Thursday, December 28, 2017

Stepping Out

Add to Google Reader or HomepageNow that we are back in France, it is clear what I miss most about France when we are away: steps, baguettes and local groceries. (The list could go on for several more pages, but these three come to mind first.)

Baguettes and local groceries are related to steps. Each morning, I walk to get a baguette. Then I walk to the local groceries and do the grocery shopping for the day and later I may need to make an extra trip for something that I forgot. At the end of most days, I have accumulated more than 10,000 steps just doing errands.

When in Lansing, I have to drive to a grocery. I used to walk to the City Market but all of the produce vendors have closed their booths. I now go to the City Market only for cheese. There are no small grocery vendors in Lansing though there are three within the center of Vaison la Romaine. I had hoped that the people who are buying lofts and condos in downtown Lansing might have created a demand for a local grocery but it has not happened yet… Maybe the recently passed legislation, introduced by Lansing Representative Andy Schorr, to bring groceries to urban food deserts will provide the incentive to establish local groceries or maybe Andy Schorr becoming mayor will bring a renewal of downtown Lansing commerce. We will see.

Grocery stores located beyond walking distance are an inconvenience but I can still get in my car and drive to one of the big box stores in Lansing. Finding a bakery that sells baguettes, on the other hand, is impossible. (People may object to my statement that there are no baguettes in Lansing by pointing out that almost every grocery sells a loaf of bread they call “baguettes”. They are all correct. But, I am talking about real, crusty baguettes, not the soft as white bread versions that most stores offer.) It seems that real baguettes have a freshness timer in them. If you don’t eat all of your baguette in one day, it turns hard. All you can do is use a plastic bag to keep the baguette soft or break up the hard left-over piece and make bread crumbs. Our while-in-Lansing solution is to buy frozen baguettes and bake them at home. The frozen baguettes are an acceptable substitute but far from the crunchy joys of a freshly baked baguette!

I guess that I have just become a proponent of “shop local, buy local”. I appreciate that I can walk that philosophy while I am in France – and am waiting for the day when it will be true in Lansing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

La Feria de Paques in Arles

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe went with American friends to Arles for «La Feria de Paques» (Easter Festival). Ellen read that the festival draws 500,000 people to Arles! There is music, paella, bullfights and wine. We chose to go on Saturday which is also the regular «market day» for the city.

Our visitors said that they wanted to go to the bullfights in the arena in Arles. We would have avoided the event because the idea of watching a bullfight has never made it to my bucket list. Our visitors had learned that there were two types of bullfights: the traditional gory spectacle and the non-killing performances. Our friends had heard that the newer style of bullfighting was where the matador pulled flowers from a flower crown that the bull wore.

We had a great lunch at one of our favorite restaurants (Hotel Voltaire) and then made our way toward the place where they were having the non-carnage bull fights. (There were no bulls killed in this arena.) In this small arena, we watched a half dozen or so junior/apprentice matadors honing their skills in the arena. These young men (ages 15-20) were very confident and very thin. So thin that a bull would have had a difficult time in finding one of them as its target. Despite their body type, they were valiant and aggressive facing the animal charging at them. There was one instance where the bull succeeded in pulling the matador’s cape from his hands and then the bull started to chase the matador who showed that he was not only capable at using his cape, he was fast on his feet and climbed the arena wall before the bull could get close.

The bullfights we watched were more like bull teases. There was little to compare them to the bullfights that Hemingway described in The Sun Also Rises. One must still admire the courage and confidence of the young men as they stood in the path of a charging bull.

I like the city of Arles. The arena is a major attraction, but for me, it is the city where Van Gogh painted «Café Terrace at Night,» «Garden of the Hospital in Arles» and of course «Starry Nights». (I have been singing/humming Don McClain’s «Starry Nights» ever since we were in Arles.) After the bullfights, we took our friends to the place where Van Gogh painted «Starry Nights» and then we walked back to the place where we had parked the car.

The route I chose took us past the Roman-built arena in the center of Arles. BIG MISTAKE choosing this route! We were walking away from the arena as the rest of the people were heading to the arena for the 4:30 bullfights - all 500,000 of them (or so it seemed). I told Ellen to let me lead the way because I look old and people would clear a path for me. (wrong!) The crowds were so thick that people could not step to the side. We slowly made our way past the arena, over the hill and back to the car.

We left Arles to drive back to Vaison. Curiously, the GPS took us past Nimes; the other city in France that has a Roman-built arena and still uses it for bullfights (les Corridas).

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rally round Spring

Add to Google Reader or HomepageAh, the early signs of spring: the almond trees are blooming, asparagus is on sale at the market, the streets are filled with Rally cars. (?)

Last weekend was the annual auto rally. It happens at the beginning of March every year in Vaison la Romaine. People and their cars start arriving around noon on Friday and by Friday evening, the upper parking lot and the field are filled with trailers and tents and tarps on which mechanics lie or sit and work on making the last adjustments to the cars.

I recently read a nice description of road rallies in the book Fatal Pursuit by Martin Walker (the recent addition to the Bruno French Chief of Police series.) I enjoyed walking around the cars and listening to the teams talk but If you are interested in car rallies, I refer you to Fatal Pursuit or some other source.

A sure sign of spring is when the produce sellers start selling asparagus at the market. Last Tuesday, there were three or four stalls that had asparagus. The first asparagus is extremely expensive: 11€ a kilo (about $6.00 per pound). As spring progresses, the price will drop to the point where the price will match the Michigan asparagus price at the height of the season; about a dollar a pound.

Soon the asparagus will be affordable and we can start making spring vegetable risotto, asparagus soup, etc... Asparagus might be a vegetable that is difficult to pair with wine but I love it just the same.

As spring asserts its presence, we will soon be able to get delicious strawberries from Carpentras and small (about the size of a softball) melons from Cavaillon. La vie est bonne. Life is good.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Robert Burns Night

Add to Google Reader or HomepageFair fa' your honest, sonsie face, 
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm. 

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis

(First and last stanza. Address to a Haggis. by Robert Burns)

I can say in all honesty that there are two things that I would never have imagined doing during our days in France: attending a Robert Burns birthday celebration and eating haggis. Last week we did both and had a wonderful time!

There was a certain serendipity to the event. We happened to run into UK friends while shopping last week. We talked for a while and then provided them with our phone numbers. Before we got home, we had a message inviting us to join them for dinner. When we called to confirm that we would love to have dinner with them, the hosts clarified that it was for a Robert Burns night - January 25 to celebrate the birthday of the Scottish poet - and that in addition to the traditional agenda of the evening, we would be eating haggis. So, a new opportunity. . .

Our hosts had decorated their house in a Scottish theme. They even had found “Robbie Burns” napkins to complement the appetizer. I had put on my most representative plaid shirt and we headed out of our village, traversing time and geography to reach the moors of Scotland. People arrived wearing Scottish plaids and tam o’ shanters. There were no bagpipes to greet us but our host plays the piano and played "The Skye Boat song" as we moved to the dining room.

The evening included poems between the meal courses and a lot of wine, though the traditional Scotch was also offered for a toast. Though not everyone drank it, a Burns Night would hardly be complete without it.

And then there was the haggis... It was served as the Robert Burns poem Address to a Haggis was read. I purposely did not look up the description of how haggis is made. I had a recollection of ingredients that left me not interested in ever trying it. I was wrong! It was very tasty and I did not have to ruin my Robbie Burns napkin by hiding my haggis in it.

As our (Ellen’s) contribution to the evening, Ellen had researched the links between Scotland and the USA. She found that Burns had had a strong influence on our own President Lincoln as well as many other Americans during his time. She talked about how President Lincoln had enjoyed Robert Burns’ poetry and how the two men had had similar philosophies of social equality and nonjudgmental tolerance. Lincoln had recited Burns poems from the time he was a teenager and these poems influenced the cadence that Lincoln used in his public speaking. It was a gratifying discovery, especially in these times when presidential rhetoric has changed so much.

The evening ended with all of us singing "Auld Lang Syne" (another Burns poem).

Là breith sona dhuit, Robbie. (happy birthday, Robbie)