Monday, November 5, 2012

Visiting visitors

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe have made a number of trips this summer. On the return trip from South Carolina and a visit to Margaret and Gary in Edisto Beach and Betty in Charleston, SC, I realized that our excursions have taken us to see people who have visited us in Vaison la Romaine.

We cherish the memories created by our visitors when they came to Vaison la Romaine and we now have new memories from being with them in the US. We were so well received I can only hope that our hospitality measured up to that which they bestowed on us.

Visiting different towns and regions highlights the differences we experience in the US. It is striking how similar shopping can be as chain stores and franchises seem to be the same whether in Chicago or Charleston.

Dining could fit in to the same pattern but we avoid franchise restaurants. Most of the time, we have been very pleased with the food and service of a local restaurant/diner. There were a few-less-than-wonderful spots but they became memorable in their own right. We had a wonderful lunch with Betty at a restaurant overlooking Shem Creek and Charleston Bay and a great “small plate” meal at Nia’s in Chicago with Jim, Taffy, Alex, MB and French neighbor Jane. – and don’t miss pizza buffet night at Pizza Pronto in Naubinway (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) with Dusty and Tim. Mark and Dan took us to a new restaurant in Traverse City called Apache Trout Grill and we had a nice dinner at the Waterfront after taking a sunset boat tour of the Edisto River backwaters with Margaret, Gary, Dorene, Jackie and Norm.

Wonderful restaurants! Excellent company!

Groceries are more regional than retail stores. I don’t think we have a Piggly Wiggly in the Midwest, so when we were shopping at one in SC, we were amused when a special sale item was announced in aisle 3(?) followed by: “There’s something big at the Pig!” In fact, I am right now wearing my T-shirt from the Piggly Wiggly that Betty gave me. (The logo on the front of the shirt is a smiling pig wearing a butcher’s cap. The back says: “I dig the Pig!) I doubt that the local Kroger store could match that.

BTW, while in South Carolina, we got to see an alligator at a pond on a golf course (and signs warning residents and visitors: “Please do not feed or disturb the alligators.”) – I was amazed at how calmly people seemed to accept the presence of these creatures and thankful that I didn’t have a small dog to walk as it/I could have become a meal. 

BTW2, At the end of the sunset tour of Edisto Island, dolphins began swimming beside our boat as we returned to the dock – almost as if a film director had shouted: “Cue dolphins”. 


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Add to Google Reader or HomepageIt appears that I had the same idea as our Sablet neighbor who writes "Our House in Provence" at www.sablethouse.blogspot.comMichel's latest post is a New York Times/International Herald Tribune article by Eric Pfanner. I was going to do the same but he beat me to the punch (wine punch?) As did Michel, I must thank my friend and neighbor Jane for notifying me of the article.

You can read the entire article at Michel's blog or by looking up the article in the NYT (publish date: July 8, 2012. IHT publish date: July 6, 2012) or read on...

PS: I high-lighted two of the wines cited in the article because I had written about them in April.


Rising Stars of French Winemaking

By , International Herald Tribune and New York Times

Published: July 6, 2012

CAIRANNE, FRANCEAcross many parts of wine-producing France, a lively debate is under way between partisans of two great vintages, 2009 and 2010. Some prefer the ripe, plump, charming 2009s, others the structured, sterner, more “classic” 2010s.

But in one area, the southern part of the Rhône Valley, there is no argument. Even though there’s nothing wrong with 2009, 2010 is clearly better, maybe even one of the best vintages ever for the great red wines of the region.
That’s saying something, because the southern Rhône has been on a roll. Over the past decade, only two vintages, 2002 and 2008, were disappointing, and most of the rest were at least very good. One, 2007, was praised to the heavens.
Now, many growers say their 2010s, only recently bottled, are superior to the 2007s. After recent visits to the southern Rhône, taking in the most famous winemaking town in the region, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and two lesser-known villages, Rasteau and Cairanne, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
I’ll look at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whose vineyards lie just alongside the river, between the cities of Avignon and Orange, in a future column. First, it’s worth making a side trip to Cairanne and Rasteau, which are nestled in the scrub-covered hills below Mont Ventoux and the serrated peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a few kilometers northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Why Cairanne and Rasteau? These are two of the new stars of the southern Rhône, the climatically distinct, Mediterranean portion of a river that is lined with vineyards much of the way back to its source in a much cooler place, the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps.
For a long time, the southern part of the valley was known mainly for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and for bargeloads of rustic Côtes-du-Rhône from the sprawling vineyards all around it. Eventually, the French winemaking authorities elevated other individual villages to “cru” status, starting in 1971 with Gigondas. This meant they, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, could display their own names on the label, unaccompanied by the humbler regional designation.
The most recent to be promoted was Rasteau, in 2010. (Rasteau was previously a standalone cru for a small amount of fortified wine, but the new designation covers the village’s main output — dry red table wine.)
Cairanne, a few kilometers to the west, has applied for promotion and, if all goes well, could receive it within a few years. (For now, it is a so-called Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, an in-between designation.)
Now that we’ve dispensed with the bureaucratic formalities, let’s get down to what really matters: the hedonistic appeal, and the great value, of these wines. The reds of Cairanne and Rasteau, while subtly different, are archetypal southern Rhône wines — fruity, heady and powerful. They are infused with the region’s signature herbal, spicy notes, redolent of the fragrant garrigue, or underbrush, that covers the parched, Provençal hills anywhere where no vineyards or vacation homes have been planted.
These wines are at their best in vintages like 2010, when the jammy fruit and substantial doses of alcohol — 15 percent or more is not unusual — are balanced by fresh acidity and complemented by ripe, refined tannins. Unlike the 2009s from the southern Rhône, which sometimes seem a bit too big, a bit too dry, the 2010s are all about elegance. Yet there are none of the negative connotations — thinness, a lack of ripeness — that “elegance” sometimes implies.
2010 was helped, paradoxically, by a malady called coulure, in which the grapes fail to develop properly after flowering in the spring. As a result, the harvest was tiny — down by one-third or more for many southern Rhône growers.
“We didn’t count the bunches, we counted the grapes,” said Romain Duvernay, a producer and merchant in the region.
The remaining grapes ripened beautifully, helped by hot days — but not too hot — and cool nights, which preserved freshness. The 2010s are exceptionally polished, banishing any notion that Rhône wines are rustic or simple. The only flaw is the lack of quantity.

“It’s a vintage that will make wine drinkers very happy, vignerons less so,” said Robert Charavin of Domaine des Côteaux des Travers in Rasteau.
That is because producers in the southern Rhône, unlike some of their counterparts in regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy, are not able to raise prices much to compensate for a small harvest, even when quality is exceptional. This is an area that makes a lot of wine, and while exports and sales are robust, there has been no speculative hoarding. There are plenty of good wines from Rasteau and Cairanne at less than €10, and only a few bottles cost more than €20.
Which to choose, Cairanne or Rasteau? The vignerons typically describe Rasteau as more powerful, or “masculine,” and Cairanne as more elegant, or “feminine.” (When growers say they favor a traditional approach, they aren’t referring only to their winemaking techniques.)
The differences stem largely from the terroir. The Rasteau vineyards stretch across several south-facing canyons with various kinds of clayey soils, whose vineyards bake in the Mediterranean sun. In Cairanne, the expositions and the soils are more varied, with some sandy plots alongside the clay.
But, as is often the case with neighboring — and sometime rival — wine villages in France, it strikes me that the vignerons may overstate these differences. Both villages feature largely the same grape varieties, with grenache playing the key role in the red wines, complemented by syrah, mourvèdre, carignan and other varieties.
Rasteau is the quintessential grenache village, with large stocks of ancient, gnarly vines bearing this variety, which provides the brambly garrigue flavors. Many of these vines were once used for vin doux naturel, a kind of fortified wine, but now give the red wine of Rasteau its alcoholic kick.
In separate tastings of roughly three dozen wines from each village, I found the wines of Rasteau to be more consistent in quality than those of Cairanne. Yet Rasteau showed a greater variety of winemaking styles, from traditional and slightly austere to fruit-driven and forward to modern and richly oaky.
Compared with other Old World winemaking regions, this is still something of a frontier area.
“When my grandfather bought this property in 1953, nobody wanted to make wine here,” said Gilles Ferran of Domaine des Escaravailles, which is perched atop a hill, near the highest point in the Rasteau apellation. At 320 meters’ altitude, or about 1,000 feet, the land was considered too rustic.
Now Mr. Ferran makes some of the most polished red wine in the appellation, with a striking purity of fruit and great freshness. The wines have found favor around the world, and more than 70 percent are exported.
Other Rasteau producers, like La Soumade, Côteaux des Travers, Bressy Masson and Trapadis, have also built up a strong reputation. One estate, Gourt de Mautens, has attracted a cult following, with critical acclaim and prices that match the big names of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. (The 2010 red from Gourt de Mautens had not yet been bottled when I visited).
Cairanne is still working on raising its profile, and the wines are more heterogeneous in quality than those of Rasteau. But a handful of producers, led by l’Oratoire Saint Martin and Marcel Richaud, have received deserved international recognition. Some newcomers, like Domaine Roche, created in 2009, have quickly made an impression.
The 2010s from l’Oratoire Saint Martin are something special. The estate has a lot of mourvèdre in its vineyards; this gives its higher-end cuvées a savory aroma and a multilayered texture that reminds me of Cháteauneuf-du- Pape.
If Cairanne gets the same labeling rights as its neighbor, it is easy to imagine the wines catching up in quality with those of Rasteau and other nearby villages, like Vacqueyras and Gigondas. The application for cru status includes new steps to improve quality, like a ban on mechanical harvesting.
“Of course we’d rather be in the first division than first in the second division, but it’s not the end of the story,” said Fréderic Alary of Domaine de l’Oratoire Saint Martin.
In other words, 2010 might still be topped by future vintages. But that will take some doing.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

One more market day

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe are beginning the process of preparing to return to the states. We leave in less than two weeks. That means there is only one more Tuesday market day for me.

We have a number of people renting our apartment this summer and fall thus we have to box and store all of our belongings to make way for the renters.

I said au revoir to the staff and kids at the crèche yesterday as Thursday of this week is another national holiday (Ascension day) so I won’t have my Thursday opportunity of volunteering at the crèche. When I am not at the crèche or walking around town, I have been helping Michel prepare the surface for the clay court at the tennis club – but it probably won’t be ready for use until after we leave. C’est la vie!

Leaving our village is a bittersweet event. I look forward to seeing friends and family and to planting my vegetable garden in Lansing but know that I will miss the slower pace of our village in Vaison la Romaine. I enjoy living in a place where the majority of necessities are available in the center of town. On the other hand, our Westside neighborhood has always been a wonderful place to live and, there are a few restaurants/pubs within walking distance of our Lansing home.

We started a “Ciné-club” in Vaison so that we could increase the times when we speak French and also see films in French. I will miss all of our Ciné-club friends but will get to rejoin our movie group in Lansing. Dans la vie, il y a des compromis.

There is not an event in Lansing that can compare with market day in Vaison la Romaine. Now that the weather is nicer, there are more stalls and vendors. There is a wonderful variety of – of everything! On the other hand, there are many more tourists and one has to deal with the gridlock of crowds.

“Vaison la Romaine has one of the best weekly markets in the Provence and perhaps in France. Its origin goes back to 1483, when Pope Sixtus IV granted a license. In 1532 Pope Clement VII stipulated that the market be held every Tuesday in Vaison [sic] and this is observed to this day. Let us put it this way: assume you come to the Provence just with a toothbrush, you can get everything (including a new toothbrush) here. It is one gigantic open air department store, offering everything here, from clothes and shoes to furniture, meat, fish, ham and sausages, vegetables, fruits, cheese and wine and while you are doing your shopping you won't need to stay hungry either. This is actually one of the best places to shop for Provençal items, like table linens, earthenware and toilettries [sic]. The market is held every Tuesday from 8 AM to around 1 PM in the town proper. Many streets are closed off. Parking is definitely a problem. The trick is to arrive either early (around 8:30 AM) or after 11 PM AM [sic]. If you see a group of Americans expertly shopping for vegetables, fruits, fish and meat, it is probably Patricia Wells and her cooking class. (

I took a few photos of market day, but my camera shots pale in comparison to those taken by another blogger. I suggest that you read the April 28, 2012 “Market Day in Vaison-la-Romaine” post by chcmichel of “Our House in Provence” (

For my friend John with whom I share a love of olives and the best olive vendors, I have included two pictures.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Story Behind the Picture

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Recently, we were walking down the alley behind our apartment building and I noticed a vine winding its way through a newly-installed fence. The weed was very healthy as a result of several heavy rains that made the weed and everything else soil-related green and thriving. I took pictures of this sole weed with the idea that I might be able to use them. Better yet, I might actually click a shot worthy of sharing.

Trying to take artsy pictures is a habit I have had for a long time but should have given up after the ONE good (my opinion) landscape picture I took 40 years ago. Digital cameras make it so easy to “click-and-shoot-and-delete” that people like me think that I might get a gallery-worthy shot the next time I turn on my camera. It is about the same rationale as expressed by people who support tax shelters for the wealthy because they believe that they could win the lottery and they don’t want the government taxing their illusory winnings.

Digital dreaming. But I digress (as usual).

Looking at the picture again made me think of what was included in the shot: a fence, a weed growing and entwining itself in the fence and a large field starting to fill up with weeds. Buildings are visible at the back of the field. And, if one looks closely, there is another fence – a stone/cement and solid metal fence that parallels the walkway on the next street to complete the enclosure.

Until last year, this field contained several old buildings. At about this time last year, a demolition crew came in and removed the old buildings leaving the weed field adjacent to the white/pink building. That building is the residence for developmentally-disabled adults in Vaison. They had planned to expand the residence into the space now vacant and weed-covered.

When we returned to Vaison in December, I was surprised that the construction of the addition had not yet begun but thought to myself: “bureaucratic wheels turn slowly.” The field was originally enclosed by a temporary, nylon mesh fence that looked like it would blow over if the Mistral winds were strong enough. At the end of February, a worker dug fence post holes and two days later there was the permanent, two-meter-high fence you see in my pictures.

On an evening when we were having cocktails at our neighbor Lina’s, I asked her about the fence and why the construction was progressing so slowly. She explained that there would be no construction. As with the project in Place Monfort last year, after the demolition, the archeologists came to assess whether the building site contained any valuable Roman ruins.

And it does!

It should not be a surprise. The city of Vaison was an important Roman city until about 500 AD. The city is known for its Roman ruins which start at the amphitheatre and continue south and west to the river to the Roman bridge. Just west of the Post Office parking lot is another area that tourists can visit. Last year, the cinema was supposed to move from its present location to the area near the amphitheatre and the swimming pool. That project was put on hold with the discovery of more ruins under the land that was to be used for the new cinema.

The vacant lot adjacent to our alley will remain vacant indefinitely because the archeologists discovered from their preliminary digs that the area might have been the location of the city’s Roman Forum.

It makes me wonder what the archeologists might find under our building…

Sunday, April 29, 2012

We call ‘em snails, in France they are « escargots »

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOn Saturday, several of the nearby counties held “de ferme en ferme” (from farm to farm) – a day where local producers opened their farms for visits and tastings. Farmers who grow, or make, everything from almonds to wine offered tours and tastings. There were vegetable farmers, honey makers, olive oil presses, goat cheese makers, rabbit producers, candy makers and much more. (

Five of us loaded into Jane’s car and headed north to visit some of the points listed on the map. Our first destination: a snail farm. Les escargots de l’enclave – that should translate to something like the snails from the Enclave of the Pope. In the 1300s, Pope John XXII bought a region including four villages north of here because he liked the wine they grew there. But that is another story.

At Les Escargots de l’Enclave (, we got to see how they raise snails. First, they buy the small snails from another farm in Normandy. Mr. Clavel held up a small wooden container – like you might get when you buy a small round of Brie or Camembert – and explained that the box held over 2,000 baby snails. (I read that snail eggs don’t hatch. They develop and become snail shells.)

picture from

Mr. Clavel said that the snails live in a fenced and protected area – the fencing is as much to keep the snails in the farm area as to keep the predators out. Predators include a variety of birds, fox and wild boars, but he quickly added that the greatest predator is the summer heat of Provence. They grow two varieties of snails: le gros gris and le petit gris (the big and little grays). After about four months of living in the grassy farm, the snails are harvested and sold. There are over 200 snail farms in France.

 The snails live under the wooden lean-tos eating the grass and attaching to the wood at night.

A tray of “Gros Gris” snails.

I have always enjoyed snails cooked with garlic-parsley butter (and I thank my sister Sue for introducing us to them!) The farmer talked about grilling them and eating them with a pepper (piquante) sauce which I may have to try – though it is tough to top anything with garlic butter.

Bon appetit!   

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Wine and Wineries

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOne of the reasons that I so enjoy Provence is that I really like the taste of Côtes du Rhône wines. Red wines to be exact. France has SO many good wine regions but there is something about the Côtes du Rhône that I find special. Most Côtes du Rhône red wines are made from a mixture of three grapes: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Many of the wines in our neighborhood use only the first two, i.e., Grenache and Syrah. I think it is the taste of pepper at the end of a sip that I like best.
“The trademark flavor of French Syrah is black pepper. In the southern Rhône, around Châteauneuf-du-Pape in appellations such as Gigondas and Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, Syrah plays an important though usually subordinate role, typically adding structure to the dominant Grenache grape and other local specialities such as Mourvèdre - for Syrah grapes are relatively small and high in colour and tannins.”
“As for Grenache Noir, it is one of the most important red wine grapes… Increasingly, however, Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre is regarded as the holy trinity in this part of the world. This is the classic blend for the southern Rhone's best red wines: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac, Tavel and a host of increasingly exciting Côtes du Rhone Villages from villages such as Rasteau and Cairanne. The Syrah adds structure and longevity. Difficult-to-ripen Mourvèdre can add an exotic gamey, almost animal note. But Grenache Noir is the grape most at home in the best dry, almost drought-prone vineyards of the southern Rhone.” (Jancis

If I tried to write about all of the wineries that I like, this blog would take on book proportions. Today, I am limiting my words to a few discoveries that you might enjoy as well.

Domaine des Escaravailles (, located above the village of Roaix, with vineyards in Cairanne and in Rasteau is producing some really fine red wines. At Domaine des Escaravailles, they are now producing a red wine from only Grenache. They also have very nice wines made with the more traditional blend of Grenache and Syrah. We discovered this winery because Ellen and Jane had really enjoyed the white wine that they make called “La Galopine”. Wines from Domaine des Escaravailles are shipped to the US.

We have also been impressed with a little winery in Rasteau called Domaine Elodie Balme and run by a young woman of the same name. She has a very small vineyard (six hectares-almost 15 acres) that she got from her father. Her wines are excellent and, it seems, popular. For instance, we went to buy some of her wine and she is sold out – of everything! (She told us that she will start bottling the 2011 vintage in the middle of May.) – and we will go there to make sure that it is not sold out before we get a chance to buy some.

One more winery worth mentioning (our Lansing neighbor’s favorite) is Domaine Rouge-Bleu ( It is owned and run by Jean-Marc Espinasse and he is making some very nice reds. One of his wines, Mistral, got high reviews by Hachette and by Wine Spectator. The vineyard is between Cairanne and Ste. Cecil les Vignes in the middle of the Rhône Valley where the Mistral reigns. Apparently Jean-Marc has captured the power of the Mistral and put it in a bottle.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (Rogers and Hart, 1939)

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One might think that living in France would be very similar to life in the states - western culture, similar rules of law, driving on the right side of the road, etc. In many ways that is true but there are enough things that are different to keep one off balance. For instance, on Sundays, only the supermarkets open and they open for only three hours. If you forgot something on the last trip to the market, you won’t be able to return to the store and buy it after noon on a Sunday. The pharmacies here take turns on which one will be open on Sunday morning. (Note to self: do not get sick after noon on a Sunday.)

The other big example of creating imbalance is the time. The French use a 24-hour clock. I go to the crèche at 14h30, not at 2:30 PM.  The concert will be at 17h00 (5:00 PM).

I am always using mental gymnastics and my limited math skills to figure out what time it is. If I am talking on the phone with a French person whom I plan to meet in the afternoon, I need to work out the time in French so that I don’t show up two hours early (or late!) It is a constant struggle for me. Having 12-hour clocks – including the clock tower and its bell which rings on a 12-hour schedule – and a 12-hour watch don’t make it any easier!

I was looking for a Panda by FIAT! Oh well...
Case in point: I rented a Fiat Panda at Super U yesterday. As per the instructions told to me on the day that I reserved it, I picked it up after 08h45 (8:45 AM) and knew that I had to return the car before 18h15. In my head, I kept repeating dix-huit heures quinze but I told Ellen that the car had to be returned by 8:15 (huit heures quinze).

We drove to Nyons to meet our French friend Catherine and her friends. We all went for a three-hour walk among the orchards along the river, stopped at a café for a beer (une pression) and then left our friends to return to Vaison and return the car. Since I still was saying 8:15 (while thinking 18h15) I dropped Ellen off at the apartment, cleaned the car, filled the tank and returned it one-half hour early or so I thought!

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms II
I got to the counter and the clerk immediately asked me why I was late. (There goes the balance again!) The question confused me as I thought I was early. He then repeated the time the car was due “dix-huit heures quinze at which point I finally realized my mistake. He told me that since I was late, I would have to pay for a weekend. He added that if there had been someone waiting on the car I would have also had to pay the difference between the Panda and the larger car that they would have had to provide to the waiting client.

I started apologizing. In French I was thinking: “espèce d’imbécile!” In English I was thinking: “What a doody-head!” as my friend John so often says. In either language, the generic translation would be “how stupid of me!”

The clerk reiterated that I might as well keep the car until Monday since I was going to have to pay for it. I replied that I didn’t want the car until Monday so I handed him the keys and said the car will stay at the store as I didn’t want to be responsible for any possible damages in addition to the weekend rate – and I would return on Monday to settle the bill.

The clerk looked at the clock (12 hour clock). It was five to eight (dix-neuf heures cinquante-cinq) and the store was closing in five minutes. To his credit and my surprise and relief, he took the paperwork and asked me to show him where I had left the car. He finished the paperwork and charged me for only one day. (There goes the balance again. The French are not known for bending rules/overlooking errors.)  On the way back into the store, I continued to apologize interspersed with thanks. He said that as soon as he saw that my license was from Michigan he figured that I might have erred on the time. More importantly to him, I acknowledged my mistake rather than arguing.

Nice ending to a very nice day albeit off-balance as usual.

The unique steeple in Nyons

Monday, March 26, 2012

A rewarding career

Add to Google Reader or HomepageThis is not the usual type of entry for me. In fact, it is about me!

I am very proud to write that I have been chosen to receive the 2012 Betty Garlick Lifetime Achievement Award by the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children. If I were in Michigan, I would be able to receive the award in person at the MiAEYC annual conference this Friday. Readers can see a little about MiAEYC and the award at:

The Betty Garlick Lifetime Achievement Award is quite an honor. I am very pleased and honored to have been nominated and selected.

Since I can’t be there to receive the award in person on March 30, I enlisted the help of one of the child care teachers at the crèche – a talented amateur videographer -- to help me create a video expressing my thanks. Domy did a great job. She included images of me singing and interacting with the kids (in English and in French) as well as the actual thank you portion of the DVD. In a small way, I can say that my award acceptance was an international effort.

I would love to include the video here for all to see, but the privacy rights of children are protected here in France much as they are in the US. So the video use is restricted only to its showing at the award ceremony.

Who could have guessed that a part-time job driving a bus for Head Start was going to lead to a lifetime of wonderful, rewarding years of working on behalf of kids? And with volunteer opportunities in child care centers in Lansing and at the crèche here, I get to continue doing what I so enjoy.

Thank you for this award, MiAEYC!

I can't talk right now. I am too busy having fun!

Monday, March 19, 2012


Add to Google Reader or HomepageA short distance west of Les Baux is the city of Arles. We went there last weekend when Susan and Allen were visiting from Paris. Since their arrival in Paris in January, the weather there had been cold and rainy. They wanted to visit us and take advantage of sunny Provence. The weather here was very accommodating as the sun shone everyday and the temperatures climbed to the mid-20°s.

The connection between Les Baux and Arles is a very old one. Les Baux is strategically located about midway on the old trade route between Arles and Aix-en-Provence (Via Aurelia).

Arles was an important city from the time of the Romans. Even though Arles is located on the Rhone, the Romans built a canal connecting the city to the sea. Constantine liked the city and lived there. Constantine III made Arles his capital. Many of the Roman ruins remain to this day. The arena/amphitheatre is still used for bullfights.

From the medieval age, Arles was a starting point for the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. Hikers and pilgrims still make the 1600 kilometer journey from Arles across the Camargue to the Pyrenees and into Spain.

The Night Café
Van Gogh's Painting of the hospital
At the end of the 19th century, Van Gogh lived in Arles where he completed over 300 paintings and drawings. Among the most famous are Starry Night Over the Rhone and The Night Café. It was in Arles that he cut off part of his ear and subsequently spent time at the hospital in Arles – a site for more of his work.

Arles Hospital
Years ago we stayed in Arles and during that trip found the marker showing the place where Van Gogh had painted his famous Starry Nights, one of Ellen’s favorites of his work. We went back there in the evening and Ellen had tears in her eyes as she took a series of picture of the scene using her cell phone. I think that was the phone that made an unfortunate, unplanned trip through the wash cycle the following summer. It’s fortunate we have our memories since we no longer have the pictures.

I had forgotten that Saturday is market day in Arles. We arrived in time to see the end of the market day and then made our way to the Hotel Voltaire for a very nice (and inexpensive) lunch. Then off to do some more touring of the old town. While walking, I noticed some old doors and was intrigued by the keyholes.


BTW - as they write in text messagesArles is home for the “Gipsy Kings”; one of my favorite singing groups.

Gipsy Kings

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Les Baux

Add to Google Reader or HomepageThe daughter of close friends visited us last weekend. We got to be tour guides again and showed her around our village and then we went to “Les Baux.”

Located on a plateau in the Alpilles just south of St. Remy de Provence, Les Baux was an important strategic location during the medieval days as well as during the Renaissance.

As tourists, we can appreciate the beautiful landscape of olive trees and grape vines starting right below the cliffs of the plateau and stretching into the distance. It reminds me of a landscape that Van Gogh might have painted (he spent a year in nearby St. Remy de Provence).

 It is hard to imagine how difficult life must have been in medieval times. If marauders, the Black Death, the Inquisition, the Crusades weren’t enough to keep one occupied, one could create living space by carving rooms and homes out of the stone at les Baux.

Daily life must have been pretty boring albeit difficult if residents had enough time to carve shelves, windows and doorways out of the rock walls…



Almond Trees

PS: I thought that I had found an almond tree worthy of including in my pronouncement of spring. Then, yesterday, I was visiting a friend’s blog and saw a great picture of almond trees. Please take a minute and visit Kristin Espinasse’s “French Word A Day” site. She has beautiful photos of almond trees in bloom. Go to: and look for the post of March 7 (Comment faire). Kristin always writes interesting vignettes to go with the words to which she introduces us.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Add to Google Reader or HomepageThe almond trees are flowering.

An almond tree at les Baux

Still no rain….

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Add to Google Reader or HomepageThe temperature today reached 19° C. That is about 66° F in the states. The “vague de froid” (cold wave) has ended and everyone is talking about spring. The French don’t have Punxsutawney Phil to predict the end of winter on Groundhog Day. The French prefer to make crêpes on that day. They call it “Chandeleur.” Good fortune comes to those who can toss a crêpe into the air and catch it in the same pan (using the hand with which one doesn't write). Even though the focus is different; the French have similar proverbs and predictions for the day. I found these online at

À la Chandeleur, l'hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur
On Candlemas, winter ends or strengthens

À la Chandeleur, le jour croît de deux heures
On Candlemas, the day grows by two hours

Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte
Candlemas covered (in snow), forty days lost

Rosée à la Chandeleur, hiver à sa dernière heure
Dew on Candlemas, winter at its final hour

The cold and the crêpes aside, the dry weather has become a much more popular topic. Since our arrival in France in mid-December, it has rained only three times including a dusting of snow. The Ouveze River that flows through town now looks like a creek. Mt. Ventoux, usually snow-covered until April, is mostly bald with only small patches of snow on the north side. The leaves on the olive trees are curled up and looking a whole lot more silver than green.

I have not heard anyone speaking of a drought but this year is so different from our past three winters here. An n of three is not the basis for long-term predictions but winter rain gets absorbed into the clay and is what the grape vines and fruit trees live on during the long, dry summers here.

I am not complaining. The skies have been a deep blue with few clouds. The air is clear and regularly re-cleaned by the Mistral winds. I would like to imagine that the sky and air are as they were when the Impressionists started painting Provence scapes in the amazing colors that they used.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chateau La Coste

Add to Google Reader or HomepageThere are so many places to visit in Provence. There are, of course, all of the major attractions listed in the tour guides but there are other sites/locations to discover and enjoy.

During our time in the states, Ellen collects news features from which we can learn more about France. My eldest sister also sends items from the New York Times that she thinks might  interest us.

When Bruce and Judy were visiting from Paris, Ellen pulled out her folder of newspaper clippings and we decided to go to a little village just north of Aix-en-Provence to visit a winery/architectural showcase. The winery is called “Chateau La Coste” and is now owned by Belfast-born Patrick McKillen. In addition to producing some fine wines (big reds, amazing rosés) and olive oil, the owner invited works from internationally-renowned architects including Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and sculptures from Richard Serra and Louise Bourgeois… According to Lanie Goodman in her article in the New York Times Magazine, Sept. 22, 2011, still to come are more structures by Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano. Not mentioned in the article is a mobile by Alexander Calder placed in a reflecting pond just outside of the café on the grounds. There is also a small sculpture that resembles Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (the Bean) in Chicago. The bean sprout/flying saucer called “The Drop” was created by Tom Shannon.

"The Drop" by Tom Shannon

Ellen in front of the mobile by Calder

Every aspect of the architecture seems to have been designed for good “feng shui.” The winery, the architecture and the sculptures create a peaceful, welcoming setting.

"The Spider" by Louise Bourgeois

Gehry's Music Pavillion as seen from behind "The Drop"

"Infinity" by Sugimpoto (on the left)

-If readers have other suggestions for day trips, PLEASE add them to “Comments.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Impeccable (ampeckobleh) is Sweet !

Add to Google Reader or Homepage« Impeccable » seems to be the “hot” new way for shop owners to acknowledge when you pay the bill. I don’t hear it as often as “merci,” but I hear it a lot.

·   Give the person exact change and s/he says: “impeccable.”
·   Pay by check and the clerk says: “impeccable.”
·   Offer a credit card and I hear: “impeccable.”

Last year, it seemed that “pas de problème” was the hot expression – both in France and as well as its American counterpart “no problem!” Unlike “pas de problème,”impeccable” does not have a perfect mirror reflection in English. I don’t often use impeccable in normal conversation and I don’t think it will become as popular in English as it has in French. When English speakers use it, it seems to be used in a very literal sense of “perfect” or “faultless.” I suppose “perfect” or “faultless” could apply to a small financial transaction but it doesn’t seem quite right. I want my taste to be impeccable (not much chance of that!) not the action of handing someone cash.

I realize that I am putting myself squarely in the OF (old fart) camp by commenting on language usage changes.

Impeccable and “pas de problème” will never match the current popular US response among 20-somethings who use “sweet!” as a response to most sentences. We had an exchange with a young person who texted (don't get me started on nouns becoming verbs!) us and could have written “I understand” or “okay” as an appropriate response but instead we read “sweet” in all of its syrupy splendor.

A while ago, I apologized for an error I made in French and the person with whom I was speaking suggested that my error would have gone unnoticed if I had been speaking with a teen because the teens of today no longer use proper French when they talk. He went on to complain about cell phones and text messages and how these phenomena were going to destroy proper language. As he continued to rail about the deterioration of language, I realized that I had heard these complaints before except they were in English! Even more, I realized that I had heard these predictions about language 50-60 years ago. The difference was that you had to replace “text messaging” with “rock and roll.” “and the beat(ing) goes on…” to paraphrase Sonny and Cher.

Generations have worried about the demise of language/culture/(insert your word here) based on the habits of those who are younger, yet every younger  generation seems to push the envelope until its shape is unrecognizable and they take us to places with discoveries and inventions we never dreamed possible.