Saturday, April 22, 2017

La Feria de Paques in Arles

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe went with American friends to Arles for «La Feria de Paques» (Easter Festival). Ellen read that the festival draws 500,000 people to Arles! There is music, paella, bullfights and wine. We chose to go on Saturday which is also the regular «market day» for the city.

Our visitors said that they wanted to go to the bullfights in the arena in Arles. We would have avoided the event because the idea of watching a bullfight has never made it to my bucket list. Our visitors had learned that there were two types of bullfights: the traditional gory spectacle and the non-killing performances. Our friends had heard that the newer style of bullfighting was where the matador pulled flowers from a flower crown that the bull wore.

We had a great lunch at one of our favorite restaurants (Hotel Voltaire) and then made our way toward the place where they were having the non-carnage bull fights. (There were no bulls killed in this arena.) In this small arena, we watched a half dozen or so junior/apprentice matadors honing their skills in the arena. These young men (ages 15-20) were very confident and very thin. So thin that a bull would have had a difficult time in finding one of them as its target. Despite their body type, they were valiant and aggressive facing the animal charging at them. There was one instance where the bull succeeded in pulling the matador’s cape from his hands and then the bull started to chase the matador who showed that he was not only capable at using his cape, he was fast on his feet and climbed the arena wall before the bull could get close.

The bullfights we watched were more like bull teases. There was little to compare them to the bullfights that Hemingway described in The Sun Also Rises. One must still admire the courage and confidence of the young men as they stood in the path of a charging bull.

I like the city of Arles. The arena is a major attraction, but for me, it is the city where Van Gogh painted «Café Terrace at Night,» «Garden of the Hospital in Arles» and of course «Starry Nights». (I have been singing/humming Don McClain’s «Starry Nights» ever since we were in Arles.) After the bullfights, we took our friends to the place where Van Gogh painted «Starry Nights» and then we walked back to the place where we had parked the car.

The route I chose took us past the Roman-built arena in the center of Arles. BIG MISTAKE choosing this route! We were walking away from the arena as the rest of the people were heading to the arena for the 4:30 bullfights - all 500,000 of them (or so it seemed). I told Ellen to let me lead the way because I look old and people would clear a path for me. (wrong!) The crowds were so thick that people could not step to the side. We slowly made our way past the arena, over the hill and back to the car.

We left Arles to drive back to Vaison. Curiously, the GPS took us past Nimes; the other city in France that has a Roman-built arena and still uses it for bullfights (les Corridas).

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rally round Spring

Add to Google Reader or HomepageAh, the early signs of spring: the almond trees are blooming, asparagus is on sale at the market, the streets are filled with Rally cars. (?)

Last weekend was the annual auto rally. It happens at the beginning of March every year in Vaison la Romaine. People and their cars start arriving around noon on Friday and by Friday evening, the upper parking lot and the field are filled with trailers and tents and tarps on which mechanics lie or sit and work on making the last adjustments to the cars.

I recently read a nice description of road rallies in the book Fatal Pursuit by Martin Walker (the recent addition to the Bruno French Chief of Police series.) I enjoyed walking around the cars and listening to the teams talk but If you are interested in car rallies, I refer you to Fatal Pursuit or some other source.

A sure sign of spring is when the produce sellers start selling asparagus at the market. Last Tuesday, there were three or four stalls that had asparagus. The first asparagus is extremely expensive: 11€ a kilo (about $6.00 per pound). As spring progresses, the price will drop to the point where the price will match the Michigan asparagus price at the height of the season; about a dollar a pound.

Soon the asparagus will be affordable and we can start making spring vegetable risotto, asparagus soup, etc... Asparagus might be a vegetable that is difficult to pair with wine but I love it just the same.

As spring asserts its presence, we will soon be able to get delicious strawberries from Carpentras and small (about the size of a softball) melons from Cavaillon. La vie est bonne. Life is good.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Robert Burns Night

Add to Google Reader or HomepageFair fa' your honest, sonsie face, 
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm. 

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis

(First and last stanza. Address to a Haggis. by Robert Burns)

I can say in all honesty that there are two things that I would never have imagined doing during our days in France: attending a Robert Burns birthday celebration and eating haggis. Last week we did both and had a wonderful time!

There was a certain serendipity to the event. We happened to run into UK friends while shopping last week. We talked for a while and then provided them with our phone numbers. Before we got home, we had a message inviting us to join them for dinner. When we called to confirm that we would love to have dinner with them, the hosts clarified that it was for a Robert Burns night - January 25 to celebrate the birthday of the Scottish poet - and that in addition to the traditional agenda of the evening, we would be eating haggis. So, a new opportunity. . .

Our hosts had decorated their house in a Scottish theme. They even had found “Robbie Burns” napkins to complement the appetizer. I had put on my most representative plaid shirt and we headed out of our village, traversing time and geography to reach the moors of Scotland. People arrived wearing Scottish plaids and tam o’ shanters. There were no bagpipes to greet us but our host plays the piano and played "The Skye Boat song" as we moved to the dining room.

The evening included poems between the meal courses and a lot of wine, though the traditional Scotch was also offered for a toast. Though not everyone drank it, a Burns Night would hardly be complete without it.

And then there was the haggis... It was served as the Robert Burns poem Address to a Haggis was read. I purposely did not look up the description of how haggis is made. I had a recollection of ingredients that left me not interested in ever trying it. I was wrong! It was very tasty and I did not have to ruin my Robbie Burns napkin by hiding my haggis in it.

As our (Ellen’s) contribution to the evening, Ellen had researched the links between Scotland and the USA. She found that Burns had had a strong influence on our own President Lincoln as well as many other Americans during his time. She talked about how President Lincoln had enjoyed Robert Burns’ poetry and how the two men had had similar philosophies of social equality and nonjudgmental tolerance. Lincoln had recited Burns poems from the time he was a teenager and these poems influenced the cadence that Lincoln used in his public speaking. It was a gratifying discovery, especially in these times when presidential rhetoric has changed so much.

The evening ended with all of us singing "Auld Lang Syne" (another Burns poem).

Là breith sona dhuit, Robbie. (happy birthday, Robbie)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Slow Trains

Add to Google Reader or HomepageYears ago, I asked my secretary to do something that was either redundant or not needed which she pointed out to me. I still asked her to do it – whatever it was, only to realize that she was right. When she brought me the results, I apologized and admitted that I was wrong. She looked at me over the top of her big 1970s glasses and said: “When God was handing out brains, you thought he said trains and said ‘I’ll take the slow one.’”

Taking the Amtrak train to Chicago last week, I was thinking that I have still not learned my lesson. I still take the slow one. Taking the train to Chicago requires as much time as driving. If we had been able to take a French fast train, we would have arrived in Chicago in less than two hours. Instead, we were on the train for almost four hours.

It is so different from taking a train in France. The French trains are called “TGV” (Train à Grande Vitesse) and they roll at 130 miles an hour.

The big difference is that French trains can roll without interruption. They never have to cross a road or street. Every rail/road intersection is either an overpass or an underpass. The Amtrak train to Chicago crossed a street or road about every four or five minutes until the train got past Niles, MI and then completed the route on Chicago train tracks (no street crossings).

Amtrak does not own the rails on which its trains operate. They have had to rent rail line time from freight lines and, as renters, Amtrak gets lower right of way priority. (Our trip to Chicago was slowed by 15-20 minutes because of a rail use conflict. Our delay was small in comparison to horror stories that we have heard.)

Europe made train travel a priority and as a result has an amazing network of rail lines. A person can leave London in the morning and have dinner in the south of France the same day. The trains are electric and controlled by a computer network. They are as clean as they are fast. Newer rail beds and electric motors make for a very smooth ride on trains in France. The Amtrak ride was not nearly as smooth. Walking to the café car on the way to Chicago, I looked like a little boy who had filled his pants with my wide stride so as not to fall on someone as the cars jostled back and forth. Needless to say, I held my beverage rather than setting it on the tray.

Not everyone likes the fast trains. We have an ex-pat friend who laments the loss of slow trains in Europe. He claims that one can no longer get a proper meal on a train. No more dinner jacket dining for the James Bond types of the world.

I may have chosen the slow one before but now I prefer the fast trains of France.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Rolling up the sidewalks

We still get questions from friends who ask about the differences that we note between life in Lansing and life in Vaison la Romaine. We still get questions about how long it takes to readjust to one environment or the other. 

Since we have been living our schizophrenic lives for the last eight years, I usually explain that we now have a routine of how we handle the changes in location and life style. For the most part, once we have put the clothes away and returned things to where they belong, we are pretty much settled. 

Even though our life in France follows the beat of a different drummer than our life here, we have come to enjoy the differences in tempo and thus enjoy wherever we are. After so many years, it is rare that we encounter a situation that surprises us. Sometimes it takes a visitor to the US or a visitor to France to ask a question that surprises us and makes us think about the contrasts. For example, a French person asking about why we permit pharmaceutical companies to advertise on television (not permitted in France) or an American visiting France who asked what stores are open on Sunday afternoon (none!).

Friday evening however, I surprised myself in my incorrect assumptions about our life in Lansing. We had gone to a concert and invited other concert-goers to join us for a drink after the performance. We chose a restaurant in the heart of downtown Lansing and went to wait for our friends there. We walked through the door at 9:36 and the hostess announced that the kitchen had closed at 9:30. We had eaten before the concert so food was not the objective in going there but nonetheless...

  • If we had been in France - even in our little village - the dinner service would have continued until 11:00 PM. In Paris, people often arrive at restaurants after 9:00. (In Spain, it seems that the most popular dinner hour is 10:00.)

  • The waiter brought our bill shortly after 10:30. To me it was a clear suggestion that we drink up and leave.

To tell the truth, we may have picked the one restaurant in downtown Lansing that closed early. I just never expected that the well-known restaurant that we picked would operate on such a schedule. The restaurant across the street appeared to be open and seemed to have a lot of people in it. I know I am using broad strokes to paint this picture but really... I never expected the restaurant that we chose to have such a roll-up-the-sidewalks schedule. I had believed that Lansing was more cosmopolitan. 

PS: We drove through downtown Lansing again last night and confirmed that I had chosen the only restaurant to close early; every other food-beverage place seemed to be filled with customers. I guess my skill at picking restaurants matches my skill at choosing the slowest line when going through customs. I have a knack at picking the wrong one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Home again, home again...

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe have been back in Lansing almost a month. We have settled in and our house feels like it is ours again. Clothes and objects that we stored so that our house-sitters would have empty closets and dressers are now back in their proper places.

I have claimed this so often to be boring but we live in the best neighborhood in the city/state/nation. Just one example: our neighbors wanted to surprise us when we came back to Lansing and since we had changed our calendar to be in France until the end of July, they prepared the soil and planted a vegetable garden for us. What a wonderful surprise! We have been enjoying the fruits of their labors since the day that we arrived. (I need more zucchini recipes!)

For the last eight years, we have been following our schedule of half-year here, half-year there. One would think that I had reported on all of the differences between our two life-styles but there are always things that surprise me when we arrive here (and there). 

One big difference this year, we stayed through two of the summer months: June and July. Vaison la Romaine changes a lot in the summer. First of all, the population doubles - from 7,000 to 14,000. A lot of people arrive with their bicycles. They fill the streets and the roads and, after a nice ride, the cafés. Vaison has one of the best street markets in Provence but in the middle of the summer it is packed with people. It is almost impossible to navigate through the throngs. (The locals have advised us to shop early - before 9:00 AM.) The shops that cater to tourists expand their hours. The cafés offer more live music at night thus the cafés are filled from morning until late in the evening. There is a proliferation of ice cream vendors. There are several ice cream specialty shops but the cafés also add ice cream coolers. If one could rank order the popularity of a type of store by the number of stores of that type, in Vaison in the summer the ranking would be beauty salons/coiffeurs, restaurants and cafés, bakeries, ice cream vendors, real estate sales offices... 

Vaison has become known for the dance performances held in July and August at the Roman Amphitheater. We went to one of the performances and I can only describe it as magical. The show started at 10:00 PM - just after sunset - and we and about 5,000 other people were finding our seats in a 2000 year old amphitheater that was built by the Romans. The performance that we saw was by an American company - the Los Angeles Dance Project - though the director is Benjamin Millepied is French and former director of the Paris Opera Ballet (and husband of actress Natalie Portman.)

Another observation: Even though we live in a village in France, people there dress better than people dress here. One expects people of Paris to dress well but the rules of fashion are somewhat relaxed outside of the large cities. One rarely sees people dressed as casually in Vaison as one sees people here. Even the tourists dress better in France. No sweats in public - ever! It reminds me of the quote about wearing sweat pants in public attributed to Jerry Seinfeld: “You’re telling the world ‘I give up.’” (Training outfits/warm-up suits are becoming more popular in France...) The contrast in fashion was underscored for me when I encountered a woman who was wearing pajamas as she shopped in one of the local superstores. Now that is casual! Welcome home!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Nantes and Paris

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We went to Nantes to visit a dear friend. (We also got to see a friend who we have not seen since she was in East Lansing in 1980!) Nantes is at the mouth of the Loire River on the western coast of France. It was not our first trip there but was the most memorable. We toured the city with our friend who was born and raised there so he is very knowledgeable guide. He lives in the center of the city so we walked most places. 

We took the “Navibus” to the other side of the Loire river and walked around the village of Trentemoult. We visited the island of the city and got to see the huge (three stories high) mechanical elephant that walks around the island.

We went through the castle of the dukes of Brittany (le Château des ducs de Bretagne) and ate at a lovely restaurant facing the castle (Le Fou du Roi - the Court Jester). Every meal during our visit was excellent and, since our friend is a very knowledgeable connoisseur of wine, we drank well.

Note: Nantes was thirty degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Vaison. Everyday, we went out with a jacket!

We left Nantes and took the fast train to Paris. We visited our friends who were staying in Paris for several weeks. Paris is always awesome.

We had planned to go to an American restaurant for dinner on the 4th of July. (American Independence Day is not a holiday in France.) Two of the Americans with whom we were going to eat did not like the restaurant so we decided instead to find a restaurant in the neighborhood that made hamburgers. We found the perfect café and had great hamburgers and fries - with Heinz catsup!

We went to Versailles to see the new exhibition of paintings depicting the role of France in the American Revolutionary War. (The French call it the War of Independence.) It was a very engaging and enlightening exhibit. Somewhere in my past, I remembered that La Fayette had helped Washington and that the French had also sent naval support but I always thought of the French help as a small footnote on the war. The French were very much involved in supporting our independence and fighting England.

There was an exhibit of three hundred years of women’s fashion at the Museum of Decorative Arts. I am probably showing my age but I much prefer the hoop skirts of the seventeenth century to some of the extravagant (outrageous?) fashions of the current time. (There was also a Barbie exhibit at the same building but we decided not to pay to see that exhibit.)

On our last day in Paris, we went to Montmartre - the highest part of Paris. We found a little café and had a wonderful lunch and then spent the afternoon climbing and descending the hills of Montmartre. Ellen wanted to see the little vineyard in Montmartre because she wanted to compare it to the little vineyard our friend had shown her in the center of Nantes. 

As we walked around Paris, I was asking myself if anyone there spoke French. I heard many languages most of which were not French. Maybe it was the multitude of tourists, maybe it was because July is one of the two vacation months for the French and the French-speaking Parisians had left the city. For whatever reason, it was amazing to hear so many languages. 

Bonne fête nationale de France! Happy Bastille Day!