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.


Post a Comment