Whenever I get away from my usual routine for more than a few days, I imagine all the ways I am going to return a changed woman. Distance from the ordinary tasks and duties makes all the little obstacles seem surmountable; exposure to new things makes me want to bring them home with me. Anything seems possible when my daily life is so far away that it can become a figment of my imagination; until I actually have to get back there and go grocery shopping and make my bed.
So, for instance, our family had a great time out climbing on the rock the other day with a guide at Les Gaillands. Everybody took a turn, the extra adult helped it all go smoothly (because otherwise who would belay me and still leave Mark to hold the baby?) and when the small kids were tired and after I had even had a chance to try it a few times, I went back to the apartment and the bigger boys and Mark were able to tackle something really interesting (my 10yo's first multipitch climb). It was a fantastic family day out with something for everyone. We have never done that before.
"But we could do this, at home," I said.
"There's no rock like this at home," Mark said.
"But there is some rock, not that far away," I persisted, "and we could hire someone to come with us and be another belayer so that everyone could climb. And then I could take the little ones home just like today and you could have a grand day with the big ones."
"We could," Mark said, "but it takes time."
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And then there's the food. Since I have been here I have made a new vow at every meal, it seems. When I get home I am going to find a supplier of tiny sour French pickles and I will never again eat a ham sandwich without them. I will buy the beer at Surdyk's which is attached to the city's best cheese shop and I will find out if they sell Abondance and Tomme de Savoie, and I will make salads with fine ribbons of white, soft-rinded cheeses and twists of proscuitto. I will throw out all the bottled salad dressings and make only pungent mustard vinaigrettes and luscious cream dressings with herbs. I will buy a crêpe pan and an electric fondue pot, or at least a correctly-sized enameled cast iron saucepan that will hold the heat. I will buy the expensive butter, maybe not for the whole sticks that are melted to go into waffles, but at least to spread on my sandwiches. I will make pan sauces again with cream and wine.
I know better than to think, even for a minute, that I have time to do much of the fancy sort of French cooking. But surely I have time to make my quick meals more civilized? With the good kind of canned tuna that is packed in olive oil? With better cheeses on my salad? With tiny, ice-cold glasses of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice?
Because even the quick things are so very much better here. Some things would be impossible to find. My favorite gelato flavor is Fior di Latte, ideally combined in a cone with a scoop of some luscious fruit like peach. You never see Fior di Latte at home. I won't be able to get it and that is that. But maybe I could put a poached egg and cream on my homemade ham-and-tomato pizzas, you know? Maybe I could find the time to stock up once in a while at the good grocery store? Buy the expensive eggs from happy chickens, the ones with the deep yellow yolks?
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Yesterday in Aosta we stopped to shop for groceries at a really large store, the Gros Cidac, the only store I have seen over here that was bigger than the average American grocery store. It was almost Wal-Mart sized. I went into the dairy department just to grab some grated Parmesan, because I was going to make minestrone soup for dinner and there isn't a grater in the apartment, and I was completely gobsmacked by the sight of the cheese section. There were dozens of different brands of fresh mozzarella, just to name one type, and they were packaged (among other ways) as convenience food in three-packs of individually sealed plastic bags, as if they were Fritos for your kids' lunch boxes. The cooler labeled just for goats'-milk cheeses was bigger than the entire bin of all "better" cheeses in our grocery store at home. I was almost thrown into a panic (how can I be in the presence of this and not at least buy one package of the good cheese? but which package would I buy?) and in the end I just left with the grated Parmesan I came for.
I cannot take the cheese section in the Gros Cidac home with me.
I am not sure what I can take home with me. Something.