Friday, December 28, 2012

American Girls in Bruges

This is Kanani in Bruges, Belgium last weekend. I could have posted a charming photo of Malanga Girl making silly faces canal-side, but her dolls are a fairly important part of our household. Many are just as well-traveled as Malanga Girl since I can't think of a single trip on which Malanga Girl has not brought a doll along. I even had to institute a "one doll only" policy a couple of years ago that was met with a certain amount of tears and protest. Anyway, I usually forget to capture which doll came where on film, so allow me this moment to eternalize Kanani's trip to the land of beer, chocolate and waffles. Truly, how could any family travel to Bruges and not be incredibly happy? Add a Christmas market with stand after stand of mulled wine and deep-fried olliebollen, fun game and carrousel areas for kids and you have yourself a truly divine place to spend the weekend before Christmas.

After the drudgery of lots of work in November and most of December, I'm basking in the just-like-in-college-or-grad-school glow of being blissfully deadline free this time of year. (So especially nice considering that I spent this time last year organizing an international move!) Besides traveling, I've been reading the thick stack of French paperbacks that had been sitting on my nightstand for months, catching up with old friends and making some new ones, trying out new recipes and reading The New Yorker magazine cover-to-cover. Oh, and exploring Paris! It took us 353 days to do so, but we finally visited the Louvre as a family today. Malanga Girl was not even the tiniest bit disappointed or perplexed by how much glass was standing between her and the Mona Lisa. Malanga Girl's face shone with admiration as Malanga Papa lifted her up so she could get a better look at La Gioconda through the crowds. And so our first year in Paris comes to a close.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

To New York and Back (The Accidental Baker)

I have a knack for flying right into hurricanes. I moved to Florida as Georges was approaching many years ago and drove a rented car out of West Palm Beach airport past lines of people in front of super markets and Home Depot. I remember a strange meal at Kenny Rogers Roasters, by myself, and shopping for canned goods at the Walgreen's. (I had no idea what I was grabbing, and it's possible that I didn't buy any bottled water.) That night, I saw the wind rip the screen door off of the screened-in porch of my corporate housing. The lights flickered, but somehow I was unscathed and it became nothing more than a weird anecdote inaugurating my "real" adult life. After that, I learned what foods I should have around in case of an emergency, learned that beds and furniture should be moved away from windows when there's a storm approaching, that a windowless bathroom or walk-in closet is a good place to take shelter, but a friend's house further inland is even better, and that it's a good idea to have a bag packed with all my important documents. At first, this included only my driver's license, passport and check book. After my initial trip to Cuba, I added the pictures I'd brought back of my grandparents and other family members and their baptisms, weddings and quinceañeras. These had been saved by my uncle Orlando in a big box for years and I was not going to let any hurricane obliterate their existence.

Fourteen years later, I've scanned and digitized all the old family photos. Most of the photographic evidence of my life in the last decade, including Malanga Girl's birth, was digital to begin with. When I arrived in New York this past October 28th, I had bags full of water, canned beans, dried fruit, bread, rice cakes, and tinned sardines and meat (hello, Vienna sausages!). I had a little girl who had no real idea what a hurricane was, except for to understand that the power could go out at any moment. She helped me put the flashlights and candles in places where we could easily find/use them in the dark. And she ate dinner, brushed her teeth and put on her pjs in record time Monday night, "in case the lights go out." We hunkered down in the master bedroom together, where I would know exactly where Malanga Girl was should we have to leave in the middle of the night or should the wind shatter any windows in the apartment. I had my purse next to the bed, with money, passports, my phone, a change of clothing and some of Malanga Girl's books. I didn't hunt around the house for birth or marriage certificates since all of this was scanned less than a year ago for our French visa application. Sometimes bureaucracy has its benefits.

I woke up to the sound of the wind a few times Monday night, but in the morning, everything was calm and still. I looked out the back window and saw a few fallen trees behind our building, as well as strewn leaves. But there was no water pooled high anywhere in sight. I waited until Malanga Girl was awake to gingerly test a light switch. We both held our breaths in anticipation. Click! On went the light. Malanga Girl cheered and sang, "we don't need candles!" We ripped open a pack of Thomas' English muffins in celebration and pulled the butter from our still-humming refrigerator.

Then I turned on the news. By now, everyone knows how devastating the effects of the hurricane were, but I felt sick as I watched the fires in Breezy Point and the floods in lower Manhattan on the screen for the first time. While it was comforting to know first-hand that the piece of New York around me was quiet and undisturbed (something I would have no way of immediately confirming had I woken up in France that morning), I could not help but think "why were we so lucky?" It made for a very complicated inner life, one that joins other emotional baggage accumulated while professionally dealing with other people's trauma for years.

I had Malanga Girl and her happy crew of friends to distract me a bit (school was cancelled all week), but I needed to still the chaotic buzz in my head otherwise. Keeping my hands busy is usually a good trick. Keeping them busy clicking away on my phone to get the latest news on the New York Times web site, however, was not calming. So I turned to baking.

I love to cook, but have never thought I had much aptitude for baking. It seems too exact, too scientific. Just like I remember all the chemistry experiments I failed at in high school (the liquids never turned the color they were supposed to or evaporated before even getting to that point), I clearly remember the cookies that melted into each other on a sheet or the breads that didn't rise at all. But something about it being such a challenge makes baking a form of meditation for me. I cannot let my mind wander when I am trying to follow a baking recipe. I have to methodically go from step 1 to step 2 to step 3, put my hands in there, grind, mix, mold, and next thing you know, I have something in the oven and a clearer mind and lighter spirit. I baked my most-ambitious cake until then on the eve of Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, baked not just pumpkin cupcakes, but pumpkin cheesecake, too. I had to wait until the local grocery store had restocked their eggs to make either, but once I had a fridge full of eggs, I was zen baker-girl for almost a whole day. It was good for the soul.

Better still for the soul was that I donated the cupcakes for a neighborhood-organized hurricane relief effort. They were sold for a dollar each alongside cups of hot chocolate donated by the local Starbucks. It felt like everyone in the neighborhood was out, buying or contributing baked goods, and organizing boxes of donated clothing and food that some neighbors would later drive out to the Rockaways, despite the gas shortage.

The cheesecake I ate with some friends who came over one night after Malanga Girl had gone to sleep and for their company, I am eternally grateful. Gone are the days of weathering a hurricane alone at the Kenny Rogers Roasters.

The picture above was what Malanga Girl drew when I prompted her to depict Hurricane Sandy. (I was inspired by the "Kids Draw the News" feature of the New York Times.) She says these are the trees that were still standing in our neighborhood after the hurricane. I need to take a cue from my child and her eternal optimism!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Paris Moments

Life has been passing by very quickly lately, between moments of playing tourist/hostess and working on the never-ending manuscript edits. The highlights: many lovely fall days spent wandering Parisian streets, the chance to finally eat at L'As de Falafel (here's my tip: it's much easier to get seated on a week day, but so worth it no matter the wait), the opportunity to whip up many more veggie-centered meals than I ever thought I was capable of, and, of course, time with Malanga Girl.

The photo above is blurry, I know. But it so perfectly captures the joy of the little moments. This was taken while we were coming back from the Place Saint Sulpice tonight. Malanga Girl stayed on her daddy's bike the whole way home.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Of livros and livres

I should probably devote a few more posts to book-shopping in Paris, since it's one of the activities I enjoy most besides actually reading the books I find here. One day I will make some kind of master list of bookstores by neighborhood and theme, but until then, I will just swoon about stores and upload pictures and addresses here when I'm inspired.

I found this gem of a Portuguese-language bookstore in the 5th arrondissement last week when I went to register for French classes at the Sorbonne. The French classes didn't work out because I needed way too much documentation (proof of previous educational degrees? What?) and, as it turned out, way too much time. The thought of spending three hours daily in a French class right now is a little overwhelming. But, my little walk over to the Place de L'Estrapade left me with some time to wander into this beautifully arranged store. On one side, books by Portuguese-language authors translated into French are displayed. Another side is devoted almost entirely to Brazilian authors. There are also books by African and Portuguese authors, all further subdivided into fiction and non-fiction, and children's books. The children's book selection focuses on home-grown authors from Lusophone countries. There are also some French-language children's books that draw on traditional Portuguese/Brazilian tales. Oh, and lots of dictionaries. Amazing, truly. I had to repress my urge to buy a French-Portuguese-English children's picture dictionary.

I went back to this store later in the week because I wanted to explore even further. I arrived armed with a list of writers recommended to me by different friends and was happy to find their books on the shelves. No need to ask anyone to do a book-run to Brazil for me or to fly down to Lisbon just to visit Ler Devagar again (although I wouldn't mind doing that anyway). As long as I am in Paris, of course...

The details:
Librairie Portugaise & Brésilienne
19-21 rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques
Place de l'Estrapade- 75005 Paris

I'll leave you with this image of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" simultaneously translated into French and into baked goods, spotted at a cupcake café on Rue Abbé Gregoire.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Pumpkins with a Side of Russian Translation

A certain non-vegetable-eating vegetarian British friend of mine asked me this weekend, "what is it with Americans and pumpkins?" This was just after he had turned down a serving of my absolutely-delicious-oh-my-gosh-I-am-in-heaven pumpkin curry. (That's my name, not my recipe. The recipe is here. Also, I added some fish in the photo above, not part of the original recipe.) My answer? I honestly have no idea. I came to pumpkins late in life since my mother never cooked them at home. We never had pumpkin pie at Cuban San Gibbin, nor do I have any memories of anything pumpkin-inspired at all during my childhood. I am sure there is so much more to be done with pumpkins than what I've picked up in the last few years, but maybe that's the root of my excitement. The possibility.

You see a pumpkin, I see one kilo of possibility sitting in front of me at the farmer's market. Oh yes, I said one kilo, otherwise known as 2.2 pounds. This was the smallest quantity of pumpkin I could walk home with when I arrived at the farmer's market late one day last week. So, while I had only planned to make a pumpkin-goat cheese quiche (also yummy), I ended up with the curry as a bonus. Perhaps another American could answer my friend's question more satisfactorily?

Powered by all this pumpkin goodness, I headed to a reading this evening by dynamic translation duo Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky at one of Paris's last remaining English-language bookshops. (I can't get started on the dramatic closings of several stores here this summer right now. Suffice to say that even though I read in French and there are loads of lovely French-language bookshops, my heart dies a little any time an independent bookstore closes.) Malanga Girl came along, with a brand-new sticker book under her arm to keep her busy while the reading took place. Here's the line-up of readings that may have seeped into her subconscious as she stickered away:

- A hilarious dramatic re-enactment by both translators of a scene between Dmitry Karamazov and Madame Khokhlakov from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. If this ever becomes available as a podcast, this would be the place to find it.

- Larissa Volohonsky read a lovely reflection on beauty, love and perhaps some things I missed due to not having read the whole book, from War & Peace. Okay, I confess that I was still imagining Madame Khokhlakov as I heard Ms. Volohonsky's voice, so I missed some of the substance of this particular piece.

- Richard Pevear read the short story Nevsky Prospekt by Nikolai Gogol. Go read it yourself now. In Pevear and Volohonsky's translation, of course.

- Larissa Volohonsky read the scene from Bulgakov's Master and Margarita where Margarita first appears. Even though I had read that one, it cut my breath short. Was it Bulgakov or Volohonsky?

- Both translators read from a Nikolai Leskov story to be published in a collection in March.

The usual question and answer period followed the reading. It had the occasional question formulated merely to show how clever the question-poser is, but was generally interesting and stayed on-topic. Amid discussion of using latinate versus anglo-saxon words in English translations and whether a translation can "improve" the original (overall consensus: it can't, unless you are Beckett and are translating yourself), I wrote down the following two phrases by Richard Pevear: "Every time you say something about translation, it turns out the opposite is also true" and "English is rather rhyme-poor." I'll jump on those bandwagons.

As for Malanga Girl, when she heard me telling Malanga Papa later that "the reading was fun," she vehemently denied such a thing and said "it was not fun." And yet, she did want to know who "Margarita" was...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Béatrice vs. Martine

(I'm about five days behind on life due to an 800-page manuscript that needs tending, but let's pretend all of the following just happened today instead of last week. Ok?)

I have been looking for a non-meat-centric, non-baking-centric French cookbook since I arrived. I have picked up some cookbooks here and there, but have mostly regretted leaving my copy of Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking back in New York. The closest all-natural cookbooks I've seen here are full of salad and soup recipes. Let me tell you something: salads and soups have their place, but I do not live on them alone. Also, it's hard to read through recipes coupled with tidbits on how to grow my own vegetables. I am fairly committed to urban dwelling at this point in my life. I accept that I will not be digging in the dirt to turn up the raw ingredients for my next meal. 

Enter La Tartine Gourmande by Béatrice Peltré. Béatrice is a French-born, Boston-living woman with a passion for food and an adorable young daughter. She mentions Whole Foods a fair amount in her book and said book is even blurbed by none other than Heidi Swanson and David Lebovitz (whose charming memoir/recipe book on Parisian living won me over despite my initial skepticism). Such a perfect find for me already, and to boot, her recipes are written with side-by-side measurements for both an American and a French kitchen. I can use my Matriushka-shaped measuring cups or tell the farmer's market folks exactly how many grams I need of something. I quickly promoted this volume to "most treasured cookbook ever" status, before I'd even cooked a single recipe out of it.

So, I was all set to bake some chocolate-tahini cookies when my sous-chef Malanga Girl questioned why I needed to listen to this Béatrice woman at all. Didn't I realize that Martine was the only French girl worth emulating, experienced as she was in such admirable and diverse activities as ballet dancing, horseback riding, taking care of her baby brother AND cooking? Oh yes, it's true, long before La Tartine Gourmande came out, Martine had her own cookbook. Béatrice Peltré even mentions dear old Martine in her own book!

But did I listen to Malanga Girl at first? No, I overrode her and went off to the health food store. I searched for all the special flours Béatrice calls for in her chocolate-tahini cookies: brown rice flour, millet flour, and quinoa flour, plus quinoa flakes. I tossed a neat little jar of tahini sauce and the perfect tablet of chocolate into my panier (basket) and headed to the downstairs flour section. There was the millet flour, mercifully also called millet in French since I had forgotten to look it up, and there were two bags of what could be brown rice flour if I could just figure out why the names were slightly different. But, the shelf that was labeled with "quinoa flour" was empty. Well, no matter, surely I could ask for some from the back. I headed to the register.

Now, I should mention that for months and months, I was greeted at the health food store by the same wonderfully pleasant woman who always chit-chatted with me, asked about Malanga Girl and recommended new recipes. Sadly, she went back to school this fall. (But not before telling me she was leaving and exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses with me!) Her replacement is not nearly as charming. Actually, she borders on rude. So when I asked her about the quinoa flour and received a mildly sarcastic response indicating that if I didn't see it on the shelf, then they clearly didn't have any, my dreams of baking chocolate-tahini cookies were crushed. I like to think my refusal to buy everything in my panier would show that rude clerk that she should perhaps offer a cheery "I'm sorry we're out of that right now" to the news of no quinoa flour, but I am mostly certain she could care less.

So what's a Malanga Mama to do when she craves chocolate cookies and has no quinoa flour? That's right, I turned to Martine's recipe for chocolate-chip cookies, using regular old flour, chocolate chips, butter, sugar an egg and pecans. The recipe even has a little note about the origins of pecans and how they grow in North America, a factoid that Malanga Girl was very excited about.

We ate the cookies too quickly to photograph them at all. But they were delicious!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Oh, Lusitania!

In case you haven't noticed, I spend a lot of time planning the trips I take with Malanga Girl. Even when it's just a whirlwind-we'll-only-be-there-for-two-days kind of trip, I want to know if there's some amazing park or museum or puppet theater we should check out. It helps when we have a local friend to show us around, but I'm not shy about emailing everyone I know to ask for recommendations or about poking around the Internet to get ideas. I found way too many suggestions for our recent jaunt to Lisbon, one of my very favorite cities anywhere. If you don't know my friend Miguel, who was a brilliant host when I went to Lisbon for a quick work-related visit this summer, then check out this page for a full line-up of kid-friendly activities.

For me, Lisbon is a wonderful place to just spend hours sitting in a cafe in the Chiado, sipping coffee, reading a book and nibbling on a pastel de nata, or two, as the sun shines down on me. Malanga Girl's enthusiasm for pasteis de nata rivals my own, but she has little desire to sit still for long. (Incidentally, if you're ever looking for a pastel de nata in Paris, I highly recommend Comme à Lisbonne on Rue du Roi de Sicile.) So, off we went to explore. A full day was spent running around the towns of Cascais and Sintra with my parents, whose quick trek through various towns in Spain and Portugal prompted our decision to fly to Lisbon in the first place.

In Sintra, the Museu do Brinquedo was just as quirky and charming as I remembered from a very long-ago visit with Malanga Papa (pre-Euro days, that's how long ago it was). Malanga Girl spent a long time on the third floor devoted to bonecas (dolls) of all shapes and sizes while her grandfather looked at all the miniature tin soldiers, Red Cross ambulances and other WWII-era toys. He happened upon quite a few things that he claims he hadn't seen since his own childhood. In short, the Museu do Brinquedo was the perfect multi-generational family outing.

A large part of our only full day in Lisbon was spent at the Marionette Museum, a museum Malanga Girl now claims is her favorite in the world. I'm not sure if any pictures do it justice as you can't quite feel the awe and magic of the dimly-lit puppet-filled rooms. Nonetheless, above is a sweet one to give you a sense of the museum.

One of Malanga Girl's enduring Portuguese obsessions now has to do with the unscripted moments of TV-watching while on vacation. At home, I am not a big TV person, but I do find it fun to flip through the channels on foreign TV to see what's popular in another country. Not only did I find plenty of Brazilian telenovelas airing on Portuguese TV (my guilty pleasure), we also found a kids' channel broadcasting Portuguese acts like Xana Toc Toc and Os Caricas. Malanga Girl found Xana Toc Toc's A Mala Cor de Rosa  to be positively addictive. Perhaps you will, too.

Monday, September 3, 2012

72 Hours in Berlin

I was an idealistic thirteen-year-old when I saw images of the Berlin Wall coming down, broadcast on TV in our U.S. living room, with my parents chanting "Cuba's next!" next to me on the sofa. I still remember Schwester Irene, our high school German teacher, and her excitement about the events unfolding in Germany in 1989. She brought in newspapers with big, bright pictures of people just a few years older than us standing atop the Wall or at the Brandenburg Gate, arms raised, faces caught in mid-yell. And so Berlin had lived in my imagination since then, despite my best efforts to visit it properly on previous European trips.

Malanga Girl and I made the two-hour flight to Berlin on a Wednesday afternoon last week, with a long list of sights to see, parks to visit and things to eat before our return flight on Saturday (thanks, KP, whose German experiences are artfully chronicled here). I had no idea how immense the city of Berlin is nor how much living in compact, walkable from end-to-end Paris has skewed my ability to manage my time in other cities. We quickly learned how to navigate both the S-bahn and the U-bahn, and learned that you can ride it for a long, long time and still be in Berlin proper. There's a lot we didn't do. Let's get that out of the way first, so I can refer back to this list in case I get to Berlin again anytime soon.

We didn't get to visit Checkpoint Charlie or the Museum there or any of the last remaining pieces of the Wall at Mauer Park or East Side Gallery; we missed out on the German Museum of Technology (supposedly fantastic for smaller visitors), the Legoland Discovery Center at Potsdamer Platz and on the more pedestrian pleasures of tasting Currywurst or a Berliner (jelly doughnut). We walked past the lovely and inviting Cafe im Literaturhaus, but Malanga Girl wasn't too interested in making a pit-stop there. I am also disappointed to report that I discovered upon arrival in Berlin that I'd left my camera's battery in Paris, so I have no pictures of our journey or of Berlin's majestic, tree-filled parks. I am inclined to call them mini-forests instead of parks. We did get our fill of those and you will have to believe my description, in lieu of pictures.

Here's everything we did see, hour by hour.


5 p.m.
1) Charlottenburg

We arrived at Zoo Station via train from Schönefeld Airport. It was a very easy ride, during which I couldn't stop thinking of U2's Achtung Baby, another strong high school memory. After checking in at the Grand City Hotel and realizing it was the biggest hotel room I'd ever been assigned in Europe, Malanga Girl and I wandered up to Savigny Platz. There were tons of sidewalk cafes and restaurants inviting us to sit down for a meal. Hesitant of my German language skills, I chose Anda Lucia, the Spanish tapas restaurant where the entire waitstaff spoke Spanish with accents from Southern Spain. Minus two points for not pushing my comfort zone, but at least I asked the waiter to teach me how to say "check, please" in German.


11 a.m.
2) Tiergarten

We walked past the Zoo, at the request of Malanga Girl (who was not in a zoo-visiting mood this day), and entered the vast Tiergarten, a veritable forest in the very center of Berlin. I had to consult one of the large maps posted by Strasse des 17 Juni (the main road that cuts through the Park) to find the Spielplätze (playgrounds) hidden within the dense lot of trees. We went to two different playgrounds, although there were several more dotting the Tiergarten map.

2 p.m.
3) Bus #100

My French guide book said this was the bus to take to get a full tour of Berlin's greatest sites. When I realized we were only 1/3 of the way through the Tiergarten and that it might take us much longer than I anticipated to reach the Brandenburg Gate on foot, I jumped on the #100 bus that stopped as we were waiting to cross the street. Too bad I got on in the wrong direction. Instead of taking us through the rest of the Tiergarten and then to the Brandenburg Gate, up Unter den Linden and eventually to Alexanderplatz, the bus took us back to the Zoo. We jumped on the U-bahn at Zoo Station to fix this mistake. It is extremely handy that a public transport ticket is valid for a full two hours no matter which combination of buses, S-bahn and U-bahn trains you take and not just valid for a single ride (take a lesson there, Paris).

3 p.m.
4) Unter den Linden (Mitte)

We stopped for an Apfelstrudel at Cafe Einstein. Malanga Girl accompanied hers with Erdbeer Eis (strawberry ice cream), even though the menu suggested Vanilla ice cream. One Apfelstrudrel would have sufficed for the two of us since it was rather large. The strawberry ice cream threw Malanga Girl over the top and she had no interest in eating anything again for several hours.

We wandered into Berlin Story bookshop, where there were many novels set in and about Berlin, available in English, as well as dozens of guidebooks, post cards, and children's books. I consulted more guide books with lists of child-friendly sites, just in case I could cram any more into my 72-hour window. I am compulsive like that. Two doors down from Berlin Story, we popped into the Nivea flagship store, because I can't resist gawking at beauty products. Too bad I wasn't checking luggage on the flight back as there weren't really any travel-sized containers to be had.

5 p.m.
5) Monbijou Park

This park is across the bridge from Museuminsel, the island home to many of Berlin's important museums. Malanga Girl and I made a deal that she would accompany me to a museum if we went to one more Spielplätz. The Berlin sky drizzled some rain on us, but Malanga Girl didn't mind at all as she climbed all over the playground equipment. Meanwhile, I studied the map once again in awe of how much ground we had covered with our feet already and how much of Berlin was still left unexplored.

6:30 p.m.
6) Pergamon Museum

Museums are open as late as 10 p.m. on Thursdays. Some are free after 6 p.m. According to the sign on the door, the Pergamon is not and hasn't been since 2010. Happily, admission is free for kids. This museum was quite magical, with its Greek altar and Gates of Babylon. The Museum of Islamic Art, on the second floor, also housed a beautiful collection and included a domed Moorish ceiling from Granada, Spain.

8:30 p.m.
7) Fernsehturm- the TV Tower

Just when I was looking for Bus # 100 to take us back to our hotel area, Malanga Girl spotted the TV tower and wanted to go inside. We walked until Unter den Linden meets Alexanderplatz and rode all the way up to the top of the tower. (It's open until midnight, in case you were wondering.) I enjoyed the view of the Brandenburg Gate at night, but couldn't quite make out the Soviet-style buildings of Karl Marx Allee. Surprisingly, this ended up being Malanga Girl's favorite sight in all of Berlin, even though she wondered why we couldn't go all the way up to the skinniest point of the tower.

9:30 p.m.
8) Bus #200

We got tired of waiting for Bus #100, so hopped on Bus # 200 instead. The end of the line is Zoo Station as well, but it goes through Potsdamer Platz instead of through the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. Several train lines stop at Alexanderplatz, but  I actually love seeing cities from the windows of its public buses.


11 a.m.
9) Viktoria Park (Kreuzberg)

Another veritable mini-forest in the middle of the city. I had to ask three different people, "Wo ist die Spielplätz?" to find the playground. I believe there's actually more than one playground in this park, but the one we found is by the tennis/raquetball court on the western edge of the park. I marked it with an "x" on my physical map of Berlin, like a treasure spot.

4 p.m.
10) Zoo

It took a long time to get out to Kreuzberg in the morning and back to the Zoo area, which is a shame since the Zoo closes at 6 p.m. Nonetheless, we got a nice taste of what a wonderful Zoo this is. The giraffes mesmerized both of us and Malanga Girl was also quite taken with the lions. In addition to the almost 14,00 animals, there are also small playground areas in the Zoo, as well as, you guessed it, many, many trees. I would go to Berlin again just to spend a full day at the Zoo with Malanga Girl.

6:30 p.m.
11) Ka De We

This is the big department store in Berlin- Kaufhaus den Westens. According to one of my guide books, it's also continental Europe's largest department store. Ka De We is a short walk from the Zoo and is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays, so it seemed like a good place to stop before dinner. The gourmet food hall on the top floor satisfied my usual curiosities about food-shopping in other countries (and had some deliciously ripe peaches that we ate on the spot). The toy floor, however, was where we spent most of our time. Playmobil, Haba, Gotz dolls, Steiff stuffed animals and various non-German brands of toys all share space here in neat rows that afford opportunity for hands-on play. It was the vastest toy selection I've seen in a long time (in Europe, at least) and the prices were very reasonable considering that Ka De We is an upscale department store. We left with a few new Playmobil figures, including a flight attendant from the Playmobil "Special Plus" collection, a collection I haven't seen in France at all. I also grabbed a German Playmobil catalogue and have since been agonizing over the price difference (compared to France) and the availability of play sets in Germany that I didn't previously know existed. Maybe they'll come out here soon?


10 a.m.
12) The long subway ride to Kollwitz Plaza

I thought I was planning efficiently by choosing a playground spot right by a much-raved-about farmers' market on the same side of town as the airport, where I had to be by about 12:30 p.m. Little did I know that the journey from Charlottenburg to the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg would take almost an hour, leaving us just a precious 30 minutes or so to take in the market (well worth the hype) and play in the playground (also quite nice). There was no time left at all to walk just the few blocks or so on to Mauer Park before heading to the airport, but I'm glad Malanga Girl was able to get a final taste of Berlin's Spielplätze.

12 p.m.
13) Weltzeituhr- Alexanderplatz

Our last ground-view glimpse of Berlin was of the Weltzeituhr, the World Time Clock, on Alexanderplatz as we ran from the U-bahn station to the big train station for our airport-bound line. This futuristic-looking clock shows the time in different cities around the world. It gave me pause for thought that this clock was at the heart of East Berlin back in the day, and that most people there were never allowed to visit any of the cities listed on the clock.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hold the Roller Coasters, Please

It's August. That means that a large part of Paris's population has cleared out to various beaches and mountains across Europe. Lucky for us, that doesn't mean that the city has shut down entirely. The parks are still here, including a few summer-only ones like Paris Plages and the amusement park in the Tuileries Gardens. If you're traveling this way with a child, here's a non-exhaustive list of the places that have filled our summer days:

Jardin de Luxembourg: The most famous, with reason. If you've never been to Paris, this is probably the place you picture when someone says "Parisian parks." The manicured lawns (most not to be stepped on, beware), the statues, the little pond with the wooden boats being pushed around by children of all ages, the Guignol (puppet show), the joggers trotting by (including me, some mornings!), the people stretched out on the ubiquitous green lawn chairs either taking in the sun or reading the newspaper or having some lunch... It's all so heart-breakingly perfect that despite the other available options, I choke up the 3,70 Euros for Malanga Girl and I to enter the kiddie play area there at least once a week. Note that this is the only "for pay" playground I have found in Paris so far. One fee covers you for the whole day, though, and you can enter and exit as many times as you wish until 7pm. Be sure to bring along enough money for the carrousel (1,50 Euro) and the puppet show. And a crepe or PEZ dispenser or cotton candy or any of the other sweets around to tempt children and adults.

Les Tuileries: a beautiful, huge garden sandwiched between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde. It's impossible to miss if you're strolling along the Rue de Rivoli or taking a bateau down the Seine. There's a very nicely designed kiddie park area available all year, and in the summer, the huge amusement park includes a ferris wheel, a trampoline (4 Euros for 5 minutes, but in my experience, they let you jump for a far longer period of time), and various rides, even a rollercoaster. The Caterpillar rollercoaster is designed for younger riders, but Malanga Girl did not like the ride at all. Some fried dough and carnival games made her forget all about it, though.

Bois du Boulogne Jardin d'Acclimatation: A second attempt on the rollercoaster at this park proved to all members of Malanga Familia that Malanga Girl is not a rollercoaster girl at all. Happily, there are many other rides for the four-year-old set to enjoy.

Parc Champs de Mars: with a wide expanse of green grass kids are actually allowed to run and play on and a fantastic view of the Eiffel Tower, what's not to love? It has not one, but TWO carrousels, three free kiddie park areas (divided by age-appropriateness of the equipment), concessions stands, a Guignol (puppet theater) and a concert area. Oh, and pedal cars! Did I mention that one of the carrousels is crank-operated? And that the largest playground area is shady and cool on a hot summer's day?

Parc Monceau: A little gem in the patrician 8th arrondissement. I stumbled upon it on a brisk November day during my house-hunting trip. It immediately seemed magical for reasons that are hard to put into words. We don't get there very often, but the very words "Parc Monceau" are like a fairytale encantation for Malanga Girl.

Parc André Citroën: Not the easiest park to get to since the closest subway stations are still a decent walk away. However, the time and energy you invest in getting there will see their reward in the form of water play and a hot air balloon. Note that the balloon only goes up if weather conditions are favorable. Check here for more info. There's also lots and lots of grass for picnicking.

Parc George Brassens: Off the normal tourist track, but it's an especially lovely place to visit on Sundays, when there's an old book market and pony rides for kids. The two kiddie park areas are superb and the Guignol (puppet show) is charming. There's also an outpost of famous Parisian bakery Poilâne nearby.

Parc des Buttes-Chamont: The park I know the least as it's massive and we still haven't been able to explore each corner of it. It's in northeast Paris, in the 19th arrondissement, and overlooks the whole city. This is the place where Malanga Mama is most likely to spend an entire day by herself once fall comes and school is back in session.

Jardin Catherine Labouré: My favorite park when I just want to lie on the grass or sit on a bench sunbathing while Malanga Girl plays. It's perfectly self-contained and a haven of peace and quiet almost any day of the week.

Canal St. Martin: Not technically a park, but the canal is a child-worthy destination to see the boats passing and the locks system in action. It makes for a lovely, lazy walk on a Sunday, when the streets are closed off to vehicular traffic. There are some parks along the way, including one tucked in just between the Canal and Gare de L'Est. And for four weeks spanning July and August, Paris Plages is set up along one part of the Canal.

More Malanga Mama park-swooning here and here.

If parks aren't your thing, Malanga Girl has also greatly enjoyed riding the little train that goes around Sacre-Coeur, the Batobus around the Seine and visiting the Musée Dorsay (the ballerinas are her favorite).

Just for fun, here's a link to a post describing my first trip to Paris with then Malanga Baby. I can't believe that was three years ago already!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Livrarias & Co.

The true measure of a city's greatness is the quality of its bookstores. I've been to otherwise perfectly lovely places and left with a pain in my chest at not finding a single good bookstore despite there being a strong local literary tradition (I mean you, Granada, Nicaragua). But then there are the places where you would fly in for a day just to spend a few hours at a place like Miami's Books & Books, or New York's Idlewild or The Strand  or Boston's Trident Books or Philadelphia's House of Our Own Bookstore or Buenos Aires' El Ateneo. Just writing their names makes me swoon a little.

Happily, my recent travels to Lisbon, Portugal and Copenhagen, Denmark were filled with discoveries of lovely bookshops. In Lisbon, I stocked up on Portuguese literature and children's books at Assirio e Alvim and Livraria Bertrand in the Chiado and at Ler Devagar (pictured) in the LX factory of the Alcantara neighborhood. Should you find yourself in Lisbon, the Chiado is easy to find and picture-perfect for strolling around. To get to the LX factory, take tram # 15 and get off at the Alcantara stop, then walk a few blocks to Rua Rodrigues Faria. The factory is at the end of that street, with other cute stores inside, but I only had eyes for the bookstore.

In Copenhagen, our friend and local guide led us to the absolutely charming Børnenes Boghandel, a brightly lit children's bookstore that made me want to learn Danish on the spot, just so I could take home one of everything on display! We bought an English translation of a Pippi Longstocking book that we read THREE times home on the plane. We also managed to walk out with two small Danish-language books. My friend was kind enough to translate the gist of the first book, but since the second one is all labeled pictures of things relating to dance stars, pop stars, veterinarians and other professions children dream of becoming, Malanga Girl and I are learning some new vocabulary.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Les Vacances!

A post in snapshots.

 St. Jean de Luz, France

 Pamplona, Spain

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Americanos in the Kitchen

I have a special place in my heart for food trucks. Malanga Girl is probably at least one part burrito due to the intense and irrepressible cravings I felt in early pregnancy for the Calexico Food Truck on Wooster Street. I had this funny notion that everyone at the office would somehow catch on to the fact that I was pregnant because I was going out for several burritos per week. Now, in retrospect, I realize they probably just blamed my expanding waist line on the burrito addiction.

In any event, the appearance of a taco truck run by a real, live Californian at my local farmers' market was fairly exciting. My order today of tacos de carnitas comes just on the tail end of having finally tracked down a place that sells canned black beans in Paris. (I don't have it in me to make black beans from scratch, sorry to say.) At 4, 50 Euros per can, I was still pondering whether I should save them for a special occasion. So, it was extra exciting to see that my tacos were served with a generous side of black beans today. Not red beans or refried beans, but good, old-fashioned black beans how I like them. Brought to me by a Californian.

Incidentally, I finally located the canned black beans at an emporium of American products called The Real McCoy.  Lest you think I'm thinking of changing the expression to "as American as black beans," I'll leave you with the simple yet delicious apple pie recipe I picked up from a Monoprix circular a few weeks ago. It has been a big hit in our house and I just made it again tonight. My amazing assistant, Malanga Girl, suggested the addition of cinnamon to the original recipe. Genius!

1 box of puff pastry
3-4 apples
70 g butter
sliced almonds (I used about 1/3 cup)
2 tablespoons honey
Cinnamon (to taste)

- Peel the apples and slice
- Put the puff pastry in a pie mold
- Place the apples on the puff pastry
- Bake for 20 minutes (the recipe didn't specify a temperature, the box of puff pastry suggested 210 degrees Celsius, I am still fiddling with the temperature).
- In the meantime, melt the butter, add the almonds and the 2 Tablespoons of honey. Add cinnamon to mixture. Pour on baked pie and put back in oven for 4-5 minutes.
Note that the French are very opposed to serving desserts like this with ice cream, but in the privacy of our own home, we quite enjoyed the pie with some vanilla ice cream.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I'm Here for the Food

Two book projects down and now I can focus on the real task at hand: eating my way through Paris. I’ve been visiting the various farmers’ markets since winter, but there’s a special charm to them in spring. The colors of the fruits and vegetables are more vibrant, the selection is wider, the taste of everything is just a little bit sweeter. And, what warms my heart even more than my stomach: I now engage in friendly chit-chat with the vendors I’ve gotten to know over the last few months. There’s the Portuguese fruit vendor (his selection is pictured above), who reminds me that a “fraise” in Portuguese is “morango” and generally indulges me with a fun mix of French and Portuguese as he scoops my cherries into the brown paper sack. There’s the cheese vendor who didn’t laugh at me when I thought the “roquette” called for in my Provencal lasagna recipe was a type of cheese. (It’s not, it’s a green leaf. ) His “brie moeux” is divine, especially on a piece of fresh bread with some basil leaves and a slice or two of rosette (a salami-like cured meat). There’s the spice vendor from whom I have bought ras-el-hanout, herbes de Provence, sesame seeds, and, my latest swoon-worthy discovery, Orange blossom water. I often open the bottle just to take an endorphin-boosting sniff. This same spice vendor welcomed my father enthusiastically to the market when we strolled through together on a recent spring day. How could I not have a special affection for him now?

As much as I love my local vendors, I do cheat on them occasionally. Last Friday, I went over to the market on Place Monge, in the 5th arrondissement, just a few steps from Hemingway’s old haunts in Paris. It felt a bit like being on vacation. I limited myself to purchasing things I could tote around all day, like a jar of honey and a big bulb of fennel, but I took it all in just the same. Then I strolled over to Rue Mouffetard and bought a stack of books to make up for the fresh meats and fish I didn’t purchase at Place Monge. I’m funny like that. But really, aren’t books and food equally necessary? Speaking of, I have another thing to look forward to this summer, besides the expanding selection of fruits and veggies. I can finally read whatever I want now that my translation projects are done. Now that deserves indulging in some kind of celebratory meal!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Le Week-end sans enfant

So what does Malanga Mama do when she suddenly has Paris all to herself for about 36 hours? Malanga Papa and Malanga Girl went camping out in Rambouillet for a night this weekend, leaving me on my own. It wasn't long enough to really start missing them, but gave me plenty of opportunity to:

- Go on a big Monoprix shopping spree. Monoprix is like the French Target and I just can't get enough of this store. It is one of the few places where I can feed my beauty-product addiction in one stop (I miss U.S. drugstores so much!) AND it has a huge supermarket in the basement. The meat counter is nothing to write home about, but the rest of the food selection is great.

- Finally check out the Other Writer's Group at Shakespeare & Company. It had been way too long since I'd shared a piece of original writing with anyone and even longer since I had something BRAND SPANKING NEW to share, so it was pretty exciting for me. The dynamic was very laid back. There were about 10-12 people total and about 5 of us had pieces to share. Mostly prose, but there was a sonnet in iambic pentameter in the mix, too. I received some very good feedback on my work and best of all, was able to come home and make changes right away. One full hour of undisturbed writing on a Saturday night. Ah, heaven!

- Cook! I cooked and cooked some more, because I enjoy it and because it's such a fantastic way to procrastinate when I actually have a work project with a fixed deadline. I baked a ham, pine nut and golden raisin loaf Saturday night around 10pm before getting down to finally work and then I made an amazing scallop, golden apple & shallot dish Sunday evening to welcome my family home. I am posting the recipes below, in translation from two fantastic French-language cookbooks (one of which has was bought in Paris years ago, lived on my New York shelf and then made it back here with me).

- Catch up on this and that. I emailed friends I'd neglected for way too long, organized some of Malanga Girl's toys and dress-up shoes (so many pairs!), did several loads of laundry, folded and put away clean laundry that had piled up in various corners of the apartment (especially on a little settee in my office where no one has been able to sit since... February or so?), gave the oven a good scrub down, mopped the hardwood floors... Oh yes, and worked. Please add cleaning to the list of things I do to procrastinate when I have a deadline.

- See a movie in the theater. I watched "De Rouille et D'Os," a French-language film based on Craig Davidson's short story collection "Rust and Bone." I haven't been able to track down the book in Paris, but the movie was so emotional and visually-stunning that I didn't need any background to appreciate it. Also, I am convinced that there are few people on earth more beautiful than Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. I could have watched them for hours. If you happen upon this movie wherever you are, see it!

- Wander around Montparnasse Cemetery. This is a lovely thing to do on a brilliantly sunny day when you have forty-five minutes free before seeing a movie. But, I happen to like cemeteries and like this one in particular even more than most others.

Monday was a holiday and to welcome Malanga Girl back from her camping escapade, we spent the day at the Parc Andre Citroen together, hence the photo. The park has an honest-to-goodness hot air balloon! And fountains! What's not to love?

Johanna's Pine Nut and Herb-crusted Ham Loaf
From "Les recettes du Mistral" by Sandra Mahut
3 eggs
200 g flour
10 cl milk
10 cl olive oil
1 envelope "Levure Chimique"
100 g pine nuts
100 g golden raisins
150 g herb-crusted ham
20 g butter (to butter pan)
salt and pepper

1- Cut the ham in small pieces.
2- Place the raisins in some hot water or tea for 5 minutes. Dry with a paper towel.
3- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. (350 F???)
4- Beat the eggs in a bowl. Add the flour, then the levure chimique, milk and olive oil. Salt and pepper generously. Add the pine nuts, raisins and finally, the ham. Mix well.
5- Butter a loaf pan, place the batter in pan and bake for 45 minutes.
This tasted yummy all by itself, but a smear of butter was quite nice on it as well.

Scallop, Apple and Curry Tagine
from Tajines & Couscous by Laurence du Tilly
4 Golden apples
3 Shallots
3 Tablespoons olive oil
20 scallops (fresh or frozen)
1 Tablespoon Curry
2 Tablespoons Fresh Heavy Cream (Malanga Mama thinks you could try replacing with Greek Yogurt)
Salt and pepper

1- Peel and cube the apples. Peel and finely dice the shallots.
2- Heat the oil in a cocotte. Add apples and shallots and cook uncovered for ten minutes, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Add curry, salt and pepper. Cover and leave over low flame for 20 minutes.
3- Add the fresh cream, mix and place the scallops on top. Add more salt and pepper. Cover and cook for ten more minutes. Serve immediately.
This meal went well over couscous.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Four Years and One Week

Malanga Girl had a birthday last Friday. Festivities lasted for approximately 5 days since the day before her birthday kicked off a holiday weekend here in France. From Thursday-Sunday, Malanga Girl told us adults where we'd be going and what we would be doing. She managed to cram in a second visit to the Musee D'Orsay (her favorite because of the ballerinas), another ride on the Bato Bus up and down the Seine, visits to the zoo, the Opera, the Eiffel Tower and the Parc George Bressens. She rode a pony at this last venue, and watched a guignol (marionette) performance as well. Cupcakes and many scoops of ice cream were eaten over the weekend as well.
Monday brought the long-awaited Barbie cake to school. I did not make this, nor do I have any idea how I would even begin to construct such a thing. But in less than five minutes, it was disassembled for small mouths after a trilingual chanting of "Happy Birthday." (Note that I was terrified Barbie's face would melt or her hair would catch on fire from the candles, so keep this in mind if you feel adventurous enough to attempt making your own Barbie cake someday.)
Oh Malanga Girl, you are so big now. You even make up your own poems in French. "Je m'appelle une cocinelle," you said to me one day recently. My growing ladybug. Happy birthday! Felicidades! Joyeux Anniversaire!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mar-seille, can you see...

Give me a gritty port city and I am a happy woman. Havana, Cuba and Naples, Italy are among some of my favorite places in the world, so I wasn't surprised to find Marseille charming when others recommended I skip it and go straight to Provence's lavender fields. I wouldn't normally gush when a place fits in so perfectly with my own personal ideal since I do recognize that not everyone has the same tastes. However, in this case, I really think Marseille is worth seeing if you like good food and happen to be traveling with a small child. It is a city that has the right amount and diversity of sights to see with someone who has graduated from the stroller set (the hills might make it a little more challenging with a stroller, but still doable). Here's a glimpse of what made our stay in Marseilles so fun:
- After our mesmerizing three-hour train ride from Paris to Marseille (hooray for train travel!), we jumped on a cruise out to see the Calanques. The Calanques are deep narrow inlets surrounded by huge limestone cliffs. You can hike the Calanques as well, but sitting on a boat and enjoying the fresh saltwater breeze was a very pleasant way to see them for the first time.
- We strolled the hilltop Le Panier district in the early evening, waiting for Pizzaria Chez Etienne (emphatically recommended by all the guides we consulted) to open for dinner service at 7:30pm. We found plenty of small shops and plazas to keep us busy. We climbed the steps up to this neighborhood again several more times during our stay, both to further explore the winding streets and to hit a few more spots that appealed to us. The ice cream at Le Glacier du Roi is reason enough to venture up to Le Panier. Between the three of us, we tried vanilla, strawberry, peach, passion fruit and navetissimo. All of them were impressive, but if you can only try one, go for navetissimo. Its orange-flower-flavor is based on the boat-shaped Navette cookies that are typical of Marseille. I recommend eating an actual navette, or many, as well, but while you can bring a box of those home with you, the navetissimo ice cream is a have-it-in-Le-Panier-only experience.
The pizza and supions (breaded, fried squid) at Pizzaria Chez Etienne were delicious, by the way. The service, however, was nothing to write home about. Get there as early as possible to snag a table since there's no phone to make reservations and they're quite happy to turn hungry tourists away.
- We rode the little train up to the Byzantine church Notre Dame de la Garde on Sunday, an experience that offered us more stunning views of the Calanques, the water and Marseille in all its glory. The train stops at Notre Dame and you can see the church and enjoy the sweeping views at your leisure. Trains going back down to the port come by once every twenty minutes.
- You have your pick of tagine dishes in Marseille's several North African restaurants. We went for La Kahena, a Tunisian place on Rue de la Republique right on the Vieux Port. Malanga Papa and I ordered a fish tagine, being in a port town and all, but I daresay Malanga Girl's meatballs were the star of the meal. Was that ras-el-hanout in them or was it the mix of lamb and other meats that made them so memorable? Mmmm!
- On Monday, I went for a nice run along the Vieux Port and up to the Jardin du Pharo. I'm still fairly new at this running thing, but the warm sunshine, new scenery and fresh sea smell kept me from thinking of my aching knees for once. I think this was my best run so far since I took up running a few weeks ago. It was also nice to have the Jardin du Pharo to myself at 8am, and to discover it's not really worth making a special trip just to see the big green lawn they call a "garden." I'm not sure what goes on in the Palais du Pharo, however, so that might be worth considering.
- I stopped at Pain de l'Opera for croissants and pain au chocolat before going back to wake Malanga Family for the day's outing. We took the bus to Aix-en-Provence right from the St. Charles train station. Buses leave every 10 minutes, cost 4,90 Euros for adults, are free for children and the ride lasts about 35 minutes. We spent a very pleasant day in the old part of Aix, including a lunch made from the amazing selection of sausages, cheese and bread at the farmers' market in one of the plazas there. Along the way, some soaps and sundry gifts were picked up, as well as coffee and ice cream. Really, just about any time of day in almost any place in the world is good for a coffee/ice cream stop.
- Monday evening found us back in Marseille for our reservation at Chez Madie Les Galinettes to eat bouillabaise. You have to make your reservation 48 hours in advance, but happily, there's no attitude served alongside the delicious fish & broth. The staff was amazingly pleasant and they even gave Malanga Girl a little gift package full of coloring supplies, candy and plastic jewelry. Malanga Papa and I have discussed returning to Marseille on the TGV (high-speed train) just to have bouillabaise again.
- On our last day in town, we were finally able to visit La Vieille Charite, an extremely well-done museum that displays Egyptian mummies, Greco-Roman pottery, bright Mexican masks and other cultural artifacts in a beautiful space right in the heart of Le Panier. We were lured by the promise of cat mummies, as promised by a New York Times article, and these did not disappoint. Going to the museum was also a chance to have more ice cream at Le Glacier du Roi before we headed back to the train station and to Paris.
- Throughout our stay, Malanga Papa and I drank lots of a local artisanal beer called La Cagole. We highly recommend it (and I'm not even a beer drinker)!

Monday, April 16, 2012

My little chef

While it's true that she's better at eating the pine nuts we toasted (that's what she's showing us in her mouth in this photo) than at actually adding them to the lamb meatball mix, Malanga Girl is quite proud of her sous-chef duties.

Sadly, I didn't realize until after we began our meatball rolling that the recipe called for one full hour of "mijote"-ing (roughly translated: cooking over a low flame) the meatballs in a delicious blend of tomatoes, more pine nuts and fresh mint. I'm no good at cutting corner on recipes, or apparently, at reading them through some nights. This meant our Girl had to go to bed before the meatballs were ready to eat. Malanga Papi and I, however, thoroughly enjoyed the dish. Now if only I could figure out where to get ground lamb meat anywhere but the high-end, gourmet market. Could it actually be true that you need a special grinder for lamb?

Monday, April 9, 2012


Years ago, I read a charming children's book called "Linnea in Monet's Garden." I didn't remember the title or the author, but when I read the description of Giverny in my big guidebook of France recently, the pictures and illustrations from this book immediately came to mind. The real-life garden and water lily pond where Monet painted were exactly what I expected when I saw them for the first time today. Isn't it nice when an image comes to life like that?

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Continuity of Parks

(I owe this title to the incomparable Julio Cortázar, whose remains are just a short walk away from me now in the Cemetery Montparnasse.)

The weather warmed up for a while there in March and we went to park after park after park. My memory is a dizzying blur of the Parc Monceau, the children's park at the Jardin de Luxembourg, the small children's play areas inside the Parc Sevres-Babylone and at the foot of the long stairs leading up to Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre. And the merry-go-rounds, oh, the merry-go-rounds! Malanga Girl rode one almost every day last week. There's the merry-go-round just outside the Abbesses subway stop (the Parisian metro station that is the furthest underground of all of them) in addition to the ones at all of the parks I mention above and the merry-go-round that goes in circles in my head as I replay the day while I am falling asleep at night.

In short, Paris in spring is a grand place to be a child.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My obsessions

I can be a bit obsessive, it's true. A lifetime of obsessions ranging from scouring flea markets to collecting children's books (even before I actually had a child, *blush*) to inspecting every single stall of the farmer's market seem to have come to a head here in Paris. It seems like just about everything I obsess over is right here in front of me or a short search away. A couple of weekends ago, we went to the old book market at Porte de Vanves, a former butcher's market. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but it was so dreamy to just wander from table to table, waiting for something to call out to me. And, of course, soon enough, I came across a bilingual French-Russian volume of Soviet children's stories. Ah, the Soviets, one of my strange obsessions- maybe because I am a child of the 80s, maybe because I am fascinated by the strange impact of the Soviets on Cuba in their heyday, maybe because I am just weird. I walked away from the book and kept thinking about it, through the rest of a lovely afternoon at the Parc George Bressons next to the book market, through a trip to an outpost of amazing French bakery Poilane, through the eating of an entire bag of beignets. So I went back, afraid that maybe someone else had snapped up that random children's book in the few hours that had elapsed or that perhaps the proprietor had realized its true value and suddenly tripled the price! Or decided not to sell it! (Ah, the inner workings of the obsessive mind.) But no, there it was, mine for the taking for just two Euros. The children's reading primer, all in Russian, that was lying beneath the story book, however, I left there. And I have been thinking about it ever since...

Some of the other things I've been obsessing over are French cooking magazines and French children's books. Luckily, they're both quite useful to have around when I have to feed a family daily and read a minimum of three books at bedtime to Malanga Girl, plus at least another one or two during the rest of the day. There's no other adjective but charmant (charming) to accurately convey the lure of French children's books. Our shelves will be groaning and sighing under the weight of so many books before we leave this country. And our bellies will be full of French-cooking-magazine goodness.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sevilla tiene un color especial...

We couldn't resist a jaunt down to Sevilla for a few days during Malanga Girl's school break. Did you know that French children get a TWO WEEK vacation every six weeks? Well, neither did I. Good thing I was able to come up with a quick plan to get us some fun and sunshine.

Not sure what to do in Sevilla with a small child? If strolling around the beautiful Parque de Maria Luisa isn't enough, you're sure to run into a playground while you wander the streets. There is at least one right inside the Parque de Maria Luisa (we spent such a long time there, I never got to see if there was another one within the large park's confines). There's another lovely one in the Prado de San Sebastian, right off of Avenida del Cid, where the bus from the airport drops one off. We also discovered one in the Jardines de Cristina (near the Puerta de Jerez) that was designed for two-year-olds, but was a lot of fun for my almost-four-year-old.

The big draw for us, however, was flamenco. Eyeing the shop windows on Calle Cuna alone was a treat, since every gorgeous dress, fan and sparkling hair comb is out on display during these weeks leading up to the April Feria. The real deal dresses cost several hundred euros, but luckily the tourist shops around the Cathedral sell kid-sized dresses in your choice of pink and black polka-dots, red and black polka-dots, or red and white polka-dots for about 10 Euros each. (Shop around as the prices can vary a bit from store to store, as well as the size and color selection.) Malanga Girl stocked up on a matching fan, hair combs, hair flower and shoes as well and was quite excited to stomp away in her new shoes in our hotel room every evening.

The Museo del baile flamenco was worth a visit. The interactive exhibits were a lot of fun for both Malanga Girl and this Malanga Mama. The highlight of our "ruta del flamenco," however, was a show at the Casa de la Memoria on Calle Ximenez de Enciso (Barrio de Sta. Cruz). While they don't technically let small children in, I smooth talked our way in and Malanga Girl was perfectly behaved for the whole 1 hour & 10 minute show, even though it was way past her bedtime. She was absolutely transfixed by the fancy footwork on stage.

And now we're back in Paris, where things are starting to feel a little more like "home."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Le Monde à Paris (The World in Paris)

There is so much I love about this place that is quintissentially French- the bread, the boulevards, the purplish light that settles over the city at the exact moment you're crossing one of the many bridges over the Seine in an attempt to get a small child home before dinner time... But I also love how easy it is to find just about anything you need or crave in this city, from bagels with cream cheese to sinfully delicious Spanish jamóm serrano. After all, this is one of the things I love about New York as well. So, it should come as no surprise that I practically squealed with joy when I found this gem of a book called "Le Monde à Paris" (The World in Paris). Now, with an easy flick of the wrist, I can land on the pages telling me where to go get my eyebrows threaded at an Indian salon, where to find real Portuguese fado music and, most importantly, who stocks the best English-language children's books and DVDs. After swooning over the literary atmosphere oozed by English-language bookstores like Shakespeare & Co. and Village Voice and deeming W.H. Smith (on Rue de Rivoli) decidedly less artsy (but still functional, of course), I've decided to elevate it a few notches. The second floor, which I just visited today for the first time, is a veritable gold mine of Britishness, from Marmite and other food stuffs to a fully-stocked kids' DVD collection. While the Disney empire has made sure just about every movie is available in every country around the world and sells videos here with at least 3-4 audio language options, there are some things that just haven't been popularized among French children. One of these is the very British Angelina Ballerina, a dancing mouse Malanga Girl happens to adore. Thanks to W.H. Smith and their grand second floor, I saved myself a trip to London and came home with an Angelina Ballerina DVD for my local Angelina fan.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dance Party!

Here's a shot from a very fun-filled play date this week. It's hard to get a good picture of kids dancing, so excuse the blurriness. The dress-up clothes were provided by our very generous Franco-American hostess, age 4.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Finding the Universal

A friend reminded me the other day, via e-mail, that the New Yorker anniversary issue was out- that special double-thick issue bursting with new fiction and sure to contain all the American literary and political gossip I've missed out on since coming to France. Since there is little else open on Sundays and a museum outing with Malanga Girl had to be cut short (sadly and disastrously), it was the high point of my day to go to the newsstand in search of the New Yorker magazine. Only after spending eight euros did I realize that it was last week's issue, not the anniversary issue. After much sighing and muttering (only slightly assuaged by the fact that the cover price of the NYer is actually $5.99, something I failed to notice in my subscribe for ten-years-at-a-time days), I settled in with the magazine on my Parisian sofa and realized I could still obtain great pleasure from reading its pages, anniversary issue or not. Later still, I settled into reflecting on this whole question of home and culture and a feeling the French call mal du pays but for which I prefer the Portuguese term saudade. I reflected on the very specific things I miss, like people- there's never any replacement for the people to whom you feel most connected, even after you've established a good social network in a new city (y ni hablar de before you've done so)- and on the things, like certain foods, that can bring me "home" no matter where in the world I am. My friend Julie's home-cooked black beans did precisely that this past weekend and I'm so grateful to her for hosting a "Caribbean" brunch at her home. In the spirit of the "moveable feast," I'm dedicating this post to finding the universal here in Paris. A list:

1) Parenting

Despite all the hype about a recently-published book extolling the "superiority" of French parenting (claims I can't respond to specifically since I haven't read the book and can only go by the sensationalist coverage of it in the U.S. press), here's a fact for you: being a mom opens a social door of sorts to other moms. It was true in New York, where I lived for years without knowing many of my neighbors and then, boom, Malanga Baby was born and I knew the entire block, it has been true in my travels over the last 3.5 years and I have found it to be true in Paris so far. Whether you talk about your kids or not when you're together or find that you worry about the same things or not is another question, but I am going to use this connection to exponentially increase the amount of native speakers with whom I get to chat over the course of the next few months. And to pick up useful tips like "don't ever, ever, ever take a family vacation in August in Europe." Good to know!

The parenting thing leads me to...

2) The way kids play

Imagine my distress when I found that there was a language barrier between my dear Malanga Girl and my friend Julie's French-Mexican children. Both sides had to be practically strong-armed into communicating in Spanish with each other during their first grand play summit, one side choosing to default to English while the other side chose to default to French (you guess which side did what). No matter. Once they found interests and activities in common, all was well in play-land. See above pic of some intense painting that happened at the Caribbean brunch this last weekend. We parents have even started to hear the reassuring hum of Frañol and Spanglish while they play, though not always.

3) Food

The sharing thereof, specifically. While the preparing of food for others can come with its own anxieties and while being a guest can occasionally cause anxiety as well (this Cuban-American mama was recently asked to bring the wine for a party composed of FRENCH people, a high stress request for me), the moment when you all sit down together is universally magical and appreciated.

Also, in case you were wondering, my friend Julie found the black beans in the Portuguese food section of a Parisian supermarket. Then she transformed them into pure edible joy with her pressure cooker. I would have never thought to look in the Portuguese food section and had given up on black beans altogether after realizing the markets around me have only "Spain" sections and "Mexico" sections, two nations that reject the noble black bean.

4) Yoga

Okay, this one is not really universal. However, the whole idea of finding the universal and finding home are tied up together for me, and when I can do yoga, I can find home in a way. Also, I had this whole thought about the universal yesterday, while lying in sivasana at the end of a really incredible, heart-opening, soul-grounding, gratitude-inspiring yoga class. It took me almost 6 weeks to find the right place for my yoga practice in Paris, but I feel like the timing was perfect.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Oh, the Romantic French!

and romantic American husbands living in France, of course...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Sweetness of Février, Part Deux (or should I say Doux?)

A Valentine's Day Banner (thanks, AH!) and a batch of blueberry cupcakes.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sweetness of Février

We've been in France four whole weeks now and the beginning of February has brought many good, sweet things. Most recently, we received a lovely homemade Valentine's Day card this morning from some friends back in New York. The string of red hearts is just what we need to warm us up on these cold days of winter (-2 Celsius!). Once Malanga Girl figures out where they'll take up permanent residence, we'll hang them and share the love with anyone who walks into our apartment.
February also brought the close of Malanga Mama's big, big, seemingly never-ending translation project, hence the silence of the last week. I'm so glad I'm now free to wander the streets in this turn-your-face-inside-out and make-your-knuckles-raw-even-under-your-gloves cold. No, really, I mean it! I'm excited about finally exploring all the places I still haven't seen. And about visiting old favorites, like the Guignol (Marionette Theater) in the Jardin de Luxembourg. Malanga Girl went to her first Guignol when we visited Paris a while back. She was 15 months old at the time and it was her first theater experience. This time, she was an old pro at knowing that exciting things happen when they dim the lights and she was sitting next to the first girl from her new school to invite us on a play date. We had a fun conversation after the Guignol in a mix of French, English, German and Spanish with this little girl and her mother at tea/coffee/pastry spot Bread and Roses and I felt like life was somehow very normal and very magical all at once.
The beginning of February also brought the first snowfall of the year to Paris (something none of us expected at all). It was a strange Sunday on which we walked through the nearly empty streets until the cold drove us into one of the only open bookstores in Paris that day of the week and then into the British pub across the street from it. Who knew I had been craving fish and chips loaded with malt vinegar?
Malanga Girl is also mastering the days of the week in French, exciting progress that made it very easy for her to talk me into buying her a French calendar for her room. C'est "cute," ne c'est pas?

Saturday, January 28, 2012


It is a truth universally acknowledged that there's nothing like chocolate milk to make a heart, young or old, beat with excitement. (Sorry, Jane Austen, I couldn't resist.) Back at home, Malanga Girl's favorite was chocolate milk from the farmer's market, when I lived in Spain, I loved Cola-Cao. Here, it's Banania for both of us, a yummy choco powder that has cereals and banana in the mix.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Un, deux, trois...

As promised, video footage of Malanga Girl reciting her numbers after just three days of school here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Des "Pancakes" and other things

I know enough about France to have understood, even before I arrived, that the way I eat would change here. That I would go back to the United States one day longing for all sorts of things that would become part of my daily Parisian existence, just as happens everywhere I've lived or traveled. (The pickled garlic I discovered in St. Petersburg, Russia still has no comparison anywhere else in the world. I could make a long, long list of things like this.) Nonetheless, I proposed the idea of a pancake brunch to my French friend Julie even before I arrived. "Brunch," said with a French accent, is the epitome of hipness here right now, apparently. While I still haven't figured out what's actually served at a high-end Parisian restaurant for a Sunday morning "brunch," I plunged ahead with my own plan.

I packed a bottle of Vermont maple syrup from my local farmer's market in New York and considered packing baking powder, as I had heard it was hard to find in France. I went to the gourmet market almost as soon as I landed in Paris and found a little red tin of baking powder in the "American and Canadian products" aisle, but ignored the gleaming boxes of Bisquick. Why buy a mix when I've been throwing together flour, sugar, salt and baking powder for so long I can even do it before I've had my morning coffee? There's actually a good answer to that question, but give me a minute.

After unpacking my meticulously bubble-wrapped maple syrup and putting away my new baking powder (at 2 Euros, not nearly as extravagant a purchase as I thought something from the foreign food aisle would be), I told myself I would buy the flour and sugar at some point before brunch day. I didn't think about it again. Until... 3 days before the brunch, I entered the grocery store and realized I didn't know a thing about French flour. Oh how I miss the very clear descriptions on American flour, the "all-purpose" truly meaning all-purpose, the "pastry" flour that I only buy when a recipe specifically calls for it, the easy-to-understand distinctions between "organic" and non-organic, whole wheat and white... Maybe it all just comes down to the fact that I've purchased it all before as a function of what the recipes say or that words mean something to me and NUMBERS do not, but I practically had a melt-down in the "farine" (flour) aisle when I saw neat little packages labeled with "45," "55," "65." When I tried to seek clarification, I was told the number just refers to how finely the flour is ground. Perhaps this means something to a professional baker, but to me who just makes the occasional cake (read: twice a year, one for Malanga Girl's birthday and one for Malanga Daddy's birthday) and mainly uses flour to thicken sauces, it was not helpful. Full panic ensued once I got home and could only find information about how to adjust French flour for American baking recipes. There was nothing about pancakes.

It was too late to go backwards. I had purchased a crepe pan and a set of mixing bowls already, after all! And I was on the hunt for the elusive measuring spoon set (something, it turns out, the French don't really use), so really, all that was lacking was resolving this pesky flour issue. I fired off several email messages to friends who have lived in Europe and posted on a message board and the consensus was to purchase "55" and test with the baking powder ratio.

The test began at 6:30 am Friday morning (brunch was scheduled for Saturday). First batch- doughy, terrible, definitely not what I wanted. The pancakes stuck to the spatula when I tried to turn them and were just generally a mess. I added more milk and more baking powder until the batter roughly resembled what it does back in New York and until the pancakes cooked in roughly the same time. By 8am, I had an acceptable batch for Malanga Girl to taste before I ran off to school with her and testing was concluded. I still didn't think the batch was perfect, but I resolved to try with apples instead of bananas for the real brunch since bananas can also throw off texture.

And then I went to see an excellent exhibit at the National Archives about the development of ID cards in France over the last two centuries. This was better for my mind than fretting about the pancakes all day. I also had a lovely lunch at Merci, a globally-minded store with an excellent cafe serving locally grown food on the lower level. This was my second time there and this time I knew how to order the beet salad I saw displayed on a table. "Betterave" is a beet in case you didn't learn that in French class (I didn't).

On Saturday, I mixed up my batch and hoped for the best. I doubled the recipe overall, but reduced the amount of flour, increased the baking powder by about a quarter and increased the milk as necessary based on how thick the batter looked. I also added lots of tiny pieces of apple and some cinnamon. And I got it right! The pancakes were, dare I say, perfect.

Then I served them and realized my guests had no expectations of my pancakes whatsoever. We gave basic instructions on the use of maple syrup over a stack of pancakes and the rest of the afternoon was spent talking and watching our kids play together. Oh, and how they played! I have more to clean up today than the planning that went into the brunch, but Malanga Girl has a new friend.