cuisine sans cuisine.

mise en place

(that’s “cooking without a kitchen” for you Anglos.)

Even casual readers of this blog probably know I love to cook… and since I don’t think anyone reads this besides my friends and family, hopefully some of you remember a meal I cooked for you, hopefully with fond memories.

When I was accepted into grad school, I knew that a major part of my life was going to change. I’d be moving every six months to various cities around Europe. There would be no more cob ovens in the backyard, no more potluck pizza parties; no more summer nights concocting each new flavor in the hand-cranked ice cream maker; no more spring days sweating over a boiling vat of water as I pressurized cans of newly-cooked-up jams.

I did a farewell tour of my favorite cookbooks, then packed my bags for Europe.

At first it wasn’t so bad. In Sweden I had a great communal kitchen and great hallmates; I’d whip up huge curries and soups that I’d eat for days, and I’d bake strange and adventurous desserts to share with my friends. I’d leave cakes on the counter with a note that said “eat me”; one morning, I found a note back that said, “thanks, mysterious cake baker. you saved my day!” (I still have the note.)

For my friend Katie’s birthday, I made a cake, frosted it, and we had a great time decorating it with pink and purple sprinkles, flower-shaped sugar candies, and Disney princess candles. It was a hit.

Then I moved to France.

Not only do I not have a kitchen in my room – that was fine in Sweden – but the group kitchens are atrocious. There is one kitchen for thirty people; it has no ovens. Just a few stovetops and a few sinks, and one table, and sometimes some chairs. There are no cupboards, so you can’t store anything there; by default that means no communal cooking equipment. You own all your own stuff and store it, with your groceries, in your room. Luckily, we have small refrigerators. But our rooms are tiny enough as it is (mine is just nine square meters). So you don’t keep much.

The one time I have used the kitchen, I made donuts – well, beignets, with a nod to Todd – for my classmates. We drenched them in vanilla sugar. They were delicious. Other than that, the kitchen is just too much of a pain in the ass.

So what’s a gourmet addict to do? Believe it or not, there’s a lot you can cook without a kitchen. Am I happy? No. Am I eating? Yes. Tonight’s dinner:

meal

Pretty romantic. And yes, my whole room, basically, is lime green. It’s not as jarring as you would imagine.

If you are in a similar situation (with the kitchen – not the lime green paint, you’re on your own for that one), the most important thing to do is to buy an electric kettle! You need to be able to boil water. Other appliances are great too, but that’s the bare minimum, and that’s what I did, for not too much money at the Casino Geant. It’s like a Wal-Mart. Yes, first I lost my kitchen privileges, then I started shopping at the French equivalent of Wal-Mart. What is my life coming to!?

So when the shit hits the fan, here’s how to eat. A guide to cuisine, sans cuisine.

Sandwiches

If you’re not American, skip this part. Apparently everyone else thinks sandwiches are stupid. I used to agree with them; I just never liked them that much, and then I went through this summer where I could eat at a dining hall but I was always gone for mealtimes so sometimes I’d eat PB&J three meals a day, and that did not improve the sandwich outlook.

But: sandwiches can be great. If you put no effort into a sandwich, it will suck. But think how much time you put into making a “normal” meal. Now put half that time into a sandwich. It’s going to be great! Even if it’s not even half the time.

In Sweden, I had great combinations of soft cheese, lingonberry jam, chicken, and cucumbers. In France, it’s a paradise with which to make a sandwich. You have great bread. Amazing cheese, of every provenance and type. Mustard? heck yeah! Cured meats sliced thin. Sauces and spreads. Olives and pickles and fresh vegetables. I like to throw in apple slices. You can make a different sandwich every day, practically.

Do not fear the sandwich. Turn it into a meal. The sandwich is your friend.

Cold Things in Bowls

Basically everything else I eat is a pile of food in a bowl. I don’t own a plate; I own two blue ceramic bowls that I bought at IKEA. So, food in a bowl. The first category is cold things in a bowl.

The most obvious answer is salad, but as a single person, I don’t buy greens; they always get slimy before I eat them all. So my cold bowls have other bases, and are usually topped with a homemade two- or three-ingredient vinaigrette that sometimes contains mustard. Some recent ones:

Avocado, pear, hard-boiled eggs (made in your electric kettle!), cheese

Purple cabbage, lentils, apples, nuts

Tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, tuna

Panzanella: bread salad with tomatoes (like this)

Use your imagination and go wild. Vegetables are your friends; so are fruits (fresh or dried); so are canned beans and legumes. Meat and cheese are good additions. I’m inspired  here because soon it will be so damn hot that you won’t want to eat anything cooked anyway; salads are the way to go. If you think at any point, “I’m spending this much effort on a goddamn salad?” think of the Salade Nicoise, which is delicious, famous, filling, and has a ton of stuff in it. Seriously. A meal.

Warm Things in a Bowl (or Cold and Warm Things Mixed in a Bowl)

So let’s go over that electric kettle thing again. There are some obvious things you can make in there, without it even seeming to weird: ramen noodles. Just put ’em in a bowl, pour the boiling water over them, cover, wait. They’ll get cooked. Frozen vegetables, too. Powdered soups.  And more adventurous quick-cooking items like couscous, Chinese egg noodles, dried mushrooms. Pour, cover, come back in five or ten minutes and voila.

But I’ve been working to test the limits of what you can cook in an electric kettle. One thing is for sure: just boil things in water. You don’t want to boil anything else to the bottom of your heating element. Or, who knows, I haven’t tried, but it sounds like a big mess/burn waiting to happen.

So: pasta. Easy. You just have to make sure the water doesn’t boil pasta foam all over your counter, and that you wash the kettle well afterwards so your morning coffee isn’t made out of pasta water. Most even have a sifting spout, making draining super easy.

But also: vegetables. Think of ones that you would usually steam. So far I’ve had great meals with broccoli, green beans, and even asparagus that I cooked in the kettle – yes, asparagus, prepared in the least gourmet way possible. Which leads to lots of options.

Tonight’s dinner: tortellini, tomatoes, and green beans with olive oil

Last night: Chinese egg noodles with peppers (frozen), mushrooms (dried), green beans, and curry sauce (store-bought)

Penne with broccoli, tomatoes, pesto, and chevre

You get the idea.

Breakfast

This is no problem. You can’t fry up any eggs and bacon, but luckily, France has the biggest yogurt selection in the known universe. I could try a different kind every week the whole time I’m here and never get bored. I usually top it with either jam (or marmalade), fresh fruit, and/or museli.

Plus, I can always walk around the corner and get an amazing pastry, because I have the rocking-est local patisserie (bakery) in town. Maybe I’m biased, but I swear La Mie de Pain (get it?) is the best. I don’t even have to tell them what I want, they just give it to me. In other news, I’m probably eating too much pastry…

…. And Junk Food

This makes me sound incredibly healthy. Despite the two-week diet that was pretty successful, I’ve gained all that back… mostly in junk food. Shit. My life is stressful, okay!? You can buy individual-sized tiramisu in the yogurt aisle; that’s a popular dessert, or maybe just a tiny tub of Hagen-Daaz (they sell boxes with one-serving tubs of different flavors… yeah I’m screwed). There are so many kinds of chocolate bars to choose from. I try to snack on fruits and nuts but every time I go to the grocery store, I’m enticed by crap. Delicious, delicious crap. These people take their cookies seriously.

Finally: the two-euro wine in the story is way better than American two-buck-chuck. Heck, it’s often even made right next door. So if you’re food isn’t that great, rinse it down and you’ll be way happier.

Kitchen problem solved.

The End.

cevennes on the trail of RLS.

I have been hoping to write this up for some time and have finally given up…. so here it is, a quick note and a photo gallery. Last weekend I didn’t really have the weekend off from work, I had to give a presentation on Monday which I hadn’t started putting together yet! And also I wasn’t sure whether I would have to come into the lab on Sunday afternoon. So I put together an unusual travel itinerary: get on the train in Montpellier at 7 a.m. on Sunday, go to the mountains, have a nice night, and then get back on the bus there at 7:15 the next morning to return in time to do my work. Most people don’t plan 24-hour trips this way, but it was great!

I got all the way to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, about 1 1/2 hours away, for less than six and a half Euros, on the train and bus. I was staying at the Château de Cabrières, which I would highly recommend; as far as Chateaus go, it was pretty cheap, and an absolutely amazing location. There were extensive grounds to wander around and my room had not only the huge bed (my requirement for travel these days) but also a huge window, with big French shutters like you imagine in the movies. The Chateau was up on a hill, so the view out the window was over the village and then into the next hills and valleys.

I dropped my stuff off (they were nice to let me check in early) and then hit the trail: the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail. I am now dreaming of coming back and doing a through-hike when I’m in my 40’s. It would be much different than the American style – you can stop and stay at gites, in small villages, or even in chateaus like this one – but it is quite long and has a lot of elevation gain and loss. My out-and-back run on a small section was a blast.

After a great dinner in town, probably the fanciest food I’ve eaten in France at half the cost of a comparable meal in Montpellier, I nestled down, exhausted, to enjoy that big bed. The early morning light woke me up and it was back to Montpellier. Although I would have loved to stay longer, it was a great one-day getaway. The Cevennes National Park area is huge and I was just scratching the surface – I will have to do much more exploring if I have time.

bureaucra-see part deux, at the doctor’s office.

attestation

Doesn’t look like much, does it?

In America, if you want to do something stupid and ill-advised, that’s usually just fine. Say you die – so what? Well that was dumb of you!

Not so in France. If you want to do anything athletic at all, you need to have a signed doctor’s note saying that you are healthy enough to participate. In some ways it makes sense, but in others, what the- why!? How many people die each year at 5 k road races? How about intramural soccer games? Maybe a few heart attacks could be prevented by telling people who were at risk not to do sports, but I’m not even so sure about that. Some people know they are at risk; some would probably want to run a road race anyway, if it makes them happy.

And yes, people tear their ACL’s and whatnot, but that just happens, it’s a risk you know you take when you decide to play. They are called sports injuries for a reason, and that’s because they are an inherent part of sports. These kinds of injuries happen from the bottom level of sports all the way up to the very top, and no doctor’s note is going to make a tendon change its mind about snapping.

In my mind, here’s how this system came into place. Doctors weren’t getting enough business. Hmm, they thought. How can we get more people to come in? I know! We need to see the healthy people, not just the sick ones! So let’s try to think of a way to get perfectly healthy individuals to be forced to come see a doctor a couple times a year… hmm… yes! I have it! We’ll just require them to come see us before they do anything that’s, oh, I don’t know, completely normal for a healthy person to do!

Anyway. After I signed up for my marathon, I knew that I had to get one of these darn doctor’s notes. I put it off for a while, and eventually discovered that the university health service does this kind of thing for free. Great, I thought! But then it took another two weeks for me to get an appointment and make it into the office.

Because here’s another thing that bugs me about this system: it’s a pain in the ass to go to the doctor’s. They’re only open during working hours, and you know what I’m doing then? I’m working. It’s a relatively small barrier to participation, but it seems like erecting any more inconveniences and barriers to sports is a bad idea, even somewhere like France where there are a dearth of fat people. We shouldn’t be creating any more excuses not to exercise – or, forget the exercise in itself, to taking part in fun group activities that are so emotionally beneficial.

So, I finally figured out a day when I could come in to work late, and there I was. (And I should preface this account by saying that everything was discussed in French.) When the receptionist asked what I needed the note for, I said a running race. She laughed, like, a serious one? Yeah, I said. Then she laughed a lot more. Ha, ha, a whole marathon or something crazy like that! She rolled her eyes.

The receptionist took my height and weight and asked me to read an eye chart. When I replied to her questions by saying I didn’t smoke, no not even cannabis, nothing, and I didn’t take birth control pills, she gave me serious side-eye.

Then she asked me if I ate three meals a day. Where did I eat lunch, the university restaurant?

The fact that she said “good” when I replied the affirmative was troubling, because the food at the university restaurant is shit.

Things were not off to a good start.

The doctor was slightly more sympathetic, in that she did not laugh at me immediately (that came later). But my next challenge was explaining to her that yes, I did have asthma, but it probably wouldn’t be an issue because it’s only brought on by the cold.

How many times a year to you use your inhaler? She asked.

Oh I don’t know, a few.

Has an attack ever made you stop running?

No, I said, I’m never running when it’s cold enough to give me asthma. Then I’m skiing.

So when you’re running do you ever have heart palpitations?

Umm, no, what?

Well will you be carrying your inhaler with you just in case?

No, I mean, it’s going to be June in southern France, the chances of me having a cold-induced asthma attack are pretty slim…

Next she examined me for scoliosis, which I guess is nice, and took my heart rate. She expressed surprise and approval that it was so low. Blood pressure, too: “parfait.”

I was asked to do 30 flying squats, so that she could see how my blood pressure responded to activity. I’ve never been asked to do that before, but it’s a good idea, actually. So off I went. La la la la la la la, 30.

The blood pressure was again “parfait” but the good doctor was troubled that my heart rate had jumped. It increased a lot, she said. And all you were doing were 30 squats – do you really think you can run 40 kilometers if your heart rate does that?

My initial reaction was to be pretty offended. Yes, of course I can run a marathon! I didn’t quite know what to say. Had I really been working that hard? The squats had felt pretty easy, and my old Tabata instructor Jon – whose workouts I really miss, incidentally – would have been yelling at me to push harder, that I could do 25 in 20 seconds, or whatever. Standing in the doctor’s office in my bare feet, without a shirt and facing the doctor, I had gone at a pretty pedestrian pace.

As I mulled over the troubling possibility that I had been working really hard to slowly squat down and stand back up, she reached over and took my wrist to check my pulse again. Wow, she said, okay. It’s only been a minute but it’s already back to normal.

Now we were getting somewhere. I explained that the last weekend I had run 35 kilometers in 3 hours and felt fine, so I was pretty sure I could finish the marathon with no health issues.

Have you run a marathon before? she asked.

No, I said. Just a few halfs.

So this is your first one? Are you sure you are going to be able to do it?

I wanted to say, well, you have to do the first one once, or else how would anyone ever have done one before… but what was the point.

After a few more questions – many about a detailed history of my family’s heart health – she signed the sheet above and I was done. I felt even more ridiculous than at the beginning; I had imagined getting some sort of official-looking form describing my medical history. Instead, all of that was for a half-sheet of paper that doesn’t even say anything useful (but has, as all things in France must, an official stamp!). Are you kidding?

As I biked to work, I thought more about my heart rate, and realized that she probably had no idea what a high heart rate would even be for me. Okay, so at rest, it’s around 55 or 60 these days. That could double and I’d be working at the rate of an easy jog. It could triple and I’d be working pretty hard, but still not at max. I don’t think most people can see their heart rate go from 60 all the way up to 195, so she probably had no idea that I wasn’t working all that hard.

This is another reason the whole system is so stupid: you go to some doctor who doesn’t know you, and yet they are supposed to be able to quickly draw a conclusion about your suitability for sports. It’s so similar to other French bureaucratic messes that I have encountered, in that deep at the core it’s maybe a nice idea, but in practice it is so poorly executed that it just creates a hassle for everyone without fulfilling its actual purpose.

Oh well. I have the signed note, and I should never have to do this again, because after this summer it’s goodbye, France.

*       *       *

I have been thinking about trying to write something about the events that happened in Boston this week, and I have been struggling. Part of it is that it is difficult to process what is going on; I’m so far away, and it’s not exactly a top-headline news story in France. I know that if I was at home, everything would seem so much more immediate to me.

Every once in a while someone will realize that I’m American and ask me if anyone I know was affected. What do I say? None of my friends died or got their legs blown off, is that what they want to know? But yes, we were affected. I know so many people who were there at that marathon, either running or supporting friends and loved ones, and I have so many friends who simply live in Boston.

For me, it’s a double whammy against two of my communities: New England and running. A gut-wrenching shock. I can’t see or understand what’s happening all the way across the Atlantic, but I know how horrific it must be. These are great people, and they do not deserve any of the pain, physical or emotional, that has been inflicted on them. Luckily, I know a thing or two about New Englanders, and runners. If there is anyone who can weather this storm and help each other out, it is these two incredible communities of people. Already we have seen so much strength.

But that’s not really it, either. It comes down to what it means to be an average joe of an athlete. I’ve been at big sporting events where there was tight security; it was kind of a nuisance, but I knew exactly what sort of an impact it would have if some group attacked World Championships or something like that. It would get at a system where athletes generate a huge amount of money for themselves and their sponsors, where fans are rabid for their city or country or just their favorite athlete. Professional sports are inspirational and exciting and hopeful, but also economic and, to some extent, a matter of luxury. It wouldn’t be any less horrible if something bad happened at a professional sporting event, but it’s something our minds are more prepared for – something that government suits warn us about, at the very least.

The Boston marathon, on the other hand, is none of those things. The man who won, Lelisa Desisa, is an incredible athlete who is now two-for-two in marathons and is surely destined for more great things. He’s a professional. But if you look him up on the internet, you can barely find any information. He’s Ethiopian and is sponsored by Nike. You can bet he’s not raking in the big bucks; nor is he probably making Nike too much money either. Does he have other sponsors? Who knows. Distance running is not a particularly lucrative endeavor.

Instead, Boston is about everyone else. Talk to anyone with a passing commitment to marathons, and they’ll talk about the year they ran Boston, or that they’re planning to, or that they are working towards qualifying. It’s something special, not something you do every year; it’s also a very difficult marathon. Heartbreak Hill is famous even beyond the running community. And so the honor of running in Boston creates an incredible environment. It’s uplifting to see what “normal” people, our cousins and brothers and friends and teachers and bosses, can do. You always want to congratulate them and urge them on to greater heights, which is why Boston draws so many spectators for what is, at its heart, one of the more boring sports to watch.

Come marathon day, people are fulfilling their dreams and goals. Even if you have a bad race: you have run Boston. You did it. That’s a huge accomplishment.

To imagine that running towards those dreams could ever put you in danger – not from a moose or shin splints or a speeding car or a dog that slipped under the fence, but from a bomb – messes with all of our minds. It’s not supposed to be this way.

It all feels especially strange given that I had finally decided to re-enter the running community for real, and had signed up for my own very first marathon. It’s easy to imagine that another year, that could have been me crossing the finish line in Boston after four hours. It makes that much more real the threat that our community feels, and what has changed. As I run more and more in the next few weeks, this will likely be on my mind. I want to do a good job in my marathon for those that weren’t able to have the race they had dreamed of on Monday.

Let’s hope that things are not changed for good.

different lifestyles.

opener

We had a three day weekend for Easter. We went to Monte Carlo.

Okay, that’s not quite right. We went to Nice for the three-day weekend and one day we went to Monte Carlo. Let’s be clear: we can’t afford to stay in Monte Carlo. Nor, really, even eat dinner there.

I contemplated not even writing about this trip. I don’t know what to say about it – I went with my classmates and we had a good time.

But the juxtapositioning to my previous trip bears noting. I almost considered not going to Nice; I didn’t know much about it, but traveling to see a city just because it’s a city that people go see isn’t really my style. I didn’t come to France with a list of things to see, cities to visit, checklists of things you’re supposed to do when you’re in France. I had some ideas, but Nice wasn’t one of them (and Monte Carlo certainly wasn’t).

It would be so nice to travel with company though, with my classmates who I love. What was I going to do otherwise? Stay in Montpellier, the city that makes me un peu malheureuse? Duh. I was going. (This was confirmed as a good decision when, two days before we left, my friends were talking to our buddy Reto, a Swiss guy who had also done an exchange semester in Sweden, and he looked up tickets and decided on the spot to fly to Nice and meet us for the weekend. If I had missed that, it would have been terrible and embarrassing.)

When we arrived we wandered the city streets and eventually found a Lebanese restaurant that served up a mean Moussaka. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, to the beach and boardwalk, up to a park overlooking the city. We soaked in the sights and it was great. So fun to be done with classes – we had finished the day before, and this was a celebration. We soaked in the atmosphere of no responsibility.

The next day, Monte Carlo. As we walked out of the station, the sun on the Côte d’Azur was so bright we could hardly see the paradise around us.

station

We wandered down the streets of this immaculately planned and landscaped city, seeking the water. There’s not much space; tall luxury apartment buildings swooped skyward, roads slithered underneath. Monte Carlo is built onto  steep slope that tumbles down to the sea; sometimes you don’t realize how tall the buildings are because you don’t know that you’re not staring at the window on the ground floor.

gardenIt was almost silent; when you have your own personal chef and house staff, why would you leave your condo at nine in the morning? You’d sit on your balcony or open the windows of your bedroom and admire the weather, the blue that seems to reflect off of everything. Or you could go up to your rooftop garden, lush and green from all the photosynthesis of the Mediterannean spring. And soak in the quiet, the calm of cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars not yet plying the streets.

I don’t know who cleans Monte Carlo, or when, but by morning, it is immaculate. In so many ways a very unnatural place; as biologists we should have been appalled. But it didn’t feel sterile. It was nice to see a street with no trash, to not have to worry about stepping in all of the dogshit you find in France itself. There were flower beds everywhere, of course blooming. It smelled like flowers. This must be science fiction.

We found a playground. This was an affordable way to enjoy the city.

playground

As we walked down the last street towards the port, I saw bikes flash past. My first thought was, man, if I was rich enough to live here I would buy the fanciest frickin’ road bike you’ve ever seen, and I would be so fit and and have a great time. Then my second thought was, wait a minute, that was a lot of bikes going really fast. I think there’s a bike race!

There was!

bike race

bike 2

This was paradise, I thought.

This surprising development was enough to convince even my classmates to stand in the sun and watch for a little while as the jerseyed riders streaked past luxury yachts. I explained how a criterium worked. It turned out to be a disappointingly lame crit: just a one-kilometer loop with two turns. But they were steep enough to bunch the field up nicely. Still, even just a few laps in, there were groups separated by almost half the length of the course.

You can only watch bicycles race around in loops for so long, so we began to wander down the port itself, looking at all the fancy boats. We laughed at their names, imagined what the owners had done to get all their money, and joked about what we would do if we were lucky enough to own one of those boats. I tried not to imagine how much it must cost to have a slip in the port of Monte Carlo.

After a rainy previous day in Nice, it was enough for us just to take in the sun. I hoped I wasn’t getting sunburned.

boats  blue water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

port

We spent the rest of our time walking around, buying an overpriced and honestly not that good lunch (should have just sucked it up and payed a truly exorbitant amount for something good – if you’re buying lunch for a reasonable price here, they know you’re not their core customers…), and walking around some more. It was lovely.

As was the rest of the trip when we returned to Nice. I try to have a structure in my life: wake up in the morning, run, go to work, come home, answer e-mails or work for FasterSkier, make dinner, keep working, read something before bed. There’s little downtime, it’s always on to the next task. Now that I’m training for a marathon there’s an extra layer of control, even for me: you have to run at least this far, you have to not eat too much, you have to remember to sleep. To get away from that all for a weekend was liberating in a different way than going on a ski trip. There’s two kinds of vacations and both are very necessary! I felt guilty when I came home; over three days I had only run once. Unacceptable. But the standards I set for myself can be high. This weekend I was a normal person. And I know I will go back to being me, so it was fine.

It was more than fine. It was great. It was the Côte d’Azur, and I’m definitely coming back for another vacation later in life. The blueness of the sea, the tropical trees, everything. Delightful.

japanese garden

casino

plants

Now imagine racing around this corner in an F1 car:

F1

Bureaucra-see?

immigrant

This is what an immigrant looks like.

I think I look pretty normal. And I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want me in your country. I mean, I know I’m a little biased, but I’m a university graduate, working on an advanced degree, got my visa aboveboard, had it with me when I entered the country… I’m not sure why I should feel unwelcome.

And I can only imagine how fun it would be to try to enter France some other way, for example, illegally. And then try to stay. Montpellier is in the poorest region of France, which is certainly not unrelated to its position on the Mediterranean coast: there are lots of immigrants pouring into these ports, and France does not welcome them or integrate them at all. I recently read a great essay comparing these cities’ economic woes, unfavorably, to those of America’s rust belt. There’s imigrants, and poor, and homeless, and addicted – and by appearances, nobody does much about it.

Because you know who are an immigrant’s worst enemies? Liberté, egalité, and fraternité, that’s who. I’m afraid the venerable trio may have fallen a bit from their ideals.

I have to say, happily, that I am finally a legal resident in France. Six and a half weeks after arriving here, visa in hand,  I finally have a sheet of paper that says I’m allowed to stay. And for me, it was easy. I shouldn’t even be allowed to complain. But the number of appointments, paperwork, exams, trivialities… I would say it’s mind-blowing, but people do tell you that France is a bureaucracy that fuels its own appetites for paper (another great post: David Lebovitz’s, here). It’s true. I felt like France found a way to marginalize me, a relatively affluent white American.

It actually began way back in the fall, with the Visa Saga. I’ll gloss over the visa part, except to say that it lasted until the end of January, involving three separate trips to the French embassy in Stockholm, a lot of e-mails and phone calls and hair-pulling-out, and my consideration of either dropping out of my masters program or spending the spring semester in Munich just so I wouldn’t have to deal with France.

Think about that for a second. I was so dejected by French policy and bureaucracy that I thought the rules would be easier to follow in Germany.

Finally, the very day I left Sweden, I got my passport with my visa in it. Woohoo, I thought! Wait, not so fast.

I was legal to travel and arrive in France but, it turns out, not to stay. For that, you have to get a whole different “stamp” from the immigration office, OFII – it’s really the same thing as your visa, but from a different agency. The embassy in Stockholm gave us a piece of paper that we had to take to France and give OFII. If we lost it? Tough luck. You don’t get another one, your visa does nothing to vouch for you, you don’t get your residence permit.

I didn’t lose it.

So upon arriving, I copied my passport with the visa and the entry stamp from customs and brought it to OFII. A few days later I got a letter: my medical appointment would be at 8:30 a.m. on March 28th, and my interview at 9 a.m. The fact that I had two different obligations was immediately intimidating. Then there was, too, the fact that we didn’t get to have any say in the time – I had three free half-days from class that week, and Wednesday morning was not one of them, but too bad.

Min Ya and Berenice also had the same appointment. We told our professor: we have this silly OFII thing at 8:30, sorry, we’ll miss the first part of class. But we’ll be there by the first break!

He looked at us like we were crazy.

“Well, I don’t know how they do things here in Montpellier, but I know that in other places those immigration things take a really long time. Maybe we’ll see you in the afternoon, or who knows, it might take all day.”

What!?

Still, I was cocky and unconcerned. Although multiple signs should have warned me, I was so confident that this would be a brief formality that I didn’t eat breakfast. I had this plan: I’d go, fly through the appointments, and then come home and do some chores before going to class, since my professor was so sure I’d miss the whole morning anyway – why not take advantage of it?

When we walked into the lobby of the OFII building, there were already at least ten people there. The office is on the first floor (or, what we could call the second floor in America) and they don’t turn the elevator on until just after 8:30. The doors to the stairs are locked and can only be opened with a keycode (apparently the same on the way down, too – hope there’s never a fire!). So we all milled about in the lobby waiting for the elevator to start working. 8:30 came and went.

Eventually, we made it up to the office itself, where a bunch of us sat in the lobby waiting. We checked in at the desk, and then nothing happened. I first really realized that this was going to take a while due to the sheer number of people: we had obviously all been given 8:30 “appointments”, but what that really meant was, sometime today. There was no such thing as an “appointment.”

By nine, I had seen the first of the doctors, who asked me my height and weight and to read the top line of an eye chart, paying no attention as I did. I guess that was just screening, because I returned to my chair in the lobby. We all did: maybe fifteen people saw this woman, then sat back down. There were several more steps in the medical process, but the next examiners were apparently not at work yet.

Or perhaps it just took a long time to set up the x-ray, which is how they screen for TB. One by one, again, we were called in; we had to strip off our shirts and breath in as we smashed our chests up against an x-ray machine, then wait for the technician to produce the x-ray itself. It seems improbable that this is the cheapest way to test for TB, but what do I know. I got a free x-ray out of it. I’m thinking of hanging it in my window. What startled me more was the demand that we just strip down. No hospital gowns here; take your shirt and bra off, miss. In French.

The other thing that seemed incredible was the timing. Okay, so they don’t want dirty immigrants bringing TB into France. I get it. But if they were so worried, wouldn’t they call us in immediately? If I did have some dread disease, I had been living and breathing on the earnest and hapless French citizens for more than a month and a half. If you’re going to make me undress to protect everyone’s health, at least try to make it seem like you’re doing a good job with your public health program.

At the end of the x-ray assault, I at least got to go to a different waiting area – where I joined all of the people who had x-rayed ahead of me. We still needed to see one more doctor, but she wasn’t in her office yet. So we waited. Gradually, everyone who had initially been in the reception area was in this new area, and nobody had yet seen the last doctor. There weren’t enough seats for all of us.

The last doctor asked us me if I was on any medications or had been to the hospital recently. Did I smoke? Use contraceptives? I thought – who the hell cares? I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have kicked me out of the country for smoking, since the French themselves smoke like chimneys. So what’s the point of asking? There’s now a paper somewhere, that nobody will ever look at, saying that I don’t smoke or take any medications. And that paper belongs not to some health care service, but to Immigration.

Over an hour and a half after I was supposed to have my “interview”, I finally got called into the last office I’d see in that building – to a woman who did not speak anything other than French. I pulled out my passport, and she asked to see the letter I had received in the mail from OFII.

“Et les timbres?” she asked.

“Quoi?”

“Les timbres. Vous avez les timbres?”

“Les…. Repetez, s’il vous plait?”

She was becoming exasperated.

“Vous devez payer, les 58 euros.”

Yes, yes: this I knew. To get a student visa to France, it costs 99 Euros. As Erasmus Mundus scholarship recipients, this fee was waived – thanks, Embassy of France. But OFII was not so kind. There’s also an immigration “tax”, which for students in 58 Euros. And this was not waived. We had to pay to live here.

I pulled out the receipt from the Embassy stating that I owed only 58 Euros.

“Ah, celui-ci,” I said. “J’ai de l’argent.”

“Non. Vous avez besoin de timbres.”

Now I was really confused. She kicked me out of her office, saying that I could buy the stamps – that’s what “timbres” are – at a Tabac. I held a counsel with Min Ya and Berenice. Did they have stamps? No, they did not. Did they know what the stamps were? No, they did not. That made zero of us that had any idea what the hell was going on. Luckily, another poor battered immigrant waiting began to explain to us that the only way you could pay was with pre-bought stamps. He had bought his online and showed us a printout, stating that he had paid 58 Euros. That wasn’t an option for us, since we didn’t have a computer or a printer. We went in search of a Tabac, having still no idea what we were actually looking for.

It was raining, also. As we tromped through the rain and past the hobos, I was getting more and more furious. Why was the stupid OFII letter only in France, and why did it not explain where you buy these special Timbres? As we left on our quest, we saw another girl get up and leave, too. She had been listening and didn’t have any Timbres either.

The first Tabac did not help.

“Bonjour,” I said. “Est-ce que vous avez des timbres pour payer les….. choses officiels?”

“Rien,” the guy replied.

Right. They sell them at all the Tabacs.

So we tromped and splashed down another street, found another Tabac, and bought our damn timbres. They are just like stamps for letters – they might even be stamps for letters. In order to stick them to a piece of paper, you lick the back. We turned over our change, got our tiny stamps, and headed back to OFII. The lady mocked us when we arrived. I directed mental thunderstorms her way all afternoon.

Luckily, I had everything else I needed: an ID photo, a signed and stamped attestation from my dormitory that I lived there. Smooth sailing. She put the residence permit in my passport, and, x-ray in hand, I was free to go!

Just in time for lunch. By which I mean, my first meal of the day. And then, afternoon class.

For me, the paperwork is far from over – I still have to make my research at the university official. But at least I can’t get kicked out of the country. I’m allowed to live here. What a long, strange journey it has been. Welcome?

voyage aux alpes.

DSCN1209

A few days ago I saw an opportunity: a Monday morning with no class. That meant a weekend a few hours longer. This could not go to waste and on the spur of the moment I bought a train ticket for Grenoble, booked a hotel, and got my skis down from their dusty perch atop my closet.

This is the beauty of your 20’s, I’ve said again and again: you can get up and go. You have work or school, but no house, no husband or kids, no pets that need to be fed, no garden that needs to be watered.

My approach to travel has certainly changed a bit since beginning grad school, though. Now I spend the time to search out a deal at a fancy hotel, and it’s totally worth it because the craphole of a dormitory that you are stuck in is so miserable. Even if time is money, it’s reasonable to spend some making sure that you’ll have a big bed and a nice shower (the benefit of traveling at the last minute is that even if I’m cheap, I’m a better guest than having an empty hotel room). These are things that do not exist at CROUS Montpellier. Even in Sweden, I used to simply look for the cheapest hostel or a floor to crash on: better to spend the money on many trips that cost practically nothing. Now, with a little bit more cash spent, I can enjoy comfort that I never, ever find in my daily life.

(To my classmates who say that everything is too expensive: I suggest a job. I have one and I haven’t died yet or failed out of school, and even the tiniest bit of extra money every month makes a big difference in how you’re able to spend your time.)

And so on Saturday I found myself at a hotel in Grenoble, with a shower that poured water out of a foot-squared matrix of spouts like a rainstorm. I sat under the hot water for 20 minutes, soaking up the chance to be in a shower where you don’t have to hit the button every 15 seconds to restart the water. There’s plenty of water here.

The plan had been to ski, but that first day it hadn’t worked out with the buses, so I ran up and up and up into the hills above town, first past the views of the city – which says it is the second-largest economy in France – flanked by Alps, and then into the hill farms, no city in sight. My calves ached, my knees twinged on the way down, my feet slapped. I collapsed into my huge bed that night.

Come Sunday, I finally boarded the bus to Autrans. It was raining and gray. In the city, there was no snow to be seen anywhere. As we rounded one hairpin turn after another, cutting through gorges and across cliff faces, there was still no snow. I got more and more nervous.

About ten minutes before arriving at the small town that hosted the cross country ski races at the 1968 Olympics, I began to see snow through the fog. But it was still raining. It was 9:30 and the bus home didn’t leave until 5:30. I wasn’t sure how I was going to occupy myself all day in the rain.

After walking to the nordic center, I timidly approached the ticket booth.

«Je veux skier, même s’il ne fait pas si beau» I said, doubtfully.

«La neige est bonne» the woman replied. «C’est meilleur que s’il faisait chaud…»

I thought to myself, of course she’s saying that. She’s just trying to sell tickets and convince people that it isn’t completely disgusting outside. That’s her job.

When I finally stepped into my skis and took the first few strides, though, I saw she was right. They had groomed that morning and the corduroy – barely skied on because the weather had turned most people away – was surprisingly fast. It felt more icy than waterlogged, and didn’t have the cementy-potatoes feel that I had been dreading. Okay, maybe this was going to be fine.

Just as I had on my run the day before, I climbed up and up and up to start. Knowing that I had almost 2000 feet to ski up into the Alps if I really wanted to try the whole trail system, I paced myself. But the skis slid easily, and my body worked better than I had expected after the hard run the day before, and after a month of not skiing.

I eventually reached the upper trail center of Gève, where it wasn’t raining anymore. Half my climbing was complete. Onward I skated, onto a trail called “Panoramique.” Not so much today, but it would take me up to the ridge and around a snaking bowl that, I am sure, would have had lovely views if it hadn’t been fogged in. Every once in a while things would clear for a moment and in just one direction I would glimpse a few ragged peaks before they disappeared back into the fog.

After two hours of skiing and some hard climbs, I reached La Quoi. But things weren’t over yet. Up here, it hadn’t been groomed, and the skiing was slower; it was also snowing. But there was a loop of maybe eight or nine more kilometers along the ridge, which dropped down to a refuge before climbing up through a steep meadow to rejoin the trail and head home. At the refuge I bought a lunch of ravioli and cured ham, plus an entire pot of Russian Earl Grey.

Back on my skis, it was cold. The next few kilometers alternated between rain and snow. I had expected to feel better after lunch, but I had been skiing for almost three hours already and I did not feel better at all, at least not at first. I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake: the weather was terrible, and here I was, 15 or 20 kilometers from the touring center, cold and tired. I could die out here!

That was a little bit melodramatic. Yes, climbing was hard, but as soon as I got on more gradual terrain, it was so easy to be on skis, gliding along, even in the slow mush. At one point, feeling cold, I decided to sprint up a hill to try to get the blood going. Much to my surprise, after a long ski and months of no speedwork, I fell into the easy rhythm of attacking and reached the top of the hill warm.

It was an exhilarating feeling: I’ve still got this. Against all odds, I’m still a skier.

And as I began my descent of the Alps, cruising around corners and gleefully picking the best lines, popping up and over the hills with my momentum and a few quick hop skates carrying my speed, I thought: I’ll always be a skier.

Maybe it’s not so different than the joy I found in Font Romeu a few weeks ago. But for one thing, I’m in better shape now. Trails or no trails, two weeks ago I decided that I would be damned if I sat on my ass all day and signed up for a marathon to kickstart a running routine. I have incentive to go run, even if I don’t like the places I’m running. After two 30-mile weeks and a crash diet, I felt fit (fitter; hills still kick my ass). I swear I felt lighter and stronger than I had in Font Romeu. Skiing for hours was hard, but not as hard as it had been then.

For another thing, my entry to Montpellier had been confusing, more confusing as time went by. I found myself in a city unlike anywhere I had ever lived. Not a city to be a sportswoman. There’s a lot of pavement and cars that pay no attention to pedestrians or cyclists. In the first few days I thought, well, I just haven’t found the good part yet. But as the weeks wore on, it seemed more and more impossible that my kind of city even existed within anywhere in Montpellier.

Here, there’s no ski club for me to embed into, nobody to tell me the secrets to happiness. Some of my classmates have made new friends here, outside our program. I’m jealous. They have people who share their interests and their cultural backgrounds, people to cook Chinese food with or talk in Spanish. How did they do it? Where are the people like me? I glimpse them every once in a while, but I can’t truly find them.

Hence, running in yucky places, on the hot pavement, dodging ubiquitous dogshit that covers the sidewalks.

It’s not that I’m not having fun – it was nice to have so many options for what to do at night, pubs and restaurants and classmates who I love. We have a good time. In the last few weeks it has seemed so impossible to have the kind of life that I’m used to that I thought, well, maybe I just resign myself to this semester being different, because this isn’t miserable.

Back in the States, my friends are all multitaskers. They are professional skiers who paint amazing pictures in their spare time (look at Hannah’s website!); scientists who get out every weekend to kayak or rock climb or mountain bike; professors who rip turns on their tele skis at every chance; adults with full-time jobs who nonetheless donate their free time to coaching kids. They hike the mountains, play Frisbee, farm. Doing one thing never means that they can’t also do something else.

That’s how I lived too, but it’s foreign here. Sure, people have interests – drinking, watching movies or sports, eating, (occasionally when the weather is good) being a tourist, talking to their boyfriend or girlfriend on the phone. These interests prevent many further trips and adventures. It’s “normal” that these simple things are all a student has time, or desire, for. Being a student is apparently very limiting.

School had never defined me before, but I was ready to let it. Maybe this was my new life, the kind of friends I would always have. Maybe my old life was over; maybe this was growing up. Had my friends at home just not grown up yet? Or was following several passions a uniquely American trait? This wasn’t so bad, after all. We won a bottle of vodka in that pub quiz. In a few years, I’d be married to another scientist, doing research somewhere as part of a PhD.

As I skied back down to Autrans, I rejected that completely. Not a single person I know in Montpellier knows or understands the joy that I get from being on snow, or how having skis attached to your feet is easier and more natural to me than running. They are my good friends and always will be, but they can’t be my only friends. Just as a few of them have found people outside of our program, I need that, too.

To come back and not be able to even convey this feeling I had on my skis was just wrong. To not be able to share this trip with anyone was disappointing. I have no problem traveling alone – I find it much more agreeable than most people probably do, and it’s relaxing to be able to decompress and just not talk – but there’s an undeniable yearning to have someone to experience these new places with. I wish I could have turned to someone as I sped through the trees and said, “isn’t this awesome?”

But nobody was there.

If I can survive this semester, I’ll find them again. If I marry another scientist, he’ll be one who climbs mountains or ride bikes or does something – anything – in the outside that I love so much. Maybe he’ll fish or hunt, or watch birds or dabble in nature photography. Maybe he won’t be a scientist at all. Maybe I won’t get married at all! But in the next months, I will find some friends who won’t pass off my trips as that unfamiliar, but cool, I guess, thing Chelsea does because it makes her happy.

Sitting on the train back to Montpellier, my legs ache. That’s my souvenir from the weekend – that and the reminder to keep being myself, that my people are out there and sometime soon I’ll find them. Until then, I’ll keep running and enjoy the nights out at the pub. Just not every night.

le vol du train jaune.

curve bridge

Skiing was not the only highlight of my trip to Font Romeu. There was also a train: Le Train Jaune, to be exact, a small old-fashioned train that feels like the Wild West and takes you through the valleys and up into the mountains, clinging to steep cliffs as it goes.

I had seen a brochure advertising this train in the station when we went to Carcassonne, and that’s actually what gave me the idea to go skiing in the first place. On the cover it loudly proclaimed: “Une autre façon de découvrir la montagne!” Huh, I thought. The train goes straight to the snow. Sweet deal.

So I tried to buy a ticket. Apparently this train is not all that popular, because the woman behind the counter had a very difficult time binning it together with the tickets to get to where the train leaves from… that should have been my first clue. (Don’t worry, in the end it worked out fine and I loved the train!)

On Friday when I left, I hopped on the regional train in sunny Montpellier with my skis, feeling silly because of the disconnect in seasons. I got to Perpignan, where I was supposed to connect to another train, but that train was canceled. I didn’t have time to ask why as I sprinted out to the “gare routiere” or bus station, where they had arranged a bus to take us to our destination. It’s a lot less efficient to take a bus that stops at each train station – you have to navigate multiple roads, intersections, villages with tiny streets where I swear we had only an inch on either side of the bus and I was worried we might crush parked cars. I worried that we wouldn’t get to Villefranche in time for me to make my connection to Le Train Jaune.

We finally made it. After dropping off everyone else, there were just eight of us left going to Villefranche, a small town already far up into the valley. It turns out that only two trains go to Villefranche: one from Perpignan, and Le Train Jaune. And here I discovered why our last train had been canceled. Snow. Le Train Jaune was not running. I began to wonder if I had made a horrible, terrible mistake.

After waiting in the station for an hour or so – and we were already quite late when we arrived – they finally arranged a bus for us.

bus

I had originally planned to ski that afternoon – it is why I skipped class that morning instead of simply traveling later in the day – but with all of the delays it had become impossible. And as we climbed over the passes and up and up and up in elevation, things got slower. With all of the snow on the road, cars had to stop and put on chains. But there was nowhere to pull over to do so, so people would just stop in the middle of the road and chain up. There was also no room to pass, so we sat at a standstill for ten or fifteen minute stretches at time. Finally, we got to the point where everyone had chained up or turned around, and things began to move faster. Our bus driver was aggressive. I tried not to be scared.

Font Romeu station on the return trip... when I arrived the first night, it was dark, cold, locked, and snowing.

Font Romeu station on the return trip… when I arrived the first night, it was dark, cold, locked, and snowing.

When we arrived at the train station in Font Romeu, it was closed, since we hadn’t arrived on the last train but instead long after it. That presented a problem, because it’s four kilometers straight uphill to get to the actual town. I had asked my hotel what the best way to get there was, and they said, “there will be taxis.” Well, there were no taxis. Everyone else who lived there quickly talked among themselves and arranged carpools with each other, and left.

That left me and one other girl, who turned out to be from Quebec. There was a taxi number posted on the side of the building, but when I called it, it was a wrong number. She said she was waiting for a friend – well actually, a friend of a friend, someone she had never met – to pick her up, and she’d ask if I could get a ride too.

The funniest thing about this was that she hadn’t had a phone that worked in Europe, so she had borrowed one from another woman on the bus to call her ride. But while she was talking, the woman got in a car with another passenger and drove off! So we were left in the cold, outside of the locked train station, with a random women’s iPhone.

Luckily, the friend of a friend, who turned out to be Scottish, agreed to give me a ride. Thank God. When I left, the girl from Quebec still had the iPhone, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it – there had been at least fifteen minutes before we got picked up, and the woman apparently hadn’t realized that she didn’t have her phone….

So that was Le Train Jaune part 1.

I was understandably concerned when it was time to leave Font Romeu that maybe there would be a repeat of this situation. But there wasn’t – it was a beautiful warm sunny day and things were running right on time. I took a taxi down to the train station and basked in the sun for 20 minutes waiting for our chariot to arrive.

station

train jaune

And it turn out to be absolutely as fun and beautiful as I had imagined. The train tracks went places that roads did not: hugging the sides of steep valleys, traversing huge bridges across canyons, offering glimpses up other side valleys towards unidentified snowy peaks. The people on the train ranged from babies to octogenarians, and we all oohed and aahed along together. At one point or another everybody stood up and pointed their cameras out the window. Even the teenager who made sure to sit in a seat separate from his family.

interiorIn particular I watched a girl, maybe five years old, who was traveling with two older women – I imagined them being her two grandmothers, or maybe a grandmother and a great aunt, or something like that. First the child stared at my long ski bag and her grandmother asked me what they were. “Les skis de fond,” I said. The girl looked confused. Her grandmother then described how you don’t always ski downhill, sometimes you have other skis, and you can go uphill, downhill, wherever you want! The girl was delighted.

But more than eavesdropping, I just watched how they interacted. The grandmothers had little napkin-wrapped items of food that they pulled out of their bags, cookies and apples, and a thermos full of hot tea which they poured out into little mugs. As we passed by different views, they would point out things to their granddaughter: do you see the animal tracks? Look what those people are doing! They seemed to be enjoying it every bit as much as she was.

It reminded me of what it would have been like to travel with my grandmother McIntyre, right down to their warm but well-worn jackets and sensible pants. My grandmother loved speaking French and I think of her often when I’m here, whether it’s wandering in the market or walking to school. I once went with her to Quebec, but how wonderful would it have been to go to France? We are so lucky to have grandmothers.

scenery 4When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was looking around. There were traces of people everywhere, even though the slopes were steep and rocky and I can’t imagine how they would support much of a population. I wondered: what did people do here, for thousands of years? You could see the forms of old roads leading off into the woods, or stone walls delineating – what? At one point I saw that some areas had been terraced, with stone retaining walls holding back each layer of soil. In one place, someone had begun to restore the terraces and planted an orchard. This would be a hard place to farm, much harder than any hill farm in New England. The land is practically vertical, and so many rocks.

Of course, the rocks are useful too. On the seemingly most improbable of ridges, even up on some small peaks, you could see defenses or, more likely, a church. They were made out of the hillside themselves, blending in with the rocks that were harvested to build them.

Or sometimes you’d come across a village deep in the valley, the crook between two slopes. Perpetually shaded from the sun, it seemed – but also protected from the wind and elements, and with easy access to the water that flowed out of the mountains.

Again, I tried to imagine. There had clearly been civilization here for years and years, networks of connected villages and farms and churches. It seemed like such a hard place to make a living, and yet rewarding, apparently, too. What was it that made it inhabitable, besides the beautiful scenery and the summer sun?

When we reached Villefranche – which is amazing, by the way, I hadn’t seen much the first night but it turns out to be an old fortified city with walls and towers and ramparts… what? – I had to get back on a normal train and go back to normal life. But I was left with some photos of the beautiful scenery from Le Train Jaune – a great way to travel, as long as it’s not snowing.

scenery 1

scenery 2

scenery 3

valley village