In the days when I lived in Lyon, I found there were large chunks of time to myself which were mainly filled by walking through the city, visitng the market on the Boulevard de la Croix Rousse just above where I lived and in the Part Dieu library in which I dreamed of climbing dangerous mountains in the Alps and in between, immersed myself in learning German with the Assimil method. Having little money made me appreciate the simple pleasures like stopping off at my favourite bakeries near Masséna métro stop, one of which was called Le Fil de l'ange as I recall (literally The angel's thread) for the most amazing croissants. There were the free lunchtime concerts at the Opéra and evening performances there with cheap tickets for amazing productions of works by Monteverdi, Janeczek and Richard Strauss. Every week, I'd post a new advert on Lyon web offering private English lessons to which I had quite a few positive responses. One of them was a mother of a little boy called N. whose father was Canadian. The boy didn't much enjoy practising English with his Dad so they thought it would be better to have a teacher twice a week. We met outside the Town Hall of Caluire in the suburbs of Lyon on the 1st September, the rentrée. I can still picture N. coming towards us, chatting to his schoolmates, with a large rucksack on his back. He was small, brown haired and wore glasses. My duties would be to pick him up from school twice a week, walk the short distance home with him, prepare his goûter or snack and speak English for an hour. After that we could walk around the grounds of the apartment complex where there was even a tennis court on which we would be able to play in summer. It became part of my natural routine cycling up the steep hills to the Croix Rousse and beyond on my bike I had bought the winter before. Other cyclists made fun of me because of the large BMX helmet I insisted on wearing but I was (and still am) a terrible cyclist and lived in mortal fear of accidents.
The apartment in Caluire was large and full of light. I used to gaze intensely at the bookshelves packed with paperback novels like Le Zèbre which later became one of my favourite films. I would pour N. and myself a large glass of thick guava juice before we settled down to English. He was sweet but from the very beginning, it was a battle of wills because he hated the lessons and would gaze longingly out of the window at the beautiful evening he was missing. Quite frankly, who could blame him? We tried sessions on a grassy bank outside but the cries and games of his friends proved even more of a distraction. Things came to a head one chilly afternoon when he repeatedly turned the television on to watch skiing. Whenever I turned it off, he insisted that his mother would want him to watch because she used to be a monitrice de ski, an excuse I refused to accept and a huge argument developed. Looking back, I can see I was too inexperienced to make the lessons fun for him and didn't do a good job but perhaps his parents were simply too ambitious for him to become perfectly bilingual at such a young age. After a few months, I handed in my notice to take another class instead. Just before that though, I can remember N. and his father taking me back to Lyon by car since my an enormous shard of glass had pucntured my bike tyre and it was cold. The streets were ablaze with lights and full of crowds of warmly dressed people. This was the first week of December, a special time for the Lyonnais as they place a candle in every window to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. Regardless of your beliefs, there was something amazing about seeing flickering lights all through the city as well as the spectacular illuminations of the monuments in different colours. People jostled each other clasping cups of mulled wine and crêpes filled with Nutella to ward off the cold.
I was reminded of all this with the Berlin festival of lights which started last Thursday. It's not quite as romantic as Lyon but still a special feeling as you travel round the city, seeing the floodlights at Alex in the distance as you try to warm your fingers in between taking photos and finish the evening in a café where the only free seat is tucked away in the corner to drink hot chocolate. On the way home, you pass by partygoers whose evening has only just begun; they'll be there in the early hours, bleary eyed under the pale rays of the moon but I didn't feel I was missing out in the warmth of the train back to Pankow.
Bright lights at the Brandenburg Gate
On Potsdamer Platz
Some of the beautiful but heartstoppingly expensive furniture on my way to Gendarmenmarkt
At Fassbender und Rausch chocolate shop
Personally, I prefer the chocolate Brandenburg gate to the real one!
The cold evenings are closing in and today the sun has deserted Berlin, with nothing but a mass of soggy leaves on the pavement and lingering regrets for all those wasted moments last summer. I've already been stocking up my bookshelves, ready for those days when it's best to keep the curtains closed and stay in pyjamas drinking tea. There's Orhan Pamuk's Snow (obvious for winter, I know), Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Claudie Gallay's Les Déferlentes for Venice and the Adriatic in 10 days and Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. What's on your list and do you have any tips?
To finish with, a recipe i tried for the first time yesterday and immediately feel in love with, as did everyone else who tried it; Julia's Blueberry and Almond Cake as adapted by Patoumi.
Blueberry and almond cake
120g almond paste
60g butter in strips
1. Beat the sugar and eggs together until pale and frothy.
2. Grate the almond paste into the eggs, followed by the flour and blend well.
3. Pour the batter into a greased and lined springform tin.
4. Scatter the fruit on the surface, pushing them in slightly, place on the thin strips of butter and sprinkle a little sugar on top.
5. Bake in the oven at 200°C for 45 minutes.