Monday, January 25, 2016

Hunkering Down

Bring it on, Old Man Winter!
Winter Storm Jonas only brushed us here in North Carolina. While folks from Richmond to DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York were dealing with snowfalls measured in feet, we only got a few inches, but a good deal of that was in the form of sleet. We were lucky enough to dodge the dreaded freezing rain, a form of precipitation that does no one any good and tends to bring down tree limbs and power lines. Still, in the gentle Southland it doesn't take much snow to shut us down - since significant snowfalls occur only once every few years, we don't have much in the way of snow removal equipment and no one bothers with snow tires, much less chains.

When snow is predicted in NC, bread shelves
take on the look of a Soviet grocery!
Thanks to advanced weather forecasting, we knew this was coming and had time to prepare. Having lived through ice storms before, FryDaddy was taking no chances - we now have both a coffee percolator (no power would mean no way to brew coffee and we agreed that would be bad. Very, very bad) and a butane-fueled burner for cooking. Add to that the propane grill and gas logs and we figured we could ride out a moderate-to-severe ice storm. We made our grocery run (which included chocolate, puff pastry, and ingredients for a variety of soups) and went to bed Thursday night, convinced we'd done all we could. We never did lose power (yay!), but there was enough ice, sleet, and general nastiness to keep us basically snowed in since Friday morning. Approached with the proper attitude, this doesn't have to be a bad thing - and I suppose I've been training for such an event since I started my French journey. Some things you simply cannot control and the weather is one of those things.

So what did we do with ourselves?

First and foremost, I didn't work on "work stuff" over the suddenly-longer weekend. The college was closed and I was with the man I vowed to love, honor, and cherish. Therefore, some things could simply wait for a change in the weather. That was actually difficult, but I put my back into it and managed to find other ways to occupy my time, including:

Nutella & puff pastry - heaven!
Trying new recipes. Knowing that bad weather was coming in, I dug out a few recipes I wanted to try and made sure to include ingredients on the grocery list. I made a loaf of rye bread and one of a Russian-style black bread (yum!), along with chickpea & pasta soup, Nutella croissants (I now want to always have puff pastry in the house!), spicy chickpea salad, and I even made ricotta cheese that I used in both a spread and a pasta sauce. (I was blown away by the last one - cheese! I've never made cheese before!)

Watching movies. We have wide-ranging tastes and we watched two documentaries (one on Scientology and one on rough poet Charles Bukowski), an oddly-touching classic (Galaxy Quest), and a true winter epic (David Lean's Doctor Zhivago).

Eat! I think my jeans may have somehow shrunk over the last few days (ahem), but I had to do some experimentation to find out if anything doesn't taste good when spread with Nutella. The answer, so far, is no. In addition to the new recipes I tried, there was also lushly rich hot chocolate and other delicacies.

Do something new. My beloved Carolina Panthers were in the NFC Championship game Sunday night and I had teal put into my hair just before the storm hit. Since I was at home with time to spare, I painted my nails Panther blue and used the Internet to figure out how to add a snowflake design to one nail. The end result wasn't that great, but hey! it looks like a snowflake if you squint a little. (And the Panthers absolutely destroyed the Arizona Cardinals, so we're Super Bowl bound.)

FryDaddy and I also took our inner children sledding. Yep, we trudged over to the local golf course (the sledding hill is Hole #13, by the way) and borrowed a sled from a neighbor. I haven't gone sledding since I was little. I couldn't believe how much fun I had flying at breakneck speed down an icy hill!

Speaking of which, we also just had fun being together. Being snowed in is good for that sort of thing, whether you're speeding down a hill on a golf course or sitting by the fire reading. (Oh, and I also downloaded an app that is trying to teach me French. [It's also available on your computer.] Why not? I'm not going to learn any younger.)

Today things are nearly back to normal - there's still some ice and some of the back roads continue to be treacherous, but you can see that clear roads are coming. It was a lovely, graceful break in the drear that can be January in the South and I'm thrilled that I took the time to enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

New Year, New Things!

Happy New Year, y'all!

I've been away for a bit - you'll hear details on that - and I'm back to talk with you about the importance of trying new things. As I've worked to change old, not-so-good habits and replace them with better-for-me habits over the last half-year, I've learned that I have to be willing to try new things. In a way, this is simple - the things I was doing (which included, but was not limited to, multi-tasking and acting as if my hair was on fire most days) before starting the "French journey" weren't working for me. I was stressed, frazzled, irritated and I desperately needed to return to the French ways that I had been cultivating. Couple that willingness to try new things with the basic necessity of taking care of yourself and all of a sudden I had license to attempt any number of things. (Hey, it was for science! Well, if not for science, at least in the name of "going French"! And yes, I know that this could simply be called "downshifting," but since it all started with books about the French lifestyle, I'm sticking with that term.)

Try new things - got it. Actually, there's one other point that needs to be mentioned. I had to go into this with a spirit of adventure and understanding that a great deal of this was about figuring out what I liked and what didn't work, because not all things would work for me. One of the best lessons I've learned so far was about the importance of failing. Seriously - that part doesn't matter, but it is crucial to my ongoing success to try. How else would I learn that I don't really care for the dehydrated bits in instant Thai Ton Yum soup, but think the broth is fantastic? Or that there's such a thing as Honey-Ginger White Balsamic Vinegar and that it's great when you add just a dash of it to plain water?  As Samuel Beckett (a Celt who wrote primarily in French, so he knew a few things about a conflicted soul) put it, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

As I've mentioned before, I teach at a community college. The week before the semester begins is usually one of the busiest - and most bananas - weeks on the calendar. Classes are being reshuffled due to increased/decreased enrollment and that has a domino effect (nope, not the sugar - more of the Southeast Asian variety) on everything else. Plus, students are still enrolling and there are meetings and reminders and you're trying to get your classes prepped to launch smoothly on the first day of the semester. It's crazy-making ("Hair on fire" territory, to tell you the truth). I tend to go to ground during this time and just try to focus on what's right in front of me. The problem with that is that I forget my "French lessons." In other words, I'm reacting to things instead of acting upon them. I'm allowing myself to be buffeted about by events and people and copy machines instead of taking an extra five minutes to be kind to myself.

Enough of that.

So since early January, I've been consciously trying to incorporate some of the Gallic principles I've been adding into my daily life since last summer. For example, I try very hard to not have meetings back-to-back. Things never end when you expect them to and I run late far too often.

I've got five tried-and-true suggestions I'm experimenting with right now. The bonus - they cost absolutely (or next to) nothing! Take what works for you from here and let me know the results.

1.  Following a tip, I called DHC (you can reach them at 800-342-2273), which is a high-end Japanese skincare line, and requested their catalog. Their products are about the price of department store brands (Clinique, Estée Lauder, etc.), but the catalog also comes with tiny samples of some of their most popular products. (Also, when you place an order with them, you get a couple of samples as well.) The trick for me is to actually USE THE SAMPLES! I need to remember that part of "going French" is to get over saving the "good stuff" for only occasional use. (Yes, I've "saved" things until they went bad and had to be thrown out. Hangs head.) So yes - I try to have pizza on the good china, wear my pearls to the ballgame, and even use the fancy samples. I deserve it. Plus, it's fun to window shop like this. In fact, it's something I suggest doing with all sorts of catalogs.

2. Realizing that I'd been treating myself like the help rather than like company, I did a little Googling for "home spa night." (FryDaddy was tied up elsewhere, so I had the time.) One thing led to another and I found this site. Hmmm, I thought. Sounds pretty straightforward. I started poking around in the kitchen. With coffee, yogurt, honey, and olive oil, I was ready to go! I moved some candles into the bathroom, set up a Pandora station (there's a "spa channel"), drew a hot bath, added Epsom salt, coconut oil, and a few drops of lavender essential oil and firmly shut the door.

Not from my spa night, but still . . .
I mixed my potions and scrubbed my face (too much stress makes my skin dull), then applied a rich hair mask and clipped my hair up, smoothed on a soothing facial mask and soaked until I was done. A little seltzer with lemon and a square of dark chocolate didn't hurt either. I finished up with a shower and a body scrub. (Again, everything featured coffee as a main ingredient - go figure!) Thick, rich lotion and clean pajamas round out the experience. Then it was time for a quick push-back of cuticles and a simple manicure. Grab that catalog, climb into a bed made up with fresh sheets and - aaaahhhhhhh! (OK, it's not exactly like a spa - you've got to clean up the bathroom at some point. But the job wasn't not too bad.)

3. I'm eating real food again after all the rich holiday treats. I've ditched the fake sugar and use actual, real-from-cane (or agave; I just discovered that) stuff. Yes, sugar isn't especially good for you, but spoonful after packet after squirt of the fake stuff isn't good for you either, and there's evidence that it just confuses your body into wanting even more sweet stuff, thereby setting up folks like me who have a sweet tooth the size of Chicago to binge big.

And it's not just the fake sugar. I'm trying to cut out/back on fake food in general. For example, I like dairy. I'm no longer worrying about skim and fat-free everything. Yes - real full-fat milk, full-out thick Greek yogurt, real cheese. (I just found a recipe for homemade ricotta that I'm going to try. Let's see if Monty Python was right all those years ago when they said, "Blessed are the cheesemakers.") It's such simple advice - eat real food - but it's hard to do. I've got a pantry of not-quite-foods like salad dressing (take a gander at the amount of sugar and sodium in the "lite" versions sometime!) and pasta sauces, but I'm trying. I'm still making homemade bread and I prefer it. (By the way, if you decide to try this, look in thrift shops. I found one the other day in one of my favorite consignment shops for $12.) A thick slice of toasted wholegrain bread spread with actual butter and real fruit jam makes a pretty fine breakfast, I have to say. (To the French, it's a "tartine." I'm trying to learn a few words here and there and food seems like a fine place to start!)

On the subject of eating, I'm trying to separate eating and working. It's hard for me to just put the keyboard down and back away, so I tried it for a day a week at first. It helps to go outside if you can. I'm adding a few flourishes to my meals, like using a cloth napkin - it's really no trouble to just toss it in the laundry. I work with one woman who has a special plate for her lunch. She uses it every day and never, ever eats out of plastic - it's a way to remind herself that her lunch is special to her and that she should take time to enjoy it. I like that idea.

4. I'm trying to move more. Right now in North Carolina, it's bitterly cold, so I'm not doing anything more outside than I can help at the moment. But I'm using my favorite running podcast with the goal of getting back into shape to participate in 5K races by the time spring rolls around. At the moment, I'm using the walking track at the college instead of outside, which gets dull, but it still counts. It's so important to remember that small stuff counts - take the stairs, take a ten-minute walk as part of your lunch break, park at the end of the lot and walk to the building, walk the dog around the block - it all works.

5. And the final thing I'm trying to develop as a habit right now is to write letters. Not e-mail, letters. You know, the kind with postage. I heard the author of this book speak this past fall and I'm trying a version of his ideas. When you sit and have to form the words with a hand-held pen (I'm using a fountain pen to really slow myself down. Fortunately, I have a few friends who could advise me on inks and nibs and things), you have to think about what you want to say. It's oddly soothing. And I have the advantage of having an excellent example for this one - my mother writes notes quite often. I usually get a letter from her at least once a week, often with newspaper clippings from my old hometown paper. Sure, it's online these days, but that doesn't diminish the delight I have at getting something fun in the mail from someone who loves me with evidence that they've been thinking about me. Give it a try, I say!