Sunday, August 2, 2015

Summertime and the livin is easy… (George Gershwin)

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We have been back in the states for two months now. I have stopped interjecting French words into conversations. (I find that most people just look at me strangely when I say “voila” instead of “see” or “there you are”.) I try to remember to say “yoo-hoo” instead of “coucou” when I’m trying to get a neighbor’s attention.

We have acclimated fairly well to our state-side lives. Even though we have been living our schizophrenic lives for seven years now, I find that I still get surprised when we make the transition.

·         I lament the fact that I cannot walk to a grocery from our Lansing home. (The City Market is a little over two miles from here – but there remains only one produce stand (and the good cheese shop). There are neighborhood weekly farmer markets but nothing quite like market day in any village in Provence.
·         Americans dress far more casually than the French. Sweat pants and T-shirts seem closer to the norm than the aberration. We seem to have forgotten Jerry Seinfeld’s comment that ‘people who wear sweats in public are announcing that they have given up’.
·         Dining out in the states usually includes taking home a doggy-bag – more accurately, a styrofoam container – for the second portion that was served as part of your meal. The size of the portion served here is much larger than what we expect in France. (There are now some French restaurants which have begun offering take-away containers.)
·         For a long time, we have thought that food in France was more expensive and wine in France was less expensive than here but my perceptions are changing. Meats, cheeses and local vegetables seem to be equal to or less than American prices. For instance, a log of goat cheese that costs almost $10 in the states sells for about ¼ th that amount in France. ‘Exotic’ meats, e.g., duck, quail, rabbit, even lamb, are far less expensive in France and more often locally produced. Eggs are more expensive but bread – a baguette – is about a third of the US price. (Clothing is more expensive in France.)
·         We are fortunate to have a home with a backyard large enough for my vegetable garden. Many fewer houses in our village have enough land for a garden and at our apartment, we can manage only a few herbs grown on the balcony.
·         It seems easier to find a good craftsman/mason/carpenter in the states. We have heard horror stories about craftsmen and their work here but not nearly as often as we hear the stories of poorly done work in our village. not sure whether Angie’s List covers France

This past weekend, we went to the christening of our godson’s first child. While the baptism was the main event, driving to North Carolina permitted me to reconnect with a high school friend and to see my sister and beau frère who drove from Wilmington to meet us in Raleigh for lunch. The events and gatherings were all fun: what beats family and friends?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Nesting (Nidification)

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe have been back in the US for about 18 hours now. We have spent most of that time “nesting” – taking clothing items out of our storage bins and putting them back in the dressers and closets where they will remain until the next round of house-sitters arrives.

We have done this enough times that it is a fairly routine activity. “Nesting” is a whole lot less stressful that getting the apartment ready for renters. It is an activity that we can perform at our leisure. Except for the occasional item that I NEED RIGHT NOW, most of it can take place over the days and weeks ahead. Leaving the apartment and France is stressful because: a) we are leaving France and I drag my feet on getting things packed and put away and b) a renter arrived the same day we left, so we had a specific window of time to get everything ready for renters.

Our house and lawn (British “garden”) are in great shape. Our house-sitters took wonderful and meticulous care of our house while we were away. They even prepared (tilled) the vegetable plot and planted garlic last winter!

After noticing and admiring the house/garden/vegetable plot, the next thing I noted was how much earlier darkness arrives in Lansing when compared with our village in Provence. When one follows the latitude lines, Vaison la Romaine, FR is on a par with Traverse City, MI, 200 miles north of Lansing. The further north one goes, the longer the summer daylight hours become. This morning when we woke at 6:00 (after an early night of jet-lagged sleep), the sun had not yet risen. Provence can support tropical plants and long growing seasons thanks to the Gulf Stream and the trade winds that bring warm air to southern Europe (until climate change shuts down the Gulf Stream and Provence becomes cold like Traverse City in the winter…)

There is a real comfort from being back in our neighborhood. One of my French friends wanted to know why we continue to split our time between Vaison la Romaine and Lansing. The easy and honest answer is friends. We have wonderful friends – many of whom are also our neighbors. Hearing the description of the circle of wonderful friends and family, my French friend had to admit that he admired the American style of open front yards and porches where one can easily encounter neighbors. (The French usually construct high – 8-10 ft. – walls around their properties.)

Now that we have put away enough things to feel comfortable, it is time to go to see/talk with neighbors and friends.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Add to Google Reader or HomepageThis morning, as I was about to enter the bakery to get my daily baguette, a young boy ran past me and into the shop. He asked for a baguette, handed the clerk a 5 euro bill, took his change and darted out of the bakery. The clerk looked at me and shook her head. “Il est entré sans dire ‘bonjour’, il a pris sa baguette et il est parti et il n’a dit  ni ‘merci’, ni ‘au revoir’.  Les enfants ces jours-ci!» (“He came in without saying ‘hello,’ he took his baguette and left but did not say ‘thank you’ or ‘good-bye’. Kids these days!”)

I suppose that worrying about kids and their lack of manners is universal – and the older I get, the more I worry.

The incident made me think of a list that I saw recently at The list was: 11 ways to humiliate yourself in France. Number one on the list was: “Fail to say ‘bonjour’”. (To see the list of 11 no-no’s to avoid in France, go to: )

I have gotten better about being sure to say ‘bonjour’ no matter whether it is at a shop, a box store or a social gathering but I am far from perfect. For instance, the other day, when my American friend Ray was with me, I could not find something in the grocery store, so I stopped a clerk and asked where I would find X? He stopped and said ‘Bonjour’ and after I replied with my own ‘bonjour’ he took me to the aisle where X was located. – and yes, I was embarrassed. I am most often guilty of failing to say ‘bonjour’ to everyone at a social gathering. If there is a roomful of people, I will often say ‘bonjour’ only to the host or those close by…

A little civility goes a long way. It takes almost no time at all and shows a level of respect that we have lost or have forgotten.

And if you think I have bad French manners, think about the kids these days!

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Add to Google Reader or HomepageHave you ever wondered why, if you have an American or English book and you set it on a coffee table with the front cover showing, you can read the spine? But if you have a French book and you set it on a coffee table with the front cover up, the writing on the spine is upside down. Can anyone explain the idiosyncrasies of the French book press?

You know that it is spring in Vaison la Romaine when :

·         there are wonderfully sweet strawberries from Carpentras
·         there are spring melons – about the size of a soft ball – but with enough sweet flavor to fill a room
·         the price of asparagus drops to a point where it is affordable (it started at 12€ per kilo or about $6 per pound. It is now under $2.00 per pound).
·         the Tuesday market is almost at grid-lock if you shop after 9:30 AM.
·         when walking around the village or sitting in one of the cafés, one hears almost as much Dutch and English as French (lots of tourists!)

Miscommunication. On Tuesday, we saw that one of the cafés was having a “Cajun/Creole” night with live music. Right below the line about live music was the word: “Jambalaya”. We made reservations and showed up at the appropriate hour. When the waiter finally came to take our order, we said we wanted jambalaya. The waiter looked confused and asked: “Quoi? Vous voulez quoi?” (What? What do you want?) We repeated “Jambalaya” and he started looking irritated. We said that the word “Jambalaya” was on the center of the menu board in front of the café. He gave us his best French shrug (implying that he didn’t know and could care less) and then asked again what we wanted from the menu. We couldn’t let it go and asked if “Jambalaya” was the name of the group that was playing. (Another shrug) We asked for a pitcher of wine and said to bring the wine and we would then order from the menu. By the way, the two musicians who made up the group called “Jambalaya” did a lot of covers of American songs – only two of which were Cajun… 

Monday, April 6, 2015

The end of an era

Add to Google Reader or HomepageAfter seven years of being part of Vaison’s foot traffic, we took the plunge and bought a used car. Our newer-than-our-Lansing-car is a 2010 Peugeot 207, diesel engine, manual transmission.

While it has been seven years that we have not owned a car in France, we have not been deprived of transportation. Thanks to the kindness of good friends who have shared theirs with us, we have been able to use a car when needed/wanted or go to the “Super U” grocery and rent one. On the other hand, I do not expect that having a car is going to decrease my walking in the village. I still plan to get my 12,000 steps every day.

Buying a car is one of my least favorite activities. In fact, the only time that I got a good deal on a car was when I did not want to buy one and the only time that I enjoyed buying a vehicle was when I bought my ’50 Chevy pickup.

We had started our search before going to Spain. We had stopped at the Peugeot dealer in Vaison and told the manager what we were looking for. He said that his assistant would search the internet and give us a call. Three weeks later and no calls from the dealership, it seemed the dealer did not care about finding us a car. Some have told us that their lack of initiative is normal in France. Normal or not, we were surprised.

We expanded our search and started looking for used cars on “” and visiting other car lots. Ellen saw a model (a small Subaru) online that she liked and we went to look at it. Our friends came with us and since Allan is tall, we had him test out riding in the back seat (for knee space as well as head space). The Subaru ‘Justy’ was small, with a three-cylinder gas engine. Ellen had trouble shifting the manual transmission and the ride was bouncy. It might have been a good car for the village but not for long trips. We noticed a Peugeot on the lot and liked it. There is plenty of space in the passenger compartment and a large trunk. Since diesel is cheaper in France and much more efficient than gasoline, we were pleased with the engine.

The process of registering a car in France involves getting “la carte grise” (the gray card) which you affix to the windshield. You don’t have to change license plates as, since 2009, the license plate stays with the car, not the owner. You can drive with an American driver’s license. Insurance is required. You must also keep a fluorescent green vest and a warning triangle in the car. (You must wear the vest and place the warning triangle to alert on-coming traffic if you have to repair your car alongside the road.)

Now that the car is parked outside of our apartment building, I think I hear it calling to us saying: “Let’s go to Nyons and see Catherine or to that restaurant in the next village that you have heard so much about or the chateau in Grignan or… You now have wheels!” I know we will answer the call. Watch out, Provence. Here we come!

Sunday, March 1, 2015


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We left Alicante by fast train and two hours twenty minutes later, we were trying to find our way to the Mayerling Hotel in Madrid. The train coach in which we rode had a status screen and I watched as the speed of the train hit 249 k/h (150 mph). Can you imagine a rail system in the states of equal speedIf we had a similar rail system, we could go to Chicago from Lansing in less than two hours!

The four of us walked in single file from the train station - somewhat for protection ("be careful about what you carry in your backpacks because the pick-pockets/street robbers are very skillful...") some to manage the numbers of people on the sidewalks.

Madrid is a marvelous, vibrant city. No ghosts of the Inquisition or the years of Franco (at least none that we saw). Madrid is exciting.

We stayed at a hotel recommended by a friend of MB. It was a lovely European-type hotel just three blocks from the Puerto del Sol - Madrid's most famous central square.  The rooms were neat and well maintained. The staff was the best feature of the hotel. They were very welcoming and friendly. They reminded us of the breakfast bar (included in the room rate) and informed us that the café/tea machine was ours to use 24 hours per day. The day clerk provided us with a map and good ideas of where to go to find tapas. When we checked out, the clerk told us that when we finished our touring/shopping and came back for our bags, we could use the facilities and have a café or tea. (We did both.)

Our hotel was pretty much at the top of the city; just blocks from the indoor city market and in the heart of a non-franchise shopping district, i.e., little shops selling everything from the new spring fashions to Spanish hams to shoes made in Spain.

Our first tapas bar visit turned out to be a bad choice. We picked a place with few customers (contrary to the advice of the hotel clerk) and two of us ended up suffering the consequences for most of the next 24 hours. (I sure hope it was not the fried eggplant drizzled with honey – I really liked that tapa!)

We walked around our neighborhood and discovered the indoor market with all of its offerings, the cathedral of La Almudena, the Royal Palace and the Royal Opera.
Cathedral de la Almudena
We visited the Prado (Velasquez, Goya), the Reina Sofia Museum (Dali, Picasso) and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Dufy exhibit). Spain has a rich art history and we got to see some of the greats.

Following our first day food disaster, we found wonderful places to eat and drink. Tapas bars are everywhere and we enjoyed wonderful tapas, delicious paella and very nice wines. We drank mostly Rioja wines - from 2 euros a bottle! - always worth the price and usually excellent. The Spanish eat even later than the French! The restaurants don’t open for the evening until 8:00 pm and then hit their peak at 10:00 pm. (We missed out on the Wednesday “1 euro” tapas as suggested by MB’s friend – only discovering the shops on Thursday.)
The fearsome foursome at the Plaza of the Orient (between the Royal Palace and the Opera)

Our train was at 16h30. We agreed that two nights was not enough time to begin to discover Madrid. We plan to return.
Madrid Train Station

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Alicante Wines

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe had planned to visit Granada but it was closed. Actually, we discovered that the Alhambra palace was sold out. One cannot get tickets at the last minute. Seeing the Moorish palace will have to wait for another trip. Instead, we decided to taste some of the local wines in the Alicante wine region. We visited Novelda, Monòver and El Pinós.

All three towns are part of the wine region where the main red-wine grape is Monastrell (Mourvedre). In El Pinós, we thought we would have lunch, but like Alhambra, it was sold out. (The reason was that that Sunday was the last day of a week-long gastronomic festival in El Pinós and the restaurants were all booked.) We headed back toward Alicante with the idea of eating in Monòver but found no restaurants open there. The same was true in Novelda. We ended up having a nice home-made lunch back at the apartment. It seems that few establishments are open on Sunday in villages far from the tourist towns. A waitress in El Pinós told us that we would have little success in finding wineries open on Sunday; everything was closed on Sunday. (Luckily, we proved her wrong and had fun tasting wines at a wine cooperative near Monòver . She was right in that none of the vineyards were open. As I think about it, the wineries that we passed did not seem to have tasting rooms as the wineries in France have…)

In Novelda, we visited the Gaudi-inspired church Ste. Maria Magdalena at the site of the castle de la Mola.

The church was designed by José Sala Sala and finished in 1946. Novelda is known for its stone quarries and the organ loft is built with local marble.

One other thing that I have noted on this trip is that one can buy a whole leg of air-cured pork.  In the wine coop they were selling a leg of pork for 7.95€ per kilo. (In Madrid, the lowest price I saw was 13 € per kilo.) I am sure that I never saw a leg of air-dried pork for sale in the states…

Which is the ham?

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe left Vaison la Romaine and came to Spain to visit our neighbor and to spend a few days with friends in Alicante.

As we crossed the border into Spain, it became clear that the border was not only a political boundary; it was also an architectural boundary. I don’t think that I can pinpoint the differences but the buildings in Spain are different. (It is like driving to Toronto from MI. As soon as you get across the bridge, you start noting that the houses and buildings are different. Different colors, different bric-a-brac…)

Even though the Romans spent a lot of time in Spain and all places Mediterranean, it is clear that the Moors had a huge influence on what has become Spain. On our way here, we stayed at a hotel in Tortosa that was originally built by the Romans. At the fall of the Roman empire, it became/was rebuilt as a Moor castle and then the Crusades changed all of that ending the four hundred years of Moslem rule and bringing Christian rule to that area of Spain. The castle is now a “Parador” hotel – a very nice hotel – but no religious overtones to it.

We ate at the hotel restaurant and had wonderful meals. The entrées and main courses were beautifully presented and perfectly prepared. The wait staff was very attentive but never intrusive. (This is starting to sound like a TripAdvisor review.) The wine I chose – a “Muga” Rioja reserve – was excellent. Rioja wines are usually a blend of tempranillo and Grenache grapes. I did not know this wine. I chose it because it was from the 2010 vintage which was rated very well. (I can hear my friend John commenting on me tripping into the outhouse and coming out with a new suit… or similar expressions to underscore my luck in choosing wine.)

Last night we arrived at our destination. We will be in Alicante for about two weeks. The sun, the sand: we could get used to this. Tomorrow our friend from Chicago arrives. I plan to make Cioppino and take advantage of all of the fresh fish one can get in the fishing village just north of Alicante. – and serve the Cioppino with some good Rioja wine…

Now I need to learn how to say “Life is good” in Spanish.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Greetings and Salutations

Add to Google Reader or HomepageI am struck by the number of ways the French greet each other and the equally numerous ways in which they offer departing words.

Bon or bonne (good) figures in many of the phrases. There are the usual expressions that we have heard:

·         Bonjour (hello – not to be confused with ‘bonne journéewhich is more closely aligned with our  ‘have a nice day’. One would say for instance,  ‘bonjour’ on entering a shop and bonne journée when leaving the shop.)
·         Bon après-midi (good afternoon)
·         Bon soir (good evening – there is also bonne soirée – similar to bonne journée in inference. )
·         Bonne nuit (good night)
·         Bon voyage

There are also:

·         Bon anniversaire (happy birthday, happy anniversary)
·         Bon appétit (enjoy your meal – literally ‘good appetite’ [I know that, according to the lexicographers, ‘literally’ no longer means only ‘literally’ but can also be used when figuratively is the correct word – but that is another topic])
·         Bonne chance (good luck)
·         Bonne année (happy new year)
·         Bon weekend (yes, the French use ‘weekend’ as part of everyday parlance.)

I also hear: bonne continuation (happy rest of the day).

This week, it snowed. On Wednesday, we woke to about 10-12 cm of snow on the ground. Snow is rare in Vaison. I think that this snowstorm was the third time in the seven years that we have been coming here that there was enough snow to close the schools and many of the shops. Throughout the day, I heard people saying: “bon courage” (hang in there, take heart, good luck) as encouragement.

I wish all of you: Bonne journée! Bonne continuation and, for sure, bon courage.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Alphonse Daudet

At our French class a few weeks ago, I talked about going to see the windmill of French nineteenth century author Alphonse Daudet in Fontvieille. We had gone there with Daniel and Irène after our wonderful Christmas dinner.

Our French instructor then suggested that we ought to read more of Daudet’s stories as they are not long and are well-written. Ellen and I had already read “Les trois messes basses” (The three low masses) which I described in this blog in December. Our French instructor asked us to read other stories from his book Lettres de Mon Moulin (Letters from my Windmill). Last week, we read La Chèvre de Monsieur Seguin (Mr. Seguin’s goat). The story – told to his friend – indirectly poses the question:  freedom at what cost? 

The Billy-goat weather vane

Alphonse Daudet is a well-known French author. Daniel told us that most of the school children in France read his stories. I guess we would call his stories ‘fables’ or at least ‘moral stories’. The tales are humorous and always about the people of Provence. Daudet’s descriptions of the people of Provence and the land itself make his stories worth reading.

Daudet was from Provence. He was born and grew up in Nîmes, taught in Alès and then worked at Le Figaro as a journalist in Paris. He was close friends with Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. He apparently never lived at the windmill – writing most of the stories on the train (according to Frederick Davies who translated Lettres de Mon Moulin for Penguin books).  Alphonse Daudet has been called “the French Dickens”.

The film director Marcel Pagnol, also from Provence (Marseille), made short movies of Daudet’s tales in the 1950s. (You can watch several of these movies on “YouTube”.)