Friday, January 30, 2004

The Belle Jar

I came to France on December 17, 2000, a week after my marriage and moved into an appartement meublé on the Left Bank in Paris. This was a completely new scenario for me: marriage (which happened suddenly), France (a country about which I had zero knowledge) and domesticity (of which I had, if possible, minus knowledge).

Our cute apartment with wooden beamed ceiling, uneven floors came with an assortment of wonderful furniture, pictures, lamps of all shapes and sizes, bedcovers, quilts, table cloth, serviettes and a fully equipped kitchen. I found crockery, cutlery that I have never heard of, let alone seen. A zester? To de-zest citric fruits. What in the world? Coffee mill – I didn’t even know how to make instant coffee.

Those where early days when I was battling situations like what to cook? And after spending half a day cooking lunch, I found it over within minutes with only a dishful of dirty dishes to show for it and back to question of what’s for dinner. What to buy? How much to buy? How to fit it all in our tiny frigo? Why does the same recipe taste so wonderful at times and so disgusting at others? How do I get rid of this grease on the range? Why do I find a soapy film on dishes after 2 hours of washing in the dish washer? Why is our house so dusty if I give dusting a miss even for a day? Why? Why? Why? And all this in a country where I couldn’t speak or understand a line of what any one was saying. It took me ages to locate anything in the supermarket and if by good luck, I found it, it took me ages to decide which one to take. I had no idea that there were at least 50 varieties of vinegar. All I ever heard of was white or black vinegar. Difficult days indeed.

To add to my woes, the year that I spent in that apartment was interspersed with me making four trips back to India, thanks to visa problems. So I didn’t have much time to settle down to domesticity or enjoy the wonderfully stocked little kitchen and house in general. That happened in my second sojourn in France, when we moved to neighbouring region Seine et Marne in mid 2002. This felt like the real thing. We did everything from scratch. Get a list of house agents, look at flats, select one and then buy everything…furniture, crockery, cutlery, other essentials like television etc and move in. It felt great to do up my first home, bit by bit, and all on our own.

I soon settled down to domesticity and surprise surprise, I was getting quite good at it. The only problem I faced was the lack of jars and bottles. I took to buying and consuming juices and jams (which comes in handy glass bottles and in interesting shapes). Juice is easy to consume. But jam takes time. Especially since A does not like jam at all. Here I was helped by the weather. Jam develops fungus and spoils if not consumed really fast. Hence in no time at all, I had a nifty collection of jam jars to store all my spices – French and Indian! Jeerey, dhoney, halud, jowan, radhuni, mouri, kalo jeerey, sorshey, posto, dal, rajma, chal, thyme, persil, laurier, romarin. Pretty herbs all in a row!! I could just spend time staring at the neat rows of jars.

Then of course came the other jars - little yoghurt glass jars with / without plastic caps, terracotta ones, ice cream tubs, tubs in which one could buy paella, grilled chicken from the marché, plastic pastry boxes. I found uses for all of it. Tomatoes stay fresh and really long in these plastic pastry boxes. Roasted spices (dhania, cumin) keep their aroma in the glass jars with plastic tops. Ice cream and paella tubs make great containers for leftover food. I sometimes do forget that I have some leftover vegetables in a small tub lurking somewhere in my frigo and discover it too late and have to throw it out. And once, horrors, I discovered some rui macher jhol that I had forgotten all about (this is, to us in france and so far away from India, is akin to wasting caviar or pate or something really gourmet in India). Little accidents apart, they have been of great help and have given me a great sense of well being – made me feel like a domestic goddess.

I browse through ‘Brocantes’ – garage sales – a fairly frequent phenomenon. One can pick up great bargains and unusual things from other people’s junks! I keep looking for jars. Once, I saw this great big glass jar with a dome shaped lid and hand painted going for 1E. Another lady had beaten me to it. She had looked it over and once or twice and then put it back to look for some tiny liqueur glasses hand painted with famous French monuments. I sidled up to her and smiled and said ‘ the glasses look great’. She said ‘ yes very kitschy’ and the minute she turned to ask how much they were, I pounced on the glass jar and handed out 1E to the owner. She looked at me and said somewhat ruefully ‘hmm….that’s very nice too’. Yes indeed!! Found another one, which I was told, was 160E, being part of a series of some early product and now of antique value. No, I didn’t buy it. But I am always on the lookout for brocantes and jars.

But only if it had ended there. Like a compulsive, obsessive collector, I keep collecting them.
I have run out of things to store in them. They are taking up precious storage space – space I need to keep things I really need. I know I should throw them out – clutter is the worst enemy of a housewife (not really…clutter was my worst enemy when I was a busy corporate person). I must throw them out today, I muse, as I finish the most acidic, yucky tasting yoghurt that I picked up yesterday….only because it came in a two-toned ceramic jar!

Glossary French Words
Belle - beautiful
Appartement meublé – furnished apartment
Zester – a cutlery to de-zest lemon, orange; Peel the white coating inside the peel.
Brocante – Garage sale
Frigo – French familiar for refrigerator

Glossary Bengali words
Rui macher jhol – Rohu Fish curry

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