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


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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


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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…