Archive for January 2010

Put Through The Mill

January 28, 2010

I’ve been neglecting you lately and here’s why: it’s because cancer really sucks.  I could say that life’s been complicated, difficult, that we’ve been having to do a lot of thinking and worrying, that after all we’re alive and in the south of France so how bad can it be, that life is full of hard choices and we all have to cope.  Or I could just say that cancer really and truly sucks.  You choose.

We’ve been through the cancer mill an uncountable number of times over the past 15 years, but this time is one of the hardest.  After all, we just got a long term visa, rented our house, sold our cars, and moved to France, ready to settle in for a good long time.  I’d write my book about the life of a small cooperative winery,  Shel would continue to improve his French and play music, Beppo and Zazou would continue to eat duck for breakfast and rabbit for dinner as French cats do.  And yes, we knew that cancer would always be in the equation somewhere, as it always is.

What we didn’t imagine was that cancer would come front and center so soon, catching us suddenly, unaware, in the same way that Zazou surprises the little birds huddling hopefully against the winter cold, tearing at our plans and sitting heavy on our hearts.

There are a lot of wonderful things that one can say about the French health care system, and they’ve mostly all been said already.  Everyone gets cared for, most people pay little or nothing.  That’s the usual nutshell.  But here’s the thing that we’ve learned only recently, although it fits well with other things we understand about France.  The French tend to be risk-averse, especially as compared to Americans, with our legacy of the cowboy mentality and pioneer spirit.  In America there’s cutting edge care, even ragged and bleeding edge care, although it’s not available to everybody, not even to half of everybody.

In France if a couple of people die while taking an experimental drug, that’s likely to be it for that drug for quite some time, maybe forever.  No one else will face the same risk.  Whereas in America if a hundred people die while taking the same drug the attitude is more likely to be “well, they had cancer anyway and it was better to try this, especially if some people were helped by the drug, than to do nothing at all.”  Americans sign a huge sheaf of papers stating that we accept the risk, and then we swallow the bitter pill bravely, hoping for the best.

Shel’s cancer has been getting worse and we’re kind of running out of options.  We’re having a devil of a time getting it treated here, which is where we want to be.  It would be easier to get it treated in the US, although not at all easy, but that’s not where we want to be.  It’s a hearts and minds game: heart says France, head says America. Heart says don’t give up on happiness so easily, visit more offices, make more phone calls, fill out more forms.  Head says just give me a pillow and a sedative and wake me when it’s over.

I wanted to give you a recipe today, because it’s been a long time, but I just don’t have it in me.  Instead, if you have a recipe that makes you happy to be alive, please post it in the Comments section.  We all need it.

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German Windows

January 22, 2010

As you might remember from other posts, I have a thing for windows. The French say lèche-vitrines, which is literally window licking, for what we call window shopping, and since I seldom buy anything, licking is a much better description for one of my favorite travel pastimes.  As we saw here inFrench windows and here in Dutch windows, they often give me a nutshell-sized understanding of the culture around me. But in Munich we saw some windows like no others, and I must say that the insight quotient was sadly low.

We couldn’t even figure out the message of this window, but it’s certainly one you wouldn’t see in France, with all of the current debate about Muslim dress.  There’s no question that Muslims don’t drink, though, so what’s with the empty bottles?

Or how about this one, what the heck is it supposed to suggest? Europeans are sometimes accused of stealing children from the developing countries, by adopting kids that are not really orphans, but is that what’s happening here?  I find both windows fascinating, and I have the recollection that they were representing a travel agency, but that doesn’t make them any easier to figure out.  You tell me, what’s your version of their story?

This one is simpler, but still cryptic.  It looked to be a health food store, but I liked the way these dolls have German faces, as opposed to these dolls with French faces that we saw in Strasbourg, even though they don’t look especially healthy or natural.

Candy and cookies by the truckload, all the way from Austria?  I have never seen a pink semi on any road, and especially not on the Autobahn, but I’m guessing that they really do look like this, and if we ever get to Austria I’m going to look for the life-sized original, the Mary Kay of tractor trailers.

Now this one was a real mystery, although the almighty Google shows that there are San Francisco Coffee Company shops all over Germany. What I don’t know is whether it has anything at all to do with San Francisco, my birthplace, or whether it’s just a clever and exotic name, like Häagen-Dazs, which sounds oh so foreign to our ears, but isn’t.

I was very tempted to buy a dirndl, which are for sale all over town although these were the most beautiful ad least traditional ones I saw. But I couldn’t imagine where I’d be able to wear one, and my suitcase was already bursting its zippers, so I sadly left them behind.  Let me know if you’re planning a dirndl party, though, and I’ll rush back and get one.

I didn’t know what I’d do with a Rolex either, as I haven’t worn a watch since eighth grade, but I loved the elegant understatedness of this window and all that it suggested about the coziness of German Christmas.

And now, let’s get back to France, where we speak the language and are starting to understand how things work, where the windows hold fewer mysteries every day, and where my kitchen is calling to me.

Crossing The Rhine

January 19, 2010

When we first came to France I’d shiver with a little thrill each time we crossed the Rhône.  I mean, the Rhône is a truly mythic river, especially for wine lovers, and it took me quite a long time to start seeing it as more or less just the body of water that separates us from Avignon.  But when we recently crossed the Rhine I shivered in quite another way.

I have a hard time even admitting this here, not wanting to offend Heinz, or Wolfgang, or any other faithful German friends of French Letters.  But like many people with Jewish ancestors, the very idea of Germany is still uncomfortable to me.  Living in France, though, where people tend to say “that was the past, and now it’s over and we’re neighbors” has gradually made me think that perhaps I needed to get over it, shake it off, move into the 21st century.

So I started by taking a bath.  And a swim, and a shower under a waterfall, followed by several different steam baths, and a couple of outdoor saunas.  Baden Baden turns out to be a fabulous place to wash your cares away, and to get over your complexes, if you have any, about bathing nude with several hundred strangers, a disproportionate number of whom seem to be good-looking young men.  If you look into the background of this photo you can see steam rising from the outdoor pool, where we cavorted in warm water on a chilly afternoon.  And I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to see of the baths, since I couldn’t very well hide a camera under my towel.  But if you get a chance, go to the Caracolla Thermes in Baden Baden and see for yourself: four hours there and you’ll be cleaner and more at peace with group nakedness than you’ve ever been before.

Outside the baths, Baden Baden is a lovely little town

with a kind of storybook charm that I found very disarming.  It’s a soft introduction to Germany, if you harbor lingerings doubts, a town for the well-off and well-washed, full of restaurants and cute little shops.

Having survived Baden Baden, and even thrived on its charms, we were off to Munich.  One could argue that Munich isn’t really Germany, it’s really Bavaria, and I think that perhaps many Bavarians do feel that way. But for us it was Germany, where they speak German and we don’t. Although honestly, everyone we asked seemed to speak English too, much as we hated to make them do it.

The old center of Munich is really gorgeous, in a way we hadn’t been expecting.  And right after Christmas it was packed with tourists, most of whom, like me, seemed to have their cameras perpetually pointed skyward.

I would look up and think “you’re in Germany but it’s okay”

and “you’re in Germany which is actually very lovely and where the people are warm and welcoming.”  I still shivered a little, but that might have been the December cold.

Our hotel receptionist at the truly excellent Hotel Admiral sent us to look at the Frauenkirche, which was startlingly full of light after the dark Gothic interiors of most French churches.

She also sent us to Zum Dürnbräu, which is where you should go too if you’re looking for an excellent and staggeringly copious meal typical of the region, in a charming spot remarkably free of tourists.  Since they’ve been in business since 1487, I think we can assume they’re doing something right, and financial crisis or no, the place was packed with people sitting in front of one litre glasses of beer and heaping plates and looking very pleased to be there.

Walking off our lunch we came upon this example of serious reconstruction right in the center of town

although as soon as we turned the corner we discovered that this painted facade had been put up to hide the unsightly work in progress from passersby.

And speaking of facades, what about this fabulous stonework?  Would you believe me if I said there isn’t a stone in sight, that it’s all an illusion created with paint?  And it is.  A huge building meticulously painted to resemble elaborate stonework.  Not everything is what is seems to be.

For example, on one stone-painted wall we found this poster.  When you think of the Luftwaffe, what’s your image?  It’s probably derived, like mine, from a WWII movie, right?  Did you ever imagine that the Luftwaffe has a band that gives live concerts in a building whose facade is smoke and mirrors? Me neither.

We also visited the very nice Viktualienmarkt, a daily open air market, where under the Maypole

beautiful vegetables, impressive even to someone who lives in France,

huge wheels of cheese,

and flowers begged to be taken home, along with a mind-boggling array of sausages and gleaming piles of brilliantly fresh seafood, even though Bavaria is landlocked.

All of which says to me that it’s best to be on guard against the shivers, since things are often not what you expect, and that sometimes listening too hard to those whispers from the past keeps you from enjoying the real beauty of the present.  Nicht wahr?

Retour En Alsace

January 14, 2010

Let’s go back to Strasbourg for a moment, shall we?  Having just had choucroute for lunch, that most Alsatian of dishes, my thoughts naturally turn to all of the things I haven’t yet shown you about our stay in that lovely city.

It has a kind of fairy tale beauty, and the whole time we were on a river cruise around the center of town we kept saying “oh, we could live there,

or maybe we should live there,

or even there.”

I have to admit that one of the reasons I felt really comfortable in Strasbourg was because the Alsatian people, having been considerably intermingled with the German people over the centuries, tend to be much taller and more costaud, sturdier all around, than the people of the south, and for once I felt almost invisible there.  It would almost be worth moving not to feel so gigantesque all the time.  But it’s an expensive city, with homes and apartments on the water going for about 6000 Euros per square meter, or roughly $1000 per square foot.

It’s a trilingual city, with many signs, like these for a sort of Alsatian pizza,  in both French and German

and some in the Alsatian language itself.  This one says Little Alsace, showing the German roots of the language.  But when I heard the butcher speaking Alsatian with a client, it had none of the rhythms of straight-up German, instead sounding to me more like the lilting song of Swiss German.

It’s a city that mingles old and new, housing the European Parliament, which divides its time between Strasbourg and Brussels,

as well as the European Council and the European Court of Human Rights.

It’s a city of stark contrasts, ranging from the ravishing exterior of the Strasbourg Cathedral

with its gorgeous though rather clunky-sounding organ,

to a police force that was in evidence in every public space, usually rousting out clusters of street people from the shopping areas. Strasbourg had an incredible number of seemingly homeless people, sleeping in the street despite temperatures well below freezing.  We did see a shelter bus on Christmas Eve, a place where anyone who was cold could come inside to warm up and have a snack with someone dressed as Santa.

On the other hand, if you had money and a little girl to spend it on, there was no shortage of adorable outfits.

And if you or the kids were tired out after shopping, there was the Academy of Beer.  As evidenced by the strollers, both outside and on the way in, this is a popular spot with the little ones.

Although Alsace is a famously good place to eat, because we had a wonderful apartment with a perfectly equipped kitchen, the best meals we had were, like this one, eaten at home.  In fact, we only ate out three times in the entire week, and none of them were anything very good.

However, the quality of the charcuterie at the local butcher was staggering,

and even though there were two bakeries just underneath the apartment, no one minded walking an extra five minutes to reach one that was truly stupendous.

Finally, because all good things must come to an end, and because I don’t often get the chance to mention camels on French Letters, and because a couple of you asked for it, here’s a picture of Shel in his new Russian-via-Mongolia camel fur vest, with Eric and Jessica in their new Christmas sweaters and hats.

So that’s it for Strasbourg, although I really want to go again in another season and see whether the siren song still sings.  And next, on to Germany!

Winter In The South Of France

January 10, 2010

After a multi-day deep freeze that paralyzed this part of France, it’s now sunny and blue and raining icicles all over the garden.  There’s still quite a lot of hard crunchy snow on the ground,

enough to make even a tough little French cookie like Zazou try to figure out how to keep her princess paws dry.  It’s melting now, but tonight it’s going down to -7°C, which I expect will delight those who enjoy le patinage and have their ice skates handy by the front door.

It’s just the kind of weather that makes me crave chili, that least-French and most-American of winter foods.  I can make a chili-like dish here, but it can never be the real thing, as too many ingredients are fundamentally different.

When we were living “back home” on Bainbridge Island, looking down over the Puget Sound and Rolling Bay, I created this chili to soothe my winter soul.  I’d love to cook up a big pot of it tonight and laugh in the face of that  -7°, but since I can’t, perhaps you’ll make it and flip a rude gesture towards the south of France winter gods on my behalf.

This recipe will outrage traditionalists of every stripe, but honest, it’s delicious.  The ingredient list is long, but since it uses canned beans it comes together in a jiffy.  If you feel like making your own beans, you can’t do better than to get your beans from Rancho Gordo.  There are a lot of American foods I miss, but Rancho Gordo beans are very close to the top of the list.

And if, by some chance, you make this and decide that you are indeed one of those outraged traditionalists, that this chili has too much garlic, too many tomatoes, or, for crying out loud, beer and chocolate and basil, if by some fluke of nature you really don’t like it, please just pack it up and send it on over here to me!

Abra’s Rolling Bay Red

3 T olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
10 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 green pepper, diced
1 lb ground chuck
1 lb ground pork
4 T chili powder
1 T ancho chili powder
1 T ground cumin
2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp salt
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 cups chicken broth
1 12 oz bottle Mexican beer
1 6 oz can tomato paste
2 oz semisweet chocolate
1 14 oz can black beans
1 14 oz can pinto or kidney beans
chopped white onions, grated Cheddar, and nacho-style pickled jalapenos for garnish

Heat the oil and sauté the onions, peppers, and garlic until the vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the beef and pork and sauté until brown, breaking up meat with back of spoon, about 5 minutes. Add chili powder, ancho powder, cumin, basil, oregano,  thyme, and salt. Stir to blend and fry spices slightly. Mix in crushed tomatoes, chicken broth, beer and tomato paste. Add chocolate and stir until melted.  Add beans.  Simmer until thickened and flavors are melded,  stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes.

Garnish with chopped onions, grated cheddar, and nacho jalapenos.

Snow Day Soup

January 8, 2010

Half of the kids in France have a snow day today, and so do we.  No school for them, no work for the adults, except slipping and sliding our way to the corner store to stock up on food and wine, in case we’re stuck here indefinitely.  Since last night the snow’s been coming down hard and fast,

the kind of thick fluffy snow that catches in the fence,

buries the berry bushes,

and traps the travelers.  The buses aren’t running, the train schedule is a laughing matter, the autoroute from Perpignan to Barcelona is closed up tight, and we’re receiving official emailed warnings to stay put.  In our case, those trapped include Eric and Jessica, who were supposed to be heading back to the US today, but who are now forced to spend a couple more days in the snowy south of  France, alas.

To console them, I made soup.  You don’t have to wait for a snow day to make this, in fact, I suggest that you make it as soon as possible.  Today I made it without the cider, to reduce the sugar content, and it was still almost as lovely as ever.  It’s the kind of soup that makes you glad to be indoors watching the snow swirl, the cats clean the icy bits from between their toes, and the electricity flicker, even if you are out of firewood.  Now how did we let that happen?

Squash Soup With Calvados and Cider*

3 lbs mixed winter squashes, halved
3 T olive oil
1 T butter
1 onion, diced
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/2 cup Calvados or brandy
1 cup turkey or chicken stock
1 1/2 T boiled cider syrup (available from King Arthur, or reduce 1 cup fresh cider)
3/4 cup half and half
2 T mascarpone
2 tsp boiled cider
pinch ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with aluminum foil. Brush squash flesh with 2 tablespoons oil. Place on prepared baking sheets, cut side down. Roast squash until very tender, about 1 hour. Cool 20 minutes. Remove seeds. Scoop out 3 cups squash pulp and puree in food processor.

Melt butter with remaining 1 tablespoon oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Sauté until onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add Calvados and simmer until almost all of liquid evaporates, about 1 minute.  Add squash to pan and stir to combine. Add broth, boiled cider, and half and half.

Remove bay leaves and cinnamon sticks.  Puree again with immersion blender.  Pour soup through a Chinois or other fine sieve.  Soup can be made ahead to this point.

Mix mascarpone, 1 tablespoon boiled cider, and ground cinnamon in medium bowl to blend.

Bring soup to simmer. Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish each with a swirl of mascarpone mixture and serve.

*I adapted this recipe from this Bon Appetit original.

BMW Lust

January 3, 2010

When planning our short trip to Munich I really wanted to make Shel happy. You know how that is, sometimes you just want to see a smile on the face of someone you love, even if it means you’ll be spending a few hours contemplating the endlessly fascinating intricacies of the internal combustion engine in the process.  So right at the top of our Munich agenda was a visit to the stunning new BMW Museum.

It’s worth a visit for the architecture alone, even if cars and motorcycles aren’t your favorite thing.  This building isn’t the actual museum, but it’s the center of the BMW World complex and is the place to go if you’re looking to buy a new car.  Which, in theory, we weren’t.

Coming up from the subway the first things you see are the BMW World building

and what Shel called “the famous four cylinder building.”  That bowl at the base of the four cylinders is the museum itself.  I invite you to notice what completely escaped my attention at the time: the museum has no windows. Because, in concept, the outside world loses all importance once you’re inside the finely tuned and highly polished world of BMW.

You enter the museum into the gallery of BMW motorcycles, each one presented like a jewel in its perfect setting.  In fact, this is the hallmark of the museum, so that even when you’re in a room full of nothing but engines you have the impression of being inside a jewel box, so shiny, sparkling, and well-lit are the objects presented for your enjoyment.  There were hundreds of gorgeous motorcycles and cars, but I’m only going to show a few that I thought were especially pretty, lest you suffer a sudden bandwidth crisis.

Because really, if I’d tried to take a picture of every breathtaking little vehicle, we’d still be there today.  This absolutely tiny delivery truck definitely made me wish I had something to deliver.  The incredible windowless light inside the museum created a virtual lightbox

so that every car looked like a million dollars.  Which, in fact, is probably not too far off what some of them would cost today, since there were many famous and flashy cars that had won famous races while being driven by famous drivers.  I’m afraid that I yawned my way through that section, thus I cannot show you some of the fastest vehicles of their time.  But if speed is your thing, get a ticket to Munich post haste.

Somehow, though, those weren’t the cars that really caught my eye.  Just like a girl, I tended to prefer the classic and supremely elegant

and the impossibly cute.  This tiny little guy has no doors on the side, you have to crawl in through the front panel.

Shel, though, was really looking for one he could take home with him.  He had a BMW when we met, and although we’ve had Hondas, a Volvo, and a Peugeot since then, I could see him formulating a plan to Change All That.

I think the only reason that we didn’t end the day back in the BMW World Delivery Center was that lighting.  It dawned on me that it had been a cool, silvery afternoon for far too long, and when we checked the time, we were in fact about to be late to Heinz’s fabulous dinner.  Emerging into the pitch dark of an early Munich winter evening and racing to the subway, we somehow didn’t have time to stop off and test drive the new BMWs.  But that day, I sense, is still in our future, unless I give in and let Shel buy a motorcycle first. A BMW, naturally.