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

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?