ovenless friday

 

My roommate broke a rib while he was boxing in a competition last weekend. He’s on painkillers now and sometimes I can be a recluse in our too-small-to-be-reclusive apartment: the combination must be kind of bewildering to come home to and so I thought I’d take a school break to come home and pan-bake some cookie variation to make both of us feel better. He doesn’t know that I have a blog, or a penchant for taking pictures of the food I later convince him to eat.

These are coconut-nutella blini cookies — I need to go back to class now.

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give-take

I figured out how to open my skylight this morning. The night that I moved in here in January, I discovered a door that I hadn’t noticed before which closed off our section of the hallway at the fourth floor landing. It was locked that night and adorned with a scraggly piece of notebook paper which had a freshly-inked message that ordered me to keep that door shut because of recent theft. Recent…what? My roommate told me that the night before, our across-the-hall neighbour had left his skylight open, only to have someone hop down into his room and steal some things in the middle of the night. I was horrified and considered buying bars to contain my meagre exchange-student two-suitcases-worth of belongings. But now it’s March, the sun is shining, and despite reports of another descent into freezing weather this Thursday, for the moment I’m feeling a warm breeze shift the air in my room for the first time.

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The view from the balcony of Tignerant

 

The past few weeks here have been deep and sometimes exhausting learning experiences. During my winter vacation after spending the weekend in Nice, I traveled just east of Lyon and spent five days living in a big beautiful old farmhouse with six other people. I helped out doing what I could with them in the mornings – de-shelling walnuts (called a soirée grommailles)  trimming trees, helping with greenhouse construction, or working with them at the farmers’ market that they participate in- and spending the afternoons exploring, breathing fresh air, cooking, hiking… it was my first time wwoofing, and I am still astonished by how much it meant to me.

Just before my winter vacation, in an effort to absorb every angle of life here, I walked into a restaurant along the Saône and asked them to let me work with them for the semester. The owners glanced at each other, looked at me, my freshly translated/recreated CV and said, Sure, start on Friday? I was all set to work for a few months doing basically volunteer work in a restaurant that sourced all of its food from a local farm. It was my cup of ideals-tea. I missed making things. I miss having an oven here, I miss a big house of roommates, I even missed hours bantering with chefs behind the counters where I’m used to working back in Montreal. I wanted to beat the rest of the exchange students, wanted to settle in here and formulate a pattern of life to avoid looking like I was taken with life here, too excited, too eager.

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The most incredible oven I will ever use- un four à bois, seen here covered with some sunday morning squash cake and pancakes.

After all, I have spent these months reacting to this feeling of gratitude. It took me the harsh contrast of an internship/job in a restaurant with a week spent on a farm to realize that I don’t need to force myself to give back to this place in the ways that I am accustomed to. I haven’t felt a deeper sense of this gratitude- of wordless, peaceful, joyful gratitude- in a long time. I am overwhelmed with the welcome, the openness of the people who I have here and the pleasure they take in sharing with me. I’m lucky to be here and lucky to have a sense of myself that directs me to tables of people full of stories and laughter and things that seem storybook in telling but in reality, are sharp and human and feel brilliant to partake in. I’m not sure how I feel about accepting the fact that this really is a cultural experience, but guess what! It is! And I’m just going to focus on taking everything in here, letting this be natural.

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Dinner chez Tignerant- moules-frites, homemade

It’s rainy now and I’m drinking tea, plotting a few weekend adventures, dreaming about May days when it’s warm and we’re hiking somewhere beautiful.

In the meantime, I made an excellent almond apple cake while I was away. Actually – I made two, because I was baking for about 10 people. I also made those pancakes, because – I believe I’ve mentioned this – pancake knowledge is an incredible asset here. I make up a different recipe every time (those had squash in them, can you tell?) and no one’s caught me yet!

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almond-apple cake, right before it disappeared

southbound, and summer will come one day soon

For a second, I think I forgot that February anywhere is a terrible sort of month. But then! But then-

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Seaside in Monaco

But then all of a sudden, there’s sunshine. I’m bitter for a half a second because the rain and cold stopped me yesterday from jumping into the sea with my semi-game Austrian friend, then it made us into human slushies of silly string, confetti and Carnaval music. We wind along the Côte d’Azur and it’s Sunday and it’s morning and there’s sunlight and I’m in between Nice and Monaco and I realize that winter can be a state of mind erased in the shock of the seaside in sunlight, the moment of “Oh, I’m here.”

I’m bowled over with gratitude and speechless for a moment- how can I really see everything if I’m talking? – and when we finally arrive in Monaco for the afternoon I find myself full of sun and clouds, trailing up through the old city, ignoring the tourist shops, eating obligatory crepes and learning about life in Austria from new friends. I’m still amazed that places like this exist and that I am here to see it all. I forget the rain, the cold, the wet socks, and instead am just eyes-wide-open-present. The sharp wind makes my eyes water, makes me blink more, makes me see everything clearly.

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Dreamy socca in Nice

As usual, no visit to a new place here is complete without trawling through a new marketplace. The central Niçois market was rainy, was full of flowers and over-priced fruit, soaps from Marseille and some radishes that thrilled my friend and confused me. Open minds! but the shining moment was tasting real socca- chickpea flatbread that I’ve got a habit of making with excellent company in Montreal. Thereza made it over a metal barrel filled with hot coals and gave me probably a quarter of that whole pan. Thank you, you made my weekend.

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For my hungry wallflower: Mama Thereza told me that this was the best piece.

This weekend, I glimpsed what warmth will be like in this country. For a moment, I peeled back snow and frost from the landscape and saw, nestled below, castle ruins and a brand-new seaside, pebbly beaches and flowers trawling over ancient fortified walls. When the snow melts for good, I will come back to these places, so famous for their sunshine, to sit on the beach and eat more of Thereza’s socca, walk up to the ruins, jump in the sea, hike the summer Alps, walk to Spain if I’m industrious, and swim swim swim…

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The mediterranean! in the middle of winter, in the middle of rainfall, and look how glorious

I’m so happy to know that it’s almost March; soon the sun will come out and I’ll be here when it does. I’m coming back for these big beautiful mountains, those yawning oceans, for the figs and soap stands and lavender fields and the vineyards and the forest walks.

In the meantime, it’s winter vacation for me and I’m heading off for a week of relaxing and laundry and catching up on class work (maybe) then Switzerland and finally, surprise! a few days on a small farm in the Haute-Savoie region just east of Lyon. For now though, just laundry…