broken arm!

There were 3 possible expenditure categories for our E.R. visit: (1) parking, subterranean, 2 hours 15 minutes; (2) prescription painkillers, two types, one week's worth of each; and (3) doctor's fees and x-ray costs. And here are the actual expenditures: (1) €2,40 for parking; (2) €1,78 for medicine; and (3) €0 for the healthcare. I was fully aware that we live in a socialized-medicine type of place, but I still didn't see it coming that pocket change for parking would be the biggest expense.

Poor Sam. He fell out of a high climbing apparatus at a playground--a thing that, obviously, is meant to be fallen out of: it's a log suspended horizontally by rope, and it jiggles dangerously when you walk on it. It's Sam-trapment. He fell for it, and fell out of it, landing from 6 feet up on his arm, and then there we were, at the clinique pediatrique of the municipal hospital, an emergency room for children. We didn't fill out any forms. The receptionist took a 30-second Q&A and copied down Sam's social security number--the Luxembourg one, from a nicely laminated card--and sent us to the waiting room. Then a nurse, then a doctor, then the x-ray technician, then back to the doctor, all the while Sam quiet and morose and in a lot of pain, and Alex reminiscing proudly about his one and only hospital visit, back on Long Island, "when I cracked my eye open" (i.e., got a cut near his eye) and "needed surgery" (i.e., a few stitches).

If there's one thing that has filled me with dread about living abroad, it's this situation: my child is hurt, and I'm not understanding what's going on. Luckily, the only person we encountered at the hospital who spoke no English whatsoever was the x-ray technician; she was barking at Sam in Luxembourgeois, but he got the point. Throughout the experience, I had to use a lot more French than was ideal for all parties concerned. But we all muddled through, and I don't feel like I missed anything important.

But the doctors did: the x-rays of his humerus, where the pain was, were all clear, and we were sent away with a sling and painkillers and a return visit in 4 days. At which point we discovered that it's Sam's ulna that's fractured, at the elbow. Not a spot that was x-rayed during the first go-round. Ah well.

Sam is the first in our family to wear a cast; he can't remember anyone at school wearing one. So he's a celebrity, with everyone exclaiming, "Sam! What happened?!" He immediately tired of answering, but I think he likes the asking. He's also exhausted by lugging the heavy cast around, and it hurts his neck, but he's adapted quickly to having the use of only one arm: he can replace magic-marker caps, get his shoes on and off, pull up his pants. And at the playground in Strasbourg this weekend, he started climbing again, a mere two days after his plaster set. We were sort of hoping that the broken arm would teach him a lesson, but it hasn't. Or perhaps it has, but it's a different lesson than we were hoping for.


going dutch

  I was sipping a cappuccino in the kitchen of the split-level house, in a village near the Germany-Luxembourg border. Fifteen children were entertaining themselves at the birthday party in other rooms; I could hear Alex's unrestrained laugh of hilarity from somewhere. Here in the kitchen, a dozen adults were sipping and talking. In Dutch. 

Somehow I've fallen in with a crowd from the Netherlands. When I'm around, they mostly speak English, and with barely any accent, much easier for me to understand than a lot of the native tongue I hear from England, Ireland, and Scotland. And it's from all these Dutch that I came to know about Keukenhof, supposedly the largest flower garden in the world, in Holland. (To clarify: the Netherlands is a country of 12 provinces, 2 of which are South Holland and North Holland, which contain most of the Netherlands cities that people like me have heard of. At some point in childhood, I was led to believe that the Netherlands=Holland, but it's simply not true. The language and the people are both Dutch, which I think I already knew, but the whole thing confused me--in particular, how did Denmark and Danes and Danish fit in? [answer: different place, different people, different language/pastry]--until very recently.) And what better place to go with my mother and her friend Harriet?

It was a long drive north through Belgium, skirting Brussels and Antwerp, then into the Netherlands, past Rotterdam and the Hague, heading toward Amsterdam on a road parallel to the North Sea beaches a few miles away--a lot of famous-but-unknown-to-me places. Windmills and canals everywhere, fields filled with cows and sheep and an immense population of fluffy little lambs, and of course with flowering bulbs--daffodils and hyacinths and tulips, all planted in long, straight rows on the flat-as-a-board earth. A color-block landscape painted by a pointillist.

The traffic was horrific--heading-to-the-Hamptons-Memorial-Day-weekend horrific, albeit without the SUVs. All of Europe seemed to be on Easter break this sunny day, heading to this famous garden at the height of tulip season. Teenagers wearing Day-Glo vests were directing traffic to park in fallow fields, like at an over-capacity-crowd championship game. The cost of the tickets was considerable; the scope of the gardens was impressive; the variety of tulips was staggering. But the boys were relatively unimpressed until we found the garden maze. I was compelled to wend through it ten times while Sam mastered every route and Alex never stopped talking. 

We stayed two nights in Delft, from whence the blue-painted plates. Canals popping up (rather, under) like mad. Nearly every house made of brick, three or four stories high. They started building what they call the New Church in the fourteenth century; the Old Church is of course older. It's a lovely little old city. And, like Gouda a few miles away, I had no idea it was a city; just thought it was a thing in the kitchen.

a recipe: penne with white asparagus and fresh morels

Tulip season is also asparagus season, and asparagus is everywhere here in Luxembourg, especially the big thick stalks of white asparagus. I came across the first batch a few weeks ago at a tidy little primeur near our apartment, and bought a bunch. While the cashier was weighing them, I grabbed a blood orange, and she beamed at me. "Très bon, Monsieur," she said, congratulating me on my fruit. "Pour la sauce!

She was correct, for that bunch. But this recipe is something different, a variation on what I used to have at a restaurant in the West Village in the early nineties, now gone. It had a bar on the ground floor and the dining tables downstairs, in a glass-roofed subterranean room in the courtyard. They served the asparagus cut in the same shape as the noodle, and in the same color--both green--and hence a confusing dish. That tickled me then, and it still tickles me now.

1 bunch white asparagus
1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts sliced thin, dark green parts reserved
1 small onion, quartered
1 carrot, quartered
1 herb sachet (I used parsley, thyme, a bay leaf, and a few peppercorns)
Olive oil
1 heaping handful fresh morels, cleaned
Freshly ground black pepper
Splash of white wine or vermouth
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

The first thing to do is blanch the asparagus and make its stock. So bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil while you trim the asparagus, saving all trimmings: snap off and reserve the thickest part of the stalk, then peel the tough outer skin from the remainder. Cut the peeled stalks and heads into penne-sized pieces, keeping the head pieces separate from the stalk pieces.

When the water comes to a boil, drop in the stalk pieces and cook for a couple minutes, then add the head pieces. Let cook another 2 minutes, then try a piece--it should still be firm, but cooked through to edibility. When done, remove with a slotted spoon to an ice bath, allow to cool, then drain. With the water still aboil, dump in your asparagus trimmings, dark green parts of the scallion, quartered onion, chopped carrot, and herb sachet. Let boil away while you continue with the other steps.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. In a very large saucepan, heat a slick of oil and a tablespoon of butter over medium-high flame. Add the morels, season with salt and pepper, and saute for just a minute; remove with a slotted spoon to a large bowl. Replenish the oil and butter, add the scallion slices, season, saute until golden, then remove to the bowl with the morels. Replenish the oil and butter, add the reserved asparagus, and saute for a minute, until lightly golden, then remove to the bowl. Deglaze the pan with the wine, and empty the pan into the bowl. Don't wash this pan.

Cook the penne until a bit firmer than al dente, then drain, reserving the pasta cooking liquid.

By this point, your asparagus boiling water should have reduced down to a rich stock. Strain it from the medium pot into the big pan, and boil over high heat until reduced to 3/4 cup. Add the firm-ish pasta to this liquid, and finish cooking for another couple of minutes, giving the penne the opportunity to absorb all that asparagus flavor. When they're done, add the reserved asparagus, morels, scallions, and any liquid in that bowl, and stir around for a minute. Add salt and pepper to taste, and then a big handful of grated cheese. If the whole mixture has gotten too thick, mix in a bit of the pasta cooking water. Serve with more cheese on the side, and, in the middle of the table, tulips.


weekend in paris

Explicit content advisory: If you haven't been to Paris recently, or you're not planning on going soon, this will be aggressively uninteresting. 

As a Christmas present, Madeline sent me to Paris, by myself--no children, no cooking, no marching around a European capital in the cold, looking for a playground and a children's menu. So what I did was march around a European capital in the cold, looking for a grown-up's menu and some things to buy for children. Here's what I now have to offer:

A Book to Read if What You're After Is History of Parisian Personages: On the two-hour train ride from Lux, I read Edmund White's The Flâneur, which I was led to believe--by the title and subtitle (A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris) not to mention the jacket copy ("an exhilarating adventure")--would be about the exhilarating adventure of strolling through Paris. Now, I have to admit that I've written my fair share of book-jacket copy, which often involves a certain degree of, um, exaggeration, often consisting of appending effusive modifiers to anywhere they might possibly stick: to nouns, to verbs, to other modifiers, and even (if you're a real pro) to the occasional preposition. You name it, you can also name it better, livelier, lyrical, ground-breaking, downright brilliant. But The Flâneur's jacket is misleading on a whole different level: this book is simply not about what it claims to be about. What it's about is strolling through the history of Paris, which is a different thing. For some people, it might be a very interesting thing--a more interesting thing. But it's not the thing I wanted to read, before I set off on the exhilarating adventure of strolling through Paris.

A Place to Go for Sunday Brunch: Even though the book disappointed me, it did propose an intriguing question: what makes a place a big city? (Intriguing, though perhaps meaningless.) As soon as I got off the TGV in the Gare de l'Est, I realized one of the things a big city means to me: it's a place where everyone takes the subway. It was brutally cold, and windy, and it was noon and I was hungry. So instead of walking a half-hour, I took the Metro a few stops, to get myself to the Marché aux Enfants Rouges, a little covered market in the north Marais. We've now been to not a few European markets, and the territory is pretty familiar: the cheesemonger, the butcher, the fruits and vegetables, repeating themselves like the chain stores on Route 9 in north Jersey. But here in Paris, another big-city difference from the small-city markets: a Japanese stall, with fresh-cut sushi as well as hot dishes, cheap, people huddled at picnic tables inside big flaps of weather-resistant plastic. 

But the Japanese stall was not where I was headed; I was going to l'Estimanet d'Arômes et Cépages, a little eatery in a corner of the market, far from any actual street. (And far from any bathroom: the restaurant's restroom is nothing more than the common facilities for the market.) It's a nice little place, with a laid-back atmosphere that feels more Seattle or East Village than Paris. My food was not extraordinary--a not-rich-enough mushroom soup, and a pig's foot that required a huge effort to get at the edible meat. But I passed this way again 48 hours later, on my way back to the gare, and noticed that it was pleasantly mobbed, and that Sunday brunch here means charcuterie, and that this is what the place is there for, and probably worth going to, because it looked like everybody knew they were in the place to be, for a Sunday brunch of charcuterie.

Charcuterie alone isn't enough for me; there's plenty of good ham in Europe. But at Sunday midday this market was bustling, and the street outside, rue de Bretagne, was fantastic: within the space of 50 yards, there were 3 separate shops--the butcher, the baker, and the maître volailleur ("master poulterer": what a spectacular claim!)--each with lines of dozens of people on the sidewalk. Everyone seemed to be carrying baguettes and cut flowers and two or three lit cigarettes plus a dog's leash, and talking to one another, and there was a catercorner face-off of packed cafés, and various wares to browse or buy, and as much as anyplace I've ever been in Paris, it felt like a little village in the middle of the city. This was a nice place to be.

A Place to Buy Antique Table Linens: Speaking of a little village, the Village St-Paul, just south of the rue de Rivoli at the St-Paul Metro, is another aspect of the big city that I miss, now that I don't live in one: a place where there are distinct neighborhoods for different retail specialties--one quarter for lighting, another for the garment trade, another for Korean restaurants. St-Paul is a pedestrian-only warren of a half-dozen connected courtyards, with perhaps a couple hundred antiques/brocante/crap dealers, a lot of which are open on Sunday, unlike most of the rest of the city. One of them, called Au Petit Bonheur la Chance on rue St-Paul, features stacks and stacks of those worn old off-white table linens that are so perfect, and sets of tins for pantry commodities (Sucre, Sel, etc.), and other stuff that if you're, say, me, you want to hoard.

A Great Place to Have Lunch in St-Germain: If there's anywhere in the world that doesn't need another good place to have lunch, it's got to be St-Germain. But still, you must choose, and a great place is preferable to a good one, and so: Le Comptoir de Relais, on the Carrefour de l'Odéon, just south of the boulevard. The carrefour (literally, "intersection") is a lively little corner, in exactly the center of the part of town where I've found myself practically every day I've ever been in Paris. And the Bar of the Inn (the inn being the hotel next-door) is somewhere close to an ideal lunch spot: agreeable service and a quick turnaround; not-devastating prices for great food (my cochon de lait, poché et roti, sitting on a bed of superb lentils, is one of the great plates of the year); and people-watching par excellence, in the perfect location.

I get there at about 1:30 on Saturday, a sunny and relatively un-freezing day--maybe it's gotten up to 35 degrees. The soldes are on, so the whole city is out, buying stuff, and then apparently walking through this carrefour. The tiny interior of the restaurant is crammed, and there are a good number of people waiting on the sidewalk, but there's one free table on the terrasse, and the harried hostess/waitress gives it to me, after an unclear exchange with other waiting would-be customers. The heaters are going full-blast, like a bank of stage lights suspended over the tables; there are thick fleece blankets for laps, in coordinating colors. A lot of the men in this part of town have refused on principal to wear proper outerwear, and instead they've got three or four layers under sport jackets, and of course scarves, all knotted identically. All the women are wearing hats--real hats, not ski caps or baseball caps. I feel like a leper because I'm not wearing sunglasses. Today, everyone in Paris is pretending it's not winter. Or, rather, pretending that the winterness of winter doesn't bother them. And so we're all sitting out here, in the cold and the struggling sunlight, watching one another watching the passersby, with a glass of wine in front of every single diner.

A Place to Have Dinner: Le Chateaubriand, on Avenue Parmentier in the 11th. No carte at all, just a five-course menu; the only choice you'll get is whether to have dessert or cheese. Some of the food was a little silly: one course was billed as a duo from South America, and it was a small bowl of decent chili and an unspecial ceviche, though I guess both could've been interesting to people from the east side of the Atlantic, who haven't spent the past 15 years getting barraged by ceviches. On the other hand, the meat course was extraordinary: a piece of Iberico pork--I think it was described as "un tranche"--that was cooked rare, and was by far the tenderest, tastiest (and reddest) piece of pork I've ever eaten. The staff were warm, and the room had that lively, chic buzz that is another hallmark of life in the big city, where people are not only waiting for tables at 11:30, but the crowd is still growing.

A Thing to Never, Ever Do: Go to a big department store for the soldes. It's one thing if the ship is actually going down, and you really do need to fight through such desperate crowds to get to a lifeboat; but not for a 40% discount on anything. Unless they start selling apartments.

A Place to Have a Drink, in the Middle of Nowhere: Mama Shelter was my hotel, way the hell out there in the 20th on rue de Bagnolet. I don't recommend staying here, because (a) it's way the hell out there, and (b) I saw no evidence that there's anything charming about the 20th, and it doesn't have any of the basics that make everywhere else in Paris so great, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was in the Bronx, and (c) the darkness of my room was laughable, and the whole aesthetic is much more acceptable to visit than to live in. But if you're having dinner anywhere in the northeast direction of town, and you want an actual mixed drink instead of a glass of wine, this is the place: everybody here is drinking real cocktails, made properly by bartenders who knew what they're doing. And it's physically a great bar, an under-lit rectangle surrounded by barstools, in the middle of a giant room with dozens of tables, very contemporary industrial-chic (something like Lot 22, but laid out better, and more upright). I don't know what the restaurant serves, but it's clearly a destination resto for people who don't live in the 20th. Plus there are taxis to be found outside, what with all the well-heeled people constantly arriving from the better arrondisements. (Yet another tic of the big city: fashionable people heading out to oases of chicness in des bas quartiers.)

A Place to Have Coffee, Heading Toward the Middle of Nowhere: If for some reason you find yourself east of the Bastille, tired and cold and maybe needing to pee, and you're in the vicinity of the Ledru Rollin station, then by all means glance around the intersection for a brasserie that might look a little down-at-the-heels. If it's winter, you'll need to push aside the semi-opaque plastic curtain that shelters the terrasse, where you don't want to sit, because that's not the point, not here. Go inside. Clamber up onto a barstool and order a cafe. Then let your eyes wander around at the walls, the bar, the ceiling . . . all a small Art Nouveau masterpiece, fluid forms carved from wood, surfaces painstakingly painted in now washed-out colors, then neglected for a century, not exactly in disrepair but certainly in need of at least a good cleaning. There's the clatter of spoons on saucers and the rustle of newspapers and the hushed tones of a low-key lover's quarrel in the corner; there's the surge of a small crowd coming in from the subway, familiar Bonjours all around. It's a remarkable little unremarkable little place.