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. ;-)


  1. Finally the picture I have been waiting for...Père Noël looks fine in his Bazarland attire. Great job, Mark!

  2. Gosh, your blog has left me worrying about a lost bike rider but I'm glad the the two of you found your way back.

    Great picture at the top of the page - retirement in Provence appears to be agreeing with Les Sullivans.

    Feliz año nuevo,


  3. Mark & Ellen,
    Our recent conversations probably made you aware that I had not yet checked in to your blog. That is no longer the case. You have been bookmarked.
    What a great blog and continuing story of your dream come true in Vaison. I continue to vicariously feel your excitement and the fun of the new adventure.
    Keep those hikes coming and stay healthy.

  4. Oh sure, ooh lala this and ooh lala that. I have to admit I have a growing envy of you retired people. Even having time to write about your extreme hike adventures... and I just thought retirement was over rated- it seems to have merit, well, except that it happens when you are old. Now, if Mr. Barak Obama could fix that.... Love the blog. Glad to hear you are assimilating so well.