Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Game of Chicken

I started this blog fully expecting that reverse culture shock would give me plenty to write about.  In fact, a month into our return, coming back to DC has been more like putting on a comfy pair of old jeans than a rude awakening.  I know I've changed and the world didn't stand still while we were gone, but for the most part, it's been easy to slide back into old routines and find old stomping grounds for the most part much the same.

But a funny thing happened tonight as I was cooking David Lebovitz's Olympic Seoul chicken for dinner.  It's not a French dish but it's one I learned to cook in Paris.  I launched into the familiar routine of skinning and separating the chicken thighs and legs, prepping four of each, just as I had so many times before.  But when it came time to put the pieces in the pan, the same pan I used in Paris, I found there was no room for the legs!  Yes, everything's bigger in America, the cars, the houses, the people, even the chickens.

Friday, July 29, 2011


I have a soft spot for signs. Well designed signs fill me with delight, bad ones make me nuts. And quirky ones? That's best of all. Here are a few signs that stopped me in my tracks recently.

I love this one posted at the DC Department of Motor Vehicles, the kind of place that tends to drive people to profanity.  Actually my experience there (as well as the last time I renewed my driver's license some 10 years ago) was perfectly pleasant.   And call me old fashioned but I'm all in favor of dialing back the use of profanity.  If you use the F word in every sentence, you kind of rob it of its impact when the going gets really tough. 

There must have been a pay phone here once.  Today all that's left is the sign.  Have pay phones gone the way of the typewriter and the rotary phone?

McDonald's may have created the McCafe to compete with Starbucks and the rest of the corporate coffee culture.  But don't think about parking here with your laptop for the day.  While I like the idea of not being rushed over your coffee or lunch, there is a limit.  Some of those coffee shops are so full of freelancers and students that there's rarely a place to sit for the casual coffee drinker.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cupholders Trump All

Many people[who?], particularly in the United States, consider the design, location and number of cup holders in a vehicle to be one of the most important attributes influencing their vehicle purchase[citation needed]. Others take the contrary view; that they are irrelevant, and encourage a dangerous practice which distracts drivers from their primary task. Cars designed primarily for the North American market have tended to have larger cupholders, while those for which the primary market is outside of North America tend to have smaller ones[citation needed].

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Wikipedia.  You go to find out some basic facts only to find them mixed in with a bunch of specious information.

So while I can't tell you whether Americans actually buy their cars due to the number and locations of cupholders, I have to say that it certainly seems that way.  The car dealer who sold us our new Toyota Prius made sure to point out the four (!) cupholders in the front seat and did so with the same reverence as he explained how to work the GPS.

Cupholders in cars make sense, particularly if you have a long commute or a road trip in mind.  And cupholders in movie theaters?  Well, while I never buy refreshments at the movies myself, I can see the logic in having a place to stow your Coke while balancing your tub of popcorn.  But a cupholder on your grocery cart?  That one took me by surprise.

The icing on the cake?  The warning label:  Do not place hot beverage in holder when child is in seat.  Whew.  Good thing my kids are way too big to ride in the cart.  Otherwise I might have had a sad story to tell.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


We haven't yet tried any of the baguette options now available in DC, in part because I don't want to be disappointed and in part because I'm still at the stage of enjoying all the things we missed during four years in France.  And while I hear that Le Pain Quotidien is a nice addition to the local scene and that there is a fabulous patisserie hiding up behind the Twinbrook metro station, for the moment, I am most content with this:

Hot delicious chewiness.

While there's always going to be a New Yorker who will tell you that you can't get a decent bagel in DC, gone are the days when you needed to take the trip north or place an overnight order with H&H.  After what passed for a bagel in Paris (that is bagel shaped industrial white bread often at up to 3.50 euros a pop), these babies at the Georgetown Bagelry are a treat with or without the cream cheese.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Separated at Birth?

It's not been a happy week in Washington as everyone agonizes over the debt ceiling negotiations.  Not that I'm a party to those talks but our family's bread and butter comes from a federal paycheck.  And guess who's handling our move?  The Bureau of the Public Debt.  No joke.  I just hope that the movers get here before the talks collapse and there's no one to pay the bill.

I'm no expert when it comes to body language but I'm struck by the physical similarities between Speaker Boehner and President Obama in this picture.  They're both dog tired and fed up with looking each other in the eye.  They're both in their DC uniform of blue blazer and button down shirts.  I imagine that the red ties were a casualty of too many hours at the office.  And I'm particularly struck by their skin tone:  Boehner's famous for his ever present tan which in this picture is not so far from Obama's coffee au lait colored complexion.  First African American president?  Hell yes.  But remind me why so many people seem to have a problem with that?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Home Sweet Home

Our worldly goods are still sitting on the dock in Baltimore but we've moved out of the hotel and back into our house with its fresh new coat of paint.  And even though we're sleeping on air mattresses, eating at a card table, and stowing our clothes in suitcases, it feels good to be home.  Although there's no maid service or daily fresh towels, there's fresh coffee to be drunk while still in pajamas and plenty of A/C to keep us cool; the kids are back in their own rooms with separate beds.  Our synagogue welcomed us back with fresh flowers, challah, grape juice, and candles.  Our neighbors have offered dinner and the loan of gardening tools.  And on a Sunday morning, when my husband and one child have gone for a run, and the other is walking the neighbor's dog, it's blissfully peaceful.

As for what the hangup might be at the port, I can't imagine.  It's only 40 miles between here and there, but apparently a world away.  I'm trying not to conjure up scenes from the second season of The Wire which featured some pretty nasty doings in those parts.  I think I'll just have another cup of joe.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dirt Under My Nails

As much as I enjoyed living in Paris, I really did miss having a private outdoor space.  I don't need a big lawn or an elaborate garden, just a little patch of green where I can have my coffee, read a book, or just be.  And while I liked the charm and ease of window box gardening, I missed the progression of daffodils to peonies to roses, picking fresh basil for pesto, and the satisfaction you get from putting your hands in the dirt.

Between having some very responsible tenants and a good property management firm, we've returned to a house that's in great shape.  The yard?  Not so much.  Despite semi annual cleanups by pros, our little lawn has gone from 90 percent grass to 90 percent weeds, and the ivy and bindweed are threatening to take over everything, that is, if the mini volunteer maple trees don't do it first.  And though the task of weeding and trimming and keeping nature at bay can be both physically taxing and emotionally draining, I don't mind getting a little dirt under my nails.   It's too late in the season for any real changes but still time enough for cut zinnias and a batch of pesto.

I think there are a few stray patches of grass in this lawn although the violets are clearly winning.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hot Enough For Ya?

From the local NBC news affiliate comes the understatement of the year.  On the weather page, right below the forecast of heat indices above 100 degrees F, is this little item:  "You don't need a jacket tonight."  Thanks NBC4.  I was actually considering that very question.

The heat wave that's gripping the U.S. from the southwest to the East Coast is pretty much the only thing anyone can talk about.  Having grown up in Atlanta and spent more than 20 summers in DC, some without air conditioning, this is something I should be used to.  I can do hot.  I know to take it slow, hydrate, seek shade.  But after four summers away, I'd forgotten how hazy, hot, and humid can just suck the life out of you.  How you can go from crisp and fresh to soggy and wilted in a nanosecond.  How you lose your interest in food, in exercise, in doing anything much but sitting in front of the AC with your feet up.  No wonder the Harry Potter movie broke the box office records.  It's just too darn hot to do anything else.

I hear that it's gray, rainy, and in the 60s in Paris.  And that's not so appealing either.  So I guess it's time for another Diet Coke and maybe a dip in the pool.  That's agenda enough in this heat.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

All Shopping is Not Created Equal

Several months ago, I received an e-mail from a friend who had just returned to the U.S. from France with the subject line, "Overwhelmed."  When I opened up the photo attachment, it was a picture of the peanut butter aisle in her local supermarket.  I got a belly laugh out of that one, thinking I should have counter offered with snapshots of the yogurt and chocolate aisles in Paris.  I never managed to do that so belatedly I offer two shots from my recent American retail experience. 

The first one?  I can only call it a little slice of heaven.  The wrapping paper section of The Container Store.  Oh how I missed you:  your reasonable prices, your high quality, the endless mix and match combinations of ribbons, papers, cards, and bags.

And did I mention the containers for any kind of little gift on your list?

This display, on the other hand, at Bed Bath & Beyond kind of made me queasy.  I'd have to classify the store as a necessary evil.  I did find the zebra bedding ensemble that was high on my younger child's priority list and at a very fair price to boot.  But the giant shopping carts and the stacks of merchandise to the ceiling were the very embodiment of excessive American consumerism.  If you need this for a snack, maybe you should rethink things.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I wasn't sure whether the movers who packed up our Paris apartment would touch the cabinet with my French food finds so I restrained myself from buying too much lest we needed to carry it all in our suitcases.  Happily, they didn't bat an eye when it came to the kilo jar of mustard, the tins of creme de marron, boxes of sea salt, and a couple jars of Speculoos spread.  My kids, however, insisted that two jars of the latter would not be enough to sustain us upon our return and made a last minute run to the market for two more that got tucked in with the t-shirts, bathing suits, and socks.

So imagine their delight when we spied this display, not at some fancy schmancy gourmet food shop, but in the local Giant supermarket.  Same product, same manufacturer, albeit a different name.  As for the price?  It's pretty similar to what we paid in Franprix and Casino.   Now if I can just summon up the self control not to buy it too frequently!

By the way, that recipe for Speculoos Chicken in Dorie Greenspan's otherwise wonderful cookbook, Around My French Table?  You should save the cookies to have with your coffee.  Just saying.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


People keep asking me what it's like to be back.  The short answer is....well, there really is no short answer at the moment.  On the one hand, it is nice to be back in a place that feels so comfortable and familiar, where the sun shines and there's lots of green grass, trees, and flowers, and good friends eager to share news about the neighborhood, kids, and local politics.  On the other hand, we're still staying in a hotel while we await the arrival of our household goods and while there are workers in the house painting and fixing things.  We're kind of betwixt and between:  definitely back in the USA but not yet truly at home.

Still there are the little things that keep reminding me that we have shifted gears.  It's repressing the reflex to say "Bonjour" to someone in the elevator, reaching for the bags in the supermarket when there is actually a paid employee to take care of that for me,  fumbling in the middle of the night to find the doodad to flush the toilet (it's on the side, silly, not on the top), remembering that there's a garbage disposal only after throwing all my vegetable peelings in the trash, and seeing the many ads on TV for anti-depressants.  Within days, I'm sure these will have left my consciousness.    But for the moment, they are little reminders of the different life we lived, one that is already fading in the rearview mirror.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I'm not a big junk food eater (well okay, I have my secret vices) but normally a Slurpee wouldn't entice me much, particularly one flavored "Alienade" and colored a shade of blue definitely not found in nature.  But on a day when the temperatures hit the high 90s with humidity to match and Slurpees were free for the asking, all bets were off.  Plus there was a 7-11 right on our way.

Truth be told, the heat was such that even if hadn't been the store's namesake day, I'd have bought them for my kids anyway.  What's more that "Alienade," a combo of blueberry, raspberry and lemonade, wasn't half bad.  Don't ask me about what it was made from.  I don't want to know.  One a year on the 11th of July surely can't hurt.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Sunday Post

The years haven't been kind to The Washington Post.  Like every other newspaper in the country, it has suffered while Internet news sources have prospered.  There are more stories from wire services, less attention to investigative reporting, the Sunday book section seems to have disappeared while its counterpart Style has morphed into a much thinner tabloid.  All the same, I love having a newspaper with my morning coffee and I love having the multi-sectioned Sunday paper greeting me in the small quiet hours of the weekend.  After four years of subsisting on Internet news and copies of the International Herald Tribune my husband brought home from the office in the evenings, having the Post back in my life is a real treat.  Now if you'll excuse me, news from around the world, updates on local politics, sports standings, theater reviews, comics, and coupons are waiting.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Back in the Saddle

It took less than a week after leaving Paris before my urge to blog resurfaced.  So here I am back in the saddle, ready to post about our re-entry to DC and whatever else comes into my head.  In between the many errands that are on my list, I've been snapping pictures and making notes.  I hope it does not disappoint.

Although I was neither born nor raised in DC, it is definitively my home town.   Potomac fever struck in high school and after the requisite internships as an undergraduate, I moved here after college.  DC is where I established my professional career, met my husband, got married, had kids, and bought one house and then another.   If you wondering whether I live in Virginia or Maryland, the answer is neither.  I am a legal resident of the District of Columbia.  Yes, people really do live here and no, the population doesn't turn over every four or eight years like the residents of the White House. 

One of the things I love most about DC is that it's not all things to all people.  It's black and white, rich and poor, stately homes and up and coming neighborhoods, longstanding residents and newcomers arriving from the four corners of the earth.  Most of all, it's not the place you see depicted on The West Wing or hear disparaged by talk radio.  It's full of real people with real stories and real heart.

We arrived back on American shores just in time to celebrate Independence Day, the morning of which we spent like so many Fourth of Julys before, sitting on the curb on MacArthur Boulevard watching the Palisades parade go by.  We don't live in the Palisades neighborhood but that doesn't matter.  Anyone can feel a part of the home town atmosphere which begins always with the Scouts and bagpipes.

There were fire trucks and policemen; kids with their bikes decorated in red, white, and blue; dancers from Bolivia and Peru; gentlemen on horseback; neighborhood librarians pushing their book trolleys; and local merchants and associations tossing candy to crowds.  The candy is an important part of the ritual; my kids routinely collect enough to last them (if they pace themselves) all the way to Halloween.  Even so, they didn't have quite the same optimism as this little guy.

And this being DC, there were the politicians:  city council members, school board representatives, and of course the mayor (although no one cheered much for him).  We have some catching up to do on local politics so while I can't give you the back story on this banner, I still admired its frankness.

And where else but in DC would the ACLU have a float, complete with its own musical combo?

Thanks all for welcoming us home.