Friday, December 11, 2009

HAPPY...


We are going to Cairo for the holidays. We have heard that the reindeer there look more like camels than caribou but they will help guide us in delivering our sincere holiday wishes to everyone.


Joyeux Noël



Merry Christmas



Happy Hanukah



Happy Solstice



Bonne Année



May 2010 be filled with peace and love.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fresh is best!


Add to Google Reader or HomepageEverything tastes better here.

It is not the preparation – though the way the French prepare foods does make for great flavors – it is the quality of the food items. Everything: apples, beets, chicken, cod, turkey, zucchini.

I attribute the better flavors to several things.

• The food in the market is fresh, most often locally grown.
• The food is raised using few chemicals.
• The animals are raised using fewer hormones.

Fresh and local seem to be the keys to the good flavors here. In one very important sense, the French never forgot what community-supported-agriculture proponents are promoting at markets in the states: Buy local.

We have seen the ads and signs reminding people to buy their Christmas turkeys and we have heard that the supermarkets macy have only a short supply because the long distance truck drivers want better pay and thus may strike/boycott the turkey delivery system. The other thing we heard is that the turkeys here will be more like those sold in the US which I interpret as more white meat, less flavor. Savourez la vie! Taste life (and good flavors)!


As cookbook author and French food expert Patricia Wells writes in The Provence Cookbook, “I live more than half of each year here, much of it spent touring markets, shops, restaurants, farms, in search of the freshest and finest of the season… Vendors laugh as I gasp when I see the first-of-season fresh white shell beans – cocos blancs – a signal that I can add Provençal vegetable soup, or pistou, to my weekly repertoire.” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004, p. xiii.) Also visit Patricia Well’s website at: http://www.patriciawells.com/.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thanksgiving

Add to Google Reader or HomepageAfter leaving our dear friend Mary Beth at the TGV (fast train station) at “0 dark thirty” this morning, we drove east toward the sunrise and Vaison la Romaine. As the skies lightened, the most notable aspect of the horizon was the snow on all of the major mountains. What we experienced as rain on Sunday fell as snow in the higher elevations.


What a beautiful sight. It matched the beauty of some of the other sites we saw during MB’s visit (a French friend calls her “EMBAY” to fit the French pronunciation of the initials.) On Saturday we walked along roads at the foot of Mt. Ventoux past the four rock structures called “les demoiselles coiffées” (the women wearing hats). We walked past olive groves where the olives were black and ready to be picked. We met a man who had a sighthound and, during the conversation with him, we found out that he knew about Scottish deerhounds but he spent most of his time telling us about the Egyptian lineage of his sighthound.

Sunday, we went to the market in Isle sur la Sorgue. It started raining, so we left the beautiful town and its market and headed back north toward Vaison la Romaine. We stopped to taste wine at the Wine cooperative in Beaumes de Venise where Ellen and MB (EMBAY) enjoyed the presentation of the young man serving the wine—and the translation by the old guy with them--as much as the wine tasting. We took back roads over the Dentelles mountains and had spectacular views of distant horizons, valleys and vineyards.


MB (EMBAY) had come to join us for Thanksgiving. She almost didn’t make it. On the Sunday before her Monday departure, she discovered that her passport had expired. Luckily, there is a Department of State office in Chicago. With all due speed in one day MB was able to complete her renewal application, get speedy photos, and plead her case with the requisite amount of charm and groveling to leave the passport office the same day with a renewed passport and a great sigh of relief. She made it to her flight and we met her at the TGV station the next afternoon.

We had a delicious Thanksgiving dinner: rabbit in mustard sauce, home-made stuffing with fresh sage, sweet potatoes, green beans and a fresh winter squash/pumpkin pie made by Ellen that was better than any canned-pumpkin generated pie of previous years. We were thankful for the good food, the good fortune of enjoying it in France with good friends, and EMBAY’s success at the passport office.

We were also thankful for friends, both enduring friends and new friends including our new neighbor who lives across the street from the apartment. She joined us for “apero” (cocktails) while EMBAY was here and invited us to a wonderful dinner on Saturday evening.


Every morning, EMBAY shouted: “I am in France!” – a sentiment that we are fortunate to feel and enjoy everyday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOur good friends, Margaret and Phil, took us to the opening of the truffle market in Richerenches. The small village is the center of the truffle trade in Provence. I read that it is considered to be the most important truffle market in France.


When we got out of the car, it felt like we had stepped into a Marcel Pagnol movie set. (Marcel Pagnol was a French film maker from Marseille. He directed “the trilogy” of French films: Marius, Fanny and Caesar. Hollywood made Fanny from a compilation of the trilogy with Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron.) Even the street music – from two men who played concertina, violin, piccolo and tin whistle (not all at the same time) - was reminiscent of the music from Pagnol’s films.

The people at the truffle market seemed to be extras from a Pagnol film. Old, unshaven men with berets and work jackets that they have worn for farming, herding, car repairs, and hunting since the jackets were new – generations ago. Several men had the remains of a cigarette stuck to their lips so well attached that they were able to continue their animated conversations without losing the cigarette.

The day started with a procession of men and women wearing long black capes, Camargue-style (large brim) black felt hats and gold medallions hung from gold ribbons around their necks. One man carried his truffle-hunting dog with him during the procession. (The dog had its own gold sash.) They walked from the town square and then preceded around the town ending at a platform stage set up in front of the mayor’s office. The procession reminded me of church processions without the incense – unless cigarette smoke is a modern replacement for incense. All of the black-caped parade marchers with their black hats and gold sashes joined the leaders of the truffle market on stage who offered their best wishes to the truffle hunters (trufflers) and to the truffle merchants. (Ellen got some great pictures of the events and as soon as I can figure out how to get them off of her phone/camera, I will post them.)

After the well-wishing ended, the two young children in the procession cut the ribbon to open the market officially. Meanwhile, on the other side of the main street, men and a few women were already elbow-deep in the truffle trade. The trufflers brought their “black diamonds” in bags/boxes/sacks to the merchants to see what price they would get. The merchants had scales set up in the trunks of their cars or on the beds of their pick-up trucks. Most of the vehicles were well-worn old farm vehicles, but in the middle of the row was a brand new, shiny, sporty, black Mercedes. The man behind the steering wheel wore a suit and tie. His colleague, standing at the trunk, wore a black leather jacket (truffle merchants from Paris ?). The merchants looked over the contents, inspected a few, smelled them and then offered a price. The truffler could accept the price – at which point the contents were weighed – or reject the price and go to another merchant/car trunk/truck bed to see if s/he could do better. If the merchant and the truffler agreed on the price, the truffler would move from the back of the vehicle to the front where a second person, often sitting in the driver’s seat, would pay for the truffles. It was all very orderly but reminded me of descriptions of drug buys in the states.

“…seventy-five-year-old Pébeyre Sr. was on his way home from the Wednesday truffle market in Richerenches, in Provence, when his car was forced into a field by a big BMW. No sooner had he gotten back on the road when another car pulled in front, blocking his passage. Six thieves piled out and, while Pébeyre’s wife watched in horror, forced him out of the car. They made him open the trunk, then fled with 150 pounds of truffles worth thirty-eight thousand dollars.” (Sanders, M. From here you can’t see Paris: seasons of a French village and its restaurant. New York: Perennial, 2003, p. 204)

At around noon, Margaret, Phil, Ellen and I joined hundreds of others at the “salle de fêtes” (community hall) where the village was serving a truffle lunch in a church-basement-style room of long tables with very narrow aisles between the rows of tables. We had truffle omelets, bread, salad with goat cheese, ice cream and coffee. (Red table wine complemented the meal.) We enjoyed the foods but, even more, we enjoyed meeting the people to our left and right. There were three couples from les Baux (50 miles to the south) seated beside Ellen and Phil. The couples seated by Margaret and me were locals from Richerenches.

We got back to Vaison in time to go to the English-language film (London River) showing at the theater and then to enjoy “Bouillabaisse” that Margaret had made. We returned to our little apartment at the end of the evening, tired but happy to be part of this little corner of Provence.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Great wines, great times

Add to Google Reader or HomepageI have written a lot about Gigondas and told many the story of the exchange we had while tasting Gigondas at one of the local vineyards. During the tasting, I explained to the woman who was running the degustation that when French friends asked why we bought an apartment in Vaison la Romaine, I would say “Gigondas” and the French would nod approvingly. When I tried to use the same answer in the United States, most people looked confused as they didn’t know about Gigondas. The woman at the vineyard asked about the apartment and if we were living there full-time. I explained that we had just bought the apartment. She asked what I thought we would do when we lived there. I replied that I was going to have to visit the vineyard everyday to make sure that their wines were still good. She laughed and then gave us and our friends, Marge and Charley, another glass of wine.

Gigondas and the other red wines of Côtes du Rhône have a spicy/peppery finish that I really enjoy. France produces many fine wines, but the wines of the Rhône valley are my favorites.

We have had a wonderful time discovering and learning about different wines. Our most recent trip took us to Domaine Rouge-Bleu just west of Cairanne. We knew about this vineyard both from “French Word A Day” (http://french-word-a-day.com/) and from the experience of caring for the Golden Retrievers, Braise and Smokey, who live there.

Since our neighbors wanted to go to a vineyard to taste wine and Ellen wanted to see the dogs again, we combined the two and visited Domaine Rouge-Bleu (http://www.rouge-bleu.com/). Kristin and Jean-Marc Espinasse are wonderful hosts and Jean-Marc is making very fine wine. Jean-Marc gave a very thorough explanation of wine making to us (though Ellen spent most of her time playing with Smokey.) We knew (from FWaD) that they had just finished bottling their 2008 wines and we got to be the first buyer of the 2008 vintage! We plan to enjoy these wines over the next few days including serving them with whatever meal we create for American “Thanksgiving.”

By the way, I failed to mention that Denise and Paul have set up their own blog to share their around the world trip with others. Their blog address is: http://www.trailofempires.blogspot.com/.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Be a tourist in your own town

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOur next-door neighbors just left for Paris and the next leg of their around-the-world trip. Thanks to their visit, I got to become a “tourist in my own town” and took Denise and Paul to see the Roman ruins and other local sites.



     Paul – who has an amazing knowledge of history – had questions about everything. He was trying to integrate the bits and pieces we saw about Vaison la Romaine into his knowledge of ancient history and medieval history. I had few answers but we found some of the answers in the Tourist Guide Vaison la Romaine published by Editions AIO (http://www.aio.fr/).
     Sometime in the 4th century BC, a Celtic tribe called Voconti made the town their capital and called it Vasio.
     “In 124 and 123 BC the Romans conducted two military campaigns in Gaul. The Ligurians, Vocontii and Sullivians were successively vanquished. Since the Vocontii had facilitated pacification of the region, Julius Caesar rewarded them by granting their capital the title of “Federate City,” ally of the Roman people…” (Tourist Guide Vaison la Romaine)
     I wonder if the Sullivians and the Sullivans are related…

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Back at the crèche


Add to Google Reader or Homepage     It is amazing to compare the kids I left last spring with the new kids who have taken their places at the crèche. It is amazing how much kids at age three change in six months! Getting to observe the changes is awesome.

     Last spring, I ate with kids (six months older) who could manage tableware and succeed in getting the items on fork or spoon all of the way into their mouths. Last Friday, I was actually laughing out loud watching the kids eat/try to eat. Young three year olds eat with their whole face: yogurt on eye lids, carrots on cheeks and applesauce from chin to neck.

     The other difference between last year and this year is that this year I had to read and sign that I understood the new health (disease prevention) procedures. The French are very serious about controlling the spread of H1N1 and expect all who work with kids to do everything that we can to ensure that kids stay healthy.

     I will attend a parent meeting this week. It will be an opportunity for the parents to meet the whole team (toute l’équipe), to see pictures of their kids in action and to hear about the approach to learning.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Mt. Windy"


Add to Google Reader or HomepageThere is snow on Mt. Ventoux!


There has been frost on the roof across the street several mornings this week. This morning – when it was clear enough to see the top of the mountain – I saw snow at the top of “Mt. Windy.”

Snow on the mountain should not surprise anyone who has walked around in the chilly temperatures that we have had. If you are not standing directly in the sun, it’s cold! With the wind and the cloudy afternoon we had, we turned on one of the little space heaters. (It doesn’t take much heat to warm up this little space.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Eyewitness Comments

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOur dear friend Eliane was not able to send the following paragraphs via "Comments." She wrote such a nice description, I wanted to share it with all of you. I have added my translation at the end. (Kristin and many of the rest of you might want to provide a better translation.)



C’est toujours avec le même plaisir que je lis le blog de Mark et Ellen. Pour plusieurs raisons : ce sont devenus de très bons amis, j’améliore mon anglais toujours déficitaire et surtout j’apprécie le style de Mark, plein d’humour. J’apprends à voir la vie française et en particulier provençale sous un autre jour et j’apprends ainsi beaucoup de choses qui me sont trop familières pour en être consciente.


Je souris souvent toute seule, notamment lorsqu’il écrit que Smokey, l’adorable « Golden Boy » éprouve son courage en attaquant « chaussures, livres et tout ce qui se présente à sa hauteur ». L’occasion de s’occuper de Braise et Smokey, son chiot, est tombe a point pour Ellen et Mark. Cela les a distraits des soucis a propos de Nellie, leur chienne malade aux Etats-Unis.

Kristin (j’ai lu avec le plus grand intérêt son blog FWAD) a eu beaucoup de chance en confiant ses chiens bien-aimés a mes amis car ils s’en sont occupes d’une manière exemplaire, je peux en témoigner !

En effet, nous sommes allés nous promener et pique-niquer, accompagnes (of course) de Braise et Smokey, au bord de l’Ouveze et du Toulourenc, les deux rivières à proximité de Vaison. Smokey n’arrêtait pas de boire l’eau de la rivière. Mark a alors fait remarquer avec son humour habituel que « Smokey allait transporter tout le Toulourenc dans l’appartement »… Je n’ai pas osé demander si les pompiers étaient intervenus dans la nuit…

Eliane

I am always happy to read Mark & Ellen's blog. There are several reasons: they have become very good friends, I get to improve my limited English and most of all, I like Mark's writing style which is always humorous. I get to look at life in France and especially in Provence from a different perspective and thus get to see things that I would have overlooked because they had become too familiar.
 
I smiled a lot when he wrote about Smokey, the adorable "Golden Boy" who showed his courage by attacking shoes, books and anything at eye level. The opportunity to take care of Braise and Smokey came at a perfect time for Ellen and Mark. It distracted them from the worries about Nellie, their sick dog in the States.
 
Kristin,(I am really interested in your FWAD blog) had the good fortune of trusting the care of her dogs to my good friends because I can assure that they took good care of your dogs.
 
As you know, we went for a hike and a picnic accompanied by (of course) Braise and Smokey to the river banks of the Ouveze and the Toulourenc - the two rivers close to Vaison. Smokey drank from the rivers without stopping which caused Mark to say in his usual humorous style: "Smokey is going to bring the whole river back to the apartment..." I didn't dare ask if they had to call the fire department to pump out the apartment that night.
 

Eliane

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Les Feuilles Mortes (Jacques Prévert)

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Fall has arrived in Provence. The trees are changing from green to yellow and brown. The vines are bright red and yellow. We have been caressed by falling leaves as we walked Smokey and Braise. The season always makes me think of the tune Autumn Leaves which was originally written as a poem Les Feuilles Mortes by Jacques Prévert.

It is hard to go through fall without thinking about or humming Autumn Leaves. Now, when I think of the song, I also think about Jacques Prévert and his contribution to music, writing and film. (It is equally hard to acknowledge that two years ago, I wouldn’t have known his name if it was the only choice on a multiple choice question.) I thought that Autumn Leaves was written by Nat King Cole – and this is from the son of a musician!

When I realize that the center-of-the-world-view that I have lived with for so long might not be the true center, it makes me pause. Could there be intelligent life forms outside of the US?

Since we have been here in Vaison la Romaine, we have learned so much about the French. My world view has become binocular. I see things through the US lens or through a French lens. If I use my binoculars to search for intelligent life forms, in many categories France comes out head and shoulders above the US-- though France is not even as large as New England.

• Where but in France would a “Charlie Rose”-style program be the # 1 television program and on Friday evening for almost 20 years? I am referring to “Apostrophe” and as a French friend predicted, I have yet to find anyone who did not watch it regularly. (I have never seen it and since it has been gone almost 20 years, it is not available on YouTube. Dommage.)

• We have heard a lot about French health care as elected leaders in the US grapple with trying to bring universal health care to the States (French health care: top 10; US health care: 47th.)

• France is also one of the top-rated “green” countries as they have worked hard to increase recycling, reduce pollution, and save the environment.


But, more important than “Who’s first” or “Who’s on first?” is la vie quotidienne (daily life) and news from the canine front. Smokey (the puppy) continues to grow healthier and thus more active and assertive. Braise (his mother) has shown a depth of patience that seems limitless – except at feeding time. Both dogs have now returned to the familiar surroundings of the vineyard as Kristin, Jean-Marc, Jacqui and Max have returned from their trip. Even more fun than the news about the dogs being here was the evening when two friends came for dinner and were joined by a third friend – with Braise and Smokey sitting in their bed watching five adults trying to eat a meal in this small apartment. C’est la vie!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Une Vie de Chien


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If you use Microsoft Vista on your computer, you had the option of choosing among several images when you set up your user account. I swear that one of the pictures – a smiling Golden Retriever – is a picture of Braise, who is staying with us while her family travels.


Braise and her 12-week old puppy Smokey came to stay with us earlier this week. Ellen read a request at “French Word A Day” (http://french-word-a-day.typepad.com/) for someone who would watch the dogs. Ellen was excited about the opportunity of having dogs underfoot and immediately replied. The owners were pleased that we lived so close to them and that we were willing to provide animal supervision for a week.

“A Dog’s Life” does not apply to the two visitors. Ellen walks them every two or three hours, mainly to prevent the accidents that come with puppies. They may not be used to city life or apartment life but they seem to enjoy their temporary accommodations. It is not because they are Golden Retrievers that they have received golden treatment. It is because they had the good fortune of finding Ellen.

Ellen is in her element even though she has been distracted by needing to care for one of our Deerhounds at home in Lansing; our dog has been in the local university veterinary hospital in Michigan. Our sweet older Deerhound developed pneumonia but luckily our dog caretaker noticed the symptoms and took her to the vet hospital. Since last Saturday night – why do dogs have emergencies outside of regular vet office hours? – Ellen has been in regular contact with the vet and the caretaker. I can report that Nellie’s temperature has dropped, she is eating again and will be released on Friday evening.) When we lived full-time in the states, Ellen and other volunteers worked for several years to raise funds to create a “dog park” – a place where people could walk their dogs off-leash. She has yet to organize a group here to do the same, but living in a country where people take their dogs to restaurants, stores, etc. it is unlikely that the idea would catch on here.

Braise is a perfect dog. She follows commands well and seems to live to please humans. Smokey has yet to find his identity but is very willing to show his power and courage by attacking shoes, books and anything else left close to his eye level. Smokey is also recovering from a serious, almost fatal, attack by other dogs but his recovery seems to be progressing well.

As soon as our friend Eliane learned that we were going to be caring for Braise and Smokey, she proposed that we bring the dogs to her house and stay there. Instead, we planned a picnic along the Ouveze River. Later, she took us to another river, the Toulourenc, where the dogs got to wade in the slower currents there. Eliane has called daily to get updates on our two visitors as well as to get updates on Nellie. I wish I could report to Eliane that the number of accidents per day has decreased for Smokey but c’est pas vrai (It’s not true). The dogs are a wonderful present for Ellen and their presence has caused Ellen’s French to improve by many more than a “…Word-A-Day.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

YEAR 2. With you again (via blog notes)







Add to Google Reader or HomepageHello again from Provence! We have returned to our home, our «pied à terre». It is so good to be back (says he). The Mistral winds have been blowing hard since we arrived and it has been chilly. Our friends say that we must have stirred up the weather as it was still summer until the day before we arrived.
For those of you who wondered where “chez Sullivan” had gone for the summer, you probably failed to notice that the title of the blog was “Adventures in Retirement by Mark and Ellen… A half year in Provence…” That doesn’t mean that I stopped thinking about these posts. In fact, many of you inquired as to where the blog posts had gone. (I thank you all for your encouragement and for your support.) If you have thoughts to add about the summer, please send comments – or texts – to me and I will post them. I hope that John sends some comments but he has started his own blog at http://listen-learning-community.blogspot.com/. If you are not a blog follower, I encourage you to subscribe so that new posts get forwarded to you automatically. I also encourage you to become a follower. Neither action will result in junk mail/special offers, etc from me.

I was talking with our American friend/former Chad Peace Corps volunteer/part-time French resident Tom and was trying to explain how much fun writing the blog has been. I should have explained how much more fun reading/hearing your comments has been. I don’t think that my blog will be picked up as a book and turned into a movie as Julie Powell’s blog-book-movie (“Julie and Julia”) about Julia Child recipes was, but if it does, I definitely want Amy Adams to play Ellen. My goal was simply to write down some thoughts so that you could understand why I love France and want to be here. Alright, my REAL goals were to write as humorously as Schmidty does and, for once in my life, create a sentence as clever as Ellen’s cousin Steve does on a regular basis. (Since I will never achieve my real goals, I will try to include more pictures in my posts this year…)

Three things kept me from writing this summer: being back in the US, television and deferred maintenance.

In the US of A…

One of the first questions that friends ask is how we adjusted to life in the states after our time in France. I am surprised at how easy it was to drop into the life patterns there. I think one of the reasons is that life in the US has a very seductive nature. We are seduced into a comfort level that is at once wonderful and at the same time induces laziness. It is so easy to forget the local stores when there are superstores offering everything from apples (from Argentina) to tools from China – and to go to the store by jumping in the car and again driving someplace for whatever you might have forgotten.

We used to be amazed at what Mark and Dan considered walking destinations (most often driving destinations for us). In reality, many destinations are easily within walking distance. We don’t have a good neighborhood grocery in our Lansing neighborhood but retail stores, post office, library, and other destinations are near enough.

One other practice that increases our laziness is leaving shopping carts in the parking lots of stores. In France (and apparently at Aldi in the US), everyone returns their shopping carts to the cart corral because they want to get back the euro they needed to deposit when they took the shopping cart. The coins-for-carts rental system in France is similar to asking customers to bring their own shopping bags – because the stores do not supply them anymore – saving the environment and saving overhead costs since the stores don’t need bags or baggers OR cart wranglers…

One can get lazy in terms of menu planning. We can buy fruits and vegetables all of the time – they must be in season somewhere. We accept their lack of flavor as a compromise for availability. Flavor belonged to earlier generations but if we want to have peaches in February, they must come from a southern hemisphere country and must be picked long before they are ripe – thus never ripening – but easy to get. Year-round availability will never equal a ripe in season fruit or vegetable.

In France, I need to have ALL of my sensors working all of the time, therefore there’s little time to be lazy. I have to listen carefully to conversations. I can’t listen to the French newscast on the radio and work the crossword puzzle at the same time. Going to the supermarket to find an herb (for which we didn’t know the name) meant looking at the herb rack and trying to find a picture of the herb I wanted or knowing how the dried herb looked or smelled. Ellen made a cake using her American recipe which called for buttermilk. I looked at every type of dairy product and finally discovered that “fermented” milk is what they call buttermilk in France. The cuts of meat are different and have different names. You can find something that looks similar to flank steak but it is not quite the same. If you know a lot about meats and cuts, I am sure that you will fare well. I, on the other hand, have a very limited working knowledge of meat cuts and an even more limited understanding of where the cuts might be found “on the hoof.”

Americans also look more comfortable. (Maybe this observation comes from living in the Midwest.) At a store or shopping center or in a restaurant, I am often reminded of the comment that Jerry Seinfeld made about Americans wearing sweat clothes. To paraphrase, the person who is wearing sweats outside of the gym is announcing that s/he has given up on trying to look good.

On the other hand (how many hands do I have?), the most comforting – and comfortable – aspect of being in the States is being among long-time friends and relatives. In addition to reconnecting with our neighbors (we live in the BEST, friendliest neighborhood in the US), being in the States this summer permitted us to see relatives. We got to see all of my sisters, my nieces and nephew and their families. We got to attend the wedding of our nephew/Godson and see Ellen’s siblings, their spouses, cousins, and others at the wedding. We got to see Lynne and Harold in Vermont. We attended Donna’s and Larry’s wedding and got to encounter other friends there. We saw Margaret and Gary in SC and Mark and Dan on a visit to New York and a subsequent visit to Michigan. We got to spend a weekend with John who flew in from Colorado. Friends and family are important to us and we value them above all.

TV

Before I retired, Ellen asked what I saw myself doing when we lived in France. I told her that I wanted to sit in our apartment in my underwear and watch cooking programs on French television. (Maybe that is why we do not have a TV in France.)

I admit that I am a TV junkie. Put me within a remote’s reach of a TV and I will sit and watch almost anything that appears. As far as American TV goes, I find that few programs are really good. I did like watching Tom Delay perform his public penance on Dancing with the Stars. I liked watching President Obama – especially when I tried to imagine how he would be perceived in France, in Europe, and around the world. I can’t do simultaneous translations but those who can must have been challenged by the high-level rhetoric of the president. Of course, my balloon of optimism and pride was usually burst when I went to play tennis and the locker room TV was tuned to Fox News. (Shouldn’t it be called “Fox Views”?)

Deferred maintenance

It was a GREAT summer for home chores – chores that I had put off during the latter period of my working years. With the loan of Dick Baker’s ladder, I completed painting the south and east sides of our house, including caulking and glazing windows. There was also the work of taking the basement family room apart and putting it back together again after the interior waterproofing system was finished. In addition to deferred maintenance there was regular maintenance of the lawn; planting, weeding and picking produce from the garden; and all the daily chores that a 2400-square foot house requires that a 400-square foot apartment does not. Each has its charms.

Anyway, we are back in France where the ’09 wine grape harvest is in and, in some cellars, already in oak. We went to find some wine that Brian had recommended and ended up tasting wines in Chateauneuf du Pape--Never a bad experience! We drank a bottle of Domaine de Nalys CdP 2006 because we were afraid that having left it in the apartment might have “cooked” it over the very hot 2009 summer. Luckily, it was just fine and could have been cellared for some years—if we had a cellar. The wine makers are predicting that 2009 will be a great year – as it was hot and dry from June through August.

We are back in French class and Ellen is again competing to be “chou chou” (teacher’s pet). She doesn’t have much competition as her reading and speaking skills have improved enormously. [Note from Ellen: The last part is true (improvement), the first is not (competing).]

And next week, I will start volunteering at the crèche again. I hope to learn more stories like “Le Grand Méchant Loup et les Trois Petits Cochons” (The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs.) And so life resumes for Another Half Year in Provence, the new sub-title of our blog. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fashion Police


Add to Google Reader or HomepageEveryone knows that I have no right to make observations about fashion. I consider myself “à la mode” when my socks match. Nonetheless, I have admired French fashions that we encounter everyday. Evidemment, Vaison la Romaine is not Paris and fashion is more casual here than there but it is not “à la mode mid-ouest” either.

One of the most enduring, albeit surprising, fashion statements is Converse Allstar basketball shoes. I am referring to “high tops” though young adults – men and women – wear low ones as well. These were the basketball shoes of choice when I was in high school (back in the days when a peach basket with the bottom missing served as the basket.) You can get “Chuck Taylor” Allstars in canvas or leather; in almost any color you want; with designs printed on the shoes or not… There aren’t a lot of people my age wearing Converse Allstars but I suspect that it is because the shoes don’t accommodate orthotics well. (Our French teacher was wearing a pair – red leather - today!)

The second most common footwear among women is high boots with high heels and pointed toes. (Toes with such acute points that one could kill the spider in the corner…) One rarely sees plain leather boots. The boots need straps or buckles or laces or zippers or combinations of all of those…

Falling from the fashion charts are Puma athletic shoes though I still see them fairly often. These are Puma track shoes – very light with what appears to be very little structure but with the Puma trademark stripe/swoosh on the sides.

A definite “This is an American” marker is a pair of Nikes or Adidas or Reebooks or any of the footwear that Americans wear less as a fashion statement and more as a “fitness” statement (though there is a limited – if any – correlation between fitness and what one wears on one’s feet.)

Ten years ago, Ellen objected to my plan to bring jeans to France as part of my wardrobe. TIMES HAVE CHANGED. Jeans are ubiquitous (I think that means expensive). The more expensive, the better… One way to earn money here in France would be to bring American jeans and sell them in the market. Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler are all very popular here – and cost about three times as much as in the states. French boys wear their jeans just like American teens – baggy and defying gravity. Women wear TIGHT jeans. The majority of women wearing jeans are so thin that their inner thighs don’t touch. Both young men and young women seem to like jeans with extra details like zippers as closures for pockets, laces, rhinestones, embroidery…

If women are wearing skirts or dresses, the skirts will most likely be black and often will have irregular hems – points rather than straight hems. It seems that the mode this year is to take different fabrics, piece them together and then sew them as a dress or skirt – and then adorn the creation with buttons or laces or rhinestones… The exceptions to straight hems are sweater dresses – or just sweaters – that fall centimeters below the butt line… Whether it is jeans or slacks or skirts or dresses, women use belts (huge, wide, ornate belts) to complete the statement.

I am surprised how often people have shirts or sweatshirts or blouses or sweaters that have an American logo or an American expression on them. Women’s tops have to be designed to show off the lingerie for which women seem to spend a fortune. Given the number of lingerie shops in Vaison la Romaine, I would venture a guess that a good foundation is second only to good eyesight (there are more optical shops than any other type of boutique.) French people/Europeans seem to buy dramatic glass frames that shout “Hey! Look at me!”

The scarf is the final touch to a complete look. Scarves are more prevalent than jeans though equally expensive. In one sense, it seems counter-productive that, after putting together lingerie and a top, a woman will cover both with a scarf – but scarves do keep you warmer. Speaking of warmer, since we have spent the winter here, we have seen a lot of hats. Berets are extremely popular (duh!) for both women and men. For men, hats with brims seem to be the most popular, but baseball caps are gaining popularity.

So, if you are wearing black and/or Chuck Taylors, smile! You ARE à la mode!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

UPDATE


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In addition to all of the things listed in my last post, I have discovered that I will really miss the kids at the crèche. – most of our group will move on to “Ecole Maternale” in the fall – thus it is unlikely that I will see them again…
I also must acknowledge the blog followers. I specifically want to note that Olga wrote one of the most clever notes of record when she asked: “What are Gigondas?” Thanks to Karen, MB and Jane (who wrote the exactly needed words for me to be able to put six months away from France in perspective.)

I also failed to mention having dinner at Benoit’s and Marie’s restaurant “La Lyriste.” We have eaten so well at their restaurant so many times. We took our truffles to Benoit’s and Marie’s restaurant and Ben invited me to help him prepare dinner. We made: aioli for crudité, scrambled eggs with truffles (served in papillote), and asparagus soup with truffles and scallops, and, the piece de resistance, crème brûlé with truffles.

Aoli as normal but using baked/steamed potatoes to thicken the mayonnaise
Scrambled eggs with truffle slices (add the sliced truffles at the end of cooking the eggs) Benoit had taken the frozen truffles and put several of them into the raw egg container to infuse more flavor.)
Asparagus soup – very much like Emeril’s version: take the BOTTOM of the stocks and cook them first – 10 minutes and then discard them. Add the good asparagus and cook until soft. (At this point, Benoit takes the asparagus and places it in ice – to preserve the color…) After a few minutes, he took the asparagus, sliced it into small pieces and put it back in the asparagus stock. We cooked it until soft and then used the motor-boat blender for the first step of the velouté. Then, pressed through a sieve back into the pot, add cream and truffles and cook on low heat. Prepare and then sear the scallops (3 minutes at most) and remove from heat. Ladle soup into bowls. Add scallops. Finish with reserved asparagus (not cooked) tips.
Crème brûlé as per normal recipe but with truffles. AWESOME!

Cooking with Benoit reminds me of cooking with Dan. He would be a winner on “Iron Chef” because he can think of amazing ways of putting ingredients together. (I am still thinking of alternatives to potatoes – as in “meat and potatoes.”) At the same time, it reminds me of ALL of the wonderful meals we have had with friends, few of which were great recipes, all of which were great because of the camaraderie, the ambiance, YOU.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Missing France, Missing You!

The arrival of spring announces our departure time from France so we can work on bringing spring to Michigan. I have already started taking stock of the things that have become part of the fabric of our lives and of those, the things that I will miss the most. I will miss (in no particular order – except that Gigondas might be close to the top of the list):

· The “Bonjour, monsieur” greeting as I walk into almost any store (followed by: “Au revoir, monsieur. Bonne journée” as I leave a store – even if I didn’t buy anything.
· Our neighbor and her kind but persistent way of improving my French
· The blue skies – like the Rocky Mountain blue skies
· Walking to the wine cooperative and filling up our wine jug @ 1.80 € per liter ($1.35/bottle at a 1-1 exchange rate…)
· Being awakened by the gate at the crèche next door
· Gigondas
· Hearing the sounds of kids playing at the crèche
· Leaving the apartment at 5:25 for a 5:30 movie and being on time
· Benoit, Marie & Morgane ; Dominique ; Eliane ; Frederique ; Gabin ; Hélene ; Lina ; Mag ; Maria & Bill ; Marie ; Marie Dominique ; Maryse ; Michel ; Michele ; Phil & Margaret ; Romeo ; Suzanne & Charles
· The owner of « Les Gourmandines » who is so gorgeous, I KNOW that I would willingly say “okay” if she asked: “Shall I add these rotten potatoes to your bag at twice the price of fresh ones?”
· Gigondas & Vacqueyras
· Playing with the kids at the crèche next door
· Tuesday MARKET day and the fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and fish, cheese, honey, sweets, olives, wine, clothes, shoes, table cloths & souvenirs, music, carry away lunches
· Seeing people throughout the day whom we recognize and who recognize us!
· Meeting people
· Our world-class cheese store, in spite of being rebuffed in true French style when I asked to purchase cheese (Roulé) that the owner denounced as “industrielle” [not natural or handmade therefore not for sale in her shop]
· The daily air shows and the tight formation flying of the jets from the Air Force base.
· Fresh rabbit—which I can purchase entier [whole, with eyes staring and innards intact] or rablé [cut in serving pieces] , pheasant, quail
· Gigondas & Vacqueyras & Cairanne
· Walking (everyday) to purchase food items for dinner
· The View! from our small but viewalicious balcony on the 3ème étage (4th floor)
· Buying a loaf of bread each day (mostly at Pain Romaine)
· Gigondas & Vacqueyras & Cairanne & the lovely white wine from the bio-dynamic producer in Buisson
· Lunch in Faucon at the bakery/restaurant where the spectacular view is an equal match for the fabulous food
· The spectacular views!
· Being able to clean the WHOLE apartment while standing in one spot (almost)
· Gigondas & Vacqueyras & Cairanne & the lovely white wine from the bio-dynamic producer in Buisson & Chateauneuf du Pape
· Getting notes from all of our friends!
· Getting telephone calls from those few friends with no fear of international calling (Thanks, Marge/Charlie and John/Arleen) and Skype calls from those in-the-know of how to call free via the Internet (Mark/Dan, Tish, Karlice, Susie/Bob, John, and Marie)
· Visitors! (Bruce & Judy, Jim & Taffy, Marie, Karlice & Ed, Mark & Dan, Tish, Nancy & Tony)
· Did I mention wine?


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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Child Care à la crèche

One of my priorities for my time after retiring was to go back to my “career roots” and play with kids in child care. After five months of negotiating the French bureaucracy, I have finally been cleared to play with kids at the crèche. I received a letter from the president of the commune in which he confirmed that he had approved my request to volunteer at the center next door to our apartment.

I consider myself extremely fortunate. Ex-pat friends and French friends made me feel very unlikely to succeed in my efforts. The ex-pats said that they had been rebuffed in their efforts to volunteer. The French friends explained the French system and the belief that if the government and the unions had set the appropriate and correct staffing, volunteers would be redundant. Both explained that the French unions also looked askance at volunteers because of the threat of replacing paid employment with a volunteer (much like America’s Head Start program… in which the goal was to garner ‘parent involvement’ but was also a way of keeping staffing costs low…)

The steps were: an informal phone call offering to volunteer followed by a formal letter in which I had to specify my intentions followed by my resume in English and French followed by my certificate of insurance followed by my criminal history clearance (THANKS Jim!). I finally got to meet with the director again and to set up a volunteer schedule. The director had asked her staff who would be willing to take on the responsibility of orienting an American who spoke less French than the kids in the three-year old group… Luckily for me, Frédérique was willing. She has been a real friend – meaning she has been patient with my mistakes in French.

It has been as much fun as I could have predicted. The staff members are all very professional and take their work seriously which makes my role even easier. I haven't met all of the staff yet, but in my short experience, the focus is on the kids - not between the adults. I haven’t asked the specific question related to ratios, but it appears that Frédérique has two assistants and the three of them are responsible for 10 kids. (The 10 kids are all two-/young three-year olds. There may be more than 10 but that is the number of kids who were present last week.)

At “circle time” yesterday, another lead teacher asked me to teach the kids a word game in English. I was not ready for the question – I expected that I needed to learn their songs and word games – so I reverted to “Five little monkeys jumping on the bed…” I will do better.

My time at the crèche should also help improve my French vocabulary. At the end of the afternoon, when we brought the kids in from playing outside, I sat and read books with the kids - mostly picture books for toddlers - but every page or so, I came upon a word that I didn't know or rarely use... For example, raccoon is raton laveur – nice of the French to include the washing function (laveur) in the name. ¿Why is it that the raccoon usually gets the role of sidekick of the protagonist bird/fox/rabbit/caterpillar…?

I had to smile to myself when one of the teachers came over to me and, after offering an insight into the behavior of one of the kids, asked about my background. The questions were fairly light but after asking her questions, I watched as she reported to her colleagues. (The director had told them that I had experience in working with kids but apparently not much more.) I expect that they already have an idea of what a handful I will be…

We took the kids to the library (two children per adult as per the field trip rules) for story time and I learned more songs and words and expressions. At the library, the librarian/story teller asked one of the boys his name. He replied: “Gabing.” His Provençal accent was about the strongest that I have heard from the kids. (In this area, people add a “G” to the end of words ending in “N.”) On the way back from the library, I said to the two children who were holding my hands: “I can’t wait to get to the crèche so we can eat our shoes!” To which even the younger of the two said: “We don’t eat shoes! We eat food!”

And eat well! Yesterday, the lunch was calamari and wild rice in a light cream sauce, beets, apple slices, yogurt and, of course, pieces of baguette. I asked Gabin what wine he would prefer with his calamari but he replied: “more water, please.”

One “snotty-nosed” boy came over to participate in the story I was reading. His nose ran all the way to his chin. How do you say Kleenex in French? I said: “Ça coul. Allons chercher un mouchoir.” (That flows. Let’s go find a handkerchief.) – but, of course, not soon enough. He gave me a hug and left his calling card all over my sleeve…

I have discovered that as I try to memorize the names of the kids and the staff, it seems that foreign names are harder to memorize… Or maybe it is my age… I am, after all, 15 Celsius…

The neatest aspect of the volunteer experience is confirming how of one world we all are. The laughter at my clowning or at my poor French, the joy and excitement of kids explaining everyday events or creating fantasy or the kindness of kids towards each other are the same in any language or culture.Add to Google Reader or Homepage

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Local Visits

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Our friend Eliane has been terrific in including us in activities. She invited us to join her and Lina and go with them to visit the village of their grandparents. We have had guided tours of much of the local area and seen sights that rarely get mentioned in the tour books because of Eliane. When we have been with them, we have had perfect days – the sky has been deep blue and the temperature hints that spring is here. It has been warm enough that Ellen could wear her sandals. We had tea/cookies in the yard of the house/farm where their grandparents lived. On the way through the village, Eliane pointed out the community oven where everyone used to bring their bread to bake. The home was surrounded by fields of lavender. – and snow – because, at about 2,000 feet, there was still snow - though mostly in the shadows…

Next we stopped in the village where their father was born. Eliane spent some summers there and had great stories to tell. She found a woman who lives in the village to open the museum and turn on the lights in the church so we could really see it all. The church contains two paintings by an artist named Leyraud who was recognized by one of the Popes. The village of Le Poët-en-Percip is where her grandparents lived and La Roche-sur-le-Buis is where her father was born. Check them out on Google Earth.

Eliane and Lina explained that many villages have been close to the point of ruin because people living there have left them for work, easier accommodations, etc. Many of the villages have been saved – so to speak – by the people who have bought the real estate as vacation properties. In one immediate sense, the vacationers have invested in saving a location but in another, long term sense, they have ensured a different future for the village… Time will tell.

Sunday lunch

A week later, we got to meet the third sister at a family Sunday lunch. After a lovely dejeuner with the three sisters (mushroom ravioli with a sauce of créme fraîche and truffles, daube en civet – beef marinated in wine and herbs for over 24 hours then cooked and then returned to its sauce for more cooking time – and îles flottantes for dessert), we went for a long (3 hours) walk through vineyards and orchards and olive groves...

The almond trees are starting to flower (white or pink depending on the variety of almonds) and the fruit trees should begin to flower in a week or two. The landscape changes every 100 meters or so. It may be minor changes such as what is planted in the fields – though even passing fields of cherry trees followed by a vineyard or an olive orchard or a field of oak trees (truffles) can be breathtaking. Add to that the topography and the limestone cliffs and mountains and the noisy streams and the scrub oak forests and the color of the sky and every minute/every change is awe-inspiring. It is no wonder that the Romans loved this area. As one of our English ex-pat friends said: “I will sit in front of the Post Office with a cup in my hand before I’d think of returning to England.”

Saturday, March 7, 2009

TRUFFLES


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I am a truffle expert. Pourquoi pas? I have spent five months in an area of France where truffles are mined. I bought some and made two recipes with truffles (and read several more). I even know that people in the know refer to truffles as “black pearls.”

I confirmed my expertise when I overheard a conversation at one of the local cafés between two old guys (older than I am) as they discussed—that would be argued about--the best ways to find truffles and, once found, the best ways to consume them. You could tell right away that they were real trufflers as they drove “catcat” (4X4) vehicles with dogs in the back. Everyone else here lets their dogs ride in the front seat They drank Pastis and they spoke with heavy local accents (so I might have missed some of the finer points) but I like it better when I am not confused with the facts.

So let me tell you about truffles. First, a glossary of terms:

Truffles – adult truffettes. Black in color, they can be the size of a pea or as large as a fist. They have a distinctive flavor and, even if you don’t like the flavor, you will pretend that you do because truffles are VERY expensive.

Truffler – the person who searches for truffles. (Truffle shoppers don’t count as trufflers.)

There are six ways to get truffles:
1) a truffle-sniffing dog
2) a truffle-sniffing pig
3) a stick (magic wand?)
4) walking in the woods and looking for spots under oak trees where the soil is bare and void of vegetation
5) purchasing them at the local market at a price of between 40 and 80 € per hundred grams or
6) purchasing them in Paris for 1000 € per kilo or more! (There are places in Paris that display truffles as one would display fine jewelry, with the prices tucked under the display stand. Of course, the truffles on display would have lost most of their flavor as they should be consumed within 3-4 days after being found, or cleaned and stored in aluminum foil inside a freezer bag and frozen until used.)

If a person has a dog with a good nose and the dog likes the odor/flavor of truffles (some dogs don’t), the person can spend a year or two training the dog to hunt for truffles. If the dog is good, collecting truffles can be lucrative. We heard about a man who had spent time training his dog to hunt truffles – only to have to abandon using the dog after the dog found truffles, dug them up and ate them before the man could get there to mine them.

Most often truffles are found where there are a lot of oak trees since truffles grow under oak trees, somehow connecting to the root system of oak trees. Our knowledgeable French friend told us that there are many farmers who have stopped farming and have planted oak trees with the hope that, in a few years, there will be truffles growing under their oak trees. (In the meantime, the farmers do not have to pay taxes on their land as it is not being used for cash crops). I (as an expert) know there are different varieties of oak trees but apparently truffles do not discriminate and will grow under any kind of oak tree.

I have been told by other truffle experts that female pigs (sows) are good at finding truffles because the odor of truffles is similar to the odor emitted by male pigs. (It’s a good thing that they don’t make a truffle cologne – or men could have pigs following them everywhere…)

The truffle-hunting stick seems to be the French equivalent of a “Snipe hunting” story created to tease eavesdroppers like me. From my perspective, there are just too many inconsistencies (or maybe my French just failed me…) Anyway, as these guys argued about the advantages, it sounds as though one needs to find a stick (special stick? Magic wand?) preferably straight and then wave it back and forth as one walks along. Apparently, a special type of fly (yellow??) builds a ground nest close to truffles. I got the impression that if one waves the stick close to the ground as s/he walks along, the flies will see the stick and come out of the ground nest. Why? I haven’t a clue. I didn’t hear whether one should coat the stick with honey or with truffle oil – maybe it was a stuffle trick rather than a truffle stick… And then there is the whole season-for-hunting-truffles problem: the best season for hunting truffles is in the winter when insect activity is at its lowest… Why would a fly – yellow or not – decide to leave the warmth of the earth because someone walked by waving a stick? It sounded like a “snipe” story to me…

Walking in the woods and looking for bare spots under oak trees seems to be a good reason for a walk – though it doesn’t seem to be a very effective way of hunting for truffles. And, leaving the randonnée paths and walking in the woods is tough going… and if you find truffles, the land-owner would have you arrested for robbery.

I think that the best method of finding truffles is going to the market early in the morning/late in the season and purchasing what you need for the evening meal… and then, what a meal!!!

* being from Michigan, I must admit my chauvinism and confess that I like morels better…

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Bells, bells, bells

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I was coming home from the market (the little Saturday market) when I heard the single bell of the cathedral ringing slowly. I thought: “Another funeral.”

Maybe it was because we had gone to the funeral of one of our neighbors or maybe it was something that moved from subconscious to conscious – those altar boy days – but I began to think about how the bells have a role in our daily lives.

Living about halfway between the bell tower at the cathedral and the clock tower in the medieval city, we hear the bells from both. The bells announce the hour and half hour, weddings, when it is time to come to church and the end of funeral masses. In spite of the strict separation of church and state in France there is a strong religious overlay that is very much present.

When we learned about the death of one of our elderly neighbors, we decided to go to the funeral. The neighbor had been ill and confined to home for some time but we had seen and talked with her husband many times on this and earlier visits, before his own illness limited his activities as well. As we considered what we could do to express our support, we thought about what we would do at home. Taking food to the family came to mind. The couple has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that were either in town or coming for the funeral. Perhaps we could prepare some food for them?

Since we didn’t want to do anything inappropriate, we checked with a number of friends and learned that the tradition of taking food to the grieving family is not a French tradition but everyone encouraged us to follow our instincts (and habits) to make something and deliver it. We made spinach pies and delivered them to our neighbor’s apartment that evening. The eldest of our neighbor’s children was there with her father, so I explained our custom when she answered the door. She asked us to come in, but we explained that our goal was to make an offering to the family, not to intrude on their time/lives. She insisted equally that we should say hello to her father – who had already started to come to the door. We expressed our sympathies briefly and made our way home, pleased by their openness to us and saddened at their loss.

The following morning, there was a note from the eldest daughter in our mailbox in which she expressed her appreciation for our gesture. Her words were so poetic:

“Cette coutume, qui n’est pas en usage chez nous,
nous a surpris mais nous a conquis.
C’est vraiment très gentil de votre part… »

“This custom which we don’t have here,
surprised us but also conquered us (won us over).
It was very kind of you…”

We went on to the funeral in the company of another of our neighbors, reinforced in the belief that simple gestures offered person-to-person can gently cross imagined boundaries. And the bells had special meaning for us on that day.

Monday, February 23, 2009

New Friends

The recent visit by one of Ellen’s oldest (in terms of years of friendship) friends and her husband was another delightful time. Nancy and Tony had been to Provence before, but not to this area. They seemed to enjoyed all of the mundane activities that we suggested and participated inreadily agreed to join us on Day 3 of our wine course, thea wine tours primarily of Chateauneuf du Pape organized by Philip Reddaway of www.rhonewineholidays.com. . (I must confess that every time I hear about wines from Chateauneuf du Pape, I think about the a Cotes du Rhone Ventoux bottled in France and and soldsold in the US. tThe egg-shaped label for which shows a cat (chat) sitting on an egg (oeuf) – “Chat en oeuf.” Of course, I also still think of “The Lone Ranger” every time I hear the William Tell Overture.)

Not mundane was a day spent with the sister of the woman who managed the B and B at which Nancy and Tony stayed. We had known that Lina – the woman who makes the BEST tapenade (see the earlier posting) – would be in Paris during Nancy’s and Tony’s visit stay at her B&B but we had also met Lina’s sister Eliane, who was going to stay at the house and manage the Chambre chambre d’hôtes while Lina was away.

Eliane not only took care of all of the normal B&B responsibilities, but when Tony asked about a place to buy truffles, she investigated and discovered that she knew someone who knew someone who sold truffles. We went with her to purchase them, which we sampled later that evening. She then took us to visit some of the local sites dear to her heart with several stops along the way to point out beautiful vistas or landmarks – including pointing out the Cistercian Abbey Ste. Madeleine, stopping at the medieval top-of-the-mountain-town of Venasque and then on to Pernes-les-Fontaines, the town where she was born. Ellen and I had been to Pernes-les-Fontaines previously with Marge and Charley, but seeing the village from the perspective of a person who had spent a lot of time there made it a wonderful, very personal experience.

One of the sites of our visit that day was the 11th century church in Pernes. The church caretaker obliged us by playeding a CD of Gregorian Cchant music while we were in the church; – which made the church seem even larger as the tones of the chant reverberated off the walls and the ceiling. As we were leaving, Eliane introduced us as her American friends – to which the caretaker responded (in French, of course): “Are you pleased with Obama? He has so much to do…”

During their short visit, I got to know Ellen’s friends Nancy and her husband Tony and we all got the chance to meet and get to know Eliane, who is the embodiement of “joie de vivre.” She has a great openness to meeting and welcoming new people like us as well as a love of France and the French countryside that she enjoys sharing with others. Combine that with such an infectious smile and an easygoing nature – and the attitude to go with it…we couldn’t help but feel more a part of a developing web of friends and experiences in our new bi-continental lives.

We went out with Eliane again at the end of the week. We had coffee in Mollans and then went on to Brantes to tour the little village that sits in the shadow of Mt. Ventoux above the valley of the Toulourenc River. Eliane has a way of bringing sunshine to cloudy days and bringing light to the shadowed valley. She corrected my French in a manner that made me want to get it right. She was so engaging that Ellen lost her reticence in French and was a partner in the conversation.

We learned about farming, about oak fields (where farmers hoped to have a terrain in which truffles would grow), about wine grapes and table grapes and, the important expression “chemin des écoliers” (the school children’s route to school – the most circuitous route that prolongs the arrival at the doors of the school.)

Later that evening, Eliane and her sister came to an impromptu dinner at our little apartment, to which we had invited them during the course of the day’s travels. Entertaining at our apartment can be challenging because the space is so small but it turned into an evening of learning and laughs. It made me think of evenings with my sisters or with Ellen’s family or with Mark and Dan where the laughter was contagious and continued to the point of hurting. But it “hurts so good” we hope to do it again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The wines of the Rhone Valley


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Ellen and I joined a small group in a wine class. It was presented by Philip Reddaway, a British transplant living in Malaucène, a nearby village. Philip and his wife Jude run “Rhone Wine Holidays” (www.rhonewineholidays.com) from their 12th century home, formerly a Benedictine priory. Their longer wine tour packages include rooms, meals and wine education for the wine enthusiast.

For three consecutive Tuesdays, we forced ourselves to taste wines from the area. The course included presentations by Philip in La Madelène’s atelier and tastings—in the atelier, at lunch and on-site at selected winemakers’ tasting rooms. Philip’s WSET (Wine & Spirits Educational Trust) certification and experience give him a knowledge of the wines of the area and the wine-making process. But he also knows many of the Rhone wine makers and selected from among many good ones to take us to some wonderful wineries. We tasted wine in some of the most picturesque locations we have seen in Provence. We talked with the wine-makers and, in several instances, went into the vineyards. We walked through the famous stone fields of “La Crau” in the Chateauneuf du Pape region and through mountaintop vineyards in Suzette and above Seguret. We met vintners who have embraced bio-dynamic production and have thus eliminated the use of herbicides. We enjoyed wonderful lunches prepared by Jude Reddaway at “La
Madelène.”

For the final Tuesday of the course, Ellen’s high school classmate and her husband joined us and our classmates. (Nancy and Tony live in London.) They got to go to Chateauneuf du Pape (
www.domainedenalys.com & www.cuveeduvatican.com), back to La Madelene for lunch and then to the top the hill above Suzette to try some white wines and red wines from the high hills (www.domainestamant.com). I have included a picture from Domaine St. Amant. When we were at Domaine de Nalys in Chateauneuf du Pape, we got a tour of the winery. Different from the little wineries, the whole site is set up for tours (VERY clean & neat). Even the barrels have the Domaine’s shield carved into the oak. …and they make some fine wine there. At the second winery, we climbed into old trucks and went out to see “La Crau.” It is hard to describe, but think of a field of stones – a white stone like those you find on the shores of Michigan as far as you can see – and growing in this field of stones are vines. In the summer, the stones get hot – but reflect a lot of the sun, keeping the plants a little cool during the day and keeping the plants warm all night long. The clay under the stones holds moisture well, so the plant roots – which might go down one or two meters – find the moisture to nourish the plants and the grapes. The woman who was showing us “La Crau” had to shout in order to be heard above the sound of the Mistral which was whipping across La Crau at amazing speed. As Philip had mentioned in class, the stones are unique but also very difficult for walking and thus it can be hard to find laborers who will work the fields at La Crau (winter pruning, summer pruning, fall harvest, etc.)

In addition to the sites that Nancy and Tony got to enjoy visiting with us during their five days here, Philip also took us to:

Domaine de Mourchon (
www.domainedemourchon.com) This winery is located at the top of the hill between Vaison la Romaine and Séguret – on the same route that Tish and I took when we walked from Vaison to Séguret.

Chateau de Saint Cosme (
louis@chateau-st-cosme.com) is located just at the north part of the village of Gigondas. The winery has been owned by the same family for 14 generations and they produce a wonderful Gigondas.

Vincent Rochette runs Domaine Roche-Audran (
vincent.rochette@mnet.fr), a winery started by his grandparents. In the past few years, he has switched to a “bio-dynamic” method of managing his vineyards. He is very pleased with the success of the changes that he has made – the vines are doing well and he produces some fine wines. Ellen especially liked his white wine. It was very different from most of the viogner-based white wines of the Rhone Valley. (Ellen also liked the white wines that Philip served at lunch: one from Lirac and another white from Philip’s neighbor at Domaine de Champ-Long.)

Domaine des Bernardins (
www.domaine-des-bernardins.com) is located in the village of Beaumes de Venise and, as one might guess, they offer wines made with muscat. Interestingly, they offer both a sweet (doux) Beaumes de Venise and a dry Beaumes de Venise. It is hard to tell the difference when you smell the wines but one is very sweet. One is dry – without losing the flavors of the Muscat grapes. Beaumes de Venise is now a “CdR-Village” appellation and at Domaine des Bernardins, they also make red wine.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Close to heaven


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On va au cinema?

We have had the good fortune of meeting a number of English-speaking people through our French classes. It is amazing how people got here but the common theme seems to be that after visiting the region, they fell in love with the area and decided to come back and live here permanently in retirement (or earlier). Some love the mountains and the opportunities they offer, many love the weather (though it has been ‘très humide’ and untypical that there would be so much rain. The river is rising again…) and there are a few who love to be in the Rhone valley surrounded by so many good wines… So, in addition to sharing a love for the area, we have met others who enjoy movies, others who enjoy food, etc. On Sunday night, we put the two together and went to have dinner at the home of an English couple and other guests and then watch the BAFTA awards (Ellen explained that the “British Academy of Film and Television Awards” have a program similar to the Oscars or the Golden Globes – and we got to see it.)

We have not seen all of the entries in the BAFTA competition, but we have started to go to the cinema more regularly. Two weeks ago, our local theatre – it is only one street away from our apartment – participated in a France-wide “Festival Telerama” which included French and English language films. These were the films that the magazine “Telerama” had chosen as the best of the year. The films that we saw were mainly the French language films as we had seen two of the three English language films. We did fairly well with the French language films – sometimes the dialects or the idioms were a bit hard to understand, but generally, we did okay – another one of those indicators that our language skills are improving… Just prior to the BAFTA, we went to see “Slumdog Millionaire” – which also happened also to be the film for the Neighborhood Movie group discussion last week (we couldn’t stay awake until 4:00 AM to participate… though it was a great film.)

B&B – better & better

At one of the films, I got to introduce Ellen to our neighbor and B&B operator, Lina Blanchard. We sat with her during the movie but she left immediately afterwards. A few days later, she invited us to “apero” at her home and we got to learn a little more about Vaison, the Vaucluse (our county) and her. In addition to which, she makes the BEST tapenade I have ever tasted! I was hoping she would tell me where she purchased it but when she said that she made it, I asked for the recipe (hoping that she would give me some that she had made. Instead, she said that it was easy and she would show me how to do it.

One of the films in the “Festival Telerama” was a documentary about the end of small farms in France. Lina, who had also seen “La Vie Moderne,” grew up on a farm close to here and talked about the changes and how hard it is to make a living with a small farm plot. It is a theme of the book From Here, You Can’t See Paris by Michael Sanders that Bruce and Judy had sent to me to read. Whether we were talking about films or farming or food, we had a delightful evening with Lina and her sister. – and as soon as I get 300 grams of olives, anchovies, capers, garlic and a lemon, I will get to try to make olive tapenade with Lina providing the recipe.

Living “green”

Our building has hallway lighting that runs on timers. About every eight feet and outside everyone’s door, there is a light switch on a timer. When we leave the apartment, we have about two minutes to get out of the building before the lights go out. Of course, if we stop to visit with our neighbor or to play hopscotch in the hall, we can turn the lights on for an additional two minutes.

The hallway lights are just one example of energy saving. Almost every toilet contains two buttons for flushing. Push the smaller button and you get a small amount of water to clear the bowl. The larger button is for more water… (I wonder if there was a convention or a research project the results of which have created the standards for litres/flush.)

I had already noted in a prior posting that when you go to the market, you must bring your own bags with which to carry your groceries because the clerk is not going to say “paper or plastic?” In fact, the clerks at the large grocery stores sit at their machines and move items past the scanner and to a tray from which the purchaser fills his/her own grocery bags. And, while at the supermarket/large store, you can take a shopping cart only after leaving a deposit of one euro in the coin slot. This encourages shoppers to return the carts to where they belong in order to get one’s money back. Shoppers who arrive at the store by car don’t have to move carts to the cart corral before parking…

We have rented a variety of cars but ALL of them have been diesel and manual transmissions. The Europeans seem to have either better diesel fuel or better diesel engines because the exhaust doesn’t stink as it seems to in the US. And, of course, for the most part, the vehicles are about half the size (and weight) of American cars. There is one model of car that is so small, I am sure that the people who buy it simply attach a grass cutting blade when they need to trim the lawn.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“Time Is More Important than Money”

Add to Google Reader or HomepageInsight: for the French who work in the local stores and in most situations where there is a face-to-face contact, time is more important than money. When you finally get to the front of the line, the sales representative, postal worker, bank teller focuses his/her attention on you and your request – 100%. You may have been in line for a half hour, but now it is your turn and for the fleeting moments of exchange, you are the ONLY client the salesperson has to serve.

It was our English friend Margaret M. who first used the expression, but it fits so well, I told her that I planned to copy it. It is such a perfect description of the undercurrent of customer service. The customer is #1. For instance, yesterday, I went to pick up a gift to take to the people who had invited us for “apero” (aperitifs). We had decided to get chocolate from the chocolatier in town. When I entered the store, I saw an elderly man and his wife and they were buying beautiful chocolate creations BUT they were confirming the ingredients in each creation, discussing the designs, etc. The sales clerk had looked in my direction and had smiled but never left her post in front of the couple nor missed a beat while answering their questions. Finally the gentleman looked at me and asked if I knew what I wanted to buy – because he knew that he and his wife were going to be choosing chocolates for another 30 minutes. I thanked him for permitting me to get the gift (the sales clerk thanked him as well) and we were on our way…

It is probably the reason that the French will stand in line so patiently – because they know the rewards of their patience – they will have the undivided attention of the person there to serve them. There have been times when I have thought: “alright, already. The clerk is certainly not interested in the carrots that you got at the market last week” but, in fact, the clerks seem to be interested.

Closed for the lunch hour(s)

The idea of time being more important than money explains French lunches and why most of the shops and services close for two hours around noon. The shop closures give people the time to eat leisurely and properly – not having to rush back to work as we do in the states with a sandwich from the drive-through… It also explains why there are few “fast food” franchises – though the numbers are increasing every year.

It is not only the adults who have a long lunch hour. Kids in school here have an hour – but kids also have meals that include entrée, main course, salad, cheese and/or dessert. It is not the cafeteria food that we had as kids nor is it the 20 minutes we had to eat whatever they served. In a small way, it could be a very rational approach to helping children learn how important eating well can be in life. (The local elementary school publishes and posts their menus on the bulletin board outside of the school so that all parents can be assured that their children are eating well…) The school day is also longer – school starts at 9:00 and ends at 4:30 PM.

One of the things that drove me crazy when we first arrived here was that once you were served your food/espresso/pichet of wine, it was impossible to get the attention of the waiter/waitress. After finishing whatever, I would be ready to leave/wanting to leave but the waiter would not have brought the bill. It was because, in France, I could stay and sip my espresso or sit and watch the world passing by after having finished my espresso as long as I wanted because my time was more important than my money… It reminds me of the very early days of the child care task force and how we were asked by one downtown coffee shop to go somewhere else for our meetings – as we would sit there for a long time and not order anything more than one coffee… Had we had our meetings in France, who knows how much more we might have accomplished?