Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tempest in a pastry bag

I'm beginning to hate Saturdays.

Sure, I'm as giddy as the next person when Friday afternoon rolls around, happy to be leaving the office for a whole two days in a row. But by Saturday morning I'm starting to suspect it is just a racket, this so-called day free of all obligations. In fact, obligations abound: a trip to the market, to the supermarket, to the driving school, miscellaneous errands around town (crammed into one day, because everything is closed on Sunday in France), toddler chasing, chores that are guiltily put off until Sunday but haunt me all day nonetheless, and then, quick, we need to go do something fun before dinner just to prove the day wasn't a complete loss. That's when we all pile into the car and drive somewhere outside of Paris, to either enjoy a nice walk in the woods or stomp around in the mud and get caught in the rain.

Today we got back to the car just before it started to rain in earnest, and since we arrived home well before dinner time, I decided to make macarons. I'd just taken a class at a local cooking school -- a birthday gift this year from someone who knows me well -- and I was dying to try the recipe out at home. It was starting to obsess me, in fact; last night I dreamt I was making lemon macarons in a bath tub, using jacuzzi jets to whip the egg whites into oeufs en neige. In my dream, the macarons were a failure and the egg whites collapsed, but I remember that the bubble bath I took in the batter left my skin silky soft.

I first made the lemon curd filling. Perfection. Then I carefully mixed together the ground almonds -- ground organic almonds from Spain, thank you very much -- and powdered sugar. I tried to sift them through a fine meshed sieve like we did in the class, but it was too time consuming, so I gave up and "sifted" by hand. Then I hooked up the electric mixer and started beating the egg whites.

I was absorbed, concentrated, at one with the bowl and the mixer. Bubbles started to form, the liquid started increasing in volume. I tilted the bowl and continued to mix. It dawned on me that this was the part of the class I hadn't followed closely; I'd had trouble hearing the instructor over the hum of the electric standing mixer. I couldn't for the life of me remember exactly what the egg whites were supposed to look like. They seemed stiff and shiny enough to me, but I had my doubts, especially since this was undoubtedly the most delicate step of the operation.

I folded the almond mixture into the egg whites, then spooned it all into a pastry bag and piped out round islands of batter onto three cookie sheets. I ceremoniously dropped each sheet onto the counter as I'd seen demonstrated in class (to break air bubbles, they explained), let the sheets sit the requisite ten minutes, put them into the oven and watched. And waited.

Meanwhile, my husband prepared dinner, doing his best to stay out of my way. It was late, almost eight-thirty, and we still hadn't eaten; typical dinner time in France is at eight, but le Petit was already grumpy and hungry. My husband poured himself a glass of Riesling and watched my frantic activity in the kitchen with amusement.

"They don't look right!" I opened the oven door and peered inside.

"What do you mean 'not right'?" he queried skeptically. My husband is used to my overreacting in the kitchen and elsewhere, declaring failure at the first sign of trouble.

"They don't look like macarons! They don't have the collar!"

"The what?"

"You know, the thing around the bottom. The thing that makes them a macaron. And they aren't puffed up."

I pulled out the first sheet and frowned. There were small, rounded lumps that looked nothing like macarons but strangely resembled Nilla wafers. La Durée I was decidedly not. I shoved the cookie sheet onto the counter and joined the rest of the family at the dinner table, where I grumbled and complained for the duration of the meal that yet another pastry experiment had ended in disaster. My husband got up and went to the kitchen to taste one of my so-called-macarons.

"Amazing! It tastes just like a macaron! They're a little small, but the taste is perfect!"

"Yeah, but the texture... they're all flat and rubbery, not airy and crisp. You can see for yourself," I protested.

"But they taste good!" he insisted.

"They're too sweet."

"I like them."

"But they're not macarons. I was making macarons."

"I don't care, they're good. "

"They're not macarons! They're edible, I guess, though they're too sweet, but they're not macarons!" I started to raise my voice.

"Pas des macarons! Pas des macarons!" repeated le Petit.

Then my husband and I started to argue in earnest, yelling at each other about a) whether the darn things were macarons, b) whether that mattered, and c) whether I had a right to be upset about it. I stomped off to kitchen to sulk. I was pulling the cookies off the sheets and dumping them in the trash when my husband came in, fished them out, threw them in a tupperware, and told me that he would eat them if he wanted. He left the kitchen, I emptied the tupperware in the trash, and hid the cookies under a cabbage leaf.

A few were spared the trash. Maybe I'll find them edible tomorrow morning, with a good cup of coffee and the perspective that Sunday brings. I don't know why Sunday is better than Saturday -- after all, the stores are all inconveniently closed, the housework must finally be confronted, and a return to the office looms the next day -- but somehow my expectations are more reasonable.

I've decided my next baking attempt will be on a Sunday afternoon, right after I've finished the dreaded vacuuming. And I'll make sure I know what the heck I'm supposed to be doing with the egg whites this time around.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

La tour Eiffel

"Oooh, je l'ai trouvé!" Le Petit stopped in the middle of the path in the Parc de Saint Cloud and pointed at the Eiffel Tower, which had just appeared through the trees as he rounded a corner. My husband -- I was at a cooking class, learning to make macarons; more on that later -- found it adorable. Back at the car, he asked le Petit if he wanted to go see the tower up close. He did, so they drove to the Champs de Mars, where le Petit ran around in circles so visibly consumed with joy that he caught the attention of a guy hawking souvenirs, who gave him a free souvenir key chain.

"Un bébé Tour Eiffel!" Le Petit showed it to me proudly when I got home. (A little later I made it disappear into a kitchen cabinet, since it had found its way into le Petit's mouth, like just about everything else these days.)

In le Petit's hierarchy of architectural marvels, the Eiffel Tower reigns. When it disappears behind buildings as we drive around Paris' ring highway, le Petit starts to cry. He also recognizes the Tour Montparnasse, the unattractive dull black skyscraper that lurks behind the Eiffel Tower in its 1970s asbestos-infused glory. "Tourbanasse!" he announces when he sees it. I correct him, sometimes, without insisting too much, because I find his mispronunciation the only thing endearing about the structure.

Today I showed le Petit a book of photos of Western Washington. His favorite photos were of Seattle's skyline, and he easily identified the Space Needle.

"That's the Space Needle!" he told me, "Et derrière, ça c'est la tour Eiffel, et ça c'est la Tourbanasse." He pointed at the buildings behind the Space Needle, convinced he could find his favorite Parisian landmarks.

We build mini Eiffel Towers out of Legos at home, some almost as tall as le Petit, others small enough to fit on the back of a Duplo construction truck. Sometimes the Lego men scale the top. This weekend, if the weather is clear and the lines of tourists aren't too long, we'll take le Petit to the top of the real thing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

As I was saying

I seem to be having trouble getting thoughts out of my head and onto (virtual) paper these days. It's not that I'm not thinking about the blog, for I'm even writing elaborate posts while daydreaming in the RER during my morning commute, but they're on hold. In general, I feel like writing more things of substance, but that means writing less often for the time to finish complex thoughts is lacking. And then there's the tiny issue of the insomnia my late-night writing sessions bring on when, inevitably, I just can't get my brain to turn off when it needs to. At the same time, there are plenty of small things that happen daily in my life with le Petit that I feel I should record for posterity. Ah, the dilemma!

In the meantime, we're off to Alsace for a week. What, another vacation? I hear you say. I'll write all about it, I promise.

I remind myself of le Petit, whose language skills are suddenly taking off in both English and French, but whose narrative skills are still rudimentary. He'll start into a description of something complex, like what he did at the park or what he sees around him, and then he'll abruptly lose the thread.

"Un hélicopter!" he told me the other day, pointing up at a plane in the sky.

"No, that's an airplane," I corrected.

"Un avion. En anglais, on dit 'airplane,'" he said, all proud of himself.

"That's right, in English, we say 'airplane,'" I confirmed.

"Et... et...et en français, on dit... en français, on dit..."

Then he was sidetracked by a drainpipe cover in the sidewalk. Bending over to feed small sticks through the tiny hole in the metal robbed him of his words and required all his concentration, and no well-intentioned prompting from me could get him to finish what I proudly thought was a complex bit of simultaneous translation.

These days I know exactly how he feels.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Toddler standard time

"The days are long and the years are short."

I've been told this many times since I became a parent. I agree -- has it really been over two and a half years? -- although I would add that sleepless nights with a child are the longest unit of time known to man.

It's true that the daily logistics of meals, transportation, and bedtimes often seem to take place in slow motion. Nothing is more time-consuming than preparing a toddler to get out the door, especially in the winter. I scramble to assemble coats, sweaters, hats, two pairs of shoes, the stroller, my purse and the diaper bag as fast as I possibly can, yet before I know it, twenty minutes have passed and I'm still struggling to pull le Petit's arm through the first sleeve of his parka.

At the same time, things can spin out of control at light speed: le Petit zooms from room to room, leaving the aforementioned coats and hats in his wake, gathering up toys and sippy cups and storing them in the stroller in provision for our voyage before I notice what's happened. He can open the refrigerator and transport a bottle of water and a jar of pickles to the dining room table while my back was turned only a second. He can pull a chair across the living room and use it to scale the bookshelf up to the stereo, open the CD drawer and pop in a new CD all in the time it takes me to get a glass of water from the kitchen. Part of it may be stealth, but most of it is speed.

No one told me that toddlers only have two gears, "turbo" and "dawdle."

"Take the time you think it will take to get ready and double it," a good friend of mine advised me recently. I would add, "Take the number of things you think you can accomplish in a day and halve it." I know this. It isn't exactly new. But nothing annoys me more lately than finding myself still in my pajamas at noon on Saturday when I've been up since eight doing nothing more constructive than dressing, feeding and entertaining le Petit.

That's the beauty of Wednesday. When I decided to go back to work part time after a lengthy maternity leave, I gave myself permission to escape the world of adult preoccupations for one day and operate at le Petit's speed. We eat a leisurely breakfast, then read books, play with toys, and get out of the house by roughly 11 o'clock. I make sure to make a healthy lunch that we can both share. Other than that, there are no rules. My mother-in-law comes by in the late afternoon to look after le Petit so that I can get things done if I have to (lately a trip to the driving school), for which I'll always be grateful. But morning, noon, early afternoon are all on toddler standard time.

This Wednesday morning we went to the park. Lately I've been leaving the stroller at home when we go out aimlessly wandering, the better to get exercise and teach le Petit basic street safety. Just outside our apartment building, a bright yellow cherry picker was rolling slowly down the street. We stopped for ten minutes to watch it being loaded onto a big truck and then watch the big truck drive away. Then we walked over to a construction site a few blocks away, where we admired a big crane and a dump truck and listened to someone hammering away high above us.

"Ca c'est le camion des pompiers!" le Petit announced when he heard sirens nearby.

"Yes, the fire truck. The fire fighters are driving off somewhere to help someone," I confirmed. We looked around for the fire truck, but couldn't find it. Then hand in hand, we crossed the street to the park, waiting first for the "little man to turn green." It was the first Wednesday of the month, and the air raid sirens on the roof of a nearby building sounded at noon sharp, sending an almost palpable wave of sound through the neighborhood. When they stopped, le Petit looked up at me, enchanted.

"Do it again?" he asked. I was tickled to be invested with such omnipotence.

"Sorry, little guy, that's one thing Mommy can't do."

At the park, le Petit scampered over to the merry-go-round and climbed aboard. He ignored the horses and other animals that pivot up and down and headed straight for a little green antique car that looked like it was added and bolted down near the center of the platform as an afterthought. It was just his size. His nanny told us today that when she accompanies him, he will only sit there, and if another child has already claimed it, would rather watch from solid ground and wait his turn than choose another means of locomotion. This time we were alone on the merry-go-round, and le Petit climbed into his car waited for the music to start and the menagerie of giant wooden animals to start bobbing above him.

"Do it again? Merry-go-round again?" le Petit asked predictably when the music stopped. No, I said, time go to home, and I glanced at my watch. On foot it takes five minutes to get from the park to our apartment, but with le Petit along I counted twenty. I let him walk down the winding path without holding my hand, intervening when necessary to chase him off the grass. He dragged his feet. I gently pushed his back with my hand. It started to rain. Toddler standard time was all well and good, but I had no interest in getting wet, and was now hungry for lunch besides.

Le Petit suddenly took off running after a pigeon. Aha! I thought when the pigeon flew away. "Mommy's a pigeon now!" I said, bending my elbows like wings and making cooing noises to complete the effect. "Chase Mommy! Mommy's a pigeon!" It worked. I'm willing to ridicule myself in public for the sake of my child, as long as it's effective.

Le Petit stopped, wide-eyed, in front of a woman playing a flute. Her eyes were closed and she wore discreet earphones; she was improvising and swaying absently to the music. I tried not to stare at her dirty blond hair, which was piled into an artfully neglected and gravity-defying structure on the side of her head. On her flute case, which was sitting on a nearby park bench, I made out a Young Communists sticker. Le Petit, swaying back and forth to the music himself, sat down on the muddy grass on the edge of the path to watch. When she briefly stopped playing and pulled a phone out of her pocket to send a text message, I nudged le Petit back to reality.

"I'm going to count to ten and then we'll have to head home. One... two..."

Much to my surprise, le Petit got up without protest and followed me when I got to ten. When we went though the metal gates of the park, I grabbed his hand. We meandered home, stopping once to cross the street, le Petit pointing out cars and garage doors, hopping on top of utility covers in the sidewalk, and running his free hand along walls. As heavy drops of rain started to dot the pavement, the dutiful mother in me tugged at his arm to urge him to hurry up, even as I held his hand tight and secretly cherished, for once, the chance to go too slow.