Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I made some iPhoto albums for my family for Christmas. I've received several as gifts from my husband and they're wonderful. They're not hard to make if you've got a scanner, patience, and a half-decent understanding of Photoshop.

As I was going through boxes of old photos, I came across this one, from December 26, 1949:

I love this photo, taken by my dad — probably with his first good camera, a Rolleicord. I'm always impressed with his photos, which he developed and printed himself. That Rolleicord is still working.

Gathered in front of the tree are the rest of my dad's generation. My Uncle Bill is on the left. His sister, Jennie, is above him. Next to Bill is his girlfriend, Lillie, who is my dad's sister. She is holding my brother. My dad's other sister, Mary, is next. Finally, on the right, is my mother.

Bill and Lillie are grinning with mischief, and although they are in their 80s now, that hasn't changed. And they are still in love. When I was growing up, I'd visit them on laundry night. Bill fixed the washer so that we could watch it agitate even when the lid was open. They'd stand there, holding hands and watching the clothes churn around. This taught me that, if you even love doing the laundry together, you've married the right person.

Jennie and Mary are no longer with us, but here they seem to be gazing dreamily into the future. That future brought them both good times and pain, but life was probably never so grand as when they were this young, and going to parties and dances every week with their gang of friends, wearing pretty gowns — and never the same one twice. There are racks and racks of these dresses, some homemade, with matching shoes and stoles, moldering away in my grandmother's garret.

Now take another look at my mother. That sidelong look she's giving my brother is ripe with meaning. She has just discovered that she is pregnant with my sister. No one will be told for awhile, because my mom had had miscarriages. But there she sits, like the Madonna in an Annunciation painting, practically bursting with her happy secret.

My brother isn't paying any attention. He is not gazing angelically toward the heavens, either. I suspect he is staring up at a snarling stuffed bear head in the center of a wall full of hunting trophies belonging to my grandfather and my Uncle Motty. There were three deer heads, nearly two dozen racks of antlers, a lynx, a pheasant, and, eventually, a stuffed fox. They kept us kids mildly spooked — yet entranced — through family dinners for decades. (No wonder I feel so at home in Paris in Deyrolle.)

The following August, my sister was born. When she was about 5, she was the flower girl in Lillie & Bill's wedding. The other women in this photo were bridesmaids. This lavish event, with 300 guests, was photographed by a professional, who was continually surprised that he still had so much film left in his camera. (He'd spooled a huge amount of film into a canister himself so he wouldn't have to keep changing rolls.) At the end of the evening, he realized he'd neglected to put that full canister in his camera. A few snapshots of my dad's are all we've got. (He was supposed to be the main photographer, but his arm was in a sling from an accident with a saw.)  We have a photo of my sister, looking adorable and carrying a little birdcage full of flowers.

As a child, I frequently complained to Lillie and Bill that it was mean and unfair of them that I didn't get to be a flower girl, too. They would point out that their wedding was many years before I was born, but I didn't care.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Living in a Snow Globe

We've had three quiet, romantic days of snow. Before the storm began on Friday, we did last-minute errands in empty streets and empty stores, walked right up to the bank teller, and brought home burritos as the first flakes began to fall. Most of our Christmas shopping is done and we were ready to settle in and enjoy the weather. That night, I wrapped the rest of the presents with assistance from one of the cats. I also baked orange-raisin-oatmeal cookies, which are dipped in white chocolate, a terrific recipe from my mom. (I soak the raisins overnight in orange juice and a little splash of grand marnier, which gently flavors the batter, too.)

On Saturday, we took the T to the North End, for lunch at Regina's. There was no line outside: a Christmas miracle. We even had a choice of several empty booths! After an excellent pizza, we shared a thickly frosted gingerbread man from Bova's, which gave us the strength to get to Mike's Pastry, where the line is usually out the door around Christmastime. But hardly anyone was in there; we were waited on before we had time to figure out what we wanted. Which was yet more cookies: rainbows, raspberry bows, chocolate leaves, and Florentines. Christmas seems to be all about cookies this year. Then we mourned the loss of Dairy Fresh Candies, which closed in the spring after 50+ years in business. My aunt and uncle won't be getting their macadamia turtles and chocolate-dipped cherries on stems for the first time in decades.

I feel spoiled by all this tranquility, loveliness, and lack of crowds, even though my feet are always freezing and my snow boots stopped being waterproof just when I was counting on them.

This view of a church in the North End reminds me of an Italian village:

After slip-sliding down Salem Street and stopping in that fragrant bakery next to Pace's, where we nearly bought more cookies but restrained ourselves, we headed to Copley Square for Trinity's 4 o'clock free carol service. We shivered in what we considered a long line, waiting for the doors to open. I asked the woman behind us, "Is the line usually this long? Do you think we'll get seats?" Her eyebrows shot up and she pointed, "Usually, at this hour, the line stretches all the way around Copley Square and over there, by the hotel. This is nothing! We'll have good seats!" And in about 10 minutes we were sitting in the third row.

We hadn't been in Trinity for awhile (since they started charging $5) so we were content to gaze upward at the intricate details, stained glass, and soaring space as our feet thawed as people filled the seats. The music was glorious. The choir walked down the aisle holding candles as a boy soloist sang the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City." By the end of the program, as we knelt in candlelight singing "Silent Night," we were thoroughly in the Christmas mood.

The Christmas spirit is like the flu, I've found: it hits you like a ton of bricks and lasts, with varying symptoms (ranging from joyousness to the need to keep replaying Louis Armstrong's "Christmas Night in Harlem") anywhere from five days to two weeks. We decided that Trinity's carol service would become a new tradition for us. The snow fell lightly as we strolled home, past this old-fashioned tree.

As long as one can stay indoors, one of the magical things about winter is waking up to falling snow, as we have for two days in a row. Because we're fortunate — warm and cozy, with plenty of good food, books, and football games — we wouldn't mind another two days of this.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Tree #2

Returning a Christmas tree should not be done lightly, unless you have plenty of twine, strong nerves, and talent for knots. 

We do not. We are especially lacking in twine. We nearly lost the tree in a gust of wind on the Mass. Ave. bridge. It was a blustery day. I never thought I would worry someday that my Christmas tree would plunge into the Charles. We nearly lost it again somewhere between the bridge and Central Square, even with my husband driving at a crawl, and me hanging on desperately to the jerry-rigged twine inside the car. Thank heaven for the guys at Pill's Hardware, who sold us some rope and helped us re-tie the tree to the car. Their slip-knot wasn't the best idea, but I spotted it and was able to add a few more twists and loops to make it fast. Still, it was a long, nervous drive to Lexington.

Pat at Wilson Farm couldn't have been nicer. He took us into a giant barn, where they make fruit baskets and store equipment, to see some of his favorite trees — long-needled, citrusy-smelling grand firs. We picked one, which cost twice as much as the previous tree. I can't argue that you get what you pay for in Christmas trees, because we've had great ones at all prices. But we liked this tree and we liked Pat. We were sold on it when it stood upright by itself after he let go of it. "Now that's a symmetrical tree! And it looks like it wants to follow us home." we thought.  Getting it home was blissfully uneventful, and we made a second stop for the world's best Sicilian slices at Armando's

My husband replaced our tree stand with an identical model. We have the two-piece kind with a foot pedal for swiveling and vertical adjustments. The original stand was sold to us as "The Mother of All Tree Stands" many years ago by a wise man at a hardware store. This was immediately after one of our cats knocked over our 10-foot tree, in a cheap stand, shattering many of my favorite ornaments and soaking the floor. It was a major catastrophe at the time; now I'm not sure if it still makes my list of Top Ten Traumas. But it's probably #2 on my list of Top Ten Traumas About Stuff, ranking just after Losing My Future Mother-in-Law's Diamond Engagement and Wedding Rings.

Yeah. Well. Now we always tie the tree to a wall with fishing line, too.

Decorating took me from dusk until about 11, including a cranky trip to CVS for more lights. Last Christmas, I wrote a reminder for early December 2008 in my datebook, to buy 400 to 600 white lights. Being cheap, I bought 400 a couple of weeks ago. But 600 were necessary. I also used 400 colored lights, set deeper into the branches, a trick I learned from my sister, a skilled and equally relentless tree decorator. The combination of white and color gives you the best of all possible worlds. (And I never could decide between the two anyhow.) Then I stuck our Italian angel at the top, and piled on more ornaments than even I thought possible. This morning, my husband added a few dozen plastic icicles, proving that I'm not the control freak people say I am.

In recent years, as I decorate the tree, I wonder: Why the hell do we do this? Why do we take a tree out of the forest, stick it in the house, and pile it with lights and tchotchkes until it looks like a shrine to Liberace? Is this a bizarre ritual, or what? What would anthropologists from the planet Remulac make of it? I know about the Druids, the Germans, and the Victorians, but from a clear-eyed, 2008 viewpoint, Christmas trees are completely insane. 

No wonder I love them so much.

And you can see the result: sparkly, romantic, and just a wee bit over-the-top. Let's hope Christmas is the same.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tree Trouble

As I write this, there's an undecorated Christmas tree sitting behind me. That ought to be a good thing, a happy harbinger of struggles with lights and accusations of "Tree Nazi!" when I refuse to let others join in the decorating. But ultimately, our tree is a thing of wonder because we have two or three times more ornaments than any sensible person would consider.

During all the years when our friends came over to decorate it, I often needed pruners and pliers to remove the ornaments after Christmas, because they'd twist the hooks too tightly around branches (despite my pleading and threats). I've broken too many ornaments from this, and have cried and sworn too many times as I watched my favorite vintage Czech and German ones detach themselves from their metal tops and fall to earth. So call me any name you want, but my ornaments are off limits to everyone from now on.

But I digress. This tree is the wrong tree. It's short and fat, misshapen and weird. I'm devastated. I come from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Christmas City of the USA. Had anyone attempted to sell this tree there, they would have received a strongly worded letter from the Chamber of Commerce. When I was a kid, my father and I could spend more than a week — after school, on weekends, at night — hunting for the perfect tree in the freezing cold. I would drag him from nursery to farm to gas station to market, and I'd reject every one I saw. Finally, I'd find an acceptable tree — and he would reject it. Neither one of us is known for our patience, so I learned that finding the right tree must transcend moodiness, boredom, and discomfort.

I guess I forgot.

When my husband and I went to Wilson Farm last December, and fell in love with the very first tree we looked at, I immediately called dad from the tree lot. "You won't believe this, but tree-hunting took less than 3 minutes this year." He thought this was impossible, that I'd lost my standards. But it truly was the perfect tree: about 8 feet tall, slender enought to fit nicely into a tight corner of our living room, and perfectly formed. 

I decorated it with a few hundred tiny colored lights set deeply into the branches, then strung another 600 or so white lights around the outside. Then I added my golden Moravian stars, and hundreds of the ornaments I've collected since I was in college (the survivors of our friends' manhandling). The tree was especially lovely last year, and brought us joy every day. Our cats would curl up under it, sated from snarfing its needles and puking them up on the carpet and the tree skirt. But, really, the tree was perfect.

Two nights ago, in a cold, driving rain, we went to Wilson Farm in Lexington for our tree, wreaths, boughs for the mantels, and roping for the building's front doors. I don't know why we didn't wait; I guess we thought the weather would be even worse  the next day. We were miserable as soon as we headed for the car. Even the promise of Sicilian slices from Armando's Pizza didn't help. At the tree lot, we stood around dripping, looking for a tree salesman. The one who finally appeared told us he didn't have much in our size, and showed us a few sopping trees in the pitch dark. Under those conditions, as we stood freezing, hungry, tired, and soaked, this tree looked pretty darn good. I guess we imagined it might grow another 6 inches overnight. Anyway, it was $39.99, and we grabbed it.  When it was on top of the car, its net kept getting caught on our windshield wipers. But we made it home and all was well until we stuck in the stand late last night, and I cringed. It even has branches that grow at right angles, pointing up or down instead of out, giving it a sort of deer-antler effect. 

So I'm doing what I generally do, whether it's dried pasta with live moths from Trader Joe's, or the wrong wedding dress from Filene's Basement. I'm returning it! I called Wilson Farm this morning and talked to the manager. He heard my story and said those magic words: "No problem! Bring it back, and ask for Pat or Jeff." You'd imagine people returned trees all the time. We've always loved Wilson Farm for their friendly staff as well as top-quality produce and plants, but this was beyond expectations. So we're about to drag it downstairs, tie to the car roof, and try again. My dad will approve, after he finishes yelling at me for settling for a lousy tree in the first place.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Making Crêpes, and Making Do

I ate many crêpes in Paris. They are delicious, satisfying, affordable, and fast, whether you're buying from a street vendor or sitting in a tiny crêperie. We like them with mushrooms and Gruyère, and we like them complèt — ham and cheese inside, topped with a fried egg. Savory crêpes are called galettes. Made with buckwheat flour, they taste hearty and substantial. 

We like our sweet crêpes filled with Nutella. Nutella with bananas, Nutella with jam, Nutella with Nutella. Truth is, if you put enough Nutella on anything (even a small child), I'll probably eat it.

Crêpes are properly made on a round, cast-iron hot plate, with a neat little tool to spread the batter perfectly, like grooming the Fenway grass before a Sox game. Many home cooks have special crêpe pans, designed to be lightweight so you can easily spread the batter, with low sides for easy turning. 

Knowing we'd be yearning for crêpes here at home, I almost bought such a pan at Dehillerin. I found lots of them, lying in dusty piles that appeared to have been undisturbed since the days of Madame DeFarge. But I was incapable of completing the transaction in French and I doubted anyone spoke English. I was dead wrong; they even have a web site in English, damn it. (My punishment for being intimidated is missing out on a copper-and-steel oval gratin pan, too — at about half the price we'd pay in the US, even with the rotten exchange rate. I've coveted one for decades. I really have to go back to Paris.)

So, last night, we were hungry for crêpes, and we had some nice imported ham and cheddar, so I tried out our old Calphalon nonstick 10" skillet. It worked like a charm, turning out perfect, round, crispy-edged crêpes using almost no oil. Then we had Nutella crêpes for dessert, and again tonight. 

While crêpes are supposed to be cooked in a very hot pan, you have to use less heat with any nonstick pan (high heat can ruin them — and you). But lower heat can work perfectly well; just cook them a bit longer. 

I've always been skeptical about 90% of the stuff in the Williams-Sonoma catalogs. Many of the best cooks I know have fairly basic kitchen equipment, and typical French and Italian households turn out delicious meals daily without any amazing batterie de cuisine

My kitchen is tiny (we were once featured in a Boston Globe article about small kitchens). I can't fit a KitchenAid mixer or even a Waring blender in there, let alone all the specialized pans and utensils in the cookware catalogs. So it's heartening to discover that the old pan in the drawer does the job. 

Plus, it saves money for other things, like that gratin pan in my future. And more jars of Nutella.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More Sights and Shops in Paris

There are endless photo opportunities in Paris. Even the pavement can be attractive. I found something interesting or beautiful almost anywhere I looked. I shot these with my little Leica C-Lux pocket camera.

Above, Notre Dame from one of my favorite vantage points.
Below, La Grande Roue, on the Place de la Concorde. Admission: 9 Euros.

Notre-Dame, last Saturday at dusk. Musicians under the tree were playing "My Girl Is Red-Hot" and there was a little dancing, too.

A pedestrian way with elegant shops and black and white Christmas trees. Between this sort of thing and the lavender twinkle lights everywhere, French holiday color schemes took some getting used to. I suppose I should try to evolve beyond red, green, gold — and the multicolored lights that are my secret favorite.

Here are two more photos of my favorite tea shop, La Charlotte de l'Isle. Above, the cluttered kitchen, where the magic takes place. Below, a detail of the pastry case. Her desserts may look plain and flat, but every slice is memorable.

I wish I had taken a shot of the restroom. From the kitchen, I was directed to go outside into a courtyard, where I found a door. I found a tiny bathroom, no more than a closet, old-fashioned and unheated, but clean. When I turned on the ancient porcelain sink, I realized there was no drainage plumbing — my boots almost got soaked as the water rushed right through the sink onto the floor. Needless to say, I adored the whole experience.

I know a cat who would look terrific in this tiara, if only for a few seconds.

A few store interiors. Above, Mariage Frères, our all-time favorite tea emporium, on the Rue des Augustins. We especially enjoy their butterscotch-flavored black tea. This time, they suggested we try Wedding Imperial, which is similar, with hints of chocolate. How could we refuse? We haven't brewed a pot yet, but it smells promising. And the elegant black tins are irresistible, too.

Above, some of the animals who have returned to Deyrolle, on the Rue du Bac, after the devastating fire in January. People actually donated past purchases to build up the taxidermy inventory. The restored shop is a little too fresh and elegant for my taste, but it has a nice selection of butterflies and bugs along with these animals. A lion was being professionally photographed in this room, so I took this shot by sticking my hand around the photographer's gray screen, not quite knowing what I'd get. Except for the ostrich in the foreground, it looks like everyone is watching "Project Runway."

I miss the stuffed dogs most of all. They no longer accept dogs for taxidermy because too many people left them and never returned to pick them up. So the old store was full of eerie, dead pets, which tended move a bit when you walked across the creaky wooden floor. They also need a zebra.

Even buying an apple is an aesthetic experience in France. This was a simple grocery store, with a Cézanne-esque abundance of produce, displayed with casual perfection.

Below, two photos of the Sainte-Chapelle, a Gothic jewel worth visiting on every trip. The top photo is a detail of an angel peeking from above a pair of gilded arches. As we sat and gazed upwards, I gave my husband my 90-second spiel on French Gothic architecture, culminating in the Rayonnant, or High, Gothic style, of which this chapel is a perfect example. He said he'd heard it all before, in prep school. So instead I contemplated how I wore myself to the bone studying Gothic art history in college. And for what, if not to impress the spouse occasionally?

Below, from the edge of the Seine. Sure, it's the City of Light, but it can still look great when there's barely any light.

Notre Dame with architectural lighting. The atmosphere that night was every bit as frosty as it looks — a fine excuse to buy yet another Nutella crêpe from a street vendor.

Now, who wants to fly to Paris this minute? ME!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Parisian Shop Windows

Shop windows are theater in Paris. You rarely see anything quite as wonderful here in the States. Here's a sampling of some of my favorite windows from last week's trip:

A magical toy shop in St. Germain. I love that enthusiastic bunny in the hat.

An antiques and curiosities shop we spotted late on our last evening, on the Rue Jacob. We longed for the bird, of course, but you can't own stuffed owls in the U.S. Yet another reason to move to Paris....

Russian nesting dolls to delight any obsessive-compulsive collector, on the Rue Bonaparte.

My favorite tea shop, La Charlotte de' l'Isle, on the Ile St.-Louis. They say Charlotte is a witch, and she certainly owns the most peculiar, intoxicating tea shop. I think she casts spells on me, because I find myself in a rare, giddily wonderful mood whenever I'm in there, even before my dessert arrives.

A tiny bookshop in St.-Germain, specializing in old, decorative bindings and illustration. Five customers were enough to overflow the shop, but no one wanted to leave.

A Polish Christmas palace filling a bookshop window on the Boulevard St.-Germain.

Many shop interiors fulfill the promises of their windows, and I captured a few of those, which I'll show on my next post.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I Loved Paris in November

Still jet-lagged from our trip to Paris, but there will be more posts soon. In the meantime, a photo of our suite from the hotel web site (better than our photos, but we didn't have the fruit and flowers). We could easily imagine we were in a château, with that velvet-canopied bed, the inlaid parquet floor as slick as a skating rink, the tapestry walls, beamed ceiling and all the antique furnishings.

Our bathroom had a soaking tub, a huge old-fashioned sink, and a casement window with a deep outer sill that was ideal for keeping bottles of water and green tea cold. With an expense account for meals, and maybe a couple of extra drawers, I could have lived happily in that room for at least a couple of years.

Here's a list of the pastry I enjoyed on a typical day:
1. Breakfast: Two smallish croissants (plain and raisin or chocolate) with soft cheese, butter, and jam.
2. Snack: A chocolate éclair, usually with a dark, rich filling better than anything over here.
3. Lunch: A nutella crêpe from a stand on the street, perfect food for walking (as are éclairs).
4. Tea: A tart citron, gâteau chocolat — or a wonderful wedge of dark chocolate, candied orange peel, amaretto, and almonds, called Florentine farfelu, at my favorite tea shop, Charlotte de l'Isle.
5. Dinner: Mousse au chocolat or crème brulée for dessert, after a far less memorable entrée.
6. Snack before bed: A chocolate-almond croissant, dusted with confectioners' sugar and flaky and divinely sweet, unlike any over here.

My packing worked out pretty well, although lugging the suitcase from the airport on the RER was a real drag. I still need to work on packing more minimally, but the two coats, three pairs of boots, and four turtleneck sweaters all came in handy. It was frequently cold and damp, but always beautiful.