Endings… and Beginnings

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When last we spoke, I was alternating between waxing poetic about sunny summer vacations and practically pulling my hair out in anticipation of my move from Paris to California. I am pretty sure that my silence here speaks for itself. As usual, when things got tough, the blog was sidelined. However, I am popping back up to assure you that I made it.

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I want to take a moment to thank all of my friends and colleagues for the time and energy they spent supporting me through the stress of those last few weeks and months of what seemed like perma-crisis mode. I can only hope that our many celebrations were worth it. I still have a backlog of posts I want to write about my last few weeks/months in Paris – to tell you all about the museums, trips and meals I was able to squeeze in before leaving.

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My story has, in practical terms, come full circle. From California, to Boston, to Paris and back again. Emotionally, however, it is a very different story. I left here at age 22, naïve and idealistic with a list of things I wanted to accomplish in my life that, at the time, seemed to equate to happiness. I return, almost 12 years later, a bit more jaded, much more confidant and knowing that crossing goals off of a list in itself is not necessarily success.

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I learned so much about myself living in Paris. Despite all of it’s beauty and splendor, it is not an easy place to feel at home – especially living alone and not exactly speaking the language. I have a kind of innate confidence in me now – I moved there, I made it work – that no one can take away. Much of that came from learning how to share my ups and downs here. This blog gave me space to find a voice and foster my creativity, whether it was with my photos, crafting or a weeknight meal. More importantly, in this space I never felt alone. I am exceedingly thankful to each of you that read these words, especially those that dropped a kind comment now and then to reinforce that, despite thousands of miles, there are ways we can all remain connected and close.

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After all of my international travel and adventures, I am excited to be reinventing myself again, this time with the backdrop of San Diego and the support of my friends and family. I have started a Researching San Diego blog – you can find it here. It may be a bit less exotic of a locale, but there is so much to explore, in the city and throughout California (plus, those last few Paris posts will be posted there soon!). I hope you all will join me for the new adventures yet to come.

Thank you.

Much Love.

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Time. Is. Flying. Literally.

Luckily for me, in this moment, it is turning in my favor. I am currently jetting westward (and gaining a much needed few hours) for a quick weekend in Washington DC to celebrate the marriage of two wonderful friends with all of the rest of the crew from graduate school. There will be much laughter, dancing, excellent food and wine (there is no one’s taste that I trust more than the bride-to-be) and, for me, it will be a tantalizing few days among loved ones to remind me what I have been pushing for in the last several months.

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If you have been counting (and I know I have), I am quickly approaching my few remaining days in Paris. In fact, I am only slightly more than a week away from my last day in the lab and only two weeks away from flying westward again, only this time on a one-way ticket.

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To say I have been overwhelmed would be a laughable understatement. The quest(s) I set out for myself mid-summer – to be insatiable in my appetites, for the sights and food of Paris, as well as for scientific discovery (that was the completion of not one, but two, papers on the to-do list) were, in hindsight, not particularly realistic. However, I have done my best, which is the most anyone can do, non? I have cajoled friends and family into joining me at various museums and boat cruises, I have lunged at every edible (and drinkable) delight with reach (and some that were not) and I have put in hours upon hours at the lab, to some success (thankfully).  Yet, with each goal that gets crossed-off the “master to-do list(s)”, somehow something/place new gets tagged on.

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For someone like me, anxious, optimistic, borderline OCD – my 15 pages (yes, count ‘em) of to-do lists that I carry in an unassuming, appropriately wine-colored notebook weigh heavier on my conscience each day. There are moments when I have Just. Had. To. Stop.

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I have had to force myself to breathe (mainly exhale) and sleep, perchance NOT to dream (as I do most nights) of endless last-minute things to do, deadlines somehow missed, and people left behind. So I have been stopping and stepping away from the sparkle of the city and the siren song of “one last experiment”. For a few hours (or, in some cases, days), I’ve run away from the obligations and the endless lists to just absorb time and simple pleasures with those people who mean the most.

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Recently this included a weekend getaway to Geneva (where most these photos were taken), to visit a friend who, while not seen often, fits me in patience, humor and philosophy, like a glove. We decided, taking a cue from the heavy rain clouds, to spend the weekend being still. We talked late into the night when the mood struck, and enjoyed amiable silence when that seemed more comfortable. We wrapped ourselves in blankets, drinking pot after pot of hot tea and speculated on when and how 2012 became a year of such change for us both. In fact, we left the house only twice the entire weekend – once to satisfy a craving for coffee and cake, as well as pick up indulgent amounts of cheese, and then again to walk it off – well, at least a little bit of it.

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I stepped back on the train to Paris refreshed. Of course, the 10 hours (plus!) of sleep each night did not hurt, but my renewal went beyond that. I am constantly amazed, with all the changes directly ahead of me, how easily I lose perspective.  How quickly I panic about not meeting admittedly unrealistic expectations, both those from others and those put on myself. How unforgiving I can be when I do not cross-off everything on the daily list.

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At least by being aware of this pattern, I can fight back – in the backhanded way I do. It might be easier, theoretically, to be more reasonable in my list-making or accepting when I realize that I actually do need sleep, but I have learned that it’s just not the way I roll (when I mentioned compulsive, I was not entirely joking).

Instead, I called in the troops – weekly apéros, dinners and movie nights with friends – to keep me laughing and to help me maintain that perspective. The best part? It’s working. I have had so much fun watching normally indifferent Parisians dig into their first Korean barbeque with wild abandon, or introducing Portuguese and Croatian co-workers to the genius of The Princess Bride. I only wish it has not taken such a dramatic deadline for me to realign my priorities.

Yet, there are moments in which the scope of starting over – again – still paralyzes me with fear (even though I am going home). Then I try to push away the fear and shake it off – time is flying and it is all I can do to just keep up. I launch myself forward, on trains and planes if necessary, towards friends and fun. All that other stuff on my lists? It’s going to have to figure out how to take care of itself. At least for the next few days.

Normandy (1) – Road Trip!

After four years of nagging, I was finally able to convince family to take the long haul flight from California and come visit. It was a wonderful opportunity to show off my adopted (for a bit longer) city and a great excuse to take some well-deserved time away from the lab to indulge in a bit of touristing myself.

It was also time to relax, talk long into the night, make tentative plans for visits post-return, sleep, fix stuff around the house (yay to visiting parents), and blog. Since their departure about a month ago, my blog posting frequency has tumbled and is now inversely proportional to the time I’ve spent in the lab – that is to say, I need to go back and read this post (written not so long ago) again and again until it is indelibly etched in my mind.

Rather than stay in Paris for my entire week off (they had arrived one week prior and seen many of the bigger attractions), we kicked off our exploration with a road trip to Normandy. This region of France, found northwest of Paris, is known (among other things) for its coastline (mmm, seafood), agriculture (mmm, butter) and cider (mmm, Calvados). Historically, this region has been under constant dispute, from the settlements of the Vikings in the 9th century, through many centuries of French-English tug-of-war, to the most recent battles between the Allied forces and Germany on D-Day during WWII.

I know now that there is so much more to see in Normandy then the three days I allotted for our trip, but within these limitations we planned to arrive by train from Paris and stay in Caen, rent a car to drive around the area, specifically aiming to see Mont Saint Michel and the American memorials at the D Day beaches, and spend any extra time we had exploring the countryside and local color.

After arriving on a direct train from Paris (2 hours from Gare Saint Lazare), we first spent some time poking around Caen. Unlike other nearby towns, like Bayeux, that were been spared from destruction during WWII, Caen was almost completely destroyed during the German retreat following the Allied landings in the weeks and months following D-Day. This made for a not-so-picturesque skyline of ancient cathedrals and utilitarian housing complexes with very few of the twisty, narrow medieval passageways I have come to love exploring. However, the city was long ago home to William the Conqueror. He built his stronghold here around 1060 and it still can be explored today.

Although the actual castle is long gone, its foundations are still visible and the walls around the fortress have been restored and stand high on the only hill in town. Additionally, within the keep there are two museums and a medicinal garden that is still populated with several herbs and plants known (or thought) to have healing properties. Perusing the garden, looking for plants I recognized and learning about those I did not was definitely interesting and educational. It was also slightly frightening to realize that there were more than a few poisonous plants hidden in there.

While I could not imagine having a car in Paris (and would never recommend it), I have missed the feeling of freedom that comes from knowing you can hop behind the wheel and get out of town at any time. The few times I have driven outside of the city, I have found the French countryside to be vast and beautiful. Besides the gradually undulating green hills and endless rows of grapevines (or apple trees, depending on your destination), my favorite part about getting on the road is spotting the ‘what’s special about the next town’ signs.

A few kilometers before the exit to each small village, you can find large, sepia-toned signs that illustrate what that town has to offer the adventurous visitor. I find it to be a fun way to get an idea of what the local region thinks should not be missed (giant oysters apparently) and not nearly as tacky as the standard American billboard. Here are a few of my favorites or, you know, ones I was able to catch in semi-focus from a moving vehicle:

(Vire, home to a castle and many delicious sausages)

(Villedieu-les-Poêles, a one-stop shop for all your pottery and bell needs)

(Bayeux – timbered homes and an amazing medieval tapestry)

In a completely spontaneous move, we decided to drive a bit north and explore the harbor town of Honfleur. My step-father is a big boat lover, so fitting in a visit to a local harbor town seemed like the only fair thing to do after all the medieval castles and churches into which I dragged him.

This tiny coastal town turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

The outer Honfleur harbor was home to fishing vessels, sailboats and super yachts in seemingly equal number and, after finding parking, we hurried towards them, following our noses to the ocean and only pausing to let the ocean breeze temporarily cool the effects of the blazing sun. We eventually turned back towards the center of town in search of dinner and came into the inner harbor area. Cut off from the open water by a narrow passage (and a low lying bridge that is raised for passing boats), this marina, jam-packed with sailboats, is surrounded tall, thin multi-colored buildings whose sidewalks are covered by terrace restaurants serving up overflowing buckets of moules and looked like it could have been taken directly from a fairy tale. It would not have surprised me to see a newly be-legged mermaid or beautiful bookworm swing, singing, out of any one of the vibrantly colored buildings surrounding the water.

After an early evening spent exploring the winding, narrow streets and deeply inhaling the ocean air, we sat down to dinner at one of the many restaurants ringing the small harbor area. My step-father chose salmon with a curry sauce, while I had the more traditional moules frites. We ate quietly, and I allowed myself to finally, genuinely relax – this was what vacation should be – a glass of cider next to the water, the last rays of sunshine peeking over the tops of colorful buildings, stimulating conversation, delicious food and great company.

A little stow-away crab in my mussels apparently agreed (do any of you out there know of this? They were in about 50% of the shellfish and I have never seen them before…)

Le Tour (In Images)

Each July the Tour de France ends it’s three-week journey in the heart of Paris, welcomed by enormous crowds, great fanfare and the intense, afternoon summer sun. This year I joined the throngs, arriving early and waiting patiently for the riders to arrive, earning me both an excellent vantage point at the Place de la Concorde, as well as a sunburn that is still peeling, two weeks later. Like any international event, the mix of spectators was worth the trek in its own right and, with a Brit in the lead, us Anglophones found yet another reason to bond together beyond the preference for speaking English – the roar that arose from our particularly American/British/Australian corner anytime the Sky team van (or riders) passed was deafening.

Here are some of my favorite images from that day.

The View: Hard to beat, close to the road with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Bring. It. On.

The P’tit Tour: young kids raced a partial lap around the Place de Concorde and the Champs-Élysées, fighting for their mini-yellow jersey. Great to see a girl take it all.

The Parade:  In reality, just a series of ‘floats’ by big Tour de France sponsors, they mostly featured young, beautiful people gyrating to throbbing pop music. They went by at relatively high speed, but still did the job of waking the crowd up, making us laugh and getting us ready for the riders to arrive.

(The yellow jersey leads off, naturally)

(Why yes, those are marshmallows roasting over a fire on top of that car)

(This cracked me up – especially the ones with the giant cigarette lighter or Bic razor perched on their roof)

(There is a man, wearing very little, thrusting inside of a translucent plastic cage in an effort to sell laundry detergent, in case you thought you were imagining things)

The Riders: For those not familiar with the route, after leaving their starting point of Rambouillet, the cyclists wind their way approximately 80km to the center of Paris, at which point they do several loops around Rue de Rivoli/ Champs-Élysées to finish the stage, ending with a mad sprint down the boulevard towards the finish line.

(First pass of the riders through Place de Concorde – the leader here…)

(…followed by those riders giving chase, already…)

(… and then by the beginning of the peloton, or ‘little ball’ of riders that make up the main pack – in fact, not ‘little’ at all)

(the main body of the peleton moving through – the clatter of these bikes across the cobblestones was louder than I would have ever expected)

(Using the 200x zoom lens to watch the peloton streak by the crowds on the opposite side of the Place de Concorde)

(Our view down Rue de Rivoli, as the riders make another pass; the British fans ready and waiting, as their men push forward).

 The Spectators – for the most part everyone was friendly and happy to be there. We met quite a few people who had been following the tour, stopping place by place along the entire route, which seemed like both an extensive commitment and a great excuse for a trans-European road trip all at the same time. This guy was the best of all – having a great time and more than willing to stop for a photo. With Bradley Wiggins clinching his victory (and the first for Britain), this walking Union Jack and his robust salutation of “Cheers!” to everyone that stopped to sneak a peak (or take an obvious photo) seemed the perfect way to end an exhausting and exhilarating afternoon.

Double Your Fun (Weekly Harvest)

My particular panier subscription is an annual deal, including 40-some-odd weeks of fresh produce (minus the spring, summer, and winter holidays, clearly). If I am out of town at any other time, I can elect to stop my delivery for a chosen week and get a double-dose of veggies the next time around.

I had planned to be in Tunisia for two weeks in late June as part of a workshop between our laboratory and collaborators in Egypt; however, with political tensions on the rise, our trip was cancelled at the last minute. Unfortunately, once changes have been made to the panier pick-up schedule, they are not reversible at the last minute. Sadly, this means that I missed out on the one week of cherries this season. The next week, though, I received an epic amount of produce (the photo above is 1/2 of the loot): six artichokes, two heads of lettuce, two large cucumbers, several zucchini, many, many apricots and two bags of waxy potatoes.

I have finally ‘discovered’ greek yogurt. Consider me a convert – I could (and maybe do) eat that stuff morning, noon and night. It was the perfect partner for those apricots for breakfast (remind me to do this the next time I get stuck with interminable quantities of kiwi). In order to not let any of my take go to waste, I also established a dinner routine – steamed artichokes and salads every night for a week. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ‘choke, but let’s just say that we’re taking some time apart after this binge.

With the first half of the zucchini, I decided to try my hand at making Ratatouille. For the first time, I actually looked up a recipe for this quintessential Provençal dish. Turns out, it is quite similar to the vegetable stew I have been making for years. Cleary, no one can deny the deliciousness of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and zucchini stewed together, nor the irony of me going immediately out to buy even more vegetables to make this dish. It was warm and hearty directly out of the pot, but was even better a day or two later, making for great weekday lunches.

With the remaining squash, I could not wait to make this pasta. Ann’s post perfectly captured the sense of comfort that food can bring when all else seems unsure and out of control. As I had been feeling a little overwhelmed with big decisions and overwhelming to-do lists, her simple, filling recipe made a perfect weeknight meal. Her trick of using egg + parmesan + a bit of pasta water to make a quick binding ‘sauce’ has now become commonplace in my kitchen for any vegetable-based pasta dish.

Cucumbers just don’t do it for me – most of the time they are just soggy and bland with very little redemptive value. Because of this, I am normally at a complete loss for what to do with them, let alone in excessive numbers (for me, two is excessive). Enter this recipe – not only did it use both potatoes and cucumbers, but it was an easy sell. In tzatziki form, I could eat innumerable cucumbers and love every minute. I was not disappointed. Not only did I find a go-to dip that I am excited to bring to every BBQ, football game, and picnic in the near future, but in combination with the potatoes, a few green olives and feta, the salad jumped to the top of my favorite summer foods list. I had to stop myself from eating it with a wooden spoon, directly out of the mixing bowl. Later I just pretended that all that cucumber, dill and yogurt made it a perfect (if not supremely healthy) choice for lunches in the emerging summer sunshine.

Timing is Everything

(Empty dining room of Lost Society, site of pop-up dinner)

Sometimes you end up in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. Such was the case with a visit to Washington, D.C. in late February. I had traveled to the Florida for the wedding of a close friend, and decided to take a few more days to travel up the coast to DC to visit a few more friends before heading back across the pond. Upon returning from the wedding I received an email from Catherine, a now-DC friend (and editor of the wonderful Edible DC) whom I had first gotten to know when she interned at Paris by Mouth, “Have to go to this tomorrow night for work. Care to go??”

(Bouillabaisse with chorizo, mussel juice, kaffir lime leaves and hot cream; cocktail – champagne)

What she referred to as a duty was, in reality, a multi-course pop-up dinner, complete with matching cocktails and only 13 other diners plus the chef, who was using this format to test out new menu options for a restaurant in development. There was never a question of my attending. I flew in, dropped off my bags and hailed a taxi just as fast as my little legs (and DC traffic) would let me.

(Roasted sunchoke, blackened onion aioli, Arbois foam; cocktail – gin with vermouth, peach bitters and caramelized grapefruit zest )

Summed up? It was more than worth every harried minute. Dinner was extraordinary, the cocktails creative and perfectly paired with the flavors of the food, the company delightful and the chef, Aaron Silverman, down-to-earth, humble and excited about his cuisine. He was especially generous with permissions for photos and details about the preparation and ingredients of the food itself. I scrambled to record his descriptions on my iPhone and to get the best photos possible in the low light of the lounge restaurant our group had taken over for the evening. I promised, at the end of the night, that I would write all of this up, including the photos and email it around to the staff and guests ASAP.

(Dungeness crab, artichoke, sabayon, dill)

And then there are those moments in which you find yourself at exactly the wrong place at the precisely the wrong time. One week after returning from DC, while riding the metro home from work (at a completely reasonable hour and on a ‘safe’ line, I promise), I was mugged. My iPhone was snatched from my grasp and yanked out of the car, taking me along with it, as I was still connected by the big, nerdy headphones that Parisians – and now me – favor. The thief and I tussled on the train platform before he was able to break the cord connecting us and run off. I spun around, discombobulated and feeling not a little violated. The other passengers stood still and silent, necks bent out of the open car doors and windows from where they had watched our fight. It was not until my shoulders slumped in defeat and I got back on the waiting car that they all started speaking at me, at once, commiserating and exclaiming how awful the crime in the city has gotten – although not one of them had stepped out to help me only a few minutes before.

(Caramelized cauliflower with greek yogurt, country ham, truffled breadcrumbs and raisin purée; cocktail – Calvados, ghost and habenero pepper-infused, brown sugar, lemon juice and zest, i.e. AMAZING)

A few days later I sat down, my (mostly) optimistic outlook restored to finally record my amazing DC meal and realized that all of my notes from that night were gone. Lost, along with the rest of what I had stored in that machine, which had become a notepad, address book, music collection, photo repository (oh, the FFFFPs that I had for you all!) and phone all rolled into one. Dejected and angry, I kept questioning myself: Why did I sit right next to the metro door making me such an easy target? Where was all that self-defense training when I actually needed it? Feeling disappointed all over again, I put the photos and the beginnings of my post away.

(‘Caesar salad’, fried brussels sprouts, parmesan and caesar dressing; cocktail – rye whiskey, tamarind, brown sugar syrup, allspice, lemon)

Miraculously, just a few weeks ago, I was poking around my email account – looking for an old, unrelated message when I realized that, somehow, all of my iPhone notes had been synched by Gmail. This included all the details and contacts from Aaron’s amazing dinner, as well as my optimized pattern for the perfect knit beer coozy, clearly two priceless recoveries. Good on you Apple and Google – I know you both are tracking my every move, charting my personality for advertising purposes and probably invading my privacy in ways I cannot even begin to understand, but for today I am totally A-OK with that. Under my nose, in an attempt to make my life easier, you had stored up all those notes and thoughts I had made and, by doing so, brought back the memory of one of the best meals I have eaten in recent memory. Sweet.

(Chilaquiles, Modelo especial) 

(Menudo, roast pork and tripe)

In reality, all credit for this meal go to Catherine (for the invite) and Aaron (for the chef-ery). As I thought I had lost Aaron’s email – I have not kept in touch – but am hoping that the arrival of this much belated post in his inbox will gain me an update on how those restaurant plans are progressing.

(Cheese course, mini monte cristo with housemade raspberry jam)

To all my DC folk – if there is the possibility, please seek this one out. He knows his way around the kitchen and and has a great time with it. It is more-than-about time that I owe him a thank you. Maybe we can all make the trek together when I return to DC in October?

(Apple pie, Ritz cracker ice cream, Ritz crumbles, caramel, roasted apples, apple syrup, Cabot cheddar)

(Aaron (left) and Co. after the dinner, deservedly smiling) 

FFFFP on Vacation – Mont Saint-Michel

I am a fan of catching FFFFPs while on vacation (or wandering around particularly touristy places) – I can turn my camera directly towards them and they are either so caught up taking in the sights themselves, or do not question my aim.
While in Normandy, my stepfather and I stopped to have lunch at one of the many crêperies that line the windy street climbing Mont Saint Michel. Our patience in waiting (and trying to catch the eye of the host – an impossibility if they do not want to see you) was rewarded with a window table overlooking both the bay and an outlook on the defensive wall where visitors stopped to marvel at the speed of the ebbing tide.

I had my camera out anyways, in preparation to record our meal (I think anyone who travels with me must quickly get tired of this routine) – and I am so lucky I did. If not, we may have missed one of the best FFFFPs I have ever had the good luck to catch for posterity (made even more inexcusable and flabbergasting when you are reminded that this was taken at a holy pilgrimage site – one that has been standing for more than 1000 years). I was at the time (and still remain) without words. Seriously. However, The Boyfriend was capable of coherent thought and summed it up perfectly:

“What the actual f*&%?

MOM, put on some pants!”

 And, that was before she did this:

The only things left to the imagination after this are:

1) What type of caftan did she whip out of that tiny bag to actually gain entrance to the church at the top of the mountain?

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2) What will it be like looking through vacation photos now, and in years to come, as one of those children?