Tuesday, December 30, 2008

December Notes

December 2008 in Vaison

Rain & Flooding
The Sunday after Mark & Dan left, we were awakened by rain hitting our bedroom window. It had rained most of the week, but this morning it was raining hard and the Mistral winds were pushing the rain drops towards horizontal. The rain continued all day, all evening and through most of the night.

Rain is a big deal here as it is in most agricultural areas. The winemakers want rain early in the year and then almost drought-like conditions so that the grapes will develop better sugars. This year, for instance, gets mixed reviews from the winemakers. There was a lot of rain early in the year, then mostly dry, then rain again in July – causing mold on the vines. If the vintners don’t remove the mold, it gets in the grapes and then the grapes have to be removed. To make things worse, it started to rain again at about the same time as the harvest was to begin. One winemaker reported that they had a good harvest but a small harvest.

The truffle hunters like a lot of rain as it keeps the ground moist, thus promoting the growth of those very valuable mushrooms. Our market had truffles for about 800 € per kilo. Our friend Benoit told us that they sell for over 1,000 € in Paris. Such news makes me want to buy a truffle-sniffing pig and start searching!

Rain is also a big deal in our town as most adults from here remember the flash flood of ’92 where rain waters swelled the Ouvèze River to the point of going over the 2000- year-old Roman bridge, destroying 150 homes and killing 37 people. Though other bridges in the area were destroyed by the flood, the Roman bridge survived; in fact, it remains a main entry point into the town. Just west of town, the Rotary Club created a park in the flood plain dedicated to those who lost their lives during the flood. One day when Ellen and I were walking there, we met a man who pointed to his house at the edge of the plain and said that his house had three meters (almost 10 feet) of water during the flood.

Since our apartment overlooks the river we had a special interest in following the progress of the rise in water level. By Sunday evening, all of the little “islands” in the river were under water and the river kept rising. I watched an uprooted tree go floating by at remarkable speed. We were spared any damage – the flood line is 1.6 meters above normal and the river rose only 1.3 meters. The downstream village of Bedarrides and the town of Cavaillon both had to evacuate residents from their homes.

December weather - go figure...
We have enjoyed spectacular days here where the sun just warms everything and the skies are Colorado/Montana blue. I played tennis outdoors in December and played in a T-shirt as it was so warm. Most mornings, there is frost on car windshields and on roof tiles but the temperature gauge – in the sun on our balcony – reads 50 degrees or higher. On cloudy days, the temperature hovers around freezing (We use our balcony – the shady corners – as additional refrigerator storage.) There is also the pervasive smell of wood fires, as many homes here use wood for heating.

Probably more fun than going to French karaoke night at the local bar with Karlice, Ed, Dan and Mark was being asked to play Père Noël (Santa Claus) for the Christmas party at the crèche [day care center] next door. They provided me with a Santa suit but Ellen and I quickly determined that it needed some help, so I bought another Santa suit at Bazarland, our local dollar store, for three € and used the second suit to create a better beard and look. Since the crèche is only for little kids (age three and under), there were a lot of frightened kids who watched Santa from behind their teachers. When they learned that I had candy to give out, most of them overcame their shyness. Ellen came along as my photographer and, if we can get the photo shop to retrieve the pictures from the camera disk’s “CF card reading error”, we will have some good photos to share. There is now a whole group of kids in France who think that Père Noël has an American accent but, as an acquaintance asked: “Is that better or worse than kids believing that Père Noël has a Marseille accent?”

Tish comes to visit
The day after Tish arrived we went hiking in the hills in the shadow of Mt. Ventoux. (Tish brought sunshine with her.) We had found a book on hiking trails at the Tourist Information Center in town and picked an easy walk. [Ellen’s comment: “Easy! You call this easy?”] The elevations changed enough to get us to snow-covered areas. After completing the hike, we decided to drive to the little town of Faucon nearby where there is a bakery/restaurant that makes wonderful vegetable tarts. Our new acquaintance Marie had introduced us to the place in October and we wanted to take Tish there to enjoy a fresh-baked lunch with us.

The only other diners in the restaurant were an English-speaking family with their dog inside and their baby outside. This explained why Mom and Dad alternately kept jumping up from the table to go outside every few minutes: Their baby was asleep in the car just a few feet away and they didn’t want to wake him when they arrived for lunch. We enjoyed the irony of Tish coming from Cairo and ending up seated next to English-speaking people at a restaurant in the south of France! Later we met the couple’s infant and I told the parents that I had been Père Noël at the crèche just a few days earlier. The father of the infant said: “Excuse me for saying, but you look a good fit for the part.” – Note to self: exercise more…

Christmas traditions
Tish, Ellen and I all played “Père Noël” and delivered home-baked Christmas cookies (chocolate chips) to our neighbors and friends in town. With some help from the internet and good counsel from chocolate chip chef par excellence John Cooper, we baked a big batch of cookies. It is not clear to me whether distributing plates of cookies is a tradition here – probably not as everyone seemed surprised – but we had fun doing it and we got to meet another neighbor who had just arrived from her home in Corsica.

We went to the apartment of Benoit and Marie, located above their restaurant in town, for apero on Christmas eve and got to meet all of Benoit’s family. They opened champagne and served amuse bouche (appetizers) as we talked about Christmas traditions and Père Noël. In their family – and they said it was true for most families in France – Christmas eve is the big celebration time. They talked about families going to midnight mass, then having a BIG meal and opening presents afterwards.

We also discovered that “the place to be” in Vaison la Romaine on the Sunday afternoon before Christmas was at the Christmas Concert. We were there but with standing room only as we arrived to claim our tickets after the seating was sold out. Vaison has developed a reputation for choral music (Choral city of France) and the holiday concert was excellent. The conductor chose music that aired well in the 11th century cathedral where it was played and sung, just a few minutes’ walk from our apartment. Though our neighbor Helene spends Sundays with her family and couldn’t join us, she enjoyed hearing about the music and the event itself later in the week.

Before coming for the holidays, Tish had done a lot of research on hiking trails in France and discovered that there are many in the Vaison area as there are throughout France. We used the detailed maps Charlie had bought and left for us during his and Marge’s visit (thanks!) to find our way to the trail head for “Grand Randonné 4”. Tish and I then walked over the Dentelles de Montmirail (local mountain range) to Seguret. The trail provided many Kodak moments but the view of the Rhone valley from the top of the last hill was spectacular. Once in Seguret, we tried to find the connecting route and asked a biker (a guy older than us out for a weekend ride) for directions. He suggested that we return on the same route – in fact the route he planned to follow back to Vaison – but we wanted to see some different terrain so we asked if the road behind the church would connect to the path. The biker’s response: “You can go that way if you want, but you will get lost.” We wished him well on his bike ride and told him we would see him in Vaison. We have not seen him, so I can only assume that HE is lost. ;-)

November 2008

Ellen and Mark standing in front of a 100-year old Olive tree (near Pont du Gard)
Karlice and Ed standing in the snow of Mt. Ventoux
Dan and Mark standing in the snow of Mt. Ventoux
Pont du Gard - the aqueduct built by the Romans in 19 BC - built so that its height dropped 34 centimeters for every kilometer!

Obama Awareness Everywhere: We learned about the results of the election probably minutes after people in the USA as our friend, John Cooper, called at 5:06 AM Wednesday morning (France time) to shout out the results. This time is really exciting. The election of Barack Obama gets a lot of positive attention here: on the radio, in the market, in nearly every new exchange when people learn that we are Americans. The French think that the election marks a new page in French-American-international relations. We have had fun encounters when people realize that we are American and begin to ask questions about Obama. On one occasion we were talking with a man who had followed us out of a store to give us advice on where to find the best local olives. (Who says the French aren’t friendly and helpful?) As we turned to leave, Ellen thought she noticed an Obama button on his bag. Ellen tentatively said: “Obama?” He turned and replied: “Yes. . . . (pause), we can!” Everyone laughed and we went on our separate ways.

One sunny afternoon we were out for a walk to one of the high scenic points in town: the statue of the Black Virgin/Black Madonna. We were near but hadn’t yet found the right path. We asked a man walking his dog but he said he was just visiting nearby and couldn’t help. When we found the right path with help from some other passersby, he decided to walk with us. Having learned that we were Americans, he immediately launched into questions about the elections in the US. After we walked and talked for a bit and saw the spectacular view from the hill, we started on our way back. He asked if we had had lunch, then asked if we would like to join him--at his aunt’s house--for lunch.
We politely declined, saying that we had eaten lunch and were out walking before making our way to the store. He then invited us to come for a glass of wine and to meet his wife and his aunt. When he changed the invitation to wine and also told us his aunt (age 75) had lived in Vaison for a long time and knew the town well, how could we resist? As we walked into the courtyard, he announced to his aunt that he had invited us for lunch and that we should start with a bottle of champagne. He told her that we lived in town and that we had voted for Obama. Those were magic words as his aunt started asking questions about the election and our views as we toasted Obama. We sat on the terrace in the sunshine drinking champagne and talking about world affairs.

As the afternoon went on into the evening, we learned a lot more about Aunt Magdeleine. (She insisted we call her “Mag”, the way she prefers to be addressed.) Mag thinks that Obama won because he is smart, exciting as a speaker, with a solid approach to governing. She hopes he can have a positive leadership approach in foreign policy, something we have not had for the past eight years. She likes the view from the other side of the ocean and, at the same time, realizes (as many of us from the US do) that there is a long road ahead. We ended up spending most of the evening with her, long after Philippe and his wife had departed for Nice. He really was “just visiting” for the day on the way to a vacation!

Though Obama and world affairs were the entrees, Mag gave us a lot of other insights into the French and French culture. She had been an art gallery owner in Vaison and spent some of her earlier life in Paris. There she had met some of the great artists, poets and songwriters of France. One of her acquaintances was Georges Brassens, an icon in French culture for his poetry set to music; he was a great rebel of his time and his songs are still played every day on French radio. We bought a Brassens CD the next week at the market and feel an almost personal connection to a part of French history. Thanks, Mag!

For Better or Worse and Even for Lunch: Our lives together (après retirement) have taken on new but similar patterns. Our eating habits have not changed much though the foods that we eat have changed. I had never cooked leeks or fennel or potimarron (a pumpkin-like squash). We like to go out – any reason will do – to get beyond the walls of our 400 sq. ft. We have walked through most of the neighborhoods of the town and I can always think of something that I forgot to pick up at the market. Of course, if I don’t write it down when I think of it, I will be standing in the market wondering what it was that I wanted to pick up. We don’t have a car now, so all of our shopping and outings are done on foot, but the MOST distant grocery store (supermarket) is only 1.5 miles with most everything else available in a matter of blocks from here. (We are about 4-5 blocks from the center of town.) By the way, the grocery stores do NOT ask if you want paper or plastic. You must bring (and fill) your own shopping bags. There are huge shopping centers in Avignon, but most of the retail done in Vaison is handled in little shops. It has been fun figuring out where to buy this or that and at which shop we want to spend our euros.

Breakfast usually consists of bread (purchased daily) with jam and butter or goat cheese and café au lait. Ellen often has cereal with yogurt or with milk. You can buy boxes or plastic containers of milk off the shelf (not refrigerated) OR from the cooler. We learned to look for lait écrémé, skim milk. We have been enjoying local pears and apples but if we want to have oranges or warm-weather fruits, they come from Spain or Morocco at this time of year. Our favorite fruits are probably the ones that use the same word in French – though you can usually point at an item if you can’t remember the word… We eat a lot of clementines, oranges and bananes. Ellen’s sister Karlice laughed when I told her, but we really like the prunes (pruneaux) here – they are soft and sweet (and not at all like chewing leather). We have been here long enough to know where to get a good baguette and where to get Ellen's favorite pain au cereal (multi-grain bread). There must be at least a dozen bakeries in this town of 7,000.

Since most of the stores in town close from noon until 2:00 or 2:30, the hours for lunch are pretty well set. (This is changing a little as the two supermarkets are open from 8:30 until 8:00 PM.) We eat dinner at about the same time as in the states – 8:30 or so. On market day, lunch is often à emporter (take out) from a market vendor – paella, roasted chicken & potatoes or fried rice with vegetables. We have not tried the take-out pizza yet.

Market Day Reigns on Tuesdays: Tuesday is my favorite day of the week because Tuesday is market day. Market day is so much fun despite the snail’s pace (escargot’s pace?) of trying to get through the crowd of shoppers, most of whom have their shopping bags or their wheeled carts so that they can load up for the week. The French seem to know how to pick the best quality foods even though the foods they buy don’t always look the best. They want local. They want to know not only where the food came from but where the grower lives. FRESH makes such a difference in food flavors! (How’s that for taking a stand?) I should open a cooking school like the one that Patricia Wells runs here in the summer! We have not met Wells but we have met several of the people that she mentions in The Provence Cookbook.

From about 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM rain or shine, fifty-two times per year, the streets are closed to traffic and filled with vendors. There are at least a half dozen vendors of any product that you might want and some items you might be surprised to find. The market fills up the town square, the parking lots, and the main streets. Booths start about two blocks from our apartment and go to the other side of the center of town. In the 16th century, the Pope permitted (sanctified) Vaison to be a market-day village. You can find new/used CDs, clothing, cloth, table linens, candies, breads and other baked goods, olives & olive oil. (Nyons, the olive oil capital of France, is about 20 km from here.) There are meats, fish, vegetables, fruit, cheese, honey, tableware, pottery, antiques, hand-made items and plants and flowers. There is a vendor who raises and sells all sorts of fowl – quail, chicken, guinea fowl, pheasant, duck and turkey. In the event that your market shopping is too tiring, you can stop for a coffee at any one of the cafés.

Since shoppers have so many choices, the vendors are generally very engaging and helpful – and many of them seem to enjoy practicing English. The vendors who sell olives also sell tapenade and olive oil. I like to go to these counters to taste the various olive oils. There are so many different flavors (and colors)! A cheese vendor got us to try three kinds of Comte cheese, all from the same producer but one was from this spring, the others from 2007 and 2006. What a difference! In Lansing, I would consider myself lucky to find Comte, let alone have the option of choosing the year in which it was produced! Last week, “my” cheese vendor said that she was going back to Savoie, in northern France, to take care of the farm but that she would be back in the spring. When she wrapped my cheese, she also gave me a bottle of rosé – a gift that she was offering to all of her “regular” customers. C’est moi!

Thanksgiving in France: Even though we didn’t celebrate a “traditional” Thanksgiving, we celebrated it nonetheless. Ellen’s sister Karlice and her husband Ed were here as were Mark and Dan, our friends and former next-door neighbors. Karlice made coq au vin-nouveau (chicken with WHITE wine instead of Burgundy). Dan had the idea of making rabbit with a port/prune reduction. With rabbit from the market and local white wine, we proceeded to have a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner. If we had eaten at 1:00 or 2:00, we could have eaten outside on the terrace, as the day was sunny and warm. Prior to dinner Ed led us on a climb to the village of old Crestet, up the very steep road adjacent to the house they had rented for their stay. On the way to the top, we met an older (than we) woman out for a walk in the sunny late afternoon. She, like all of the others who learn we are Americans, asked if we were as excited as she was about the Obama election.

Mark Schmidt--now officially known as Dr. Mark after successfully defending his dissertation on December 11—and I served wine. Thanksgiving is a great holiday to spend with friends, even when it is on the other side of the ocean and the French don’t celebrate it. At the same time we have NOT been deluged with Christmas carols on the radio or in the stores. Only at the beginning of December did the city put up its few holiday lights and the stores began setting their displays late in November, most very understated. Of course, there are ads for holiday shopping and the local supermarkets are open on Sundays in December, unheard of during the rest of the year. Ellen’s sister Tish will join us for the holidays. Hopefully, she will help us figure out how to celebrate. We did not have space to bring Ellen’s lighted reindeer.

Off to Paris or La Vie Non-Quotidienne: During Mark (Schmidt) and Dan’s stay after Thanksgiving, we had talked about visiting the town where Mark lived when he was a high school student but the weather reports were dismal. Dan suggested that we go to Paris where, even if it is cold and rainy, it is still Paris. Schmidty went online and found train tickets at 3 EUR round trip (12 EUR for the four of us)! That's less than the bus fare from Vaison la Romaine to Avignon. In spite of our thoughts that it couldn’t be true, how could we turn it down?

We had three fun-filled days in Paris even though it was rainy there as expected. Dan bought a coat; Mark found jeans. We had a GREAT lunch at A la biche au bois, a restaurant that serves game (venison, warthog, rabbit and more) and that we have made part of our “Paris agenda” every trip we have made there. We cooked several dinners at the apartment we had rented and had other great lunches out. Mark and Dan explored the evening club life of the Marais district where we stayed while Ellen and I stayed home and dry after 11 p.m. in the apartment.

The BAD news is that the 3 EUR offer applied only to Eurail or other special pass holders. So that's what that phrase printed on the ticket—Valable Avec Abonnement Forfait—meant! The GOOD news is that the conductor discovered the problem with our tickets only on the way back to Avignon. He was not as impressed with our special fare as we were. Alas, we had to pay for the return tickets but we went to Paris for 1.50 euro per person!!! Paris is beyond words in my vocabulary. It is filled with people who look like they spent hours getting ready to visit the cafe and spent their last check on their boots and cigarettes. At the same time, they walk past centuries of history with such nonchalance. Meanwhile, Ellen keeps reminding me to close my mouth and stop staring. Good news, bad news - ALL fun.

We had snow two nights ago. None of it stayed on the ground, but Mt. Ventoux is now snow-covered and the radio announced that the ski slopes on Mt. Ventoux have over 80 cm. of snow. Today, the sun is back and warming our apartment. It is currently 8 (Celsius) – about 48 Fahrenheit. Why didn’t the US ever adopt the metric system?

October 2008

Ellen on the path to Crestet (chateau behind her)
Vaison la Romaine - from our side of the river
Jim & Taffy at Les Baux
Bruce & Judy on the way to the top of Mt. Ventoux

First 30 Days of Our “Half-Year in Provence"

Arrival, settling in

We picked up our car in Marseille, drove to Orange for lunch and then came to our apartment. The weather on Friday afternoon was warm, but we ate inside at a very nice restaurant just a block from the Roman arena in Orange. We got to the apartment, took a nap, and then went to the super market to buy provisions. We got all of the important things – coffee, biscuits (cookies), cacahuettes (peanuts) and cheese plus non-essentials like vegetables, fish and meat. When we were at the supermarket, Ellen noted that carrots were very reasonable – in quantities of 10 #s or more… I have become very good at making soups with carrots! (and the carotene color of our skin is quite a nice shade). On the way home, we stopped at the Cave (du vin) to refill our wine jug. (Wine from the Cave is cheaper than gas!) It’s not that we needed wine, but we get points toward a discount when we have filled in all of the spaces on our wine card and I want to find out how much discount we will receive. (I suppose I could ask…) We cooked at home that evening and do so most evenings. The electric grill that Karlice and Ed got us works very well.

One of the things that has been good (for us) is that the euro has been falling since our arrival. If only our investments in the states had not been dropping at the same time… As the financial crisis has developed, Le Monde Diplomatique newspaper had a headline that read: “Le jour que Wall Street est devenu socialist” (The day Wall Street became socialist). But, as our financial planner told us: “It’s only money” and we have been doing a good job of using it.

Settling in was more traumatic than one would think. It was not only the beginning of our séjour in France; it was the beginning of Mark’s retirement. As much as we enjoy each other, it has been a long time since we have spent day and night together (for better or for worse, but not for lunch…) We have managed to figure out the beginnings of a routine. We also both quickly admit that we became homesick and made use of our free-long-distance-to-the-states feature on our telephone and Skype, once we got an internet connection set up at the apartment.

We invited our neighbor, Mme. Lefauchoux, to join us for snacks and a glass of wine one Friday afternoon. We made the invitation formally – writing in the best French we could muster in the format appropriate for an invitation. She is retired (like us) and used to live in the apartment that we bought. When it was for sale, she decided not to purchase it but moved downstairs (exactly the same floor plan). Mme. Lefauchoux brought Ellen a rose when she came and we spent the next two hours eating olives, cacahuettes (peanuts) and tapenade on bread with a local rosé. While there are 11 apartments in our building, there are only three used 24 hrs per day. There is Mme. Lefauchoux, M. & Mme. Bugoult and we make up the active list. In addition, there is the psychologist who has an office on the second floor and the speech therapist who has an office next to us. (They both see clients in their offices.) During her career, Mme. Lefauchoux had been the secretary for Giscard d’Estang while he was Minister of Finance (before he became President of France).

Over the river and through the woods

Ellen’s favorite travel reference is Rick Steves and all/any of his travel books. (We also have a Rick Steves suitcase.) In his book on Provence, he mentioned a walk between Vaison la Romaine and Crestet through the mountains. We decided to try some of the walk (though neither of us were dressed or outfitted for the trek). The route started as a road, then became a track, then a path. We spent most of the time climbing to Crestet as it is at the top of one of the higher hills near Vaison. When we got to Crestet, it was after the lunch hour which meant the one restaurant was closed – thus no water or food for us. Rather than go back the same way we came, we went down the mountain to the main road – expecting to find a place to buy water or a soda, but with no luck. At that point, we not only were tired and thirsty, we were walking on the side of a main road as French traffic went whizzing by.

Salle d’urgence

The next day, I was feeling out of sorts. By the afternoon, I thought I was feeling the symptoms similar to a heart attack and suggested that we walk up to the hospital. Ellen decided to drive us there even though it is only a few blocks up the hill. Question that we asked each other – in the event of a real emergency, how do you notify help? (We discovered that you don’t use 911, you dial 15.) My symptoms turned out to be nothing. At the emergency room, they did both an EKG and an enzyme test - both of which were normal. What was NOT normal was the fact that I was at the emergency room for two hours (waiting on the results of the enzyme test); I had an EKG; they drew blood and I spoke with the ER doctor for about 20 minutes and two days later we got a bill for 99.44 euros! That makes the visit cost less than $140! Two months ago, when I went to the emergency room in Lansing, the bill we got was over $1,200! – about the same amount of time, but only one test: an x-ray... (The doctor said that in France, one could take the cost of health care in the US and drop the last zero. He also suggested that I start collecting bottles of the wine called “Gigondas” to sell in the states as a way of paying for our time in France.)

Judy & Bruce

We picked up Bruce and Judy Miller in Avignon. They had left their apartment in Paris and came to visit us in the south. We had a great time showing them the local attractions and the reasons that we like Provence: Gigondas (wine), Cotes du Rhone (wine), Roman ruins, olive groves, the beginning of the Alps, Vacqueyras (wine), etc. We went to a restaurant called Les Florets in Gigondas (a Rick Steves recommendation) and had a wonderful lunch on the terrace. We then stopped at a winery that Charlie O. had discovered which has become one of my favorites. Later in the week, the skies cleared (mostly) and we drove to the top of Mt. Ventoux (Mt. Windy). The views were spectacular on the way up and on the way back down, but while we were at the top of the mountain, we were mostly looking down at clouds. The terrain at the top is barren because of the wind as per the name.

Daily air show

While we were at the top of Mt. Ventoux, a group of French military jets flew past us BELOW us. (Scared the crap out of me!) We get to see the military jets fly precision patterns daily as there is a big military air base between here and Orange and it seems as though their daily flight pattern is to go east past Mt. Ventoux and then fly back to the base…

Jim & Taffy

Jim Gavelek and Taffy Raphael arrived shortly after Bruce and Judy left. They had both been in the south of France before as visiting professors, but they had not been to the “ville la plus charmante” (most charming town) of Vaison. We had a great time walking around the Roman ruins in our town, through the medieval village and later driving to visit the famous medieval castle “les Baux” just south of St. Remy de Provence. (Every trip to les Baux involves two stops: Castelas for olive oil at the foot of les Baux (from the top of les Baux, there is an awesome vista of olive groves and vineyards – and, on a clear day, the possibility of seeing the Mediterranean) and then Joel Durand for chocolate in St. Remy de Provence.

Jim had brought us Obama campaign buttons. He wore his button everywhere and was pleased with the positive response that he got from people who noticed the button. At the big market in Isle sur la Sorgue, a vendor threw in an “extra” for them when they made a purchase because Jim supported Obama.

We left the market with the idea of going to Fontaine de Vaucluse – the natural spring that creates the Sorgue River. Since it was a Sunday, it was packed! We could not find a parking space anywhere and thus decided to go to lunch instead. We drove to St. Didier and had lunch at the restaurant “A l’autre côté du lavoir” (On the other side of the wash basin). This was a restaurant that Marge, Charlie, Ellen and Mark discovered 10 years ago shortly after it had opened. The food remains as good as it was in memory.

As we drove back to Vaison la Romaine, we stopped at a winery mentioned by Rick Steves in his Provence travel book (Les Girasols). The couple who run it both speak English – the male partner being from Napa. When she (Francoise) learned that we were from Lansing, she said that she had been to Lansing because her importer – Dan Farley – was from Lansing. THIS IS SO ODD because we had run into Dan Farley at the Isle sur la Sorgue market 10 years earlier at which time I had asked him (in French) what he was doing in France. When he replied that he did not speak French, I asked again: “What are you doing here? The last time I saw you, you were selling me wine at Goodrich’s.” He explained that he had left Goodrich’s and was working for Classic Wines and was in Provence on a buying trip. Que le monde est petit!

B & B at Villeneuve sur l’Yonne

Taffy had arranged the trip to France as a birthday present for Jim. The present included staying at the B & B/Auberge owned by one of Jim’s favorite actresses – Leslie Caron. Taffy had made reservations for the four of us for two nights in this small, renovated “boat house” on the River Yonne. It is a medieval village with gates at each end of the walled part of the village. We decided to eat at the Auberge on the second night of our stay. We should have asked a few more questions about the village and its resources as we discovered that everything within the castle walls – bars, stores, restaurants – closed at 8:00 PM. Luckily, there was a Moroccan restaurant outside the wall that was open – where we had some great couscous. The following day, we toured Auxerre – a really neat city about two hours south of Paris and then went to tour one of the chateaux in the area. We took Jim and Taffy to the rail station on Friday and they returned to Paris as we drove back to Vaison.

Returning the car – the saga of bus travel to Vaison (un pichet, s’il vous plait…)

After returning the car to the rental office at the Avignon TGV (railroad station for the fast trains), we got a bus into town where we needed to pick up a bus to Orange and then a second bus to Vaison la Romaine. All would have worked like clockwork if it had not been the first day of a holiday - we had failed to note that. (The holiday is a combination of mid-semester break for all school children and All Saints day. The kids will be out of school all of this week and I think until the day after the US election.) Our clockwork turned into bad timing - or somewhat bad timing. We decided to spend the afternoon in Avignon - we had mussels and frites (plus un pichet de vin rouge) for lunch and then walked to an English language book store where Ellen found some mysteries that she had not read. We then walked some more and had espresso in the courtyard of the Palace of the Popes. On the way to the bus station, we passed a wedding that was being celebrated in the town square. It was middle eastern/eastern European.

We then had an uneventful trip to Orange though I marvel at how the bus drivers can maneuver busses through village streets. Since we had to wait 1 1/2 hours in Orange for the Vaison bus, we stopped at a bar and had another pichet de vin rouge. After that, we went to the place where we got off the bus from Avignon. At some point, I noticed two busses parked about a block away. I went over to the first bus and asked the driver where his bus was going. When he said Vaison, I told him to wait - I had to get my wife. He smiled but said "Nous partons en deux minutes!" (We leave in two minutes!) We got on the bus and had a quiet, smooth ride to Vaison la Romaine with the other three passengers on the bus.


After we got off the bus and started walking home, I noticed a woman who was on the bus with us stop to rearrange her bags and I offered to carry one of her bags. When she discovered that we were American, she wanted to know about Obama and how the election was going. She is a middle school teacher who uses world events like the US election to teach her students English. She invited us to go for a drink with her (the third pichet for Ellen and me) to talk. During the brief time at the bar, we learned that her plan had been to rent a car in Orange to be able to drive to the village of Faucon to visit the cemetery where her grandmother is buried and to stay with her brother who has a farm near the village. But all of the car rental agencies had closed by 5:00 on Friday afternoon before she arrived on the train.I said that I was getting cold (we were sitting at the sidewalk part of the café), went to pay the bill and, by the time I got back to the table, Ellen had invited the woman named Marie to spend the night at our apartment. - and I was not at all surprised that she had. Who can question Ellen when her sensors are working?

As usual, this invitation turned into serendipity as Marie shared the wonderful, local cheese called "Mont d'Or" that she had brought from a village near her home. We made an impromptu dinner of the cheese (baked with garlic and white wine) served over boiled potatoes and then salad. Our bread was pretty dry, so she also provided the bread for the evening meal. We supplied the wine. We stayed up late and talked about her career - she is a middle school teacher of English in Besançon and has received commendations for her innovative teaching style; American politics; French politics and the things that brought us here. Fascinating evening. We also gave her the Obama/Biden button that our friend from Chicago had brought to France for us.Sunday, she was unable to reach her brother and was not sure what to do. She invited us to go to the village with her. We got a taxi from the center of Vaison after she bought flowers to put at her grandmother's grave. We walked around the little village, stopped at the cemetery and spent 20 minutes listening to an elderly woman recount her memories of Marie's grandparents and La Resistance; then stopped at a boulangerie where we had fantastic vegetable pies for lunch (we shared onion, anchovie and ratatouille). She was not successful in finding/connecting with her brother, so we walked back to Vaison la Romaine (I sort of missed on the mileage predictions as I figured it to be over seven miles but it was about six) and we decided to make dinner here (my leftover soups plus Marie's ideas for making a dessert using the too ripe bananas with apples). This morning, she left to go back to Orange because she has a ticket for an early train tomorrow to Besançon. Before leaving, she went to the market and returned with a nice bottle of rouge and yogurt she thought we would like (She had eaten some of ours while here), some cheese and a special squash (potimarron) for us to use for soup.

Birth of the Blog

We've talked about the idea of a blog since arriving in Vaison. It became a reality with the help of "just do it" sister Tish and the wondrous Google system. We're still playing with it but the blog will be a work-in-progress for our retirement days here in France.