Tuesday, December 30, 2008

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment