Coveting the High Life: Special Renovation Edition

Eight years ago I and my partner started a snarky little blog about the trials and tribulations of pursuing the good life on a pauper’s budget.  The Cambridge Dictionary tells us the high life is “an exciting way of living in which rich and successful people enjoy themselves by spending a lot of time and money in fashionable places.”  We knew we sure weren’t living the high life… but we were lusting after it.  We wanted to be the type of people who visited fashionable places and did fashionable things.  On the cheap.

Since that time, we’ve both had some amazing adventures.  For about a year we chronicled food, wine, art, politics and fashion in Washington, DC.  Then, in 2009, we decided to move to Italy, where we spent six months learning Italian and running around the countryside consuming Italian food and wine.  (Our blog followed us.)  After Italy came Argentina, where I learned Spanish and wrote about South American wines.  Then I moved to Hawaii, where I started a wine club and expanded my cooking skills (sadly, I didn’t chronicle this part!).  About every two years, I would revive the blog to record a brief one-month adventure.  In October 2012 I took a month off to travel through China, and in October 2014 I took a 1000-kilometer bike trip down the west coast of France.

It was never intended to reach a huge audience.  Instead, it forces me to reflect a bit on my life and whatever I am doing, and hopefully offers some enjoyment for others.  So today, October 1, 2016, I officially inaugurate a new High Life adventure… the Total Kitchen Renovation.  In April I bought a one bedroom condo in Alexandria… my first real estate purchase, ever.  I had to wait ten years between the time I could first qualify for a loan (2006) and the time when the market and my job and my bank account all aligned again.  (Obviously, I’m glad I didn’t buy in 2006.  Why?  Because I bought my place here for the same price the owner paid in 2006.  Ouch.)

Every few days, I’ll post pictures and analysis and freak-outs as I transform the small 8×10 kitchen of my one bedroom apartment into the kitchen of my dreams.  (And don’t kid yourself– this is EVERY BIT as scary as taking a Chinese night bus!)

I’m really, really not a rich person who can afford this.  I spent about half my savings on the down payment for this place… and now I’m potentially spending the OTHER half on the renovations.  I’m petrified.  There’s so much to learn and so many things that can go wrong.  But, I’m also a talented and passionate cook who has just turned 40 and is SICK and TIRED of making do with underpowered tools in poorly-designed spaces.  A real kitchen isn’t just my dream, it’s my workspace for the future– a place to create art, for the rest of my life.  And so, I have to do it.  I have to dive in, and chronicle my thoughts and fears and experiences along the way.

Because, after all, the alternative is to live a normal life.  And you know how I feel about that.


Day 18: The Finale (Arcachon –> Bordeaux, 72 km)

Kilometers covered: 1054
Départements traveled: 8
Wines sampled: 22
Fromage consumed: 12
Bugs eaten: 7
Falls taken: 2
Major mishaps: 0

Today was the day! The end of the quest. To be honest, I was excited. Excited to be doing something else for a while, excited to finish, excited to simply be able to say that I did it. And to have a good story.

It had been beautiful weather for almost the entire trip, after a rough start in Normandie, but today seemed especially beautiful. The cool air and the sunshine were just perfect. I pedaled lazily past the port, through little neighborhoods, and then onto a country road that would take me to Bordeaux. Just outside the city, as I passed a pink boulangerie, I passed 1000 kilometers– my goal for the trip. I took a picture to celebrate, then indulged in a little “tartlette framboise d’ triomphe.”

I’ve been listening to an audiobook on the history of western civilization, part of the Great Courses series (all supurb). Most of the details I had heard in one form or another before: in 10th grade, in books, in movies. But re-learning it with adult experience, and having worked in political science, gave me a new perspective on some things.

First of all, Western civilization had to go through centuries of innovation, war, and upheaval to come to its idea about the world today. There are still conservative forces trying to hold the line against broadsides that started in the 16th and 17th centuries. The professor talked about how many in Europe actually were excited about World War I because it promised to cleanse society of the confusion, the godlessness, the apparent purposelessness that had been creeping in as a result of science, then secularism, and finally modernism. Of course, the same enthusiasts came back so broken that they propelled the postmodern movement.

A second thought: Realism and realpolitik are created philosophies, not natural law. It is simply not the case that the only way to conduct affairs between peoples is through moral-less pursuit of interests. True, the old kings didn’t always conduct their affairs with the Christian generosity that they claimed to believe in, but there was something that people believed in and that shaped behavior and standards for interaction. I have no problem with realism, except when it tries to hold itself up as something other than a political philosophy created by man and which creates the world in its own image.

Enough with the philosophizing. I celebrated my arrival to Bordeaux with a picture at the river and then a long shower, followed by a walk and a large burger and two beers at a French bistro. (Counter to what you might expect, the French are *really* into burgers– gourmet burgers too, not cheap crappy ones.) For some reason I really craved spice– like peppers– so I doused it with tabasco.

But then something strange happened. By the time I finished I was *really* tired, even though it was only 9pm. I stumbled back to my hotel and… didn’t sleep barely at all! I have no idea why. I *felt* tired, but I just couldn’t sleep. It may have been the especially strong coffee I made the previous morning– or, it may have just been the excitement about getting up the next morning and moving on to another adventure.

If I could end on a slightly philosophical note, there are two things I would leave you with. First, it may be that life is one great adventure, but it doesn’t just unravel that way. You need to seek out destinations, create goals, plan and plot and imagine activities. Life is created, not surfed. Second, people are basically good. Not all of them, not all the time, but when you come down to it there is something brimming up within each of us that wants to be noble, to be compassionate, to be of service. I really believe that, but traveling is what keeps it present for me. Fini.

THE MEAL: A giant (1/2 lb) French burger with lots of tabasco.

THE WINE: Homemade craft beer: a ginger infused and a black IPA.

THE ROOM: My new favorite cheapie in Bordeaux, Hotel California, €56.







Day 17: The Beginning of the End (Lacanau –> Arcachon, 45 km)

Kilometers covered: 981
Départements traveled: 7
Wines sampled: 22
Fromage consumed: 12

So I made a decision last night, as I was coasting into the little surfing town of Lacanau. The decision was that I would give up the goal of biking to Biarritz, on the Spanish border, and instead turn east from Arcachon to finish in Bordeaux.

My decision was influenced by a couple thoughts. The first was that I was really going to have to hustle to get to Biarritz by Friday morning. On another day that might sound fun, but since I’d been carrying myself and my stuff 930-something kilometers already and had done a 122km stretch, I didn’t see the point. The second thought, related to the first thought, is that maybe I was in danger of becoming too American about the itinerary. After all, the destination is only an excuse; it’s a skeleton, a framework that allows you to travel and experience all the stuff along the way. You don’t get overly focused on the destination, or you lose the best part– the experience along the way.

A third reason– a good one– is that as soon as I arrived in Biarritz I was going to have to book it back to Bordeaux, to meet up with a friend. I wasn’t going to see the city, I was probably going to be exhausted, and I certainly wasn’t going to have any clean clothes or nice-smelling socks. Also– and this shouldn’t bother me so much, but it did– the train ticket from Biarritz back to Bordeaux was more expensive than what it would cost to go Bordeaux back to Paris. Could I afford it? Yeah. But it annoyed me, especially because I was going right back to where I was a few days earlier. To add insult to injury, as soon as I arrive in Bordeaux I rent a car and drive back to… Biarritz.

I did have one compelling goal, though, which was to bike 1000 kilometers. (Doesn’t 1000 kilometers sound impressive? Much better than “six-hundred-something miles”.) I would still do that. So, I put in an easy day biking 45 kilometers down the tip of a peninsula, then caught the 4:30 ferry across the bay to Aranchon. For once, I wasn’t exhausted, and I could have other agenda items other than simply bathe/eat/sleep in that order. Arachon proved to be a marvelous little city with plenty of eating options, and I broke with the French theme to indulge in a little Italian. With tomorrow now promising to be the last day of riding– 70 kilometers to Bordeaux centre– I began looking forward to the next phase… as well as clean clothes, rest, and a much-needed massage.

THE MEAL: Italian-style pizza with salami, peppers, mozzarella and oregano, and paper-thin crust.

THE WINE: None tonight. I overdid it last night. Just a beer.

THE ROOM: Nice little double with a balcony, Hotel Aquamarina, $72.



Day 16: The Barbecue (Royan –> Lacanau, 86 km)

Kilometers covered: 936
Départements traveled: 7
Wines sampled: 22
Fromage consumed: 12

So Royan was nice enough, but I had no really good reason to not set off in the morning… except I wasn’t feeling super excited about the long stretch ahead of me and, it turned out, the ferry didn’t leave till noon anyway. So I had a double espresso and then traded my key for my side of beef, and set my wheels toward the harbor.

I really enjoyed the ferry ride. Short, of course, only about 25 minutes, but still nice somehow to be in motion without cycling. I was feeling pretty good and I hadn’t really noticed being on the road for two and a half weeks… almost. The “almost” was three things:

First, I was getting a little tired of always having to be on my WAY to somewhere. I intended to set an easy pace and stop for a while in places i liked. Basically I had been doing that, but now having turned south on a mad dash for Biarritz, I was feeling the pressure to put in the kilometers. And part of me just wanted to set in for a while.

Second, my legs are SORE. I expected them to be sore the first day, the second day, the third day… but not the sixteenth. I know I’m building muscle and I’m pushing myself a little each day, but still, what I wouldn’t give for a massage and a REST. I think my body is telling me, subtly, that it needs rest more than it needs exertion now.

Third, my clothes. I have two pairs of clothes: one sweaty nasty pair to ride in, and one blissfully clean and good-smelling to change into in the evening. Only its time for another laundry run, and even when perfectly clean it gets a little old wearing the same thing all the time.

But otherwise, the weather is beautiful and this turned out to be the most pristine part of the whole trip. For long, long stretches down the Atlantic coast, there is a isolated bike trail cut off entirely from the cars and everything. It goes by beaches and resorts and lots of cool forests of pine trees. It’s almost 100% flat. And it’s fun!

But its hard work. 86 kilometers in, I looked down at my map, up at the sun setting over the ocean, back down at my map, and gave up my goal of Arcachon. It was the first time I set a target and then didn’t make it, but it turned out to be totally unreachable anyway– I would have had to go another 50 kilometers, in the dark, which is just no fun. I had missed the last ferry (6pm) so I couldn’t cut across the Arcachon bay as planned, and even though it was flat I was still feeling the fatigue. Also, if I’m being honest, I’d had a little too much wine the previous night.

So I checked into a nice cheap hotel and assessed my meat. Every chef knows, trust your nose. My nose said: tonight, fine, tomorrow, no way. So I found a grocery store and bought skewers, tin foil, briquettes, and lighter cubes, and sealed the steak in the foil slathered with butter, spice, garlic, onions, cheese, curry, and whatever else I had. Then I set off for a concrete cylinder on the beach, which I assumed was for barbecues but turned out to be for some sort of construction project. Well, not anymore!

After a bit of Cognac (well, a lot of Cognac), I even ran into the ocean to wash the sweat and ick off. Which, considering it was night and I didn’t know the current and there was not a soul around me, might not have been the best idea– but I survived to write about it, so I guess it was worth the story!

THE MEAL: Steak three ways: with garlic and onions, with Rochefort, and with curry butter. Also a zucchini.

THE WINE: Cognac, first, then the rest of the Irouleguy.

THE BED: Cheap hotel alongside the beach, $52









Day 15: My Kingdom for a Steak (La Rochelle –> Royan, 86 km)

Kilometers covered: 851
Départements traveled: 7
Wines sampled: 22
Fromage consumed: 11

I woke up with energy and purpose, determined to get out the door and down the road. With my biking clothes having suffered a little air, and my muscles a little bit of recovery, I was pretty sure I could make it to the city of Saintes without too much trouble.

There was one problem, however: along with my clothes, my water, and my electronics, I carried about a kilo of top-quality sirloin steak. One might wonder how one would get one into such a situation. Well, the short version is that Saturday night, when I was heading into La Rochelle, I was told by my hosts that they were having a BBQ that night. They mentioned pork chops, but I figured if there was going to be a crowd I might as well contribute something.

So, on my last 10 km toward La Rochelle, in a little town, I spotted a small butchery that was just about to close. The butcher’s wife and kids were all there, and they were cleaning up, joking, obviously ready to go home. In walks this sweaty, wild-eyed American. They were tickled, obviously– especially the kids– but they quickly directed me to a really nice looking piece of sirloin, a little less than a kilo (so about 2 lbs). It was pricey– about €18– but I figured, I might as well splurge a little, considering how much I was not paying for a hotel.

I arrived with the beef, but I did not yet know that master chef Jean-Claude had already selected the precise portions of pork chop and frites. When an American hears “BBQ” they tend to think of a social event: 20 or so people, each bringing some stuff and throwing it on: hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, sausages, veggies, etc. Well, this was certainly a BBQ, but there was just the five of us: so nowhere for the two pounds of steak to go. No problem, I figured, I’ll just cook the steak for everyone tomorrow.

But tomorrow was Beef Bourgignon. It would have made sense to me to use the beef there, but Jean Claude had (of course) already bought the beef, and he pointed out that you usually use a cheaper cut for the dish because its basically stew. Hmm. I could leave it? But most of the house was going away soon; it might not get eaten. Alright, I thought: I will take it with me, and I will find a host in Saintes, and I will amaze them with my cooking prowess.

Which was a great plan, except it didn’t happen. All of my requests to hosts in Saintes went unanswered, and so by midday I decided to turn south and head toward the port city of Royan instead. Royan sat right at the north side of the mouth of the Garrone River that feeds Bordeaux, and so I figured there would be beaches. At worst, maybe I would find a beach spot and BBQ the thing myself. I could simply give the excess to people passing by, and they would have a crazy story about a mentally-challenged American who served them beef one day.

But that plan didn’t happen either. When I got to Royan, I asked the tourist office if I could BBQ on the beach. I figured I could get some briquettes, find a cheap BBQ at a hardware store. But no, they said: interdit! Oh, OK, I said, where could I possibly do a BBQ — a park perhaps? They consulted amongst each other. You want to go to a restaurant? No. More consulting, then a definitive answer: there was a special park in the summer, but in the winter there was absolutely no place in this beachside town where it was legal to light a fire and prepare a meal.

This, from the French.

So in the end I asked the kind but somewhat bewildered hotel manager if I could put my kilo of top-grade beef in their fridge, and I went out for seafood. I’m not sure what life is trying to tell me about this beef problem– let it go? give it away? — but I can only hope the solution lies somewhere down the road!

THE MEAL: For lunch, my favorite: braised duck in a prune sauce with frites; for dinner, soupe de poissons; skate with capers and butter; pistachio ice cream.

THE WINE: Pineau des Charentes, a sweet aperitif made from grapes; a 2012 Mendia Irouleguy AOC from the Basque region

THE ROOM: Cheap double at the venerable two-star Hotel Aunis-Saintonge, $50




Day 14: La Rochelle

Kilometers covered: 765
Départements traveled: 7
Wines sampled: 20
Fromage consumed: 11

Yes, so: Day 14 actually starts very early the morning of Sunday, but properly Saturday night, when I was informed that we would all be going out to a bar and then a club, followed by a jacuzzi party, and then there would be more drinking and probably lots of sex and no sleeping. Hmm. Staying out till 6AM at the club is not usually my choice, but this somehow seemed like a “When in Rome” moment. So I got my game face on– with the caveat that I had just biked 122km, and I might fall asleep at the bar.

Amazingly, I stayed awake and even felt pretty functional. The bar was fun, but it closed at 2AM, so we went to the club and I paid the €10 to get in. As clubs go, it was pretty tolerable– nice people, not too crowded, not insanely loud. After a couple hours I got a bit bored, though– but so did everyone else, so we left around 4:30 or 5. I can’t strictly remember.

At that point there was apparently more drinking and a jacuzzi and who knows what else, but I was out. I woke up around 11 with a little fuzziness but no hangover, though there was that morning-after feeling of why-did-I-do-that-again? With some good coffee and bread I gained courage and went out to see the town of La Rochelle, which I had sorta seen the night before but only darkly and wearily. A nice little port town, old towers, pedestrians walking along the promenade for a Sunday afternoon. I grabbed a French style burger and frites at a local cafe, which seemed to help the why-did-I-do-that-again feeling, and then walked back to prep for dinner.

Dinner was to be the highlight of the day– and for some, its only scheduled activity. Beef Bourgignon, a true French classic, courtesy of the resident in-house chef, Jean Claude. It was somehow charming and comical that this all-male group house– a bohemian gay Frenchman, his Hungarian lover, a bewildered African student from Benin, and a wild-eyed traveler from the Netherlands was completed by a very sweet and talented chef in his 60s from New Caledonia. Jean Claude had lived in San Francisco, Southeast Asia, and Nepal before ending up in La Rochelle. One expects he had a wealth of stories.

The meal was delicious, and I was able to contribute a small galette with a sauce made from the figs taken off the tree in the back of their house. But this time, I was out of the game by 10pm– hoping to be fully recovered and on my way early the next day.

THE MEAL: Bouef Bourgignon; boiled potatoes; garden salad with vinaigrette; galette with figs and syrup

THE WINE: A local bottle of rouge (“Perles Noires d’Orleron”) from the island of Oreleron just off the coast of La Rochelle.

THE ROOM: Spare bed in Thomas’ room: saved from the couch of iniquity. (Thanks Thomas!)






Day 13: The Wrong Turn (Les Sables –> La Rochelle, 122 km)

Kilometers covered: 765
Départements traveled: 7
Wines sampled: 19
Fromage consumed: 11

OK, just to get this out of the way: yes, I did 122 kilometers today and no, I did not intend to do this.

The day started out lazily. My funky art spa-hotel was grand, just the right combo of quirky and elegant. The friendly proprietor offered me a free coffee and two pain-au-chocolates, forgoing the €10 breakfast charge, and I ate in the glorious dining room dating from the early 1800s. Surrounded by hand-painted murals of Diana the Huntress (signed by the artist in 1911), sipping good coffee and considering the 95 kilometers that lay between me and La Rochelle, it was only too easy to put things off.

Then came the massage chair. I told myself I would head right out at noon, but instead I put my bags aside and plopped down in the fancy massage chair the hotel featured in the sports room. This was the most sophisticated massage chair I had ever seen– and I used to “test” the Japanese models at Shirokiya. In addition to the back kneaders, the calf squeezers, and the neck feelers, it had pneumatic presses for your thighs and pressure clamps for your arms– and then it tilted you back in “weightless” mode. Pretty soon I lost any interest in, well, doing anything else.

So it was really 2pm before I set out. I had only mild interest in biking all the way to La Rochelle– I was proud of myself for going the 95kms yesterday, but I didn’t see any reason to repeat it. (I’m not one of THOSE people.) So I figured I would put out a few couch requests and see where things took me.

The weather was fabulous. Sunny but cool, it was the first day that I actually could take off the long underwear that I had worn the entire trip. It felt good to have fresh air blowing by my legs and shirt, instead of being insulated against it. The way was mostly flat, so I pressed out the first 30 kilometers and then ate some bread and cheese while watching people play pentache, that venerable game for old people in berets. I even allowed myself a beer.

4pm, and I now had three hours of sunlight and a couch in La Rochelle. OK, I’d better get serious! I got back on, put on some music, and pounded down the coast. On the flat terrain I maintained about 22-24 km/h, which is pretty good with baggage. The wind to my back, I was feeling pretty good as I tore down a long stretch next to the ocean with nothing but a few cars and some fields. Why can’t it all be like this?

Oh. Wait. Because it isn’t.

I checked my map. It showed that I was tearing down the coast, just as I planned, and I was now only about 20 km out from La Rochelle. But then I zoomed out and realized that I had taken a wrong turn– or more accurately, failed to take a right turn. I had just biked all the way out to the end of a peninsula across from La Rochelle– physically close, but now separated by a large body of water. No problem, I thought, I’m sure there’s some path around the bay…? A cycle route? A pedestrian path?

Uhhh… nope.

Not according to Google. What my map was showing me was that I was surrounded by endless fields with a large canal cutting me off from the interior. I had to backtrack about 15 kilometers, then head inland another 15 kilometers to get over the canal, and only *then* head in the right direction (south) toward my destination. The sun was low in the sky and I was looking at an additional hour of hard riding– now with the wind to my face. Suddenly this looked like a not-so-fun evening of biking in the dark.

I put everything else aside and focused on velocity. I was no longer counting kilometers, I was simply racing the clock to cover as much ground as I could before total darkness. You can bike in the dark, of course, but I was routing through unpaved bike paths running through deserted fields, and the last thing you want to do is hit a rock or something and go down somewhere where nobody will find you. I could tell my body was tired, but since I had no alternative I put it out of my mind and turned it into a challenge. I was tearing through asphalt, an extended sprint, fueled by Emergen-C and techno. (Incidentally, best music for an extended sprint: Tron soundtrack by Daft Punk.)

I did arrive well after dark, my phone and my body near exhaustion. But this being Europe, my hosts had just started to think about eating, so I took a quick shower and we sat down for pork chops, frites, wine, and awesome organic tomatoes grown in their garden. Yes, I was tired. But the night was not over… no, not even!

THE MEAL: Pork chops with herbs; frites maison; garden tomatoes; dark chocolate cake with Creme Anglaise.

THE WINE: A €5 bottle of Merlot I picked up at a butchery on the outskirts of La Rochelle, along with some beef.

THE BED: Theoretically, a couch in the living room… but I was warned there would be “action” there tonight, so no sleep. Details, of course, to follow.