week 2: the swimming pool

On Monday, I take the boys to the municipal swimming pool. My mother-in-law Suzy has returned to Pittsburgh; Madeline has started full-time work; school has not yet begun. So I am alone with Sam and Alex most of every day, here in this foreign place. We go to playgrounds and markets, to cafés and gelaterias. When we buy things in small shops, the women at the caisses give candy to the boys.

When we get to the pool, we find out, amid tears, that Monday is the hebdomadaire closing. So we return on Tuesday. We pay our fee, use our paper tickets to pass through a turnstile, and start to wander through what I realize--just a second too late--is the women’s locker room. We find a gender-appropriate changing room. We figure out that we must use a ticket to release a key to secure a locker. Later, we will have to use the same tickets to exit. These multifunctional tickets are what Alex will later describe to Madeline as the highlight of the adventure; he calls them “credit cards.”

Off to one side of the big pool, there's exercise equipment, and more up on a balcony. I need exercise, but I’m not sure how to go about finding a gym. Perhaps this swimming-pool setup will do. A few days later, I hightail it back to the pool, for a test. An unmistakable sign (pictogram as well as words) forbids shoes, so I carry my sneakers to the machines, where I assume I will be able to wear them. But the three people I see exercising are barefoot. Damn. I step barefoot into an elliptical machine and start the Sisyphean climb, my soles immediately, painfully imprinted with the bubbled Braille of the footpads. The other barefoot exercisers trickle away; two new women show up. I watch them closely, carrying their sneakers. They pull on footwear! Joy. I will be able to wear mine, as soon as I work up the courage to dismount and lace up.

But then a lifeguard shows up, literally wagging his finger. He engages the women in a spirited conversation that begins in German, then turns to French, and fluctuates between simmering resentment and withering hostility. At one point, the lifeguard gestures at me, and says something about what Monsieur is doing, and they all look at me, the women with suspicion and a hint of anger, as if I'd betrayed them. I give a weak smile, trying ridiculously to communicate to the women that I'm on their side, but without signaling to the lifeguard that I'm against him, at least not personally, it's just that I too would rather wear sneakers. That's a lot to pack into a single smirk; I probably look like I'm experiencing intestinal discomfort.

Upstairs, then.  The strengthening machines are a bewildering hydraulic system. The disappointed shoeless women join me. Then two guys. All of us are trying to figure out these machines, and not succeeding to anyone’s satisfaction. After I use a stomach-torturing contraption, one of the men asks me a question in rapid-fire French, the gist of which seems to be whether it's supérieur or antérieur. I feel my own stomach to see where it hurts. “Supérieur,” I answer. "Merci," he says, but I think my answer wasn't what he'd hoped.

In the shower room, I can’t figure out how to get the hot water on. So I assume that there isn't hot water here, and I take a quick cold shower. As I’m toweling off, a female lifeguard comes into the male shower room. “C’est chaud, ou non?” she asks, without apology or prelude.

I’m pretty naked. I shake my head. “Non.”

“Froid? Seulement?”

I nod. She shakes her head, frustrated. Just as abruptly as she arrived, she hurries away.

This was not the ideal workout experience, but it could've been worse. Now I’m dressed and standing on the rue des Bains, around the corner from the supermarket. I have my gym bag as a sac, thank god; you need a sac when you go to the market, because they don't give away bags, and buying the disposable plastic ones is clearly akin to slapping children, and the big recycled sacs are expensive. So it's a constant struggle to remember to bring a sac whenever you think you might want to buy something, which is always, and half the time I don't have a sac. But now I do. And I don’t have any little boys' hands that I must hold for the walk home, and I have enough time before Madeline has to return to the office, and I know where I am, where to go, without needing to consult a tattering map. This feels a little bit like real life, like I’m leaving the Equinox on Prince Street and going to Dean & Deluca, hair wet, a small duffel on my shoulder. This, I’ve done hundreds of times in New York; I can do this here too. So I go buy the ingredients to make something I’ve made hundreds of times.

a recipe: tagliatelle with ragoût de haché mélange et tomates

The Alima market is on the far side of the centre shopping district, in the courtyard of a building on the avenue de la Porte Neuve, ten minutes from our apartment. The courtyard entrance is flanked by a leather-goods store and an eyeglass boutique, and no sign; if you didn’t know a supermarket was in there, you wouldn’t find it.

All the supermarkets here offer a stupefyingly wide selection of packaged precut pork-belly, in lardons or cubes, smoked or un-. I'd never considered dicing slab bacon to be a task that needed shortcutting, but then again I'd never used them for every meal, which I suspect is what goes on in this part of the world. But despite all the diced bacon, what the butcher counter does not have, equally mystifying, is ground pork or veal. It does have something called “Haché Mélange,” whose label claims “boeuf, porc, sel, epices.” This combo suggests upscale dog food, but at €7.80 per kilo, I think--I hope--it's too expensive for that. So I buy it. 

I'd rather have the pork and veal, but I'm too intimidated to walk into a real butcher. I’ve looked through the big windows of the boucheries on the Grand Rue: they're intimate shops. Once I get started, I will visit one of these every few days, for who knows how long. I'm not yet prepared to begin those long-term relationships with strangers. 

Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound slab bacon or pancetta, cut into lardons, or bought that way, if you live in Luxembourg
1 pound ground veal, pork, beef, or combination
1 medium onion, small-diced
2 carrots, small-diced
2 celery stalks, small-diced
2 bay leaves
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
3 cups Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, and their juices
Salt and pepper
1 pound fresh tagliatelle
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a Dutch oven, heat a slick of the oil. Add the bacon and cook until firmed up and the fat has rendered. Remove to a large bowl, leaving the fat behind. Increase the heat to high, add the meat, and cook until lightly browned, breaking it up with your spoon. Remove to the bowl, again leaving whatever fat remains. Reduce the heat to medium. Add another slick of oil, then the onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaves. Cook until wilted. Pour in the wine, and scrape up the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. When most of the wine has evaporated, pour in the stock and the tomatoes. Bring to a vigorous simmer.

Return the bacon and ground meat to the pot, along with any juices in their bowl. Adjust the heat to maintain a low simmer, and cook for at least an hour, preferably two. If the sauce gets too thick, add water. If you need to leave home, just turn off the stove and put a lid on the pot. In New York, where I knew how to control my oven, I’d set it at 225°F., shove the pot in there, and go out for the afternoon. Here, though, I don’t know how the damn thing works; so when the boys and I go out to buy a baguette and the inevitable pastry-bribe, I turn off the heat. When you're nearing dinnertime, add salt and pepper, let cook a few minutes, and taste again for seasoning.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the noodles until they’re on the firm side of al dente. Drain. Return to the big pot over low heat, and sauce. Cook for a minute, stirring, so the pasta can absorb some sauce and finish cooking; add a splash of the cooking water if it all gets too thick. Stir in the cheese.

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