In our defense, it's a very tight squeeze at the entrance to the sous-sol parking: a narrow passageway that bends a sharp 90 degrees, on a steep incline. That may not justify the three separate incidents on two rental cars of scraping the cars' sides against the walls; nor the dozen times we've allowed trunk doors to slam against the ceiling.
On the other hand, the damages could've been much worse; the driving here is treacherous. I'm not saying it's like Rome, where it's hard to believe that the whole city isn't lying around on the cobblestones, bleeding. The traffic here is not anarchic; it's orderly, and calm. When stoplights turn yellow, drivers come to a controlled halt; people don't engage in high-speed car-to-Vespa conversations; there's no yelling. The hazards here are not driver-borne. Our challenges are created by the topography, the architecture, the climate. There are an awful lot of close-quarter turns circumscribed by walls--stone walls rising from narrow streets with absolutely no shoulders, sidewalks, or anything to separate the horizontal driving plane from the vertical crashing/scraping/sideview-mirror-wrenching planes. There are "streets" the width of modest alleys; some of these passages are two-way. There are medieval walls whose narrow arches one must drive through (such as the one in this picture, which we drive through every day); there are mountain switchbacks, right in the middle of the city. There are hills and gorges and pea-soup-dense fog; on most days, there's precipitation; when the sun is out, it hangs low in the sky, blinding.
Plus, to be honest, neither Madeline nor I understand what most of the traffic signs mean. And there's a wigged-out law called Priority Right, which Madeline has point-blank refused to entertain. (It may come as a surprise to you--it certainly came as a surprise to me--that there are two distinct madwoman qualities to my wife's driving: 1, she's inexplicably eager to ignore traffic laws; and 2, she engages in tactics that I can only fairly describe as evasive maneuvers.) Priority Right means you have to yield at intersections to any vehicle approaching from the right--i.e., you yield to traffic that's aimed at a side-impact collision with the passenger. Priority Right's role is amplified by the general absence of traffic lights: on the eight-minute drive from our apartment in the heart of centre to the boys' school, we don't encounter a single light. So there are a lot of judgment-call intersections. Which makes it fun sitting over there on the right, at semi-blind intersections in the fog.
And to ensure that the automotive life remains interesting, we just bought a bigger car--bigger than the Volvo we were renting, and indeed bigger than the Volvo we own in the United States of Absurdly-Large-Cars. (This might be related to my moving to Europe to not smoke cigarettes.) We returned the rental to the airport, which is the only place to rent cars here; what with the scrapes on the sides, and the fallen flakes from two months' after-school pastries in the backseat, and the pervasive smell of apples--we left a half-bushel in the trunk, for a month--I imagine Hertz was overjoyed to see this vehicle reinstated to their fleet.
Our new car is a used Audi, which seems to be the sponsoring brand for the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg--the grand duke and his entourage drive around in a fleet of blue ones, and today at school pick-up, I parked between two other Audi wagons. Alex, not particularly paying attention, tried to get into the wrong one. Then in the correct car, parking at the bakery to buy today's pastries and begin the process of filling this clean backseat with pastry droppings, he announced, "I don't want to get out of this new car." He played with the ashtray, which the boys call their garbage cans. "It's so lovely." Yes, it is; for now.
a recipe: agneau aux haricots
One morning last week, the dashboard thermometer announced that it was an even 0 degrees. Granted, that's Celsius; but still, not balmy. It's stew weather, is what it is, and I've been making a lot of them, filling big heavy Le Cruesets, sliding them into the low oven for whole afternoons, the aromas of slow-cooking meats permeating the apartment, the common hallway, the stairwells. And then taking the lid off, the steam billowing out, maybe some hot liquid slopping over the side as I stir up the delicious mess . . .
The best of my recent efforts was this dish, lamb with beans. For the lamb, I found a nice-looking hunk of epaule, with bone. This big piece of shoulder isn't something I remember coming across in New York, but it will now be something I look/ask for: gristle-free but still fatty enough to be juicy, tasting very lamb-y yet without gaminess. For the beans, I used a big can of flageolets, because (1) I live in a place where you can buy that sort of thing, and (2) as I've mentioned before (and will surely mention again), I'm none too good at day-before planning, which you sort of need to do if you're going to cook dried beans. I imagine that good dried beans, properly prepared, would make a better dish. Especially if they were those wonderful Tarbais beans I found at Kalustyan's last spring, and used to make Madeline's birthday cassoulet. But this dish was pretty damn good with the canned beans, if I may say so myself.
3+ pounds lamb shoulder, cut into large chunks, or stew meat
Salt and pepper
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
4 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 small can Italian plum tomatoes and their juices
1 pound dried white beans, soaked and boiled as per convention; or 1 big can of 'em
Dry but robust white wine
Generously season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat a slick of oil in big Dutch oven over medium-high flame. Add the lamb, leaving plenty of room, and brown all over; this took me two batches, about 10 minutes total per batch. When all the lamb is browned, and set aside in a bowl, pour off all but a light coating of the fat/oil that remains in the pot. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic, and cook for 5 minutes, till the vegetables are lightly browned. Push everything to the sides of the pan, spread the tomato paste into the empty space, and let it cook for 1 minute. Pour in the tomatoes and break them up with your wooden spoon. Add the beans. Pour in 1/2 bottle of wine; the liquid should just about cover everything. If it doesn't, add more wine. Put the lamb back into the pot, and tuck the bouquet garni in there too. The lamb should be entirely (or almost entirely) submerged; if it isn't, add water, stock, or wine until it is.
Now comes the big braising choice: stovetop or oven. This is a personal matter, and, as with religion, I'm loath to get into any arguments. But I now semi-understand my oven: I translated every setting, writing the English on a Post-It affixed to the oven door, along with a little Celsius-Fahrenheit conversion chart. So I now know, for example, that Heißluft plus at 150°C. = convection oven at 300°F. Which is a great setting for a stew, speeding up the process vastly while still working at a tenderizing, safe temperature. This isn't a situation I can confidently set on my electric cooktop.
Anyway, however you're doing it, cook until the lamb is as ultra-tender, stirring it around from time to time. In the convection oven, this took about 2 hours; on the stovetop over very low heat, I'd be prepared for nearly twice that. When the lamb is ready, the rest of the contents of the pot might still be a little watery. Set it on the stovetop over high heat and reduce until it's thickened; I also whirred an immersion blender (the straight translation from the German is the much more colorful "stabmixer") in there for a half-minute, pulverizing some beans into a thickening agent; before you do this, I'd find and discard the bouquet garni.