What I’m Thankful For

Happy [day after] Thanksgiving!

As cheesy as it sounds, the best part of Thanksgiving really is being with loved ones. For many people, including myself, Thanksgiving is the only occasion I have to see most of my extended family during the year. Though it can occasionally be a little awkward to make conversation with the third cousins whose names I absolutely never remember, it’s still great. Plus, I love having an excuse to doze on the couch and watch a Law And Order: SVU marathon with my brother, pretending to help my parents in the kitchen, and taking the time to listen to my grandparents’ amazing stories.

So of course, I knew it would be difficult to be away from my family for the holiday. Luckily, I’ve formed a pretty wonderful family of friends in Normandy, and we managed to have a perfectly fantastic Thanksgiving all by ourselves. Two Americans, three Brits, and one Spaniard came to my apartment for an all-afternoon feast, and it was far more successful than I could ever have imagined.

Taking a page from my dad’s book, who has always taken great care to slice my toast diagonally before transferring it to the final plate, I went for decoration as the key to the meal’s presentation. I spent the whole morning spiffing up my apartment with my meager supplies and making the eensy kitchen suitable for a dinner party.

Each person had their own hand-drawn place setting.

Each person was greeted with their own hand-drawn place setting.

As previous posts have detailed, I’m no cook and have certainly never prepared a Thanksgiving meal, but the other two Americans and I took on the chief roles of organizing the menu for our almost-not-quite-traditional dinner. Confronted with the task of creating classic American flavors with French ingredients for a mostly vegetarian group, I’d say we did pretty well. We stuffed our faces with a meal for the record books: the aptly named stuffing, sweet potatoes with goat cheese gratin, melt in your mouth brussels sprouts, green bean casserole with mushroom sauce, fluffy mashed potatoes, caramelized sweet onion pastries…the list goes on.

The closest thing to fitting it all in one picture

The closest thing to fitting it all in one picture

It was nearly impossible to save room for dessert, but we managed to suffer through it. We spent several hours laughing around the table, telling past Thanksgiving stories and sharing jokes between sips of mulled wine. As everyone waddled to the door with their belts loosened and pants buttons popping, we decided that a reunion Thanksgiving dinner would have to happen in the future, no matter where we all may be living at the time.

Pumpkin, chocolate, and apple pies being cut simultaneously by professionals

Pumpkin, chocolate, and apple pies being cut simultaneously by true professionals

As I fell into bed shortly after midnight, having named my food baby (Patata) and planned her entire future (pastry chef and freelance caterer to the stars, married at 28 to a veterinarian with 3 cats), I couldn’t help but smile. The days of preparation were completely worth seeing the non-Americans taste their first bite of pumpkin pie. This year, even though I can’t be with my blood family, I’m thankful to have found a group of people with whom I can share some of the best things in life: food and friendship.

The best part: the Black Friday leftover sandwich

The finale: the Black Friday leftover sandwich, featuring French baguette

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A Life in Ten Words or Less

NPR recently posted an article calling for all expatriates to submit their personal 10-word (or less!) statements on life as an expat. Of course, I sent in my sentence last night. You can check out the original post here.

Being the occasionally wordy writer that I am, ten words was a hard limit to stick to. Even more difficult was picking just one sentence to submit! Did the all powerful gods of NPR want profound or pithy; pop-culture specific or romantically vague? 

But what’s the point of managing your own blog if you can’t change the rules a little?  I thought it would be a nice exercise to limit myself to some one-line sentiments of life away from the States, and specifically of my day-to-day world in France. 

Here’s the brainstorm list of my ideas here, along with some photos from the past few weeks that I haven’t gotten around to posting yet.

The more alone I am, the more comfortable I feel.

I lie about never having tasted local delicacies so I can try them again.

Thursday drinks with the assistants

Thursday drinks with the assistants: my apologies for the iPhone picture.

I listen to This American Life when I’m homesick.

Aluna George concert

IS Tropical in concert

Jaywalking is my personal rebellion. America=freedom.

When no one knows my past, I create a new one.

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Roaming

If coffee is my lifeblood, then baguettes are my bones.

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Clouds and Light at the American Cemetery

I’m beginning to think in French.

Naps on top of radiators are a dangerous but cozy necessity.

Church seats in Caen

Church seats in Caen

And the final one:

Headphones on: This American Life and Sweet Home Alabama loop.

What do you all think? Could you reduce your daily life into ten words or less? Let me know in the comments!

Reasons Why Veganism Is Impossible In France

This is becoming a food blog, and I refuse to apologize for it.

An easy meal I’ve made multiple times recently is roasted zucchini (or other types of winter squash) and mushrooms. Can we take a moment to laud the gloriousness that is mushrooms? Wrought from dirt and damp, the humble mushroom grows into a meaty, creamy wonder that fills the stomach with warmth and happiness. They’re my new favorite food.

zucchini and a bit of olive oil, ready to go into the oven

zucchini and a bit of olive oil, ready to go into the oven

I lined up an entire sliced zucchini on an olive oil-drizzled pan and popped it into the oven, then got started on my mushrooms. After they’d been cooking on high in a pat of butter for five minutes or so, I turned down the heat, doused them in crème fraiche, and let them cook down even further. Hey, we’re in Normandy, people. Butter and cream are a major part of the local agriculture. I’m helping the economy. After the cream had turned a beautiful gravy color and the mushrooms looked more like Krispy Kreme original glazed than vegetables, I sprinkled some parmesan on my roasting zucchini, and turned the broiler on. Two minutes later and my meal was ready!

The final plate: mushrooms in cream sauce and parmesan-roasted zucchini

The final plate: mushrooms in cream sauce and parmesan-roasted zucchini

I’m counting this as a halfway healthy meal and a vegetarian success. The cooking journey continues!

Hump Day Is My Favorite Day

Wednesdays are quickly becoming one of my favorite days here in France. Traditionally, high schoolers have class during the morning hours, and school closes for the afternoon (elementary schools are closed all day on Wednesdays). After a short workday, I’m usually able to leisurely eat my lunch in the half-empty cafeteria and spend the afternoon doing what I like until choir practice.

I had the luck of stumbling upon a choir several weeks ago, and I’ve been attending rehearsals ever since. It’s an independent community group, not associated with a school or church, composed mostly of adorable retirees who can’t help but make me feel at home. Every Wednesday night at eight o’clock, I am greeted by the powdery cheeks of each and every member just begging to be kissed, which takes at least fifteen minutes. The grannies warm up by marching in place and smiling at each other, then usually move on to some very silly sounding vocalizations, even for this veteran chorister. Next comes three hours (yep, you read that right) of practice. These retirees sure know how to party! I’m generally yawning through the last hour of rehearsal, but the rest of the group seems to have no problem singing until eleven at night. It’s not the most difficult of repertoire, but the group could hold its own in a Solfege competition and performs a nice mix of classical and traditional works. Mostly, I’m happy to have found an ensemble at all in this small town!

Lately, a whole contingent of assistants has joined in on the party, so the mamies and pépés have four of us young’uns to coddle and stuff with homemade cookies. They’re all so kind to us; it’s nice to have a little bit of the comforts of family here. I’m used to speaking with teenagers and middle-aged colleagues at work; being in the choir allows me to learn a whole new vocabulary and se profiter bien from the universal wisdom of the greatest generation.

And hey, the homemade desserts aren’t so bad, either.

 

 

Market Haul, Y’all

It was cold but all blue skies yesterday: all the occasion I needed to be happy! I hit up the market as usual and picked up a decent amount while meandering through the stalls.

Here’s what I got:

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1/2 kilo of carrots

1 head of broccoli

6 tomatoes

1 kilo of apples

1 baguette and 10 chouquettes: mini sugared pastry puffs that are beyond delicious

I also got a bag of salad, a bar of chocolate, cereal, and sugar at the little grocery store beside the farmers’ market.

All this cost about ten bucks and will be more than enough to get me through a week’s worth of breakfasts and dinners with the potatoes, mushrooms, and cabbage from last week that I seriously need to work with soon.

This week, I’m going to make a tartiflette in my continuing effort to learn how to cook classic French cuisine. I ate one of these fancy hashbrown casseroles to the nth degree on Saturday night with a colleague and his family, and it was beyond delicious.

Sunday morning was all about eating fantastically fattening food, too. In our second (and now traditional) Sunday brunch, the assistants made pancakes and mimosas and noshed on every other possible bread product we could find. Toast, brioche, tortilla chips, cake, and cookies: you name it, we can eat it.

A wonderful new tradition, indeed.

Forget Diamonds; Carbs Are This Girl’s Best Friend

My most recent culinary experiment turned out rather delicious, I must say. Pasta isn’t exactly difficult to make, but I was proud that I made my very own, completely homemade sauce!

My first course was the final cup of lentil-veggie broth that I made last week by boiling up all my vegetable scraps.

For the vegetarian pasta sauce, I began by browning half of a small onion in a tablespoon-ish of oil. I added three tomatoes and let it cook down for almost an hour. A roughly chopped handful of mushrooms was added to the mix, and that was it! Salt and pepper to taste, of course. I cooked up some farfalle pasta and reached for my handy baguette, and dinner was ready.

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Beyond basic, almost healthy, and delicious. If I can do it, anyone can.

Teachers Are Humans, Too.

When you’re a teacher in a small town, it’s not a matter of if, but when, you will awkwardly run into your students. For me, it was on Friday night at the Aluna George concert.

It being one of the other assistants’ birthdays, the crew got together on Friday night to celebrate and eat massive amounts of junk food. Following this time-honored ritual of noshing down a stomach-churning combination of cheetos, wine, quesadillas, cookies, apple pie, chocolate-beetroot cake, and a shot of tequila for good luck, we ventured into town to see what sort of trouble we might get into at the local music festival that’s been going on all week.

I should have known that all of my students would be there.

I should have known it’d be awkward as heck.

I awkwardly head-nodded  and smiled at a few of them to acknowledge their presence, and then went back to dancing along to the music. Of course, then I felt like all their eyes were on me and my American head-bobbing. (Apparently, the French prefer to show their appreciation for live music by standing stock-still and frowning as much as possible. They’re like the town from Footloose.)

Did anyone else ever hate the idea of seeing their teachers in public? I remember, even as a kid who loved school and the vast majority of her teachers, that running into them was always a bit surreal. I was pretty convinced that teachers just pulled a cot out from under their desks at the end of the day and slept at the school. There’s no way a teacher could have a family or spend any time thinking about anything other than bulletin board designs and lesson plans!

It turns out that teachers are real human beings with lives outside of school, and they find it just as weird as students do when they get caught out in public. Beyond that, I’m a foreign language teacher and in France that means that I’m supposed to speak ONLY English in the classroom: no French help allowed. But when I see a student in public, am I obliged to switch to English, or should I stick to French for the benefit of any non-anglophones around us?

It gets weird, and I usually end up busting out an awkward “Bonjour-‘ello!” before hustling off in whatever direction will get me farthest, fastest.

Such is my life.