Aug 24 2010

Let Them Eat Cake in a Bag

Summer is when routines get interrupted. The daily grind of getting little girls to school is suspended. The constant rigor of a weekly schedule is relaxed. Bedtime is fudged, partly because in France the sun sets so impossibly late during the months before and after the summer solstice that the kids won’t believe that it’s time to go to sleep. Mornings, for the most part, are easy going: we wake up when we wake up. De-facto and I have very little work. Only our uncivilized American clients schedule projects in July or August and we do our best to minimize our participation in such gainful activity when it’s summertime.

Yet within our routine-less summer we quickly develop routines. I go to Pamplona every July. Then I join De-facto and the girls at the country house for the rest of the month. We return home to catch up with our on-line lives, take advantage of the Plage and the quiet of Paris in August. The real truth: we come home so we don’t miss out (too much) on what has become a big routine in our building: the infamous courtyard lunches.

Most of the owners and tenants go away for most of the summer, and those who stay are congenial or at least cooperative and don’t mind that nearly every other weekend, it seems, Ricky and Lucy host a courtyard lunch. Their apartment opens directly on to the courtyard, and their adjustable table is easily moved outside and strategically positioned near the stone wall of a raised flower bed, making for extra seats to compensate for their lack of chairs. Ricky is the most expressive cook among us and happily carries the burden of providing eats. He can do things with tomatoes and olive oil that would drive any foodie to brink of ecstasy.

There’s nothing as pleasant as those very first moments, when people arrive: Ricky sweats over hot burners in his kitchen, stepping out to the courtyard and greeting guests with a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. A glass of something, usually bubbly, is thrust into your hand and then one by one, plates appear on the table with delicate combinations of Mediterranean ingredients. There’s always a little surprise: mint replaces the basil on a tomato bruschetta, a spoon of virgin olive oil teases the essence out of the canteloupe. These intriguing flavor blends generate no shortage of oohs and ahhhs around the courtyard table.

The champagne – though this past weekend the aperitif was a watermelon cocktail with a vodka kick, and then we had champagne – is eventually replaced by wine, often rosé in color, and this flows steadily. Just when we think Ricky has fed us already too well, he’ll produce a risotto or something with seasoning and ballast that nobody has room for but nobody dares to miss. It’ll be too good.

Neighbors who pass through the courtyard on their way in are spontaneously invited to join us. Those on their way out are inspired to return, and often do after stopping at a local wine seller to contribute to the table. In this fashion, the lunch that starts at 1:30 or 2:00 often bleeds into the evening; sometime around 8:30 or 9:00 Ricky disappears again into his magic kitchenette and produces some kind of pasta concoction, a bit of sustenance – or absorption if you like – to carry on.

It’s rare that a courtyard lunch finishes before midnight.

While all this is going on, our children are not totally forgotten. When she’s not dancing around the courtyard, Short-pants plays waitress and has been known to carry around a sign that says “Please give me some work to do.” Buddy-roo hides out in the bedroom loft, watching consecutive Barbie movies that she’s only allowed to watch one-at-a-time, once-a-day under normal circumstances. Sometimes that big doll makes an appearance and everybody groans but she keeps the girls occupied and this is only one of many reasons that I have not yet found a way to make her disappear from our lives.

There is a moment, however, that marks the true spirit of the courtyard lunch. It’s around 5:00 in the afternoon when the oven begins to emit the most remarkable aroma, a sweeter-than-anything-your-grandmother-ever-baked perfume that makes everyone stop their bantering and storytelling. Hush Sweet Jesus the toaster oven is on bake. We all turn to Lucy. She nods her head affirmatively – smugly in fact – and the courtyard erupts into cheers, “Cake in a Bag!”

Of course Ricky’s culinary prowess is admired and appreciated – even lauded. His effort is the cornerstone of courtyard lunches. But Cake in a Bag, it’s too divine to describe. Lucy makes it all seem so…effortless. After all, it is: open the bag, pour in the pan (okay, and add her secret ingredients) and bake.

Ricky sighs, shakes his head, throws the dirty linen tea towel over his shoulder and shuffles into the kitchen to brood. But his theatrics last only for a moment before he returns to the fold of his friends and he is once again in the routine of the charming host, offering us more wine or a strong shot of espresso. He always comes back, and sometimes he’ll even eat a piece of cake.

If there’s any left.

Aug 9 2009

Fine Art

If you liked the painting of our courtyard featured in the previous post, then you should know it’s painted by a friend of mine who’s an artist – my singing, painting, writing, wondering, wandering and wonderful friend, Caroline. You can see and learn more about her artwork here.
She used to live in Paris but she moved away more than a year ago. I miss her terribly.

She’s a professional vagabond these days; traveling across the United States with her clever, cool and very funny “I really love zees guy” film-making husband.

Nobody knows where they’ll end up. San Francisco? New York? But wherever and whenever, I’m certain she’ll collect her painting supplies. She does accept projects on commission (and can work from a photograph) and more than a few of my friends are thrilled with the portraits she’s painted. Ricky is one of her patrons; she’s done at least three paintings for him.

So, just a suggestion: bookmark her website for future reference, in case you ever want to present a unique and artistic gift to someone you love.

Aug 8 2009

If the Shoe Fits

After a long and painfully quiet spell, life has returned to the courtyard of our building. That’s because Ricky and Lucy have returned, finally, from their extended (remember, they live in France) summer vacation, which gave us a perfect reason to pull together one of our semi-spontaneous courtyard dinner parties.
Paris is known for its hidden, enchanted courtyards, and the one in our building is especially sweet. Sometimes when I open the door to the street, passers-by get a peek at the casually manicured foliage within, craning their necks to see more before the hefty door closes. The perimeter is lined with leafy plants and bushes. Flowers bloom in a charming sequence over the course of the summer. A small tree – though big enough for young children to climb – stands stoically in the center, offering adequate shade at high ten a.m. but otherwise letting specks of sunlight dance on the cobblestone surface below.

Ricky and Lucy’s door opens right on to the courtyard, so weather permitting, they can move their dining table outside (well, Ricky moves it while Lucy reminds him not to scratch it) and with a few odd chairs set around it, and some candles and wine glasses, we’re dining al fresco. And get this – after Ricky carries the wide, heavy table through the 18th century-sized European door, he turns around, dons his apron and throws together some gastronomic-quality eats.

“We haven’t got that much food,” he said when he phoned to say they were home. “Don’t worry,” I told him, “we’ll bring down our leftovers.” Of course, when I looked at what was left in the fridge, it was pretty lean. Some cold pasta with chorizo. A cucumber. Half a bag of salad greens. Not much, but it’d do. They were just getting home from their holidays and we were just getting ready to leave; everyone would be forgiving.

We traipsed down – en famille – four flights of stairs to the courtyard to find Ricky had laid out a table that looked ready for a Gourmet magazine photographer. Dollops of tuna fish with capers on tiny cucumber pillows, yellow peppers tossed in olive oil and spices, prosciutto folded around slices of dried mango with toasted pine nuts on top. A little while later, our leftover pasta – after a makeover with his fresh green herbs – got passed around and tasted like a whole new dish.

We sipped chilled rosé and traded stories. Short-pants and Buddy-roo occupied themselves running between the courtyard and Ricky and Lucy’s studio, playing hide-n-seek or acting out some scene from a favorite movie. Until it got quiet – a little too quiet. Just as we were debating who would get up to go see what kind of trouble they were in, the curtain on the closet opened and out came Buddy-roo, shuffling along in a pair of Lucy’s high-heeled shoes.

“Those are great ones,” Lucy said, “the rubies make them way-fancy while the comfortable heel makes it easy for you party all night long.” Her commentary easily giving Monolo the Shoeblogger a run for his money. Buddy-roo fell immediately into runway form, turning and giving us a view of all sides of the shoes before shuffling back toward the closet.
Short-pants appeared to replace her, her too-small feet skating forward in a pair of shoes.

“Oh those,” Lucy fell right in sync with the girls, inventing her commentary for this fashion show on the spot. “My favorite little Italian sandals. Toes are totally revealed. The strap in the back makes the ankle look thinner. And check out that heel. Not too high, but very sassy. Plus the color – so rosy, it turns any outfit into something sexy.”

Lucy was on a roll, so the girls kept parading out in her shoes. Buddy-roo slid forward in black patent leather pumps. “Oh,” sighed Lucy, “these are god’s gift to womankind. A partnership between Cole Haan – think brazen and chic – and Nike Air – think comfortable sneakers. In these black beauties, you look elegantly at ease from day to night.”

“Give us a Dorothy,” I called out, like a heckler. Short-pants twisted one of her big toes, turning the foot to the side, just like Dorothy showing off her ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz.

De-facto shot me an amused look as if to say what are you teaching them?
Buddy-roo peeked out of the closet and paraded toward the door in a pair of shiny silver sandals. “Ho shoes,” said Lucy, “they’re like, come hither. There is only one reason to wear these gems.”

Buddy-roo looked up at her. “Really? What reason?”

“Never mind,” said Lucy, realizing where she was headed. I almost nazed my wine.

“More peppers, anyone?” said Ricky.

It’s so nice to have our courtyard back to normal.