Tag Archives: angst

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.

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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.