Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Vuelan a Madrid (Flying off to Madrid)

The Kitchen, an homage to Saint Teresa.
Painting by Marina Abramovic
Part of the Heroinas (Women Heroes) show at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

I worked and lived in Madrid for a good part of the years 1997-2000. When I first went there, the only Spanish I could speak was numbers, uno hasta veinte, Gracias, Buenos Dias and ¡Hasta Luego! None of these with a Madrileño accent.

I worked on a project at Telefónica for a digital TV startup in the Silicon Valley. It was the American company's first project in Europe. They and I had a lot to learn besides the language. What got me through was my natural inclination to take the position of observer, being of the writing persuasion from an early age.

I was in Madrid, and at the Telefónica offices in an office park under construction, for the first two weeks by myself. I sat quietly at my desk in a side office and they forgot that I was there so I was able to watch the way the Spanish behaved with each other. They acted like a big family -- talking openly, kidding and telling jokes on each other. They laughed a lot. Always went out to lunch in groups. Shared things, even computers in those days.

They worked hard. Came in around 9:00 am and left between 7 and 8 pm, with a two hour break for lunch between 2:00 and 4:00. ¡They were on my schedule! I fell into their work pattern. Tried a couple of jokes on the ones who would speak English with me. (Almost everyone had studied English in school, but those who hadn't lived for awhile in an English speaking country were timid about trying to speak it with a stranger.)

Even after the four American engineers arrived, I was often upstairs in meetings with Telefónica or on the phone with the customs office trying to get the equipment released, rather than downstairs in the equipment room with the guys. The Telefónica crew and even the guards and secretaries adopted me, one of the American strangers, as one of their own.

This helped a lot in getting the project done and led to further work in Madrid, finally working with a Spanish company, as part of a Spanish team. And then I worked with a good part of that Spanish team for another year on a project in Germany.

It's been five years since I have had relaxation time in Madrid. This past weekend I took a break from writing work and went to stay at the home of a friend in a suburban area and then spent a couple of days in my old neighborhood, the barrio Salamanca. It was great to live en familia with C, her husband and daughter. Over the four days, I saw eight Madrileños that I knew from before, met at least as many new ones and felt welcomed by the whole city.

One of my favorite Saturday night dates, often a date with myself, was to go to the Cafe Central on the Plaza St Ana to hear jazz. When the show was over there at midnight, there was still time to catch the end of the last set down Calle Huertas at the Cafe Populart. I stopped by last Saturday night to say hello to old friends and hear a little music.

All the way 'round, it was great to be in Madrid, though, as always, the time was too short. There is a direct flight from the Toulouse to Madrid. I'm planning to go back soon.


Monday, March 14, 2011

la Tristesse dans nos Rue

A woman I admire, Claude Crespy, passed away this morning at the age of eighty. She lived just down from me here on the opposite side of rue Ferlus. We had a rendez-vous for tea last Thursday. I took her the last of the lemon bars I made from the Meyer lemons.

I had just come to know her in the quiet of last winter when I came here to hole up and write. K and M, from whom I bought this house, introduced us. They knew I was a gardener with only a container garden on the patio here and that Claude had a large garden space just down the road in the countryside. We went to her garden several times together, to pick flowers or apples and sit in the sun. I made an apple crisp for her and my other neighbors from the apples from her tree.

Claude was a highly educated single woman who had been born in this village and grown up here. Her parents used to be the proprietors of one of the small groceries here. She carried a lot of the history of the village in her heart. She had traveled and lived outside the village for awhile and spoke English quite well, once upon a time. She came back and was living in a part of the house in which she grew up.

She had a stroke a year ago November and it was tough going at first. Even though her garden is just a little over a block from her house, she would drive down there from the disabled parking space the village marked out for her here on the street, unlock the gate and hobble in using two canes to spend time there. Last Fall, she was easily fatigued and had taken to giving me the key to the garden gate so that I could stay longer when she needed to go home and lie down.

But she was looking better when I arrived this year. Her hair had been colored again and permed. She was walking more easily and getting out to see friends more often. She shared some fleurs de coing japonais, flowering quince branches, with me from her garden last week that grace the table in my study even now.

My next door neighbor, Elodie, did cleaning and grocery shopping for Claude for awhile after her stroke. It was Elodie who came by to make sure I knew about Claude this afternoon just as I was listening to this song. The music brought tears to both of our eyes as it played in the back room and we spoke of Claude.

Il vaut mieux pour elle. Elle était une femme solitaire, said Elodie. It was better for her. She was a solitary woman. She would have been very unhappy in the maison retraite retirement home with all the others, we agreed.

We already miss you, Madame Claude Crespy.
May flights of angels sing thee to thy sleep.

Baisers de la tristesse.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Citrons Atomique

I have a Meyer lemon tree at the back of my yard in California. It was a birthday gift over twelve years ago from my friend G, who knew how much I loved Meyer lemons.

I got my first taste of this extra-ordinary lemon when I moved into my California bungalow, 25! years ago it was now. (Long before the CA foodies jumped on the bandwagon.) My neighbor Gladys, who lived alone in her house after her husband died until she was 95, but has sadly passed on, had a Meyer lemon tree growing on the side of her house. My son would mow her lawn in trade for our use of her lawnmower to mow our own lawn. She always felt she needed to even out the trade by giving me some lemons from her tree.

I've had a long term fondness for lemons anyway. I think it started when I was 10. I read about Amy March in "Little Women" getting in trouble for sneaking bites of "lemon pickle" during class. My mouth started to water and I'd never even seen a pickled lemon. I tried to recreate what I though the taste would be by eating a slice of lemon with salt on it. I know your face might be crumpled up in a sour sort of way right now, but I Loved It!

Those lemons from Gladys were just the beginning of a deeper lemon addiction. The really good Meyer lemons (for me, that means the old, not "improved", variety), have a thin, glossy skin and the fruit has an orange tinge. Thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, they remind me of a kumquat in that the skin is almost sweeter than the fruit, though they are certainly not as sour inside kumquats. I like to eat them chopped into salad, peel and all. Hell, I like to eat them sliced and dipped in a little French sea salt. **My mouth is watering here. I kid you not. I have to go to the kitchen and dip a slice of lemon.**

I got my own Meyer lemon tree those twelve years ago and it lived awhile in a large pot while I tried it out in different locations to find where it would be happiest in the yard. When I finally put it in the ground there in the back corner, it took awhile to really start producing. My brother stayed with me a couple of years ago and clued me in to giving it special citrus fertilizer. This year I had about 100 lemons on my own tree. Finally a decent crop! In the intervening years I have had to beg, borrow and stea..., well, indulge in a little midnight harvesting to find sufficient Meyer lemons to quench my thirst.

When I was working and living in Madrid for a year, a CA friend shipped me a dozen Meyer lemons, put in an egg carton and then double bubble-wrapped. A work pal who was sharing my apartment over a few months dubbed them "atomic lemons" because they never went bad. He didn't realize that they had been airmailed fresh off the tree or that I was nurturing them along, washing and airing them out from time to time in order to make them last until my next trip back to CA.

When I came to France in February, I brought twelve of my own Meyer lemons with me. Last week I made a batch of lemon bars in a round pan and served it sliced as a tart au citron when I had a few people over for dinner. I also gave slices to my favorite neighbors here on Rue Ferlus. This evening, Elodie from next door stopped me and told me "La tarte au citron - un petit morceau avec une tasse de café? Impeccable! (Pronounced IM-peck-ahb-leh and said with a gourmet's twinkle in the eye and a little kiss to the fingers.) So the Meyer lemons are a hit here, too, at least when they are tarted up.

The lemon bar recipe I used was one I found on the smittenkitchen blog. It seems very reliable from my two attempts at making it and gives you the option of a thick gooey topping or a thinner one. I made it in CA in a gas oven and here in an electric, both times with stellar, if a bit different, results. I used superfine sugar and that made for a thin, meringue-type of top to the bars which meant they didn't need any powdered sugar sprinkled over them. It's a recipe that is on the tangy side. Right up my lemon lovin' alley.

Lemon puckered kisses,
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