Loneliness creeps on you all of a sudden. Even in the middle of a whirlwind of nervous energy, sometimes it taps you on the shoulder, mutters:
Do you realise you spent an entire day without a grown-up conversation?
You shrug, try to shake it off. Justify the hours in front of the computer as productivity.
Sometimes it shrieks at you in a public place like an exasperated mother. You go to buy a phone, documents ready prepared. Identity card, bank details, proof of address, proof of steady salary. (The uncompromisingly harsh stereotype of the French love affair with bureaucracy.)
They reject your foreign passport, your unconventional job. Autoentrepreneur status is obviously less attractive than it sounds. They ask for all the documents under the sun, and then ask impatiently,
Don’t you have any family in France? Friends?
Why is that relevant? Your job and house are indequate for the French system – why do they need to emphasise your friendless status? Because you are a mature adult, you just shake your head crossly and stalk out. No phone.
Being independent, new in the big wide world, suddenly in charge of feeding body and soul is delicate. Being an autoentrepreneur leaves you with glorious stretches of free time to walk in the park, to select shiny aubergines at the market, to run along the canal when most people are behnind their desks. Freedom and loneliness.
So you have to be careful. Just as I did in the first weeks of university, you need to carefully select the interesting souls from a horde of blank faces. You need to invite them to dinner, hope they will spark a friendship. Spend your spare hours chopping and stirring, rolling meatballs and stealing sips of coconut milk.
Choose a dish just foreign enough to intrigue, impress – simple flavours, not too spicy. Red curry paste and coconut milk for authenticity, peanut butter for salty rich comfort. It might be the ugliest dish in the world, an ochre slump, but cover it with fresh coriander and serve with bright yellow rice and sharp green cucumbers.
If you are very very lucky, it will work not once but twice to start a tradition of pseudo-family eatings. At Oxford we had French dinners almost once a week for three years, with a circle of new and old faces. There was a match-making disaster, some burnt sausages and lots of wine. We mainly ate on the floor. By the end of our degrees, I had graduated from this first indonesian curry to themed dinners: a vodka-based menu, a Mexican meal (moustaches obligatory).
This next time around in Paris had the same menu with a few added extras. Now there was a happy muddle of languages, all interrupting and contradicting. We smashed coconuts on the balcony. I experimented with a sweet and sour tamarind flan. Just as I turned it out, a silken wobble of cream topped with bitter caramel, the door-buzzer blared. The lift chimed and one of my favourite people, and an original member of our French dinner tradition, leaped out to hug me.
So take photos of shadows and spring flowers. Breathe in your free time. Start a new Sunday tradition to fill that missing piece with spices and jokes. Invite ten new faces over for dinner and remember that you only have six chairs and four knives. Hope that they are the kind of exciting people that turn up for a dinner party with three coconuts and a jar of honey.
Indonesian peanut/coconut curry
serves 4 hungry people
350g minced meat
One or two shallots, minced finely
a clove of garlic, crushed
A little flour, olive oil
350g pumpkin and/or carrots – cut into large chunks
2 tbsp red curry or madras paste
1 can chopped tomatoes (400g)
1/2 can coconut milk (400g)
3 tbsp crunchy peanut butter
Mix the mince meat with the finely chopped shallots and garlic. Shape the mixture into walnut sized meatballs and dust them with flour. Heat a large deep frying pan with a little olive oil and fry the meatballs in batches for a minute or two on each side until they are nicely browned (but not cooked through). Remove from the pan.
Add a little more oil to the pan if it is dry, along with the curry paste. Fry it for a couple of minutes until the spices release their flavour and smell delicious. Add the chopped vegetables, cook for five minutes or so. Finally add in the tomatoes, coconut milk and meatballs.
Cover the curry mixture and let it simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes until the meatballs are done and the vegetables soft. If the sauce is too thick, add ½ cup water. Equally, if it seems too watery, remove the lid and reduce it.
Finally add the peanut butter, stir gently and taste. Add more curry paste/peanut butter according to taste.
Serve with a sprinkle of fresh herbs, basmati rice and a fresh cucumber and yoghurt salad.