the expats

We left Luxembourg almost exactly two years ago, a predawn drive to the airport, then onto Geneva and a week in the Alps. One evening, I noticed that Alex seemed to be in a serious conversation with another boy—in French—dragging their sleds up the hill. I later asked Alex if he understood the boy. "No," he told me, unfazed. "But sometimes, Daddy, when people ask me things in French that I don't understand, I just nod and say 'oui.'" He had learned how to be an expat, just as we were leaving.

But before we moved, I'd started going to cafes downtownmostly Coffee Lounge, on rue de la Poste—with my computer, after school drop-off. I opened a new word-processing document, and typed THE EXPATS on page 1. I kept typing until I'd finished a novel.

THE EXPATS is, by many people's accounts, an exciting read—it's an espionage thriller. My literary agent found not only an American publisher for it, Crown, but also Faber and Faber in the U.K., and another dozen international publishers (most of Western Europe, plus a few countries elsewhere) as well as a film option. But THE EXPATS is also a book about what it's really like to be an expat, and a parent, and married.

So I'm no longer Cooking in Luxembourg; I'm now http://www.chrispavone.com/. As a way of leaving this blogspot, I want to include a short passage from near the end of the book—edited slightly to remove some spoiler sentences (it is, after all, a thriller)—about leaving, something I've done a lot of in the past few years, always more bitter than sweet . . .

* * *

Luxembourg seemed empty in mid-August. Or empty of expats. Kate’s friends were all on family holidays—the Americans in America, the Europeans in rented seaside cottages in Sweden, or whitewashed villas in the mountains of Spain, or pastels with pools in UmbrKate walked around the old town, the familiar faces of the shopkeepers, the vendors in the Place Guillaume market, the waitresses on their cigarette breaks, the palace guards. All these people whose names she didn’t know, who were part of the texture of her life. She felt like she should say farewell to each and every one of them.
She wished her friends were here, now. She felt the urge to sit in a café with Claire and Cristina and Sophia, have a final round of coffee, a final round of hugs. But it was probably better this way. She hated goodbyes.
Kate returned to the apartment, a ham sandwich in a wax-paper bag, and resumed the task of sorting through the boys’ toys, picking out the discards, the donations, the keepers. They were with Dexter at the pirate-ship playground, for the last time.
It would be easier, Kate knew, the second time around. The hard parts would be less hard, the fun parts more fun. Like with the second kid, Ben: it would be less intimidating, less difficult, less bewildering, with the benefit of the prior experience.
Kate looked out the window at the expansive view, the broad swath of Europe in her sight line, this brief home of hers। Tears welled in her eyes। She felt a heavy weight of despair at the end of this. At the inexorable march of her life forward, toward its inevitable end.


the end is near

The sun came out today, for what feels like the first time in weeks. The last of the golden leaves are still clinging to the trees, but every gust of wind releases fluttering waves of them, dropping to the wet sidewalks, sticking together in slick masses. Last weekend, Alex slipped in one of these, a cartoon spill, and came up damp and hurt and crying.

Christmas is being set up here in Luxembourg: a handful of wooden stalls for the market have been parked in the Place d'Armes--there will be dozens--and a couple of towering trees have been installed, but as yet they're undecorated. School has sent out an email that itemizes all the Christmas and St. Nicholas activities--there are 5 events--in between increasingly frantic missives about the outbreak of H1N1 (aka swine flu) with references to partial and full school closures, and vague allusions to doomsday.

The end seems to be hurtling toward us: the end of the school term and calendar year; hopefully not the end of the world; but definitely the end of this adventure. It's already been a month since we decided to go back to New York, lured by an exciting new job for Madeline (it's just like 18 months ago, in reverse). But it's not exciting, going home. Coming here was exciting. Going home is something else--it's comfortable. It's nice.

What's not nice is moving; moving is tedious. We've met with a relocation company, two movers, a cleaning service, and a painter; we've sent registered letters; started sorting through our possessions, yet again, trying to weed out at least as much as we've added. We've created "for sale" lists (with photos!), and have already collected (and spent!) some cash for our television. We've promised away our beloved stab mixer, which back in New York we will have to refer to by the much more pedestrian "immersion blender." I spent the better part of today hunting through our financial records and filling out forms for rental applications--we need to rent a place to live, in NYC, without being there! No, this isn't exciting.

And the thing of it is: it was just beginning to get fun here. We have friends, and something that resembles a social life. We travel all the time--Paris last weekend, Amsterdam next. We zip around in our big German car, crashing into stationary objects. (Does anyone want to buy a banged-up Audi?) We no longer have to learn how to do everything, except the new thing we need to learn, all of a sudden, how to do: leave.

a recipe: duck breast

One of the things I will miss is that magret du canard here costs about the same as chicken breast. I've always loved duck, and I've recruited Alex as an ally--"I want the duck!" he announces in brasseries--so I've been making a lot of duck breasts. But the other night, rushed, I didn't let the cooked pieces sit long enough before slicing them. Which meant that a lot of the juices escaped into the plate, forming pink pools. "What's this?" Alex asked. I told him that it was mostly blood. He looked at me like I'm crazy. "Blood!?" He looked down at his plate, then up at me. I thought he was about to flip out. "Blood is delicious!" he exclaimed.

A duck breast can be finished so many ways, but my favorites are sweet-tart combos: orange sauce (see my earlier entry); a spice-honey glaze; some reduced balsamic vinegar; or even just a heaping spoonful of well-made preserves. Or, as I made it for the children, finished with nothing at all.

duck breast
salt and pepper

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Score the fat of the duck breast with a knife in a crosshatch pattern, which will allow it (the fat) to shrink during cooking without shriveling and disfiguring your whole operation; but be careful not to cut into the meat. Then do the normal thing with salt and pepper.

Put the breast in a nonstick pan, skin side down. Raise the heat to medium-high, and let cook for a couple of minutes, at which point there will be a pool of fat in the pan. Carefully--carefully! it's bubbling-hot spattering fat!!--pour this duck fat out of the pan and into something to allow it to cool before you throw it away (or before you strain it and keep it and use it for other things, like smearing on country bread before toasting). Let cook another couple of minutes, and again pour off the fat. Do this until the skin has become a deep caramel color, and crisped up, and looks irresistible.

Now flip the thing, and let the flesh side sear for just a minute. Move the whole shebang into your hot oven, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let sit at least 5 minutes for the juices to settle. Or if you want to see how your children react to a pool of duck blood, just slice and serve and hope for the best.



We are astounded--maybe appalled?--to discover that our suite is huge: two bedrooms plus a large sitting room and a big superfluous kitchen and a voluminous hall, at the far end of which are little-boy-size doors that open onto the dumbwaiter, from whence room-service breakfast arrives. This might be the greatest thing the children have ever seen. "This," Alex says, "is our best hotel. Right, Daddy?" A Danish friend in Luxembourg, who's also in London this weekend, suggested we'd enjoy her favored hotel in Sloane Street, and she'd call and get us a good rate, and so here we are, enjoying our huge suite on a good rate.

It is a weekday; Madeline is working. So the boys and I walk around the corner to pristine, elegant Cadogan Square, with its matched-set facades of red brick presiding over the leafy park. We take quiet residential streets and poke down their serene mews to look at their neat little houses, more matched sets. We pass the painfully chic furnishing shops in Walton Street, and the tight clusters of inviting-looking restaurants that span the standard world-capital repertoire: the spare sushi temples, the cozy French cafes, the hyper-modern contemporary Italian trattorias. We emerge onto the broad panorama of Cromwell Road with the Victoria & Albert spread out on the right, and the Natural History Museum in front of the Science Museum on the left. We were at Science yesterday; this morning, the boys and I see the dinosaur fossils and stuffed birds of Natural History, not terribly different from the New York version.

After lunch we take the Tube to Notting Hill Gate, near the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens, to visit the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which is anchored around a pirate ship, just like the central playground in Luxembourg. It is cool and windy and damp, occasionally drizzling; the cappuccino from the in-park cafe doesn't succeed in warming me up. We return Underground to Oxford Circus, then fight our way down Regent Street to Hamley's. Six stories of toys. Filled with salespeople whose job it is to demonstrate toys. One of them gets down onto the floor with Sam and Alex and an intimidating Star Wars vehicle. He explains that it's his JOB to play with toys ALL DAY. The boys are awed. Alex admits to me that he's afraid such a job would be too hard for him. "Because I'd want to take breaks," he explains, "so I could watch TV."

Then it's pouring. We dodge the damp pedestrian traffic and the terrifying vehicular traffic--too fast, and always coming from the wrong direction--down to Piccadilly Circus, for the subway back to Sloane Square and a huge-suite respite. Then at dusk we set out through the leafy streets of Chelsea. Each block varies the theme of restrained upscalery, modestly proportioned, in contrast to the immodest mansions on the other side of the hotel, in Belgravia. Everything in this city seems to come in matched sets. The Chelsea one looks like an idealized version of middle-class living, requiring upper-class income.

It is lightly drizzling now, maybe misting (do the English have dozens of words for rain, like Eskimos do for snow?) and streetlamps are lit, and half the vehicles seem to be taxis; it looks and feels very London to me. When we come out of Whiteheads Grove onto the semi-commercial Cale Street, I spot what I hope is our restaurant. There's a type of light--warm, glowing, soft--that seeps through the large windows of restaurants that I want to be in, and that's what's coming from the plate glass across the street. An attractive foursome of not-too-well-dressed people is hurrying in, out of the damp, the door held by a smiling hostess. Yes, I see the sign, this is Tom's Kitchen. Yes, I can see already, this is a place I want to be. Subway-tile walls, and tables that are slabs of warm wood, and soft linens, and that amber lighting, and a limitless number of staff who seem to be bringing things to us. And they're all speaking English.

This is my first visit to London. It surprises my friends, especially those from London, that I've never before been here. When I lived in New York (I say that as if it was brief and long ago, don't I? It was 40 years, until last), it didn't seem worth the effort and expense and expenditure of vacation days to cross the Atlantic just to visit another expensive cosmopolitan city where everyone spoke English and rode the subway, and it was cold half the year. I already had that. I wanted French, or a wintertime beach, or whatever--I wanted different.

Now, though? Now, I live different. Now, I want exactly what I didn't want from New York. I want a subway ride from one bustling neighborhood to another. I want crowded streets filled with conversations I can easily eavesdrop. I want chic shops with no communication barriers. I want Chinatown and hail-able taxis and a whiff--just a faint one, please--of street crime. I want the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what to expect, even though I've never seen it before. What I want is a different version of New York.

I love London.


year 2

The maître d' from Bacchus is standing in the rue du Marché aux Herbes, a half-block away, smoking a cigarette. "Bonsoir!" he calls, waving. "Bonsoir!" I yell back, and continue walking Charlie Brown around the palace (which the boys and I finally have the chance to tour; the pic here is from the palace's yard). In the Place Guillaume market, the woman who sells the roast chickens asks if I've had a good summer; she says it's been too quiet in the mornings, too busy at noon. At the coffee store, as the machine grinds the beans, the counter-girl hands me some candies. "Pour les enfants," she explains, even though those children are not with me.

Sam and Alex have started a new school: we were not even on European soil for 48 hours when we dropped them off at their first day at the International School of Luxembourg; they are unfazed. There are familiar faces, of both the child and the grown-up variety, including some who defected from St. George's to ISL. There are also familiar faces at the other places I go: at the supermarkets and bakeries and butchers; on the shopping street of the Grand Rue and in the cafés of our own little rue de l'Eau; at the Just Move centre de fitness and at the Kockelscheuer tennis courts, where I shake the hands of not one or two but four different Swedish tennis coaches. I never imagined that one day I'd have such a broad acquaintance among Luxembourg-resident Swedish tennis coaches.

I need a haircut, and I know I must get to Coiffure Fred by mid-morning, before the appointment-only lunchtime hours. For good ricotta, I walk over to Galli y Galli, in the rue Beaumont, where I'm prepared for my interaction to involve pseudo-talking in French, Italian, and English. The boys learned to ride two-wheelers this summer, and the long, safe, flat bike path that we now need is going to be found in Bertrange, in a completely sign-less park that we'll access by walking through the parking lot of a small apartment building. None of these are things that I knew a year ago.

The car has come down with a minor ailment: the directional signals don't work. I'm never going to be someone who's comfortable at garages--I barely know where to put the gas--and the 100 percent absence of English chez le garagiste isn't exactly an enticement. (Plus, the guy who works the customer-service desk might want to pick up the thread of our previous conversation: how everything in Luxembourg is better than everything in the United States.) But I know roughly how to say what I need to say, and I've done this before. I've done most of it before. Because I live here.

a sub-recipe: sauce orange

It was 1983 or 1984 when I went on a dinner-and-a-movie date that involved duck à l'orange. The movie may have been that year's Woody Allen, or something along the lines of Terms of Endearment; I'm pretty sure we went to the Baronet and Coronet, though it could have been another of the big theaters that used to be clustered on Third Avenue, near Bloomingdale's. The French restaurant was on Lexington. When we left, it was snowing.

I remember this a quarter-century later because roast duck with orange sauce is a special-occasion dish, just as special as going on a date to a French restaurant when you're fifteen. Roasting a duck isn't something I want to do on a Wednesday night; actually, I'm fine with roasting the thing, but what I really don't want is any responsibility for the ensuing Superfund-worthy mess. Making orange sauce, however, is. In the past year, I've bought at least three dozen rotisserie chickens from the Wednesday-and-Saturday market in the Place Guillaume; it's a sort-of home-cooked meal that I don't have to actually cook. Though these chickens are delicious--especially the large poulets fermiers--even a great roast chicken can become boring. Enter orange sauce. For chicken. On a Wednesday night. It takes 5 minutes.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons cider or sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or, in a pinch, triple sec)
1/4 cup orange preserves
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup chicken or veal stock, or 1 tablespoon demi-glace dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water
Salt and pepper to taste

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the shallot, and sauté until golden. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the honey, vinegar, liqueur, preserves, juice, and stock. Raise the heat to high, bring to a simmer, and cook until reduced to a thick syrup, which will take a few minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, remove from the heat, and stir in the remaining butter. Voilà!

I use the sauce thusly: I buy a rotisserie chicken. I preheat the broiler, cut up the chicken, put it in a roasting pan skin-side up, and brush it with the sauce. I broil it until the skin begins to blister and the sauce to burn just a little bit, then I flip it, slather on more sauce, and broil again until just before it burns. Remove it from the oven, brush on more sauce, and serve.



It is 8:30 Saturday night. We have finished our Alsatian dinner at Chez Yvonne, a block away. Alex and his grandfather are doing pretend-karate--"Hi-yah!"--on the cobblestones in the gloaming, in the wide-open place in front of the gothic cathedral. The construction was begun in the 12th century; for more than 100 years, it was the tallest building in the world. We are staying in the aptly named Hotel Cathédral; we visit the also apt Musée de la Cathédral. It is a cathedral-intensive visit. During our circumambulation of the interior, Alex takes me by the hand. "Daddy, come with me, over to this cross. I have some questions about Jesus." Oy.

Strasbourg is stunning, looking and sounding and tasting like France and Germany at the same time. On this street, half-timber houses painted in the deep pigments of the Black Forest; on that square, the severe lines of Parisian hôtels particuliers. There are narrow cobblestone streets and the narrow river Ill with swimming ducklings and a spinning drawbridge and a canal lock. There are outdoor tables everywhere, serving every manner of pork--shoulders and chops, knuckles and feet, cheeks and bellies. The weather is absolutely perfect.

We take a ride in a tourist mini-train, listening through headphones to the English-version, British-accented guide. (Alex, shaking his head in awe: "She knows everything!") Sam, despite his broken arm, climbs to the observation deck halfway up the cathedral, and also climbs the jungle gym at a playground in an isle in the river. We don't accomplish all that much in the way of sightseeing--we never do--in our under-48-hours visit. We seem to be always heading toward, departing from, or in the midst of a meal or snack; it's especially noticeable while traveling just how frequently little boys must be fed. 

Then we are back in the car, listening to the another British-accented voice, the GPS "map lady," directing us from the souterrain parking under the Place Gutenberg in Strasbourg to the souterrain parking under 22, rue de l'Eau, Luxembourg. Bourg to bourg, parking to parking, 2 hours exactly. Another successful weekend abroad.


broken arm!

There were 3 possible expenditure categories for our E.R. visit: (1) parking, subterranean, 2 hours 15 minutes; (2) prescription painkillers, two types, one week's worth of each; and (3) doctor's fees and x-ray costs. And here are the actual expenditures: (1) €2,40 for parking; (2) €1,78 for medicine; and (3) €0 for the healthcare. I was fully aware that we live in a socialized-medicine type of place, but I still didn't see it coming that pocket change for parking would be the biggest expense.

Poor Sam. He fell out of a high climbing apparatus at a playground--a thing that, obviously, is meant to be fallen out of: it's a log suspended horizontally by rope, and it jiggles dangerously when you walk on it. It's Sam-trapment. He fell for it, and fell out of it, landing from 6 feet up on his arm, and then there we were, at the clinique pediatrique of the municipal hospital, an emergency room for children. We didn't fill out any forms. The receptionist took a 30-second Q&A and copied down Sam's social security number--the Luxembourg one, from a nicely laminated card--and sent us to the waiting room. Then a nurse, then a doctor, then the x-ray technician, then back to the doctor, all the while Sam quiet and morose and in a lot of pain, and Alex reminiscing proudly about his one and only hospital visit, back on Long Island, "when I cracked my eye open" (i.e., got a cut near his eye) and "needed surgery" (i.e., a few stitches).

If there's one thing that has filled me with dread about living abroad, it's this situation: my child is hurt, and I'm not understanding what's going on. Luckily, the only person we encountered at the hospital who spoke no English whatsoever was the x-ray technician; she was barking at Sam in Luxembourgeois, but he got the point. Throughout the experience, I had to use a lot more French than was ideal for all parties concerned. But we all muddled through, and I don't feel like I missed anything important.

But the doctors did: the x-rays of his humerus, where the pain was, were all clear, and we were sent away with a sling and painkillers and a return visit in 4 days. At which point we discovered that it's Sam's ulna that's fractured, at the elbow. Not a spot that was x-rayed during the first go-round. Ah well.

Sam is the first in our family to wear a cast; he can't remember anyone at school wearing one. So he's a celebrity, with everyone exclaiming, "Sam! What happened?!" He immediately tired of answering, but I think he likes the asking. He's also exhausted by lugging the heavy cast around, and it hurts his neck, but he's adapted quickly to having the use of only one arm: he can replace magic-marker caps, get his shoes on and off, pull up his pants. And at the playground in Strasbourg this weekend, he started climbing again, a mere two days after his plaster set. We were sort of hoping that the broken arm would teach him a lesson, but it hasn't. Or perhaps it has, but it's a different lesson than we were hoping for.


going dutch

  I was sipping a cappuccino in the kitchen of the split-level house, in a village near the Germany-Luxembourg border. Fifteen children were entertaining themselves at the birthday party in other rooms; I could hear Alex's unrestrained laugh of hilarity from somewhere. Here in the kitchen, a dozen adults were sipping and talking. In Dutch. 

Somehow I've fallen in with a crowd from the Netherlands. When I'm around, they mostly speak English, and with barely any accent, much easier for me to understand than a lot of the native tongue I hear from England, Ireland, and Scotland. And it's from all these Dutch that I came to know about Keukenhof, supposedly the largest flower garden in the world, in Holland. (To clarify: the Netherlands is a country of 12 provinces, 2 of which are South Holland and North Holland, which contain most of the Netherlands cities that people like me have heard of. At some point in childhood, I was led to believe that the Netherlands=Holland, but it's simply not true. The language and the people are both Dutch, which I think I already knew, but the whole thing confused me--in particular, how did Denmark and Danes and Danish fit in? [answer: different place, different people, different language/pastry]--until very recently.) And what better place to go with my mother and her friend Harriet?

It was a long drive north through Belgium, skirting Brussels and Antwerp, then into the Netherlands, past Rotterdam and the Hague, heading toward Amsterdam on a road parallel to the North Sea beaches a few miles away--a lot of famous-but-unknown-to-me places. Windmills and canals everywhere, fields filled with cows and sheep and an immense population of fluffy little lambs, and of course with flowering bulbs--daffodils and hyacinths and tulips, all planted in long, straight rows on the flat-as-a-board earth. A color-block landscape painted by a pointillist.

The traffic was horrific--heading-to-the-Hamptons-Memorial-Day-weekend horrific, albeit without the SUVs. All of Europe seemed to be on Easter break this sunny day, heading to this famous garden at the height of tulip season. Teenagers wearing Day-Glo vests were directing traffic to park in fallow fields, like at an over-capacity-crowd championship game. The cost of the tickets was considerable; the scope of the gardens was impressive; the variety of tulips was staggering. But the boys were relatively unimpressed until we found the garden maze. I was compelled to wend through it ten times while Sam mastered every route and Alex never stopped talking. 

We stayed two nights in Delft, from whence the blue-painted plates. Canals popping up (rather, under) like mad. Nearly every house made of brick, three or four stories high. They started building what they call the New Church in the fourteenth century; the Old Church is of course older. It's a lovely little old city. And, like Gouda a few miles away, I had no idea it was a city; just thought it was a thing in the kitchen.

a recipe: penne with white asparagus and fresh morels

Tulip season is also asparagus season, and asparagus is everywhere here in Luxembourg, especially the big thick stalks of white asparagus. I came across the first batch a few weeks ago at a tidy little primeur near our apartment, and bought a bunch. While the cashier was weighing them, I grabbed a blood orange, and she beamed at me. "Très bon, Monsieur," she said, congratulating me on my fruit. "Pour la sauce!

She was correct, for that bunch. But this recipe is something different, a variation on what I used to have at a restaurant in the West Village in the early nineties, now gone. It had a bar on the ground floor and the dining tables downstairs, in a glass-roofed subterranean room in the courtyard. They served the asparagus cut in the same shape as the noodle, and in the same color--both green--and hence a confusing dish. That tickled me then, and it still tickles me now.

1 bunch white asparagus
1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts sliced thin, dark green parts reserved
1 small onion, quartered
1 carrot, quartered
1 herb sachet (I used parsley, thyme, a bay leaf, and a few peppercorns)
Olive oil
1 heaping handful fresh morels, cleaned
Freshly ground black pepper
Splash of white wine or vermouth
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

The first thing to do is blanch the asparagus and make its stock. So bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil while you trim the asparagus, saving all trimmings: snap off and reserve the thickest part of the stalk, then peel the tough outer skin from the remainder. Cut the peeled stalks and heads into penne-sized pieces, keeping the head pieces separate from the stalk pieces.

When the water comes to a boil, drop in the stalk pieces and cook for a couple minutes, then add the head pieces. Let cook another 2 minutes, then try a piece--it should still be firm, but cooked through to edibility. When done, remove with a slotted spoon to an ice bath, allow to cool, then drain. With the water still aboil, dump in your asparagus trimmings, dark green parts of the scallion, quartered onion, chopped carrot, and herb sachet. Let boil away while you continue with the other steps.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. In a very large saucepan, heat a slick of oil and a tablespoon of butter over medium-high flame. Add the morels, season with salt and pepper, and saute for just a minute; remove with a slotted spoon to a large bowl. Replenish the oil and butter, add the scallion slices, season, saute until golden, then remove to the bowl with the morels. Replenish the oil and butter, add the reserved asparagus, and saute for a minute, until lightly golden, then remove to the bowl. Deglaze the pan with the wine, and empty the pan into the bowl. Don't wash this pan.

Cook the penne until a bit firmer than al dente, then drain, reserving the pasta cooking liquid.

By this point, your asparagus boiling water should have reduced down to a rich stock. Strain it from the medium pot into the big pan, and boil over high heat until reduced to 3/4 cup. Add the firm-ish pasta to this liquid, and finish cooking for another couple of minutes, giving the penne the opportunity to absorb all that asparagus flavor. When they're done, add the reserved asparagus, morels, scallions, and any liquid in that bowl, and stir around for a minute. Add salt and pepper to taste, and then a big handful of grated cheese. If the whole mixture has gotten too thick, mix in a bit of the pasta cooking water. Serve with more cheese on the side, and, in the middle of the table, tulips.