Let them eat cake

Hi kids,

When one has children who start going to preschool, one develops a need for a go-to simple cake recipe.

There are birthdays that need celebrating, both in school and for birthday parties. In our maternelle there is also a weekly Monday bake sale, where the classes take turns baking cakes, to raise money for the end of the year school fair.

And sometimes you need something to do on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

I’ve always enjoyed baking, but when we started our maternelle experience (or actually even earlier, as you were already celebrating birthdays at the halte-garderie), I started experimenting with gateaux à yaourt, yogurt cakes, a staple of French childhoods. In the crèche and in Petite Section, the teachers specify that cakes should have no messy frosting or cream that will have them endlessly wiping faces and fingers and anywhere they may have touched. Yogurt cakes fit the bill.

They are so ridiculously easy to make, do not even require dirtying any hand mixer tools, and can be whipped together over beers at the kitchen table with your neighbor on a Sunday afternoon while children play, after you suddenly remember it’s your class’s turn for cake day the next day (me yesterday afternoon).

They are fun to make with children, because you use the yogurt cup (125 ml) to measure out the rest of the ingredients.

This is my standard recipe, taken from Marmiton. It could not be easier. The most challenging part of this recipe is melting the chocolate in a double boiler and then letting it cool.

 

Ingredients

 

1 plain yogurt, 125 ml, of which the cup is to be washed and used to measure the rest of the ingredients

2 yogurt cups flour

1.5 yogurt cups sugar

¾ yogurt cup vegetable oil

3 eggs

½ tsp baking powder or one “sachet de levure”

200 grams baking chocolate

 

Preheat oven to 180°C/ 375°F

 

In a double boiler melt chocolate. Let stand until cool

In a bowl mix yogurt, sugar, vegetable oil and eggs. Add chocolate.

Mix together flour and baking powder, then slowly add to the rest of the ingredients, stirring until incorporated.

 

Pour batter into a greased cake pan.

 

Bake time: 30 minutes. Check after 20 minutes by sticking a knife in the middle and seeing if it comes out clean.

 

I also like to add colored sprinkles to the top before baking. This ensures the delight of the children who will be eating it.

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Heart

Dear Mom,

 

This past weekend, on the five year anniversary weekend of your heart attack, I ran a 5k for the very first time in my life.

 

It was five years to the day since I received the phone call. Dad called me on Sunday March 13, 2011, and on Sunday March 13, 2016, my legs, and my heart, ran me five kilometers without stopping.

 

I did a 5k back in September, La Parisienne, but I walked most of it.

This was the first time I ran pretty much the whole thing.

 

Albeit slowly, but I did it.

 

I almost didn’t though. It’s so funny, Mom, how the voices in one’s head can keep you from doing something. I signed up, but wasn’t really sure I would do it. Even though I’ve been jogging once a week for the past couple of years, I haven’t been doing it for the past two months, because of winter and cold and illnesses. So I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it.

 

But I decided to give it a try, giving myself permission to do as much as I could.

 

Then, when the race started, there was no set starting line, and I was fiddling so much with my music that I found myself at the end.

Which meant that, instead of the calm slow start I was hoping for, I was frantically running to not stray to far behind.

My heart was pounding and I was already out of breath, a minute into the race.

I felt panicky.

The voices started up again. What’s the point, let’s back out now, go back home, we will try again next year.

 

Then a funny thing happened. I noticed a guy a few steps ahead of me, trotting even slower than my pace. He was really pacing himself. He was wearing a local running club shirt, but he was far slower than everyone else.

 

I decided to match my pace to his, and I told myself, I’ll just do this for a little while, following along with this guy, and I can always stop later.

 

So I followed a few steps behind him, and then I passed him, and I wasn’t the last one, and I lost track of him, and I don’t know who that guy was, but if I ever see him again, I would like to thank him, because if he hadn’t been in the pack, I am certain I would have given up right at the start.

 

What happened was, it was really, really, really hard, and I started to think about my body, and how amazing it was that it was doing this. My forty-one year old body was running, running, running. My strong legs were carrying me. My lungs were oxygenating my limbs. And my heart, my heart, it was pumping. It was working. It was working really hard, carrying me through the streets of this town that we moved to just after you went, that you never got to visit us in.

Five years to the day after your heart stopped functioning properly, mine was beating loudly, overtime, doing its job, and doing it amazingly well.

 

Almost one year ago, I felt my chest hurt. I felt pain shoot down my left arm. I went to the doctor and in a panic she sent me to the hospital and I spent a scary night there. I thought my heart was stopping. I thought I was going to be pulled from my children the way you were pulled from me.

 

The terror I felt for a few hours was unimaginable. Did you feel that way too, Mom, when you were lying in the hospital? Did you know you were going to be pulled away from all of us? Did you feel the same anguish I did or were you more accepting, knowing that you had raised your child and had had a good life?

 

If you want to look at it from a psychological point of view, I think that I was missing you. I have reflected a lot over this past year, of how close I felt to you, almost symbiotic. Which was a wonderful thing of course, I’m not saying the contrary. The closeness we shared was wonderful and special and it means that you are in my heart, still.

 

They ran all kinds of tests on me. A rather handsome French cardiologist came in the night, pressed an ultrasound probe to my breasts, and stared intently at his screen. You know what, Mom?

 

It turns out I have an extremely strong and healthy heart. Whatever the chest pains were, it wasn’t my heart that was failing. It was strong, and it is strong, as evidenced by it powering my body over five kilometers this past weekend.

 

It means that your heart took you from me, and from this earthly plane, but my heart will keep me here, to live.

 

Five years on, I often feel a pang of what could have been, had you just simply lived. How you could have been a part of my kids’ lives. What an amazing experience that would have been! Of course in that alternate universe I would never have known any other world, never have known the difference.

 

There’s a ceremony I read about recently, about letting go of loved ones, so that they may live. Even if it is for the living, I’m going to do it with you. I know now that I will never get past the longing for that other life, the one where you lived. I have known that for a while, but what I also know now, is that it’s ok.

 

In fact, one might say, it’s even Life.

 

Next week is the first week of spring, the poignancy once again flowing over me, that you left in this season of newness, where everything was starting again. You returned to the earth as it was renewing itself, as it always does, reminding us that even in death, there is always

Life.

 

I love you Mom, and I miss you.

Winter break 2016

Dear Kids,

 

Well here we are the first of March. We broke through the first two cold, gloomy months of the year. Although I believe winter is important for the soul, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from knowing we are in late winter, and spring is just a few weeks away again. Walking home at 6pm, and not having it be pitch black, but a velvety marine blue as the light fades in the horizon, the cold needling our cheeks.

 

We’ve been doing some nice activities this vacation. We went to Germany the first week, and enjoyed more trips to the the wild animal park, feeding goats, seeing pigs and cows and sheep out in the countryside. And sleeping wolves too. Waking up in the morning to feed the cousins’ chickens in the back yards. We spent a lot of time in the country in Bavaria, and I have a little secret to confess: you did not take a bath for nine whole days. Mainly because in Germany many people believe it’s not healthy to bathe too much, especially in winter, a sentiment shared by my Bavarian family, but I confess that you smelled like chévre on the TGV ride back to Paris. (I love a nice ripe chévre so it wasn’t a problem for me, can’t speak for our neighbors though).

You also did a cooking class at the Kinder Museum where you made potato soup, and of course we visited the Kinderreich at the Deutsches museum again, which is one of our favorite places. And the zoo.

This week you are doing an English theatre camp. You are both doing it together, as it’s for ages 4-8. I was curious how it would be to have you do an activity together, since you have a tendancy of, well, having a lot of disputes, shall we say. The books you are reading and then acting out during the camp are The Gruffalo and the Gruffalo’s Child, The Day The Crayons Came Home, and Grandfather Twilight.

We will go ice skating in the afternoon and try to visit the Galerie d’evolution, which I’ve been wanting to take you to for years. We’ve also been shopping for new rain boots, since you’ve both grown out of yours, staying faithful to the Aigle Lollypops in classic marine blue for you Son, and the “botte magique” for Daughter. Along with your Petit Bateau pink “ciré” rain coat that I picked up for you recently, rainy days have never been so much fun, and perhaps a stroll on a windswept Atlantic coast may be in our future this spring.

I’m glad you’ve both been working hard in school and I’m happy you are able to have an enjoyable little break, from the overload of activities…

 

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A letter to myself, thirty years into the future

Dear Kids and Dear Future Self,

We didn’t really luck out so much in the grandparent department. My mother died when my mothering adventure was just beginning. I feel that loss all the time, but also for your sake. I believe she would have enjoyed being a grandmother. I’m not sure, of course, and I refuse to look at things through rose-colored glasses. But it sometimes makes me sad to think of all the things that could have been, had she lived. Trips with her, visits with her, different activities, going to California to visit her, or wherever she ended up living. When Son was born she indicated wanting to move to be a little closer to us, either simply to the east coast, or back to Germany. Who knows what she would have decided.

 

It’s painful to think about for me. The loss of a whole set of experiences that could have been.

 

As such, you have one grandmother in Canada and one grandfather in California. I feel blessed to have them, my mother-in-law and my father, but they aren’t very present in our lives. Your grandmother due to family politics, which you will learn about in due time, and your grandfather simply because of distance and finance, but also not a whole lot of initiative. In France, grandparents are present everywhere, at least it seems that way to me. They keep kids on Wednesday afternoons and during the numerous school holidays. I feel a whole lot of envy about this and wish I could offer you the same experience (although I’m not so sure I’d be so happy with a French mother-in-law, but perhaps that’s another post).

 

I often think about being a grandmother someday. Who even knows if that is in the cards. Who knows if you will decide to have kids, or if I will be around to know them, or if I will make an early departure the way my mother did. I just hope that I will remember what it was like to have small children, and that I will offer up my help accordingly. I hope to keep my grandchildren one day a week, and pick them up from school once or twice a week, and be available to keep them on strike days and for a week during school holidays. I hope to have a place, maybe in the country, to keep them, or maybe in Paris, so as to be able to visit Paris with them. I hope I’ll enjoy good health to be able to do this, and I hope I won’t become too selfish and take the attitude of, I raised my children during long years and I have no more obligation. Not that I think your grandparents necessarily have this attitude, but I hope I remember to take more initiative than they do.

 

This is all dependent of course on many factors, but let this be a reminder to myself in the future, should I be so blessed…

The Change

Dear children,

 

Last week, on Friday the thirteenth, of November 2015, terrible attacks on the people of Paris took place.

 

What can I tell you about this surreal time? This time of uncertainty? Parisians are a people of resilience. They’ve recovered from many things, including terrorist attacks twenty odd years ago, and they are stepping up now. They claim they are, anyway.

 

I don’t really feel so brave. I grew up in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind of southern California. Not that it was the safest place on earth, but nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to these horrific acts that have taken place in November and in 2015 in France.

 

I don’t much feel like going out into Paris, although I still do it when I need to. But many people fought back by defiantly sitting on the terrasse of cafes, and that’s something I can live without for the moment.

 

I’ve loved Paris for as long as I can remember. I’ve loved Parisian cafes for as long as that. This was an attack on things that Paris stands for. Freedom of creative expression, freedom to meet and talk and drink and flirt and hear music and cheer soccer, on a Friday night.

 

It really hit in the gut. I love most (not all) of those things, and they were all attacked.

 

And it leaves me wondering, what now? Paris has changed. Paris is not what it once was. I have always, in the fourteen years I’ve lived here, felt safe here. It’s one of the things I appreciated about this city. Petty crime has always existed, of course, but besides annoying hands on my posterior during rush hour on the metro, I’ve never felt like my safety was threatened. I certainly could never say the same thing about my home town.

 

But now, it will be a long while before we feel completely safe in Paris. I dream of the day. But, and this is what gives me my heavy heart today, I think that day will come long after your childhoods.

 

And that makes me sad. We had gang violence in my home town, but it was generally relegated to neighborhoods that could be avoided. The next ten or fifteen years will see the two of you begin to develop social lives. Still a ways off, of course, but in the not too distant future, you will be going to see shows and hear music, meeting friends for a drink on a café terrasse. All the things that make life in this city, and in general, great.

 

And now I think that will be tainted by fear. Certainly, I believe that my parenting style will be affected. I don’t know what I will decide when the time comes for you to take the metro into Paris by yourselves. What about school trips, vacation camps? I would like to be a brave Parisian, but I do not feel it right now. Perhaps it will come.

 

Your childhoods have been shifted by certain events. My mother dying very early on during my time as a mother, when Son was under two years old. This event shifted everything. I know that in a parallel universe, there exists another timeline where this didn’t happen, and where I was different as a mother, and your childhoods were experienced differently.

 

And this too, shifts everything.

 

I suppose there is nothing to do but live.

 

Autumn 2015 recap

Dear kids,

Whoa! It’s been quite a while since I’ve sat down to write to you. Not since the beginning of summer.

I never told you how the classe de mer turned out. Son, you had an amazing time. I can still remember the proud, smiling look on your face on the Friday evening as you and your class walked down the street from the bus to the front of the school where all the parents were waiting. You were so proud, you had a wonderful time, you became more independent, you were proud of going even though it scared you a bit. And you have not stopped talking about it for six months. You tell us how you would love to go back one day.

You did many things. You stayed in the colonie de vacances where you guys had lots of different activities everyday. You had to sleep on the bottom bunk because you were not yet six and the law says that children under age six are not allowed to sleep on the top bunk. You shared your room with three other boys.

You took walks on the beach, collected crabs and shells from the tidepools for your classroom aquarium.

Painted your faces with clay from the cliffs.

Took a day trip to the Ocearium du Croisic and had a picnic on the port.

Built a huge “mur de chine” out of sand.

The cantine at the colonie served you a seafood platter. You also had crepes, fish, frites.

Played outside on the swing set.

 

It was really a wonderful experience for you and a bonding experience for your classmates and the maitresse, who we still see from time to time because she does etude at the primary school now.

I remember the day after you got back, I had signed you up for a Lego workshop. I took you there by myself, and I could see how you’d gotten bigger, more confident. I am very glad you had a good time.

 

And then we had a busy summer, and then Son, you started CP at the local primary school. You were so excited about starting CP that during the final weeks of summer, you slept with your brand new Tann’s cartable. I bought you a few books about starting CP.

 

On the first day of school, you just ran into your new class with your new maître, and waved happily from the window. It has gone well so far, you’ve had a couple of field trips that I’ve accompanied on, one to the forest of Montmorency, and one for apple picking. You also go to the pool every Friday.

 

The teacher told me that you are doing well, and that you have a good standing with your classmates. I’m glad to hear this and I hope it continues. Son, to be honest with you, I was a very shy kid, and I found primary school to be very challenging, to say the least. I was bullied in the last year and it was a painful experience, and I have to be very mindful of not passing on those painful insinuations that I have. The truth is that I have a far better outlook on learning now, having gone through university, and that is what I encourage your to focus on.

 

I also have to be mindful that you and your sister are not me, and are different, and will experience the world in a different way than me.

 

In CP at age six, in France kids learn to read. You have ten minutes or so of homework every evening that so far is going well. I am happy about the decision to send you to the local public French school. There is a lot of pressure from the Anglophone community to do bilingual schools and private schools, but I have faith in Education Nationale, even while people in the US have lost faith in public schools, and it’s so nice to have school be a two minute walk away, to know classmates in the neighborhood, to go to the local park and see friends after school.

 

Daughter, you are in your second year of maternelle! Moyenne Section, the equivalent of Pre-K. You never complain about going to school. You have learned to write your name although you are still a bit hesitant on the “Z”. I try to pick you both up for lunch once a week, although Son asks more and more to eat lunch at school with his friends. It shows how fleeting this time is, when kids want to be with their parents, so I will do this as long you would like to.

 

Daughter, you have a maître this year, which is funny for maternelle. In fact, both you and Son have maîtres. I think it’s a nice change. I think maternelle is quite packed for you but you never say you don’t want to go to school, so I think you enjoy it. You are still very into Elsa, and in a very girly phase right now of barrettes (which you don’t keep on, you just play with in school) and dresses and tights. I hope you find a balance and enjoy school.

 

Of course, you are only four, so you still have time!

 

We had a little birthday celebration for you a few weeks ago. Very simple, we just invited three school friends over to play, and we baked a chocolate yogurt cake. You also had cake at school.

 

Life is busier than ever this year. Son, you are back at the orthophoniste this year, we found a bilingual French-American one. I hope this will encourage you to speak more English. You also have swimming, music, and sports on Saturday mornings. Daughter, you are doing dance again, and swimming as well. I try to go to the park after school once or twice a week.

 

Yes, life is very busy and school is certainly intense for you Son. There is a lot of talk about how kids are doing more in school than earlier generations.

 

To that end, I see how much we need a break. During the Toussaint vacation last week, our neighbor invited us to spend a week with them down in the region of Les Landes. We stayed in an old farmhouse that belonged to an 18th century manor. It was renovated a few years ago. The house was entirely heated by wood burning stove, which needed to be filled up every few hours. It was amazing to be alone in the middle of the woods, with a huge expanse of space for you all to run and explore. We explored the region a bit as well.

 

 

I find both of you to be extremely adorable at this moment. Daughter, you are so sweet, cuddly and smiley, and you are prone at the moment to suddenly exclaim “I love you!” several times a day. It is so, so sweet! I wish I could take a mental photo of you at this age. In the house where we stayed, there was a dog and you just loved sitting next to the dog and talking to him. When he would jump on you, you would have a huge belly laugh.

I wish I could bottle up four year olds’ belly laughs. I believe they are fairy dust.

 

And Son, well, six year olds are so delightful. The stories you come up with! Talking with wonder about your day and all the things you are doing at school. Talking about school friends. You lost your two front teeth at the beginning of September and so you have that wonderful gappy mischievous grin that first graders have.

 

You two make your mama’s heart happy.

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Boys and girls come out to play

Dear kids,

 

The first time I experienced the Fête de la Musique was 2002. The first year I was in France. I didn’t even know what it was when a friend of the family invited me to come out with her. We wandered around the Marais until 1 in the morning. The streets in the Marais were packed, musicians were set up on every street corner. People were lining up at the ice cream parlours, and there wasn’t a free café seat in all of Paris that night.

 

I was enchanted. It was an amazing atmosphere, like throwing off the shackles of winter and embracing summer with everything you’ve got.

 

It remains one of the thing that I really do love about the French. Even though it was a weeknight, nobody cared. The celebrating of summer and of music in the street was far more important.

 

I had a few more enchanting Fêtes de la Musique, but in the mid 2000s something changed. Perhaps it was because I was thirty and not as interested in consuming loads of alcohol, not that that’s by any means what the Fête is about to me, but it seemed like that is what it became to many people. Especially young lycéens who had just finished their Bac and were looking to celebrate. Which of course they should, but a few Fêtes that we did around that time just left me disappointed. People were just smashed and not very convivial. And then we started having children, so we couldn’t really stay out all night anyway, and so we gave up on it for a few years.

 

Last year, I went out to dinner with a friend and walked back home from Paris to our village. The main square in our town had set up a stage and there were musicians playing. It was a different ambiance though. There were lots of children around, playing. People were in the outdoor café on the square. It was more like what I had in my imagination.

 

And so, last night, we spent the day bicycling, and then went home and had a bath, and had dinner. And then, and this is I believe the first time we have ever done this, we all went back outside. We stopped at the gelato shop for ice cream and then went down to main square to listen to music.

 

We are usually stickers for the 8pm bedtime. But now you are 3.5 and 6, and I decided that, this was the time when we can start breaking rules every once in a while. The day before, Son you’d had your piano recital, and Daughter you’d had your dance recital, which happened to take place at the local theatre. It had started at 8:30pm which is half an hour past your normal bed time. Both events were so fun, and so you had a weekend of staying up late.

 

I haven’t experienced as nice a Fête de la Musique since 2002 I don’t think. We listened by the stage for a while, and you both started seeing little friends from your school. So we decided to snag a table on the terrasse. I had a bière à la menthe and your Papa ordered an omelettes frites. You children were running free all over the huge place, playing with your friends. There were a few more parents at the café, and you all kept coming to everyone’s table, depending on who had the most French fries at the moment, and eating fries and stealing pieces of baguette from the bread basket. Papa ordered more fries to attract more children. We sat there for quite a while, listening to the music, watching you run and play enjoying the summer weather.

 

It made me feel something. It’s the feeling of how I want you all to experience summer. I remember my own childhood in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Even though it was not the safest place to be, we ran all over the neighborhood until it got dark and then came home for dinner. That just no longer seems to be possible, I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the times, maybe it’s because we live in a town with tall apartment buildings rather than houses and a few smaller complexes, so we know people more. But it did give you that free feeling, of going to bed a bit later, and running around free for a few hours.

 

Which is what summer should be all about.

 

Let’s aim for that, kids.

 

Boys and girls come out to play

The moon doth shine as bright as day

Leave your supper and leave your sleep

And join your playfellows in the street

Come with a whoop and come with a call

Come with a good will or not at all

Up the ladder and down the wall

A tuppenny loaf will serve us all

You bring milk and I’ll bring flour

And we’ll have a pudding in half an hour

 

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