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 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.


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!