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” ( 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 ( 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:

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 (
     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…


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.


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!