Authors: David Lebovitz
Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues
Fortunately, this was also the same time that I got a new number and learned about
la liste rouge
, a telephone feature that allows you to block your number from anyone you choose, including hostile French painters. And with the touch of a few buttons on my brand-new telephone, I began to feel like I just might be home.
The very first thing I ate on my first day in Paris was a
salade de chèvre chaud
, while I dined alone at the Café Le Moderne in the Bastille and pondered my predicament.
After I sat down, I gathered up my courage, linked together the few words of French I knew, and ordered a simple salad topped with rounds of warm goat cheese along with a glass of crisp white wine, the first of many to come.
Coat cheese toasts
2 slices of hearty bread, such as pain au levain, or good white bread
Extra virgin olive oil
3-ounce (90 g) round, or crottin, of goat cheese, sliced in half horizontally
½ teaspoon red wine or sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
⅛ teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 cups (100 g) torn green lettuce leaves, rinsed and dried
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup (25 g) walnut halves, toasted, optional
Preheat the broiler and set the oven rack 4 inches (10 cm) below the heating element.
Brush the bread with just enough olive oil to moisten it. Place half of the cheese on each slice. Broil on a baking sheet in the oven until the cheese is soft, warmed through, and a little browned on top. This should take 3 to 5 minutes, depending on your broiler.
While the toasts are baking, make a vinaigrette in a large bowl. With a fork, stir the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, and a nice pinch of salt.
Toss the lettuce in the vinaigrette and pile on a plate. Grind fresh pepper over the top, rest the warm toasts over the lettuce, and scatter with walnuts, if using.
Serve with a chilled glass or
of white wine, such as Muscadet, Sancerre, or Sauvignon Blanc. Enjoy by yourself.
In order to finalize some of my affairs stateside, later that same year I had to head back to the States for six months. So I decided to sublet my recently painted, state-of-the-art telecommunications-equipped apartment. I posted a listing on a popular Web site and got a few encouraging responses. The most enthusiastic of the lot was from a potential
who “couldn’t wait to be cooking and baking away in the well-stocked and professionally equipped kitchen of—
I must not be that good with a camera, because the pictures I sent in response didn’t quite seal the deal, and I
never heard from him again. Even with my wide-angle lens, it’s hard to hide the fact that my kitchen is barely big enough for one person, let alone any professional equipment. And apparently my renown with this fellow wasn’t enough to overcome my kitchen’s shortcomings.
Coming from America, where the average kitchen is the size of my entire apartment (and often larger), it was quite an experience learning to bake on a counter so small I had to lift one bowl up before I could set down another. I wasn’t baking so much as practicing crowd control. People see my kitchen and think it’s so cute:
“C’est très parisien!”
they say as they lunge forward in excitement. It’s not until they lift their heads back up and thwack it hard on the sloped ceiling that they begin to understand some of the challenges I face. I learned to watch out for the ceiling eventually. But in the beginning, my head got banged more times than the gals up in Pigalle.
When I moved in, the kitchen was no different from the rest of the apartment: a complete disaster. The refrigerator looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since the all-out strikes of May 1968. The dishwasher pipes were so caked with Paris’s insidious
that when you switched the washer on, instead of humming to life, it would start off with a hopeful buzz that soon led to convulsive wheezing, with plates clattering inside. Shortly afterward, it would progress to violent shaking and begin body-slamming everything around it, wrenching itself loose from the confines of the cabinets, forcing me to race across the room to pull the plug before the plate-shattering
Just behind the dishwasher, tucked in the corner, is a small washing machine. For the life of me, and every other American living in Europe, I can’t figure out why it takes two hours to wash a load in a European machine in Europe, whereas washing a load in a European machine in America takes only forty minutes.
That, coupled with the subsequent drying for those of us who don’t have a dryer (which is almost everyone in Paris), means having to be creative about hanging your clothes in every spare space available in your apartment,
à la Napolitana
, as they say: in the style of a Neapolitan washer
woman. Which means if you have guests, you can’t be too shy about their knowing whether you’re a boxers or briefs kinda guy. Unlike the Neapolitans, I keep mine indoors, since I don’t want my neighbors, especially
with the binoculars across the street, to know that much about me. Although he seems to be pretty fixated on whatever’s going on in the apartment below mine. (And because of him, now I am, too.)
Part of becoming Parisian means an initiation into the surely decades-old tradition of buying your first drying rack, which requires as much thought, reflection, and comparison of features as your very first car purchase. My initial foray into the world of drying racks required a hands-on demonstration that lasted well over thirty minutes. The eager salesman, whose talents eclipsed those of hyper-hawker Ron Popeil, unfolded and flexed and contorted every single drying rack in his department. I wondered whether he was on commission or just bored, standing among all those drying racks each and every day. Regardless, I was won over not just by the sturdy, well-designed rack I went home with, but by the fact that I actually got a salesperson’s undivided attention for more than thirty seconds in a French department store.
Aside from my new part-time job as an Italian washerwoman, I had to think about my real-life job, which involved a lot of cooking and baking. How could I work in such a petite
And when I say “American kitchen,” you’re probably conjuring up images of expansive granite countertops, shelves stacked with shiny cookware, all the latest gadgets, and restaurant-style appliances.
Here in Paris, “
translates to “completely impractical.” My counter is so high that if a spoon handle is sticking over the edge of a bowl, I’m in danger of putting an eye out. It also means that even though I’m close to six feet tall, when folding batters and such, I can barely see into the bowl and I have to assume things are getting mixed in properly way up there. I suppose I could put a mirror on the ceiling, but when I moved in, the painter removed all the seventies-style mirrors, which covered every conceivable surface of the apartment, and I wasn’t about to call him up to find out where he’d put them.
What the countertop lacks in practicality, it makes up for by not imposing itself and taking up too much space in my apartment. Consequently, my entire cooking area is roughly the size of a rectangular gâteau Opéra, the size that serves eight. And we’re talking eight French-sized servings, not American-sized slabs.
The first thing you realize when horizontal space is at a premium is that there’s only one way to go, and that’s up. So things get stacked one on top of the other, which is more than mildly annoying. If I need the sugar bin, it’s invariably the one at the bottom of the stack, and to get it I have to move everything else on top of it, which may include any or—if I hit it at the wrong time (which I always seem to do)—all of the following: flour, cocoa powder, cornstarch, confectioners’ sugar, cornmeal, brown sugar, and oats.
My precious stash of American goodies—molasses, organic peanut butter, dried sour cherries, non-stick spray, wild rice, and Lipton Onion Soup Mix—get crammed in the back of one of my two cabinets, reserved for special occasions. The onion soup mix is especially rare around here, and a guest has to be someone pretty dip-worthy for me to tear into one of my prized foil-wrapped pouches.
Baking as much as I do, I stockpile ingredients. Everything closes at 9 p.m., and there’s nothing worse than running out of sugar at 8:40, the time when the employees actually decide they’re ready to call it quits and lock the door. So I bought a sturdy bakery-style chrome rack to store sacks of flour, big bags of nuts, massive blocks of chocolate, and kilos of sugar, which keep the ice cream, cakes, and cookies flowing at all hours.
This absolutely stuns French guests who are only used to seeing twenty or thirty bags of sugar and flour being delivered to their local pâtisserie, not in someone’s apartment. And I’ve got one whole shelf devoted entirely to French chocolate, which I buy in enormous tablets, as well as sacks of
those small, round disks that are great when you need 247 grams of chocolate and don’t want to spend the time—or in my kitchen, lack the space—to lop off hunks from a jumbo slab of
The only problem is those little suckers are a little
convenient, and as much as I keep
hiding that box away in the back corner, a few hours later it seems to find its way up to the front with my arm digging around up to my elbow, like a kid rifling through a box of cereal, half-crazed, searching for the prize.
Frustratingly, I can’t stockpile everything and have to keep other necessities, like popcorn and polenta, to a bare minimum because of space constraints. Since I have good friends who work for major cookware and appliance companies, I’m sometimes offered gifts that I simply can’t refuse. But refuse I do.
Well, most of the time. How does one turn down a professional blender or a copper roasting pan? So add a blender, espresso maker, and ice cream freezer to my kitchen, then do the math: with 25 percent of the space devoted to an electric mixer, 10 percent to a blender, and 54 percent to my Italian espresso maker, I’m left with only 11 percent of usable counter space.
Although I considered not replacing the dishwasher and resigning myself to the drudgery of hand washing, my painter-pushing friend Randal slapped some sense into me. One day shortly thereafter, two hunky Frenchmen showed up at my apartment, muscles bulging and a fine mist of sweat glistening on their chiseled features. Which was great, but what was even more appreciated than their presence was the new dishwasher they’d hauled up the six flights of stairs.
The longer I’ve lived
David, the more creative I’ve become with space, and my apartment is now really just one giant kitchen, closer in size to the
I had back in San Francisco, and which I miss more than shopping at Target. I’ve even co-opted the adjoining rooftop, which holds the distinction of being the most beautiful cooling rack in the world; my cookies cool with a view of the Eiffel Tower, overlooking the elegant place des Vosges. With the gentle breezes of Paris blowing, it’s actually quite a model of efficiency—provided you make sure no wildlife is lurking about. I’ve learned the hard way, deduced from a few telltale feathers embedded
in a block of barely cooled toffee, that Parisian pigeons have just as much of a sweet tooth as I do.
And why limit the bathroom to personal grooming? My dated, but thoroughly utilitarian, marble bathroom shelves are a perfect pigeon-proof environment for cooling candy. When there are lots of pots and pans to be tackled, there’s much more room in my generously sized bathtub than in my dinky kitchen sink, which would frustrate even Barbie if it were installed in her Dream House.
Imagine if you had to scrub clean a stockpot in one of those washbasins on an airplane and you’ll understand why my bathtub’s the best place for lathering up the Le Creusets. I fill the tub with soapy water, then get down on my hands and knees, like the
of yesteryear doing their scrubbing in the Seine.
My toilet, which was on its last gasps when I moved in, is a repository for mistakes, which I’m sure isn’t helping it maintain what’s left of its vigor. Like the French, it’s sometimes a bit rebellious and
, and I now know it’s a wise idea to check to make sure everything’s gone after you flush: a failed batch of grass-green mint chip ice cream hadn’t quite made it down when a friend who came by. Upon exiting the bathroom, he suggested that I might want to see a doctor.
And is the bedroom off limits?
Pas du tout!
Because these days, there’s not as much activity going on in there as I’d hoped, so I’ve turned it into a full-on
My bedroom started multitasking when I was writing a book on ice cream and found myself churning out batches of ice cream and sorbet all day long—and sometimes into the night, which I’m sure made the neighbors downstairs wonder what I was up to.
I had three machines that I was rotating batches through, and each made a terrible racket. So into the bedroom they all went, which was such a great solution that that’s where they now all stay. The only difficulty is explaining to my cleaners why there’s toffee stuck to my sheets. When I tell them I’m rippling ice cream, I get quite a few funny looks. Although the French have a reputation for bedroom antics, I think I have them beat.