jeudi 20 mai 2010

Other towns and cities

Those of you who read my last post will know that I'm looking for a place of my own. It seems the right time then to tell you all about my first experience living in a shared flat. At the end of 2004, unsure of my direction in life, I took a job in an international school as an Economics teacher in Aix-en-Provence, regardless of the fact that it only involved seven hours of work a week and was far away from anyone I knew in France. Arriving at the futuristic TGV station, still bleary eyed from the early morning train ride, I caught sight of the majestic Mont St. Victoire rising up on the horizon as I travelled into the centre on the shuttle bus. Aix is extremely pretty with little parks dotted all around where old men play boules and sit on park benches accompanied by the delicate song of fountains. In spite of that, I failed to appreciate my time there because I felt so absolutely alone. Although I'd managed to convince the directrice of the school that I was more than qualified to teach economics, having done it as one of my A levels, I was well aware of being embaressingly hopeless when it came to my classes. Basically, anything with numbers or equations makes me want to run away screaming and just the whole concept of elasticity was enough to make me feel like bursting into tears. Things might not have seemed so bad if I'd had somewhere permanent to live. Every day I'd spend hours in Internet cafés looking for a place but it didn't work out so I ended up staying in hotels. One was rather seedy on the other side of town and the other was close to the centre, nicer and with a friendly receptionist who advised me to try temping agencies like she had done to get more experience. To pass the time in Aix, I would drown my sorrows in a large bol of café au lait and eat several cakes at an exquisite patisserie close to the main square.

I'm the kind of person who suddenly has completely crazy ideas which I'm convinced are brilliant, like the time when I decided I could carry a table back from Ikea but that's another story. Sitting at the internet café one evening, I imagined how wonderful it'd be to get a place in Lyon, work there for three days, then commute to Aix for the other two. My eyes lit up when I saw the long list of rooms advertised in Lyon; I had heard someone say that the première arrondissement was the coolest so naturally, I looked there first, called a number and fixed an appointment for the coming Sunday morning. I remember it was the first weekend of the New Year, it was impossible to get a seat on the train so I paid a huge amount of money for a chance to sit on a strapontin, or pull out seat, in first class. The flat turned out to be on the slopes above the city in the middle of a leafy square. Nervously, I rang the bell and marched up several flights of stairs to the fourth floor where a blonde girl opened the door. She was S., a Berliner working as an assistante for a few months in one of the lycées. I was ushered into the flat, shown briefly round the kitchen and introduced to E. who was to decide upon the new colocataire or flatmate. He was tall, lean and seemed a little sarcastic but friendly enough. We all drank coffee in the huge living room with its high ceiling and wooden beams. There were windows on all sides and one could look across not only to the Fourvière church perched high up over the city, but also to the Crayon (pencil) building and beyond that sometimes to the Mont Blanc on clear days. Sitting at that table, I longed to be accepted, to wake up each morning in that apartment and share everything with my two flatmates. I need never be lonely again. When the time finally came for me to leave, I had all my hopes pinned on that one place and if it fell through, I honestly didn't know what I'd do.

Luckily, the call from E. came that same evening when I was in the TGV on my way back to Aix. My new flatmates would wait to eat with me the night of my arrival and there was an enormous sense of relief that I finally belonged somewhere. Sadly it wasn't to be; that first evening that I'd been so looking forward to actually decided my fate. E. asked me if I wanted soup and I made the mistake of asking what kind it was and then when he asked me if I wanted it mixte ou pas mixte (blended or unblended), he looked horrified when I said pas mixte. At least I imagine that was my gaffe because from that moment on, he hated me with a burning, silent passion. Whereas with S. and other friends, he could be charming and funny, with me there was the barely exchanged "Salut" in the morning and a sulky grimace. He occupied a room next to the kitchen where he would sit from the moment he came in from work until the early hours of the morning, working on his computer but also observing the comings and goings in the apartment. The living room became the cemetary for old computers which he'd pile up to repair and copies of the Chef d'Entreprise magazine covered his desk. He obviously liked to think of himself as the boss.

He detested the fact that I used to bake cakes which he considered strange because they weren't French, made fun of my cooking, although he had a point when he complained that boiled vegetables were tasteless and the cliché anglais, even though he himself typically ate pasta with ketchup. Maybe he didn't like me because he felt threatened by someone intelligent or because I wasn't one of those blonde German girls he seemed to prefer. Overhearing his conversations with S. on the sofa, I felt excluded and didn't know why. S. told me one evening that she didn't understand why E. and I hated each other but was sure it simply a misunderstanding. The low point came though when she returned to Berlin for the winter holidays, leaving me alone in the flat with him. At that time, I barely knew anyone in Lyon and had very little money so couldn't go out anywhere. After spending a few days with him, I remembered an autobiographical story by Albert Camus where he described the unbearable loneliness that overcame him with the realisation that he hadn't talked to anyone in days. My only comforts were learning German with a book about a French businessman who goes to Cologne, cycling through the city and trips to the Part Dieu library where I spent hours reading books about mountains with the somewhat ridiculous ambition of making it to the top of the Meije one day. I'd get up at regular intervals to drink coffee from the machine in the break room and eat a Twix. The thought of the combined tastes of synthetic capuccino with that biscuit and caramel horrifies me now but at least it was chance to chat to some of the other people.

When S. returned to Berlin definitively, she was replaced by B. who had been studying in Finland. I'd hoped that being the only girl in the flat would improve but I was an outsider from the others who had known each other from school. With E., things deteriorated even more and he simply sent B. as a messenger to inform me when we'd do the cleaning or ask me to contribute to the purchase of the washing machine. His presence around me made me feel nervous and uneasy; once I was asked to prepare a dessert, decided upon a chocolate cake which went disastrously wrong when I used too much butter and ended up with a dark, greasy mess. E. looked disgusted when I served it, even more so when a friend of his raved over the fact that it managed to be crispy on the outside and squidgy in the middle.

On the day I moved out before leaving for Alsace, we said our farewells. I don't remember whether we kissed each other on the cheek, but only that he sent B. one last time to check that I didn't forget to leave the keys in the mailbox! Occasionally I wonder what became of him. Someone told me they saw a child's seat in the back of his car recently and I hope things worked out for him, irrespective of our differences. Yet most of all, I'm glad not to share a flat with him anymore.

Last Sunday was a special day for me because I finally got a chance to try the new camera out. It's still early days and I have a lot more to learn before I feel 100% confident but already I have the impression there are some good times ahead of us.

Rainy days

At the freshly re-opened Neues Museum

This statue reminds me of the smile that so fascinated Jules et Jim in Truffaut's film

Marzipan and chocolate torte at the museum café

Pour Rose - unfortunately, the special edition costs €750 so I can't send it to you.

Evening falls on Savignyplatz

Regular readers of this blog will already be aware of my love for all things with lemon. I even managed to pick up a bottle of limoncello liqueur at my local store so now there's no excuse for not making a torta al limone. In the meantime though, I tried out another Nigel Slater recipe, with lemons of course!

Brown sugar lemon cake (from Nigels Slater's The Kitchen Diaries)


125g butter
125g brown sugar
200g plain flour
100g ground almonds
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
a large organic unwaxed lemon
4 large eggs

For the topping

an organic unwaxed lemon
2 heaped tbsp brown sugar
4 tbsp water

For the syrup

2 generous tablespoons brown sugar
the juice of a large lemon

1. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C and grease and line a loaf tin. Begin by making the topping; slice the lemon as thinly as possibly and place in a small pan with the sugar and water. Bring it to the boil and let it simmer for around 5 minutes or until the water has almost evaporated and the lemon alices are sticky. Remove from the heat and set aside.

2. Beat the butter and brown sugar together until fluffy (this may take a little longer than with caster sugar but don't lose hope!).
3. Measure out the flour, baking powder and almonds and mix them together in a large bowl. Grate in the zest of the lemon.

4. Break the eggs into another bowl then mix them together with a fork and add them to the butter and sugar a little at a time. The mixture might curdle a bit but don't worry! With a metal spoon, fold in the dry ingredients gradually, taking care not to overblend. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and arrange the lemon slices on top, overlapping them in the middle. Bake for around 30-40 minutes or until golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.

5. For the syrup, stir the brown sugar into the lemon juice; it won't dissolve completely. Using a fork, make small holes along the top on the cake surface and pour the syrup over it. Leave to cool. Best served with crème fraîche or thick Greek yoghurt.

29 commentaires:

  1. What a horrible experience! Thankfully, I never had to share an aprtment with other people than my boyfriend...

    That cake looks lovely and your pictures are magnificent! I can't wait to see the great shots you'll take with the new camera.



  2. Bonjour Vanessa, on a pas toujours la chance de tomber sur des gens aimables et c'est toujours malheureux quand c'est un coloc, j'ai eu cette expérience une seule fois et ça n'a duré que quelques mois. par chance.

    Ton gâteau semble délicieux, et tes photos toujours aussi belles.

    Passe une belle journée.

  3. I adore sugar and lemon. I need this cake. That E. is a fool. He was so lucky to have a smart woman who bakes cakes as a flatmate. I'll say it again, a fool...

  4. I lugged some brown sugar back from London with me - yay, because I love lemon too. I'm often convinced impractical things are a brilliant idea and then follow them too. It's very odd - some people might say I'm quite cynical but in some things (usually at the beginning of an undertaking) I'm an incurable optimist. As time wears on things change and I wonder what the hell I was thinking...

  5. i never wated to share a flat to anyone but my boyfriend (now husband) just in case, like Rosa, anyway, your cake looks wonderful, and your photos are lovely, cheers!

  6. What a tool, that guy. Oh, that cake, Vanessa! I really shouldn't, but I should.

  7. @Rosa - Well, I got over it! Looking back, it sometimes seems ridiculous and amusing, although at the time I found it difficult because I was a bit isolated. Am hoping to have some time on this long weekend for a serious photography session.
    @Josée - Parfois la colocation peut être une expérience positive, cela dépend simplement de gens. Et pourtant, je me réjouis à l'idée d'habiter seule bientôt. Merci pour tes commentaires toujours si gentils! Bon week end et bises.
    @Denise - E. was simply a weird guy who felt threatened by anything unfamiliar. Maybe it was down to too many hours in front of the computer ;-) This cake is amazingly simple and pretty addictive. Everyone who tries it finds it funny to eat the lemon peel of the slices on top.
    @Sasa - I know that feeling of bringing heavy food articles back with me, although in Berlin I have no problem finding brown sugar. Actually, I'm pretty conservative about trying things out but with these brainwaves, nothing can deter me and like you, I wonder why on earth I could have found that a smart thing to do.
    @Pity - Well, sharing with a nice guy sounds the best option of all :-) I'm very honoured that you like my photos because i'm such an admirer of the ones on your blog.
    @Tracy - For the cake, you really should ;-) I feel relieved not to have to see E. ever again.

  8. Merci pour le coffret Bettina Rheims ;) !
    Ce doit être usant de vivre avec un tel colocataire... Indépendamment de cette histoire, ça me plaît de te suivre dans Aix et Lyon, des villes que je connais juste un tout petit peu...

  9. Your experiences in Aix reminded me of my time there; I lived in Aix for 6 months but I had a great next-door neighbor, Anna, from Helsinki, and we recently reunited 30 years later on Facebook! That dude sounds like he had a problem!
    The cake looks lovely and tasty too with the almonds.Great with tea, I am sure.

  10. What a great read - in an intimate and interesting way. I have had some harrowing roommate experiences through university. Great for learning about myself and my levels of tolerance and the opposite! and character building.
    Love the recipe... the lemons of top are the best part.
    I would really love you to get a subscribe by e-mail plug in. I hate missing your lovely posts.

  11. J'aime bien tes petits récits de vie ... Je n'ai jamais eu à vivre en colocation mais je pense que je n'aurais pas aimé ... J'aime ma tranquillité et redoute les conflits ... ;o)
    Tu as appris l'allemand avec la méthode 90 leçons, 90 jours ? Ton allemand qui va à Cologne me rappelle quelque-chose ! J'ai un jour décidé d'apprendre l'allemand avec mais je n'ai pas dépassé la trentième leçon, ce qui sur un plan linguistique est un peu limité ! ;o)))
    Bravo pour cette jolie recette, aussi !

  12. Just made this recipe as muffins for a BBQ ^^

  13. Even though you say the camera is a bit new, the pictures are beautifully clear. I love the lemon cake, it sounds delicious. Good luck apartment hunting as well.

  14. @Rose - Oui, c'est vrai mais heureusement les autres après n'étaient pas si affreux ;-) Tu sais, j'aurais bien aimé t'envoyer le coffret car il a l'air super beau. Parfois je rêve de retourner à Aix car la ville est vraiment jolie et je regrette de ne pas avoir grimpé le Mont St. Victoire et je n'ai pas mis les pieds à Lyon depuis longtemps non plus.
    @Taste of Beirut - How nice that you found your old neighbour after all these years. E. was simply a strange guy; now I'd march in there and ask what his problem was but back then I was less confident and thought there was something wrong with me.
    @Valerie - Good to know i'm not the only one with these kinds of problems. It's true that sharing a flat helps us to become more tolerant of others and learn about ourselves too but I'm also looking forward to living alone! Hmm, I'll see what I can do for the email subscription; it shouldn't be difficut but then again I'm useless with I.T. Like you, I agree the lemons on top are the best thing about this cake and they taste like marmelade.
    @Hélène - Le livre s'appelle Apprendre rapidement l'allemand. Il n'est plus disponible mais je ne te le conseille pas car c'est plutôt l'allemand d'affaires et après 3 chapitres, j'en avais marre de ce monsieur et son voyage à Cologne. Pour l'apprentissage des langues seule, il faut beaucoup de discipline et de patience. Je me pousse chaque jour avec l'italien mais parfois je suis paresseuse.
    Moi aussi j'aime la tranquillité et parfois c'est difficile d'habiter en colocation. Le problème, c'est que l'on ne sait vraiment pas avant si la personne va être sympa. Mais après le déménagement en Alsace, on était 4 dans un bel appart et ça marchait bien.
    @Sasa - Hope they came out well. Muffins sound good :-)
    @Cocina Savant - I'm still having problems with focusing. Often the auto focus is where I don't want it and when I focus manually, the picture's shaken but so far, I'm pleased with the results and the quality of the images. I have more time next week for flat hunting so hope it works out.

  15. What a perfectly ghastly story. I went right from college to marriage so didn't have to deal with problems like that. Thank God. I imagine he was intimidated and covered by making you feel unwanted.
    Love the cake..I do like limincello...actually made some cupcakes with it last week.
    The almonds in it are a big plus too.
    Have fun with your new camera!

  16. This guy sounds weird! Somehow, the combination of old computers with Chef d'entreprise magazine doesn't add up. He most certainly had a problem...
    Out of curiosity: what's your new camera?

  17. that guy sounds horrible, insecure man...congrats on the new lemon in anything , limoncello oh how divine..great recipe


  18. I so enjoy reading your posts. You have a wonderful writing style. Congrats on have 2 incredible talents. Nobody should have more than 1, not fair. Your photography is likewise gorgeous. This next expereince will be better, gotta keep the faith.


    23 mai 2010 20:50

  19. @Barbara - I think so too. He was probably irritated as well that I could speak another language and used to used very fast and in slang so I wouldn't understand. But luckily, life with him is in the past. Your cupcakes with limoncello sound yummy, I'll have to try that.
    @Agnès - He was totally weird; super hi-tech but with these old computers which kept crashing because they weren't up to the modern tasks. I guess he was just insecure. It's a Canon 1000d and I bought the 50mm separately as it's truly the bargain of the century. I think it's a great DSLR for beginners like me :-)
    @Bonnie - I'm glad we share a passion for lemon and we just have to remember there's always the sweeter side to life!
    @Lazaro - Wow, thanks so much but you know, I'd love to cook like you and find your recipes so great. Comments like these though really make my day. I have a bit more time this week so can hopefully visit some more apartments.

  20. I think everyone I know has a frightening living situation at some point early on in life. Good luck with finding your own place!

  21. Oh yeah, the 50 mm seems very nice (and affordable, too). But as I'm a Pentax girl, it's not for me...

  22. I was having a crappy morning and your post made it look brighter! You tell the story so well - it's the sort of story that's unbearable when you live it but gets more bearable over the years by telling people about it. I'm sorry you didn't experience Lyons to its full extent, it's a good city (I've lived there for 2 years, a million years ago).
    This whole blended/unblended stuff is so peculiar...straight out of a Woody Allen movie. People can be strange...
    Anyways, I'm still working on that letter...

  23. @Maris - I agree, we can't allbe lucky with our flatmates or landlords.
    @Agnès - It's funny how we're all attached to certain brands. A friend of mine wouldn't consider anything other than Nikon while I'm totally into Canon. Your photos are fab, I hope to reach that standard one day.
    @Pia - I'm so glad my story made you feel better. I can honestly look back today without any bad feelings and rather amusement at how weird it all was. I wonder if fatherhood has changed E. My time in Lyons wasn't all bad; I went so often to the opera which had superb productons and at the end had some really wonderful friends I was very attached to. The bakeries were also awesome, even if I regret not having been able to afford to sample the fabulous restaurants. For the letter, don't worry; considering how long it took me to finish mine, you've nothing to reproach yourself for.

  24. Ah, what can I say! Mieux vaut en rire, et boire un coup a leur souvenir ! You know I've had my share of crazy experiences. One of my flatmates from the time I was in Oslo went nuts the day I baked a quiche aux legumes. "But... this is not quiche! Quiche is quiche lorraine! You can't put zucchini in a quiche!" Damn well I could. He was studying to be a priest. When I think of it, the priest and the evangelist: I must attract them. No offense.

  25. A roommate who had a problem with cake? It must have been doomed from the start...
    The lemon cake looks divine, thanks for the recipe!

  26. This brings back some memories I have of some difficult roommates I've had in the past. I can definitely relate to this post.

  27. @Julie - I'm not in the least bit offended by your comment, especially as I seem to attract these kinds of people too, but I'll write about my current flatmate at another time. you're right though, the best thing to do is just have a good laugh. Wow, the quiche guy sounds strict, it's funny how cooking can make people get so worked up.
    @Nicolette - Yes, that's totally true. I couldn't live in a place where I couldn't bake.
    @Des - Ah, it's good to know i'm not alone, that makes me feel better.

  28. I was just commenting on Lazaro's guest's recipe...and I was curious about who you were.
    Well, here I am enjoying another great foodie blogger from the other side of the world. I absolutely enjoyed your local market photos. first try with 'pate au choux' had been for me pure was however beginner's next 2 trys...not so great;o)
    I'm looking forward to your next post.
    Flavourful wishes, Claudia

  29. Hi Claudia,

    It's always nice to meet new people through blogging :-)I'm interested in hearing about your experiences with that pâte à choux; according to Rosa, it has something to do with not having a mixture that's too wet. I've only made puff pastry once and it worked out perfectly but perhaps it won't always be a success. Then again, that's one of the fascinating things about baking.