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How to Spend 5 Hours at the Eiffel Tower

(…and I don’t mean waiting in line.) The day we arrived in Paris we had our first Eiffel Tower sighting. From our apartment in the 16th arrondissement the Tower is just a 10-minute walk (maybe 15 on kid legs), so even jet-lagged and overwhelmed, we made our way there to prove we had, in fact, made it to Paris. The next day we made it across the Seine to actually stand under the tower, but it was completely packed, being that it was just a couple of days before New Year’s. The bridge to cross the Seine was filled with people, and there were lines of tourists winding around the plaza trying to get tickets to go up the tower. But now that the holiday crowds have dispersed, getting into the tower is not nearly such a hassle. I bought tickets online a couple of days in advance, but we arrived at 10:30am on Sunday to find that the lines if you didn’t have tickets were really not so bad. With our tickets, we scooted right in to wait for the elevator, which then took us up to the 2nd floor. There is currently work being done at the top of the tower, so the top level is closed, which might also have impacted the crowds. But the view from the 2nd floor, which is 115m up (about 35 stories), is still magnificent. We took pictures from each side of the tower, looking out at the Parisian rooftops, and the girls marveled at how the people “looked like little ants!”

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From there, we took the stairs back down to the 1st floor (57m up), and headed straight to the Eiffel Tower Ice Rink. No idea who came up with that idea, but it is genius! The rink is a small rectangle that fits between two legs of the tower. But despite the size, it was never too crowded, and we skated and skated. The kids took turns skating on their own, skating with us, and skating using little chairs decorated like polar bears and penguins that they could either push to use as extra support or sit in and be pushed by someone else. All while overlooking the city. From within THE EIFFEL TOWER. I mean, it was awesome. The rink was a mishmash of languages and a very large number of people who couldn’t skate one bit. (Do Americans ice skate more than the rest of the world? I felt like Kristi Yamaguchi out there.) 

A Lunch to Feel Good About

I’m always on the lookout for healthy lunch recipes. I don’t know about you, but it’s much easier for me to be a careful eater for breakfast and lunch, which then gives me license to splurge on dinner. What’s that you say? You say there is absolutely no dietary evidence supporting that assertion? Well who asked you anyway. For me, the combination of feeling virtuous during the day while still contemplating the wine, cheese, and chocolate I deserve to eat for dinner and dessert is pretty appealing. 

And, I can scientifically assert that getting lots of protein and fiber in your breakfasts and lunches will keep you full longer and will (usually) prevent you from eating an entire bag of potato chips in the afternoon. So I have a file of lunch recipes that I keep on hand, especially when I feel like I need to get my body back on track health-wise. Bonus points for recipes I can make in advance that will last a few days. So that when I open the fridge and I'm hungry, I see the lovely salad I made a couple of days ago waiting for me (rather than deciding it will take too long to make something and heading to Chipotle instead, or, hypothetically, eating a entire jar of Nutella while you consider your options). Even better if you can package it in small containers to take to work and prevent you from getting sucked into the office Chinese food run. 

So one day I came across this recipe for Mediterranean Tuna Antipasto Salad, and it fit all the criteria. Healthy, high in fiber and protein, and easy to make in advance. In fact, I now make this so often that I put in whatever I might have on-hand. For example, this week I had roasted some red peppers and eggplant for dinner one night, but I couldn’t find any red onions anywhere. So I ended up with something like this:

What to Cook When You Don’t Want to Cook

Despite being in one of the best food cities in the world, we actually haven’t spent much time in restaurants here. Partly because of the cost involved, and partly because the Paris restaurant scene is not all that kid-friendly, except in the tourist traps. I’ve heard that French children are not common in restaurants, and while I haven’t been to enough restaurants here to really judge that for myself, I’m inclined to believe it’s true. One large reason (for us at least) being that the Paris dinner scene doesn’t really start until 8pm. The one time we did take the kids out to the bistro around the corner, it was 6pm, and we were starving. We ate an entire meal and left without another diner in sight. (And lest you think the restaurant was just terrible and everyone else knows to avoid it, I will tell you that when I walk by at lunchtime and late afternoon, it is packed.) 

So I have been “cooking” most every night, but relying on some easy meals to get by on those days when I don’t have the time or the mental capacity to put something from scratch on the table. I was in the grocery store the other day, and in the sale section that changes every few days, I found a package of pre-made polenta squares with truffles! That made me think of one of my favorite easy-to-make meals, Grilled Polenta with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Fried Eggs. In this recipe, from the NY Times, you make up a quick but spicy and flavorful tomato sauce, then put it on top some fried polenta squares and add a couple of fried eggs. There are also instructions for how to make your own polenta—easy if you’re so inspired, but you can also just buy one of those pre-made tubes of polenta in the store. And, I’ll do you one better. If even that is above your pay grade for the day, just buy the tomato sauce too! I did, and we had an excellent, inexpensive meal with a minimum of effort. Try it. 

A Long Winter’s Day

At home during the winter months, when it’s freezing outside, and the kids have been running from school to activity to playdates all week, I’m more than happy to let us all just rest up at home over the weekend (ideally in different parts of the house…). Here, the combination of a week with long school days, early sunsets, and a small apartment has us hitting the weekends itching to explore. The weather has been cold (low 40s) but not freezing, and we can all handle a few hours outside. Yesterday, we took the metro to the Tuilieries, which I had heard was a must-do for kids in Paris. After spending an afternoon there, I can see why. And I can also see how it could be total mayhem once the warm weather hits. But for now, while there were other people around, there were no lines, and the girls could run around to their hearts’ content. We started with a ride on the 200-ft tall Roue de Paris, a giant Ferris Wheel with beautiful views of the city. 

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Comfy chairs while we contemplate the Wheel. Can’t wait to sit here with a book in the spring.

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View from underneath La Roue

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On top of the world

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View down the Champs-Elysées

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And of the Eiffel Tower, bien sur!

After that, Chuck and I fortified ourselves with a nice big cup of vin chaud (warm spiced red wine), while the girls hit the playgrounds. Trampolines! And a carousel! And a big playground with a giant metal slide. And weird spinny things! 

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A bit of fun overload on their parts, as there was significant whining a difference of opinion on when we should leave any of the activities, but we made it out alive and excited to go back, especially when it warms up a little! 

After our afternoon in the cold, it was time for another nice warming dinner. 

I had to adjust the recipe slightly to account for some of the ingredients I couldn’t find here, but click the caption text for a link to the original recipe from The Washington Post recipe section. Totally delicious and a go-to in my stable of winter recipes.  

Beef Stew for a Cold Day

In retrospect, January may not have been the best time to move to Paris. It’s cold and often dreary out. Most days have been cloudy, if not drizzly. But on the bright side, it’s not East Coast or Wisconsin cold, so the weather has not stopped me from being outside jogging or at least walking most days. And that’s something to be thankful for. But when it came time to figure out our next meal here, I was craving something hearty and warming. I found a French cookbook in the kitchen, and started paging through it, stopping at this page:

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So I headed to the grocery store. They didn’t seem to have any pre-chopped up stew meat, like you have in U.S. grocery stores, so I picked up some steaks that had some nice marbling of fat in them and cut them into chunks at home. I like to cut off the big hard chunks of fat around the edges, because those tend to get rubbery, but you definitely want streaks of fat throughout the meat, because that’s what will break down and get your meat nice and tender when it cooks for a long time. Also, I bought onions and carrots and tomato paste, but couldn’t find veal stock or even premade stock of any kind, so I grabbed a package of chicken bouillon cubes. Forgot to get flour and couldn’t find any in the kitchen, nor could I find a big baking dish or casserole pan. So from there, I decided to go off-script, and make this into a stew instead. 

Bouef Aux Carrotes Stew for a Chilly Day

Brown the meat cubes (salted and peppered) in your saucepan over medium-high heat in a little bit of olive oil first, then remove the meat and put in a chopped-up onion. When that softens (5 min or so), add 1 cup or so of sliced carrots and 1-2 chopped-up garlic cloves. Add a little s&p there too. Let that cook for a couple of minutes, then add back the meat, along with a tablespoon or two of tomato paste. Cook for only 30 seconds or so, and then add a good guzzle of red wine. You want enough to prevent the stew from burning on the bottom of the pan, but not so much that everything is swimming in it. Let that cook until the wine has been absorbed, and then add some chicken broth (beef or veal stock is even better). How much is really up to you—do you want it more or less soupy? So add some, let it cook for a while, adjust if you need to. Add more wine or tomato paste if you like. Just make sure there is enough liquid that the bottom of the pan will not burn while you are cooking it for a long time. How long? It depends on your cut of meat and how big your cubes are, but at least an hour and a half and probably closer to 2 to 2.5 hours. Start it in the afternoon so you have all the time you need. What’s better than smelling a beef stew gently simmering away on the stove? When the beef is tender, and the stew has all melded together, you’re done. (And you did it without a real recipe—good for you!)

Fish Confessions

We had been surviving quite nicely on baguettes, cheese, and various vegetables and sides from the refrigerated case at the Monoprix, but this was Paris, and it was time to get cooking. I gathered up my nerve and decided to venture into the seafood department on a morning when the supermarket wasn’t too crowded. I looked around, and saw something that looked like some kind of a whitefish fillet. I asked the attendant for two of the fish, and then immediately noticed as she pulled them out and weighed them for me, that they were not in fact fillets, but the entire fish (without the head and skin, but everything else). I picked up a premade beurre blanc sauce that I found near the seafood (oh, France, how I love you) to go with it and went home to give it a try. The only sauté pan I have here is a sort-of nonstick grill pan (I say sort of because the nonstick part is pretty worn off), so I poured some olive oil on it, salted and peppered my fish on both sides, and put them in the pan. They were thin, so within a couple of minutes on each side, they were done. I (mumble mumble) put the sauce in the microwave to heat up, and just poured some on top of the fish at the very end of the cooking. Here’s how it came out: 

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It was not pretty. (I’m going for honesty here folks!) As I mentioned, that not-really-nonstick pan kind of mangled the nice fish, but I will tell you that it was delicious! Yes, there were small bones to pick out, but I managed to pull most of my backbone and side bones out in one go after eating the meat off the top, and the flesh was flaky and moist. Chuck and I found ourselves scraping the last morsels of delicious fish off our little skeletons and wanting more. I served it with some refrigerator-case gnocchi tossed with jarred pesto, and some of those amazing “tomates cerises confites” which I now want to eat on just about everything. And a baguette, of course. Michelin star it was not, but it was quite yummy, healthy (easy on the sauce), involved very little work and even less cooking equipment and cleanup. I was beginning to build a little confidence. 

The Monoprix

After exploring the kitchen and its limitations, the next step was the grocery store. Our first apartment is in a chic neighborhood in Paris, called Passy. The main street is lined with fancy boutiques, and on the weekend, the sidewalks are packed with shoppers toting bags. I catch snippets of English being spoken here and there. A couple of blocks from our house is a mall—a small one, but still a kind of mall with a big Gap store and even a Starbucks kiosk on the bottom level. (Though, its menu lists about 6 drinks on it with not a pumpkin spice latte to be found, so what good is it.) On the lower floor of the mall is the Monoprix, a decent-sized labyrinthian grocery store. I entered into the produce section—produce! easy! I got this!—and quickly learned that you have to bring your bagged items to the attendant to weigh and sticker them before leaving the area. That done, I ventured into the rest of the store, and was quickly overwhelmed and intimidated. Every time I tried to calculate what ingredients I needed to make something, I quickly realized I had no idea where to find something, or it required a pot or a pan that did not exist at the apartment. I made several failed efforts before deciding I would start with packaged food until I got more comfortable with the store. (I should note here that the Monoprix winds around through section to section, and should you figure out in the paper goods section that you—god forbid—forgot a piece of fruit, you have to wind your back against shopper traffic to go get it.) 

But luckily, the packaged food is lovely! Little containers of artichokes, cherry tomatoes, smoked fish. Lots of refrigerated pasta. Cheeses upon cheeses upon cheeses. Delicious soups. An entire wall of yogurt in little glass jars (so many to look at that I panicked, grabbed something, and realized when I got it home that it was sheep’s milk…not half bad though). Packages of all different kinds of cured meats, a whole section of foie gras (which I have since realized was so large only because it was around New Year’s Eve), and escargots in the freezer case! So our New Year’s Eve dinner looked like this:

Settling In

Where was I? Right, no room service. When you’re on vacation, it’s all sightseeing and restaurants and someone cleaning your hotel room every day. Turns out moving somewhere is quite different. We did spend much of the first week sightseeing, since Chuck was off work and the girls hadn’t started school, and we have enjoyed a few restaurants (both with and without children), but for the most part I’ve been trying to prepare our meals at home. Very quickly I realized that my regular stable of meals in the U.S. would not be easy to recreate. To start, our apartment has a good-sized-for-Paris kitchen, which is perhaps 1/4 the size of our kitchen at home. It looks lovely, but is in fact deceivingly small. Behind many of these sweet cabinet doors is non-usable space dedicated to the dishwasher, hot water heater, and refrigerator/freezer. The refrigerator is small, the oven is small, and the cooktop only has two working burners and beeps when you put anything on it that isn’t an induction pan. There is one large drawer of cooking equipment:

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and a poor supply of cooking utensils and knives. I can only assume the woman who owns this apartment does not cook much, or else took all her good stuff with her when she left. No can opener, cheese grater, or spatula. There is, however, an oyster knife and a drawer dedicated to a variety of cute little silver pitchers and shallow dishes.

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Ashtrays? Little dishes for entertaining? I’m not quite sure, but I can tell you this is space I would have dedicated to something more useful. For the regular dishes, there is a tall stack of these huge dinner plates (which seems odd given the miniature nature of everything else in the kitchen), no small plates, and only 6 regular water glasses. More often than not, the kids drink their milk out of espresso cups, of which there are a good supply. Oh, and according to the inventory list, there are no less than 44 wine glasses. So we’ve got that going for us. 

I was told there’d be room service.

Things that are different when you move to a foreign country rather than just vacationing there: there are no friendly English-speaking hotel concierges to tell you where the best restaurants are nearby or how to get to a different part of the city or what’s the deal with those Metro passes or where to buy kids navy-blue socks on short-notice. Instead, we arrived off the plane bleary-eyed last Sunday morning (though after having experienced the miracle of the business class upgrade, perhaps due to the combination of us having booked tickets after online seat assignment had closed, and my cute kids and husband charming the Air France check-in lady with our story about moving to France) and somehow found our bags and the taxi shuttle I had reserved online. The airport, even at 8am, was packed, and we only survived the immigration line thanks to that amazing upgrade. The airport was also decidedly lacking in signage, which is perhaps on purpose to warn people coming to France that for all its wonder and general amazing-ness, clear signage and customer service are not its strong points. 

I say this all just to put you in the mindset of finally arriving at our très adorable apartment in the 16ème, jet-lagged and exhausted, dragging our 6 large bags through the building courtyard. Our “welcome hostess,” Miriam, was waiting for us in the apartment and immediately greeted us with a rapid stream of French. It quickly became clear that she spoke no English, and expected that we would speak French (not surprising since all my communication with the apartment’s owner had been in French via the AirBNB website—as a side note, each back-and-forth took me about a half hour to decipher hers and write my response, with not insignificant thanks to Google Translate). Anyway, as the family member with the best French (again, that’s not saying much), I let her lead me through the apartment, smiling and nodding as she pointed to various features. I’m pretty sure I caught about 25% of what she was saying, but we have as yet not broken anything or blown the place up, so I can’t have missed anything too important. (Also, we have since had several moments of: "ohhhh, that’s what she meant by that," for example when we discovered the controls for putting down the shade in the sunroom.) And then, after handing me a 3-page single-spaced, tiny typed document of the apartment description and inventory, she was gone. And there we were. Tomorrow: about that room service...

e© Molly Pisula 2015