week 7: cheap tickets to ireland

The Frankfurt-Hahn Airport sits humbly in mild decrepitude in the German countryside, looking like an aging Cold Warrior, someone who was secretly important in the mid-sixties but has been slipping into oblivion for four decades, and now ekes out a living teaching Mandarin to American MBAs. We park in the short-term lot, along with no more than a dozen other cars, and walk past an inexplicably fallow 5 acres that separates the garage from the terminal. We climb steps to enter the terminal, further enhancing the convenience of the arrival experience, especially for anyone with strollers, or advanced age, or luggage. A blonde hustles up these steps in front of us, head to toe in black leather; she's not quite young enough to pull this off, but she looks correct here in the gray and drizzle of Rheinland-Pfalz.

It took ninety minutes to get to this airport from our apartment, half of it on winding two-lane roads in a thick blanket of fog, passing beside tight little villages with their houses huddling against the dense forests. Frankfurt-Hahn is not in Frankfurt the City You've Heard Of; it's about 120 kilometers from there, and the same distance from Luxembourg, or Bonn, or Saarbrucken. We are here because flying to Shannon, Ireland, from Luxembourg, whose brand-new luxurious airport is a mere 15 minutes from our apartment, would've been the most expensive flight I've ever taken. On the other hand, the Ryanair ticket for the first leg of our journey, from Hahn to London-Stansted, cost just shy of €20 before the taxes and fees. Which included: 
  • A fee for not checking in online, which you can do only if you're an EU passport holder, so we were essentially fined €10 apiece for not being European, at every check-in. Of which we had four in our round-trip, because Ryanair doesn't do transfers: if you need to transfer planes to get where you're going, as we do, you need to buy separate tickets, and check-in separately, and be on your separate own if there are any missed connections or such. But the good news about airport check-in is that we get to learn that the guy handing out thermal-paper boarding passes at ticketing will also become the guy collecting those same flimsy passes at the gate, a few hundred yards away.
  • Another €10 apiece for "priority boarding." I had only the broadest idea what this meant when I was paying for it, but it sounded promising. Now I know it means you get to board the plane first, and, because there's no assigned seating, you then get to sit wherever you want. Unless you were really dense with the previous prerogative, you thus get to deplane first, shortening your trip by untold minutes, jostles, and annoyances. Worth every penny.
More Ryanair high/low-lights:
  • As we exited a gate onto the tarmac, a flight attendant wearing a long blue overcoat over her long blue skirt was crossing the tarmac riding a bicycle. 
  • You're allowed to pretty much wander around the tarmac. At one airport, we realized we were being led to the plane by the passenger at the head of the queue, who was maybe eight years old. 
  • They pipe in advertisements to the cabin of things you can buy on the plane--not even water is free on a Ryanair flight--accompanied by a relentlessly upbeat pop tune that, two days later, is still torturing me from within. Some of these ads are for booze, which they sell in little metallic pouches such as enclose Wet-Naps, and--get this--all the liquor is "buy one, get one free." 
  • There are no pockets on seat-backs, which from my point of view, I missed. But from their point of view, I couldn't leave any garbage behind, so they don't have to clean their planes between flights. Also, they don't let you keep the in-flight magazine; the attendants collect the magazines before descent.
  • If the plane lands on-time, the P.A. system pipes in a trumpet fanfare while you're still bouncing down the runway, and the announcer brags about "another on-time arrival," which Ryanair claims happens 90% of the time, the best record in Europe. We were on four flights, and heard only one fanfare; karmically, I guess we have a lot of on-time arrivals due to us, so we can consider flying Ryanair with the boys. This time, they were not with us: they stayed behind in Luxembourg, with Grandpa Cake, so we could fly to Shannon, have dinner with Brian and Amy at Dromoland Castle (pictured above), sleep, then turn around and come home.
a quick and arbitrary recipe: chicken piccata

I didn't have the energy to do my French devoirs Sunday night, so I stay behind to do them Monday morning while Madeline and Grandpa Cake take the boys to school. On her way out, Madeline announces that she's going to the market after drop-off, and asks if I want anything. 

I've never really been able to plan nightly dinners in advance. I know many people can, and in a way their lives are probably better than mine. But unless it's for a special occasion, I just can't visualize tomorrow's dinner today; I often can't visualize today's dinner today, except when I'm in the market staring at vegetable bins. So when Madeline asks, I glance at a fruit bowl that includes a couple of over-ripe lemons. I panic, and the only thing I can think of involves these lemons. I ask for chicken breasts and capers. 

When we get home at 5:00 from school followed by the bakery followed by the playground, and I start to cook, I realize that the jar of little green orbs that came home contains peppercorns, not capers. So this piccata is without capers, which no one misses a bit, and saves me the trouble of brushing them away from the boys' servings. If there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that my children don't want capers. However, they do both enjoy squeezing lemon wedges onto pieces of baguette, and then sucking on the moistened bread, which I'd never have guessed.

Chicken cutlets
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Dry white wine
Chicken broth, optional
Juice of 2 lemons, plus lemon wedges
Capers, previously thought essential, now known to be optional

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, then coat in flour, shaking off any excess. Heat a slick of oil over high flame and add the chicken breasts; it's fine to do this in batches. Brown, flip, and brown the other side. Remove the browned chicken.

Pour in 3/4 cup white wine, scraping up the browned bits, and let bubble away for a couple of minutes. Pour in 1/2 cup of chicken broth, if you have it and want to; it'll make a smoother, richer sauce, while omitting it will make for a tarter, more lemon-y one. I skipped it this time. Add all but 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice. Add a tablespoon of butter and the capers, and cook for a minute to combine; taste and season with salt and pepper. If your chicken isn't cooked through from the browning, add it to the pan and simmer in the sauce until finished; if it is cooked through, just keep reducing the sauce until nice and thick. During the final few seconds of cooking, add the last tablespoon of lemon juice, and serve with the wedges on the side. 


week 6: our container full of stuff

Maintenant,” one of the movers said to me, “on attend le camion.” He watched the last load of rental furniture and furnishings descend on the crane, then he popped a cigarette in his mouth, and walked out the door.

Sam and Alex were in the mini-England of St. George's School; Madeline was in the full-size version, working. I was sitting on the floor of the empty apartment, on the cheap Ikea rug that sheds like a sickly cat, spewing red tubleweeds all over the place (up a flight of stairs, then down a hallway, then around a corner, and under the bathroom vanity, I find red fur). It was just a month earlier that I was sitting on the floor in TriBeCa, watching the last of our furniture go out that door. I am spending a lot of time alone, on the floor of my empty apartments; it's a melancholy pastime. 

Then after school, the orange container arrived. It had been released in the late morning from customs at the port of Antwerp, which (1) I didn't even know was on water, and (2) has an oddly compelling website (www.portofantwerp.com) complete with broad, unattributed pull-quotes ("The Chinese know that Antwerp is also accessible for big ships" [which at first glance makes sense, and then really just doesn't]). The movers discovered that the container was locked. "Avez-vous le clef?" one of them asked me. I tried to smile, probably unsuccessfully, and put my hands in the "what are you kidding?" gesture combined with a beseeching "please don't tell me you can't open this goddamned thing, because I have two children and NO furniture here" look on my face. He shrugged. 

That's why the police showed up. Because at that point, the four movers started taking turns beating on the thing with wrenches, hammers, and pry-bars. They were making an unbearable racket--and possibly committing a crime--right beside the grand duke's palace (those trees in the picture? In the palace's yard). Alex needed to cover his ears (the other picture). The motorcycle cop--a woman, unexpectedly--showed up, and started asking questions without much conviction. Then she lit a cigarette and watched, half-amused. 

The lock finally fell apart, the container pulled open, the crane restarted; the furniture began coming through the window at 4:30. The movers left at 5:59 and 59 seconds. Everything was inside the apartment, but nothing--NOTHING--was unpacked. Couches were standing on end; boxes were piled to the ceiling. It was anarchic and dark, and horrible. 

It was three weeks ago. Then this Monday, after a daily, unremitting, thoroughly tedious effort of unpacking, and moving furniture around, and buying/carrying/unpacking/assembling crap from Ikea, and the endless shopping for everything, and the constant toting of packing materials to the poubelles room in S3 and of luggage and useless belongings to our storage in S2, it was done: for the first time since we moved, I didn't have to go buy a piece of furniture or hardware, or open a cardboard carton or suitcase. 

So I grabbed a notebook, and walked the eight minutes it takes to cross to the other side of the centre ville, and climbed to the first floor. "Bonjour," I said to the receptionist. "Je commence mes cours aujourd'hui." I was back at Berlitz, restarting French classes for the first time since all the packing began, back in late July. I've finally come out the other side of it.

a recipe: escalopes a la marsala

At the market, about 25% of the refrigerated meat case is devoted to veal, roughly 0% to chopped beef. Veal is the thing to have. And for a quick weeknight dinner, the escalopes cry out with their promiscuous promises of being edible after just 5 minutes of heat. It's tough to walk away from that, so I don't.

On our preview trip to Luxembourg, when we found ourselves in the Zurich airport, Madeline was disappointed to not find schnitzel. This, I believe, is related to her penchant for muttering in the wrong language when flustered: if you confound her in German, she will mumble at you in Spanish; if you ask her a question in Spanish, she will respond in Italian. And if you make her hang around in a Swiss airport, she will expect Austrian food.  But here in Luxembourg, I will serve her an Italian version. 

This dish is typically made with button mushrooms. But although Sam and Alex actually like the meat and sauce, they don't care for mushrooms: you may remember that in Babar, the king of the elephants died from eating a mushroom. Even if you don't remember it, the boys do, and it scarred them. I will not sacrifice a kids-and-grown-ups-eating-the-same-thing meal for the sake of culinary integrity, so I omit the mushrooms. And I don't tell them that it's wine that makes the sauce so sweet. They wouldn't go for that either. 

Veal scaloppine, the thinner the better, pounded to an even svelteness
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Sweet Marsala
Beef or chicken broth, or just water

Season the veal slices with salt and pepper. Heat a large nonstick pan, then melt a tablespoon of butter in a tablespoon of oil. Add the veal, but don't crowd the pan--you want to brown quickly, then flip and brown the other side, in 5 or 6 minutes; don't overcook veal scaloppine. 

Remove the browned meat to a plate. Add 1/2 cup each of Marsala and broth (or water), and cook over high heat, scraping up the brown bits, until reduced and thickened; this should take a mere minute or two. If you're in the mood for extra-richness, stir in some butter. Taste for seasoning. Return the veal and any accumulated juices to the pan, and let each side cook in the sauce for a few seconds, just to coat. Slide the veal directly onto plates and serve while there's still steam rising.


week 5: seemingly minor accomplishments

1. taking out the trash

"Good luck," Madeline says. I grunt, and leave the apartment carrying two bags of garbage; I don't want to be doing this. I keep the hallway light off as I wait for the elevator, then descend to level RC (rez de chaussee, the ground floor). I creep through the short hallway--again, in darkness--to the sidewalk. Poke my head out to survey the action on rue de l'Eau: a couple is smoking in front of the Chinese restaurant to the south; a man is walking out of Le P.M, the bar to the north; across the street, the guard at the back entrance to the Palais Grand Ducal mans his gate; a shiny Mercedes taxi idles in front of the tapas restaurant.

What I am planning to do is to take these two bags of garbage, and walk nonchalantly past Le P.M., then turn down the slender cobblestone street/alley in the picture, called Rue de la Loge, which descends steeply for 30 yards and then turns 90 degrees, at which turn, tonight, are two large trash bins; I scoped it out earlier, like a burglar casing the joint. This is where I will deposit my bags as if I have every conceivable right. I definitely don't. But nevertheless I will walk with chin high, striding confidently, inviting any challengers.

I take a deep breath, and . . . and lose my nerve. I slink back through the hall, retreat to the elevator. I already have garbage stowed (a) in an unmarked, unlocked door in basement level sous-sol 1, chosen because it was unlocked and in the basement, plus it's clearly a utility-type room, what with some old furniture and a bucket, but no garbage bins, so it's decidedly not where my garbage belongs, (b) in a locked storage room in S2, which is otherwise empty, and (c) in the guest bedroom, which is obviously not ideal, so that's just where I keep the "fresh" garbage, until it smells too badly, when I have to go secrete it away somewhere. Which is what I'm doing now. Not my proudest moment. 

Our relocation coordinator has asked the real-estate agent to ask the management company, who have responded to our "Where do we put garbage?" with their "The room in the basement." There are maybe 50 "rooms" in "the basement." Because there are three basement levels under each of three separate buildings--18, 20, and 22 rue de l'Eau, collectively called Hôtel du Luxembourg--connected by two levels of parking garages. Meaning that depending on how you define "basement," there are at least 9 of them, containing hallways both long and short, some with as many as a dozen doors. I believe I have tried to open the fifty-plus doors in the buildings, and not just the unlocked ones, which any amateur creeper-in-the-basement can attempt, but the locked ones as well; it was by trying to open random doors with random keys that I discovered that we had a storage room on S2, which I now use to store garbage.

This is how we lived for a month. And then finally word came, via an email that began, "We just got the update of the person in charge"---the person in charge!--and directed us to a far corner of the S3 parking garage--not in a "basement," according to my now-outdated definition of the word--under a building two addresses away, where it had never occurred to me to look, to deposit our poubelles. I can now dispose of my garbage whenever I want, with impunity, and I feel the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. 

2. mailing letters

My wife finds this hard to believe, but for my first 5 minutes in the post office, I could've sworn I was in a bank, and thus spent 5 minutes considering all the ways it could be vastly humiliating--or even dangerous, like I could get shot, by the armed guard in the corner (which was one of the clues that it was a bank, not a post office)--to walk up to a bank teller and wordlessly, nervously hand her an envelope. And beyond the bank/P.O. lack of clarity, to get a numbered ticket to wait your turn for a teller/window, you first have to choose between "toutes transactions sauf coulis" or "coulis," which I had just no idea, and again I had no dictionary, and my 50-50 odds of guessing correctly toggled between rosy and gloomy, depending on what I imagined coulis might be (stamps? cash? b0xes? bank-robbery notes?), and hence how ridiculously wrong or understandably wrong I stood to be. As it turns out: package is the translation, and my stab-in-the-dark of sauf was correct.

3. getting gas

Years ago, a half-hour out of St-Emilion, we put regular gas in a car that needed diesel, and the car totally broke down 5 miles later--totally--and we spent a whole afternoon in a countryside garage. So now we are on our way to Trier, Germany, and we need gas. (We're going to Trier to buy a television, because some guy in some store told Madeline to go to Trier to buy electronics. But as it will turn out, Trier is far too beautiful--the oldest city north of the Alps, is what a brochure claims, as well as the birthplace of Karl Marx--for us to spend our time wandering in and out of stores, looking for televisions. So we won't.) Not only does the idiot-light tell me I have no gas, but a little screen on the dashboard is blinking at me "vous avez 1 message," and that message is "you need gas maintenant." I speed up to like 140, racing to get to the next exit where I hope there will be gas. But no exit comes, and boy am I getting nervous. 

Apparently the only thing that's cheaper in Luxembourg than elsewhere is gas. But we will save no euros toady: it's right over the German border--by a few yards--that the gas station presents itself. I glance between the "Diesel!" sign on the car and the "Diesel" sign on the pump a good half-dozen times--once bitten, six times shy--before agreeing that Madeline can pull the trigger. (How many Americans does it take to pump gas from a German pump into a Swedish car rented in Luxembourg? A minimum of two. I would've been much more comfortable with a third.) And five miles later, the car is still running, thank God, and we are crossing the Mosel into Trier, to not buy a television.

4. lighting a fire

I go shopping every day. For groceries, drill bits, floor lamps, chests of drawers, extension cords, pain au chocolat. I have shopped in a Home Depot-type place, a handful of malls, and a dozen supermarkets; I have shopped in four countries. And I have bought firewood, kindling, fire-starters. But now that I no longer smoke cigarettes, and the cooking range is electric, and I was never a Boy Scout, I have no way to light a fire. So with the firewood stacked, the flue opened, and the whole thing ready for sparks to fly, I take the boys out to find flame, preferably one of those long wands that people use for igniting charcoal grills. The tabac has nothing suitable; the electronics store also. On the far side of town--we've been gone now a half-hour--we stumble across a real tobacconist, with pipes and whatnot. A cornucopia of choices. But here also is the one shopgirl in the city who doesn't speak a single word of English, and the items I want are behind glass amid a lot of other shiny items, and so I can't point with any accuracy, and this is not something I know how to succinctly identify in English let alone in French, and it's going to be years before I'm ready to translate "one of those long wands that people use for igniting charcoal grills." So I begin a halfhearted pantomime that for all anyone knows might again be some type of bizarrely ill-conceived holdup--I'm making a gesture, I realize, that's not dissimilar to shooting a gun--while I see my children losing long-term-damaging amounts of respect for me with every passing second. Then thankfully a pair of words--"longues allumettes"--occurs to me. And so I buy long matches, because it's something I know how to say. Which also explains quite a bit of what I order in restaurants.

a recipe: abbreviated boeuf à la bourguignonne

Case in point: I know what this means, and my assumption is that you can't go wrong ordering beef stew in this part of the world--it's wet and chilly, and there are a lot of cows. People who know my habits know that there's nothing I enjoy so much as a good long braise, and this predeliction is not going to diminish here in Luxembourg, where autumn set in sometime in late August, and winter arrived in mid-September. (Hence the priority of finding firewood before a television; hence beef stew.) 

Now, a purist might bully you that boeuf bourgignon needs to be garnished with pearl onions. And I'd have to counsel telling that purist to either shut the fuck up, or peel the things himself. My friend Kathryn insists that there will always be a place in her heart and kitchen for pearl onions, but not me; if there's one thing I hate doing, it's peeling squirmy pearl onions, chasing them as they bounce and roll around the floor before Charlie gets to them--I really don't want the dog to either eat or choke on blanched semi-peeled half-raw onions. Maybe it's because I have poor paring-knife skills (I also can't whistle properly; I attribute both shortcomings vaguely and admittedly unfairly to parenting failures, and I really can't explain why); maybe this is just where I draw the tedium line. In either case, there are no pearl onions in my stew, which saves a lot of time. Time that I then lose by incessant deglazing, after browning each batch of meat. But unlike the onions, this is important: if you don't deglaze after browning flour-coated beef, then flour will adhere to the pan, and burn, and turn everything bitter, and pretty much ruined.

Purists will go on to tell you that you must marinate the meat in red wine for a day before cooking; and you must garnish with sauteed button mushrooms and garlic toasts; maybe even that you're supposed to light the thing on fire with cognac. All of which are excellent augmentations--far superior to the pearl onions--and well worth it if you have the time. But if what you want to do is cook for a few minutes, then let something sit on a low flame for a few hours while you do other things, then eat, this shortened version is the way to go. In lieu of all the garnishes, just serve with a baguette, torn into chunks with your bare hands. 

Salt and pepper
Stewing beef
Olive oil
Full bottle of red wine, preferably (obviously) a Burgundy
Bacon lardons
Onions cut into rough dice
Carrots cut into rough dice
Bouquet garni, or just a few sprigs of thyme
Beef stock, optional
Pearl onions, blanched and peeled, if you're nuts, plus button mushrooms sauteed in butter, and garlic toasts, if you've got the time

Put flour in a shallow bowl, and season with a lot of salt and pepper. Dredge the beef in the flour, shaking off excess. 

In a large Dutch oven, heat a slick of oil over medium-high flame. Add a batch of beef pieces, giving them plenty of room; cover no more than 2/3 of the pot's surface. Brown on at least two sides, more if you have the patience. Remove the browned pieces to a mixing bowl. Pour in a splash of red wine, and scrape up the pan with a wooden spoon. Pour the wine/scrapings into the bowl with the beef. Wipe out anything that remains in the pan with a swipe of paper towel, and start again with more oil and beef. 

When all the beef has browned, heat another slick of oil, then cook the bacon until it firms up. Add the onions and carrots, and brown them. Pour in the remainder of the bottle of Burgundy and the herb(s). If you've got a some beef broth lying around, add this is well--I happen to think this stew is better with a little more boeuf against the bourgignon, but this is probably another argument I'd need to have with any purist who was looking over my shoulder. Add the contents of the beef bowl, and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low, cover, and let it cook for a minimum of 2 hours, but preferably 3 or 4. 

Finally: turn off the flame. Keep the cover on. Let this sit for at least 30 minutes before reheating if necessary and serving. I'm somewhat convinced--say, 80%--that this resting period tenderizes the meat. I haven't been totally scientific about this (to tell the truth, I haven't been scientific at all), but I'm pretty sure that stews that sit for a bit are more tender. 

Add the pearl onions, if you're that type of person, and remove the herbs, no matter what type of person you are; stir in the mushrooms and serve with the toasts, if you've done that, or merely with a baguette alongside.