Week Twenty-Six in France: Jell-O shots and BA's camo brownies
14/03/2020: When spirits need cheering up, turn to cheese. The whole family gathered around the table this afternoon for a stick-to-your-bones raclette, potatoes, charcuterie, olives and all, and I sound like a broken record, but I couldn't help but smile at the little community I've stumbled upon here in Brunstatt. The feeling continued that evening when we fully (and looking back, shamefully) broke social distancing rules to celebrate St. Patty's Day with all 15 of our Mulhouser friends. I think somehow, the seriousness hadn't yet hit, and we justified it by saying, "None of us are sick! At least we didn't go out to a bar!" Knowing what we know now, I take full responsibility for the, well, irresponsibility, but I'm nonetheless grateful that I got to see all the people I've come to love in one place for the last time, maybe ever. The party was raucous and happy, complete with soda bread, my Guinness chocolate cake with cream cheese icing (a huge hit), and our homemade green and orange Jell-O shots, sans Jell-O (not such a hit...). We played hilarious games and collapsed into laughter before we all fell silent while we listened to our friend play her harp that she'd brought. The haunting and unique music had us all – or at least me – almost in tears as I looked around at all of the wonderful, funny, kind, friendly people I'd met in France, my heart swelling with gratitude.
15/03/2020: In another episode of finality, we headed to what would be our last Sunday lunch at J.'s dad's house for a long time. Luckily, it was a fan favorite, brandade de morue (salted cod with crispy potatoes, cream and parsley, in case you forgot), and we spent the whole afternoon enjoying the sunshine on the terrace, swapping stories and, somewhat inexplicably, showing off vintage porno magazines and precious gems. On the way home, I talked to my mom, who reassured me that I was doing the right thing by staying in France against Fulbright's recommendation and in the face of an impending lockdown. I don't want to put her at risk in Philly; I'm in a safe place; I have people to take care of me if I need; I have a source of income and a visa from TAPIF, and I know thing's are going to be just as bad in the U.S. in no time. That afternoon, a sunny dog walk in the countryside almost, just almost made the rest of the world disappear.
17/03/2020: Ça y est, the lockdown has arrived. We are no longer allowed to leave the house except for essential shopping, doctor's visits and some exercise, and we need to show a paper (an attestation) to the police to prove why we were outside. This felt so far away when it was happening in China and even Italy, and it's still somewhat hard to believe that it's here in France. I'm nervous and I'm more than a little scared of the unprecedented, the unknown, but thankfully I couldn't feel safer in my little nook in Brunstatt. This morning, I ventured outside for my stressful quarantine grocery shop, which turned into a two-and-a-half hour ordeal, what with the line outside (they were letting people in one at a time), the million things on my list, and the hour spent waiting for an open cashier. I know I have it much easier than many others, including those caissières who were so patient with me, so I'll cut down on the complaining. First thing's first when I arrived home with my five bursting bags, a big pot of potato leek soup. Easy, flavorful, with several servings to last me the whole week – a no brainer. This time, I remember to peel the potatoes in a haze of calming, monotonous movements and the soup turns out perfectly, especially with a handful of crispy croutons and a swirl of crème fraîche on top.
18/03/2020: The cooking frenzy continued with a breakfast French toast bake (I riffed on the Pioneer Woman's recipe, with fluffy brioche, milk, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla and a sprinkling of cassonade sugar on top). My grandmom always used to make delicious bread pudding, and this recipe reminded me that maybe that should be my next feat... J., his sister C. and I dug in to the crunchy-on-top, custardy-on-the-bottom brunch, complete with plenty of maple syrup and raspberry sauce for extra (yes, extra!) sweetness. Homemade guacamole with cherry tomatoes was on the menu for lunchtime, which J. and I ate on salty tortilla chips while vegging out and bingeing Blacklist, because what else are we supposed to do during lockdown? Sticking with my meticulous meal plan (to reduce food waste), I decided to forgo a fancy recipe and make chicken coconut milk curry with peas for dinner – so tasty, it almost made me forget how much I miss takeout.
God, feeding other people makes me feel good.
I haven't yet tried a "What'sApéro" or a Zoom happy hour, but my group chat with all the Mulhousers managed to bring a huge smile to my face tonight. We've decided to do little challenges to help pass the time and stay close with each other, seeing as we're scattered all over France, Germany and the U.K. Tonight's challenge? Create a drawing of someone else in the group. My artistic skills are far from exceptional, but at least mine made everyone laugh, and I get to keep my friend I.'s stunning sketch of me in my ubiquitous pink beanie!
19/03/2020: Following a meal plan not only helps you use up all the food you (I...) panic bought, but it also helps structure days that inherently have no structure at all. Today, after some leftover soup for lunch, J. and I made homemade bolognese and pasta and ate together as the sun set and the kitchen was bathed in a gorgeous pink light. It wouldn't be a good quarantine without some ambitious baking projects, so I set off on making Bon Appétit magazine's camo cream cheese brownies, a stunning and labor-intensive work of art that also tasted pretty damn good. I went a little overboard on the salt in the cream cheese topping, and the espresso powder was a tad bitter in certain bites, but I'm proud of these fudgy squares and glad I got to share them with the family. They've been so good to me, letting me eat with them whenever I'd like and offering advice whenever I need it, that I like to bring some small sweet offerings with me downstairs whenever I can.
20/03/2020: The news broke this week that the CDC has issued a Level 4 travel warning, the highest possible, warning Americans against all international travel. Anxious predictions and worries swarmed the group chat of Fulbrighters who'd chosen to stay in France after the last email. In the case of a mandatory evacuation, would we still be able to keep our grant money and alumni status? Would they hold that over our heads to make us go home? I started to doubt myself, even though all of the reasons to stay haven't gone anywhere and I still didn't want to risk transcontinental travel in the slightest. I breathed a big sigh of relief today when Fulbright let us know that, although the program was cancelled, I would still receive my stipends and my status, even if I chose to stay. What a weight off my shoulders to be able to make that intensely personal decision myself. While I don't know what things will look like in several months, I have no desire to leave France and my little home I've found here. I want to wait it out, help with online teaching when I can, and remain in the place where I feel the most myself. I received plenty of encouragement and delicious homemade pizza from the family that night, which only made me more resolute in my choice.
I'm not going anywhere.