The man I had seen in the same café the day before passed by on his bike. “Can I help you get somewhere in particular?” Bashful, I replied, “No, thanks; just trying to get my bearings, is all.” He poked his head toward me. “Huh?”
“I’m trying to get my bearings.”
“You mean, find out where you’re at?”
“Oh. Good luck with that.”
He pedaled away, leaving me alone with my map.
You can’t find your way around if you haven’t decided where you’re going.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
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.
It’s my day today. I’m taking off, all alone, to have an adventure in another city.
I get on the train while the sky is still black. It slowly fades to blue, then pale yellow when I step off the train at my destination. The morning is spent poking around the quiet walkways, before shops even open.
It’s lunchtime. There’s an inviting café that serves tapas, and my stomach is starting to rumble. I sit in the back, surrounded by funky art: psychedelic cartoon faces wink at me while I consider the menu, which is written in chalk on a large piece of slate.
I choose a mild Catalan saucisson, with sardine rillettes, a creamy fish spread that I enjoy on crusty brown bread. Last, the server brings out hot spinach puffs in flaky pastry, served with lamb’s lettuce (mâche) and balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve got a glass of beautifully robust red wine to enjoy with it. The meal is deeply satisfying, and there is nothing to distract me from savoring each tasty morsel.
After, I continue walking through town, getting lost in small side streets, following no particular direction. I appreciate the care and attention each shopkeeper has put into their window display. Light, texture, color, and movement are all incorporated to attract and delight the passersby. I make my way to the central square, where the Christmas market is in full effect. Artisan truffle products stand next to gleaming handmade jewelry and leather-bound journals. Now this is a market.
I order myself a cup of vin chaud and rest it on a barrel to take out my notebook. The hot spiced red wine goes down smoothly and sweetly, and I’m absorbing the scene. Above my head are pine garlands, clusters of gold ornaments, and twinkling lights. The carousel with grinding pipe organ music is a fine backdrop to the squealing delight of children.
The sun is so brilliant, my eyes start to water as I make my way back to the train station. Stamp my ticket, step up from the platform onto the small local train that will bring me back home.
I ease into a seat next to the window. A group of teenage girls giggles into the car, bringing along a typhoon of pink sparkles and flowers. They speak unintelligibly fast about some incoherent, yet apparently highly important, subject. I am unmoving in the midst of this thick fog of unbridled youthful female naïveté. It’s almost painfully resonant and familiar.
In a flurry of hair flips, they disappear at the next station. In their place, a woman about my mother’s age gets on. She quietly sits in the seat facing me with a journal and a book about food, puts on some sunglasses, and gazes out the window.
This local train is pulling us through endless green fields, sensuously illuminated in the golden sun. The trees are bare, except for the clusters of mistletoe that are suspended in their spindly branches like Christmas ornaments. The sunlight is so warm and inviting, one could easily imagine it was spring or summer.
I’m brought back to a childhood memory: visiting a relative’s house in the summer, and running around the seemingly endless back yard. There were no obstructions, nothing between me, the grass, the hot sun, and boundless lightness within myself. That is the feeling I want to go back to. The source of life. Pure joy, safety, warmth, freedom, possibility.
I notice my reflection in the glass. I’m smiling to myself. The woman’s reflection is just next to it, facing mine like a time-lapse mirror.
Later that evening, F and I are around the fireplace at our friends’ house. The wind outside thumps at the windows, but we’re cozy and safe inside. We’re toasting with some bubbly, and just enjoying each other’s company.
It’s been a day of quiet fulfillment and loving kindness. My heart and soul are full to bursting, and I am overcome. I smile into my glass of bubbly, and my eyes well up. Where I’ve been, where I might be tomorrow, are not my concern.
I am living Now, which is just where I belong.
It’s time to head into town and put on my worker-bee hat. Work starts in just over an hour.
I duck under the rose trellis to cut through the neighbor’s yard. The dew darkens the leather on my boots, and I step around a few errant apples that have fallen from the tree.
Hitting pavement, I climb the hill that leads to vineyards, and to the train station beyond…
On the left bank of the hill, I greet my two buddies: Sweetie Pie and Surly Grump. Sweetie Pie looks up from her innocent grass nibbling, bats her eyelashes at me, and coos out her bleat. Surly Grump’s head pops up; wispy strands of grass stick to his chin like whiskers. He glares at me, digs his hooves into the ground, and aggressively croaks out a husky wheeze. He sounds like an old man who’s shouted himself hoarse by yelling at the neighbor kids to get the hell off his lawn.
Yeah, hello to you too.
I reach the sculptor’s house, and the familiar flapping circles around my head before coming to rest in front of me. He flutters in, lands on the pavement, and pat-pats alongside me as I continue my walk. He must be a homing pigeon; this isn’t the first time he’s followed me to the station. He’s got green and blue tags on his ankles, and I wonder where he lives, who owns him, and why he follows me.
I’m singing softly to myself, and my feet crunch the gravel in time. I’m on a one-lane country path, and large expanses of grapevines and untouched land yawn out on either side. I can see the whole valley from this vantage point, and I feel free. When I get too far ahead of my walking buddy, he takes flight, circles around, and falls back in step alongside me. When I reach the end of the one-lane country path, he flies up to the top of the first building, and watches me as I descend toward the sleepy train station.
I’m back in the “real world,” and work starts in 45 minutes.