Tuesday, December 30, 2008

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?

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