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 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 1: The Deluge (Le Havre –> Deauville, 48 km)

Kilometers covered: 51
Départements traveled: 2
Wines sampled: 3
Fromage consumed: 2

It certainly seemed like the wrong day to start a long-distance bike trip. The weather had turned mean. I wasn’t wearing the right shirt. It was cold. I hadn’t adjusted my bike gear. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. And I wouldn’t be biking until 2pm or later, due to a lecture I was giving at a university in Le Havre, a port city on the Normandy coast.

But the lecture went well. We packed a small auditorium– I counted about fifty students out of a total of 260 in the PoliSci program. There was a high level of interest in the topic (the US and China in the Pacific), and several students kept me afterward to ask additional questions about my career and my opinions. Good for my ego, not so good for my progress down the coast. By the time I swapped my shirt and tie for a biking shirt (to the amazement of onlookers), the sky looked ominous and the wind could almost stop you in your tracks. I found myself reconsidering my “plan.”

But there really wasn’t much of an alternative. I could wait a day, stay the night at a cheap hotel in Le Havre– but the weather might be just as bad tomorrow, and I was eager to get on with things. Besides, what better way to get things going than to jump right into it? Ha ha.

As I left the city I noticed that the few cafes along the route had sensibly battered their hatches against the incoming rain. Non deterred, I put rain pants over my khakis and clipped into my pedals. Google insisted that I could take this trucking route up and over a bridge somehow and into Calvados, the département for D-Day beaches and strong liquor (also conveniently called Calvados). Soon, however, the rain threatened to drown my iphone (along with everything else), so I was forced to steal quick glances at 30 minute intervals rather than navigate.

The first part of the route took me through the port area– Le Havre being the biggest port container facility in France. It looked much like a cargo port might. I knew this wouldn’t be the most scenic part, but I figured it would be interesting, and it was. Less “interesting” were the semis passing me along the road– in the rain, with no light– but to their credit, they were unfailingly courteous about passing me. I felt like a little mouse with an elephant behind me, the elephant being very careful not to hurry me along.

Soon an immense ghostly shape emerged out of the gray: the bridge! But surely not THAT bridge? Yes, that bridge. If Google was wrong, and there was no bike lane, it was going to be a very wet and very miserable ride back to the city center.

But this being France, there was a bike lane along the side– though it was a huff getting up the hill. It was a long suspension bridge, with the gradient pretty easy in the beginning and pretty steep toward the middle. I made it to the peak, but I was tired and soaked and buffeted by the wind, which couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to hit me head on or dismount from the side. Coasting down, though, I saw the sign for Calvados. Success! Département number two achieved.

Coastal Calvados was every bit as attractive as you would expect from the postcards, if anyone still wrote postcards. Normandie houses, battered docks, beaches, seafood. Still, I was getting tired, and I needed to think about finding a place to crash before the earlier-and-earlier darkness set in. The rain had stopped so I pulled out my phone and looked for a spot about 20 kilometers out. A found a hotel in a charming Normandy mansion in a small town called Deauville. 20 kilometers would be about right to exhaust me and also feel like I achieved something for the first day.

Just before the hotel, I spotted a small épicerie (a gourmet shop) and hopped off in search of some wine and nibblies. I figured one or two glasses before I went out for dinner, take the edge off, pack the rest for tomorrow. I told the man I went for red, local, and interesting, but he told me for local and interesting it was Auxerrois, a white from Calvados. They had a 50cl bottle, so I went for it along with a bottle of Cinsault from the south– a varietal I love, but which is hard to find in the US.

Even better, a full bath for tired bones. I’ll relax 30 minutes, I thought, pouring myself a little wine and clipping off a bit of cheese as I lay back in the water. 30 minutes later I had rationalized 30 minutes more. Three hours later, I reluctantly emerged– parboiled, sozzled, and in much less pain due to the two empty bottles of wine. At least I won’t have to carry them!

THE MEAL: spicy chorizo, aged mimolette, pickled herring with Sichuan peppercorns, chocolate left over from a picnic yesterday in Giverny.

THE WINE: a 2011 “Arpents du Soleil” Auxirolles (Calvados) and a 2012 Domane d’Aupilhac “Les Serviéres” Old Vine Cinsault (IGP Pays de l’Hérault), named after the wild lynx now extinct in the area.

THE ROOM: L’augeval (€61), 42 guestrooms, a converted house in the coastal town of Deauville.

Emei-shan, Day 13

Getting home from the Buddhist caves was a little more of an adventure than getting there– all the public buses were gone, so I had to bargain for a quasi-legal “shared taxi” driven by a Sichuanese guy I will call Chu. Chu was authentically Sichuanese, which meant I could not for the life of me understand what he was saying. He was very enthusiastic about the idea of driving me back to Chongqing, though, and even more so about the idea of being “friends”– which I have to admit was a little unnerving after 2 minutes of light acquaintance. Finally one of my fellow passengers gracefully intervened, translating Chu’s heavily Sichuanese Chinese into normal Chinese, which I understood just fine.

Price being settled, we got under way and I turned to talk to the rather stunning young woman who had helped me. It seems like everywhere you go in China, some city or other is renown for the beauty of their women (I’ve heard Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Wuhan, Chongqing)– but this girl was really the first that made me stop and take notice. She had soft brown eyes and spoke delicately and although she was from the Sichuan area, her pronunciation was much easier to understand. Knowing I shouldn’t, I asked her how old she was. “21,” she answered, as she batted her eyelashes. “But I’ll be 22 next week.” Sigh. That does NOT help!

The next morning, I woke up slowly and did some work in my hotel room, slightly reluctant to leave. Finally I realized I needed to get my game on if I was going to make it to the misty mountain retreat of Emeishan, which was my sort-of plan. “Sort-of” because, I didn’t actually have a train ticket and I wasn’t actually sure it was worth the journey– I was considering just bedding down in Chengdu for a couple nights and catching up on things. But instead I grabbed a quick bowl of ma-la mian (hot and spicy noodles), bought a wool sweater, and hopped on the metro.

I made it to the Chongqing station OK, but was dismayed to discover that all the trains to Chengdu were sold out! All but the last one, which would put me in too late to make it to Emei-shan. I haggled and bargained and reasoned with the ticket counter, who finally put me on an earlier train. (First and last rule of China: everything is negotiable.) Gratified, I made it to Chengdu with plenty of time to make my connection from a different train station across the city.

Except: once again, every train was booked solid. I had forgotten that it was Friday, and on Friday volume naturally increased as students, workers, and others commute home for the weekend. What to do? Well, on the very last train, there were a few spots left for “standing only.” Standing for the 2 1/2 hour trip didn’t sound great, but it was my own fault for not planning ahead of time. I bought the ticket and prayed it wouldn’t be too bad.

I arrived in Emeishan much later than I planned, about 10:30, but I did arrive. The “Teddy Bear Hotel” (no kidding) welcomed me with open arms, and I gratefully settled into my wood-paneled private room and took a much needed shower. In all, I had logged about five hours on Chinese trains that day, but it felt like more because of all the waiting, standing, queueing, coming and going, and transfers between stations. It reminded me of the old days, when you used to book 24 hour trains to get from one province to another.

I had only very loose plans for the next day: get up and go climb the mountain, sleep somewhere, come back. Luckily, I started talking to a British girl in the lobby who had just finished a year of teaching in Xinjiang, and she invited me to join her and her boyfriend to climb the mountain the next morning. Most everyone planned to start around 5AM; she suggested 9, which I agreed to immediately.

September: Our French Wine Trip

Berlin: The Broken Tooth

Regular readers of our blog (both of them!) will notice that we haven’t posted anything new for a few months… and it’s true.  Italy is a land of much wine and distraction: by the time you build in a two-and-a-half-hour pausa every afternoon and a 90 minute passengiata every evening, it’s hard to see the point of drawing your ambition much past robing/disrobing and the occasional snack.  That said, our silence might have you thinking that we had little to report… and nothing could be further from the truth!  In fact, we feel we have a moral– nay, spiritual– duty to channel our experiences vicariously back to you poor schlubs trapped in an office somewhere.  (That was us, half a year ago– so we’re not throwing stones.)  So consider this a catch-up posting (one of three).

To recap: in true High-Life form, we blew through our first two months here in Italy (July-August) without barely catching a breath, taking Italian classes four hours a day and trekking around the countryside every weekend.  In between other important duties we explored a list of half-shelved passions: reading, writing, sketching, cooking, singing, eating, (drinking).  We already knew that we would lose our apartment for the month of September– outwitted by a disgustingly organized British couple who had reserved the place a year in advance– but as we had planned to travel anyway, it all worked out.

The Plaza in Kreutzberg

The Sandcrawler in Star Wars

So, with some wistful hesitation, on September 1 we took off for our grande tour-de-Europa.

First by air to Berlin (sidenote: Air Berlin is a nice airline), where we stayed in a funky conference hotel that looked like the Sandcrawler from Star Wars.  (Don’t believe me?  Compare the pics.)  In addition to touring the city where one of us once lived, we reu

nited with several friends and ate lots of good Indian food.  Then by train to Brussels, where we crashed at the apartment of our dashing diplomatic friend and ate Bruxillian food (pricey).  Then by slow train to Strasbourg, France– another former haunt– where we ate tarte flambe and tried unsuccessfully to track down the road bike one of us had left with Kurdish landlords six years ago (they’d moved on).

Then, finally, by rental car through the much-lauded wine regions of France: Alsace, Borgogne (Burgandy), and Cotes-du-Rhone.  After drinking Italian wine for several months, we thought it was time to broaden our horizons and get a feel for other types of old-world wineries.  Unlike in Italy– where, before we moved here, we rarely cared for the wine– several varieties in France already had our affection.  From clean, crisp Alsatian Rieslings to meaty, chewy Chateauneufs to smooth, nuanced Bordeaux’s– plus Armagnac, a favorite liquor– France had an impressive portfolio, if somewhat overpriced.

However: there’s no way to know wine like being there.  When last I lived in France I really had no idea what I was looking at; I was on a student budget and was a bit of an amateur.  Now, with slightly greater resources and appreciation, we discovered a few new things that you might also be interested in.

So first, Alsace: the great white wine producing region of France.  Even if you don’t generally care for whites, you’ll find something you like here: these are clean, unoaked, fresh-tasting whites, easy to drink and very cheap at €4-8 a bottle.  We picked up a range of whites that we liked a lot, including Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and Gewurztraminer.  Mostly unknown is that many wineries also make a Pinot Noir which is pretty darn good in its own way, and which expresses the Alsacian terroir; it makes for an interesting comparison with the now popular Californian and Oregonian Pinots.  (For more on the wine offerings of Alsace, check out A Brief Primer on the Jewels of Alsace.)

Our accomodationsIn Burgundy (Borgogne) we saved lots of money for wine purchases by setting up camp (literally) in the trees of the Black Forest and at a five-star campground just outside the old city of Beaune.  Aside from the small detail that we were sleeping outside, it really was pretty comfortable and included a cafe, electicity and wireless internet.  Considering that your standard 1-star hotel costs €60-80, the €25 we spent on our Ikea mattress and our €10 Chinese-produced tent (red) seemed pretty worth it.  We watched movies on our laptops plugged into the outlet as we toasted ourselves on our choice not to spend $100 a night in some fleatrap hotel.

The Wines of Borgogne

Cecy with some Dirty Old Man

As for the wines of Borgogne, we were told that for the best appreciation one must wait 10-15 years.  10-15 years?  I don’t think so.  Good wine may well come out of Burgundy, but for wine you expect to drink in the next few years it’s watery and overpriced.  That said, there is a certain elegance here that exists few other places; we just prefer the wines of the south.  We had a wonderful time touring the winery of Parent and even got to watch them as they brought in their harvest.  (Having just consumed a bottle of Parent with Thanksgiving dinner, I will say that it pairs very well with light foods like turkey.)  For more on wine in Burgundy, we recommend this article on Learning Burgundy.

Certificate du Chateauneuf du Pape

The Certificate

A Small Samping for Home

But then Avignon, Cotes-du-Rhone, and Chateuneuf-du-Pape.  NOW THIS IS REAL WINE.  Chewy, dark, dense, “bacony” even.  This was great wine, ready to drink now.  The mistral winds of the Provencal beat down the grapes and force them to be hardy and heady and deep.  We found any number of cellars that were willing to part with their delicious CDP’s for around €12-15, a virtual steal when you think about what these wines command back in the States (or anywhere else).  We took back a good sampling of both red and white wines from the region.  Did you know that CDP is traditionally a blend of about 13 different grapes, all grown alongside each other?  Can you imagine growing 13 different grapes?

Back to Italy, where we had just enough time to charm our way past the Englishpeople and change out suitcases before our flight back to DC!…