April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Early March. Snowdrops and crocuses are blooming, as are the daffodils.
Snowdrops, beautiful delicate white flowers, coyly looking down at their feet. I remember wrapping their trimmed stems in wet paper towel, then plastic wrap. The downturned eyebrows and “aw” of my favorite teacher when I proudly presented them to her.
Crocuses, narrow vase-shaped purple and yellow blooms. They tell me Spring is almost here.
Daffodils, already in bloom. Back home, they arrive in April; my favorites have white petals and yellow trumpets. The hills of our park are covered in an army of daffodils, thousands standing proud.
This beautiful trio of color is what brushes away the lethargy of winter. Endless gray skies, bitter wind and rain, minimal daylight truncated by late sunrises and early sunsets. The gray is cast over everything, making food taste as bland as the tree branches that loom overhead, naked and spindly.
Meanwhile, the flesh on my hips grows thicker with raclette, inactivity and torpor. My head is stuffed with cotton, and I feel myself disappearing, daily, soundlessly into the fog-laden hills of my morning walk.
My gray existence receives a jolt every year, upon sight of these flowers.
I wipe the sleep from my eyes, and go outside to pick one. The first sight of vibrant color in months turns my world back into technicolor.
It’s nearly time to come out of hibernation.
Tonight, I’m back in the kitchen. Today’s mission: risotto from leftovers. I’ve got a half-package of lardons (unsmoked matchsticks of bacon), one slightly manky onion, a couple handfuls of salad greens, and a few lonely frozen asparagus spears, languishing in the freezer.
First, fill up my stock pot with some fresh water. Throw in a couple stock cubes; it’s not as good as stock from scratch, but they ain’t bad. (Hey, I’m a working woman. Who’s got time to simmer stock during the week?) To give a more homemade flavor, I toss in 5 whole peppercorns, a crushed clove of garlic, and the ends of the onion and shallot I’ve just chopped. Let it steep while I get to my risotto.
In a pan, I start by browning my lardons, rendering out that delicious pork fat. Once they look tantalizing enough to eat, I remove them from the pan. On the way, one of those little guys may have accidentally fallen into my mouth. Oops. Add a touch of olive oil. In go one small minced red onion and a few garlic cloves, and a pinch of salt. Sizzle until fragrant, then in with my rice. Keep that pan moving, stir that rice around until those grains start to gleam. Now comes my favorite part: deglaze with the last glugs in a bottle of white wine. The whoosh is satisfying, and while the pan is simmering, I’m scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Oh, what lovely flavor!
Now comes the process of lovingly ladling my stock into the rice, then stirring. One ladleful after another, I’m imbuing this mixture with flavor, and feeding those grains of rice until they puff up. Partway through, I add my secret ingredient: a damn good scrape of nutmeg.
Add my chopped asparagus spears and lardons, finish the rice.
The finale: a tablespoon of crème fraîche for that unctuous mouth feel, and two generous handfuls of peppery rocket. If I had chives, I’d snip some of those bad boys over the top.
I serve up two heaping bowlfuls; F is wide-eyed like a little boy in anticipation; the aromas from the kitchen have gotten him salivating. To add heat, we sprinkle Espelette pepper over the top, and dig in.
A lovely moment of kitchen alchemy, a moment to myself during the week.
The 8 o’clock hour. If I am to make or break this day, it’s decided in the 8 o’clock hour.
I crack open an eye to get my bearings.
When the sky is still thick, before the sun clears away the mist. The world is silent. The shutter is cracked open just enough for me to see the day. The window faces west, and a soft glow comes through the pinpricks. Good morning, world.
In my fluffy robe and socks I feel like a human-sized stuffed animal as I pad out to my little spot next to the window that overlooks the garden.
This morning, the sun kisses the trees and houses. The sun drips through pine branches and makes them look illuminated from within. The ground hasn’t been touched by sunlight yet, and the remaining leaves are painted a dull purple. Ferns fan out in a beautifully random spread, and the grass looks a deep turquoise-green. Dusted with a gentle frost, the ground looks like a delicate still life.
I stir some honey into coconut milk for my morning treat. It’s a rich soothing comfort to my empty grumbling stomach.
From my little window, this is all mine.
My fingers itch, and I smile to myself.
It’s time to write.
Today is made.
It’s summertime. I don’t know what day it is, nor does it matter. Summer days tended to flow from one to the next, and the memories stick together as if I lived a whole summer’s worth of adventures in one long day. I wake up with a start, with the thrill of excitement at starting a new day. The first lazy rays of sunlight seep into my room, bringing the silent air of mystery that I’m enamored with. Nobody else is awake, nothing moves. I’ve got this special time all to myself.
I slide out of bed, barefoot and already dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. No need to change, I’m fine just as I am. From the kitchen I grab a little plastic bowl, then slip on my sandals and quietly sneak out the back door into the garden.
The sky is still an inviting shade of bluish-violet, which means today I’ll be able to see the watercolor sky redden until the first shock of sunlight spills over the horizon. That special kind of sunlight that tints everything it touches and makes it glow, like I’m looking through rose-colored glasses. The birds are yawning out their first peeps and chirps of the day. As the sky warms gradually, the birdsong swells and the air fills to saturation. The smell of the dew on the grass is uplifting, and the unmoving air leaves a refreshing chill on my skin.
I like being here alone. The presence of anyone else here in my special world would undo its perfection.
In this calm, still moment, I don’t even want to breathe too loudly, for fear of disrupting the sanctity of it all. The whispers of last night’s dreams are still in my head, and reality feels abstract. Time is immaterial, and it feels like anything and everything is possible. I feel capable and independent, like I have no limitations and the world is mine to discover.
I walk slowly and deliberately toward the back of the garden, where the raspberry bushes sit. The raspberries wink at me from their hiding spots, scattered among vibrant leaves. The color combination is deeply attractive: variegated shades of green leaves and beautifully arched stems are punctuated with the luminous red berries.
I pick the first raspberry of the day and pop it straight into my mouth: the seeds crunch and the fragrant, sweet, slightly sour berry flavor overpowers my taste buds. The flavor is so concentrated that I can both smell and taste it at the same time. Glorious. I continue to hunt through the thorny vines to fill my plastic bowl with more. I love the satisfying feeling of a freshly-ripened raspberry slipping off the vine–to me, they look like little crocheted hats meant for garden gnomes.
As my bowl fills, I dream about the raspberry waffles that Mom will make in my favorite Bugs Bunny waffle iron. Maybe she’ll let me pour the batter and make my own waffles today…
The flavor of that first berry fades, and I consecrate myself to my task. The day has begun.