Cakes, spectacles, and jobs oh my!

Yesterday was awesome. Excuse my lack of eloquence, but there’s just no beating around the bush- it was simply awesome. Here’s why:

1. In spite of feeling lackluster and daunted by the idea of spending the afternoon speaking in French (still working on my fear of immersing myself in the language), I decided to help my friend make a birthday cake. And boy am I glad that I did. Not only was it a fun-filled afternoon with a French friend, but also an educational experience chock-full of vocabulary, and a French Baking 101 session.

You see, I learned how to make un Gâteau au Yaourt, a yogurt cake, one that French children master when they’re five. 1 point for France. Americans are lucky if they know how to make brownies from a box by age five.

But let’s talk cake. This was one of the best ways to ease into French baking, especially for me (context alert- I am the WORST baker. Seriously. I once turned boxed brownies into a brick slab, though to be fair my crazy vegan roommate told us that we could use oil as a substitute for eggs- this is FALSE).

The reason this cake is so wonderful for an American like me, or a novice French cake baker, is that all the measurements are in un pot, aka the convenience of a yogurt container.
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Time of Thanks

As I’ve said before about Living Abroad, I find that my holiday convictions are especially strong when I’m far away from home. This year has proved to be not much different from the last. I’ve planned with fellow Americans weeks in advance, scoured super marches for items that could be feastworthy, and even requested a care package from home- which turned out to be a fully stocked surprise. Moms are the best:

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So much deliciousness

It’s amazing how at times like these, the smallest things bring me joy. When I discovered Ritz crackers at Carrefour, I could barely contain my excitement, or avoid the awkward isle stares of, “C’est qui- this strange cracker enthused fille?” But I didn’t care. I was one step closer to creating a real green bean casserole.

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They actually exist in France!

When I finally baked the pumpkin bread yesterday, I was surprised by how a simple taste or smell could instantly transport me home. And by how much happiness the delightful taste of cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin could provide. This time of year Americans are inundated with pumpkin flavor and scents- pumpkin candles, lattes, breads, pies…I guess even commercial traditions work their way into your psyche. Because having pumpkin flavors and scents brought me far too much joy. I was happy to share with my student as we discussed thanksgiving traditions, and how the holiday has changed over time. And I was happy to come home to an apartment filled with the aroma of fresh-baked goods and spiced pumpkin. Oh the simple pleasures. Continue reading

Time of Traditions

Happy (belated) Halloween!

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Though Spring takes the lead for my favorite season, I must say that this time of the year brings me immense joy. It’s the time of traditions.

First of all, there’s Halloween (which is then followed by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years). And while I generally don’t like horror movies, gore and the whole being scared out of your mind thing (I have an overactive imagination ok?), I LOVE Halloween. And what’s not to love? Gore aside, there are friends, fun, decoration, candy, and above all creativity. I’ll take any excuse to exercise creativity, gather with friends, and don a costume

…and binge on succulent sweets (the chocolate addict in me cannot lie).

I usually start brainstorming somewhere around summer, using the following months to piece the costume together, and adding details only an OCD person would notice. I blame my mom with all her infinite creativity. I had a homemade costume almost every year, and by 4th grade, I was making my own. Plus, my neighborhood was THE neighborhood for trick or treating. Haunted sidewalks, spooky backyard mazes, and webbed front porches became the norm during the weeks before Halloween. The bar was set high and I wanted to keep it that way. Continue reading

On Living Abroad

It’s funny how living abroad makes you hold on to things from home more than you usually would. I’ve visited, backpacked, studied and stayed with friends abroad, but living in another country has created a shift in my mentality especially as my life becomes increasingly intertwined with something that was once so foreign.

More often than not, when travelling I would let go of my “americansims”, try to quiet down, blend in, learn a little language, taste the local foods, and do as the locals. When Bush was president, and I was backpacking through Europe, I didn’t dare utter that I was Texan. I almost told people I was Canadian in an effort to avoid the Bush shame. But when you live in a place and your idea of home starts to shift, you find pieces of your identity, pockets of your home and covet it like an irrational gollum creature.

“Damn right I’m from Texas!”

“Of course we’re celebrating Halloween…and Thanksgiving…and Christmas, and Valentines- ALL the celebratory American occasions!!!”

“What do you mean they don’t have triple sec? What kind of godforsaken land is this?!”

“I finally found black beans!! They actually exist!! Don’t touch! My precious….”

…You don’t want to imagine the greedy hoarding that would take place if I found refried beans. Continue reading

I’ve Missed The Wildflowers

Bike riding down dusty paths, exploring cobblestone tops of old castles, seeking warmth under the sand with my bare feet, and stopping to smell the wildflowers. Amazingly enough these are not memories from my childhood, but rather the foundation of my quarter century start.

I was fortunate enough to celebrate my 25th birthday in the South of France. The remaining assistants and I stayed in a big local house (thanks to airbnb) in the quaint, but difficult to pronounce, town of Villeneuve les Maguelone. Situated close to protected beaches and accessible to Montpellier, it was the perfect introduction to summer in the South (hoping to have a whole Southern France section of this blog later).

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The tiny town was quiet and not accustomed to seeing non-French tourists, which made for authentic experiences. The roads were bikeable and the old church by the beach was intimate with it’s vineyard, medical services, and sweet scents of jasmine wafting from the botanical garden. The beaches were not overcrowded, and the inhabitants moved slower through the small, interwoven streets and smiled more often than the non verbal Montbeliardans I’d become familiar with. It was a welcome change.

The area made it convenient for day trips to France’s 8th largest city and an old Medieval town- Montpellier and Aigues-Mortes. Though my time in Montpellier was short, it took only a small sliver time to make a big impression. I will definitely be returning.

Containing an old Medieval town within its walls and a colorful salt marsh just outside, Aigues-Mortes was unique to say the least. Winding through the old streets, observing with intrigue at the Medieval festival, and climbing through the castle brought back a rush of delightful freedom and a sense of wonder.

Wonderfully enough this trip entering adulthood sent me back to memories from my childhood. The warm weather, the smells of spring, and the simple pleasures of hearing waves rolling, or tasting hard-boiled eggs in a homemade sandwich were refreshing. And then there were the wildflowers. Oh how I missed the wildflowers. As we drove away from the Alps of Grenoble and the terrain became increasingly more flat and dry (reminding me more and more of Austin), I was surprised to feel my heart swell with childlike glee at the sight of wildflowers. I can’t believe it’s been years since I’ve seen them like that. Years since I’ve seen them in full bloom, taking over masses of earth, and tangling with each other in bursts of colorful confusion. No wonder the painters headed down South. Oh I’ve seen flowers. I might have been deprived of Spring in the spastic Boston weather, but I’ve still seen flowers. But there was something particularly breath taking about seeing the wildflowers- to see their color dominating fields, sides of roads, and cracks of walls. Or maybe it was because encapsulated in their passionate forms, they held pieces of home, of familiarity, of a time filled with innocence and memories of simple pleasures.

Or maybe they were just on my mind because of my Grandma’s quirkiness. During one phone conversation prior to the beach, she blurted, “The bluebonnets are blooming.” To which I responded, “Oh. That’s so nice. I miss the bluebonnets.” As images of their blue bodies floated through my mind and I realized just how much I missed them, my grandma interrupted with West Texan urgency, “No, no, no! That’s our code word.” “Our what?!” “Our code word. If anything happens. You say ‘The bluebonnets are blooming,’ and you’ll have a ticket home!” “Grandma. What would I need a code word for?” “I don’t know if something were to happen. If Antoine were to go bad or you were in a situation that required a code word.” As if I’m living in some hostile territory or dating some operative that could turn on me at any moment.

Needless to say that took the innocence out of the moment. My grandma is worth a blog post of her own- several for that matter. She is a character, a force to be reckoned with, and a whole lot of crazy who I completely admire.

Code words aside, it was nice to be reminded of simple things. It was nice to recharge with spring, with sun and especially with the wildflowers.

Holidays are here

Love these ornaments

I cant believe it’s here. That time of madness where you eat way too much, drink (maybe not enough), question the sanity of the people around you, laugh abundantly, and by the first day of the new year wonder, where did all that time go?

Halloween came and went and before I knew it, so did Thanksgiving. This past Saturday marked the start of the Noel Marche and santas now adorn marche corners and Christmas trees decorate every street. Being that this is the first time I’m out of the country during ‘holiday season’, instead of doing like the French, I’ve apparently made extra efforts to hold on to my holiday traditions. I even yelled at my Dad and told him I was ‘offended’ after learning that they almost had a Chinese take out Thanksgiving. Why would they do such a thing when there are perfectly good cranberries and canned pumpkins waiting to be feasted on?!

After learning that my students hadn’t even heard about Thanksgiving, I promptly instructed them to do like the preschoolers and make a hand turkey. Of course, we delved deeper into things that they are thankful for (making extra emphasis on the “th” that is oh so difficult for frenchies), but really they seemed more interested in the hand turkey. Oh highschoolers. Computers, sports, video games, friends and good food seemed to be the top contenders. I did however, have a few interesting and thoughtful “I am thankful for” statements, mothers, family, teachers being amongst them, but my personal favorite was “I am thankful for american assistants”. True, I had written down that I’m thankful for French students (because without them where would I be?), but I’ll take what I can get!

Where did fall go?

I attempted to delve into the controversies of Thanksgiving and discuss the perspective of Native Americans, but being that they were confused about “what is a Pilgrim” and “why do you play football on this day” and “why do you have a Friday that is black”, it proved to be a bit difficult. And trying to translate the food into French was a feat in and of itself. Nonetheless trying to create a Thanksgiving feast in France.

But my fellow Americans and I rallied together, found a big assed supermarche and bought way too much. It’s beginning to look a lot like Thanksgiving.

Working with what we can

We cooked all morning, improvising with a lack of cooking materials and utensils. We even reconstituted dried cranberries with rum and water. Amazingly enough after some boiling and cinnamon seasoning they turned out quite well. Ilka, Diego and our newest Brittish addition, Lise-Marie all joined for the feast and were quite surprised with the spread. We toasted with things of thanks and lots of eye contact (according to the French it’s seven years bad sex if you cheers without it). Afterwards, the fattened Americans plopped on the air mattress, rolling around like full bellied sea lions, while the people who know how to feast without stuffing themselves, started cleaning. At least they got an authentic idea of what happens. We consume. This is the time of consumption.

At one point one of the non-American assistants asked us, “How is this different than Christmas?” We all looked at each other and at first said, “It’s not.” But after awhile I stopped to say that generally Thanksgiving has a greater emphasis on family time. Sure you have the football, the food, and the parade, but for me it was always about getting together with the family and taking a bit of time to stop and appreciate. Of course Christmas is also a time of family, but too often its emphasis gets buried under the presents. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the over the top present tradition my family has somehow grown accustomed to, but I do feel like Americans especially can get lost this time of year.

I have the fondest memories of piling our presents on top of the car, as Dad drove 8 dangerous hours across icy roads to Lubbock, Texas, and feeling that sense of happiness (and relief) when we made it and Grandma was ecstatically greeting us at the door in her satin nightgown. To me, Christmas is the excitement of an inch of snow as it glitters under the street lamp at night, unwrapping the mystery ornament from last year’s swap, the bowl of velvetta mac and cheese that Gran Gran would make especially for us kids (even though she was an excellent cook), the half eaten cookies and letters from Santa that we eventually recognized as Mom’s handwriting, the hours of bickering over which tree to chop down, but the warm peace that came with finding the tree and celebrating with home made cookies and hot coco, the hay bale king of the mountain wars that Mom always tried to win, the forced but fun caroling, the endless laughter (and tests of sanity) that comes with being around family for 72+ hours straight, the games that usually ended in competitive arguments, and the smiles (and sometimes tears) that evolved from thoughtfulness.

It’s going to be strange not to be around this year. But as my mom said at least I’ve got a “Christmas ambassador” (Dad) coming my way.

Though many Christians might like to deny it, Christmas is linked to the pagan traditions surrounding the winter solstice. And ultimately, the common thread of the holidays at this time are tied to finding ways to bring light to the dark. So I guess as the madness descends, I’d like to detox once again and be thankful for all the wonderful memories I’ve had and for what I have now. I want to find ways to illuminate the dark. 

But don’t worry. You’re still getting presents from France.