Sunday, June 13, 2010

French food reduces homesickness

Add to Google Reader or HomepageIt has been a long month since our return. We have settled into our state-side routine plus ou moins (more or less). But the comfort of routine does not reduce homesickness. I miss our little apartment and the village in which it sits. I feel the same as our neighbor who wrote in an e-mail: ‘I look across the street at your apartment and wish you were there to turn on the lights.’ On the other hand, the deerhounds seem to be pleased that we have returned and the back of the house didn’t paint itself so there is plenty for me to do.

I still do most of the cooking but find that I don’t get as much help from the ingredients. The foods here don’t seem to have as much flavor as what I could buy in France.  We can get good wines from the Rhone valley but at about twice the price. In a parallel to Herbert Simon’s “satisficing,” we are living with adequate most of the time and good once in a while.


Last week, we had an invitation to eat at Brian’s house. He and several of his classmates from Patricia Wells’ cooking school had planned a reunion at Brian’s house. Brian called it a “Best Friends Forever” (BFF) reunion. He had napkins with “BFF” at each place setting. I thought of the five of them making the menu and then buying the ingredients and then cooking the meal and I thought they should be called the “Fab Five.” The “Fab Five” of cuisine planned a French menu for 20 or so of Brian’s and Ken’s friends and we were fortunate enough to be on the list. (Three of the women were able to come to the reunion, the fourth – who couldn’t come – sent French cheese. Ken stepped up to fill in for her.)

Ellen helped to recreate the menu:

·   Aperitif course:  asparagus quiche and paté served on the terrace (under the umbrella and awnings as it was raining)
·   Appetizer:  avocado and grapefruit slices in pistachio oil
·   Entree:  Thin-sliced beef Vietnamese style (recipe from Patricia Wells' recent class in Vietnam)
·   Plat:  lavender-spiced chicken thighs, green beans, and compote of onions & tomatoes
·   Cheese course:  selections too numerous to list but including Comté, several goat cheeses and others Fed-Exed to Brian from the BFF who could not come at the last moment
·   Dessert:  A salty caramel ice cream
·   Coffee
-          Nice wines to go with every course, of course.

Every course was memorable in its own right and memorable in that each course reminded me of good foods eaten in France. And oh so tasty! By the time the evening ended, I had been so transported by the excellent French-inspired food that I was speaking French (or maybe it was too much French wine???)

If excellent cuisine isn’t enough, we have discovered that Neva Austin is now making a wonderful baguette and selling it at her bakery called “Aggie Mae” at the Lansing City Market. Ellen has said that the baguette is almost as good as those that come from “Emile Bec” – considered by us as one of the best bakeries in Vaison la Romaine.

If I can’t be in France, at least I can sometimes eat as though I was there!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Sound of Silence

Add to Google Reader or HomepageIt was a beautiful Saturday, so I rode my bike to the City Market. Just as two Saturdays ago when I walked there, I was surprised that in the 15 or so blocks to the market, I saw very few people thus no voices, no cars, no motorbikes, no dogs. Just the breeze and me. I was struck by the silence. Downtown Lansing was pretty much uninhabited. Once at the market, I found a throng of people but it appears that most of them had arrived via automobile. We had a similar experience in PA when we visited Ellen’s brother and sister-in-law. Ever wonder why a relative by marriage has a “legal” designation (in-law) in America whereas the designation in French is “beautiful brother” or “beautiful sister” (beau-frère, belle-sœur)?Isn’t the French a whole lot friendlier?  After seeing the renovations that their son is making to his house, we decided to stop at a local restaurant or café for lunch. We stopped at or drove past five cafés before we found one that was open on a Saturday.  Conclusion: “downtown” small-city America is dying. It seems impossible for downtowns to compete with the large parking-lot destinations located in every direction – except downtown. This is not news. It just makes me wonder what it will take to rejuvenate our cities.

Contrast the “no one in sight” in Lansing with the village of Vaison la Romaine, where the downtown is open for business from 7:00 in the morning until the last café closes in the evening and filled with people throughout the day sitting in the cafés, walking or shopping for their daily baguette.

I love sitting on our veranda in Vaison and watching the day go by. Even though we do not live “downtown,” it is amazing to me how many people walk past our apartment building every day. cWhen I leave the apartment to go shopping or to go for a coffee or for a pichet de vin, I encounter people every step of the way.

I see Jacqueline who walks her dogs twice daily. There is the elderly woman who lives down the alley, and there is the mother of one of the kids at the crèche who has a shop. Once in “centre-ville,” there are folks everywhere. There are parents whom I have met when they come to the crèche to pick up their children. There are the merchants and shop keepers whom I see on a daily basis and who recognize me. There are the few “street people” – clean and quiet but always present. On sunny days, there are older men and women occupying every bench that has a southern exposure (and there are a lot of benches in town.)

One of the advantages of small-town Vaison la Romaine (population 7,000) vs. small-city Lansing (population 120,000) is that I see more people that know me or that I recognize or know in Vaison la Romaine than I do in Lansing. – and we have lived in Lansing almost 35 years!

Centre-ville Vaison is the destination of most residents. The stores are there and they provide the services and products that we need for daily life. When I walk through downtown Lansing, there are few businesses that could help me meet day-to-day living needs. There is a very good men’s store, a nut shop, a souvenir shop and a number of restaurants/cafés/bars several of which are not open on Saturday and most of which are closed Sunday.

Is a downtown vibrant because of the critical mass of people who live in the area or come to visit the shops or do people move to an area because of the products and services available (a.k.a., What came first, the chicken or the egg?) If I knew the answer, I could be a highly paid urban planning consultant. Maybe that was the role the pope played when he ordained the “market days” throughout Provence (Tuesday was ordained Vaison’s market day by the pope in the 16th century.) The Tuesday market in Vaison remains one of the best markets in Provence.