The Re-beginner, Part 2

Part 2 of 3

The prospect of seeing friends you haven’t seen in six years can make you suddenly nostalgic for them, even if they’re just out of sight, down the escalator, waiting in Baggage Claim, a few seconds away. I stopped in front of a newsstand in the Richmond airport and pretended to study paperback covers, while vowing not to cry, before heading down to meet Angie and her mother; bursting into tears at seeing friends wasn’t something I did. Or, at least, hadn’t been, before we started moving every two years.

“Hello, world traveler,” Angie’s mom exclaimed, and hugged me. I dropped my bag and purse, and then hugged Angie, who looked the same as she had the day we graduated: petite, smiling, unruffled, dark hair flipped up at the ends. “You haven’t changed a bit,” her mom told me, patting my arm. It was the same thing I’d been thinking about my friend, but I knew we’d changed since college. We’d both gone off to graduate school, but after that, had gone in different directions: I’d married and run off to Prague, and Angie had steadily continued in her job at the Virginia Eye Institute in her hometown, Richmond. In the last six months, she’d moved from her parent’s house and into a condo she’d bought. Despite having a mortgage back in Prague, I felt like a jobless flake next to my financially secure friend.

As we walked to the parking garage, Angie’s mom asked me, “How was Israel?”

“Oh, Israel…” I started, and then stopped. “It feels like it was ten years ago, to be honest.”

“What about Prague?” she wanted to know. Here, too, I was stuck. How do you sum up two years somewhere in a sentence or two? Israel was the dusty hike from HaShalom station, cheesecake at the Press Cafe, jellyfish on Tel Aviv beaches, and a constant stream of water under our apartment doors, in winter. Prague was St. Vitus’s now-gold-now-silver roof in the sun, two hundred painfully bright university students, gallons of tea, and the “Dveře se zavírají” voice on the Metro.

But what did I have to show for all that? It was August, and I’d been looking for a job in New York for nearly a year.

“I miss both places,” I admitted, lifting my bag into the trunk of Angie’s mom’s car. Before Mrs. S. could ask about New York, I caught Angie’s eye and changed the subject. “Tell me all about your condo!”

Mrs. S. slipped in behind the wheel. “Well, she’s got it all decked out, finally, and seems to be settling in. But you girls will have all the time in the world to chat about that on the way down to Raleigh.”

My ever-practical friend directed her mom out of the parking maze and added, “It’s about a three-and-a-half hour drive, so I think if we leave sometime around ten on Friday morning, we’ll be fine.”

Although the wedding would be on Saturday afternoon, there was a ladies’ lunch and the rehearsal dinner on Friday, and even though I’d jumped the bridesmaid ship, we’d joked that I was Angie’s plus-one for the weekend.

Through buckets of rain, we wound across Richmond’s highways and toward my friend’s condo, which sat in a slight valley next to a forest.

“Which one is yours?” I asked, when we got out. It had stopped raining, and Angie pointed up to a corner balcony overflowing with potted plants and pansies.

Once up three flights of stairs and inside Angie’s condo, I gasped. It looked like something from Architectural Digest: Condo Version.

“This looks nothing like your dorm room,” I said in a décor-induced stupor.

Angie sighed happily, and fussed with something in a kitchen drawer. “I like it,” she said.

“What do you think?” her mom asked.

“I’m moving in,” I replied. The condo was any thirty-something girl’s dream, with vaulted ceilings, a reading loft, teal and chocolate colors, giant glass-topped dining table, with pottery and framed prints scattered around. There was not a scrap of Ikea in sight.

I was delighted for my friend. Yet there was a faraway voice in my head that remarked, This is what you can do when you don’t move every two years. Our entire apartment in Prague (including doorframes painted red, absurdly, by yours truly) would have fit in Angie’s living room. In fact, our living room wasn’t even a living room; it was one living-room-guest-room-kitchen-nook amalgam crammed into a hundred square feet.

The relics from my teaching life in Missouri and Colorado (boxes of books, a file cabinet of Shakespeare and Twain assignments, plastic cartons of pots and pans) were still sitting in my parents’ garage. The only two books whose locations I knew at any given moment were the Riverside Shakespeare and my grandmother’s Oxford Book of English Verse. I had springform pans under four separate roofs, and everything else was in an apartment or a box, somewhere. Maybe the time had come to stop living like that. Certainly Angie’s amply decked-out place made it a tantalizing notion.

It wasn’t so much the sheer psychological weight of all my own stuff, boxed and on a shelf seven states away–or most of the stuff Jakub and I had amassed in five years of marriage, stashed half at his parents’ place and half in our tiny apartment in the south of Prague–that made my heart sink but the knowledge that I was now on a fourth set of some of them. No one should own four Bundt pans in one lifetime.

The Re-beginner

It’s true, I’ve neglected this blog to write about bábovka and apple dumplings from the family recipe vault. But I’m increasingly conscious of being an immigrant (though, unfortunately, not thinking like one), and of trying to tally up the starts of past lives while pursuing the present, new one.

In New York, the heavy scent of boxwood shrubs in Bryant Park is enough to call up a snapshot of the Hollins campus, my friends, and the creaky front porch of Main. At the last reunion, in 2003–the five-year one for my class–I’d come from Colorado, where I’d left a job teaching high school English in order to return to the Midwest and finish my M.A. The reunion was still too soon: all of my friends and I were in grad school, while the rest of the class had moved on to serious paychecks, painful-but-chic shoes, and business cards. My group contented itself by hoarding the leftover wine from Fancy Dinner #1 and lamenting the long tail of student loans. Later, I wound up in the library clutching a copy of Wordsworth and mumbling “Tintern Abbey,” which is to say that Reunion drop-kicked me straight back to my freshman year.

This reunion, though, was going to be small and informal–just three of us. A couple of weeks ago, I went down to Virginia and North Carolina for a friend’s wedding, the first time I’d been back (since the reunion) in six years. Sitting in the thirty-seat plane on the rain-pocked tarmac in Richmond, I felt excited, anxious, and tired. It had been eleven months since we’d left Prague, and I’d had two interviews. At both places, I was offered the job but (inexplicably, to my family) turned it down. The guilt I felt in knowing no real immigrant (including the ones in my family) would have been so seemingly careless kept welling up, month after month.

In the row in front of me sat a JetBlue pilot and a flight attendant who’d flown standby from New York to Richmond and had alternately chatted and slept during the flight. I envied them their ability to wake up and chat with complete coherence. Now they were stretching toward the window to look at the rain as we taxied in.

“Looks like they’re going to give us a jetway,” the pilot said happily, extending his arms over his head in a stretch. “No wading!” The flight attendant laughed, adjusted her navy vest, and pulled her hair into a ponytail. It had only taken them a few seconds to adjust. For me, it seems to take years.

On the plane, I’d tried to begin reading the copy of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I’d picked up at the Strand, but I couldn’t focus. My friend Kim had asked me to be a bridesmaid in her Raleigh wedding shortly after we moved to New York, and I’d accepted instantly. The next month, a box from her arrived with a red leather jewelry case and travel bag, along with details about the dress–sleeveless, long, crimson–and the cost. At that point, I’d had zero job leads and publishing houses seemed to be boarding up their windows. It was impossible to justify the expense. I emailed Kim and backed out, folding up the gift wrap and filing it in the catchall kitchen drawer.

It had been six years since I’d seen the other friend, Angie, who, like Kim, was successful and established in her hometown, and who’d just bought a condo. Not for the first time in six years, I realized that I missed both of them sharply. In New York, I was just learning to miss the handful of close friends from Israel and Prague.

Part 1 of 3

Who I am, and where I lived

One aspect of being an immigrant is that, until you find your bearings, you’re constantly second-guessing yourself. Is it really better here?, you think frantically. What would I be doing there, now? And, at some point, Was this such a great idea?

I’m obsessed with this. Not so, for my husband, who refuses to look back for any length of time.

Last week, frustrated with the job search after spending two days at a food web site, test-driving the job, I sat on the edge of the bed, staring out the window at the funeral parlor across the street, and was caught in deja vu–of doing the same thing in Israel, in our enormous and state-subsidized apartment, and then in Prague, on the edge of the hard futon, after teaching, during the coldest days of the first winter there. It’s easy to get stuck.

More out of envy than real interest, I asked J., “How do you do it?” He’d come into the bedroom, and was standing at the foot of the bed.

He made a strange hand gesture, slicing the air from top downwards. “You have to draw a line.” Then I understood–he’d drawn a line that was more of a wall. “And you move forward.”

The longer I’m anywhere for more than three months, the clearer it is that the most successful people are grounded–and have been so, for years–in one spot. They’ve stayed long enough in one city (though maybe not with one company) to advance in their careers, they have vast professional networks, and they always have a barbeque to go to, somewhere, on the weekend. How on earth could a nomadic lifestyle compete with the easy pragmatism of that?

I’m no die-hard fan of barbeque. But the rest would be nice. On the one hand, no way would I trade the last fifteen years (much less the last five) for a picket fence and a 401k. But I do feel like I have “restart” buttons to spare. With every new place, family, friends, and friends who are former co-workers, seem farther away (Colorado, Prague, Tunisia), and my resume becomes harder and harder to explain.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not complaining. I’m just trying to puzzle out the path ahead. When I looked at my resume last week as I was accidentally riding the A train up to 125th Street, past the job at Central Park West, it seemed like a flimsy version of who I really am and what I’ve done. At this point, “professional traveler” should be a legitimate line, with all the logistical and negotiating capabilities that connotes. But when I grapple with how to explain the last five years to potential employers, I get as stuck as if I were back sitting on my bed in any of the last three cities. Here’s what I can do:

  • Get around Israel in Hebrew via a variety of transport options (though I recommend sherut taxis, for the sheer thrill and people-meeting possibilities).
  • Get around the Czech Republic in Czech–including signing contracts and finding parmesan (no easy feats, I assure you).
  • Navigate the old city of Jerusalem, clockwise, in a day. (Same with Prague, but I’d go counterclockwise.)
  • Handle a student load of 300, and a 4:4 university teaching load. When I’m told to gloss over teaching on my resume or in interviews, I think, Really? When was the last time you stared down a room of thirty hostile adults, mapped out your plan for them, got them on board with that plan in a week–and then worked with them to make sure they did better than their best expectations in twelve weeks? I can do that–in more than one country, and definitely in more than one field.
  • Copy edit (in Chicago style) a 150,000-word book on the most beautiful places in Europe from purchase to ready-to-print in two weeks, including negotiating with the typesetting studio in Czech. (One of fifty books I worked on.)
  • Sail through the Frankfurt book fair. Team of four. Up at 6:00 am, meetings, notes, smiling, slicing sausages; dinner with clients; bed at midnight. Repeat for four days. (My favorite moment from this: when I won over the C&C Printers team from Hong Kong at dinner while we all rhapsodized about cheese. Our CEO later told me, No one ever sat with them before.)
  • Fight (elbows untucked) through the Prague Foreigners’ Police permanent-residency line at 5:00 am with 700 others, emerging as one of the first with a residency card.

That’s my real résumé.

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On the water

A couple of weekends ago, we met friends in Central Park and wound up at the model boathouse after a walk. Next to the concession stand’s noisy line was the boathouse itself. Inside, it was still, and light sifted through a couple of  dusty windows. Rows of model yachts lined the shelves along the sides of the boathouse and occupied two massive tables, in front. Pride of place belonged to a square rigger with toffee-colored wooden sides and hull. There was hardly room to do much more than stare at the boats, whose owners were out somewhere on the Sound on life-sized versions, perhaps.

Outside, only two or three boats were going around the pond, tilting wildly in the wind. A park worker in waders was fishing out both boats and giant clumps of algae from the middle of the pond. Pairs of brothers and sisters were fighting over the radio controls, as a parent sat, off to one side. My husband knelt down at the edge of the pond and stared at the granite.

Vážka,” he said, pointing. Something flickered on the stone, but I couldn’t make out anything. Our two friends, also Czech, peered closely, exclaimed, and dug for their iPhones. I was in some universe where, if you couldn’t name it, you couldn’t see it.

Then the sun came through the trees and hit the stone. The insect tilted its wings–a steely biplane pair–and vanished.

That’s how I learned the Czech for “dragonfly.”

Le quatorze juillet

Shortly after the all-American food fest of last week, I was seized with the urge to try out some of the recipes from the stack of Larousse 100% plaisir samples I’d brought back from Prague. I’d only managed to bring back two or three from the pile that a friend in publishing gave me, but Goûters (Snacks) seemed a good place to start.

While in Prague, on one of the last weekends there, I’d made a sugar tart from this cookbook. It had turned out incredibly chewy, though Jakub’s dad said loyally, “It’s good with coffee.” When I got back to New York, I tried it again, and, here, the yeast dough rose beautifully, with the end result still chewy but vaguely successful. (And even better with coffee.) This time, though, I didn’t want to make something that required eaters to wash it down with coffee, so I chose to make Tarte au raisin et au pineau des Charentes, a grape tart flavored with cognac and Pineau des Charentes.

Just for cooking. Really.

Just for cooking. Really.

This is an easy tart to make, provided you have a tart pan and lots of Pineau (or a sweet white wine). Even if you don’t, the finished product is still very good, though you probably have no business calling it anything but Tarte au raisin, especially on Bastille Day…

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Most of the cookies, cakes, and tarts in the book don’t require much assembly. They’re designed to be thrown together for an afternoon snack, although the grape tart is great for breakfast the next day, on a blearily muggy July morning.

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This is essentially a grape quiche: you make the dough, press it into the pan, and scatter the grapes on top. You then stir together eggs, sugar, powdered almonds, cream, Pineau, and cognac, and that gets poured, doucement, over the grapes.

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Since I’m obsessed with the combination of recipes and stories over here, I was thinking of my semester in France as I made this–blackberry tea, cassis candies, big bowls of coffee, the baguette drawer in my host family’s kitchen, and of my host mother calling everyone to dinner, nightly, from somewhere in the apartment: On va se mettre au table!

Grape Tart (adapted from Goûters (c) Larousse, 2006)

Ingredients

scant 1 cup all-purpose flour

3 1/2 tbsp. very cold butter (grated, or diced in small pieces)

pinch of salt

1/2 cup sugar

cold water

1/2 lb. seedless green grapes

2 eggs

3 tbsp. powdered almonds

3 1/2 tbsp. heavy cream

1/3 cup + 2 tbsp. Pineau des Charentes blanc*

1 tbsp. cognac

pinch of salt

*(You can substitute another sweet white wine, such as muscat, for the Pineau.)

Directions

• Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the butter, pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 3 tablespoons cold water. Mix together (with your fingertips) to form a ball of dough. Do not knead it.

• Flatten the dough into an 8 1/2″ to 9″ tart pan.

• Preheat the oven to 400° F.

• Take the grapes off the bunch (removing the stems), and wash and dry them. Arrange them in the pan, spacing them apart evenly.

• Mix together the eggs, remaining sugar, powdered almonds, cream, and Pineau in a bowl.

• Gently pour this mixture over the grapes. Bake for 30 minutes. (If the tart crust browns too quickly, reduce the temperature to 350° F.

• Remove tart from oven, and let cool before removing from pan.

Permanent Jetlag

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I’ve been back from Prague for almost two weeks, and it’s still disorienting. The owner of the Korean grocery store where I go for chocolate and cucumbers gave me a quizzical look when I called, “Dobry den!” from the dairy case, out of habit. This is totally normal in Prague–not normal in Queens.

When the envelope above arrived last week from a friend in Canada, there was something familiar about it and the collection of overlapping bits the sender willed to add up to the right amount. It’s me. You think I’m projecting? Lately, I feel like my passport–worn at the edges, stamped with a bewildering assortment of remarks, stuffed full and about to run out of space, but totally useless, once back in the U.S. For the tenth month in a row, I’m out of work. (At least this month I vowed (to a New York Times correspondent on Twitter) that I’d open a biscotti shop, if it went to eleven months.)

For the Fourth of July, we ended up going to a friend’s apartment at the last minute. I was set on seeing fireworks, though I began to regret it when one of the friend’s roommates sniped, “It’s not like I’ve never seen fireworks,” which stung when I heard it from the bedroom. From the window, I could barely make out the edge of fireworks barely visible over the cluster of buildings near West 14th. Everyone else had given up, though my husband stood there behind me, for a minute, and it began to seem a candidate for the Worst Fourth of July Ever: standing in a stranger’s bedroom, looking through the window, alone, hearing fireworks but not seeing any. In any case, it had the makings of a massive pity party.

We’d called these friends at the last minute, because they have a balcony, and they’d invited us over, but when we arrived, it was clear that they hadn’t expected guests. The host scurried around, hastily tipping chips into a bowl, but everyone else stayed put, glued to their laptops.

Maybe it’s childish to want to see fireworks. I’m thirty-three, after all, and I’ve seen a good lifetime of them with my family. But sitting there on a wooden chair, a few minutes later, listening to my husband talk energy politics with his friend’s roommate, oblivious to the fireworks, was strange. Hey, I wanted to shout, I spent last Fourth of July, and a few before that, working on Leggings of 101 Rock and Pop Stars, or whatever literary gem good old crafty Tobias the Sneaky German Publisher had dreamed up in his den for us to slave over in Prague, that week. I deserve fireworks.

I should have left. After all, I’m the outsider anyway–an American among a bunch of international expats, the mopey out-of-work wife and humanities major among a bunch of hedge-fund analysts. But I stayed. And it only got worse. After the last boom reverberated outside and, faintly, in my chest, the host munched on a chip and looked at me.

“Is this a holiday that’s really important to you?” he asked.

“Of course,” I started. “It’s–“

“Because it’s hard for me to see how it has any real meaning to you, personally.” He cocked his head and sat back on the couch. “For me, you know, a big holiday is November 17, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, because it happened during my lifetime, and it really changed my life. It gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had. I was in seventh grade.” He looked at my husband, who’s also Czech, for confirmation.

J. nodded. “My parents took me to the demonstrations.”

The host continued. “Right–so it has real significance.”

If I had been thinking clearly, I would have said something like, “Well, you have a point, and for you, sure, today is not that big a deal, and it’s clear that you don’t understand or really care what this holiday means to your average American, which is fine. Hey, I dig; to each his own, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go celebrate in the fashion that generations of my American-immigrant family has enjoyed. Thanks for letting us crash your evening. Please enjoy the beer we brought.”

But the conversation went on after that, with each expat offering his or her Holiday Story of Real Significance, and I sat and felt the top of my head grow warm. When the host leaned over and asked J. if he wanted another beer, I leaped off my seat, muttered, “Well, I think I’ll go home; I have a lot of work to do,” and walked into the hallway to get my shoes.

J. followed me. “What? I thought I would stay for one more beer.”

“That’s fine, of course, but we’re not attached at the hip.” I jammed my feet into my flip-flops. “You should stay.”

“No, I’ll go, too.” He sighed.

Really,” I urged. “I don’t want to be blamed for making you leave early.” The living room was silent. Physical and domestic fireworks! What a spectacle.

The host wandered in and stared at me. “You have to work?”

“Yeah,” I said loudly. “I got a lot of work done in Prague, and I’m trying to put it together, now.” I looked away.

“You don’t have a job yet?” he asked. “Well, I’m sure things will improve.”

“Thank you so much for letting us invade your evening,” I said. “The economy is still going to hell, so I don’t think so. But I’ll keep looking. Good night.”

When I’m angry, I walk very, very quickly, and my husband (who is well over six feet tall) has trouble keeping up. But there’s something about propelling yourself through streets and crowds at top speed that is calming, somehow. Everyone else seems to be in slow motion while you carve a swift path down the sidewalk. It’s satisfying. Behind me, I could hear J.’s footsteps in their particular rhythm, among all the other footfalls. It’s just something you tune into, after five years of marriage. But there are other things that you can remain tone-deaf to, until they suddenly ring in your ears like a fumbled chord.

So, since the Fourth of July, I’ve been trying to recreate it–unconsciously, I guess–with a barrage of archetypal American summer foods: lemonade, grilled steak, blueberries and strawberries with cake. Tonight was corn on the cob, with onion-and-chive butter.

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Maybe a whole week of the Fourth of July is better than one night.

Also, feel free to place a biscotti order below.

Last Day in Prague: New Jewish Cemetery