Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ill-tempered Clavier

Add to Google Reader or HomepageNote to self: laptop computers do not like red wine – not even if it is good red wine!

On Christmas Eve, some wine spilled on my laptop. I chose to use the Mexican “no fault” approach of explaining the accident thus without assigning guilt. I could have written the sentence with “I” or “he” or “she” as the subject, but what fun is that?

We worked to remove as much liquid as we could. On Monday morning, I stuffed my not-too-soggy laptop in my backpack and headed for the computer shop. Vaison la Romaine has three computer shops. One is always closed on Mondays and one does not do repairs on-site so I headed to “door # 3”, hoping the shop would be open.

The owner was there but he was not very encouraging as he turned on the laptop. The French rarely take a positive approach to anything. Rather than say that something is good, they will usually say that “it is not bad” but I wasn’t optimistic either. The machine groaned and beeped but slowly came back to life and, after about 10 minutes, the sign-in screen appeared.

At this point, the computer guy stepped away and asked me to type my password (mot de passe) and we discovered that not all of the keys were working. Some seemed to still be drunk and responding slowly. Others were completely passed out and no amount of encouragement could make them work. Computer guy plugged in a new keyboard and asked me to try again.

“Login failed” came up several times as I tried to follow the lettering on the French keyboard. He saw the problem and told me to type as if the keyboard was an American keyboard. Voila! It worked! I was not only able to see my desktop, everything seemed (seems) to be still working. I purchased the French “clavier” and said “Now I have another Christmas present! I get to learn how to type on a French keyboard! He smiled and said: “It could have been worse.”

The computer shop is a small, one-room place – maybe 12’ X 12’. There was a small desk and chair, shelves on three walls, a full-size copier, a small table (under which was a dog bed and his little dog). While I was there, three other clients came and went. One man just needed copies but joined the others in shaking his head and saying “dommage” (too bad!) as he learned from the others about my plight. We were all trying to stand out of the way as the computer guy pulled cables, opened CPUs, made copies, and moved about his tiny space. One person carrying an old CPU said how happy he was that the shop was open. Computer guy said that he had not planned to open. He had just come to the shop to get something and people started arriving.

The French “clavier” and the American keyboard are different. Ellen had read that they distinguish the two by the first line of letters (starting at the top left). The American keyboard layout is called “QWERTY” and the French layout for the clavier is “AZERTY.” Even if you didn’t have Miss Gilliland for typing class in high school, you can probably see that typing the letter “A” is going to be a problem (having switched places with the “Q”). And that is only the beginning.

Typing an “M” is no longer next to the “N” but has replaced the semi-colon. Typing a period requires using the Shift key. I guess the French want the writer/typist to think twice before ending a sentence. Then there are all of the keys for French accents…

The good news is that I still have a computer processor that works and I have a new keyboard/clavier! The bad news is that there is some truth to the expression “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and this old dog’s fingers are not adapting to this new keyboqrd very fqst.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Back in France

Add to Google Reader or HomepageReturning to France makes me smile. I smile at the changes I know are going to be part of our lives for the next six months.

The topography always strikes me first. Flying to Marseilles over the Mediterranean and seeing the small uninhabitable islands jutting out of the water. Then there is Marseilles and the backdrop of steep limestone hills. Along this section of the Mediterranean, the hills start at the water and climb as cliffs up to plateaus. You leave the airport and get on the autoroute heading north. The autoroute mostly follows the Rhone valley and minutes after leaving the congestion of Marseilles, one is surrounded by vineyards and farms and more vineyards. Olive trees, with their silver-green leaves, break up the scenery.

Blue sky, green pastures, blue/gray clay under the vines (the leaves are gone), limestone cliffs and the meandering Rhone river make a stunning tableau. Gorgeous. Conversely, I was struck by the amount of smoke pollution I noticed this time. Maybe living with little heavy industry in Lansing masks the amount of smoke pollution we make or see, but here, one sees smoke rising from all sorts of buildings both near and far.

People are enchanting to watch anytime and anywhere, but on the European side of the Atlantic, I am struck by how differently people look. You know you are “not in Kansas anymore.” Clothing, shoes, sacks/purses, hair styles, jewelry, even glasses frames are very different from the way we are used to seeing people in the US. If you see someone wearing “sweats,” s/he is likely an American. I don’t wear sweats, but the French seem to know that I am American. Is it something tattooed to my forehead like a Harry Potter scar that says "this one is not one of us"? Europeans not only look different, they speak differently (and look different when speaking.) I noted in a previous blog that the French seem to start words by forming their lips as if they were going to kiss. Americans form words from a smile. Germans and northern Europeans start their words with a frown.

Then there are the cars. Smaller, diesel, much more efficient and the diesel doesn’t stink! On the autoroute, if you are passed by a car going 150 km/h, it is likely going to be German-made. I guess that if you buy a Mercedes or a BMW, you are obliged to drive as if every road was the Autobahn.  I also smiled as we passed a sign announcing that there is a speed trap ahead where a camera will get a picture of your license plate if you are exceeding the speed limit. (How is it that they still catch speeders and issue tickets? – What part of “speed camera ahead” don’t people understand?)

I even had to smile on my first return to the grocery store where the shopping carts have four wheels that rotate (rather than only the two front wheels on shopping carts in the US). When you are in the grocery store and want to turn left, you can’t push on the handle and expect the fulcrum of the frame to assist, you must conscientiously turn ALL FOUR WHEELS so that you make the turn without running into the end-of-counter displays. On the other hand, you can easily move the cart left or right to get closer to the products or to get out of the way of another cart.

And the food! How I love the food! Two years ago, my sister-in-law and her husband were here and he wanted to have “fat-free half & half.” I told him that the French didn’t understand that concept. You can get skim milk, but when it comes to cream, the French LOVE their fat-filled creams and “crème fraiche” and cheeses… and, as we learned just last evening about cheese, it is not only where the cheese is produced, it is from which breed of cow…! (DeGaulle was right when he asked how anyone could govern a country that had more than 200 kinds of cheese.)

After the first level of slaps-upside-the-head reminding me that I am no longer in the US,  I begin to settle into the life of the village where people say “hello” as you walk by or as you enter their shops. And they stop their cars when you stand at the crosswalk… all the while thinking to themselves: “Who is this American and why is he smiling so much?”

Monday, September 12, 2011


Add to Google Reader or HomepageThis has been a summer to visit old friends. Starting with our nephew’s wedding in May, we have had the opportunity to see and spend time with family, former Peace Corps volunteers, my high school classmates and old friends.

In June, we went to the Boston area for a reunion of Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Chad. It is amazing that after 40 years, it was so easy to exchange ideas and news with fellow RPCVs. Many of the returned volunteers who were in Chad had served at times different from my years there, but the crucible called Peace Corps Chad created similar life experiences and memories. We had the good fortune of staying with a former Chad volunteer and her husband, so the whole weekend was filled with stories and news and a shared perspective on the world and world politics.

We drove to Pennsylvania to attend a class 65th birthday party. We got to see my classmates – some of whom had had the good fortune (misfortune?) of having me in their class for all 12 years of education in Sharpsville. It was fun to exchange stories and reminiscences and, as at the Peace Corps reunion, the only problem was that there was not enough time to talk with everyone or as long as desired. At one point, I thought: “My, are these folks old!” – and then I looked in a mirror and realized that I fit in perfectly. Returning to one’s birthplace can evoke a variety of feelings. Mostly, it felt odd. For instance, when we went shopping, I looked carefully at every person I saw expecting that I would recognize him or her (didn’t happen).

We stayed with Lynne and Harold; Lynne is one of my oldest friends (though she is five months younger than I am). Lynne grew up only one block away from my parents’ house.

Harold and Lynne at "Falling Water
I was able to walk around the old neighborhood and note the changes and similarities. As a test of memory, I tried to list the names of the neighbors to whom I had delivered newspapers when I was a teen. (The long-term memory works!) My parents’ house looks the same though the trees in the front yard – including the spruce that we used to jump over – are now mature/out of control. At the end of our street is a huge park that was created by the Buhl family. The “casino” is still there and recently renovated. (The casino was the place to go for summer dances when we were in high school. With a pond bordering two sides of the casino, it was such a romantic place to dance to “Sherry” by Frankie Valli, songs by the Shirelles and other sounds of the ‘60’s.) As teens, the Casino was also the place to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate in the winter after spending hours skating on the frozen pond. The walking trails are in good shape and the pool – the place where I spent most of my summer days – is still operating and very popular. Lynne and I shared memories of favorite and not-so-favorite teachers and how they had an impact on who we became. We had fun remembering teachers and their foibles. Lynne’s recollections were more academic/more substantive than mine though she was sure that the school had not provided a career advisor to female students. (The student advisor for the boys was the football coach. The student advisor for girls was the girls’ basketball coach.)

I got to talk with a woman from my high school class who also writes a blog, It is called: “Yo Jo What’s for Dinner?” at Jo’s blog is about menus and great recipes she learned while in Italy. (I wonder if Miss Sarcinella ever thought that some of her journalism students would become writers.)

We spent Labor Day weekend with my sisters in Philadelphia. Great conversations, reminiscences, wonderful food, French wine (mostly) – it doesn’t get much better than that.

People always want to know: 1) why we chose to go to France and 2) what are the most striking differences between the two places. The answers to both questions are the people. We have wonderful friends here – many of whom have been friends for our lifetimes. We have made wonderful friends in France – many of whom seem to have been our friends for our lifetimes. As here, the inhabitants are the embodiment of the customs and language which ARE different. The best part is that we find that kindness and the joy of humanity are universal.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Another glass, PLEASE!

Add to Google Reader or HomepageLast night, we were talking about wine and when it is necessary to decant it. (The “we” included Karlice who came to visit and to see Tish before she leaves for Cairo on Sunday – now, both of my belle soeurs are here!)

In general, most red wine is improved by opening the bottle 20-30 minutes before pouring. (I think that counting to a hundred by fives is ample time…though you might count faster than I do.) You have undoubtedly seen people swirl wine from a newly-opened bottle in their glasses. They are doing that to let more air interact with the wine. Wine changes – opens up – when the air starts to mix with the liquid.

Some red wines should be decanted. Older red wines should be decanted slowly to reduce/prevent the sediments from ending up in one’s glass. Red wines that have a lot of tannin should be decanted. (Tannins are the chemical compounds in wine that make your mouth pucker and make you feel like you should go brush your teeth.) When we were tasting wine at Domaine de Beaurenard wine museum (, Catherine, who manages the tasting room, told us to decant a young, tannic wine brutalement –  which is French for ‘turn the bottle upside down and let it splash into the decanter.’

Using the same picture of Catherine again... At least she is photogenic!
One vintner told us that he opens his red wine in the morning and then it is perfect when he serves it with dinner that evening. I don’t know whether I have that much foresight, so I will stick to counting to a hundred by fives…

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Reading

Add to Google Reader or HomepageIt has been over a month since my last post. House projects and television seem to have taken up way too much of my time. – I am the boob who watches the tube… although it has been fun watching the “Tour de France.” (Congratulations to Cadel Evans; the first Australian to win the Tour de France.)

I have also been reading The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. My sister-in-law bought me the book for my birthday and it has been fun reading about the Americans who went to Paris in the early 1800’s to learn/improve their skills at the center of art and medicine. (I know I am being redundant but must say again that I admire the French expression for relative-by-law. I think belle soeur – beautiful sister – is so much more friendly than our legal term.) But I digress…

David McCullough is a great writer. He weaves together the stories of so many famous, adventurous Americans from their correspondence with families and friends in the states and historical events. He writes about artists, writers, architects and doctors including the artist Samuel Morse (also of Morse code fame.) I have been struck by the adventurous nature of these men and women and by the beautiful style of their writing.

I was also struck by his references to Democracy in America by Alexis deTocqueville which the author described “as clear-eyed and valuable a study of America as any yet published…” To me, the most striking observation that deTocqueville wrote was about education: “the originality of American civilization was most clearly apparent in the provisions for public education.”

Given what appear to be the prevalent attitudes and direction of our country, I am guessing that a 21st century deTocqueville would now say that America has lost its compass because it has cut its investment in education. We expect our teachers to do more while cutting their salaries, their benefits, their classroom resources. Then we blame the teachers for the failures of the schools. What is wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Add to Google Reader or HomepageIn addition to the semi-annual exercise of realizing that “we’re not in Kansas anymore”[i] and we have to adjust our lives and life style, I was awakened the other morning by a train whistle. Trains crisscross Lansing on a regular basis and one can hear train whistles as the trains cross roadways.

Since France has invested in a high-speed rail system where the trains never have to cross a roadway, one rarely hears a train whistle in France. (Vaison la Romaine is not a village with rail service.) In fact, the trains use quiet, electric motors and thus are so quiet, the sound they make is “whoosh” as they speed by. Probably the loudest sound connected with passenger trains is the conductor’s whistle as s/he signals that the train doors are closing. French trains are quite a contrast with the US where the automobile reigns and trains must traverse roads on a regular basis. Even if the US rail system could handle high speed trains, the engineers would still need to maintain lower speeds to reduce risks at railroad crossings.

Given the location of our house, we can hear the vehicular traffic on the expressway that cuts through Lansing just a few blocks from here. There is a constant drone from the interstate. Over the years of walking our dogs in the evening, I have noted that the drone disappears on Sunday evening. I guess Sunday evening television is so good people get home early to watch their favorite programs.

In our village in Provence, one hears the local traffic – often moving too fast – and the annoying sound of motorbikes with two-stroke engines. The motorbikes sound like chainsaws and the teens who ride them love to race everywhere.

In Vaison la Romaine, we are serenaded by a rooster who takes his role very seriously. Starting at 5:00 AM (in the spring), the rooster announces the arrival of a new day and then spends the rest of the day crowing about the success of his prediction. Lansing has passed an ordinance permitting residents to have hens, not roosters. While in France, every time I am awakened by the rooster, I try to go back to sleep by listing the ingredients that go into “Coq au Vin.”

When I volunteer at the crèche, the kids enjoy pointing out jets, planes and helicopters as they fly overhead. Here in the states, if we notice air traffic, it is almost a subconscious awareness. In Vaison, we regularly hear and see the French Air Force jets as they fly by (low and fast) in an eight-jet formation. (The sorties seem less frequent now. My guess is that several of the jets/pilots have been ordered to Libya.)  

I miss the happy screams (or crying) of kids at the crèche on our street in Lansing. The closest child care is about five blocks away and the two toddlers who live in the neighborhood are happy, secure kids who are just beginning to talk, so they are very quiet. I miss hearing one of the teachers at the crèche telling Gaston (not his real name) to go to “time-out.” He spends so much time in “time-out” that it seems that he spends his time there thinking about his next transgression rather than reflecting on why he had to go to “time-out.”

The Rhone Valley from Chateauneuf du Pape
We have had a few severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings recently in Lansing. These weather events usually include high winds but they occur much less frequently than the Mistral winds of Provence. The Mistral blows from the north and brings dry air as it races down the Rhone Valley as it heads to the Camargue on the Mediterranean coast. Vaison la Romaine is situated among several high hills and does not get the full brunt of the wind but our friend Beth who lives at the very edge of the Rhone Valley has said that a person who committed a heinous crime would be able to claim that he temporarily lost his mind due to the Mistral because the winds are so forceful and so constant, it can drive one crazy!

[i] Wizard of Oz, 1939

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Add to Google Reader or HomepageWow, it has been about six weeks since my last blog entry. In that six weeks,  Sarah Palin has provided a new interpretation of Paul Revere’s role in American history, a Congressman has added his name (and body part image) to the list of notables on the “What could he have been thinking?!” list, and our Michigan governor gave a big tax break ($1.3 billion) to businesses at the expense of low-income residents and senior citizens’ retirement incomes (read “ours”).

I am honored that people read and comment on my blog entries – some even comment on the frequency (or lack thereof), reminding me that it is time for another entry.

Life goes on and may be spinning out of control but our focus has been on nesting: recreating our space at our US home. Our wonderful tenants and dog caretakers have moved out and we are making the house ours once again. Though all was well-cared-for in our absence, for the past three weeks we have been cleaning, reorganizing cabinets, adjusting furniture, as well as adjusting ourselves to the switch from one culture to the other. It is a gentle hit-upside-the-head reminder that perceptions and values are very different when comparing France to the US—and vice versa.

Before leaving France, we hosted our good friends Marge and Charley, showing them some “new finds” since the last time they were in Vaison la Romaine together in 2007. Since they were hard at work setting up our newly-acquired apartment on their last working visit, we were determined to eat well, taste/drink the wonderful wines of the Côtes du Rhône and generally enjoy spring in Provence. Mission accomplished!

Our friends in France gave us great send-offs and we enjoyed two end-of-year class parties with our two French language study groups. A bittersweet aspect of our class parties was saying goodbye and merci bien to our devoted and talented professor, Michelle Paris, who is retiring from her volunteer teaching commitment after nearly ten years. How fortunate we were to have her for our first three half-years in Vaison! 

Spring was beautiful with vines covered with green leaves and orchards already producing cherries and flowers everywhere. Ellen was so pleased to enjoy the early spring in Provence and the spring in Michigan after our return that she doesn’t think of it all the time as suffering through allergy season twice! She and Charley could commiserate through their sneezes and runny eyes over a soothing glass of wine.

With spring, Catherine reopens the Musée du Vigneron, located between Roaix and Rasteau, where one can see a vast collection of ancient winemaking implements and old vines that tell the history of winemaking. The winemaking family of Domaine de Beaurenard has been in business since the 17th century and their family collection shows vividly the tools and methods used over the years. An audio tour available in several languages, including English, enables understanding. And what is not to like about having their success illustrated by tasting and enjoying the fine wines of Domaine de Beaurenard! Their Chateauneuf du Pape and Côtes du Rhône Village Rasteau are award winning wines—and we like them, too..

Only one day after our return to the US, we travelled to PA for Ellen’s nephew Will’s wedding to his dear Deanna. Since our return to Lansing we have hosted a US reunion visit from Marge & Charley and also enjoyed a long-overdue visit from our friends Ellen & Bob and their now adult son Jeremy. We last saw Jeremy when he was about 10 years old so it was a treat to again meet this recent Yale grad on his way to a Ph.D. program at the U of Michigan in the fall. One of the pleasures of being at home in Lansing is that it offers us space to entertain and to have visiting friends stay overnight with us. On the other hand, I love that I can clean our whole apartment in Vaison la Romaine while practically standing in one spot (as per Dan S.)! It could be said that we enjoy the best of both worlds, couldn’t it?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Oregon Visitors

Mark and Dan in Portland
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Dan & Mark, Brian and Steve visited us during their European tour of Amsterdam, Prague, Vaison la Romaine and Paris.

Dan & Mark were our next-door neighbors in Lansing until they moved to Portland, OR. When they lived next door, there was a path on which no grass could survive between their back door and ours. They are still BFF and it was so much fun having them here/hosting their time in Provence. Long-time blog readers may remember that I want to write with as much humor as Mark and to cook as creatively as Dan (and I haven’t accomplished either.)

Since they missed the Vaison market, we went to the market in Carpentras on Friday. It is a sprawling market but seemed to be dominated by textile booths rather than food booths. I like the Vaison market better (showing my chauvinism).

On the way back from Carpentras, we stopped at the village of Le Barroux and toured the castle built in the 12th century for the “Seigneur” – is that a bishop or higher? Or lower? The village is also the home of the Benedictine monastery Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine de Barroux) (

Whenever we are with Mark and Dan, food and wine are important parts of the agenda. We ate very well – Dan prepared a wonderful roast of lamb, fingerling potatoes and asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. I made my stalwarts: spinach pie and, on Saturday evening, lasagna (with layers of zucchini.)

So many wines, so little time

We went wine tasting at “Vieux Clocher” in Vacqueyras. Vieux Clocher is a winery that has been family-owned since 1717. We like it because they put good wine in a bag-in-box (“BIB” in French). Next stop was Gigondas and the Caveau du Gigondas which is temporarily located under the Post Office while the permanent shop and the surrounding buildings get updated. ( Last stop and “la piece de resistance” was the Wine Museum in Rasteau. The wine museum was created by Paul Coulon. His family has vineyards in Chateauneuf du Pape and in Rasteau ( The Wine Museum and tasting room are run by a wonderful woman named Catherine who is extremely knowledgeable about wines and wine making. She is so engaging that we spent almost two hours in the tasting room and none of us realized that we had been there so long. Maybe, it was the sparkle in her eyes… We followed the prescribed process: start with light and progress to heavy. We tasted some wonderful whites, some great reds and some super Chateauneuf du Pape wines.  

Before leaving for Paris, we had dinner at our neighbor’s house. She had also invited Phil and Margaret and their daughter. As we sat on the balcony as the sun set, Mark commented on how perfect the visit was: the weather, the food, the wine and, of course, the friendship. He asked: “What could make this more perfect?” and then, almost as if on a movie set, the full moon appeared. “Cue the moon!...”

The next morning, the four young men left for Paris and left us to recover. As Ellen said, “You realize how old you are when you try to keep up with those who are half your age.”

ChezSullivan meets “Our House in Provence

I have been following a blog written by an American from California who has a house in Sablet (just 10 km from here). You can read his blog at: I have been following it for two years and like Michel Augsburger’s stories and reports on local restaurants. He found my site and we have traded comments for the past two years. I finally met Michel at the Vaison market last Tuesday. I heard someone speaking American English behind me, turned and recognized him from his blog photos. – you gotta love small towns!

BTW, I wrote about Carpentras, Vacqueyras and Gigondas as villages that we visited. Locals know that when you say “Carpentras”, you don’t pronounce the “s” but you do when you say Gigondas and Vacqueyras. The three towns are located almost next to each other but the pronunciation differs. I think it is a plan to keep Americans confused while we are here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe have been watching for spring since the beginning of February. When Ellen was at the Institut de Français in Villefranche sur mer, hints of spring were already evident. The almond trees with their pinkish-white (or whitish-pink blossoms) were first to welcome the sun. Then, being close to the Mediterranean, the mimosas bloomed and there were hillsides covered with the yellow mimosa blossoms.

I once heard that spring travels north at a rate of 50 miles per week. It has been six weeks since Ellen left Villefranche sur mer so we have had the time to see the same hints of spring pass us here and see the real thing arrive. New leaves are coming out on the deciduous trees and the blossoms are on the fruit trees (cherry and apricot). The temperatures have hit 20 Celsius (about 70°) for the last couple of days and we have not had a frost since the Ides of March.

Another, man-made sign of spring is that the grape vines have been pruned and are ready for a new season of buds and branches to fill in with grapes. Between November and the end of the frost season, vintners and their helpers go into the vineyards are cut back all of the branches that produced grapes the previous summer. As winter progresses, one can see more and more fields of pruned grape vines. One vintner explained that they cut back all of the branches but leave enough so that the roots can produce another four to six buds. As these develop during the spring and early summer, the workers go back into the fields and remove half of the new growth thus concentrating the flow of earthly riches to a few remaining branches. This gives the wines more body and thus flavor.

Although folks sit outside in the café all winter long, the café terraces are now filled with people enjoying their coffee or glass of wine (or pastis) as they enjoy spring and watch the world walk by. We are off to join them!  Wave if you walk by, better yet, come and join us!

BTW, since we just celebrated April Fool’s day (my favorite day) I wanted you to know that it is celebrated in France as “Poisson d’avril” (Fish of April) when the French try to attach a paper fish to one’s back. Although the original celebration of fool’s day did not come from France, it has been celebrated here since the 1500s.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Visitors and Visits

  Add to Google Reader or HomepageEllen returned from Villefranche sur mer and the Institut de Français with a much higher fluency but had little occasion to practice her new skills as we hosted English-speaking visitors for the next two weeks. Last week was the reverse: we visited long-time (30+ years) French friends in Biarritz and Ellen spent most of the weekend speaking French.

We got to enjoy a visit from Lansing friends Dusty and Tim. It is always fun showing the sights and tastes we enjoy to people who appreciate them as well. We walked, visited villages, tasted wines and ate well. They both appreciate the good wines of the Rhone Valley so we get along well.

We barely had time to get the laundry done before Marie arrived from Tokyo. In Fall 2007 she spent a semester at Michigan State University. We were sort of “house parents” as Marie and another Japanese student spent weekends at our house. Marie was taking her last big trip before beginning her post-university career in Tokyo.
Marie wanted to see Arles and to see a little of the area where Van Gogh (pronounced Van Gockh in French) lived and painted. Margaret and Phil joined us and the five of us had a wonderful day walking around the city of Arles. It was market day, so there was a lot going on. We went to the site where Van Gogh painted “Starry Nights” and then to the street where he lived and then to the hospital where he stayed. Later in the week of her stay with us, Marie used all of the spices she had brought with her from Tokyo to treat us to a home-prepared Japanese curry. We also enjoyed fruit-flavored jellies and jellied chestnut treats as desserts.

Early Tuesday morning we took Marie back to Avignon to catch the 7:47 train to Paris--the same train that Dusty and Tim and MB had taken earlier. (It is a perfect connection for travelers as it goes directly to Charles de Gaulle airport and it allows us old retirees to get up long before dawn to get folks to the train station. Since Marie’s suitcase was so heavy, I bent the train service rules and helped her carry it to the baggage rack on the upper level of the train where her seat was located. As I was coming down the steps, I heard the conductor’s whistle and saw the doors starting to close. I raced to just barely squeeze my way through the closing doors and off the train. As my second foot hit the platform, the train started moving. The French mean business with their schedules!

A few days later we were with our friends Daniel and Irene at their new old apartment in Biarritz. We had visited them at their retirement home in Auch about five years ago, a home which was part of an old convent. In Biarritz Irene was fortunate to find an apartment in one of the historic houses of the city. They are close both to the center of town and to the sea. It was a fun drive there with Margaret and Phil as we saw a fascinating Cathar memorial along the way and then drove along the autoroute paralleling the Pyrenees. The memorial describes a 13th century crusade to the center of France ordered by the Pope to wipe out the non-Catholic Cathars.  
The architecture is interesting in Biarritz in that the houses look like they might have come from a Swiss village but this is, in fact, Basque style.

The Atlantic Ocean was warm enough for some people to be bathing. (The surfers were wearing wet suits but two young women were swimming wearing nothing.) 

On Saturday we drove to San Sebastian in Spain to see a highly-contested rugby match between Biarritz and neighboring Bayonne. The contest has so many followers that neither the stadium at Biarritz nor the one in Bayonne could accommodate the crowds (30,000). It was my first rugby match and was a lot of fun. I was fortunate to have Daniel, a big rugby fan, as my guide. While Daniel and I used our much-sought-after tickets to attend the match, Ellen and Irene went on a walking tour of the old city. 

On Sunday, we visited the lovely old village of St. Jean de Luz, where we toured the town and walked along the coast, in the same place where Louis XIV was married in 1660 to the young Marie Therese of Spain. It was another gorgeous day in the south of France, experiencing a historic spot in France that has a history preceding the birth of our young USA.

Another great experience in the south of France.

Friday, March 11, 2011

All Aboard!

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During Ellen’s month in Villefranche-sur-mer, I took the train for two of my weekend visits. I have written about trains in France before and despite the glitch with printing tickets in November, I want to underscore how impressed I am with train travel in France.

The cars are clean and quiet. The trains are superfast and one can set one’s watch by the train schedules. I used to purchase my tickets on line this time. Being retired has its advantages. I was able to pick my travel times (having discovered that the cost of a trip is based on three th ings: the destination, the time of day one travels and the date of purchase. (Ticket prices increase as one approaches the travel dates.) If I had purchased a senior pass, I could have saved an additional 20-25%.

The one aspect of train travel in France that I still don’t understand is the need to “composter” (time stamp) the ticket.c There are several waist-high yellow time-stamp machines located in every train station waiting area and everyone must take the ticket and get a time stamp. I don’t understand the logic behind the machines. But, if you take your assigned seat and are traveling to the destination named on the ticket but did not time-stamp your ticket, the conductor will reprimand you. (Having been reprimanded several times, I began to wonder why I needed this date-stamp. I was clearly on the train and in my assigned seat and going to the destination written on the ticket. What then does this additional procedure serve?) I have no idea but now am diligent about “composter” my ticket (so that the conductor - who was probably a nun in a former life - does not make me feel like I am seven years old again.)

Going to visit Ellen twice by train permitted me to get a sense of traveling by train in France. From Avignon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence: 30 minutes. From Marseille or Aix-en-Provence to Nice: 3 hours (stopping at Toulon, Cannes, Draguignon, St. Tropez, Antibes before arriving in Nice. There were places where the train ran along the Mediterranean with beautiful vistas (when it wasn’t raining).

The train travel was great but the goal was to get to Villefranche-sur-mer and to see Ellen. When Ellen had finished her month at L’Institut de Français (, our neighbor Jane drove to Villefranche-sur-mer with me to collect Ellen’s belongings and Ellen. We (Jane and I) spent the day visiting the Rothschild villa in St. Jean Cap Ferrat (

We had lunch at a café overlooking the bay and then went to Ellen’s graduation ceremonies.

Ellen made great progress in her spoken French. (She had always had good skills in written French.) The picture shows the Institut’s administrator announcing that Ellen would not be held back from passing to the next grade. Bravo Ellen!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

La vie d’un célibataire (life without a partner)

Add to Google Reader or HomepageHow do you make a 400 sq. ft. apartment seem too big? Live there alone.

Ellen is attending L’Institut de Français ( where she enrolled in a French immersion course in Villefranche sur mer. It is a one-month course that focuses on practical, oral French. L’Institut de Français is one of the premier/the premier French language school(s) in France. Villefranche sur mer is located just east of Nice – between Nice and Monaco on the Mediterranean coast. She has already completed two weeks at the Institut.

She has a beautiful view from her apartment though she doesn’t get to spend much time appreciating the view. The school opens for breakfast at 8:30 and then the students spend the next nine hours working on improving their French. With two weeks under her belt and two weeks to go, it is already obvious to me that it is having a positive impact on her ability to speak French. This past weekend, for example, Phil, Margaret and I went to visit her and when rain ruined all of our Sunday plans, Ellen worked on her homework (devoirs). We offered to help her but she wanted to get it right and to understand why, so she worked alone. (Meanwhile, Margaret, Phil and I tried to improve our French by correcting each other on subjunctive verbs, pronouns, etc. Not a day at the Carnivale in Nice nor the Lemon Festival in Menton, but we still had fun.)

I have visited Ellen on each weekend that she has been at the school. The first weekend, the Institut offered a walking tour of Villefranche sur mer. On Sunday, Ellen and I went to Nice. (The bus service between Nice and Monaco costs only one euro so it was easy and inexpensive to enjoy the city of Nice – we haven’t yet been to Monaco.)

This past weekend, we went to two villages on a tour again organized by the Institut. In St. Paul, we went to the modern art museum at which there are many Miro and Giacometti sculptures as well as many paintings. 

We saw a chapel that was designed by Matisse. The tour continued to the village of Tourettes sur Loup (towers on the Loup river) which is a medieval village located between Nice and Grasse. Tourettes sur Loup is known for its tanneries which I learned is the reason that Grasse became the center of the perfume industry. Apparently, in the early days, tanned leather was sought after but its products smelled bad. Working with people from Grasse, they found a way of adding a scent that was less offensive – thus creating the perfume industry in France.

Ellen’s apartment may have a beautiful view but it has not been updated and thus there is no wifi and the kitchen is wanting in terms of preparing foods. Ellen has a stove top with four elements and a microwave (no oven). When I arrived to make dinner, I had to change my ideas of what to prepare as I rely on casseroles and dishes that require oven time…

I am continually gratified that we chose to live in Vaison la Romaine. The Mediterranean coast is gorgeous but it is crowded with people who want to live with a view. Too many hills (and stairways up the hills!) and too many people. I like the calm and easy flow of life here. Secondly, I have been surprised at the number of people in our village who know that Ellen is away and are routing for her. It is a rare day that someone doesn’t ask how she is doing (and how I am getting along without her). It seems that they all know that she has a lot to say and they want to hear it from her – rather than through her interpreter.

Bonne chance, Ellen! (Good luck, Ellen.) We are all routing for you.