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.


David Naggar said...

Hilarious! loved this one. Unfortunately your recipes contain way too many lardons for this Jew, but I can completely relate to what you are going through (btw, was the Home Depot copy called Castorama? i used to get hives walking in there). If you can throw out the garbage with impunity, you're almost there. Bon Courage!

David Naggar said...

oh, and you're the only person I know who goes to Europe to QUIT smoking.

Amy said...

you have approval over our comments? how socialist of you. i have a beautiful short rib recipe i have to send you, mainly because it is delicious, but also because it has a few chinese ingredients that i'd love to see you try and find in luxembourg/environs...

Chris Pavone said...

It is not Castorama, which I believe is just France; it is Hornbach. But its similarity to Home Depot was eerie--the same things in the same aisles as in Riverhead, New York--except for the addition of a cafe, where at 9:05 a.m. a dozen contractors can be found, sipping coffee and eating croissants.

And Amy, thank you for the recipe. I shall put finding Chinese ingredients on the list of priorities somewhere after figuring out how all of us--including Charlie--can get a haircut, and somewhere before learning how to rappel sheer cliffs.

Amy said...

trust me, you need these ribs more than you need a coup de cheveaux