The Long Haul to the Crab Cooker
Last August, I realized that I had reached a total shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment (apologies for the unfortunate expression) in writing my dissertation. As in, if I didn’t sit down that very minute and write the darn thing, there was no reason for me to keep pretending that I was going to finish the degree I had started when, well, if not when dinosaurs walked the earth, certainly well before my looks had faded and I turned into my current, mean old crone iteration. Appropriating the title of a rather unremarkable Asian Dub Foundation song that my college boyfriend had liked, August was declared “New Way New Life.” I woke with the sun, packed a PB&J, hauled my ass to the library, and staked out my favorite carrel. I wrote, in the great words of Cheryl Strayed, like a motherfucker. All day, every day that I wasn’t at my consulting gig.
At the end of the month, my dissertation wasn’t exactly done, but I at least had enough written that I felt I would have a fighting chance to enter the fall academic job market (snort, chortle, etc.). To half-heartedly celebrate, we decided to go to the beach in Newport for an afternoon and muck around on the jetty, known in these parts as the groin. As you well know, B positively lives for any imposing rock feature that he can scramble around on. We started out about an hour before sunset, easily making our way out on the initial stretch. Close to the shore, the boulders are tight against one another, making it easy to jump from one to the next. But it’s a really, really long jetty, you guys, and as you get further out, it becomes increasingly tougher going. In a grand tradition of bad footwear decisions, I was wearing sandals and found it difficult to keep my footing on the boulders, many of which were now slick with water from the rising tide and the waves crashing against the Balboa side. Lest you think I’m kidding about the size of these waves, take a quick Google of The Wedge. It was cold, I was miserable, but we just kept going. And going. And going.
As we neared the end, we started to reach groups of fishermen, many of whom make their living by fishing daily off the groin. It was of course mortifying to watch their nimble negotiation of the jetty rocks, as I flailed and slipped and scraped my hands. Nearing the end, I made my way over a particularly gnarly stretch only to find myself suddenly face-to-face with the bloated corpses of two big manta rays, likely abandoned by a bewildered amateur fisherman days or weeks earlier. They stunk to high heaven, and I was so startled that I actually screamed when I saw their putrid, cloudy grey eyes.
I thought, of course, of this:
The whole trip had taken on a totally manic quality by that point, and I was psychically overcome with fear as we neared the furthest reaches of the jetty. Fear that if I didn’t go all the way that B would be angry and disappointed in me, fear that we wouldn’t have enough light to navigate our way all the way back to the beach, fear that the tide would come in even higher and that I would slip and fall to my death. Fear, quite frankly, that I had reached some kind of turning point in my life where all of my good luck had run out and the darkness was descending. As we reached the lighthouse—rank with fish guts and littered with trash and used condoms—B awkwardly attempted to stage a romantic moment, putting his arm around me as the wind whipped through our hair. The stench was overpowering, and I choked back fear-or-fish-smell induced vomit, smiled weakly, and said, “Great, we’re halfway there.”
Yet somehow—and this I knew from years of hiking—the turn-around point is never really halfway. It’s actually much farther along. I found myself suddenly more agile on the rocks, deftly jumping over those dead mantas and nodding happily at the disinterested fishermen. B and I began to chat, and in this direction, we weren’t just talking about the best trajectory or how miserable I was. “You’re taking me to the Crab Cooker tonight,” I declared, “and I’m getting a cold beer and entire Dungeness all to myself.” B, who was likely amazed that I hadn’t chickened out much earlier, eagerly agreed to my terms. We jokingly began to compare climbing Newport jetty to the process of writing a dissertation. “Where are you in the writing now?” he asked. “Here!” I announced, just as we reached the final section where the boulders were suddenly closer together, smooth from the many casual feet that had only ventured this far. The beach was close, and I could practically taste my crab.
The Crab Cooker, for those of you not in the know, is a Balboa Peninsula institution that opened in 1951. I suspected it was a landmark of sorts when I first arrived in Orange County back in the dark ages, as my teenage guilty-pleasure show The OC had featured a thinly veiled “Crab Shack” in many episodes. The Crab Cooker is a small seafood market and a bigger restaurant, and it’s one of those remarkable places that just keeps doing the thing that they do well, year after year, paper plate after paper plate. Nothing is fancy, and the sides are pleasantly retro, but if you want a cup of soul-soothing clam chowder, some deep-fried soft shells, or a skewer of some of the plumpest scallops you’ll ever eat, this is the place. It’s touristy, and there is often a long wait, so we don’t go very often. But, I’ll tell you what, nothing has ever tasted as good as my cold Bud and my Dungeness crab did that night after we climbed the jetty.
If you’ll continue to humor this entry’s odd metaphor for a moment, I’ll confide to you that I was of course not even remotely as close to the finish line as I thought I was that night. Sadly, I was probably only at my first glimpse of the dead manta rays, nauseous with fear and still twenty yards from the lighthouse turn-around point. I still had to spend months searching endlessly for jobs, sick with worry like clockwork every morning at four a.m. I still had months of near-misses on dream gigs, punctuated by stomach-churning rejection letters from schools in places like Pocatello, Idaho (no offense). It was a real fish-gut-and-old-condom kind of experience, if I’m being totally honest. I still had another New Way New Life period in store for three weeks this spring, days where I battened down the hatches, snarled at anyone who came near my carrel, and wrote an introduction and a last-minute chapter. I wrote again, dear reader, like a motherfucker.
I’m happy to tell you that I have finally reached those smooth, evenly-set boulders. I sent my full dissertation to my committee a few weeks ago, and now I am just waiting for their scrawls of approval on my filing form. I have a bit of work to do—some copyediting, a bit of shuffling, a few citations. But I’m almost there. I think I’ll skip the climbing the jetty again and stick with the most delicious part of my reified analogy. I think you know where I’ll be going to dinner the night I officially file this damn thing. I’ll keep you posted.
Hipsters in Space!
Penned inside this enclosed microcosm in which everybody knows everybody, condemned without the possibility of escape or relief to live with others, beneath the gaze of others every individual experiences deep anxiety about ‘people’s words.’
– Pierre Bourdieu, “Différences et distinctions” 1966.
It’s strange to return to your blog’s statistics page after months of inactivity, especially when you discover all the myriad ways people arrive at your site while you are busy ignoring it. A lot of people arrive here searching for Aperol, Pasolini, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, Picasso in his marinière, and—a wee bit puzzlingly—piñata sex. But however they arrive, I’ll take it. Today somebody got here from a Paris-based wine blog’s entry about Breizh Café written in the spring of last year. My Hungerdome regarding some local crêperies received one of links in this oenophile’s annotated bibliography on the subject, which reads as follows:
A 2008 piece on Breizh Café @ DavidLebovitz, containing the benign authorial blunder of complaining about hipsters (really? in the Marais? how hip? hipster complaints invariably demonstrate an anxiety about cool equal to or greater than that which the author purports to disdain in those about whom he is complaining)
A recent comparison of Breizh Café and West Country Girl @ LesBonsBonsdesRaisons, unfortunately written in the voice of a 9-year-old game show host. (It also contains complaints about Marais hipsters. It’s like people walk into the Marais and turn into frowning Mormons, or something.)
Wow! This is a series of amazing firsts for me. First off, David Lebovitz is an unofficial deity among Paris food writers, so this is surely the first time anyone has ever voluntarily mentioned anything I’ve written and anything he’s done in the same breath. Secondly, I can’t say that I’ve ever been likened to 9-year-old game show host OR a frowning Mormon, much less in the same paragraph. I’m pleased, however, to finally have such a canny explanation for the deep lines that mysteriously arrived on my forehead during the two years I lived in the Marais (though admittedly not in the “nicer more genteel” neighborhood surrounding Breizh but rather smack dab in across the street from that shower show). It’s from anxiously scowling at all those goshdarn hipsters day in and day out! Thank goodness that Pierre has come back from the grave to diagnose old David and me!
Obviously I’m showing my thin skin here, but this did feel rather like being inexplicably kicked by a stranger on a crowded subway car. I recognize the impulse to link to other better-trafficked blogs of niche celebrities like Lebovitz, Clotilde Dusoulier, or Deb Perelman in an attempt to drum up traffic for one’s own writing, but I’m genuinely bewildered why someone would be compelled to shit on my unobtrusive and mostly uninhabited corner of the internet. Aren’t there bigger fish to fry? I guess there isn’t much more to say about it besides that, but it left a nasty taste in my mouth all afternoon.
Cockroaches of the Sea
Ugh, what a mess we are over here at the ranch. B admirably fought off my vicious übervirus for nearly two months, no small feat given our four foot square apartment and our luxurious two star hotels in Portugal: “Hey! Is that your foot or the shower head?!” But he has finally succumbed to the beast. Our home has turned into a contest as to who can cough the loudest. He’s trying his best, but his weakling four-day-old cold is absolutely no match for my mature demon. Having completely exhausted my supply of mucus and lung tissue, I’ve begun coughing up lost elementary school biology papers, pieces of swallowed gum, and lead paint I chipped off a desk and ate when I was seven years old. I’m digging deep, dear reader.
I must be a seriously miserable sick person to live with. I spend most of my time surfing the web, looking for alternative diagnoses, and coming to the conclusion that my swollen lymph nodes actually indicate that I have tuberculosis and spleen cancer. I inherited this charming case of hypochondria from my mother, who once concluded from an errant lab result and an afternoon spent on Web MD that she had early onset Alzheimer’s, which she announced to me right before we attended a production of Madame Butterfly. Fortunately, you are allowed to sob through the opera. Needless to say, she didn’t have Alzheimer’s, nor do I have tuberculosis or spleen cancer. The internet is an ugly place for people of our disposition. Let’s just say that B has begun to lose his patience with sentences that begin with “According to Wikipedia, gallbladder failure begins with a faint sense of doom…”
Yet despite our cacophony of coughs and my rabid internet-fueled death fears, we had a pretty lovely Valentine’s Day, if you happen to care. I know you didn’t ask about my Valentine’s Day, and barf to hearing about other people’s romantic holidays, am I right? But one particularly cool thing transpired, namely that B bought and killed his first live lobster! I guess sometime in the past six months I said that the most romantic thing I could think of was someone making me lobster bisque from scratch. I don’t even remember saying it—I have a brain like a sieve for anything other than pop song lyrics—but B remembered my weird little request and filed it away, likely on an Excel spreadsheet that he maintains for this very purpose. On Monday, he left work and tracked down this amazing creature:
I was still teaching rather late into the evening, a rather brutal graduate class I’ve been assigned in the school of education in which my students are twice my age and seem to arbitrarily resent about half of the things I tell them about the English language. Still, a steady stream of text messages from home kept me duly entertained:
Success! That fishmonger on Rivoli had a lively selection. What a beautiful boy!
He’s watching me chop the vegetables for the bisque! A great kitchen companion!
Can I touch it!? YES! [If this doesn’t ring a bell, scurry over here immediately and promptly make your own day.]
Goodbye my lobster friend!
OMG escape attempt! Thwarted!
OMG, he actually changed colors!! Why didn’t we charge the camera! Can I use the photobooth on your computer??
OMG, HE is a SHE! EGG SACK!
I came home to Sade and Stevie Wonder on the stereo, a perfect bouquet of orange tulips, a box of fancy chocolates, and fragments of lobster shell mysteriously shellacked to the walls of our kitchen. The bisque itself was a labor-intensive, resounding success. I often describe things as “sex on toast” (no idea where I got that one), but this was even better. It was like sex on a fresh blini. Always a stickler for the correct word, B explained that it less of a bisque and more of a chowder, as he decided to submerge a half-lobster’s worth of meat in each bowl upon serving (insert heaving sounds of joy here). He cobbled together his masterpiece from a mixture of French and English recipes, so I’ll try and convince him to give me the recipe to post here. There really is nothing like the slaying of a live animal to really let your lover know you care.
On Monday B and I went to the Préfecture du Police in an attempt to renew our paperwork so that we can continue legally living and working in France. Because, uh, it’s kind of unclear as to whether or not we are currently legal, a state of affairs that is strikingly reminiscent of the first three hazy months I spent in France. It was a dark time. I didn’t have hot water or internet or a bank account with money in it or real friends just yet, so I spent most of my time eating falafel and shivering next to my radiator. I had been told that renewing my contract and my visa would be a snap compared to last year. I should have seen this headache coming, but somehow in the halcyon days of summer it didn’t seem like anything could possibly go wrong.
Somehow, however, papers managed to not get filed by my employer to reauthorize me to work in France. I’m not blaming anyone, though I do suspect that the bug-eyed woman at my university who is supposed to be handling our affairs with the office of immigration might have slacked off a bit this summer. This woman has made an art form out of plaintively blinking and stammering. She’s an expert in this peculiarly French office-drone trick of passing the buck, usually down the hall to her unsuspecting colleagues. I guess that person exists in every office, in every corner of the world, but somehow it never makes you feel any better to know that when someone drops the ball and suddenly phrases like “You’re not getting paid!” and “You might be deported!” start getting tossed about. So I’m waiting, nervously, for a renewal of my “authorisation du travail” (work visa), so that my “carte de sejour” (life visa?) might also be renewed, so nobody can use my name and “deported” in the same sentence for a while.
“Visa” is a problematic term here, as is “carte de sejour,” “titre de sejour,” and “authorisation du travail.” I apparently have anywhere between one and all four of those, though I don’t actually have in my possession anything that is actually titled as such. So it’s difficult to say what paperwork needs to be filled out for renewal. I have no idea what that paperwork is actually called, and neither do the French people. There were some reforms made sometime recently, reforms that were supposed to make the process easier for people like us. You know, people who are only here for a limited period of time and make the equivalent of six sesame seeds in wages ever month. Apparently not everyone in the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that deals with foreigners has been alerted to these reforms, however, so the process that one goes through for renewal is decidedly unclear.
There are many of expat blogs devoted to bitching about French bureaucracy, which is admittedly Byzantine. If I could write a novel about it and make a million bucks I totally would, but I think that has already been done six hundred times or so. It hasn’t been that bad, not by a long shot, and I feel guilty when I bitch about the number of hours I’ve logged at various offices around town and seemingly millions of copies I’ve made for various applications that seem to go nowhere. Obviously, most foreigners that find themselves trying to work in countries like France and the United States have a much more difficult time than I do, which is why you shouldn’t be interested in my kvetching (and also why you should give Stephen Colbert a big giant round of applause for his recent testimony before Congress, the final moments of which we watch on a near-hourly basis).
So anyway, we went to the Préfecture on Monday with everything from our electric bill to x-rays of our lungs, all in triplicate, so that we might have the opportunity to continue teaching the youth of France outdated American idioms for another year. Oh, yeah, and so that I can also continue going to restaurants and taking pictures of things I eat and sharing them with you here. Let me tell you what, going to the Préfecture sucks. It’s the place where Marie Antoinette crashed the night before she hit the guillotine, people. To say that it has a lousy vibe would be the understatement of the year. After being nearly strip-searched at the entrance, you go into the special area for renewals. The smell of nervous foreigner body odor hits you like a wall when you walk in. You take a number, hope for a chair, and then wait for what feels like sixteen years, only so you can be told that you don’t have all the paperwork you need (even though you’ve brought everything on all seven different lists from four different websites that you’ve managed to get your hands on). They’ll give you what’s called a “recipisse,” which is basically a document with a stamp on it that certifies that you are indeed jumping through all the hoops that are being set in front of you, and this is apparently enough to keep working and living in France, that is, until you get your mother’s cousin’s birth certificate and your dead dog’s immunization records and return for another round in two months. It’s awful.
Despite having strictly-worded appointment times, B and I had to wait three hours to speak with our immigration officer. B, his usual cool-as-a-cucumber self, quietly read poetry and examined the maps on the walls. I sweated through my shirt, agonized about how I had filled out my forms, tapped my foot, and picked the cuticles on my thumbs until they bled. I had to pee about an hour in to the wait, but I was terrified that my number would be called if I went to the bathroom and they would deport me for my transgression. After another hour of fantasizing that I would actually wet myself when I sat down with my application, I finally decided it was worth the risk and went to the ladies room.
The bathrooms were horribly bleak, with no toilet seats and crusty door locks. The sink was a long, trough-like apparatus, with cold water and soap that smelled of ammonia. As I was washing my hands, I glanced down at the drain and saw a trail of blood that led to a cream-colored object. Horrified, I examined it more closely and discovered that someone had left a bloody tooth in the sink at the Préfecture. And not just a baby tooth or a little chip of a filling either – a huge, ghastly-looking molar with long bloody roots still attached. I gasped and redirected the steam of water so that I could turn it over and get a better look at it. I was so aghast that I almost went to get B so that he could see it.
What the hell happened there? I could just imagine some poor woman pulling out her own tooth, abandoning it, and then returning to the waiting room so she wouldn’t be deported, perhaps with a wad of toilet paper stuffed in the oozing socket. Can I admit something to you? I have to say that tooth kind of made me feel better about my day. I mean, no matter how bad things got for me from that moment forward, I wasn’t having the worst day possible. Not even close. Not by a long shot. I was practically relieved when I was told by the immigration official that my file was incomplete and that I would have to return again in two months. Paperwork! Paperwork is easy compared to extracting your own tooth in a dirty public restroom!
Anyway, I haven’t felt like I’ve had much to write about lately, but I knew I’d have to tell you about that tooth. Man, I wish I’d had my camera, though there were enough complaints about the cyst-popping video thing that I suppose that the really abject stuff isn’t what you really go for, dear reader. On the off chance that you are the one person reading this blog that really does go for the gross stuff, I’d love to direct you to my newest obsession: ear-wax extraction videos. There are lots of different kinds, but I like the medical ones where you actually go inside the person’s ear canal with some kind of amazing little camera and watch as whole giant slabs of crud are pulled out with tweezers, revealing the shiny clean eardrum beneath. The best part is when the person with the earwax clod goes “OH WOW!” because they can suddenly hear for the first time in like six years. They do it every time. There’s something comforting about that.
Developments, both happy and stupid
“What happened to you?” all six of you may be asking. I was doing so well, what with those ten thousand word accounts of my vacation that nobody was reading. I jest, of course. My mom and dad were reading them. I’m a real hit with my parents. I was really in the groove with this blogging thing. Then a few things happened that took me away from this little site, some happy and some stupid.
I’ll start with the happy: B moved in to my apartment. I don’t know what I was anxious to tell my family and friends about this development. My parents are old hippies that lived together for the better part of a decade before getting married, so I probably should have anticipated that they would regard this as good news. Half my friends are living in sin, for reasons that range from the deeply romantic to the flatly economic. Yet I still anticipated a chorus of “It’s too soon!” and “Young people these days move in together far too early!” and something about cows and milk and my rapidly degenerating looks. Well, either my looks have already degenerated to the place that everybody thinks I should just take whatever I can get, or B is actually a really terrific guy, because everyone I’ve told about this news has been nothing but congratulatory.
I’ll admit that it’s kind of a big deal for me, as I’ve never lived with anyone before. In fact, in the five years I’ve been living alone, I’ve been the poster child of judgment towards those who rush to cohabitation, projecting all my own fears onto the happy couples around me. Fun, right? To be honest, most of my previous relationships led me to assume that living with someone was going to be a huge pain in the ass. A lot of my relationships were with guys that owned giant Jagermeister posters and left Coors Light cans and dirty dishes around the house, the kind of men who looked at an empty garage or dining room and thought “What a perfect space for a beer pong table!” It had genuinely never occurred to me that living with someone could actually make my life better, or easier, or simply more fun. Living with B does all of those things.
One thing that is especially strange for me is that having him around 24/7 doesn’t annoy me. He left for a few days earlier this week and I spent the whole time moping around my apartment. I’ve realized that I actually like it much better when he is around than when he isn’t, something that might make anyone who has known me for a long time gasp. We’ve been having a really great time getting everything set up for the two of us, including purchasing a giant poster for our bedroom that reads “Après le fait, mais avant le déluge.” Cohabitation is awesome, people.
Now for the stupid stuff. First of all, I decided in B’s brief absence to do one of these juice/raw food detox things that I’m constantly reading about on the internets. I chose the one that Gwyneth Paltrow did on her lifestyle blog GOOP, which I read with rapt fascination week after week. Feel free to strip me of my intellectual street cred immediately. Anyway, it’s basically no red meat, alcohol, sugar, dairy, caffeine, shellfish, wheat products, and nothing in the nightshade family. Basically everything that comprises my totally hedonistic diet. I’d been having some lingering health problems that I won’t bore you with and I hoped that it would help me feel better. The good news: it did! The bad news: I would kill myself if I had to eat like for more than a week. All I could think about was my next disappointing meal. I literally spent the whole week fantasizing about the things I couldn’t eat, to the point where B actually came home to find me rolling around on the couch in a fugue state muttering “pizza.” Anyway, now I’m trying to exercise this horrible thing called “moderation,” which means that I haven’t really been going out to eat very much, given that the French philosophy of cooking tends toward adding more butter until delicious. We’ve also figured out though the process of elimination that I may have developed a late-life allergy to raw tomato skin, a realization that has sent me into a blithering state of mourning for BLTs and caprese salad. At the same time, I’m glad it isn’t something else and better, like cheese or cured meat or booze.
The other stupid thing: I fell down the stairs. I knew that this would happen eventually, what with the three flights of steep, slippery, uneven stairs that I pound up and down daily and my lifelong penchant for clumsiness. I could actually do an entire feature on the stupid injuries I’ve incurred over my lifetime. But I really nailed the stairs when it finally happened. I hadn’t seen B in a few days and was off to meet him at his old apartment. I had bought him a jar of tartufo (white truffle paste) as a gift, which I had in a bag in one hand, I wasn’t holding the railing because I was fumbling with my iPod with the other hand as I began running down the stairs, which happened to be wet because it was raining and my neighbor’s dog is like an animate sponge. I promptly slipped on the top stair and tumbled down an entire flight of twenty stairs, somehow managing to make it around a curve and crashing headfirst into my downstairs neighbor’s front door. I screamed the entire way down, so everyone in my building rushed out of their apartments to see what had happened. While I was really quite hurt, I was so mortified at the small crowd of concerned French people examining my crumpled limbs that I couldn’t do anything but aggressively apologize for the noise. One of my neighbors is apparently a doctor, and he looked me over in case I had a concussion (I bashed my head twice). The biggest casualties seemed to be my now black-and-blue ass, which took a significant percentage of the stairs, and my right arm, which looks like it received an Indian burn from Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1984. My left arm was miraculously unscathed, as I somehow managed to hold it high in the air as I fell so that I wouldn’t break the jar of tartufo. Yes, I’ll go ahead and say it for you: my priorities are probably pretty warped if I managed to protect a jar of mushroom paste over my skull.
I’ve effectively been a rickety mess since I fell, as everything seems to hurt and I’m nothing if not an excellent complainer. I’ve also been enjoying far too much the reaction that strangers have to my terrifying bruises. B and I were at the vegetable market yesterday and I noticed the cashier gawking at my arm as I handed him a bag of lettuce. The cashier immediately shot a hateful gaze at B, who smiled uncomfortably, unaware of his sudden interpellation as an abuser. I almost cracked up. B has since been enjoying telling people that I “fell down the stairs” in scare quotes. Domestic abuse isn’t funny, of course, but it’s helped to lighten the mood while I look like a human punching bag.
Anyway, sorry for being a slacker the past week. There will be new food-related content in the next few weeks, including the inaugural entry in a series called HUNGERDOME (two restaurants enter, one restaurant leaves!). See you soon!