Monday, December 27, 2010

Gobble gullible

Add to Google Reader or HomepageThere are cars and then there is Rolls Royce.
There is caviar and then there is Beluga.
There is turkey and then there is “dinde de Bresse”

Ellen read these phrases as she was trying to find special recipes and information on the turkey (the expensive turkey) that I had bought from one of the butcher shops in town.

I had gone to a butcher shop on Wednesday wondering if I would be able to order a turkey for Christmas. We had invited a friend to come for dinner and we wanted to cook an American-style dinner. We thought it would be fun to repeat the wonderful menu we had in Paris at Thanksgiving. I was relieved when the woman behind the counter said that I could still order a turkey and that I would need to pick it up on Friday before they closed. I gave her my name and left the shop.

On Friday, I went to the grocer to get Clementines and then to the butcher shop to pick up the turkey. I told Ellen that I was also going to stop at the barbershop if they weren’t busy. When I got home, Ellen noted: “You didn’t get a haircut.” I replied: “No, I got fleeced! I picked up our turkey and it cost almost as much as our apartment!” Ellen opened the package and showed me that the turkey was tied with a cute red bow. Not only had it arrived with the head still attached, it was numbered and had an “AOC” tag.  AOC stands for “Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée” and is a guarantee that the product – be it wine or cheese or even this turkey – comes from a specific region and in that region, one obtains the “AOC” tag only if one meets the defined standards. One of our friends said that at the butcher shop, AOC really means “American is coming. Raise the price!”


I have calmed down since Friday morning. Time permits perspective and mine has permitted me to think about how humorous (ludicrous?) the episode was. I will never again place an order at the butcher shop – or any store – without asking the price per kilo/price per pound. Had I taken the time to do that, I would never have ordered the turkey I felt compelled to purchase. I would have willingly purchased one of the fresh birds available at the supermarket. (Turkey is not #1 on the French Christmas dinner menu. Our friends said that they would more likely have duck or lamb but would rarely think of having turkey for Christmas.)

As I calmed down and Ellen read a few recipes to me, I began planning the cooking of the turkey. At this point, I was no longer blushing about my error, but I was still upset enough that when I unwrapped the turkey again, I had to cut off the head (while thinking to myself: “I paid for this!?!”) The turkey came with the cavity filled with sausage stuffing (“I paid for this!?!”). Turkey in France is generally leaner with less white meat and less fat but this bird from Bresse was at least 10% fat (“I paid for this!?!”) We started talking about finding ways to use the bones after we made stock out of the carcass so that I could begin to think that I got my money’s worth.

I told my sister Sue about the turkey-purchasing episode and before the bird was even done, she had sent the following poem.

Turkey in the barnyard, what does he say?
  Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble all day.
Turkey in Vaison, what did he say?
  I got here but you're gonna pay.
Turkey in our tummies, what did we say?
  We could've gone to
Paris for a day.

She then added: What can you make from leftover turkey BRESSE?  Turkey hash, turkey casserole, turkey soup, and, as they do here in the south, don't forget the turkey feets!!!  We hope you enjoy every golden bite.”

I hope your holiday meal was as joyful and tasteful but less expensive than ours. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays

Add to Google Reader or HomepageNous vous souhaitons un joyeux Noel
 et une bonne année.

Les Sullivans, Ellen & Mark




Saturday, December 18, 2010

8 gr8 days

Add to Google Reader or HomepageA (not so) quiet week in Lake Wobegon

On “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keiller begins his news stories of Lake Wobegon with: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…” Our week was just the opposite – filled with fun, friends and excitement.

We met Bruce and Judy at the TGV station in Avignon last Friday morning and then drove to Uzès, about 30 km west of Avignon. It is a beautiful little village with wonderful medieval alleys and architecture, an imposing cathedral with a fenestrelle tower



and the castle of the first duchy of France. The castle was built on the site of a Roman camp. (The pictures are from the Uzès website: www.uzes.fr.) We had lunch, walked around the village admiring the shops (closed during lunch time) and the architecture and then drove back to Vaison la Romaine.

Our neighbor Jane had made a lovely chicken stew so we had a wonderful dinner across the street at her house. Saturday, we went to the truffle market at Richerenches and Judy bought some truffles to take back to their friends in Paris. 
Richerenches

As we did with Margaret and Phil last year, we ate at the town hall. The menu was the same: truffle omelets, salad, cheese, dessert and coffee. There were bottles of local rose and red wine on the tables to go with the meal. The long tables seat 16, so we got to rub elbows and converse with the truffle mavens on either side. We drove back to Vaison and then followed Jane to Mirabelle aux Baronnies to see the house that her friend owns there. It is situated in the center of the village and includes five or six different levels. (I got confused after walking from one area to the next, then through a passage way, an OLD circular staircase…)

We were back in time to make dinner for the four of us plus Terry who had come to claim his sweet dog, Cesar. Cesar had been staying with us for a week while Terry was in the UK. It was Ellen's (and my) opportunity for a dog fix, since our own deerhounds are back home in Lansing with our wonderful dog/house sitters.

The lovely Cesar!
I made lasagna but with a few twists: Greek yogurt instead of ricotta, Scamorza instead of mozzarella, fresh pasta (as in rolled out in front of us), and with each layer of pasta, I added a layer of zucchini slices. Ellen and Judy made salad and Bruce and I had gone to the cheese store to get Roquefort and goat cheese (chevre). Terry brought dessert. (French language error: When the merchant showed me the rolled out pasta, I said it looked like twice as much as I would need. He understood me to say that I wanted twice as much and rolled out another sheet of pasta… I tried using the extra pasta dough as a crust for a pie, but it doesn’t work too well!)

Bruce has become a discriminating connoisseur of “pain au chocolat” for breakfast. He has honed his skills in the bakeries in Paris near where they live. We asked him to continue his research in Vaison la Romaine so that we would know to which bakery we should go whenever we wanted “pain au chocolat.” Between Saturday and Sunday, we stopped at five bakeries and, at each one, asked for one croissant and one “pain au chocolat.” Tastes vary, but there seemed to be general agreement that the “pain au chocolat” from Emile Bec was tops. (The croissant from the bakery on Cours Taulignan got the highest marks.) For lunch, we went to La Lyriste, our favorite restaurant in Vaison and run by our dear friends Ben and Marie Joulain. We had a lovely Sunday lunch with good friends. Later that afternoon, we took Bruce and Judy back to Avignon to catch their evening train to Paris.

Tuesday, Père Noel (Father Christmas) visited the crèche (it was not I this year as the kids know me too well). He talked with the kids and gave out candy. The kids ate way too much candy and as one can guess, they were still on sugar highs three hours later when their parents came to take them home.

On Wednesday, we left early in the morning to drive to Villefranche sur mer to visit the village and the language school where Ellen will spend February as she has enrolled in the “Institut de Français” (www.institutdefrancais.com/). The village is located between Nice and Monaco and is built on the cliffs rising out of the Mediterranean.

When I first looked at the map, I noticed a lot of hairpin turns – they are switch-backs – as one climbs or descends from the main road through town. The hills made us both think of Greensburg, PA – though the PA hills seem almost flat when compared to those in Villefranche sur mer. We are both excited about the school because of reports that we have heard from former students. Ellen will spend a month immersed in French. Once the program begins, the students are allowed to speak only French. The emphasis is on developing oral skills. I plan to visit Ellen on the weekends and of course we will speak only French.

For the last week of our French class before the holidays, we had a combined Thursday/Friday class “apero” that included all of the students of the Vaison French classes. We shared wonderful foods and wine/champagne and good conversation (mostly in French but there were side conversations in Dutch, German, English…)

The holidays are upon us. The towns and villages are all decorated with holiday lights and people are wishing one another happy holidays. There will be parties and “aperos” and more good times with friends and neighbors. The opportunities to over-eat abound… (It’s time to clean some carrots to put in a bag to eat before starting the next food fest.)

May your holidays be filled with good friends, good times, good foods and the joy of sharing them.

Meilleurs vœux et bonne année !

Town square, Villefranche sur mer

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Halfway to Heaven

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe are currently taking care of our friend’s dog while he is in England for the week. As we talked about places to walk with the dog, our neighbor Jane suggested a walk up to a beautiful little chapel located in the Drome – the county (French “department”) next to ours. We loaded up her car and then drove about 20 kilometers from here. As we got close, I could see the chapel St. Jean d’Ollon on top of a very high hill. We parked in the valley and started our climb.
The chapel, from the valley
The picture may not capture how spectacular it looks from the valley below, but the little yellow building to the left of the tree with its fall leaves is the chapel. The day was sunny but cold (when in the shade). We had to cross a small stream twice as we started up the hill. With the rains that we have had, the stream was pretty high, so we did our best to jump from big rock to big rock. The walk itself was fairly easy as the path circled the summit. Plus, Ellen had little Cesar – the very energetic English Cocker Spaniel – to pull her up the hill. 


Once at the top, the sun was warm and the vistas were awesome.

St. Jean d'Ollon
One can go around to the back of the chapel and enter a small room from which you can see the interior of the chapel.

According to information that I found when I looked up the chapel on Google, it was built in the 12th century and then renovated in the 19th century. I am always amazed by the craftsmanship and the feats of engineering of old buildings here. First, who decided that they should build a chapel on the top of the hill? (I am guessing that the person who chose the sight thought it would be nice to have a chapel halfway to heaven.) Second, did this person believe that it would be a good place for the congregation to gather for mass? Third, how did they manage to tote all of the building materials to the site? And, of course, how long did it take to construct the chapel? Pretty amazing.

It is equally amazing how often I use the word “spectacular” to describe the vistas. I have stood in a valley below a limestone cliff gleaming in white and gray and yellow and thought: “This must be the most beautiful spot in Provence.” Then I go another kilometer/turn another corner and think: “No, this must be the most beautiful spot in Provence.” Our friend, Brian talked about enjoying the art of the impressionists – especially those who lived and painted in Provence – but he thought that they must have used a lot of imagination in choosing the colors for their landscapes. Then, he came here and discovered that the colors are real!

Quelle belle région!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving in Paris

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOur friends Bruce and Judy invited us to join them for Thanksgiving in Paris. They were going to have an “American Thanksgiving” with two other couples and us. We went and had a wonderful time but getting there was not as easy as we had hoped.

SNCF, idTGV, sncf-voyages.com,

Here’s one for the file folder called « soul-sucking French bureaucracy. »

Weeks ago, Ellen started to work on finding the best fares for the train between Avignon and Paris. When she found good rates and good travel times, Ellen purchased the tickets on-line from “idTGV.”  (TGV are the initials for the super-fast train system in France. All trains are run by the SNCF and the trains are fast, clean and on time.)

She printed the return tickets first. The printed tickets had a few lines of advertising stating the advantages of e-tickets including:

Plus rapide (faster)
Plus simple (easier)
Plus souple (more flexible) – and ends with:
« SNCF vous souhaite un bon voyage » (emphasis added)

Ellen went to print the tickets for the trip from Avignon to Paris and every time she clicked on the print command, she was directed to an error web page which said “website not found.” She tried a number of times over the next few days with the same result every time. We went to our friends’ house and tried from their computer to see if it was our machines. No luck. Finally, we borrowed our friends’ car to drive to the TGV station in Avignon to ask one of the SNCF clerks to help us print our ticket for us so that everything would be ready on Wednesday morning when we were to leave.

We approached the clerk and I said “I hope you can help us.” I then explained our problem to the young man at the counter. The young man named Yohann looked at our paperwork and said that since we bought our tickets from “idTGV” and he works for SNCF, he couldn’t help us. Ellen showed him another page that we had brought from our on-line purchase on which was printed a header “voyages-sncf.com” and asked why the SNCF was different from “voyages-sncf.com.” He consulted another colleague and came back and said: “They are not the same as us. I can’t print your ticket.” We asked what his advice to us might be and again, he left his chair and consulted his colleague and came back with the suggestion that we just show up with the printed ticket-confirmation page that we had showed him. That way, he said, the conductor can look up your number and know that you have seats on the train. I asked: “If we encounter any trouble, can we tell the conductor that Yohann from the SNCF office told us to get on the train?” He smiled and said “sure” which in French or English usually means “there is a snow-ball’s chance that this guy will remember my name and, even if he does, the conductor won’t have time to come and find me and plus I don’t work next Wednesday… I am off the hook. Next in line?”
On the way back to the car, Ellen said that if the clerk had not been so cute, she would have reached across the counter and throttled him.
PS: On Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before our departure, Ellen got an e-mail from idTGV reminding us that we needed to print our ticket. Ellen followed the links and THIS TIME she was able to print the ticket.

Once in Paris, all of the TGV/SNCF/idTGV/sncf-voyages.com frustrations evaporated. We were in Paris!

Bruce and Judy live in the Marais so we lugged our luggage 
(? does luggage come from ‘something lugged?) onto the metro and then walked about 10 blocks to their apartment. They have a great apartment.

We walked to the “Hotel de Ville” (City Hall) and got in line to see an exhibit of the works of Andrée Putman – a French woman who designed furniture, room arrangements, Concorde seating, etc. (I had never heard of her, but recognized several of her designs.) That evening, Judy, Ellen and I went to the Left Bank to see the Ionesco play “The Bald Soprano” in French. We met up with Bruce and went to dinner at “Le Bouledogue” (the Bulldog) which is a restaurant in their neighborhood. Wonderful food.

As I walk around Paris, I am amazed at the number of restaurants. It seems that few Parisians must cook at home for all of these restaurants to remain viable. – but when one goes to the markets of Paris, one gets the opposite impression:  most people must be wonderful cooks given the things in their shopping baskets. After restaurants, there is a plethora of eyeglass shops, followed by lingerie shops… If I try to deduce priorities from my impressions, I might suggest that food is at the top followed by being able to read the menu (while looking gorgeous) and being able to eye – from head to toe – the women who come into the restaurant…

Thanksgiving

Judy, Ellen and I walked to Judy’s favorite vegetable shop to pick up cranberries. The vegetable shop owner had to special order the cranberries because he thought that Thanksgiving was over. Judy explained that it was Canadian Thanksgiving that was over. American (as in US of America) is the fourth Thursday of November.  We then went to the shop to pick up the fresh turkey that Judy had ordered. It was five kilos instead of the seven she had ordered. Judy bought two coquelet (young chickens) to ensure that we would have enough to eat. Just to be sure, we stopped at Bruce’s favorite bakery and bought five baguettes.

Ellen and Judy made stuffing. Judy made cranberry relish and Waldorf salad.

As folks started to arrive, Ellen had made amuses-bouches (appetizers) with foie-gras that she had bought. I served wine until it was time to mash potatoes. I had very capable guidance from Suzanne who said that mashed potatoes were her favorite food. She encouraged me to add more cream, more butter, a little more cream... (Cooking à la Julia Child!)

Suzanne had made "American" green bean casserole with French haricots verts, cream and crème fraiche cooked with mushrooms and American style French-fried onion rings in a can. She also made a squash casserole. Both were perfect in the comfort food list of favorites.

Rounding out the list but proving that ‘the last shall be first’ were the dessert offerings that Yolanda brought. We enjoyed sweet-potato pie and pumpkin cake each served with ample amounts of chantilly (whipped cream) or crème fraiche. Everyone went home with left-overs.

Quel repas! (What a meal!) We had a wonderful meal that was second only to spending time with wonderful people. Quelle chance! (How lucky we are!)

And then…

Friday included shopping (Ellen bought very stylish boots – thus ending two months of women staring at her for wearing her Croc sling backs or her klunky but comfy Merrell boots) and going to two of the museums that were participating in the photography expo across Paris. In the afternoon we went to see an American film: “Mother and Child” in English with French subtitles (so different from what we usually get to watch at the cinema in Vaison.)  Bruce made bouillabaisse for dinner that evening. (Another great meal)

Saturday, we went to the Museum of Modern Art to see one more of the photo exhibits connected with the expo. Then back to the Marais, lugging our suitcases to Gare de Lyon and the trip home.

Paris is always thrilling but I like our little village.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Picture is worth...

Add to Google Reader or HomepageThanks to Betty for sharing her pictures with us including this collage.



Monday, November 15, 2010

Strikes in France

cAdd to Google Reader or HomepageWhen John et al. were here, we had conversations about the French strikes, French lifestyle and the meaning of life (which usually means having had too much wine). We talked about the frustration (for Americans) of ordering a coffee and then spending the next 30 minutes trying to get the attention of the waiter to bring the bill so that we could pay it and leave. In Vaison la Romaine unlike most restaurants in the states, there is absolutely no pressure to “turn a table,” so you can sit at the café as long as you want. This is antithetical to Americans who want to keep a schedule and are frustrated that their commitment to a schedule is not shared by their French wait staff. Life moves along more slowly in France. In France, most stores are closed between noon and 2:30 PM for lunch. In the US, lunch “hours” are rarely that – more often 30 minutes.

As we discussed the differences, Arleen, who has collected data on the millennial generation, told us about the different approach to life and work of the new American workforce. Her comparisons between our generation and the millennial generation reminded me of the old Japanese film “Woman in the Dunes” in which the protagonist asks: “Do we live to shovel sand or do we shovel sand to live?” (The answer for the millennial generation is: ‘We will work – and we will be productive while multi-tasking while working – if it doesn’t interfere with life.’)

The question in “Woman in the Dunes” is, of course, a parable of life anywhere but Americans of my generation view work as life-defining whereas it seems that the French view work as a means to support their lifestyles.

These are very essential differences. Americans celebrate individualism and believe that everyone can become a success if one works hard enough. The French prefer looking at life as “the tide raises all boats” and work to keep the tide rising. Even though times have changed, the differences between individualism and the collective provided an insight for me as to why the French put up with daily life-crippling strikes and demonstrations. The French believe that collectively they have the capacity to develop surprisingly strong and demonstrative changes through strikes and demonstrations. On the down side, it also appears that at the individual level, there are some who use this “collective umbrella” to manifest personal discontent through vandalism such as breaking car windows, setting fires, etc.

The strikes and demonstrations across France have mostly ended but friends in the states remain concerned about how safe it is in France. From my narrow view of the world, the strikes and demonstrations were never a threat to our safety. True, there were a few violent incidents that attracted a lot of press coverage. Unfortunately, the press picked up on these incidents and made the focus of the stories about violence. In reality, people across France were angry but showed their anger in peaceful demonstrations and strikes. The unions managed the strikes and demonstrations so that they had the maximum impact without violence or injury. Two years ago, the president of France had dismissed strikes as unimportant and of no consequence. Désormais, quand il y a une grève en France, plus personne ne s'en aperçoit", s'était amusé Nicolas Sarkozy le 6 juillet 2008 devant des militants UMP (Le Monde, 5 novembre 2010).

The French people participated in and/or supported the strikes because they were upset not only about the plan to change the age of retirement eligibility; they were equally angry about how the Sarkozy-led government has changed national policies, leaving French low and middle class people exasperated by increasing inequalities with the upper classes in taxes, salaries and employment as well as by Sarkozy’s nepotism scandal. (Even teenagers have demonstrated against the new retirement rules, something about which teens usually don’t think until they are in the workforce.)

Our friend sent me a wonderful description of her perspective on the strikes. I have included much of what she wrote because I think that she does a good job of describing the situation. (I have also shown this to a few French friends to be sure that I was not guilty of “disinformation” à la Reagan administration.)

“The media coverage has been a bit simplistic and overly dramatic. Our daily lives have been unaffected by the strikes and the political turmoil. We have to go out of our way to see a demonstration, and we have not seen any violence. My husband takes the metro to his French classes and his commute has not been disturbed at all. There were some problems with garbage pickup in Marseille and other cities. There have been a few travel delays on trains, but that seems to be over. I think that some teenagers burned a car in a suburb of Paris. That footage has played over and over making it look like the city is on fire. There is real frustration among many segments of the society, and the strikes give people an opportunity to voice that frustration. 

“There has also been coverage of the long lines at the gas stations.  Refinery workers and some truck drivers were on strike, but that is over.  We rented a car for four days to drive to Alsace, and the longest we waited in line for gasoline was about five minutes.  An innkeeper in Alsace told me that the exaggerated media coverage had hurt his business because clients from Germany or Belgium saw the news and think that France is in a civil war.

“The media also make it sound like the “lazy” French don't want to work past 60. The age to get the minimum retirement benefits will be raised from 60 to 62. That is like me taking my Social Security at 62, and not getting full benefits. The age for full benefits has been raised from 65 to 67. The number that I find to be truly amazing is that now in France one must work for 41 years to qualify for full government benefits. I know a lot of Americans that take their Social Security that have not worked for 41 years. If a doctor manages to finish his or her training and begin to work by age 29, he or she would have to work to age 70 to get full pension benefits. Of course, people who earn middle to high incomes can invest in private retirement funds, but many people cannot afford to do that.

“The unemployment rate in France has been between 8% and 10.5% for decades.  Just as in the US, unemployment tends to hit the youngest and the oldest workers the most, as well as workers in certain industries.  The lower-paid workers, who cannot afford a private pension, may lose out on full government benefits due to extended periods of unemployment.  A worker who is laid off or down-sized after age 50 does not have a good chance of finding another full-time job and may never be able to log 41 years of work.

“Due to some tax policies 20 to 30 years ago that encouraged people to have a third child, France is one of the few developed countries that has enough young people of working age to support the retirement system.  With a high rate of unemployment, many of those younger people cannot find work until the older workers retire.”

The major protests are over. The French Senate approved the Sarkozy plan to change retirement ages as proposed.  President Sarkozy signed the bill into law on November 10, 2010. The Left has pledged to continue the pressure against what many in France consider their birthright. (In 1982, the Mitterand government established the retirement age at 60.) The Left will focus their demonstrations and strikes on generating the sentiments necessary to overthrow the Sarkozy government in 2012 and reverse the policy.

I thought the differences between France and the US were significant but then I read the press release on the “deficit-reduction committee” recommendations. It seems as if “equality” gets trumped (again!) by liberty. The Americans and the French have similar items on the national agenda. The difference is that the French plan to use collective action to do something about it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Friends

Our friends have left Vaison la Romaine and returned to the states. Betty and Cecilia left for Paris on Wednesday and John and Arleen left on Friday. Despite too many rainy days, it was a wonderful visit and a lot of fun to meet the friends of our friends and to enjoy time with the four of them. During our time in Provence, we have been making our way in our village meeting new people and finding new/shared interests. It was wonderful having the chance to meet John’s and Arleen’s friends and getting to know more people that we want to have on the “BFF” list.

If laughter is the best medicine, we should be healthy for quite a while. We had so many laugh out loud moments from sharing stories and experiences. A lot of laughs came from stories of our friends and their missteps in the dance of French culture. (In their defense, they did run into a few folks who should be in counseling for career change.)

I guess most Americans have asked/been asked the following as we clumsily trip our way through a foreign culture:

  • Why should one have to ask to have butter on the tablein a restaurant?
  •  Why is coffee often served tepid?
  •  Why do the French drive so fast? Once they get to the café where they are headed, they will sit there for an hour after they have finished their coffee waiting for the waiter to offer to bring the bill.
  • Why do they permit trucks on two-lane roads when the truck takes up one and a half lanes?
  •  If you want to have a coffee with cream after 9:00 AM, does it mean that you expect to get a croissant with it?
  •  Will people who you know expect three “air kisses” every time you see them?
  •  Where can you get “coffee to go” in Vaison la Romaine? (Why would you want “coffee to go” in Vaison la Romaine?)
  •  Why can you find only an “eastern style” toilet when you are pressed for time?
  •  How can such “cute” (Monopoly-like) currency be worth one and ½ times US currency?
  •  Why do most French dictionaries not include words found on menus?
  •  Why are there two flush buttons on the top of the toilet?
  •  Why does one ask “Ou sont les toilettes” (where are the toilets) when you need only one?
  •  How many different kinds of a single cheese are there? In Lansing, we consider ourselves lucky to find Comte or Roquefort. Don’t confuse us with multiple choices of each.
  •  Do shopkeepers actually spend 2 ½ hours eating lunch? (In a more American-style question: Do the French need to have a 2 ½ lunch period?)
  •  What makes the metric system so special?
  •  Are shop clerks going to expect me to say “Bonjour, Madame” and “Au revoir, Madame” every time I enter/leave a shop?
  •  Is it the sum of these questions and similar questions that makes another culture intriguing and charming?
Eat some chocolate!

Too bad our guests had to leave before this weekend. There was a wine and chocolate festival at the Rasteau wine cooperative. John would have been especially pleased. (It is he who ends his answering machine salutation with “Eat some chocolate!”) The cooperative was offering wine and chocolate pairings. There were three chocolatiers (chocolate artisans) from the area offering samples and selling their art. In the wine tasting room, I heard them promoting vin doux de Rasteau (sweet wine from Rasteau) to go with the chocolates but I prefer deep, dry red wines – the ones that make you think of chocolate as you sniff the aroma or sip the wine. Red wine and dark chocolate: it doesn’t get much better than this! – and John is right: “Eat some chocolate!”Add to Google Reader or Homepage

Friday, October 29, 2010

Another half-year in Provence

Add to Google Reader or HomepageLeaving Lansing was bittersweet. I was ready to leave but we had so much fun at the gatherings of friends prior to our departure. I was happy to see that our deerhounds continue to defy the odds and live on but also know that they really are not immortal… On the other hand, we left the dogs in the care of two wonderful folks who will give them more attention than they deserve.

Alors, it’s back in France for another six months. The strikes and demonstrations did little to prevent our return. We are now comfortably settled in our village of Vaison la Romaine and enjoying the company of wonderful American friends John and Arleen and their friends Betty and Cecilia. It has been cooler than I remember from years past but on sunny days, the beauty of Provence shines through (and the temperature climbs to the 70s.)

Friends were really concerned about our return because of the strikes. They had seen photos in the American papers of burning automobiles and angry demonstrators and expressed concerns about our safety. While the strikes were frequent and included interrupting public transportation, we were lucky enough to arrive without a hitch. Our friends reported similar successes in coming from the states (though John and Arleen did have to wait several hours in Frankfurt after a flight was cancelled because of fog.)

From my perspective, the strikes and demonstrations in France are “le pipi du chat” (small potatoes) compared to the machinations going on with the mid-term elections in the United States. From what closet did all of these crazies emerge? – One of Ellen’s regrets about returning to France was that we were going to miss the John Stewart/Stephen Colbert rallies in Washington this weekend. I can think of no other time in my life’s history when the distinctions between equality and liberty have been so clear and so far apart. – and I used to think that Halloween was scary!

At times like these, one finds security in things that don’t change.

  • ·   Our apartment is just as small as when we left – but feels like there is more space.
  • ·   The village is about to begin the renovations to Place Monfort – just as they were about to begin when we left.
  • ·   Our friends here appear the same – maybe happier – or may be it is I who am happier to see them?
  • ·   I recognize a bunch of kids at the crèche. Some of the older kids must have not been old enough to move to Ecole Maternelle.
  • ·   Our French class is again on Thursday and again taught by the wonderful Mme Paris.
  • ·   The village workers have begun pruning the plane (sycamore) trees by cutting all of the branches that have leaves back to a knarly stub of a main branch.
  • ·   The bakeries have not forgotten how to make baguettes – though there was not one to be found on Wednesday afternoon…
  • ·   Mont Ventoux appeared to have snow on it – though it was just being as “bald” as usual.
  • ·   The church bells that ring hourly still start ringing five minutes before the hour.
  • ·   The vendors on market day have not changed their locations so I can still find the olive vendor that I like, the fruit vendor who sells the BEST pears, the cheese lady…
All in all, life returns to normal – and continues to be wonderful. It is good to be back!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wonderful Summer

Add to Google Reader or HomepageAfter my last post, some people told me that it seemed that I did not like being here and they wondered how I could endure a summer in the states. I must apologize to all who got that impression. While I do prefer to be in France, it does not mean that life here is without charm. I was trying to highlight differences in lifestyles and aspects of living that I like and the aspects that I don’t like whether here or in Vaison la Romaine.

From the day we arrived here (and learned that our good neighbors had planned a welcome home party at our house) to today, it has been a fun-filled summer.  As I reread this, I guess that fun and friends go together in any location but which sentence describes it best:  Home is where the heart is.” or “Love the one you’re with.”?

·   We live on the most neighborly street in the best neighborhood in Lansing – possibly the best neighborhood in the US. People who live on our block enjoy making others feel welcome and appreciated.
·   We got to show Phil and Margaret (from Vaison la Romaine) some of the sites of Michigan.
·   We traveled through five states when Tish was with us and then returned to eastern PA for a reunion with my sisters. I had forgotten how beautiful Pennsylvania is.
·   We were invited to a “BFF” dinner at Brian’s and Ken’s house where alums of Patricia Wells’ cooking school met for a weekend in Lansing and prepared an absolutely wonderful meal.
·   We got to see Mark & Dan (more below) and Jeff & Lynn in Portland. We also enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Francophiles Susan and Alain in Ann Arbor.
·   Jim and Taffy stopped on their way to Beaver Island. Karen stopped on her return to Chicago.
·   We spent an afternoon with Nancy who was in Lansing to attend a business meeting and confirmed that “it is we.”
·   Linda invited me to speak at her training class for child care directors (more below).
·   John and Arleen visited from CO and during their visit we had a wonderful meal with Sue & Jerry and Marge & Charlie.
·   We saw Marge & Charlie numerous times here and in St. Joe as well as Olga & Blair at Gull Lake.
·   Denise (next door) gave me plants for my garden. As a result, we have enjoyed wonderful tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and herbs for the past two months.
·   We haven’t yet seen MB (Embay) but laughed through most of the summer about the way that she “scored the slices of eggplants” (Patricia Wells’ recipe for baked eggplants and tomatoes). She sent a picture of a pan of eggplant slices with little flags on each slice and each flag had a score on it – “7”, “9, …

 What is it about friends and food that make gatherings fun?

When we were in Portland, Mark & Dan invited their friends to a dinner made from locally-grown products (from backyard gardens). We got to attend a nine-course meal that included fresh-from-the-garden items complemented with good wines, local protein and desserts from local fruits and dairy products. Since Dan and Mark were extending the invitation, it was clear that everyone bringing a dish knew that s/he had to step up to the level of cuisine one expects at the “Schmapp” household and, to my enjoyment, everyone did!

Since I volunteer at child care centers in both Vaison and Lansing, Linda had invited me to speak to her class about the similarities and differences between the US and France. In most categories the French are leading the way, though the child care directors were surprised at the adult/child ratios for Ecole Maternelle in France--one teacher to up to 25 kids! On the other hand, most of the teachers have degrees similar to our Masters degrees.

All in all, it has been a wonderful summer here in Lansing and parts east, west and south (no north yet). We are still harvesting and eating the vegetables and herbs from our garden but, better than the food, we have enjoyed time with friends, neighbors and siblings. So perhaps it’s true that home is where the heart is, and the heart is where there are friends.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Food

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe have been travelling this past month with Ellen’s sister Tish. In addition to enduring a lot of “windshield” time which can be very boring in the midwest, we have had some wonderful and some not-so-wonderful meals along the roads and routes of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

When we went to Bloomington, Illinois, I’m sure that when we turned south at Joliet, the scenery immediately became and remained corn fields all the way to Bloomington. I was trying to imagine what a farmer would do to occupy his mind while driving a tractor down a field and creating a row of corn that would be several miles long. – that is ONE row… Think about fields that are miles long by miles wide.

When we stop to eat or when we go out to eat, I prefer to eat at restaurants that are not franchised or part of national chains. I prefer the surprises of a locally-operated restaurant to the predictable, same-menu-in-Bloomington-as-in-Benton Harbor that one gets with franchise/chain restaurants. I admit that it is a small, albeit feeble stance against fast food restaurants. My major motivation is the life style for which I have been singing praises, i.e., local is better, more flavorful, less expensive, etc. And it is fun getting to know the people responsible for our foods – be they the farmers or the chefs.

In addition to the surprises of stopping at a local restaurant and having a wonderful meal, we stopped at a number of local restaurants where they apparently chose to replace quality with quantity. We got off of an interstate to stop at a local restaurant. The service was very friendly but the menu choices included only fried, deep-fried or salads. I chose a salad. The waitress wheeled over a serving cart and then hefted a bowl that was larger than the bowl we use at home to serve salad to four people. I started looking around the room and saw that everyone else in the dining room was served similarly-sized portions. If I had been able to eat half of the salad, the remaining portion would not have fit in a Styrofoam take-away box. (It would have fit in a computer packaging box.)

At another restaurant, Ellen ordered “the town’s favorite” called “The Horseshoe.” It was a grilled chicken breast on a piece of “Texas toast” covered with crinkle fries and then vast quantities of a melted cheese product.  Luckily, Ellen was able to choose a vegetable as a side dish–though she could have had more fries or chips or a cream-of-something soup. (The restaurant also had a smaller portion called “The Ponyshoe.”) The cheese reminded me of a Bill Bryson observation: “In America, there are only two kinds of cheese:  White and yellow.” By the way, neither the horseshoe nor the ponyshoe resembled what we put on a horse’s hoof or throw at a stake or nail above the entryway.

In America, people often ask for take-away boxes for the uneaten portion of their meals. Waiters are never surprised at the request. (It would be a very surprising request in France.) In fact, waiters often suggest take-away boxes to those who are eating too slowly or who have stopped, leaving large portions of the meal on the plate. Weight Watchers encourages the practice – though in most cases, Weight Watchers would suggest making three or four meals out of the quantities delivered as one dinner. Given the size of the meals served and the “clean your plate” mentality that most of us grew up with, it is no wonder that America is the most obese nation in the world.

Now that I am officially old, I can understand the attraction of a restaurant where you go for lunch and take home dinner as a bonus:  Two for one!  Never mind that the food will be as boring the second time as it was the first time.