By Sarah Souli
The supermarket lights were fluorescent, but this is always the case. The milk was unrefrigerated, stacked in blue boxes. Too many potatoes. The dried fruit came in tiny packages, 3.50 euros for a handful of plastic wrapped prunes. Bienvenue en France.
Four days earlier, my uncle had killed himself. He left his breakfast – a still steaming bowl of coffee, a piece of buttered toast- and hung himself in the garage. My aunt found him there. She hadn’t eaten yet and wouldn’t for days.
It took me two subways, one plane, one train and a forty minute car ride to get to my aunt’s house in Brittany. My boyfriend at the time took me as far as the plane. On his way back to our home he texted me: “Guess who I just met on the C train? Norman Finkelstein, and we shook hands!” I turned off my phone.
I could only stay for three days. It was my first death, and my first time cooking for my family. There was nothing to eat in the house that wasn’t pre-packaged. My aunt is not known for her cooking, and my uncle was not known for his palette. Couscous in a can, saussison sec, cheese still cold from the refrigerator- this was most often their dinner.
By Sarah Souli
When we lived in Australia we drove to a spiritual retreat five hours away from Melbourne. The last stretch was on a narrow and sinuous road along a cliff that without fail made me nauseous. Some years we stopped on the side while I hung my head out the door and gulped for air. The retreat was a meditation and yoga center with a beautiful farm where young men and women farmed for a month or two before moving on. There were wooden bungalows with no private bathrooms or one-floor apartments lined side by side resembling a flat motel. My mother and I were early risers. She wandered off to meditate while I sat in the large kitchen where the cooks prepared breakfast. The kitchen was located in a gigantic roundish building with a domed ceiling. On one side there was a lounge area with tables and chairs and sofas for reading. On the other side was the communal eating space with long wooden tables. The kitchen bordered one side of dining room with a counter upon which pots and plates of food were displayed. I would sit on a table inside the kitchen and watch the cook quietly at work for the 8 a.m. meal. He was an amateur astronomer and owned a telescope. At night he showed me planets and stars. The owners, a married couple, founded the retreat after sharing the same dream one night. They liked to recount the story of this mysterious energy. The husband told us about his travels and of healers in the Philippines who removed cysts without touching bodies.
I was fortunate to work in Paris during the months of June and July. Though my father is French and I was somewhat raised in France, saying that France is my homeland or first home always feels vague and a little false. I learned French grammar when I was twelve. I grew up eating rice syrup on toast instead of nutella. I still feel a strange combination of intense familiarity and detachment when in Paris. Paris is less sprawling than Melbourne (where I spent my childhood), and less cluttered and erratic than New York. Strangely, at first glance, it is indeed familiar, but as the days go by the city reveals unknown dimensions and layers to its temperament. Paris in the winter is a harsher place, the days are short and I feel mildly vampiric as I hurry along the cold streets seeking thick hot chocolates. In the summer, the city blooms and relaxes, it quietens and expands into long evenings of late sunsets.
I need to live in a neighborhood to become familiar with its stores, parks, restaurants, and the inhabitants of its streets. The neighborhoods I’ve lived in I can navigate with my eyes closed. But I am lazy, and it takes effort to push beyond my radius of comfort and venture into another neighborhood. I was living in the fifth arrondissement this year, a twenty-minute walk from Gare de Montparnasse where I can take a train to Rennes and visit my grandfather and cousins. I was steps away from the Luxembourg where I found constant excuses to cross through its beautiful alleyways or circle its high fences in the evenings when the streets are quiet and filled with the strong smell of plants and the chug of sprinklers. The same occurs with food, I have a list of regular favorites. I so contently eat baguette (tradition or banette) with salted butter, a slice of comté cheese and ham from the charcutier that by the end of my first week I often feel as if I’ve ingested an entire pig. There is the decadent falafel of rue des Rosiers that explodes with color and flavor upon your first bite, there is the tang of buckwheat in the galettes at Breizh Café, there is the richest, densest chocolate cake (I was told it carries ten eggs and a kilo of butter) at a small restaurant close to the Place des Vosges, there is the lemon cream al dente pasta of L’Altro, and so on. But this time, I looked for other places. I walked until my heels turned hard and heavy. By the time I sat down to eat I barely had the patience to wait for uneven French service. Though, miraculously, glasses of crisp white wine were happily delivered to the hungry patrons. These calmed our roaring bellies and by the time food arrived we were singing.
The kitchen is a windowless and narrow structure, an airplane aisle barely, with earthquake proof cabinets. But we fit easily, the women in my Japanese family are small, two hands can enclose my grandmother’s waist, and my mother was once called plancha in Argentina for her flat front and behind. We are in Tokyo, in the quiet residential neighborhood of Meguro, on the thirteenth floor, renamed 12A by my superstitious grandparents. We speak Spanish to one another, and if there are a few quibbles in Japanese between my aunts, everyone talks with a smooth argentine accent. My grandmother sits in a corner of the living room, her naked feet propped onto an electric foot massage. She stares at her many plants that have overtaken the balcony like a voluptuous jungle, while my grandfather rocks on his leather armchair and watches TV.
The last time I was in Los Angeles I was ten years old, gangly, with a boy haircut, visiting my mother’s filmmaker cousin in the Hollywood hills. After a few days on the West Coast, away from the loudness and cold winds of New York, I’m enthralled by the palm trees, the expansive roads, the flat houses, the beaches lining the shore and bursting with bronzed bodies even if the weather is too brisk for swimming. My father moved to LA for a new job and he’s only just found a house to rent, so there are boxes strewn in the living room, no soap in the showers. The house is sparingly furnished, leaving wide spaces for my lively brothers to stampede around on the hardwood floors.
Illustration by Forsyth Harmon
Piece by Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn
The Horrors–Still Life
I. Soul Food
This bubbling stew pot is my attempt to mend us, for what we need is soul food. We have misplaced our soul. We think this happened around the same time we stopped eating together at our dinner table. Our table, carried from house to house to this our present nest, is made of a solid English oak that promised longevity. It is scratched and marked with felt-tip pen of nearly forgotten homework assignments after dinner. This is a table to be used but we have neglected it and let the room get cold like an outhouse.
My soul food will drag it back to the core and sooth our nerves. Sooth my nerves because I will have something to do with my hands, some sort of distraction from the anarchy of our soullessness. You will set the table, he will light the candles, our visitor will wait and sit and tell us stories that will make us laugh and make you glow, again. We will have our roles and each will sigh in relief when we feel that soul food warmth in our bellies returning to us a little bit of our togetherness again.