Sunday, January 30, 2011

Seasonal Sunday--Boeuf aux Carottes

I could never be a vegetarian for two reasons.
Beef stew reminds me of being warm and cozy, taken care of and loved. And I'm a sucker for anything with pork and beans (cassoulet, anyone?).
When we came home from the hospital with Ma Fille my mother had made beef stew and buttery, fluffy biscuits. The house was filled with the homey smell of stewed carrots and onions and slow-cooked beef. I will never forget how wonderful it was and how it tasted like love to my shell-shocked body.
When the weather is cold I love to make stew for my family. It isn't a dish you can rush and that's part of the beauty of it. You have to work slowly, trimming the meat and cutting it into bite-sized pieces, drying it with paper towels before browning in several batches and then let it all cook together for hours until you have a pot full of nourishing warmth; love in a bowl.
no longer a baby, but still likes beef stew
I'm terrible for making things in a rather haphazard way and then not remembering what I did but for this dish I've worked it out, perfected it and made it my own with a little help from Julia Child on the method. Julia does this thing with the flour that makes the meat crustily seasoned and it's worth the back and forth to do it. Trust me.

Boeuf aux Carottes or Beef Stew a la Moi
2 lbs. or 1 kilo beef stew meat
8 medium organic carrots
1 medium yellow onion
2 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. worcestershire sauce
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 oz. can tomato paste
beef broth
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 450F/230C.

Trim meat into bite-sized pieces and dry with paper towels before browning in olive oil in an ovenproof pot on the stove.
You will need to do this in batches so the meat will brown properly setting browned meat aside in a bowl. When you've browned all the meat, leave it aside while you prepare carrots and onion. Clean and chop carrots into coins and chop onion roughly.
Brown carrots and onion in the same pot as the meat, scraping up any beefy goodness. This will take 4 minutes or so of watchful stirring. Add in the cinnamon and worcestershire sauce, stirring to combine and browning the cinnamon a bit.

Return browned meat to the pan with the carrots and onion and stir to combine. Add in the flour, salt & pepper, stirring well. Place in the preheated oven, uncovered, for 4 minutes. (thanks, Julia) Take it out, stir it again and put it back in the oven for 4 more minutes. This is where the meat gets all crusty and seasoned so I have to insist you do it this way.

Remove from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 325F/165C.

On the stovetop again, careful the pot is hot!, stir in the beef broth until just covering the meat and carrots. Then stir in tomato paste. Bring to a simmer, put the bay leaf on top and cover and put back in the oven. This time for up to 3 hours.

The meat is done when it falls apart when pierced with a fork.

Enjoy the smell of home will it cooks away in the oven. When it's done serve with buttery mashed potatoes, biscuits or baguette and leafy, green salad. Your family will feel all melty and warm inside. And so will you.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Creme de Marrons, PB Frenchie Style

squeezy tube mangled by the Baby
You know about Nutella and how much the Europeans love to slather it on bread, crepes and cakes. It's like peanut butter and marmite, ubiquitous in childrens' snacks and at breakfast. But did you know there's another tasty spread that the French like to nibble? It's sweetened chestnut spread or creme de marrons and it is delicious. At least the Baby thinks it is. I have found him standing at the fridge, door open and spoon in hand, shoveling in big globs of it.
I'm sure you can find it at one of the fancy grocery or specialty stores in the US. It comes in a pretty can in different sizes, one jumbo by European standards, and in a squeezy tube like toothpaste with prettiest print on it, tres French. You use it in all the same ways you'd use the other tasty spreaders and I've also just learned of a recipe where it's mixed with creme fraiche and spread between layers of puff pastry. I think the kids would go crazy for that.

Have a look and give it a try. It's not 'smoke in a pancake' (Kirsty) but it's still good.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pigs-in-a-Blanket, Wee! Wee!

Major news! 
I've cracked the code on what to my mind is a very American breakfast. We would always have little piggies nestled in a blanket on the weekends, when visiting my sister and her family or for a special treat when I was a kid, warm and fluffy from the Brookshire Bros. bakery. I know it's not a delicacy but these are the things you miss when living abroad. All the years I lived in Ireland I couldn't make pigs-in-a-blanket because while I could find the unbaked croissants there were no sausages remotely like 'little smokies'. Everyone knows you have to have a little smoky to make a piggie!

Here's how my eureka happened. I went to dinner at Mme Bonne Amie's house last week and she served hot dog sausages cut up in small pieces and tucked inside fluffy pastry. It was similar to a piggie but the weiner was all wrong. I've had these as starters before from the freezer giant Picard doused in mustard, coated in tomato paste and other varieties so I knew they wrapped sausages in flaky pastry.

Here is where it all came together for me...the big moment, I know, it's very exciting, non?
First, I remembered that I'd seen cocktail sausages and the packet said they were smoked. Note to self.
Second, Mme Bonne Amie said she used a certain type of pastry from the refrigerated section to make hers.
Third, I realized that just because the croissants aren't already cut into little perforated triangles for me like in the good old US of A doesn't mean I can't cut them into triangles myself. I know, I'm not too bright. Maybe  you've already thought of this one thousand times over and have been eating pigs-in-a-blanket to your heart's content, laughing wee, wee, wee all the way home.
For me, it took a bit longer. But now I know and there's no turning back. I'm planning so many lovely things with my newfound knowledge.

This morning I made authentic piggies for my American kids; at least that's what their passports say but I'm beginning to wonder because they didn't remember ever eating pigs-in-a-blanket and couldn't see why I was so ecstatic. They did, however want to put ketchup on them so that made me feel better.
When I opened the packet of smoked sausages they were covered in jelly...what is it with the Frenchies and jelly on their meat? Don't let this put you off, it certainly didn't bother the Baby who ate two before I could grab them out of his piggly-wiggly fingers, just wipe them off before you roll them in your pastry triangles.

That's all from this end for today.

Magic Ingredients to make non-fussy, authentic Pigs-in-a-Blanket follow:

1 packet 'La Cocktail' weiners 'Fumee au bois de hetre' (beech-smoked)
1 packet Pate Feuilletee

Take pastry out of the fridge for 10 minutes before working with it. Unroll and cut it in half and then fold and cut into triangles just like the dough boy does for you with his little perforations. Who needs the dough boy when you've a pizza cutter anyway?
Place your de-jellied cocktail sausages inside and roll up into a pretty little blanket with one triangle tip coming to a point in the middle of the sausage.
Bake on parchment paper at the recommended temperature and time.

Warning: Do Not Use plain hot dog weiners because it just won't be the same no matter what anyone says. Trust me.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Seasonal Sunday--Roasted Squash & Onion with Herbed Croutons

isn't this a cute little guy?
Mon Mari is away on business in one of the contiguous United States and I'm alone with les trois enfants so I didn't really plan this one. Today's recipe is one of those that just happened. To be honest most of my daily cooking is like this...I get an idea and then stand in the kitchen pondering what to do, what to add and mostly what not to add as I tend to get carried away. Our little village market is just across the street so I walked over this morning and had a look for inspiration. Et voila! There was a basket of burnt orange squash that I thought would be great with some day old baguette I'd planned to turn into croutons. After some restraint and pruning it's ready to share with you.

Roasted Squash & Onions with Herbed Croutons

1-2 small squash, at home you could use acorn
1 small yellow onion
olive oil
day old baguette cut into chunky croutons
salt and pepper to taste
sprinkle of grated Parmesan or Gruyere

Pre-heat oven to 400 F/220C.

scooped and drizzled, ready for roasting
Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds. Cut onion in half, never mind about the peel. Place hollowed out squash and onion halves on a roasting tray and drizzle over with olive oil.
Place in preheated oven for 30-40 minutes or until the flesh of the squash can be easily scooped free of the skin and the onion is meltingly soft.
Smush, yes smush is the technical term used here, together the peeled squash and onion adding salt and pepper for seasoning and put mixture in an ovenproof gratin dish. Feel free to make this more decadent and add in some cream at this point.You can make ahead to this point because you're going to warm in the oven before serving.

Meanwhile, make the croutons. This is so easy and much better than buying them pre-packaged because you control the salt and there are no preservatives.
Cut old baguette into big chunks, sprinkle with the smallest amount of olive oil and thyme.  Season with salt and pepper.
I love thyme so use it often but you can use any herb you like. Herbes de Provence would be nice here too. I've even been known to sprinkle on dried lavender for a different type of crouton all together. Be creative and use what you like.
i'm going to be a crouton
Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a pan and be sure to get it quite warm so the bread doesn't sit in cold oil. When it's warm, throw in the seasoned bread and shake pan until browned and coated evenly, 2-3 minutes watching all the while. I burned some on Friday night because I was distracted.
When done you can store these in an airtight container and use on anything you like. But here you're going to scatter them over the squash and onion mixture and top with grated cheese. When seasoning remember that you're adding the cheese so don't be heavy handed with the salt.
When you're ready, put it in a warm oven 325F/180C for 5-7 minutes or until cheese is melted.

Serve with roast pork or chicken and a big, green salad.
ready for warming

Thursday, January 20, 2011

St Guilhem le Desert

St Guilhem le Desert is famous for its abbey, the swimming hole at Pont du Diable and its impressive views and the Clamouse caves. We'd meant to visit it during the summer to take a dip in the river water but never got around to it. It's supposed to be teeming with people in high season anyway. Over the Christmas holidays we decided to cram all three enfants into the car against their protestations and make the short trip to see it for ourselves. The quiet days after Christmas turned out to be a perfect time to visit. The little cream colored town was deserted and peaceful and the children had the run of the enormous plane tree growing in the main square opposite the abbey. They scrambled over its gnarled, arthritic roots while we parents took turns visiting the Abbey without disturbing the peace. The Abbey itself was beautiful inside and out and the nativity scene was still illuminated in one of the side chapels.
The small gorge cut out by the river Herault is breathtaking and you can park and walk around admiring the views, exploring the ruins of an old watermill even though the signs say to take caution and beware. The caves were closed during our trip but they would be more than worth another outing.
view of old watermill

the devil's bridge
the fam on the path, gorge below


village from the outside

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guest Post 100 Word Sentence

My funny, talented and wordsmithy Mother reads my blogs. Well, she ought to, right? When she read the 100 word sentence she said she just couldn't stop thinking about it and wondering what she'd write if she wrote one too. I got this in my inbox this morning and thought you'd like to see that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

I'll call it, The Waiting Room in 100 Words

I don't think a hundred word sentence can be that difficult to write because any of the wind-bag political newscasters could do it in a heartbeat by simply writing down their worthless, mindless, endless commentary, which is of little interest to anyone other than like-minded thinkers who have no need to be swayed in their political leanings whatsoever, leaving us to deduce that the gaseous rhetoric being expounded by these individuals can truly be of interest to no one but themselves and nothing more than a cacophony of clanging cymbals to the rest of humanity who may have the misfortune to be sitting in a doctor's waiting room having to endure this verbal garbage polluting our already jangling air waves, and I firmly believe most people would agree that taking pen in hand, rather than mouth to microphone, would be a real treat for already abused ears.

here she is in Arles with ma fille

Monday, January 17, 2011

Les Boules in 100 Words

The lovely Samantha over at Life, Love and Living in France posted the goods on this wacky contest and I couldn't resist it. The idea is to write a 100 word sentence. Yes, sentence. And you can only use one semi-colon if you feel like you're getting too long-winded and you need a break from all the words you've strung together pausing only for the occasional comma but never actually achieving a proper rest, all the while making sure the sentence you're writing makes sense, flows, interests and tells a story. You see? The above sentence was only 57 words.

Give it a try and enter the contest.  Come on.....

In the meantime, here's my entry:

Les Boules in 100 Words
The men who play boules in the park across the street from our house in a small town in the South of France arrive every afternoon from all over the town by old Citroen, broken down jalopy and bicycle wearing old trousers and concealing burgeoning well-luncheoned bellies under plaid shirts, hats shielding their worn faces from wind and sun, carrying their bags of metal spheres and strings with magnets attached  designed  for attracting the boule and raising it from the ground; saving the old mens’ knees from repetitive bending as they finish game after game of the South’s favorite past-time.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Seasonal Sunday--Avocado, Grapefuit & Feta Mousse

The avocado. To me it is the perfect food and I'm sure I once read somewhere that you could survive on avocados and nothing else if it came down to it. I know that all my babies ate half of one a day when they were little--jade flesh scooped right out with a baby spoon.

It so happens that avocados are in season in the winter and I'm able to find my favorite variety, Hass, here at my local produce market. I know they come from Israel but I can excuse the travel miles for the creamy deliciousness of un avocat. 
I make guacamole all the time because it reminds me of Texas and there's nothing better to scoop up on a corn tortilla chip; all the garlicky, cilantro goodness of home right here in France. I'll give you my approximation of a recipe for guac sometime if you'd like.

Today I wanted to mix it up a bit and share something new with you. You know how the Frenchies are wild about appetizers served in small glasses, right? Well, so is Mon Mari...which is surprising because he doesn't like sushi on account of the smallness and fiddliness of it. For whatever reason, his inner Frenchie?, he loves the idea of shot glasses of starters so much that he bought me a set for Christmas. We've had avocado mousse at Chez Bon Amis so it was just a hop, skip and a jump to today's recipe. Or recipes. Because that's what it is...three for the price of one. I got started and couldn't stop. The avocado, feta and grapefruit mousse is the same but the toppings are varied.

The original is just a matter of layering a couple of jewelled grapefruit segments with the mousse and topping with chopped chives and coarse sea salt.
The second is topped with rocket (arugula) and a tiny triangle of feta drizzled with the finest olive oil.
Last and probably my favorite topping is chipotle creme fraiche salsa* served with a tortilla chip for scooping.

Avocado, Grapefruit & Feta Mousse

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
2 ripe Hass avocados
1/4 c. or 4 tablespoons Feta cheese chunks
salt and white pepper to your taste

Mix above ingredients together until smooth. I recommend a hand-held mixer or food processor but you could also do it with a potato masher or heavy-handed fork. The feta will not entirely meld into the avocado and that's ok. Don't go overboard with the mixing and turn it into goo...I personally like a bit of texture but in this case, just a bit.
The grapefruit juice is indispensible because it keeps the avocado a stunning bright green. This is the reason you should always add citrus of some kind to any avocado mixture. I usually choose limes but grapefruit is in season and it gives the prettiest zing of flavor in this mousse.
When mixed you have the base for about 6-8 appetizers served in shot glasses.

This is about as fussy as my kitchen skills get and it took a lot of patience for me but carefully put the mousse into the glasses using a small spoon. Or even better, pipe it in with a pastry tip.
Keep cool in the refrigerator and top with your choice when ready to serve.

*Chipotle Creme Fraiche Salsa

1-2 canned chipotle peppers, deseeded and finely chopped or blitzed
1 teaspoon fresh grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon creme fraiche or sour cream, more if you prefer it less spicy

Mix together until combined. This is really down to taste so don't be afraid to adjust according to yours. I personally like it spicy so would go easy on the creme fraiche.
rocket & feta, chipotle cream, grapefruit jewels

Friday, January 14, 2011

To Mairie, To Mairie, We Go!

No doubt you've heard the horror stories about French paperwork, red tape, never-ending trails of translated copies and surly staff you must apologize to for taking their time.You've heard all this right?
Seems there's no end to complaining and sometimes it's warranted, even necessary.

But this is a story of my helpful mairie and its staff. A tale of kindness to counter balance all the tales of woe.

I've become acquainted with my mairie (town hall) since registering the Big Kids in school. It was back in May when I understood very little and could speak even less of their language. So with serious reservations and a nervous stomach I braved the mairie because the alternative was keeping the Big Kids home with me for more home school torture. The mairie was the lesser of two evils.
I guess I should explain that in France there isn't a school secretary like we have in American schools. All of the paperwork related to school--registration, attendance and payment for lunches is done by the secretaries at the mayor's office. Turns out these ladies are really nice and helpful. Back in May we got to know each other the way you do when trying to piece together words of understanding to complete a task while three kids wiggle and argue nearby. Now when I go in to pay for lunches it's nice to see them. They even complement me on the improvement of my French...there was only one way to go so that's not saying much. Just shows how nice they are.

So when Mon Mari told me we had to go there to renew our carte de sejour I was not worried. I was relieved. I'd thought we'd have to go into Montpellier and wait in line at the dreaded Prefecture known to me only through mythical tales of shuffling feet, blank stares, stagnant lines and crazy-making incompetence.

With a spring in my step, happy to show off my French village friends and excellent communication skills to Mon Mari, we went. Across the hall from the school secretaries sit the town secretaries. How lovely to get to meet new people in my happy little village. 'To mairie, to mairie, we go!', thought I.

Except we're the only Americans, foreigners for that matter, who have ever lived here. And we're the only ones who've ever been given the fancy pants Paris law firm 'skip-past-the-Prefecture-pass' and presented it at our local mairie. Luckily, we presented it to Mme. Gentille.

We began our explanation of what we needed done, handing over our blue folder of official documents in explanation. She kindly accepted them and tried to make sense of our request. When she hit a glitch she was not ruffled. Not in the least. She asked permission to ring fancy pants Parisienne lawyer. Of course, ring away.
Mme. Gentille asked fancy pants Parisienne lawyer some questions and admitted she'd no idea of these fancy pants ways but she'd be happy to oblige. We strange smiling Americans are her villagers now.
What happened next was the really remarkable thing. Mme. Gentille spent the next 20+ minutes patiently speaking doucement, doucement so I could understand, looking through all of our paperwork and calling people to ask for help when she got stuck. She could not have been nicer and went as far as filling out the carte de sejour form to be sent to the Prefecture on our behalf. She asked our full names, birthdates, childrens' information and I answered as she wrote the facts of our lives down in her neat French handwriting.
She could have so very easily sent us packing to the big bad city. Yet she took the time and helped us. Not only did she help us but she did it with warmth and kindness and clever efficiency. And in the end she complimented me on my French. The cherry on the top.
We left her in a flurry of mercis and je vous remercies and bonne journees; the Littlest shouting out his new 'au revoir, merci!'
Thank you, thank you Mme. Gentille. You made our day. And saved us from the yawning void of the Prefecture.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Oldest Profession

Due to overwhelming interest of a strange and twisted nature this post is about prostitutes.

The first few times we spotted them sitting in their parked cars along a minor route to one of our favorite market towns we thought maybe they'd broken down and needed help. Perhaps they were waiting for someone or just stopped to finish a phone conversation so as not to drive dangerously. And then we began to notice it was the same women and strangely they had their scantily-clad legs sticking out of an open drivers' side window or suggestively crossed halfway out of an open door while they smoked cigarettes languidly. In the summer they'll sit in a lawn chair reading magazines and catching some rays, bottle of water at their side like they're relaxing on la plage.
There are two that seem to be regulars and they respectfully distance themselves by a few hundred metres. Both await clients in small cars parked just off the two-lane highway. But the last time I went that way I noticed a third entrepreneur. And she was bringing the competition by being parked, wait for it, in an RV. Enterprising, non? And George W Bush said the French didn't know the meaning of the word 'entrepreneur'.
It's very creepy to see them there, waiting. And then, if they have a taker they're gone, car standing empty. Or in the case of the RV lady the curtains are drawn and the doors are closed. Actually, that's much, much creepier than them being there.

It reminds me of when my little family went to Italy for a holiday. We didn't have the Baby yet and the Big Kids were Little Kids. We arrived at the Rome airport and drove our rental car down to Sorrento. Alas, there was construction work around Naples and we got stuck in a detour traffic jam. While we sat in Neapolitan traffic in dusky rush hour we noticed the strangest thing. There were gorgeous, legs-to-heaven, hot pants wearing, African women placed every 50 yards or so, standing there looking bored, sometimes in groups of two chatting as the chain of cars moved slowly past.'What are all those ladies doing, Mommy?' Answer that one.
This bizarre experience prepared us for the reality that the roadside parked cars were 'businesses'. I tried to take a photo of one car for you but I was driving, using my phone, and didn't want to slow down too much as I'm sure you must understand. It's not like I can stop the car and ask for a photo now is it?

There you have it. The oldest profession is alive and well here in the South of France. That's something they don't tell you in the guide books.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

People's Choice

I've two post ideas running around in my head at the moment. Well, actually three. But I'm only offering two up for the choosing. Today the Middlest is home with a queasy tummy so I'm limited and figured why not let you decide which one you'd like to hear about first.
And then when I've enough opinions I'll post. Et voila!

So, to choose:

a) Prostitutes a la francaise
b) St Guilhem le Desert

Now I know what some of you Keith will choose but let's just see how the popular vote swings, shall we?

Here's to well kids and a head full of ideas!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Seasonal Sunday--Lemon Yogurt Cake

Mme. Bonne Amie made us some delicious chocolate lava cupcakes last weekend for dessert. She sent some home with me after a long lunch even though we'd already enjoyed them with whipped cream and artfully drizzled raspberry sauce. Of course the kids and Mon Mari are les gourmands and ate them up by Monday night. She'd sent them home in a plastic container so it was only natural that I wanted to return the container full of something. Something tasty.
The Baby and I made a big, golden lemon yogurt cake in a very American bundt pan. He brought in his step stool and helped add in the sugar, lemon zest and juice, eggs one by one and yogurt and he held the the mixer as we blended it all together; tasting and mmmming and smooching as we went. We'd take a lick of the yogurt lid, smooch and then mix some more.
This recipe is a winner found in its original version here that I've used many times before with the natural yogurt that it calls for.  But this time I decided to use passion fruit yogurt and up the zest to give it a little something more interesting. I hope you like it. Mme. Bonne Amie and The Baby sure did.

Lemon-Yogurt Cake

butter and sprinkle a bundt pan with sugar

1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 cups full-fat passion fruit yogurt
3 teaspoons lemon zest
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups all purpose flour

Pre-heat oven to 350F/185C

Mix the vegetable oil, melted butter and sugar with an electric mixer until well blended. It helps if you've got a fat little toddler hand holding onto the mixer with you.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing between each addition.
Add the yogurt, licking the lid, and blend well. Add lemon zest, juice, and vanilla extract. We use organic eggs so I didn't feel bad about sharing a taste or two at this point. More mmmmming and smooching.
Mix dry ingredients and then add to the yummy lemony yogurt mixture. Blend very well.
Pour into a greased and sugared non-stick bundt pan, wiping any excess off the sides.
Put into the pre-heated oven and cook for 60-70 minutes.
Allow to cool completely and then turn onto a serving platter or cake stand.
Amaze your family and friends with the beauty of your golden, raised and beautifully moist lemon yogurt cake.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Public Service Announcement or Mon Pouce, Mon Poor, Poor Pouce

Here's a quickie. And a suggestion. Some advice for you my lovely readers and friends.
Do not attempt to cut onions in half in a dimly lit kitchen, in a hurry, and with a thumb that has a deathwish.

I did the above and now along with learning how to say, 'I cut my thumb with a knife' in French I have won the award for clumsiest person in my family. I've also been told by Mon Mari that yes, he does think I will lose the very tip of mon pouce. Thanks so much for the support and now I know that as with all things I can find a way to blame it on one else will ever want me with a disfigured pouce. Is it just me or does thumb sound really dirty in French?
And so I've found out just how useful this adorable opposing digit really is. The thumb helps one a) tie shoes b) button buttons c) change diapers d) fasten things like bras and trousers d) wash hair and hands e) hitch a lift f) eat with a fork g) tickle someone h) prevent someone from tickling you i) open packages j) braid and put hair into a ponytail and many more that I'm sure to discover.
I can't recommend it.
I can't do this, for example
That's all from this end. Have a wonderful weekend. See you Sunday when my seasonal recipe will feature again...only with no onions. You know, 'cause of the thumb thing.....

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Catacombs of Paris

When I was in Paris in the fall we went to the Catacombs. I don't know what I was expecting. If I'd read anything about it beforehand besides where the entrance was and that it was a collection of bones (understatement of the century) perhaps I'd have been more prepared.
You enter at one part of the city unaware and bubbly and emerge blinking and stunned at another.
As we waited in line to buy our tickets I started to get nervous. I think it was mostly down to the signs posted that suggested young children and those with a weak heart or 'sensitive or nervous nature' should reconsider. I asked myself, 'am I of a nervous nature?', 'am I a child?', 'am I scared of being way down underground Paris in a tunnel of bones?'
It turns out that the answers to the above questions are all yes.
The signs tell you there are 130 steps down into the depths and 83 steps to come back up. They also tell you it is a cool 14 degrees Celsius and that there are no toilets. Please consider: deep down under Paris, cemeteries' worth of bones, dark and creepy, a bit cold and nowhere to pee. Of course there's no toilets...that would be weird, disrespectful somehow, but isn't it a strange curse of  human nature that the moment someone tells you that you'll be freaked out and may want to pee your pants that you immediately need to go real bad. We all three did. And we all three held it, giggling nervously.
As we descended, following the winding, dark corridors it became eerily silent. It felt like the scene in Eclipse when all the unsuspecting tourists served themselves up for vampire dinner. We joked that if we saw Dakota Fanning we'd be out of there. There were also a couple of Chilean miner references as we tried to imagine them jogging up and down their subterranean prison.
The reality of it was more sobering. It took forever to wind our way down; first navigating slippery stone floors with little light and low tunneled stone ceilings dripping water, then taking the steep 103 stairs further down. As we finally entered the catacombs proper the urge to pee, cry, shiver was overwhelming. No more jokes came to mind as I looked at row upon row of what was left of thousands of people. Femur bones artfully stacked with knee joints forming designs, skulls of all sizes placed periodically, vacant eye sockets and cartilage-free noses looking down through time; strangely similar and familiar. It made me feel sad and small and painfully miniscule and human; transient.
We passed row upon row of bones, encroaching and towering over the pathway they formed for we tourists to gawk and sigh and gasp at the truth of the matter. Tears stung my eyes and found their way down my cheeks as I thought of all the lives lived, love and hardship, disease amid joy, hunger, belief, hope and the myriad elements of the human condition reduced to the bones surrounding us.
No one talked. We just kept walking through the bones, translating quotes from the Bible, philosophers, Shakespeare on the demise of we humans, on the gift of life, the beauty of our days here among the living, the inevitable truth of time passing and leading us here.
I suppose this is not the most uplifting topic for the new year. But it is true. And it makes me think about how to live this one life I've been given. Is there an original thought out there? Is there an feeling no one has ever felt; a dream longed for by no one else but you or me? The answer is no. Make your life what you can. Make it the best. Live it to the fullest. That's what I took from being hit by the realization of all those bones.
When we came out on the other end the path spit us out across the street and into the waiting arms of a shop. The nice French guy with a slight Australian accent to his English had done the smartest thing you can ever imagine. He had a sign in the window offering the use of his toilet for a euro. Either that or you could buy glow-in-the-dark skeletons, creepy bone masks, catacomb t-shirts, macabre books and deathly trinkets and go to the bathroom for free. My friend bought me a little button that says, 'I survived the catacombs.' And I did. And now the rest is out there. Worthy of more than mere survival.