Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Through the Looking Glass

We don't get to San Francisco often these days, as the traffic has become fierce and unpredictable.  Time was if you avoided rush hours you could get to SF as fast as you could reach Oakland from Berkeley; no longer.  So visiting The City, as we learned to call SF when we moved here many years ago, has become a very occasional outing.

But the rumor of good food will finally move us and last week we decided to have lunch at Mission Chinese Food, a once pop-up, now permanent restaurant on, what else, Mission Street, in what else, the Mission District.  It wasn't hard to find.

I first heard about this place in Mark Bittman's New York Times column.  A modern, completely untraditional Asian restaurant sharing space with a classic Chinese greasy spoon, cooking entirely different menus out of the same kitchen.  In the Asian food desert that is Paris, this made me sit up and salivate.

And so we lunched on fabulously spicy and biting fermented Sichuan pickles of cabbage and cucumbers with peanuts, jalapenos and herbs, sizzling cumin lamb with bits of delicious chili-marinated long beans, and Li Bao dry braised noodles.  The room was ill-lit and I wasn't able to get any decent photos of the food, but the New Year dragon over my head looked like he wanted some of our meal.  No way; we ate until we groaned.

And then we stepped out into Latin America.

The Mission District is traditionally Mexican and Latin American.  The stores cater to this market and the signs are predominately in Spanish.  You could live your life here speaking only Spanish, and some people do.  It's the kind of place where they still sell "used clothes" in two languages rather than "vintage" in one.

But things have changed in recent years and the El Capitan theater is now a parking garage, badly needed in this overcrowded part of town especially since the demographic is changing from ethnic to hipster.  It reminds me in some ways of the Marais in Paris, once poor and Jewish, now pricey and hip.

The Mission hasn't completely capitulated, but it's getting harder to find an affordable apartment and the hottest restaurants are in these streets.  Cappucinos and single room occupancy hotels are cheek by jowl.  (Stir-fried pork jowl and radishes is on the Mission Chinese menu; oh sorry, that was my stomach forcing my fingers to type. So many dishes yet to try!)

On the way back to the car, I couldn't resist this evidence of the changing neighborhood. Do you think they got that phone number by accident or was someone at PacBell in a good mood the day they opened the account?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Not Your Father's Winter

See that?  That is not what this winter is like in Paris.  Of course not.  We left.

In fact the winter of 2011-2012 is the mildest in many years and on its way to beating all records.  The temperature has not reached freezing at all; even in the unusually warm winter of 2006-2007 the temperatures fell to -1º/-3ºC.  Weather this mild has not been recorded since the early 1970s.

Luckily we're quite happy here in the equally oddly warm Bay Area, where I've been swanning around in a T-shirt and cardigan.  I'd be royally p.o.'d if we had left a warm Parisian winter for a cold and dreary Berkeley sojourn.  Instead we're hanging out with equally lightly dressed friends and sitting outside enjoying global warming.

Here's where I'm sitting right now:

Well, no, I had to get up to take the picture, but you get the idea.  Sun and warmth and greenery outside the window.  Mmmm...

During these Berkeley sojourns we've always tried to take French lessons.  It's hard to really learn a language without being immersed in it.  When we're in Paris it's all around and speaking in English to each other, while not ideal, is not as bad as it is here, where all the world is speaking English and we have to go out of our way to listen to French TV or radio to work on comprehension.

So Gene and I have been trying, rather awkwardly, to speak French to each other recently.  Since speaking in French to anyone requires more concentrated effort than speaking English, you can imagine what stilted and repetitive conversations we're having when speaking to each other:  "Quoi?  Comment?  Qu'est-ce que tu m'as dis?"  There's a lot of repeating.

Our regular Berkeley French teacher has had serious health problems and is not available, so we've both signed up with the local Alliance Francaise for weekly French lessons and we're looking forward to a bit more fluency with each other.   We'll see how it goes, or as we should be saying to each other, on verra comment ça va aller.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Slip Sliding Along

There have been only a handful of days in the last month that have been anything but sunny and clear.  Our decision not to spend the winter in Paris has been vindicated in terms of weather, no question. Waking up to sunny skies rather than gray rain feels great.  And wearing a sweater rather than a heavy coat, muffler and gloves?  Priceless.

Our original thought in moving to Paris the first year was to see how it felt to live there all year round rather than the spring and fall visits we'd been making for years.  Californians to the core, now we know.  We're not big fans of cold, gray, rainy, snowy, slushy days.  Sometimes just being in Paris makes up for it though.

And sometimes the lack of bagels added to the weather tips us over the edge.  How I would kill to see a selection like this in Paris!

I'm kidding.  Bagels are great, but I don't actually feel the need to recreate Berkeley in Paris.  Perhaps Paris in Berkeley...now that would be a good thing.  Gerard Mulot croissants for breakfast...miam.  Although I was given a loaf of the best bread I've ever had last week, baked in the wood-burning pizza oven at Pizzaiolo in Oakland.  Not so bad as a croissant stand-in.  And the pizza if fabulous too.

Meanwhile, we are doing our usual cocooning.  We're spending much less time here going out and much more eating at home, reading, watching television.  It's a good version of life and a different one.
A pot of soup on the stove is just as nice if the sun is shining.

The holidays passed lightly over our heads, with a few parties, a few friends, a few relations; this year we had no feeling of Christmas overload, no annoying songs stuck in our heads, playing over and over.  We stayed out of stores, exchanged few gifts, just enjoyed the love and health we were lucky to have.  Gene had a long-scheduled surgery and has come out of it just fine.  We're happy.