Monday, March 26, 2012

Printemps à Paris

Time for rebirth, recommitment, and ratatouille.

My walk home down Rue Montmartre
Something about spring is always a reminder of just how much there is to do, and just how little time I have to do it. This has been especially true this year, as Paris sheds its wet, grey winter coat for daffodils and crocuses, shyly turning their faces toward the sun, and perfect spongy green buds appear on every tree. The urge to frolic about is everywhere: in the Tuileries, where about 5,000 dogs spend the afternoon giving each other (and small children) canine hickeys while ice cream vendors line the walkways, doling out testicle-sized portions charming cones of carmel salée; at work, where our café pauses have moved into the gardens of the Palais Royale; walking newly discovered neighborhoods well into the mild evening. Even the grouchy bibliothécaires at the BnF appear more at ease. On my winding route to work, restaurants' sunlit tables on their little metal legs and open-doored boulangeries smelling of flaky croissants and lemony tartelettes beckon. It takes almost all of my self control to walk inside and take a seat at the library, and by the looks of the crestfallen students around me, pulling their sweaters back on as they open their books and computers, I don't think I'm alone.

Tick Tick Tock!

All of which is to say that the research clock, which has been gently whirring away in the background, is now a loud, faulty pacemaker of a thing. Three months! it screams when I lay down at the end of a less-than-productive day. 2 months! Finish! Finish! Vas-y! (Spoiler alert 1: I am never going to finish).    

If anything, it seemed like an inopportune time to go back to the blog, when there were 10,000 reasons not to be harnessed to a computer. But while sitting outside and eating a savory, buttery Breton galette working diligently through nineteenth-century texts at l’Institut National d’Histoire de l'Art, I realized that I’ve learned a tremendous amount and still wanted to share aspects of my life here. If for no other reason, I can look back on them when I’m a depressed suburban soccer mom wondering what the hell happened as a textual and photographic record of the year.

Spring on the Seine!
The months since November have been marked by great academic and creative transitions. A change in university advisors has given my research a fresh new direction, and helped me become a more understanding and flexible student. I've gotten better at navigating the French library system, and learned a few of the tricks to getting the sources that are suddenly, inexplicably "inaccessible" on the day specifically set aside to view them (spoiler alert 2: should you find flirting objectionable for any reason, crying in fact does work). Grace à those hour-long French lunches – and my colleagues' tremendous patience – speaking colloquially has become much easier. Meanwhile, I've learned a tremendous amount from a family of poets and writers through groups like Spoken Word in Paris, The Other Writers' Group, and Ivy Writers Paris.

In the next few weeks, I’m hoping to cover the following, and more: research and research institutions, being Jewish in France, French politics with the upcoming election (and more generally, some French policies vis-à-vis American ones), why I am a hard-core rive droite enthusiast, Paris' rich poetry scene, and plans for making France, and her food, a long-term part of my life. 

The Place des Victoires,
perfect for an evening stroll home.
In the spirit of recommitting, I wanted to share something I've felt deeply all along, because – while completely contestable – it's one of the reasons I've loved this year. Paris feels safer than many of the U.S. cities I've experienced, including St. Louis and Detroit, two of the nearest and dearest to my heart. Is this in part because my mentality about walking around at night like a real grown up has changed during this year? Yes. Absolutely. Am I still hella cautious and aware of my surroundings? Yes, especially after a few missed metros and harrowing walks home. But after multiple friends, both male and female, agreed with this sentiment, I thought it was worth mentioning. What are some reasons? I asked a friend who was staying in Paris for a week of research. She felt that, at its core, the issue came down to gun violence and gun control (gun control in France is very restrictive). And while I think that is part of the answer, I also think that fear, and specifically fear of the other as a national mindset, has a great deal to do with it. In the span of one month, there have been at least two polarizing hate crimes committed in different areas of the United States, a siege on woman's reproductive rights in more than 5 states, and partisan attacks based on fear tactics rather than fact. While France is certainly not above any of these – given the recent shooting in Toulouse and its direct effect on French politics, and violent acts often committed with anti-immigrant sentiment  – walking around the city well into the evening does have a different feeling to it...and dare I say, one I could get used to.          

On a happier note, from the kitchen...

Everyone and their brother knows how to make ratatouille, but it is one of my favorite dishes:

Makes 4 servings

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 yellow or red onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
5 sundried tomatoes, cut into strips or diced
6-8 green or black olives, pitted and minced 
1 tsb. of the following: basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 medium eggplant, peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
2 zucchini, or 1 zucchini and 1 yellow squash, cubed
2 green, red, or yellow peppers, diced
1 1/2 cups of white or red wine (drinking from the bottle whilst cooking greatly improves the recipe)
2 14 oz. can diced tomatoes in juice
As much shaved, grated, or crumbled cheese as you want (chevre, ricotta salata, pecorino, manchego, parmesan, gruyere, emmental work best)

In a large soup pot, saute the onion, garlic and herbs in the oil over medium heat. As they are browning, add to them the olives and sundried tomatoes; saute for another minute or so and add the tomatoes in juice, wine, and eggplant. Leave the mixture uncovered at a simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Throw in the zucchini and peppers, and simmer for another 15 minutes or until everything is tender.

Top with cheese and serve with bread, brown rice, faro, pasta...any grain.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Research & Recipes

It’s that time of year again. The sun goes to the other end of the world. A break in the thick, low-hanging clouds is a rarity; a whole half-day of sun happens maybe once a week. People scuttle from their jobs to their homes. Summer’s throng of tourists thins out, and the ones that remain walk faster and take fewer pictures. Windows are closed; radiators are turned on. The damp, taunting chill of impending winter is everywhere, walking the boulevards and taking the last metro home, where it becomes the ultimate monster under the bed.

Yes, my friends. Squash and soup season. When research and cooking are quite possibly at their best. While there remains a strong desire to venture outside to go shopping experience the life of the mind through Paris’ myriad cultural institutions, the city is now endlessly gray and wet, and sitting in an art library for long hours of research or delving into a juicy secondary source while soup simmers on the stove becomes infinitely easier.

Fall cooking has long been my favorite. In college, our brothel apartment (8 women! 1 stove!) was a rotating door of recipes and their accompanying aromas, and fall brought the most exciting: roasting root vegetables, squash and bean soups,* spice cookies, all sorts of savory casseroles; even a Thanksgiving turducken. Add a few recipes (and a new obsession with leeks!), take out the turducken, and I’m set for fall in any city.

Research, too, has transitioned into high gear. Despite my home away from home in Paris' spoken word scene, art history is what actually brought me here. And slowly, I’ve been reminded of the exhilarating academic chase (and catch, if we’re going to go with that metaphor): the careful working and reworking of a project, endless discoveries, questions that probe at the innermost parts of me, and the huge, warm and tingly, whole-body nerdgasms along the way. We're not going to talk about the utterly anticlimactic days. 
Lithograph of Fauveau's work (BnF)
Working with the art historical mafia several nineteenth-century French art historians, I've set out to understand more about the artist Félicie de Fauveau, who spent her life depicting women as heroic and holy, abhorred men and the principle of marriage, was exiled for political treason, and had a little somethin somethin corresponded passionately with several powerful female figures. She also supported her mother and brother on her earnings as a sculptor, and was able to carve out a very specific circle of patrons. Oh, and she cast a dagger inspired by Romeo & Juliet. Metaphallic?
The original badass, right!?!? Except she wasn’t. Far from the Belle Époque’s pétroleuses or writers of early feminist periodicals, she supported the Monarchy in a time of revolution, believing that the true ruler was legitimated by God. Kind of a proto-lesbian Emma Bovary meets Michelle Bockmann, but smart artistically motivated. That her deep nostalgia for the past (including an unfortunate affinity for Feudalism...) was communicated through the style troubadour and some über romantic works may not be surprising, but it does raise questions about women, French [proto-]feminism, power structure in the Monarchy, and the success of her sculpture as a form of social protest.

And that is where I am. Asking a lot of questions, reading even more in hopes of answers. In the kitchen, there is a new pot of soup on the stove. I’m off to go check it, now.

*From the Kitchen 
Simple Lentil Soup
Makes 6 or 7 servings and keeps up to a week. The flavors become more robust after 12-24 hours!

Spices: 2 bay leaves, 3 sprigs fresh sage, tied with twine; 2 tsp. each of: basil, cinnamon, cumin, thyme, oregano; salt & pepper to taste
2-3 Tsbp. Olive Oil
1 Onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 leeks, cleaned and slivered
3 carrots, sliced into edible-sized chunks
5-7 large mushrooms, slivered or diced
2 cups green lentils
1 cup red wine + more to drink while cooking
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, with juice
5 cups water OR vegetable/chicken broth (or a mixture of the two)
6 oz. spinach, sliced into ribbons

Sauté the spices, onions, garlic, leeks, and olive oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat until the onion is transparent and the leeks have wilted and come apart, about 3-5 minutes. Mix in the mushrooms and carrots; sauté for another 2 minutes or so. Add wine and tomatoes in their juice, stir; add water and lentils. Lower the heat until the soup is at an even simmer. Cover and leave simmering for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When 5 minutes remain, add the spinach. Nom nom nom.
Warm Spinach and Chevre Salad
Serves 2

Tip: this would be infinitely better if the zucchini and potatoes were roasted with basil (and also, if there were roasted asparagus), but I’ve been afraid of blowing my kitchen up with the little oven I found on top of the refrigerator.

6 oz. spinach or baby spinach
1 12 to 14 oz. can canellini beans (or beans soaked overnight)
1/2 to 3/4 cup chevre, sliced however you please
1 pear, cut into bite sized pieces

1 medium sized potato, slivered
1 large zucchini, sliced lengthwise
2 Tbsp. olive oil
optional: 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Toss the first 4 ingredients in a large salad bowl. Set aside.
Fill a medium sized saucepan with 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil; throw in the potato slices and cook until soft, about 6 minutes. Add zucchini; boil for 1-2 minutes, or until it is just tender. Drain water and, removing the pan from the heat, add olive oil, stirring it in quickly. 

Dump the warm veggies over the salad ingredients; toss until the spinach has wilted slightly. Add the vinegar if you like a balsamic-y twist.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jouissance de la Poésie

In other words, poetgasm.

If you don’t like first world problems or anti-academic statements, wait until next week to start reading.

Memory. It is a bitterly cold January day in St. Louis. I am shivering and purple-lipped in a half-lit seminar room, still wearing my coat in hopes that the meeting will not be long enough to necessitate taking it off. A professor leans across the table and says I’ve looked at your schedule. You need to cut German and your poetry club if you want to make the thesis work. My face falls. She says I know. But you really have the rest of your life to write poems.

I don’t know why I listened. We all have those moments of 20/20 hindsight, and it wasn’t until I finished the thesis -- a lukewarm 120 pages on dead white heterosexual men American modernism that entailed a soul-crushing defense, mortal enemyhood of one professor and several catfights academic arguments with another -- that I was acutely aware of how much I had missed.  I lost friends. I fell behind in a language that I loved (Überschlampe, however, remains the most accurate description of my cracked-out academic state of being). And I passed up almost a year of writing workshops, poetry readings, and slams where a sense of belonging had never been in question.

There is no way the professor with whom I had spoken in January could have known this. But the slam is holy. The poem is holy. Words on the page are holy holy holy. So when I arrived in Paris, poetry and research were side-by-side on my list of priorities. Questionable? Maybe. Necessary? Yes. I’d made a promise to myself that if I continued seriously in art history, I’d be better at maintaining a sense of balance. Because face it, art historians are poor forever. So we might as well have a little fun before dying alone in our offices, surrounded by our cats and mounds and mounds of unfinished research while getting the work done. Most poetry readings and spoken word events are held after research institutions close, so what is there to lose, other than sleep?

And I could always pass it off as an auxiliary research project, right? After a particularly rough introduction to the cutthroat world of French academics, it didn’t sound like such a bad idea.

The groups I plugged into -- Spoken Word in Paris, Ivy Writers Paris, and others -- make up an extremely supportive community. While they are NOT the only poetry groups in the area, they are more concerned with craft and editing than many. Gone is the hyper-competitive drama and splitting vocal cords of college slam poetry; here to stay is a crowded, warm bar or café and warmer invitation to perform.
Spoken Word in Paris!
In many ways, the French spoken word scene seems a distant cousin to the American one, largely because it is much newer. Universal themes -- poverty, crime, racism, and someone’s pain always trumping someone else’s pain -- abound, and there is a Fédération Française de Slam Poésie, with a near-identical set of slamming rules for those who are interested in taking that route. There remains an homage to the popular Def Poetry Jam genre, among them Grand Corps Malade or Pilote le Hot.

But there are more weekly venues dedicated to the beauty of stringing words together. Every Monday night I enter a magical poetry portal exhausted, and in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I leave it completely reborn. The scene is extraordinary because it is about making connections with people who respect you for who you are organically, not who you will be after 8-10 more years of doctoral study or next career move.

And that, my friends, is something hours of research cannot always promise. Not even close.

(I'll gush over the research side next week...)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Back to Basics

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS FILLED WITH FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS. We’ll get to the nitty gritty of French antisemitism, race wars, socioeconomic crises, and blatant misogyny later in the fall. What fun!

First and foremost, shanah tovah and happy 5772! 117 years after the Dreyfus Affair, France still has some major problems with the chosen people. Lucky for me, I have apples, honey, and a loud Jewish family a few floors down to make me feel right at home.

Rosh Hashanah, which opens a season that is all about holding grudges and getting smote repenting and being inscribed in the book of life, is as good a time as any to remember balance. Between having my first visitor last week (a charming and pleasantly sassy fellow Fulbrighter), starting to get organized for research at the Bibliothèque Nationale and La Sorbonne, getting lost MANY times, being told I wasn't Jewish by a stranger on the métro, and hearing French scholars’ takes on the intersection of feminism and art -- which is (quel suprise!) neither favorable nor very open to new interpretations -- I managed to get a little frazzled. But I was keeping it all together until my new this-will-make-you-walk normally (HA!) gizmo stopped working before an appointment across town. Madames et Messieurs, I give you the emotional Chernobyl!

For the first time since a slightly traumatic thesis experience, the flexibility and calm on which I had so prided myself disappeared instantly. So I went back to basics, cautiously expanded my comfort zone, and remembered a few easy things always seem to make life a little bit better.

The first is green food. Broccoli and lettuces, spinach, peppers, and other local produce.* Although Paris is morphing quickly into fall, the temperatures are still warm enough for a last crop of summer vegetables. To celebrate, I’ve gone back to simple salads, adding steamed veggies, crunchy apples, pan-roasted summer squash, assorted beans, and staples like carrots and tomatoes. Top it with an easy homemade vinaigrette** and a little good cheese, and nom nom nom, dinner is served in minutes. Don’t forget that heart-healthy glass of red wine!

The second was remembering that humans are very sexual social creatures. I started eating lunch with a group of graduate students at La Sorbonne, and went to the first party that I was invited to in the city. When it came to the latter, I was nervous about presenting myself -- in a different language -- to real people with real jobs. Art historians, by and large, are strange characters with rich inner lives and interesting social skills. Our version of game consists of the questions: what’s your favorite line of Prufrock? or If you were buried at Père-Lachaise, who would you want to be next to? or Do you want to explain Lacan to the bedroom? BUT I’m so glad I went, and would encourage all fellow babes in the woods to do the same. Everyone wanted to know about Detroit, which is less post-industrial grit and more romantic European concept here. And the questions abounded. I looked sweet, was I hiding my gangster side? Did I like techno? How could it not be safe to walk home from downtown at 2am? Was I related to Eminem? Now that is something I can talk about.

Add a long walk, several cups of coffee, and a good feminist read, and I was back in business. Hoping all of you are too. Santé!

* For those interested in eating local in the US, there is a national network of Community Supported Agriculture and a surprising number of farmers’ markets popping up in unexpected cities.

** Simple Vinaigrette
Makes several servings; keeps refrigerated for 7-10 days.

1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
2 drops of red wine vinegar
1 heaping tbsp. dijon mustard
1 tbsp. honey (more if you want to cut the acid)
1/2 cup of fresh basil leaves

Place ingredients in a blender, or use a bowl large enough to accommodate an immersion wand. Blend until creamy. Instant yum.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cuisiner sans four? Mais Ouais!

There is something very calming about making food. In this city - and really, in any city - it becomes so easy to lose track of one's center. I lurch forward with the mass of humanity on the métro, walk faster, smile far less, pull out defensive mechanisms far more, and worry so much about where I'm going that I sometimes forget to take in the scenery. While the last may not have been a problem when commuting to my former job, in Houston (see: terrible urban planning), it is here, where the winding Haussmanian boulevards and nineteenth-century buildings share space with with more recent cafés, sweet newspaper stands, and extremely beautiful people.

Having not yet found a yoga studio to reconnect myself with the universe, I turned to the next best thing: the kitchen. Grace à my big Jewish family, where food is inextricably connected with love, cooking has long been ritual; I move from cutting board to stovetop with surprising grace, understand improvisation in a new light, and generally end the night feeling very grounded. Moving here, however, demanded something new: I have never been without an oven. I'm used to roasting vegetables, toasting granola, and whipping up breads and baked goods. But after three days of cheese and jam sandwiches and greek yogurt, I figured I should get to work, oven or no oven.

If the darling space wasn't tempting enough, the previous tenant also left a gorgeous knife set. What better way to try it out, than on a new recipe?

Eggs in a Tomato-Spinach Sauce

Serves 2

1 tbsp. olive oil
2 small to medium sized tomatoes, finely chopped
4 oz/125 g spinach (about a bag; use more if desired)
10-12 oz (about 1 can) of whatever pasta sauce you like (I prefer sweet and mushroomy)
2-3 eggs
2 cloves garlic, minced or chopped into thin slivers
1 onion, diced
4 hearty slices baguette or grainy toast.

1/2 cup finely chopped mushrooms
teaspoon: basil, oregano, sea salt, black pepper, dash of cinnamon
Glug of wine
Cheese! Whatever kind you like, and as much as you want.

Prep work: Because this recipe cooks rather quickly and needs supervision, prepare the bread/toast and cheese beforehand. Just place 2 slices of bread on each plate and set the cheese aside. I've only made the recipe with sliced chevre and camembert, but I imagine it would be delicious with crumbled feta, grated parmesan, manchego, mozzarella or even a shredded sharp cheddar.

In a medium sized saucepan, sauté the onion, garlic, and herbs at medium heat until the garlic is just slightly browned. Add spinach in two stages, allowing to cook down (about 1 minute). Stir in tomatoes, tomato sauce, wine and cinnamon. Reduce the heat, bringing the liquid mixture to a slow boil. Crack the eggs one at a time into the sauce, delicately enough so that they remain afloat (if they sink, they will scramble a bit but still be delicious). Using a teaspoon or spatula, gently baste the egg whites in the tomatoey liquid until they are firm, about three minutes. Cook 30 seconds to a minute more for runny yolks; longer for firmer yolks.

When the eggs are finished to your personal liking, ladle the egg-tomato-spinach mixture onto bread, topping it with cheese. Serve immediately. Bon Appétit!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Since an art history paper three years ago brought me face-to-face with the academic connotations of social media, I’ve paid significantly more attention to blogs. Ones like Smitten Kitchen and Big Girls Small Kitchen taught me how to cook on a tight budget and tighter schedule; academichic chronicled dressing for academia (the degree to which I absorbed this information is highly debatable); CultureGrrl kept me informed of art historical happenings not always covered by newspapers. Add to that my brother’s sociological exploration into Bieber Fever, which made me think twice about dismissing the mop-haired tween heartthrob, and I was roped into the blogosphere.

But I did not think of starting one until last week, when a former professor suggested it over tea. They are so self serving, I told her. I don’t really want to know that my friend in Firenze just had the world’s best demitasse of expresso if my post-industrial midwestern existence cannot possibly come close to that. And what good is the information that making love in a water taxi is far better than doing it by the Brandenburger Tor, if readers can’t have either? But as we were leaving the café, she reminded me that I liked to write, and that a blog was an appropriate place for the flowery prose I loved so much.

So to justify this blogtastic experiment, I am trying to create something informative. Although I might share a few personal experiences from time to time, I am more interested in providing useful information for students and young professionals studying abroad and/or moving into new careers. Topics -- all attempting to show that France is much more than baguettes and turtlenecks -- will range from academic research, writing and the big grad school debate to cooking and eating on a budget, the Parisian slam poetry scene, perceptions of Americans abroad, and socializing in a new city. And if another relevant topic comes up, so be it.

And if blogs aren’t your thing, don’t read them.