Saturday, February 22, 2020


  • I went to the grocery store in our village yesterday and bought two ribs of stalk of celery. (I had to look up the definition to be sure that I had the terms correct.) I don’t think I have ever bought celery by the rib before. I don’t know whether it is a French thing but I am sure that every time I buy celery in the states, the stalk comes in a plastic bag. You don’t slide the stalk out and break off some ribs. You buy the whole stalk in its plastic bag.
  • If I wanted to make something with a pumpkin-like squash, I could tell the vendor to cut off as much as I wanted; I wouldn’t have to buy the whole squash.
  • When the vendor has cut the piece of squash or I hand over the ribs of celery to be weighed, I put them in a bag which I carry and reuse with regularity. The French have gotten serious about the overabundance of plastic and do not permit merchants to provide plastic bags unless they are made of bio-degradable materials. No one at the checkout counter asks “paper or plastic”. You are expected to bring your own shopping bags. (Grocery stores have not provided shopping bags for purchases for as long as we have been coming to France but eliminating the produce plastic bags is relatively new.)
  • The perils of plastic remind me of an Italian cartoon I saw on Facebook in which the fish monger is handing a whole fish to a woman and the woman asks: “No plastic bag?” to which the fish monger replies: “It’s already inside.”
  • We recently had a mechanical problem with our French car: the power steering went out. We had to call a towing service to transport our car to a garage. First, I had to learn the term for power steering (direction assistée) so I could begin to explain the problem to the tow truck operator. Then, I didn’t know the term for tow truck (camion de dépannage, dépanneuse). The French terms – repair truck, repairer – are more generic than English which was a good thing in this instance as the truck that arrived was a flat-bed; not a tow truck at all.
  • For all of the allegiance to supporting handicappers in France, there are few sidewalks in this village which would accommodate a wheel chair…
  • I have written before that Vaison la Romaine is a tourist town because it has the most extensive Roman ruins sites in all of France. Being a tourist town means that the population changes from about 7000 in the winter to 14000 in the summer. Being here in the low season has its challenges. Several restaurants have only eight or nine month schedules. If the restaurants are open all year, it is certain that they close for several weeks in the winter for congé annuel – annual vacation. It is not rare to plan to go to a restaurant only to find a sign on the door saying congé annuel or fermeture exceptionelle (closed due to unforeseen circumstances). Add to that the regular weekly closings of all commerce (closed after noon on Sunday and many places stay closed all of Monday), one learns that it is necessary to have provisions in place because one cannot jump in the car on a Sunday and go to a store to pick up a forgotten item and expect it to be open. And don’t bother thinking about the concept of 24/7.
  • Twelve years ago, someone staying at our apartment wanted to find a café or a coffee shop where he could order a take-out coffee. I don’t know whether it is a good thing but there are now a couple of shops that will sell a coffee to go and now there is also MacDo – the term the French use for MacDonald’s – in Vaison : (.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I Know Where You Are From

Add to Google Reader or HomepageDo you remember in the movie Inglorious Basterds when Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is discovered to be a spy because he orders three beers in a German bar raising his hand and using his index, middle and ring finger for the order? Our hand gestures, facial expressions and mannerisms are part of our identity.

     I used to be “discovered” to be American when I would raise my index finger to designate one of something. At the crèche where I volunteer, the kids learn to count using their thumb for “one”, their index finger for “two”, etc. When I teach the kids word games that have hand gestures, I have to remember to use the French system.

     If you are getting dessert in France (or in England), you will get a spoon with your dessert even when it is cake or pie. Forks are apparently not for eating dessert. Spoons are reserved for eating ice cream or pudding but not for eating cake or pie. By the way, “pudding” is the generic name for dessert in England whether it is pudding or pie or sherbet. Giving your guests the option of using a spoon or a fork when you serve pie or cake for dessert will help discover where they are from: the Americans will pick up the fork; the French (and the English) will pick up the spoon.

     If you see a person asking someone a question and they don’t start by saying “hello, how are you” (or similar salutations), you can pretty much guess that the person is an American. We want the answer, now! No wasting time with unnecessary pleasantries (though pleasantries ARE necessary)!

     It used to be that if you saw someone wearing sweats in public, you knew the person was American but wearing sweats or jogging suits is becoming more prevalent in France. (It still doesn’t make it right.)

     At the market, I continue to be amazed at how well the market vendors can pick one’s nationality. I sometimes feel that I have “American” stamped on my forehead because the vendors have already figured out where I am from and offer me the “discount for Americans”. I know American clothes are different from European clothes but what about when I am wearing my purchased-in-the-village jacket over my American shirt? How do they know? Shoes could be a giveaway. Americans wear comfortable shoes – often trainers or walking shoes – and often white ones…

Friday, July 5, 2019

Travels from France

First of all, it has been a really long time since I have posted my observations. When I finished my text, I couldn’t remember the procedure for creating a post. It took me a few minutes of reflection before I remembered that Google has a variety of apps and “Blogger” is one of them.  Posting a new article should be straight forward: I have written and posted more than 150 of them. I guess when readers of my blogs have said that it has been a long time since they have seen any now posts, they are right! Let’s see if I can still do this…
We had two trips out of France this year. We went to Barcelona to meet Lansing friends and the four of us went on to Bordeaux via Carcassonne. The second trip was to Florence as our next-door neighbors (Lansing) invited us to join them at the apartment that they had rented there.
Ellen and I had not been to Barcelona in fifty years. I guess it has changed. The Gaudi cathedral (Sagrada Familia) is closer to being finished. As we did on our last visit, we ambled along Las Ramblas but so much has changed. Barcelona hosted the Olympics (1992) and appears to have used the opportunity to clean up the whole city, especially the waterfront area. We had tips on places to see and good restaurants in which to eat from our friends at Thé Chez Toi who had lived in Barcelona before they moved to Vaison.
Carcassonne is one of the most famous walled cities from the middle ages and we wanted our friends to see it. We also wanted them to try Cassoulet – the white bean, sausage and duck confit stew - in the region where the recipe was created. We stayed at an old (Renaissance era) hotel in Caunes-Minervois; a hotel at which Ellen and I had stayed 12 years ago. The owner, Frederic Guiraud, is a charming man who is continually working at updating Hôtel d’Alibert. Our only disappointment was that the owner had closed the restaurant but he made reservations for us at another place. The rooms were large but just the idea of sleeping in a room that is older than the United States gives me pause.
We left Caunes-Minervois and headed off to Bordeaux. Travel has changed dramatically since the arrival of smart phones. Twelve years ago, when Ellen and I were travelling across the south of France, I found the Hôtel d’Alibert in Rick Steves guide and called from the car. (Ten years before that, we didn’t have cell phones.) This trip, Ellen not only let the owner of the hotel know when we were arriving but used her phone to find restaurants along the route.
Bordeaux was as good as friends said it would be. It is a vibrant city. On the first day there, our trolley trip was interrupted by a huge demonstration about climate change. We didn’t let it rain on our parade. We made it to the Cité du Vin – the new wine museum. It is a museum with a lot of interactive displays so we all had fun trying to improve our wine knowledge. We took a side trip to St. Emillion to taste wine.

We had been to Florence before but for only a day. The apartment that our neighbors rented was in the center of the city only a kilometer from the city market and the Duomo – the spectacular white and green marble cathedral in the center of the city. Even in early April, the lines of tourists waiting to enter a museum or historic site were foreboding. The apartment was close to Piazza San Marco and a tourist group staging area so we were sharing the narrow sidewalks with tour groups of seniors or school-age children. I can’t imagine what maneuvering the city would be like in July.
We ate well and drank well. Our neighbor loves Chianti classico and he found a number of great ones for us to try.
One day, on our walk to the city market, we noticed that there was a photo exhibition of David Bowie being shown at the Medici Palace. The exhibition, called “Heroes – Bowie by Sukita” was a collection of photos taken by Japanese photographer Masayoshi Sukita that spanned the public life of David Bowie from 1972 until his death in 2016. The juxtaposition of photos of a pop icon in the city palace of the Medici family (construction started in 1445) made the exhibit all the more interesting.

I love our village in France but must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Barcelona and Florence. I can get pretty chauvinistic about French wines and French cuisine but I also appreciate the quality of the foods and wines in Spain and Italy. The things that made the trip special were friends. Experiences are so much richer when they are shared.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

La Bureaucratie Française

Add to Google Reader or Homepage
A bureaucracy is “a government administered primarily by bureaus staffed with non-elected officials”.[1] Bureaucracies were established in ancient China, in ancient Egypt, in the Roman empire and have continued to modern times. Karl Marx, Max Weber, Woodrow Wilson, among others, wrote about the advantages of bureaucracies.

Over time, the definition has moved to describe the “dark side” of bureaucracy. We talk about the red tape, the inefficiencies and the problems and have come to expect that an encounter with a bureaucrat will be negative. Ellen and I have heard horror stories about the French bureaucracy and have come to fear that we may have to meet with impatient and impolite functionaries.

Au contraire, mes amis! Our encounters with la bureaucratie française have been positive.

Maybe it is because the specter of an encounter with an impolite or bored functionary makes us invest an inordinate amount of time in preparation. Maybe it is because we are polite. Maybe it is because we speak French. Maybe it is because we’re old. Whatever the reason (most likely the last one), we have had only successful and positive encounters with the French system.

Case in point: the French visa process. In the original application, we had to travel to Chicago to visit the French consulate to obtain our first visa. We arrived armed for bear and encountered a lamb of a bureaucrat. She was most impressed with the notebooks with tabs marking the sections to match the questions that Ellen had created. “Très organisé!” she said to her colleague as she held up the notebook. A few weeks later – in the timeframe she had given us – our visas arrived and we were off to France.

Each time that we have gone to our local prefecture in Avignon to renew our visas, we have had similar experiences. The appointments have been efficient. At the prefecture, you are greeted by a person who asks why you are there and then helps you select the right category so you end up with the appropriate number for the queue (there are multiple reasons that people need to meet with a bureaucrat: driver’s license, identity cards, visas and each category appears on the overhead screens with the number of the person currently being served. Our waits have been short even though I am pretty meticulous about being there with plenty of time prior to our scheduled appointment time.

It seems now that the hardest part of our “day with the bureaucrats” comes after the appointment when we have to choose where we will have lunch in Avignon!😊


Monday, December 17, 2018

Compare and contrast « Ob-la-di » with « Ob-la-da-blah-blah-blah»

Add to Google Reader or Homepage
Every year we come to France, I am struck by the differences between our countries. We have been doing this transcontinental shuffle for ten years (!) now but the contrasts are still striking.

There are the givens of geography: Provence is much sunnier than Michigan. Even though our village is at a latitude comparable to Traverse City, MI, the weather is much milder. I have read that Global Warming will negatively affect the Gulf Stream and Europe will lose the warming effects that the Gulf Stream brings but at the moment, the warm winds continue to make the Provence climate feel like South Carolina.

Another thing that strikes me each trip is that Americans are heavier than French people. When one thinks about the differences in cuisine, one might conclude that the French ought to be heavier given all of the wonderful sauces and cheeses added to foods (not to mention all of the wonderful French pastries and, of course, wine). I am guessing that the biggest difference is that snacking in France is at a minimum. One does not find a rack of candy bars at the check-out lanes of the grocery stores in France.

Relatedly, the French dress better. In general, they have not adopted American ultra-casual styles. For instance, one rarely sees people in sweats at a store or an event. Many French people wear sport shoes as we do in the US but they are most often not white. French women are especially aware of fashion trends and seem to buy the latest styles. In terms of fashions, France is the land of scarves. Women and men wear scarves in every season but in winter the scarves are as long as a person is tall and though a scarf often looks like the person threw it on, it has been wound and knotted with careful attention.

Another striking difference is that Americans are louder. At a restaurant or at a café, the noise level is lower than in the states. Ellen and I were at a bistro for lunch one day and a woman at another table laughed out loud – so loudly that people turned to see where the noise was coming from. When we go out to eat, you can usually identify the Americans in the restaurant by the decibels emanating from their table. I also think that the French have a different intonation in their voices. You don’t have to hear the words to know that the person is speaking French.

There is much less litter in France. I don’t know whether that is due to an awareness of the environment or the fact that cities and villages still hire street sweepers whose job it is to keep the streets litter free. The downside to street sweepers is that French sidewalks are often booby-trapped with dog-do. (The attitude among many French dog owners is that since the street sweeper is paid with my taxes to clean the streets, it is not my responsibility to do his job. The attitude is slowly changing.)

The French smoke a lot! Leaving the airport terminal as we arrived, we had to walk through a veil of cigarette smoke from people standing outside of the terminal. Smoking is much more pervasive than in the states. You cannot smoke in enclosed spaces in France but all of the cafés have an outdoor smoking section and even on cold days, people sit outside all bundled up in order to have a cigarette with their glass of wine or cup of coffee.

Our lives go on and the differences between France and America increase or diminish over time. The only constant is change.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Random observations

Add to Google Reader or Homepage
It has been very chilly here. The daytime temperature going only as high as 50° is bad enough but when the Mistral is blowing it is downright cold. We walked up to the old town yesterday and the wind was a literal slap in the face. (I understand that the word literal no longer means only literally. It can also mean figuratively.)  It was supposed to warm up before Easter but the wind continues to keep the temperatures cold…

Many of the shops do not heat the interior or if they are heated, they set the temperature very low. Several stores leave the entry door open even when the outside temperature is around 45° F. The clerks work while wearing big sweaters or coats and scarves. Customers don’t seem to mind.

More than a year ago, a dear friend sent me the Food Section of the New York Times. The section was titled: “The New Essentials of French Cooking” by Melissa Clark and includes 10 recipes. Since receiving the section, I have been going through the recipes to learn them. So far, I have been successful in making Coq au Vin, Cassoulet, Sole Meunière, Omelet, Ratatouille, Quiche and Steak. I have yet to try Tajine, Pommes Anna and Soufflé. I think my favorites so far are Cassoulet and Sole Meunière though I love making/eating Ratatouille and what’s not to like about a recipe that calls for marinating chicken with a bottle of wine? I would never have predicted that Tajine would be on the list but the author says that this dish of North African origins is so good it has found its way into French cooking. (I agree with her: it is quite good.)

It has been fun learning new recipes. My kitchen skills are still fairly minimal – I don’t have the creativity of our friend Dan or my high school friend who writes the food blog Yo Jo, What’s for Dinner but I enjoy shopping and then cooking. Plus, now I have more than six recipes so we no longer have to eat the same recipe twice in one week.

It is supposedly spring here though the temperatures belie the fact. But, one can now find asparagus and strawberries in the market. The early asparagus is expensive but the price drops every week until the end of the asparagus season. The strawberries are so sweet, one cannot imagine how nature packs so much sweetness into the berries. Soon, the vendors will start selling the softball-sized melons that are grown about 50 km south of here.

Related to the strawberries – and other foods as well – the location at which the produce is grown is important in France. Somewhat like Americans who buy salmon and choose the salmon based on its source. In Provence, the best strawberries come from Carpentras – a city about 25 km from here. The best melons come from Cavaillon. If you like mussels, the best mussels come from Brittany – moules de Bouchot. The best lentils come from Le Puy-en-Velay. And then there are the cheeses – all of which have a geographic origin. French gruyere for instance is called Comté and comes from the Franche-Comté region in eastern France. Grocery stores must post the country of origin for fruits, vegetables, honey and meat.

We have had a rush of visitors: our next door neighbor from Lansing, a long-time friend and colleague of Ellen with her friend. It has been fun – it is always fun – to show people why we like Provence as much as we do. On the clear days, the sky is a brilliant blue and the limestone in the mountains seems to glisten. And, of course, limestone contributes to creating the wonderful wines of Provence – les Côtes du Rhône – which have become my favorite wines.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

St. Valentine’s Day Dinner Chez Entre Amis

We decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day by going out for dinner. We went to a new restaurant in the middle of town that is quickly becoming a favorite of ours: Entre Amis (Between Friends). We have eaten well there twice since our return in December and the last time we were there we learned that the chef was a woman – fairly uncommon in this area. In fact, Entre Amis is the only restaurant that I can think of that has a female chef.

The restaurant was offering a special Valentine’s Day menu that looked inviting. (Every time there is duck on the menu, I say the menu looks inviting.) The meal started with an “amuse bouche” of black olive tapenade on toasts. Their tapenade is very strongly garlic-flavored. I love it! The “amuse bouche” was followed by a “P’tite Pomme d’Amour” which was not an apple at all but instead a fat cherry tomato dipped in toffee and then rolled in crumbled nuts.

The Entrée was « Gravlax de Cabillaud agrémenté d’un Duo de Betterave et d’une Tuile aux herbes ». Raw cod served with tiny pickled beet tips and herb crisps. The seasoning was very delicate but savory. The herb crisps were like thin baked pesto crisps and were an attractive addition.

Question: Do you eat crisps with your fingers or with a fork? The French seem to know how to handle every food item without touching it with their fingers. – I used my fingers.

The Plat: « Magret de Canard aux saveurs Provençales et son Foie Gras accompagnés d’un Mélange Gourmand. » The main course was a duck breast with seasonings from Provence, foie gras served on a bed of couscous with vegetables. Again the flavors were perfect. The couscous was prepared with lemon zest and minced vegetables. The foie gras was warmed. (I prefer it cold.) The server said that the chef prefers to serve the duck breast “rose” (pink). It was delicious.

The dessert was: « Guimauve parfumé à la Noix de Coco et son Coeur Passion sur un Croquant de Spéculos » round marshmallows coated with coconut and served on a spice biscuit. This was a fun and light dessert.

Question: Why do the French (and the English) provide only a spoon for eating dessert? I have trouble picking things up with a spoon when a fork would work better.

The evening ended with a glass of Floraison de champagne – a tiny glass of champagne in which they had placed a litchi making for a perfumed drink to end the evening.

I had chosen a Domaine Martin 2015 Plan de Dieu red wine which is a mostly Grenache (60%) Rhone blend. It went well with the duck breast.

I hope your Valentine’s Day was as much fun (and as flavorful) as ours.