Saturday, April 30, 2011

Suffering the Consequences of Lion and Blue

This past Wednesday, I had a strong desire to have an alfresco lunch in our lovely back yard. It was the first fully sunny day we've have in the PNW for a long time, so I had to celebrate. I made french ham and warm brie sandwiches on toasted baguette. Wicked I know, all that writing about Paris really affected my psyche I guess. I had a glass of crisp Pinot Grigio, which went beautifully with the creamy cheese and salty ham. Dessert was cold Perrier with lemon wedges and bowls of sliced oranges and bananas. Yes, it was a vitamin C and D fest.

It felt so good to be outside in the sun after such a long rainy season. Normally, I relish rainy weather more than sunshine, but I felt like my body actually needed the sunshine. After we had lunch and discussed our dream of buying a home here, I laid out a couple of blankets and some pillows so we could laze in the sun for a spell. As we stretched out on the warm ground, listening to the ocean breeze swooshing through a long row of juniper trees, I turned my gaze to my neighbors giant daisies which are starting to bloom. It reminded me of the story, Lion and Blue. It's about a lion who falls in love with a brazillian blue butterfly. "My lonely roars echoed far in a jungle that was old to yellow eyes were dazzled blue..." I closed my eyes, enjoying the memory of that book, the sun softly shining on us, the smell of the salty ocean breeze mixed with juniper, and suddenly I was asleep.

Sailor woke me up, pawing at my face. "No boy. Lay down here." I said, patting next to my leg. He refused and walked over to Tony and executed the same action. "Go Sailor." Tony said sleepily, then he tried me again, this time whining. When I looked at my watch I was shocked. "Wow, we've been out here almost three hours." As I sat up I noticed the wind had blown my blouse halfway up and my stomach felt a little itchy. Micky was laying in the shade under a bench panting and Sailor was standing by the sliding glass door now. I looked at Tony and he was still sound asleep. While I was cleaning up, Tony finally awoke and when he stood up I gasped. He was burnt to a crisp. A few hours later as I made dinner I noticed I was terribly burned too, on my stomach, legs and arms. Luckily, I fell asleep with my napkin on my face.

After dinner I noticed Sailor kept going into the bedroom to lay in his bed. "Sailor, it's not bedtime yet." I told him, but he would return to his bed anyway and plop down. When we all finally hit the sack, I was awakened a couple of hours later by Sailor standing on his hind legs, whining in my face. Sleepily, I tried to coax him to laying back down, but he was acting strange, refusing to lay in his bed, which he and Mick share. "Sailor, go to bed. You're acting weird." Then I smelled it. Poop. Mick, who is a little incontinent had a bit of an accident. I let out a huge sigh, got out of bed, then tried to find it. Nothing. Mick was clean. Then I patted around him, what was I thinking?! Found it. "Ugh!" This woke Tony and he looked over the edge of the bed where I was kneeling. I showed him my hand, grimacing. "Nice." We laughed, but I was thoroughly disgusted. As I washed my hand, Tony was wiping their bed down and Mick's back paw, which had poop in it. "Let's try this again." I said, covering Mick, who didn't bother to get up this entire time, then Sailor. As I covered him with his blanket he shot up and ran out of the room. "What boy?! I got all the poop." Then I smelled his blanket and yes, I got poop on my face. "UGH!" Now I was really mad. Of course it's not Mick's fault, but it's still gross.

After I carefully lifted up their blankets and took them to the laundry room, I put down a brand new blanket on their bed, which Mick was excited about, but Sailor refused to lay anywhere near his brother. Poor guy was traumatized. "Alright, you can lay with us (a forbidden pleasure) just so we can get some sleep." This sleeping arrangement lasted about an hour. I awoke again to Sailor moving around the room and shaking like he was wet. This time I was concerned. "What is it Sailor?" He just looked at me wide-eyed and ran out of the room shaking, so I let him outside. He ran out, peed and ran back in. I tried to put him back on our bed, only to find Mick there - sneaky bugger, "Mick, get back in your bed." My patience was growing thin. Sailor briefly laid down then jumped off our bed, so I tried ignoring him, but I could hear him shaking over and over again. Maybe he has a fox tail in his ear! I got up and checked. Nope. I went back to bed and tried ignoring him again. By now it was 2am, and my heart was pounding with worry. Maybe there's going to be an earthquake? Dogs are known to act strange before one. My brain was racing.

Then I remembered our next door neighbor was spraying weed killer, which I am completely against, as it causes cancerous tumors in animals over a period of time. "Oh no! He and Mick were eating grass while we were outside!" I said aloud. When I got up again, Sailor was standing in the middle of the room staring crazy-eyed. This time I woke up Tony. He was worried too, "He's acting like he's on speed! Let's feed him so he'll poop out whatever he ate." Good idea. I found a can of Newman's dog food (yet another forbidden pleasure) and he gobbled it up like a starving animal. Then Mick came in wanting some, "Get back to bed Mick!" Tony ordered, and he did. It's like he knew something was wrong.

After Sailor ate he actually laid down in his bed with Mick and stayed there for almost an hour. By then I was completely awake, worrying and waiting. Tony was snoring before his head hit the pillow. Then all of a sudden he said out loud, "He's sunburnt! His skin is crawling, he has heat stroke!" He was completely right. We were all sunburnt, except Mick, who had the sense to stay in the shade, that's why Sailor was shaking and acting funny. His little brain couldn't understand why he felt crawly and strange.

The next morning my stomach and legs stung like crazy so I smoothed on aloe vera. When I looked at Sailor, the insides of his ears were crimson! "You poor thing." I said, and put a little aloe on his burns too. Who'd have thought that day dreaming could be so costly...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Le Metro, Getting Lost and Other Paris Adventures - Part III of Paris Adventures 1996

Before leaving for France, one of our in-laws kindly loaned us a camcorder so we could record our trip. This was to be a thorn in my husband's side. He hated having to carry it everywhere we went. Even thought it was documenting such a monumental trip, my first time in Europe, Paris for that matter, the most romantic city in the world! Still, he hated it. In fact, I'm not sure which he liked less, being filmed by me or lugging it around his neck. Granted, this was a 90's camcorder, a much heavier and bulkier cousin to ones today. Still, I blame a lot of his attitude on male training. Men are trained their whole lives to be hands-free, carrying all their necessities in their back pocket or inside jacket. While we women are taught as toddlers to carry some sort of purse or bag that starts out small when we're teens, but gets bigger and bigger as we get older. I was only in my twenties and already my bag was the size of a pillow case.

Once in a while, I would carry the camera in my bag, but the rope-like straps would dig mercilessly into my shoulder, leaving painful red marks. As I looked around at all the Parisian women, nary a bag among them, I began to grow jealous of their freedom of movement and carefree attitudes. A word of advise to new travelers: never carry a bag when touristing. One ends up picking up a bag here or there when shopping on the Champs Elysees, a boulangerie or farmers market anyway. That said, by end of day, my honey was carrying the camera and my bag.

This was only our second day in Paris, and he accidentally "forgot" the camcorder, so I took a ton of black and white pictures instead. After we finished our street-side petit déjeuner we walked to the Metro station, figured out how to buy tickets, then hopped on the first train. What a thrill! The Metro is amazing. It's so fun, fast and easy (once you get it down) and it's incredibly dense, there's a station on every block it seems. Now, I can't remember if the metro lines were numbered 1-14 in the 90's like they are today, which makes the system much easier to use. We seem to remember they were colored lines (red line, blue line, orange line, etc.) that were named after the very last stop the train would go. So, if you wanted to go ten blocks to the Latin Quarter you would take the purple line, Porte d'Orleans. Or if you wanted to see the Eiffel Tower via the Trocadéro like we wanted, you take the green line, Charles de Gaulle – Étoile. It makes sense now (well, to me at least), but at that time we were newbies to the Metro, and I was so in awe of everything I saw, that I wasn't paying attention to where we were going or being very helpful.  

As we walked in and out of a dozen stations, Tony was trying to solve the mysteries of le Metro, while I was struck by how old the city was. America is such a baby compared to Europe. You really feel that when you visit European cities for yourself. It still shocks me how American is such a world leader when it's only 234 y/o and France is 1,400! After we walked through the Luxembourg Gardens and my husband gave me his own names for each sculpture we encountered (so romantic and funny), he decided he'd finally figured out how to get to the Eiffel Tower via the Trocadéro, so we hopped back on the metro. This time we stayed on the for about twenty minutes. As the train dipped in and out of tunnels we got a chance to sit and observe Parisians and many of Paris' Arrondissements (or districts). Silently we rode along, occasionally squeezing each others hands or smiling at one another, trying to fit in as much as possible.  

When we finally arrived and tried to leave the station we had to pay to get out. This was curious since our tickets should have been good all over Paris. There was a lovely flower stand outside of the station, with beautifully simple arrangements and a smoke shop across the street, surrounded by middle-school kids all in uniforms. The boys, who were dressed in wool, navy blue vests, crisp white collard shirts tucked into navy pants, were bustling in and out of the shop. The girls were wearing wool, navy cardigan sweaters with beautiful white pique blouses and wool, navy and green plaid pleated skirts - some long, some short. I noticed the boys were all wearing sensible black leather shoes, while the girls wore black or navy opaque tights and black leather flats. As we descended the sidewalk towards these children, I saw that many of them were talking intensely to each other, smoking casually, or reading by themselves. Who are these kids, I wondered? They seemed like miniature adults to me, their demeanor was so mature and confident and casual. I was dumbfounded, and staring. My husband had to pull me away from the scene, and we walked up the hill. 

Then we saw the school, which was the shape and style of a miniature castle. It was made of old brick and stone and looked straight out of medieval times. To top it off, it was surrounded by a dry mote with two draw bridges. I gasped at its beauty. Now I was beginning to wonder where we were. As we read street signs and tried to find them on our Paris map, we were at a loss. Actually, we were lost, completely, and loving it. This quaint, hilly town was made complete with cobblestone walls, brick houses with slate roofs, and friendly French people. 

Now's the time to differentiate French people from Parisians. Parisians, are the people who live in Paris, while the rest of the people who live in provinces, are French. This may sound funny, but they really are two different types of people. Just as people from New York are very different from people in say, Atlanta. I am not suggesting Parisians are unfriendly because we encountered very kind souls in Paris. When we left Paris however, we did find people were a lot more relaxed and amiable.

As we walked about the town, discussing ways in which we can retire there, we bumped into a young man on a skateboard and I asked, "Pardonne-moi, where are we on this map?" He smiled at us and apologized for not knowing any English. My husband gave it a try. This time he got the gist, took our map and pointed off to an imaginary spot. OH! We thanked him, laughing at our idiocy. We were no longer in Paris but some town on the outskirts. 

Champs-Élysées, Paris
Still laughing, we boarded the train and made it to the Champs-Élysées where I had my first french crêpe. Which, like the croissant is near impossible to imitate in the States. The french crepe was and is by far my most favorite edible in Paris, but we'll save this adventure for next time. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Day of Firsts: Jet Lag, Croissants et le Bidet - Part II of Paris Adventures 1996

Jet lag can be the cause of many embarrassing situations. This was the first time I'd ever experienced such extreme exhaustion. My eyes felt like they were sewn shut and my limbs completely refused to cooperate. When I heard the banging on our door I actually thought the house was on fire. I fell out of bed, ran unsteadily to the door, fumbled with the knob and flung it open. "What's wrong?!" I asked breathlessly, with shut eyelids. "Oh, pardon Mademoiselle." The voice said. Pause. "D'accord, quoi?" I asked, finally able to blink and then I realized that I was very much naked. I quickly stood behind the door and the young man began to explain that we agreed to change rooms after one night, and those who reserved our room in advance were waiting in the lobby. Like that, I was awake. After apologizing a few times I told him, "Cinq minutes." Then I slammed the door, which woke up Tony. Luckily, he was completely asleep through my entire transaction with the bellboy, and I never mentioned it (until today). 

As we scurried to the first floor with our belongings, and into a room that was rather shabby and three times smaller, we knew our day was to be dedicated to finding another hotel. But first a shower. Wait, no shower. This is when I learned what en suite meant. Many hotels in Paris have rooms without bathtubs or showers (which were even rarer then). Instead there is a sink with a mirror, a toilet and something that looks very much like a sink for a small person - called a bidet. Now, I can see why Americans think the bidet, pronounced 'bid-day,' is strange but really they are quiet practical. In truth, I fell in love with the bidet.

After freshening up we snuck out of the hotel, then hit the very first cafe we saw, which was a beautiful (open) site and ordered the works: jus d'orange, the (tea), cafe au lait, croissants, pains aux raisins, all in English so it took a while. Our waitress was a lovely, patient girl with a ready smile who must have sensed my excitement, and that I wanted to learn as much french as possible. Or perhaps she enjoyed looking into my husband's beautiful, green gypsy eyes, his dark hair loosely slicked back, his left ankle resting on his right knee, those tattered leather shoes - a smoldering mystery, as he peacefully smoked his cigarette. In any case, she taught us how to order with perfect pronunciation. 

I'll never forget that first croissant. Back home I was never a fan; the ones I encountered were either bland and greasy or stale and tasteless. A croissant from France however, is a thing of beauty. It's not just the fact that they're buttery and flaky and airy inside. They taste different there. As I ate my croissant with the tiny dish of berry jam, then pulled out the slightly chewy center, savoring the painstaking layers, I finally understood what all the fuss was about. Just as the San Francisco Bay Area can rightly boast having the best sourdough bread in the world (it's something to do with the salt air), France has got dibs on the croissant.   

Of course we all know this, as much as the fact that Parisians are famous for their confidence and great sense of style. Our waitress for instance could have been a Vogue model, but she seemed to care little about her appearance, since her hair was quite matted. I was in awe of this phenomenon all over Paris. It didn't matter how a woman was dressed or how old they were. They could be plain or beautiful, thin or curvy, dark or light, with or without make-up (mostly without), dressed up or down. Parisians had an alluring confidence that struck me. As a shy woman in her twenties, I was taking mental notes.

While I enjoyed my breakfast and our surroundings, Tony poured over a map of Paris and decided we would take le Metro, Paris' rapid transit to the Trocadéro. This is the site of the Palais de Chaillot, in the 16th arrondissement, across the River Seine and the best way to approach the Eiffel Tower. 

I thought that since my husband had been to Paris before, he knew the ins and outs of the Metro; I was wrong. Thus, began our next adventure.  

Friday, April 22, 2011

Paris Noir, 1996 - Part I of Paris Adventures 1996

"Wait! Is this normal?!" I asked my husband, voice trembling and wide-eyed. "Yes. Don't worry. It's perfectly normal." His confidence did comfort me a little, but the bouncing steadily grew worse. Suddenly, the overhead no smoking sign went on, and the stewardess asked everyone to please return to their seats all en Français. Then slowly, and rather nonchalantly the passengers of over half the plane took their seats. Many with lit cigarettes in their hands or hanging dangerously from their lips. For some reason their blasé attitude to the bouncing 747 relaxed me, and I released my claw hold from Tony's arm. I still felt nauseous however, from the non-stop cigarette smoke I inhaled over the past 12 hours, but I knew we would be landing soon. Plus, the face washing and tooth brushing I executed twenty minutes before greatly revived me.

Weeks before we got on this Corsair charter for Paris, I read a travel article in Mademoiselle that said, "Before landing you should freshen up in the bathroom, remembering to use bottled water when washing." Another reason I was feeling good despite the fact that my tendrils of long hair smelled like a cigarette butt, was that we were able to sleep during half the flight - thanks to Valium. The really humorous part of our slumber was that we both had to lay damp bandanas on our faces while we slept. Once, when I got up to use le toilette, I rinsed out my bandana and light brown liquid squeezed out. True story. Now, of course smoking is no longer allowed on international flights, but this was 1996, before ten year-olds were writing reports on the evils of second hand smoke. 

In a way, all that smoking prepared me for how it was going to be in Paris. Because Parisians smoke anytime, anywhere, anyhow. In quaint little cafes, swanky restaurants, le Louvre Musée, even in elevators, which were the smallest boxes I ever rode in. It was wildly amusing.

Another good piece of advice from that travel article is to change your clothes from the comfy ones you wore on the plane to smart, weather appropriate attire. This I did not do, but wish I had. I was fine when we landed, went through customs and retrieved our luggage, because I was excited and it was warm inside. It was when we stepped outside and hopped into the taxi that I realized how inappropriately I was dressed. 

I was a California girl who'd never set a toenail out of the USofA and had only been out of the state twice: The summer I turned fifteen I accompanied my mom to a family reunion in Missouri, so she could meet her father for the first time. Sadly, he never showed. The other time I was twenty-one and flew to Dallas for a two-day pharmaceutical convention on behalf of my boss. All my life, I was used to "Indian Summers" in October, when temperatures rose to their highest. Now I was in Northern France, in October, to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary and I was freezing. With teeth chattering I asked our taxi driver if he could turn up the heater,s'il vous plaît, but he didn't seem to understand me. My husband gave it a try, and the man nodded and cranked the heat.

This was to happen the entire two weeks we were in France. I, who knew very little French (only the handful of phrases I learned in Let's Go Paris), but more than my husband, was rarely understood. While my husband, who lived in Rouen (where Joan d’Arc was burned) during the summers with his father, never tried to speak French other than, "Je ne sais pas," "Non," and "Whea," all with attitude and an irreverent tone of voice, always got results. He had it down pat, the whole Parisian attitude - I loved it! I was too humble to ever force myself on anyone and I lacked the confidence my husband acquired as a man of the world. Instead, I was friendly, eager to learn, and generally in awe of the people and the country. After a few days of this, those we encountered on a daily basis began to melt, and Tony watched in wonder as I charmed the crankiest Parisians into giving me whatever I wanted; even directions en Anglais.

Our first two days in Paris were a "noir-ish" blur. Weeks prior, I responsibly reserved a room for our first couple of nights. I figured if we didn't like the hotel we could upgrade somewhere else (which is exactly what we did). Classic scenario, when we clamored into the hotel from the airport, they didn't have our reservation. "Je suis desole Monsieur et Mademoiselle." Luckily, I had the name of the person I spoke with so they relented, giving us the only room they had left, which normally cost 500 francs ($100 American) at the rate I was quoted - 250 francs. The concierge kept saying something over and over to us en Français, but we were so tired we just nodded in agreement without understanding. Our room was on the 5th floor, and after trying to cram ourselves into le petit elevator like sardines, my husband sent me up alone with the luggage while he hoofed it up the stairs. The funny thing was that we both made it to the 5th floor about the same time. 

After sloppily unpacking all over the room, we took long needed showers then, instead of heading out to explore Paris we fell asleep in each other's arms. It was 3pm, but it felt like 3am to us, and no one ever advised us to adapt to the current time zone NO MATTER WHAT. So we slept...until 2am.

When we awoke, our stomachs were growling furiously. We felt like vampires in serious need of blood! So, after putting on almost every article of clothing I brought, and Tony his fedora, we headed out in search of food. I found the names of two restaurants that were open late, according to Let's Go ParisWe were staying in the 2nd arrondissement, which was one of the “cheaper” districts in Paris that's still within walking distance to many of the sights. When we hit the streets it was straight out of a "noir" film. People lurking in the shadows, street lights flashing, the city landscape - a menacing silhouette; a man threw a bottle near us from across the street, and nothing was open. Not a single cheerful crepe stand, no smokey cafe, nor any of the restaurants listed in my travel book. I felt like the night was closing in on us as we walked under a bridge near the Seine River. Then I heard it. The faint sound of a jazz trumpet playing. "Hear that?" I asked. Tony had a glimmer of hope in his eyes for the first time, "Yes. Let's check it out!" 

What we found was a cafe/bar that was vaguely styled after a 1950's American diner. We laughed at the irony. Inside were several finely dressed couples quietly huddled together around tables. They must have come from l'Opéra de Paris Garnier, which was near by. The jukebox was playing an odd combination of American jazz and 80's hits, and the only food being served was alcohol. "We'll have two of your chocolate milkshakes?" I ordered uncertainly. She just looked at me, then walked away. What she brought was literally chocolate milk shaken-up and poured into two small fluted glasses. As we laughed over our first Pais meal and our night-time adventure, I started to shiver from cold and excitement. Our waitress must have noticed, because she came over and asked if we wanted something to warm us up, or at least that's what we deduced. "That would be great," my husband said nodding. She brought us two half-filled glasses of whisky. 

Now I was warm. Two more whisky shots and we were back at our hotel, breathless and feeling giddy. After we played around a little we fell asleep, two lovers in Paris. Only to awake three hours later to the angry yells of the Concierge, "Go! You must go! Remember?" He managed to say en Anglais. "Wha? Why?" My husband said sleepily into the phone. "You move to room you reserve!" The hotel manager said angrily. "OH, Deco," (or d'accord, which means OK) my husband said, still asleep. "What did he say?" I murmured from underneath my pillow. He never answered, and we fell back into a deep sleep. 
An hour later there was pounding on our door... 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting Fired Can Be...a Good Thing. Part III

It's funny, this happened so very long ago, but writing about it still makes me tear up. It's not me I'm crying for, but a 15 year-old girl who was fired from a job she really loved. Of course she learned a valuable lesson that day: never assume anything. She also discovered something else that would change her culinary pallet forever. 

As I sprinted to the bus stop, tears flying, I knew I had to stop and call my sister. I told her the entire story on a pay phone while people looked at me either worriedly or greatly annoyed. I asked her if she could pick me up, but she couldn't. I had to take the long humiliating bus ride home alone. After I hung up the phone, I blew my nose in my bandana and turned around to find a pizza joint that I'd never noticed before. Pizza! That will make me feel better. I walked up to the counter with red eyes and a blotchy face and ordered a small pepperoni and olive. "Thick or thin?" The man asked with a kind smile. "Ummmm...I don't care." I told him, unable to make any life-altering decisions at the moment. "Well, we're known for our thick Chicago style pizza, so maybe you should try that." I appreciated his sweet tone of voice as much as his patience with me, since there was a giant bustling line behind me all waiting for me to make up my gosh darn mind. 

I sat for a while waiting for my pizza, so I took a moment and began to look around at all the people packed into that place. UC Berkeley college students, city workers, families and children all thoroughly enjoying the messiest pizza I'd ever seen. "What is this place?" I asked myself. The sign said Zachary's Pizza Est 1983. I remember thinking,  that's odd, putting the year you were established when you were only established two years ago. When my name was called I quickly got up and paid for my pizza, "Nineteen dollars?!" I asked. This better be good, I said to myself as I scraped together the dough and handed it over. I barely had enough for the bus. 

After I got on the 51 and took a seat close to the front, fresh tears began to plop on top of the pizza box. For a moment I actually forgot I bought a pizza. I was so used to carrying some kind of box home on the bus, only with pastries inside. A few older women smiled at me with kind understanding in their eyes, so I opened my pizza box, took a piece out and stuffed my face with it. My eyes widened and I must have made a muffled, "Mmmfmygommm," because people leaned up to look. I ate a second piece, shocked that a pizza could could taste this good. My family were big Round Table Pizza connoisseurs, which was cardboard and cheese compared to this concoction. It had a deep crust, but it wasn't oily like many deep-crusted pizzas. Instead it had a flaky, buttery yet chewy crust that held its shape. Upon further inspection, I noticed there was a bottom crust per usual, mozzarella cheese, then there was another thin almost doughy layer with more mozzarella on that, pepperoni, then what I can only describe as chunky stewed tomatoes on top with lots of italian seasoning and black olives on top of that. It was sheer heaven. 

After I ate my second piece I noticed there was a small boy sitting next to me. Oops again. I offered him a piece and to my surprise his mother said, "Sure," after her son looked at her pleadingly. I put a napkin in his lap and laid a piece on it, then he and I made smiley faces and nodded at each other while we ate. Life wasn't so bad after all. When I got home I had four pieces left, which I graciously gave to my family. As they ate I could see their faces light up too. "I accidentally poisoned a girl and got fired today." I told them as softly as possible, but I couldn't fool my mom, she knew I was devastated. After I told them the whole story again only more slowly this time, the moral was sealed in my heart and I was not to set foot in La Farine for almost ten years. 

It's not that I harbored hard feelings against the manager or anyone there. It no longer held the magic it once had for me. The family feeling was gone, because it wasn't my family. It was a business that couldn't just forgive me for making a customer ill. My own personal penance was to abstain from eating their delicacies forever, or until I met my husband.

That night my mom and I discussed the importance of trials and tribulations in our lives and how they build character. I hugged her for being so sweet and for not judging me, then I asked her if we could go to Zachary's for my sweet 16th birthday. Absolutely we would go. Me, my family and my friends. It was to become a birthday tradition. Collectively, we've had at least thirty of the happiest birthday parties at Zachary's Pizza on College Avenue, and it's still the best pizza in the world. It's also where I first saw the man of my prince.

To think, I might never have stumbled upon Zach's if I hadn't been fired from the bakery. I might weigh a hundred pounds more today if I had continued working there. Or perhaps I wouldn't have become the hard-working Girl Friday I became if I hadn't experienced being fired. 

In any case, being fired wasn't great, but it makes for a good story. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Getting Fired Can Be...a Good Thing. Part II

By my third week of working at La Farine the bakers were gifting me at the end of my shift with a gigantic box of goodies to take home. They wanted me and everyone I knew to experience their freshly baked Challah or egg bread, French baguettes, and my favorite bread of all - Irish soda bread with apricots. It had a hard crust and was bursting with apricot pieces, yet it was soft and creamy in the middle. I used to eat it for breakfast - toasted then spread with butter, and enjoy its savory sweetness with a cup of hot chocolate. I remember watching my sister eat an entire crusty sourdough baguette with butter in one sitting. My mother on the other hand enjoyed the sourdough round, which had less crust and more of a chewy center. While my brother liked the pastries, the Morning Bun in particular. I'd watch as he would put the entire thing into his mouth and slowly chew with eyes closed, then he'd reach for another.

On rare occasions the bakers would include slices of their specialty cakes, which had become too dry to sell to the public but seemed perfectly fresh to us. In truth, these were the pastries that I couldn't afford to try. Even their names, which were mostly in french, seemed off limits to me as I hadn't a clue what they meant. Like the Gateau du Printemps, a rich coconut cake layered with tangy lime mousse and delicately finished with a thin layer of white chocolate buttercream. Le Sicilian, a light chocolate genoise (or sponge cake) soaked with Frangelico liqueur, filled with creamy pistachio mousse and chocolate ganache, and coated with the perfect amount of white chocolate buttercream. Chamonix, was a moist devil's food cake layered with creamy white chocolate raspberry mousse and fresh raspberries, frosted ever so slightly with yet again, white chocolate buttercream. Suffice it to say, after tasting cakes like these I was ruined, forever. Never again could I appreciate a German Chocolate cake from Safeway; they had become overly sweet and flavorless compared to La Farine's exquisite cakes. 

Then one day it happened. After bussing it home from work, I opened my goody box and found a slice of the Reine de Saba. It was a cake I'd always wanted to try because it was simply chocolate on chocolate, which was my favorite confection. No fruit, no "bitter" liqueur just pure chocolate. As I washed down each bite with a sip of cold milk, I felt my body lift into a realm I'd never know. It was pure bliss, utter pleasure, but it was followed by guilt as I realized I hadn't saved even one bite for my Mother, who had taught me the value of chocolate. Oops. 

When I went to work the next day, I thanked the bakers for their generosity and for including a piece of their special chocolate cake. They just smiled at me, vaguely understanding the effect that cake had on me. From then on, whenever anyone called or asked me for a cake recommendation I would youthfully tout the praises of the Reine de Saba. "It's the best chocolate cake in the world!" "If you like chocolate, it's like you died and went to heaven after eating this cake!" "I don't know what they put into this cake, but it's beyond amazing!" My customers would either laugh or look at me like I was on drugs, however they always left with a Reine de Saba under their arm. 

One day a woman came in and asked for a cake recommendation for her daughter's 13th birthday. "We're having a big party at the Palace of Fine Arts in the City with all of her friends, and she's wanting something chocolaty, what do you recommend?" Easy answer. "She's allergic to nuts, are there nuts in that cake?" "Nope." I told her, "Just chocolate cake with chocolate ganache frosting and whole raspberries on top." "Perfect." She said, with a glimmer of doubt on her eyes. What I didn't know was what gave the Reine de Saba it's unique characteristics is the fact that there is pureed almonds in the cake. So finely pureed that unless you had a distinguished pallet, you would never know they're in there. The cake is so smooth and the bakers so amazing at their craft that there isn't a hint of granulated almond to it's texture. 

The following day I worked the afternoon shift. When I walked in the door all eyes were on me and the owner was there, which was rare. I immediately started to worry but said nothing. I just put on my apron, washed my hands and began freshening the display cases. The owner asked to speak to me. I saw in her eyes scornful disappointment so I looked at the bakers for some explanation, they're faces were filled with wincing sympathy. I thought I was going to faint. My arms felt like lead and I started to shake. "What did I do?" I asked, my eyes welling. "Yesterday, you sold an almond filled cake to a woman whose daughter is allergic to nuts." The owner said matter of factly. I looked around, my eyes searching for something, then I remembered the woman who mentioned her daughter's allergy and I was flooded with relief. "No, I sold her the Reine de Saba, the chocolate ganache cake with raspberries on top. There are no nuts in that cake. She must have had something else with nuts that day." Her birthday, I thought, her 13th, she was a teenager now. I vaguely recalled my own 13th birthday and the big deal my Mom made about it, because I was no longer "Baby Cat" but "Teen Cat." 

The owner told me the young girl had an allergic reaction to the almonds in the cake and had to be taken to the hospital. The mother wanted me fired or she was going to sue the bakery. As tears streamed silently down my face, the owner explained that when I was trained I was told the ingredients of everything sold at La Farine, and I must have forgotten about the almonds in the Reine de Saba. The truth is, I wasn't told the ingredients of everything we sold, but I was still at fault. I should have asked the bakers if there were nuts in the Reine de Saba. I was flooded with guilt, shame and sadness. 

When the owner handed me my final check, she looked sympathetic for the first time. I thanked her, apologized for everything then quickly walked towards the front door. As I was leaving I heard my name being called softly en español, "Raquel!" When I turned around I saw all of the bakers standing at their stations with their hats off and their hands on their hearts. I nodded my head a few times, attempted a smile then left.

Part III gets better, I promise.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Getting Fired Can Be...a Good Thing. Part I

I believe I mentioned La Farine Bakery's morning bun in one of my posts. What I did not tell you is that I used to work for La Farine. It was my first job. Yes even then, at the tender age of fifteen I had a true appreciation for pastries. My sister worked for the owner - babysitting her kid while she cared for her own toddler. It was quick, words were exchanged and I was hired. I still remember the thrill of using my Social Security card for the first time and then getting my first paycheck (I still have the stub). My sweet mom drove me to work at 4:30 in the morning three days a week. I would arrive at the bakery around 5am and be hit in the face with high heat from the ovens and a smell that was enough to make you cry, "Uncle!" 

My job was to stock the lovely wood and glass display cases with the most beautiful, delectable delights I had ever seen. I would sprinkle extra fine powered sugar on the apple croissants, place pristine fruit and custard tarts on ornate paper doilies, dust the morning buns with extra fine sugar before tenderly dumping them into their giant woven basket, and carry expensive cakes to their specific glass cases; all under the watchful eyes of the bakers. After stocking, I set-up our regular customer's breakfasts, then I would open the doors at 6am sharp. When my regulars were taken care of I got to work washing the pans which was hard, hot work. The morning bun pans were as big as my upper body, and made of sturdy material so they were very heavy. Plus, if you didn't wash these right away the sticky substance that oozed from the buns turned to cement. If this happened, heaven help you. Whenever a customer walked in the bakers would, "Psst," me and I would push back my hair with the back of my hand, now frizzy from all the steam, and pop out with a greeting and a smile. 

After a couple of weeks on the job customers wanted to give me tips, but I shyly refused their money since management never mentioned tipping and there was no container. Besides, putting money in my pocket while working felt like stealing. Then one morning, a regular brought me a homemade tip jar, with colorful flowers finely painted on the glass. It was lovely. "You're such a great girl, you should get a little something extra from us." She said with her chin out, smiling. She was a beautiful lady and not just because of her gift. She had a refined quality, a gracefulness, like a retired ballerina. She was tall with long slender arms, a neck like a swans and long grey hair that she twisted into two tight buns at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were like two wild sapphires behind soft folds of ivory skin. I thanked her then asked the owner what she thought about the tip jar. She had never considered the idea of her counter personnel receiving tips and had no problem with it. As long as I remembered to take my tips at the end of my shift. Like a teenager would forget about something like that.

I loved everything about working for La Farine: the French pastries, the breads, the bakers, the customers; it was all special to me. There was something unique about La Farine then, and the customers, which made me feel like I was a part of an extended family. Even though we were located on busy College Ave. near the Oakland/Berkeley boarder, when you walked in you could just as well be in a quaint patisserie off of an obscure street in Paris' Latin Quarter. I think what also attributed to this feel were the old wood and glass display cases, along with a large family-style table, made of oak, which sat in the corner near the windows. It felt homey and welcoming. Customers would sit at that table with their daily pastry, coffee or tea, papers and books, and quietly converse with each other. 

After a month I became quite proficient in my duties and to their surprise, I started asking the bakers questions: "Where did you learn to bake?" "How do you make the infamous morning bun?" "How is it the "swiss twinkie" is so crunchy yet it looks just like a small butter croissant?" Many of them only spoke Spanish, and I cursed my step-father for not teaching me, when he spoke it perfectly. Instead they would smiled at me and show me how everything was made. As I watched them, I had the feeling that what they were doing was art. I'd never been to a museum or an art exhibit, and I'd only seen Bob Ross paint pictures on TV (Who can forget The Joy of Painting?).  Still, as I watched them kneed the different doughs, cut up green apple for my favorite croissant, or slice and ice a beautiful dark chocolate cake called the Reien de Saba, the cake that would get me fired, I knew this was an art I wanted to learn....

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Comforts of Home Cooking

Success! It's such a relief to be back in the arms and paws of my family. When I arrived I got all kinds of love, praise for finding amazing tenants, and my husband's special BLTA. Bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado sandwiches on toasted wheat. I kid you not, he makes THE BEST BLTA in the world. I think the trick is he spreads out his ingredients evenly, so that every bite has a little bit of everything. Of course using the best organic ingredients you can grow or buy helps. After I devoured the entire sandwich (I was planning on eating half now and saving the other half for later) I fell into a deep, deep sleep. 

Yes, I know it's bad to sleep right after eating, but I was exhausted and back with T and feeling quite at peace. The following day I cleaned house like crazy and made vegetable lentil soup. I served it with rosemary focaccia bread, lightly toasted, with a little butter. How can something so easy to make be such a blessing to your very soul! Some people need a nice juicy steak and potato to feel content. I am not above this, but if I want to feed something more than my stomach, I make soup and I use a large English soup spoon when I eat it. Maybe that's why I love the part in Amelie when she is eating soup with her father. The whole feel of that scene is both comforting and healthful. 

When I was nine, I made my first homemade meal for the family. Beef stew. I'll never forget my Mom's boyfriend Bill's praise. It made me want to cook all the time just so I could get a father figure's approval. The next thing I made was banana bread. To this day I wish I had that recipe, because it was the best I've ever baked. Light and airy with a strong banana flavor and a chewy crust. I think I got it from a children's cookbook that got lost in one of our moves.

I still make banana bread and stew. However, I use lamb meat instead of beef because it's easier to digest. For years Tony thought it was beef until I gave the recipe to a friend and he heard me say lamb. (The trick to killing lambs gamey taste is to use San Marzano stewed tomatoes) I've also added to my culinary repertoire spaghetti sauce. 

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I swear Tony asked me, when we were dating, "Do you make your own sauce? My grandmother does and it's the best." What I do know for sure is that after eating her spaghetti I wanted to learn how to make my own sauce. Now I can't even stomach jar sauce. If only people knew how easy it is to make their own, better than you can find in any "Italian" restaurant or jar. 

When I cook for myself I make vegetarian sauces that are quick and fresh tasting, using minimal ingredients: Bariani olive oil, chopped tomato and basil. Sometimes I throw in a chopped Zucchini for fun, then sprinkle freshly grated parmesan cheese on top. 

When I make spaghetti for Tony I make his favorite rich red sauce: Bariani, one big yellow onion - chopped, maybe a clove of garlic, ground white turkey meat, sea salt, lots of Italian seasoning, two big cans of San Marzano whole tomatoes - crushed by hand, one can of water and good red wine. If we feel like spicy I add red pepper flakes, if sweet I add some sugar or syrup. "And that's my trick." It needs to simmer for at least two hours, so watch The Godfather while you wait. Mama Mia! It's amazing and so easy. If you serve it over noodles, use De Cecco, they are the closest to freshly made pasta. I freeze the majority of the sauce so I can have spaghetti, manicotti, or pizza whenever I'm in the mood, which is often. 

Tonight, Tony is steaming the two huge artichokes I bought from Dan's Produce and he's making parmesan couscous. I made the aioli sauce using Best Foods mayo made with olive oil, Meyer lemon juice and freshly ground pepper. 

Did I mention how good it is to be home? 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thank You...Now Let's Have Fun!

These past nine months have been a real test of my strength, both physical and emotional, but I think it's safe to say that the hardest part of transitioning back-and-forth from the city to the country is over. I have a few new scars - one from moving the Murphy bed, which sliced my leg. A couple of injuries - my right knee is jacked-up perhaps forever, and I think I'm starting to get wrinkles. All from working on our three rentals and having to commute back and forth from OR to CA so often.

During these months we've lost friends who couldn't understand our situation, and decided to write us off. I've also had to say "no" to all family gatherings because of our tight schedule. Happily however, I've realized again how precious true friends are, and seem to value them even more than when we left. Family too. These are the people who never made us feel bad for not being able to see them while we were in town, and others who came to see US even though we were covered in dirt, dust and blood, without chairs to sit on or anything to drink and lacked in conversation because we were so exhausted. To these people, I say, "Thank you for your understanding, God bless you!"

I still laugh when I remember one friend sitting on the cold floor in her work clothes, talking away about life while I painted walls and trim, happy to have someone there just talking to me. Or another time I was working alone on the place and my cousins took me to the Hob Nob, and I pigged out like I hadn't eaten in a week. In retrospect, I don't think I had very much to eat that week, but they thrilled at my hearty appetite and fronted the bill with a loving wink and a smile. Then there's my mom who happily sewed curtains for the tenants windows for me. It makes me cry to think of how giving people can be, how blessed I am.

Another upside to all this, is now that we have amazing tenants and the house is the fittest it has ever been, when we do go back-and-forth from OR to CA we can have some fun with friends and family. In fact, the last two times I've gone down have been the most enjoyable, because no hard labor was required and those who were not understanding are out of our lives. I was even able to wear a skirt while my Carhartts rested peacefully on the floor next to my Danners, both covered in nine months of dirt and grime, but shining testaments of our hard work.

If I'm lucky I won't have to go down for a while, which means we'll get to enjoy Spring on the Oregon Coast. I want to explore tide pools and hunt for treasure, scoop up shells and unusual rocks on the beach, run into the ocean screaming and then sit quietly and watch the sun put on a melancholy play for us, before falling into a curtain of blue water. Tony's excited to make bon-fires on the beach again, roast weenies on a stick, make smores and go for long motorcycle rides together to Smith River and Portland.

We're expecting friends and family this summer. I'm so excited to cook and clean for them, give them lots of hugs and kisses, reward them for all of their patience and understanding. Then very soon, these hard months will become a blur and all we'll remember are the lovely people who helped us survive the storm and the fun we've had together.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Nectar of the Gods

Well, it looks like I'm going back down to the East Bay tomorrow at 5am, ugh. No, I'm alright, it's only for a day. I'm trying something new, I'm treating it like an 8 hour work day. What's 8 hours driving along scenic HWY 101? Absolutely beautiful, that's what! Yes, I'm being optimistic. After you hit Ukiah, it's four lane freeways, skinny cows and crabby people driving 75mph. Still it's all good...I'll show the flat, hit the sack, then hopefully head back to my Honey at 5am next day. I should be there before he gets off work, it'll be like I never even left.

The up-side is I get to go shopping at all of my favorite markets and bring back fresh organic produce. Dan's Produce here I come! Creamy avocados, plump tomatoes bursting with flavor, crisp, sweet carrots, nice hard cucumbers (at Freddy's you can bend them into a U - horrible), artichokes the size of a newborn baby's head, and the sweetest oranges that CA has to offer. I can't wait to have a gigantic glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, or as Tony calls it, "Nectar of the gods!" I'm also going to stock up my favorite olive oil - Bariani, and a dozen cans of San Marzano whole tomatoes so I can make a few batches of spaghetti sauce. Yes, I know fresh is best, but San Marzano is like fresh Roma tomatoes without the hassle of steaming and coring. 

I just might pick-up a couple of artisan breads at La Farine Bakery on College Ave. and perhaps a morning bun - quiet possibly the wickedest pastry on the planet. There's about half a cube of butter in every bun, mingling with brown sugar, cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla. Tony and I used to fight over the warm, gooey middle. With a steaming cuppa tea you feel like royalty.

So maybe this trip down won't be all that bad... 

Friday, April 8, 2011

"Spring Has Sprung"

This is the title of a poem my Dad wrote my Mom when they were High School sweethearts, and today I'm feeling like Spring really is here! I feel young and in love, hopeful and excited, and I'm listening to Louis Prima right now, so I've got ants in my pants. 

I'm finally back from my trip to the Bay Area - East Bay to be exact, or, "nickel dime," because of the (510) area code. I was there to clean and paint one of our units, and to find a new tenant (without success). I also went to two concerts - The Motels, Romeo Void opened, and OMD, I visited my BFF, my Mom, my Dad and my favorite cousin - all great. This was a longer trip than most. Twelve days, and I must admit that it was one of the most difficult trips I've had since Tony started his new job nine months ago. 

It's not that I can't stand my hometown anymore, it's that I can't stand being away from my husband! It honestly surprised me, I burst into tears when I got home and we hugged. I never led on that I was suffering or feeling sad, but when we were face to face again it all came out. Of course he loved it. Tony loves raw, heart-felt emotion, he also loves "chick flicks," but he loves it most when my tough, nonchalant exterior cracks and my gushy insides show. I love the fact that he appreciates my emotional surrender and everything that follows...

So we're together again, but not permanently which kills me. When I've gathered a few promising prospects I will go back down and show the flat again. All this back and forth is really making us consider selling our home in the E.B.. Mind you, this is the home of our youth, the home we have worked on since we were first married, the home that has within its walls our blood, sweat and tears, not to mention tens of thousands of hard-earned bucks. It's our nest egg. At the moment I feel like hard boiling that egg, dying it pink and blue and placing it among the thousands of eggs on the market. But I won't. Not yet at least. 

For now, I am going to appreciate being with Tony and concentrate on my bags - sewing in their zippers and making the logo that will go inside of each precious gem. Wow, that's a lot to do since only two out of two dozen have zippers and I haven't even started my logo! I better get to work. Or maybe I'll walk to the's so beautiful outside.

Bon weekend, mes amis!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Love Leads the Way

There are some huge differences between twenty-somethings today versus those of my day. Emotional maturity ranks the top of the list. I'm not saying young adults today are irresponsible and cannot hold a job. It's more like these young men and women are stunted on an emotional level. Not all mind you, but those I have come into contact with seem to have no idea who they are really, or what they want out of life. This may not necessarily be their fault. Perhaps they've been too busy going to grad school or traveling to ponder the meaning of life. Or perhaps they were never taught the importance of love: giving love, receiving love, showing love, longing for love.

This sounds a little New Age-y even to me, but if I were to put my finger on one major difference between young adults today and Gen-Xers, it would be that we BELIEVED in LOVE, it was all about FINDING LOVE. Yes, you're strange and you "wear black on the outside because that's how you feel on the inside" (The Smiths), but you're not alone...there is someone out there just for you. Had a really messed-up background (Suburbia), the possibility of love is still out there.

It's exciting, because I am beginning to see a change in tweens and teens today. They're into the 80's retro-movement. In my day it was the 50's retro-movement, today movies from the 1980's are becoming popular again (many are about trust and love), 80's music plays regularly on the radio and in supermarkets, 80's fashion for better or for worse is back. But there is also a feeling of romance that young people seem to be aiming for. Romance leads to LOVE which can give you greater emotional development and character.

Could it be that's why the Twilight books are such a huge hit among young girls (and a particular 37 y/o man I know). It's not because those books are so well written, or because they're about vampire wars. It's the love and romance between Bella and Edward, and the hope for a love like theirs that make teen hearts go pitter-patter. Perhaps this new generation wants to be completely enveloped by love. They're tired of being fed a diet of reality shows, nihilism, and 'brutal truths.'

Now this is a generation I can relate to! Of course getting an education is important and you should find work that is fulfilling, but if you don't believe in love or forget about love, putting it aside for another day, then you are giving up on one of the most important things in life. Because love can lead the way to true happiness.

Interesting article...I liked the stats:

Everyone should have an Uncle Buck
A few GREAT 80s movies:
 There's an excellent moral in Planes Trains & Automobiles

Say Anything, This movie still kills me! Hits too close to home...
The Breakfast Club
Jake Ryan...need I say more?

Pretty in Pink