, but what draws my attention most is just that: attention.
There’s nothing quite as good for the self-esteem as living in Paris. There’s a park I have to cross to reach my internship, a park that the Shoe Fiend and I have dubbed Creeper Park, where men jeer and sneer and make me feel as though I should revert back to my high school uniform of cargos and a Yankees beanie. But much more frequently–and much more welcome–are the Frenchmen who, with a politeness I never would have thought still existed, call attention to women on the street.
“Vous êtes très agréable à regarder,” I was told by a gentleman wandering with a friend outside my school the other day. No matter how I tell the story, everyone’s first reaction is always to recoil, but he had a sweet way of tipping his hat, of vouvoy-ing, of commenting as though he were describing, not a living, breathing, warm-blooded person, but a painting or a drawing or a photograph. Agreeable to look at is a much better compliment than “hot,” in my opinion.
Flirting in France is like walking when you’ve got nowhere to be, like Céline’s Parisian who wanders the streets, not because he intends to go anywhere, but because the streets of Paris are such a lovely place to spend one’s time. I won’t pretend I don’t wish I was home with my family right now, instead of alone in my apartment concocting dinner ideas from frozen vegetables and pantry items, but I will say this: I may run at a faster tempo than most Parisians, but, in my own way, I’m starting to feel like one of them.
Gratin de chou-fleur
If you need a simple dish to keep you warm, this one is easy and delicious.
500 g. frozen cauliflower florets
50 g. lardons
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. flour
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. good French mustard
1 pinch nutmeg
1/4 tsp. black pepper
salt to taste
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 biscottes, finely ground or 1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
1 tsp. olive oil
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Heat water to a boil and cook the frozen cauliflower until tender. Drain.
In a saucepan, cook the lardons over medium heat until crispy. Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate saucepan over low heat. Remove the lardons and add the butter and flour and cook, whisking, 2-3 minutes. Slowly drizzle in the milk, whisking all the while. Cook until the sauce thickens to a béchamel (the texture of cream) 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Either in a blender or using an immersion blender, combine the béchamel and 1/4 of the cooked cauliflower. Purée until creamy. Add the rest of the cauliflower, the reserved lardons, the mustard, the pepper and the nutmeg. Add salt to taste.
Pour the cauliflower mixture into a baking dish. Top with parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs, and drizzle the oil over the top. Bake, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes, until the top is crispy and the cauliflower is bubbly. Cool 15 minutes before serving.