Sunday, February 05, 2012


I am not by nature an envious person. There are enough good things in this life for everybody to get a little bit, so why worry? If somebody else has something divine or does something wonderful, why shouldn’t I be there on the sidelines, cheering? My turn will probably come eventually.

But I do confess that I have a friend, A. , whose travel life I do envy. Her philosophy seems to be “Some people work to buy food; I work to buy plane tickets” and she’s off at every opportunity. Occasionally she travels with friends, but generally she goes on her own and loves every minute of it. She has been to some utterly fantastic places – many of which I'll admit I would not have the courage to travel to alone – and as soon as she’s back from one trip, she’s plotting the next. A. seems to thrive on research and planning, and she looks for that little something extra that makes her trips that much more marvelous -- go to Al Hambra in the summer and you get oranges on the trees; if you wait ‘til November to see St Petersburg, then the ballet will be in town. That sort of thing. I tend to be of the "Jump on the plane and sort it out when you get there" school of travel, myself. But whenever she describes her upcoming travel plans, I practically drool.

So when we found out we were to have an unexpected three day weekend last December, the first thing she did was check the airlines. Later that evening, as we were sitting around having a chatty shisha, A. mused, ”You know we have Thursday off? I’m thinking of going to Kathmandu and doing some Christmas shopping… flights are cheap on Air Arabia…” Oh ho! Kathmandu for a weekend jaunt? Grand! But as a shopping destination? I’d never even thought of that. “Ooh, ooh! Can I come too?” I asked, hoping to be let into the elusive, exclusive “Travel With A. and See the World” club. “Sure, ” she replied. “Bring an empty suitcase.”

Now I have been to Kathmandu before. I went in 1999 with my buddies K & S. We saw the major sights, climbed the steps to the stupa, hung out in the hippy quarter, bicycled to Pashupatinath, saw the sleeping Vishnu, watched some funerals/body burnings on the river, tossed oranges to the monkeys, and had an all around swell time. I’d seen the main sights of Kathmandu, so there was no reason not to treat this as just a little alternative to spending the gift weekend sleeping late and loafing around the house. So I packed a little carry on and stuck it inside an empty suitcase, and off we went. I could not imagine what I would want to buy in Kathmandu ( since the last time I was there I bought a jacket, a scarf, and a charm for my bracelet, but didn’t otherwise go into the shops), but A. could probably use my extra luggage space.

Ha. I filled that suitcase, and totally stuffed my carry on to boot. Cashmere. Carpets. Embroidery. Sweaters. Shawls. Silver. Nepali felt and handcrafts. Singing bowls. Tiger boxes. Tiger slippers. I did all my Christmas shopping and then some. I even found a present for my Dad. What a great way to spend a weekend! We stayed at the superb Ambassador Garden Home Hotel, and I managed to find the Tibetan restaurant I’d visited in 1999 that serves the best potato soup on the planet. (It still does.) A day and a half and a quarter — which is what it amounted to – was the perfect amount of time for a shopping trip, punctuated with good rustic food and drink, followed by shisha and music in the evenings.

And I learned something from travelling with A. (other than the fact that I want to do it again, of course). Even though I can’t travel as often as she does and probably will never dare the more exotic places on my own, The Sort It Out Later school of travel has its limitations. It is worth taking the time and looking at one’s travel possibilities and making the absolute most of what there is on offer. And to stay open to the unexpected. Like a shopping trip to Kathmandu.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


The best laid plans of mice and men are often totally wrecked by cats.

I like cats. I’m allergic to them, but I like them. I grew up with a cat; I also grew up with running eyes and a snotty nose. So when the lovely little calico tabby brought her three tiny kittens to live under our water tank last April, my darling husband (who also likes cats) and I went all awwww-y (as you do), but decided that they needed to stay feral cats. When one kitten disappeared a couple of weeks later ( it was adopted by a loving home and not run over by a Hummer, and please do not disabuse me of my fantasy), we thought they might all move on, but no, they stayed. I put out water for them, but that was it. Feral cats need to learn to hunt. Then just after they were weaned their mother disappeared and they got terribly thin, so I started to feed them. Feline Friends told me to feed them just two or three times a week in different places at different times so they wouldn’t get dependent, and I duly did just that – for about two weeks. Then the piteous mews emanating from their scraggy faces started haunting my dreams, and I gave in and started to feed them every day.

For the first part of the summer, they were just “Teh Kittehs”, and I watched them play outside and that was that. I figured they’d eventually move on, as cats do. But then I started looking for them and worrying about them. And then--- well --- as Mike told Sully in Monsters, Inc: “Once you name them, they OWN you.”

Tux is gun-shy. He will come to be fed and he will actually come into the house if the door is left open, but he will not tolerate being handled or even touched. I can’t even catch him to get him to the vet. The Redheaded Bouncer, on the other hand, is a right little tart and will cozy up to anybody who looks good for a nuzzle or a petting. She always wants attention and desperately wants to be an indoor cat. In the heat of midsummer, I occasionally opened the door for them, and they came straight into the cool. They would park themselves under a stream of air conditioned coolness and revel in the comfort of The Indoors. Eventually, Bouncer figured out that if she asked (yowled at the side door, sat on the kitchen windowsill, met my car in the driveway), she might get lucky and get inside. And she might get really lucky and get a hot dog or other similar feline-approved treat along with a good petting and a chance to sleep on the couch under the AC.

However, these two are just a couple of feral critters living under my water tank and off my largess.

Or so I thought.

This morning, I left for work at 5:30 because I was too tired last night to finish the prep for the six hours of classes I have on Thursdays. I thought I’d get in, finish writing my handout, make the photocopies, have a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of tea, relax and be ready for the 8 a.m. start to my day from hell. Before I left the house, I went outside to feed the cats. Normally they hear the chow bag rustle and come running, but this time: nothing. I heard some yowling and figured it was a turf war with the neighbor’s cat, so I poured out the kibble and got into the car. And as I pulled away from the house, I glanced back and thought I saw a cat on the roof. “Ridiculous,” I thought. I’m hallucinating,” which is something I sometimes do as a byproduct of migraines. So I drove off and then thought – wait: my hallucinations are nearly always sounds or smells, and they are the last symptom before a migraine goes full blown – I don’t have any of the lesser symptoms. But the cat couldn’t GET on the roof. Could she? I turned around.

And when poor Bouncer saw me, she started running frantically along the edge of the roof, yowling, It was that awful, pitiful sound of a cat in trouble, not just her “I want some petting” mewl. I was terrified she was going to jump down to me since she trusts me and frequently jumps up on me in her attempts to get into the house. I ran to the back of the house to go up to the roof.

Let me say here that I do not like vertical ladders. I fell off one on board a ship when I was a little kid, and though a nice sailor (or maybe it was my Dad) caught me, it has kind of lurked in the back of my mind ever since. Nevertheless, Bouncer needed me, so up I went. Let me say here that when I say “don’t like” I actually mean “petrified of”, and I got part way up and my hands locked into claws. Back down I went. The neighbors didn’t answer their door (it wasn’t yet 6:00) but I found a gardener, and managed to communicate to him that I needed help. Poor man. I gave him a canvas bag to put the cat in, and up he went. He couldn’t catch her. I made it halfway up the ladder again with some food, but she wasn’t buying it. After a while, he came back down, catless. I gave him some money which he tried to refuse, and then called my boss, who lives down the road. He said he wasn’t fit to climb around roofs, but he listed the guys who also live nearby. Fortunately, I had Rob’s phone number, and I called him. It was nearly six thirty. “Hi it’s Cynthia, I’m sorry if I woke you but I need a knight in shining armor.” “What for?” “ThecatisstuckontheroofandIcan’tgetherdowncanyouandJudycomeoverandhelpus?” “Judy’s on her way to work, but I’ll come.” Relief. But I knew this was a two man job, so I headed back up the ladder. By this time, Bouncer had figured out I was close by and was sticking her head over the parapet, yowling. The neighbor stuck her own head out the window – apparently Bouncer had awakened them this morning – and said her husband was in the shower, but he might be able to help later. Too late. I was already back on the ladder.

Once I actually got in sight of the top I realized that If I could even manage to get onto the roof, I would never be able to get back down. The step over the parapet was way too high, and I’d never ever manage it backwards. When Rob arrived, Bouncer was looking down at me in panic, I was clinging to the rusty old ladder with one hand and dialing the phone to call my husband (in an earlier time zone, btw) for moral support with the other. Oh, and having a complete, hysterical meltdown. Which is something I do about once a decade.

Rob was going to have to get her on his own. I got back down ( and did indeed fall off the last rung of that accursed ladder) and he went up. (Young, strong, fit guys are really useful at times like these.) As he reached the top, who comes racing around the corner but Bouncer?

I made poor Rob look around and figure out how she got on and then off the roof. The tree next to the house has wispy branches at the top – surely too fine to take the weight of a cat – but apparently there was one a little thicker than the others that was resting in one of the crenellations in the wall. The little madam had climbed the tree, waltzed over on the branch, and then chickened out about coming down. I think she figured that when I was so close and did not save her she was on her own, so she went back down the way she came up.

So there I was: exhausted, tearstained, embarrassed to be seen in such a state by a colleague, nearly late for a class that I wasn’t totally prepared to teach…and the damned cat – who’d eaten an hour and a half of my morning and dragged at least three people out of bed – had managed to save her own sorry self. Did I throttle her, as she so richly deserved? Did I. I picked her up, took her into the cool house, petted her, fussed over her, gave her some water, then reluctantly turfed her out only because I had to get to class.

I am so totally owned.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


Last summer I was in Sweden with M, hanging out in a college town called Lund and taking a couple of shorter trips to Copenhagen and Stockholm. We didn't have a mad touring week planned --we mostly wanted to slouch around and enjoy the long, sunny summer days. So it seems that what we did mostly was eat and drink. Always a good vacation plan in my book.

The friend who had lent us her apartment had highly recommended lunch in a popular restaurant in town. It took us three tries to find it open, which we finally did on our last day. It was a great little bistro -- jam packed -- that included a salad and bread bar with the meal. One of the breads I picked up was dark and spicy smelling. When I tasted it, I knew I'd found something extraordinary. The waiter couldn't tell me what was it was, but said it was 'everyday' (I assume he meant nothing special) and came from the bakery next door. We finished lunch and rushed over; they were closed. We went back the next morning, and they gave me the Swedish name (filmjolkbrod), and called it 'sour bread', but didn't have enough English to tell me what was in it. I bought two loaves and brought them home.

We knew it had something anise-y in it and probably molasses, but that's as much as we could figure out from tasting it. I couldn't even tell for sure whether it was a yeast bread or a soda bread: it wasn't yeasty, but it wasn't dense like a soda bread, either. I did a Google search on the Swedish name and came up with nothing, so I figured it just wasn't meant to be anything but a pleasant holiday memory.

Now, I am in the habit of buying cookbooks everywhere I go, and in Stockholm we had visited an open air museum that was kind of like their version of Williamsburg -- a sort of 19th century re-enactment town, with glass blowers, furniture makers, etc. In their museum gift shop, I picked up a couple of books: one was cookies (of course) and the other was basically a family recipe book of desserts, pastries, etc. Rather amateurish, rather homespun-looking, but full of traditional recipes presented with family anecdotes. My kind of book.

I tend to read my cookbooks like novels, and a couple of weeks after I got home, I picked up the family recipe book and started reading it. And there on page 28 was a picture of a homely little loaf called "Soured milk bread". I read the recipe, and sure enough -- molasses, aniseed, fennel, rye flour (of course!) -- it had to be something like. I made it, tasted it, and was brought right back to the bistro in Lund.

And best of all, it is just about the easiest loaf of bread I have ever made. I frequently make it when we have weekend guests; I can throw it together before anyone else is up, and by the time the rest of breakfast is ready and the coffee is brewed, it's out of the oven. It's a big loaf and will last for days (if it doesn't get eaten before lunch on the first day). It makes excellent toast and also freezes well. It's super in a ham and cheese sandwich or with cream cheese and jam, or just with butter. And since just about everyone I have made this for wants the recipe, I figured it was time to type it up.

The original recipe calls for "3 tsp ground aniseed and fennel" and it is unclear to me whether they meant 3 tsp mixed or 3 tsp each. I like the spice to stand up and be noticed, so I use about 2 tablespoons of each. Play with it yourself. The only other caveat is the pan: I happen to have a 2 liter loaf pan, which is what is called for in the recipe. If you use smaller pans, you’ll have to keep checking for doneness, and I have no idea how long smaller loaves would take. In my pan, 1 hour is perfect. I apologize for the American measurements; I use the stir/scoop/swipe method for measuring flour, and mix it all in my standing mixer.

Swedish Soured Milk Bread
(from In Grandma’s Arbor, by K & M Jonsson)

In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients:
1 ¼ cups rye flour
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon (tsp) salt
1 to 2 tablespoons ground aniseed
1 to 2 tablespoons fennel seed
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder

In the mixer, mix the wet ingredients:
½ cup molasses
1 ¼ cup buttermilk (soured milk or plain yoghurt will do)
2/3 cup milk

Mix the dry ingredients into the liquid until well combined (don’t over work it); the dough will be sticky. Spread the dough in a greased 2 liter loaf pan, smoothing it out evenly (a greased spoon helps). Place in the middle of a COLD oven, set the temperature for 200 C (400 F) and bake for one hour. Cool in the pan until it comes out easily. Wrap any leftovers in aluminum foil.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Those of you who know me well know I love to bake. OK, I don’t do it very often in Dubai (have you seen my impractical kitchen? Or my waistline?), but there’s nothing more relaxing than getting out the butter and sugar and whipping something up. And is there anything like the smell of vanilla to lighten a gloomy day?

In Dubai, we do have something in the way of a cooking school: L’Atelier des Chefs at the Meridien has general classes with a slightly French bias, and Chef Gregory gives the occasional pastry class. They’re good fun, but if you are sharing a class with others there’s only so much hands-on you get to do… plus he has prepped everything in advance, so you don’t actually feel as if you’ve done it all yourself. For some things the pre-prep is necessary—the macaron class was only two hours, and it takes longer than that start-to-finish to make three different kinds of macaron. So we made fillings, for example, but some of the fillings we actually ate had been made beforehand. So although I enjoy Gregory’s classes, I’ve done pretty much all of his pastry classes, and it was time for The Big Time.
So I had been searching and searching for a class I could do – about a week long—on my spring vacation. I had planned to do it in Italy, Vienna or maybe Budapest, since they all have excellent pastry traditions; France I shied away from since I speak about six words of French and none of them intelligibly.

Internet searches got me nowhere. Everything was either touring/wine tasting with a casual class thrown in, or going to full-fledged professional pastry school – way, way above my skill, budget and timeframe. Le Cordon Bleu may be very nice, but not at all what I wanted—or indeed, could handle. Scary chefs in toques barking at me in French? I don’t think so.
I was going to settle for a pizza course in Rome or maybe a gelato course in Sorrento when, two days before I HAD to make a decision, the website where I’d found these courses (GoLearnTo) sent me an email saying there was a new pastry course in Bordeaux. It didn’t sound too, too scary-chefs-in-toques – they said I could be taught in English and I really, really wanted to do pastry, so I contacted them. Back and forth over email, then a phone call – they couldn’t take me right after the wedding in Barcelona, but would 9th-13th work? Sure--why not? I figured I could hang out in Paris for a few days. Sign me up.

And that’s how I found myself at a country inn in France, up to my elbows in patisserie.

Le Gargantua is absolutely charming. It’s an 1850’s stone built farmhouse about an hour out of Bordeaux, and chef Marlene and her English husband Marc restored it and built an inn/cooking school out of the barns. They live in the house with their two delightful little girls, a cat on the prowl for tidbits, and the quietest dog I’ve ever met. The rooms are all exposed stone and wooden beams, and very comfortable. The inn’s restaurant is en famille, which means we ate whatever menu was being prepared and everyone sat together – apparently typical at country inns , but a challenge for me, since my French is those six words and my fellow diners (except for the Spanish teacher) didn’t speak English. (Though one evening, they spoke to me in French and I answered in a mix of Italian and English, so we did all right.) However, Marc and/or Marlene generally joined us for dessert at least and they kept conversation going and translated where necessary. Marc did most of the day-to-day cooking, and I would say it’s a brave Englishman who will cook in France, but his food was superb! Parsnips? Cauliflower? Pate? Goat cheese? Quiche? ME?? But the pureed vegetable soup I got for lunch one day was absolutely delicious, as was the cauliflower and potato soup we had for a starter one night. I even gladly ate the goat cheese and honey salad, and asked for the recipe. (My Goat will love this). I would hold up any of the meals I had here against anything produced by the scary-chefs-in-toques in Paris. Pork with prunes, Toulouse sausage and endive, onion tart, daube en croute, duck l’orange with potatoes and broccoli (!), and on and on… French country food is lovely.

And the pastry? Ooh la la! Marlene called me before the class to ask if there was anything I particularly wanted to work on. I’m not a rank beginner, but I’ve always felt hopeless with a pastry bag and nothing I make is ever ‘pretty’, although it tastes good. So, of course, she designed my classes around pastry bags (Religieuse au chocolat and Paris-Brest) and doing things that were pretty (mille feuille, white & dark chocolate mousse cake, etc). And – quelle horreur!—she told me that the results of my class would be served in the restaurant that night. Nothing like knowing you are going to have scary French people eat your French desserts to make you pay very close attention to what you’re doing!

And I did pay attention. And took copious notes. Not that anything was actually that difficult in the end. So far from the scary-chefs-in-toques I was dreading, cooking with Marlene was like cooking with a good friend who knows lots more than you do and is willing to share all the secrets. Is the mousse for the bavarois aux fraises a little bland? Easy to fix: put a scoop in another bowl, add a flavoring, mix it in well, and then fold that back into the main mousse. Egg whites won’t whip up enough? A bit of lemon juice does the trick. She showed me all those things that books never tell you which can only be learned by experience. And did I get experience!

In four days of cooking, I made eight complete recipes. The first day we had a tasting from a professional bakery, so I would know what the finished products should look and taste like, followed by my first cooking session (pate choux), but the other days had two sessions each (though we ditched Tarte Tatin so I could go shopping for supplies to take back to Dubai). I came to cook, and we cooked! And I learned so much. The choices Marlene made when designing my course gave me a broad range of techniques to work on. Although I had had some experience of most of the techniques, Marlene could tell me how and why something worked (or wouldn’t work) and let me in on those little secrets that make such a difference. And doing all the fiddly bits of putting it all together is what really made it shine. I did the work (she mostly supervised and measured, and demonstrated new techniques before handing it back over to me), so I could look at the lovely results and think “I did that…and I know how it all works now so I can do it again.”

And as you can see by the pictures, I think it was a roaring a success! I got honest to goodness compliments all round, and some of the inn’s customers actually had seconds on dessert. Maybe I couldn't understand all the words, but I could see the smiles. I had a super time, and am leaving with a lot more confidence in my cooking than I started with. Now if I practice up on these skills, maybe next year I can get Marlene to teach me sugar skills. From cream puffs to Croquemboche with cracked caramel... Mmmmmm...

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Being a language teacher, I should be good at foreign languages, one would think. I’ve lived nearly half my life in non-English speaking countries and have visited countless more – surely I’d pick up languages easily, right?

Wrong. I’m hopeless. But, being a language teacher, I generally manage to communicate pretty well, even if I have little or no common language with my interlocutor. As long as everyone is willing to try, I usually do all right.

So I’ve been in France for the past few days, and struggling along with bits of the language, but even when I thought I was doing all right with the words, the communication hasn’t always been there. For example, when the hotel clerk told me that getting to Montparnasse was “Tres easy. A few minutes by metro,” it was logical for me to think ‘a few minutes’ was 10 or 15, wasn’t it? When I got there 40 minutes later and 10 minutes after my train had left, I looked around at the vast number of confusing directional signs and managed to follow one that seemed to point to the information window. “Bon Jour, Madame” says I “Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu,” quoth she. Oh good. So I started speaking, then realized a few seconds later that I was not actually communicating anything to her. So I tried again. I pointed to my reservation time, made a sad face, and shrugged a Gallic “what to do?” shrug at her. She understood, and fixed me up with the next train to Bordeaux. “Merci.”

From Bordeaux, I had to catch the 16:14 to Tonneins, an hour down the line. This meant another ticket. Following signs similar to the ones that had worked for me at Montparnasse, I dragged my suitcase up a flight of stairs and found another clerk in another window. “Bon Jour, Madame. Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu”. Uh-huh. Here we go again. This one spoke enough English to tell me it was not her desk. I must go “Left, and how you say? Under?” “Downstairs?” “Oui, don der stairs for billet.” “Merci.”

So I dragged the suitcase back down the flight of stairs I had just dragged it up and looked for “billet”. Found an arrow. Went that way. Dead end. Went back. Saw another sign: “Information. Billet” in the other direction. Followed that. And found a machine. In French.

OK, I thought, I can do this. It’s logical. Ticket machines all work the same way. And indeed it did. Until I got to the payment part. Fifteen euro. Fine. Out comes my trusty Visa card, in it goes and I’m told to take it out again. OK. Then a violent stream of French words flashes across the screen and I’m told I have one minute (I think). For what? I quickly enter my PIN. Nothing. It bounces me back to the entry screen. No ticket. Did it charge my card? I wait for the telephone bleep from HSBC. Nothing. I try again. Same story. I try it in a different direction. Nope. I try my gold MC, and then my US Visa. Nothing. Great. Bloody machine won’t take my foreign credit cards. Merci.

Cash? Ha! Coins only. Who carries 15 euro around in change? I could not face dragging that suitcase back up the stairs to try to find some change, so I left the building and walked up the ramp and saw a little luncheonette across the street. Great. Maybe he’ll have change. “Bon jour, Monsieur. Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu.” Super. “I’m trying to buy a ticket in that machine but…” No communication here, either. So I get out my wallet and change purse, point to the station and myself and say “ I want to buy une billet, but…” “No, no. No billet” “Oui, oui – non! Ummmm….” Embarrassed giggle. Deep breath. On with the pantomime. I start pointing at the station: “Une billet pour moi. Machine pour billet. Oui. Euro fifteen -- quinze – But…” and I pulled out my charge cards “Etats Unis Visa – non! Etats unis MC –Non!” And I tugged my hair and made that frustrated growling sound you do. He laughed. I pulled out a ten and a five. “Euro quinze –non!” And then held up and shook my change purse “Euro quinze -- Oui!” And then spilled my measly three and a half euro in change onto his counter. “Euro trois.” Sad face, plus Gallic shrug; then breaking into English: “It only takes coins and I don’t have enough. Can you change this?” and I held up the bills with a bit more of that very useful sad face. He (and by now his buddies who had gathered around) grinned broadly at the lunatic, but took my bills and came back with a handful of coins. “Merci!! Merci monsieur, tres gentile – you are very kind.” And my suitcase and I trotted back to the station. I waved. “Merci!”

I poured my change into that foul, xenophobic ticket machine (and did an air punch, since I knew they were watching), grabbed my precious ticket, and proceeded to drag my bag back up the stairs to look for the train. I went past the first desk I’d asked at and learned yet again that language does not always mean communication, and “Un peu Anglais” should never be trusted. Because had I turned RIGHT out of the office instead of left, I would have eventually run smack into the main part of the station, with a lovely escalator to take me and my bag downstairs to a ticket plaza, complete with real people selling tickets from booths, two of which had British flags displayed in their windows – which is French for “I speak more English than just un peu.”


Tuesday, March 08, 2011


There seems to be a new thing in thievery in Paris these days. I was walking in the Place du Concorde and not once but TWICE someone pretended to have picked up something valuable from the street and insist that I had dropped it. One was (I think) an earring and the other was a gold ring. I didn’t stop for the first person (I was on the phone) but the second managed to engage me long enough for me to see she earnestly felt that the ring she'd “found” should be mine. She seemed surprised that I didn’t claim it. For the few seconds we were talking, I was looking for her accomplice and wondering why I looked like an easy mark – my bag was across my chest and underneath my coat, and I was resting one hand through the upper loop of it. Perhaps it was my big, breezy coat that looked easy to search through? There was nothing in my pockets anyway. And I did not see anyone near us, either, so I’m not quite sure what her game was. Perhaps the trick was to hope a greedy person took the bait and then loudly complain to the police that she’d been robbed, maybe ‘proving’ the ring was hers by an inscription in it? I have no idea what it was all about.

Still, my amble through the pricey district of Paris was amusing. I kept looking in the windows of the jewelry stores and designer boutiques on the Champs Elysee and thinking “the price of that watch would fund my entire Japanese bath in the Cyprus house” or “I could have hand-made kitchen cabinets for the cost of that rather ugly ring” or “Who would spend that kind of money on a trendy coat that will last a season when the same amount could put in an entire orange grove that will last years?” I somehow seem to have acquired distinctly middle-aged values somewhere along the way.

Even so, there is no place like Paris for sheer indulgence. In my perambulations about town, I have been making a minor study of patisseries and Salons de Thè in preparation for the course I’m about to embark on tomorrow. I have decided that I could never tire of eating macarons or brioche, though the very pretty chocolate desserts are frankly too rich for me. Pastry cream, praline and fruit seem to be much more the thing. And of course I’ve had both brioche and croissant everyday for breakfast this week. Delightful. But in peering through café windows around town, I was amazed to see how many seemed to offer tarte tatin and crème brulee as the only sweets on the menu. And the desserts and pastries some displayed next to their several-thousand-dollar barista machines weren’t even tempting to look at through the windows. I can’t understand how so many in a city renowned for its desserts can have such world-weary offerings. Paul, which is a café chain (!) had some lovely things, and tea at Dalloyau was indeed splendid. But elsewhere? Disappointingly mediocre.

I am interested to see what the Chef has planned for me this week. I left the content of the course up to her, though I did mention that mille feuilles would be nice to be able to make. I just want some time in the kitchen with someone who really knows how it all works and can give me a good foundation to go on and create on my own. Pastry is so very delicious to work with, and though I’m not supposed to eat it, I can always give it away. My colleagues will be very glad of a Cake Fairy in the staff room, I have no doubt. Meanwhile, the Musee d’Orsay and the tea rooms of the Left Bank await my last day in Paris. À bientôt.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Upupa epops

My dear, indulgent husband agreed to let the new gardener put a lawn in over the dust bowl that was the backyard of the Crumbling Villa. It’s thriving, and I love it. We had originally intended to have a desert garden -- cacti and aloes and various plants that need little water -- but between the last gardener watering the cacti to death and the neighborhood cats deciding the sand box was a perfect, well, sand box, we decided to go a bit more conventional. Or rather, I decided, and he didn’t object. Well, not until he saw the first water bill.

Our new gardener a bit of a madman. He’s Afghani, I think, and speaks about six words of English; however, he has a brother who speaks a bit more, and we manage to communicate more or less. His jaw dropped at the sight of his new charge. I think he expected we “English” to have a veritable forest in the back garden, and was shocked by the desolation of the dust bowl. Indeed, our few scrubby aloes weren’t terribly impressive.

The first thing he wanted to do was carpet the yard with camel dung (or whatever the foul smelling stuff they use here is) and put down sod. We let him. Who was I to argue (and how?)? Besides, without the sand box, the nasty neighborhood cats might find another toilet-cum-bordello to hang out in. Bonus. Once the lawn was in, the gardener decided we needed flowers along the borders. He ignored the spiky plants that were already there and merrily stuck in purple and white petunias. Very cheery for a month, but then they started frying in the sun and smelled worse than the cats or the camel dung. He moved on to some brightly colored, rather ugly zinnia-type-things that grow way too high and attract bees and gnats. At least most of the cats stay away.

But the bit I love is the grass. I know it’s silly to want to grow grass in the desert. I know I should be concerned about the atrocious wastefulness of keeping a garden green during the 45C+ heat of the summer in the middle of a desert. I also know that the Crumbling Villa came with two trees that are perfect for hanging a hammock between, so I’ve got my grass. It’s marvelous to run my toes through. Even the Grumpy One joins me under the trees when the evening is cool enough, so he doesn’t dare complain (much). And the cats don’t like it nearly as much as the sand, so most have moved on to other, drier gardens. Bonus.

Friday morning I was making breakfast (which I do from time to time) and went to the sink to wash up a couple of dishes (which I do somewhat less frequently). I looked out of the kitchen window to enjoy the newly mown lawn and saw this lovely fellow strutting up and down and flexing his wings, looking for all the world like he owned the place. I was wildly excited to think that something so rare and exotic had been drawn to my precious lawn, and nearly burned the sausages gawping at him.

I made the Goat get his camera and take photos of it so I could ask the Natural History Society people whether they’d ever seen such a magnificent bird, only to find when I proudly showed them the pictures that my rare, exotic treasure is as common as muck, at least around here. So common, in fact, that Upupa epops, or the hoopoe (as he is called) was the bird that the Queen of Sheba (which is right next door) sent to chat with King Solomon in the Koran,according to my students. Kind of the messenger pigeon of his day, I suppose.

Still it would be nice if this little hoopoe moved in. Perhaps he will if we can keep the last of the neighborhood cats out of the yard. I wonder what the Pashtu is for "Go ahead and turn the hose on the cats if you want to"?
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