Sunday, December 12, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Thursday, November 4, 2010
After seeing my parents off at the airport, I headed into the city with my friend, Innis, to see the huge Monet exhibition at the Grand Palais. Programming the GPS for the fastest route to the palace had me heading west up the broad and heavily trafficked Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
As we approached the Arc de Triomphe, Innis became alarmed that the GPS was taking us on the massive and infamous roundabout that encircles the monument. It's pretty much a free-for-all, with a dozen streets radiating from it like a wagon wheel.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Innis said, hoping I'd elect to get off before reaching the immense traffic circle. (There are no lane markings and cars circle round it, crisscrossing madly.) I took one hand off the wheel to fish inside my handbag for my camera. I sat the camera atop the steering wheel without taking my eyes off the moving traffic.
"Now this REALLY isn't a good idea. Why don't you let me do that?" Nah, got it covered, as my finger clicked the shutter.
"Live a little," I said, feeling a quicksilver rush of adrenalin as we neared the roundabout.
"That's about all we'll have left to live," she muttered.
"Piece of cake," I said, as we sailed around and exited on the opposite side without a scratch or honking horn.
Later that evening, I sailed through it again, this time in the dark. Innis was impressed. But then she's never seen me on the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) at rush hour....
Saturday, October 23, 2010
I'm no stranger to de-cobwebbing as anyone who lives in rural France well knows. Spiderwebs breed with lightning speed and I'm in danger of joining my compatriots in shrugging them off with the rationale that they're keeping the other bugs at bay. (France actually sells brooms specifically designed for spiderwebs, lest you think I exaggerate. And they're impressively efficacious!)
The cold weather in particular has spiders coming inside for warmth and not all can be ignored. Some are ethereal-looking and keep to themselves at ceiling height but others are just plain scary and prefer the floor. Invariably it's those, roughly the size of Delaware, which find their way into my bedroom, camouflaging themselves on the Oriental-style rug or blending in atop the dark, oak beams. Failing that, they surprise me first thing in the morning against the contrast of the white kitchen sink as I make my way downstairs to innocently set an empty water glass inside, causing me to shriek and potentially shatter the glass on the tile floor instead. (I'm getting rather tired of sweeping up glass first thing in the morning.)
But it's silly to talk of spiders when there are so many other more pressing dangers now. Take, for instance, the gas shortages. France has been protesting mightily the recent austerity measures in raising its full retirement age from 65 to 67 to mirror other countries offsetting the dwindling work force versus the growing population of soon-to-be retirees. Regardless of inconvenience, I have to admire the French for their willingness to stand up as virtually one to be heard.
Still, it was disconcerting enough to see petrol stations sans diesel (gazoil, as it's called here). It made me glad I was driving a car with standard unleaded requirements. (Many French drive diesel cars because France makes its diesel prices attractive. I suspect all the farm equipment in this agricultural nation runs on diesel, although I have yet to see anyone point out the shortage effects on farmers, despite the fact that they're still harvesting their sunflowers and corn around here.) I was up in the city of Tours a few days ago and what we thought at first were traffic jams--unusual in and of themselves--were actually queues to gas/petrol stations. Then we saw empty stations with posted prices of 00000 which really gave us pause.
At one point as many as one in three stations were reported as completely dry and of course Sarkozy is implementing police and military forces to break open the strikers holding the fuel depots closed. I got as far as throwing half a dozen 5-litre plastic jugs that once held kerosene/paraffin into the back of my car but have yet to actually fill them with petrol. However, as the departure date of my parents looms ever closer (1st November), I fear the likelihood that even if their flight to the USA isn't cancelled and even if I manage to get them up to Paris for it, I won't have enough fuel for the ride home. It's a sobering thought indeed. But we have a few days yet to see whether the strikes will dwindle now that the Senate has passed the bill.
Makes those spiders seem a relatively minor inconvenience to contend with.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Back in March, I posted about an event that was surely to become a part of France's past--private distilling of fermented fruit into spirits.
While in les Alpes de Haute Provence, I witnessed an even more ancient, traditional event: transhumance. For those who are unfamiliar with the term as I was, it refers to the transfer of herds from low-lying areas to higher pastures or vice versa, depending on the season.
We'd had an enjoyable morning, stopping first in Moustieres Santa Marie for some window shopping and coffee in a charming café.
Innis clapped her hands in delight. "It's the annual fête de la transhumance. I've heard of this!" I looked at her, baffled. I hadn't a clue what she was on about.
"The local farmers bring their sheep through the village on their way to the summer pastures," Innis explained. "It's a real tourist attraction. Volunteers come from all over to accompany the sheep. I think it takes about a week to get there. We must stay for this!"
Good Lord, I can't believe she's forcing me to pause and have yet another aperitif in yet another village! Such a hardship.
However, I'm a team player so we grabbed a nearby table and ordered sparkling kirs while we did some people-watching. It would be at least 90 minutes before the sheep arrived. I was particularly entranced with a pushcart vendor selling handmade whistles for bird calls. He was very entertaining but the whistles themselves were unbelievably realistic, with their sweet, complex calls.
Everywhere, cameras clicked and video cameras whirred. What an unexpected treat to have stumbled upon this without realizing. And how easily we could have just passed Riez by without a backward glance while doing our own transhumance!
Saturday, July 17, 2010
We drove along the coastal road abutting the Mediterranean as the signs for Monaco, Cannes and other well known spots on the Cote d'Azur beckoned, exiting at St. Tropez for the northbound road that would take us to Haute-Provence, up in the hills along the gorges.
Once we'd left the motorway and joined the local roads, our jaws dropped. What on earth? Everywhere we looked, trees were uprooted, cars were nose down in ravines and everywhere had a strange, almost barren appearance. We tried to stop at a shopping center to pick up some perishables before we reached our gite but even the huge hypermarkets were closed. The military swarmed through parking lots, trying to re-establish order. We were baffled. Clearly some major storm had come through--a tornado perhaps?--and ravaged the area. We couldn't help but wonder what awaited us at our gite (vacation cottage rental), and prayed it was still intact.
We stopped briefly at a farm stand further north, where the woman behind the trestle table shared with us the details of the storm. It had been a deluge of rain that swept more than 100 houses right off their foundations and, she confessed, nearly a dozen people so far had been reported killed, most of whom were in their cars at the time. (That accounted for why we saw all those abandoned cars that looked like they'd run off the roads and crashed. They'd apparently been lifted by the water, their drivers powerless to prevent it, and washed into the ravines.)
We continued our journey northward into Haute Provence, relaxing slightly when we left behind the damaged terrain. Sure enough, the house and adjoining gites were untouched. But as we entered ours and looked around, we could not help but think the place would have been improved by such a tempest. What a dump! A clear example of how photographs can be very deceiving! There were even clumps of soil and dead leaves in the bathtub--left, our caretaker sheepishly replied, by him when he'd opened the windows to air the place and then proceeded to use a weed whacker to strim the grounds just outside the bath window. It was dingy and damp and furnished with the oddest assortment of furnishings. And not so much as a single bottle of cleaning fluid or a toilet brush, despite the fact that we were expected to leave it clean for the next guests or pay a cleaning fee.
However, there was naught to do but make the best of it, and make the best of it we were determined to do. Trekking all the gear and kitchen accoutrements that we'd been teased about finally paid off. And, after all, we agreed, we had a shower, and a toilet with a door. That's something!
Saturday, July 10, 2010
One, Madonna della Neve in Cessole, I had visited in 2007 on Anna's recommendation, and I remembered it well. It's a family-owned and operated restaurant, famed for their delectable, handmade agnolotti, so tender and delicate that they serve it on a napkin without any sauce. We sampled it that way, followed by a second serving, this time on a plate with a butter and sage sauce. Delicious! The host, Massimo, who seated us, was the very same who'd greeted me when I showed up alone three years earlier, just days into my very first visit to Italy.
I had entered the restaurant a bit shyly and was relieved to see it was almost empty; just two parties sat in the dining room--three suited gentleman obviously on a business lunch, and a middle-aged couple, none of whom paid me any mind. I was acutely aware of my complete lack of Italian language skills and hoped I could blunder through. I realized at that moment that I'd failed to find out if tipping was expected. It had not been in France. I felt even more nervous.
Massimo seemed to pick up on my hesitancy and, before I could say a word, greeted me in English. (Admittedly, I'm a bit fair to pass as Italian. Still, it sort of bothers me to be recognized as a tourist.) Massimo's voice was filled with regret.
"I'm terribly sorry, but we do not serve parties of one."
I froze. In all my years I'd never once been refused a table simply because I was on my own. Massimo saw the stunned look on my face and quickly suppressed a smile. The twinkle in his eye, however, gave the game away. Luckily I'm fairly quick on my feet. I donned an exaggerated look of deep disappointment.
"What? Is it not tragic enough that I have been denied the pleasure of a gentleman's company, that I must also be denied the simple pleasure of a meal in your ristorante? Indeed, this is too much to bear!"
"I would be most pleased to make an exception in your case, signorina."
Phew, that was a close one. I thought I was going to have to miss out on those fabled agnolotti for a minute.
Madonna della Neve was a delight then and it was a delight this time as well. However, no modest meal for me this time. We began with an antipasti which I foolishly assumed would be a single platter with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables and olives. Instead, dish after dish was served, including paper-thin slices of pancetta, followed by a divine carpaccio, then, peppers with a tonnato (tuna) sauce, a courgette (zucchini) flan with cheese, asparagus wrapped in proscuitto topped with a cheese sauce.... I was beginning to fear each appearance of our server.
It was so rich, with one course following on the heels of the preceding one, that my friend Innis got up and stepped outside the restaurant for a brief walk just to give herself a respite before facing the lamb-filled agnolotti. I was afraid she'd decline it but she tried a tiny bit and pronounced it delicious. And it was--even better than I'd remembered.
It's after a meal like this that it becomes clear why the Europeans drink digestifs. A sip or two of a fiery brandy really does settle the stomach. Ken and I decided to go the distance and make ours a local grappa. To our surprise, Massimo brought several bottles for us to sample. I liked one in particular. Upon closer inspection, I saw it bore the restaurant's label with a notation that it was in honor of the festival for Sant' Antone, which had been held earlier that same day. On impulse, I purchased a bottle to bring back to France as a memento.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
My first visit to Casa Forcellini was during the summer of 2007, where I spent a heady three weeks housesitting for the owners, Ken and Anna. It had been a last minute, whirlwind post and slotted perfectly in the two weeks that I had to kill between the time I was due to leave Spain and arrive in Austria. Although it left me with just three frantic days to pack up and arrive instead of the thirteen leisurely ones I'd thought I'd have, it was worth every panic-stricken, jam-all-my-worldly-goods-into-whatever-corners-of-the-car-I-can moment.
The first moment I walked onto the terrazzo, overlooking a valley laden with hazelnut trees and manicured row upon row of grapevine, I felt as if I'd stepped onto a film set, a stereotype of every movie I'd ever seen of Italy. (Although, moments later, the charm took a backseat to my dismay when I realized I locked myself out while simultaneously locking the dogs, my purse, cellphone, laptop and owner contact information inside, but that story is best related in my upcoming book (whenever that will be).
It had been quite a weekend, what with, two days earlier, my sleepless, espresso-fueled Spain departure where a tractor-trailer jackknifed about 50 feet in front of me at 5am on the motorway south of Barcelona, just two hours into my trip, as I looked on bleary-eyed in disbelief. Followed the next morning by me desperately to outpace the Tour de France which, to my horror, I discovered was just behind me as I raced to reach Italy. (That would explain the empty motorway!) Add to that getting hopelessly lost on local roads not far from Cessole because the Italians don't believe in street signs, and you get an idea of how thrilled I was to find myself locked out!
Anyway, that was then and this is now. I had only met Ken and Anna for the first time last year, en route back from Tuscany to the Loire Valley here in France, spending an impromptu night there after yet another lovely lunch served in true Italian style.
This time, because the clouds looked a bit ominous, we decided to forego eating on the terrazzo in favor of shelter so we ate instead in the dining room. We ate, drank, and laughed for hours. Melon with parma ham was soon followed by the local Toma cheese with red pepper flakes and drizzled in olive oil, eggplant, breaded chicken cutlets with almonds accompanied by sauteed carrots, zucchini and potato in butter, salad, a cheese course and then gelato. That meal, it turned out, was just a warm-up for what was to greet us over the course of the next few days.
There was one challenge—the one bathroom was in mid-renovation, leaving us neither shower nor toilet. Luckily, by the time my friend and I had arrived, the contractor was at least able to connect the toilet each night before leaving—no rocking, please, as it wasn't bolted down—but he didn't go as far as to hang the door! It didn't matter, however. We could not have enjoyed ourselves more. Good company, good food, good wine, good weather and, let's not forget, this was Italy after all. Ciao!
Saturday, July 3, 2010
We ventured up into the mountains while staying on Lake Annecy to visit several farms where they not only happily sold us their cheese but took the time to take us on a personal tour of their cheese-making facilities. Many of these farmers, we were told, spend eight or more hours a day, each day, every day, making these cheeses, without a single day off. One farm we stopped at said they sell 20% of their cheeses just to those of us who make a point of personally stopping by the farm; the rest are sold in local supermarkets or shipped further afield.
I purchased several bars of homemade raw milk butter but with my plans to move on to Italy and Provence, I could not stock up as I would have otherwise liked to do. Still, the few I bought would last me well to the end of the nearly five-week vacation. It's just the thing spread thickly on a warm, crusty baguette for breakfast alongside a steaming cup of café au lait!
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Everywhere you look the French partake of their picnics, with tables dotting the countryside from motorway rest stops to waterside respites or alpine getaways. Motorists often beep and wave to wish you bon appétit as they pass by your spread, arguably nostalgic or envious. As a foodie, I have yet to become jaded at the wonderful opportunities for a marvelous meal here, and picnicking has become a regular part of my life of late. Vive le pique-nique!
Monday, June 14, 2010
The excitement began before we’d even left, when we realized to our dismay that Tilly appeared to be entering her first season, her first heat cycle. Not only is Finlay, her brother, not yet neutered but neither is Chip, the other male dog we’d be living with for 16 days. Not to mention that our dogs have the backseat to themselves during these long drives!
The vet shook her head ruefully. No, there was nothing to do but keep them separated or risk Tilly, who’s too young to get safely pregnant anyway, getting ‘caught’ by one of them. And since Finlay is her brother, the genetic complications only make things riskier. The vet assured us, were it to happen, that if my sweet, innocent Tilly turns out to be Tilly the Tramp in disguise, it would be soon enough when we return that we could give her the canine equivalent of the morning-after abortion pill, a series of two injections, each 24 hours apart, with, she assured us, no side effects. Despite my misgivings, we set the appointment for the day after we would return.
Two rather stressful weeks have passed with Tilly donned in little black elastic sanitary pants. Chip has hounded her every possible chance, with us shooing him away constantly, and Tilly showed no interest in rejecting his amorous advances—that is, until the one brief moment our vigilance wavered and he caught her under the table, hidden beneath the tablecloth. Tilly shrieked and squealed like a piglet as we shot up out of our chairs and raced to attempt a rescue. Alas, too late. Any hesitation Innis and I have had about neutering our dogs and giving Tilly the shots vanished in that moment.
We’ve spent an exhausting few days now trying to isolate them, each of us taking a pair of dogs and walking in opposite directions because Chip’s been single-minded in his pursuit of his Juliet. But things are quieting down now, just in time for the next leg of our road trip, a leisurely two-day jaunt into Italy, where we’ll spend five days with new friends (former housesit clients) relaxing and exploring. I suspect that, although at this writing they’re completely without bath and toilet facilities due to a renovation project, that will prove far less vexing than frantic, barking, randy dogs. Time will tell.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
The old-fashioned stone wheel circled endlessly round and round the platform like a work-worn donkey resigned to its fate, while the nuts ground down to a fine paste. From there, the red-faced workers, wiping sweat from their brows with kerchiefs stuffed in pockets, shoveled the dark paste on to its next home on ancient stoves, where it was fried, dark and rich, to the color of cocoa. You could taste the nuts on your tongue with every breath. Our mouths watered.
From there, it was a short distance to the hydraulic presses where we watched as the oil, as dark and rich as maple syrup, dripped out. My mind was mentally clicking through my recipe file, thinking of all the wonderful ways I could use these treasures in my kitchen. Steamed haricots vert topped with crushed hazelnuts and a drizzle of hazelnut oil, mashed potatoes and garlic with a drizzle of oil instead of butter, pasta with walnut sauce, salads galore...the list went on and on.
As we made our choices of what size and style bottles to purchase, I thumbed through their brochure and spotted a tasty-looking recipe for a walnut salad with shrimp and scallops to add to my repertoire.
On this, my second visit, it was late spring instead of autumn, so the machines were eerily silent, the factory immaculate. I was led to the back room where I made my choices, walnut oil refills for both my friend and me, and a special gift-style bottle with pourer. This particular huilerie has been operating now for 200 years, and, the owner proudly told me, will celebrate its bicentennial this November with a huge fête. I must remember to make my reservation.
The gift bottle I bought is intended as a hostess gift for friends in Italy. Two weeks ago, my friend and I, both our dogs in tow, began a month-long sojourn: 2-1/2 weeks in Veyrier-du-lac on Lake Annecy in the French Alps, followed by 5 days in Cessole in northern Italy, and then a final week in Provence at the height of lavender season. It seemed appropriate then, on the night of our departure, that I make us a supper of that very walnut salad recipe with scallops and shrimp. C'était délicieux!
Monday, May 17, 2010
My friend Innis is often gifting me things, no doubt because she, too, is fed up with listening to me reminisce (all right, moan) and cry impoverished author--all right, ALL RIGHT! WOULD-be author. She's given me a fabulous cheese grater--that she still lusts after--and a great ceramic tart pan that I've made numerous quiches in, and most recently she surprised me with a pepper grinder. She admitted she was tempted by a cheaper version but ended up splurging on the upscale option...no doubt because she eats here fairly often and figured she'd benefit from it, too.
I opened this, my birthday gift, to reveal a really lovely Lucite pepper grinder just hungering to be filled with the peppercorns which I, ever an optimist, had bought without any way of grinding.
"Wow, a Peugeot! I had no idea they even made pepper grinders!" She admitted she almost hadn't bought it for me.
"Gosh, this is, like...a better make than my car!" She gave me a sidelong glance.
"I've seen your car. Please tell me you'll take better care of this."
"Hey, this is France," I retorted. "And my car is secondhand from Paris. A car isn't a car unless it looks like a post-adolescent acne sufferer in desperate need of dermabrasion." (Okay, admittedly, post-adolescent acne sufferers don't sport scrapes the length of their faces, just dimples. My car has both.)
Having weathered a long winter followed by a spring toting gardening and seedling purchases for me as well as other folks, my car's in desperate need of rehab. It's my goal to get it washed, waxed, buffed and gleaming, right down to the dimples, before the end of May because that's when Innis and I leave, our sibling dogs in tow, for a month, stopping on Lake Annecy in the French Alps, then Cessole in Northern Italy, and finally Provence before returning home at the end of June.
If my friend climbs into my car to drive to Annecy in the state it's in now, she might think twice before buying me another Peugeot anything.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Tucked into this box were prescriptions for various patients waiting to be picked up and filled. Yet another reminder of how living in rural France is often like living in a time gone by. Sure enough, there were my two slips, one for my medication and one to present to the village nurse for the followup blood test I'll need in two months. I can't help but be charmed by the ever-present level of trust that's extended between people here.
En route back home, Tilly and I encountered a woman who lives in the village that I'd met at a village soirée some months back. She remembered me and even more amazingly, remembered my name. We chatted, she speaking very slowly, exceedingly patient with my stumbling French, and we talked about the weather, our gardens and the typical small talk one engages in with acquaintances. It's encounters like this that boost my confidence that some day I really will be able to hold my own in a conversation in French, and affirms again that my moving here was a good decision for me. She told me of various clubs in the village for all sorts of activities and suggested perhaps sometime we could arrange for some English-speaking residents to exchange conversation, we to practice our French and the French villagers to practice or learn English. I told her that's what my French class had been doing recently but that my classes were ending in June and may not continue in September as originally thought, so I'd be delighted to participate in such an exercise.
As Tilly and I continued on home, we passed the bar--filled mostly with men as is typical--and stopped to enjoy a café au lait at an outdoor table. As always, Tilly's a great icebreaker and conversation starter, and everyone who passed on their way in and out of the bar paused to greet her and receive a timid lick in return. It was probably a good thing that the adjacent boulangerie was out of my favorite pain au chocolat. They make the best that I've had up until this point. (Aren't I lucky?)
We made our way home, Tilly off the leash once we left the centre ville and she is now fast asleep in the sun, lying on my favorite lounge chair. Excusez-moi--HER lounge chair now, apparently. Meanwhile, I'm off to pot up some more haricots vert and squash as the cold snap seems to have arrested the first batch I planted outside two or three weeks ago. Bon journée!
Monday, May 3, 2010
Recently I went to the village of Panzoult, about 90 minutes northwest of where I live in Martizay, to sample some of the local wines at the annual Chinon wine festival. They hold it in a deep troglodyte cave that has been beautifully restored and decorated with carvings in the limestone walls.
Upon entering, we paid two euros each to purchase an etched wine glass commemorating the tasting, and began making our way from niche to niche to visit the various winemakers and sample their offerings. No actual purchasing is done; you simply taste the various wines and note what you like for a future trip to the winery itself. As the driver, I had to exhibit some discretion so I limited myself to one or two sips of just those wines that my friends enthused about and skipped the majority, focusing more on reds versus whites or rosés. I jotted down the wines and vintages that I might buy should the opportunity ever arise. The final glass was a Vouvray petillant, or sparkling Vouvray, which we jokingly said was our pre-lunch aperitif.
From there we headed to a restaurant in Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, La Ciboulette ('ciboulette' is French for chives), which promised to be a bit more upscale than our norm. However, while sipping our aperitifs, and after perusing the extensive menu and anticipating our selections, the server proceeded to tell us that virtually none of what we wanted was available, that the menu had been changed in honor of May Day, as it was the 1st of May. We wondered, somewhat irritably, why we hadn't been furnished the appropriate menu. It did feel like a bit of a bait and switch.
Here in France, it's traditional to gift ladies with a sprig of lily of the valley to mark May Day or springtime, yet another neopagan celebration later appropriated by Christianity. This particular tradition originated here with King Charles IX in 1561 giving the ladies of his court this flower as a gesture of appreciation. The restaurant followed suit by handing us each sprigs. We would have preferred it if they'd just given us the food selections we'd wanted. (Actually, all parts of the lily of the valley plant are highly poisonous, although that seems to have been conveniently ignored.)
After that initial hurdle—which admittedly did threaten to color the entire lunch—we settled down to a nice meal, accompanied by, naturally, more wine. By the meal's end, this is what we were reduced to.
Before you accuse us of being naught but a bunch of lushes, let me explain. There was a huge party nearby of war veterans who'd all fought in the same local regiment (May 8 marks VE Day--Victory in Europe, or when WWII ended here, for those of you who have forgotten your history.) They were together celebrating, and partaking in various forms of charming silliness. They raffled off various prizes including free electricity for one year (a box of candles), a free service contract with Orange, France Telecom's mobile phone service (a bag with a piece of fruit in it), and an Italian dinner for two (a package of dry spaghetti). They opened the spaghetti and began passing around strands, cautioning everyone to take one and ensure they did not break or eat it. To our delight, they included the six of us, the only other remaining table by this time. Then they began passing this tiny plastic top hat from one strand of spaghetti to another, using only their mouths. Naturally we had to participate! It did create an atmosphere of conviviality which was appreciated when the bill was presented. Or maybe it was just all that wine...hic
Friday, April 30, 2010
Of course, that doesn't really happen because first of all, spring means gardening, so days have been busy starting seeds--tomato, bell pepper, various annual flowers, herbs--growing in my glassed-in verandah which deliciously doubles as a greenhouse--and starting those outdoor seeds in the raised beds, including carrots, leeks, white onions, spring onions, arugula, spinach and romaine lettuce. All now have been showing their sprigs encouragingly, while my garlic, planted last September, looks like a mini-field of corn plants, and my autumn-planted leeks are even taller. Tulips and daffodils are cresting near decline and the camelia, an intoxicating raspberry and cream mix, is also beginning to wane. It's always exciting to see what's growing. And for me, having only moved here in July, many are a delightful surprise.
Spring also means all those DIY/home improvement projects I pushed off since Christmas, pledging to take advantage of the cool but temperate conditions, which now threaten to keep me indoors against my will.
Earlier this month, my neighbor, Chris, happily abandoned all the latest projects he's been doing in his gardens--hardscaping mostly--to helping me plaster, sand and paint. The man's masochism knows no bounds.
Actually, what really galvanized me into needed action was a telephone call. Back in 2007 I did a housesit in northern Italy for the Rathgebers, Ken & Anna, and had the good fortune to finally meet them for the very first time last year en route from Tuscany to France before I closed on the purchase of this house. They were going to be in Versailles late April and asked if they could possibly stop and stay a night on their way back to Cessole. I was delighted! They had already alerted me to their 5-month stay in Italy--a first for them so long a time together, because Ken's just retired from his career at a Canadian bank--and invited me to come visit them in Cessole. I suggested mid-June because I was already slated to be out in the French Alps the first two weeks of June. They agreed although they warned me they were renovating their bathroom--the only bathroom in the villa--the first two weeks of June and, well, they pointed out, I knew how Italian contractors could drag out a job.
I have, however, become quite European in my outlook these days. I asked if, when desperate, could we pee in the fountain in the front garden? Ken said no, it was reserved solely for ladies bathing naked and suggested I could find plenty of accommodating farmland. So I accepted. I mean, it's not like my puppy Tilly cares if anyone watches her pee. Surely we all learn from each other!
In any case, Ken and Anna's visit proved to be a real treat and I was sorry they were only staying one night.
I was really glad I used their arrival to galvanize myself into stripping, smoothing and painting the walls of the guest bedroom because I'll be enjoying the fruits of my (and Chris's) labors for a long time to come.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Friends invited me to travel out to Dun-le-Poëlier in the Indre, a 90-minute drive, to watch as they brought their mirabelles to a mobile still. The entire operation was fascinating.
Last summer, as the fruits fell from the trees, my friends collected their mirabelle (tiny yellow) plums and stored them in a 100-plus-litre plastic vat known here as a fut. They added sugar and sealed it up for months, allowing the fruit to macerate and ferment. At times the fut bulged so fearfully with the released gases, they worried it might explode.
Now, about seven months after sealing the fut, they've brought it to this visiting mobile still that makes the rounds of the regional villages. The whole process takes about an hour and the various farmers arrange in advance to distill their fruits.
Three 400-litre stills operate simultaneously, ensuring each producer gets literally the fruits of their own labors. As the futs are opened to reveal the fermented peaches, pears, plums or grapes--grapes having already been spent from having been made first into wine (the fruits are never combined in this process)--the workers insert one end of a large vacuum tube. I'm afraid I can't think of any way to more accurately describe it than the unfortunate resemblance to pumping out a septic system.
The still operator fires up the motor and the pipe sucks the pulp and liquid from the fut into the still. The still is then sealed and steam is forced through, and the ensuing alcohol is then filtered from the pulp. The pulp is discarded and the alcohol level appears on a gauge to determine how much water should be added to dilute it.
Typical alcohol levels on the initial yield are in the 80-90% range. I can tell you that a mere drop burns your mouth on contact and it takes close to a minute before the aftertaste of the fruit makes itself known to your seared tastebuds. Eighty percent alcohol is equal to 160 proof and that's what we sampled, before it was diluted to roughly half that strength.
This was once a widespread practice but the government, in an attempt to increase tax revenue, has all but put a stop to it. Families are limited to a maximum of 20 litres of eau de vie per year, and, from what I understand, these mobile stills don't operate nowadays north of the Touraine (the region in central France where I live) because the cost of a license has become prohibitive.
So it was a real treat getting to see this live and up close!
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Despite the relentless, bitterly cold wind, Paris was as always quite magical. Although I'm without question a country girl, I do enjoy my urban forays, and the knowledge that Paris is a mere 90-minute train ride is delightful. For some it's a daily commute, comparable to my Manhattan commute 10 years ago.
This was only my second trip to Paris thus far, the first having been November 2006. (Connecting trains and planes don't count.) And, as I said, it was magical. At least up until the point where I discovered my wallet had been stolen out of my backpack.
Admittedly, I hadn't had the best of luck overall on this trip cash-wise.
Unfortunately, I'd neglected to bring sufficient cash.
Fortunately, I do have a cash/ATM card.
Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to bring that, too.
Fortunately, my companions agreed to give me cash and let me pay a few bills with my Visa card. And, fortunately, the theft occurred on the last day, an hour or two after I'd paid the hotel bill using my credit card.
Unfortunately, my friends had just given me cash before the wallet was stolen--120 euros in total. And, unfortunately, the wallet also contained my driver's license and carte grise which is essentially car registration and title of ownership, which you're required to carry at all times.
Fortunately, I had the fraud telephone number to cancel my Visa programmed into my cellphone.
Unfortunately, I didn't have enough money on the pay-as-you-go cellphone to make the call and charging it up meant using the Visa I was about to cancel. Probably not a problem but I was wary nonetheless.
Fortunately, my friend had purchased our train tickets and still had mine in her possession so I was able to get home. And fortunately, in addition to being able to procure a replacement credit card and driver's license within days of returning home, a letter arrived from the Parisian Prefecture of Police saying someone had found the wallet and turned it in...sans cash, of course.
Unfortunately, the letter demanded I return to Paris to collect it. And that I was required to pay them 10 euros for the privilege of claiming my stolen property. (That made me choke and splutter a bit.)
Fortunately, my friend and I went down to the local gendarmerie where I'd first filed my theft report (so I could drive without documents) and the gendarme there was wonderful, calling the Prefecture and ensuring I could just send them a check and have them mail me the wallet instead. Well, I hope that's the end of it. I still have to mail the letter to Paris.
Despite all that, Paris has lost none of its magic for me!
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Being two hours inland here in the Indre, on the border of the Indre-et-Loire, my inconveniences extended merely to a few roof tiles being shattered (and I'm not even sure they were mine; they just landed in front of my garage), my patio umbrella keeling over, and a loss of electricity. The latter rippled into loss of heat, cooking facilities, phone and internet, most of which were fully restored within 36 hours. What remains out of commission is the central heating. My oil company couldn't fix it and suggested I call a plumber. A bilingual neighbor, Edward, on the far side of the village, offered to help although his electric and phones are, at this writing, still out of service. So, unbeknownst to me, he drove over to Mézières to physically catch the plumber at lunch and arranged for a Thursday afternoon repair. People here really are a treasure.
In the meantime, my emergency paraffin/kerosene heater keeps the living area warm as long as the rest of the house is closed off. So Tilly and I will continue to sleep on the sofa, not a huge change for her since she sleeps there half the day anyway. All in all, I'm very fortunate, considering the number of people whose homes were destroyed or are still under water. Just last September, I spent three lovely days on the charming Ile de Re off the coastal town of La Rochelle, a very swank vacation destination. I read yesterday that La Rochelle's main district remains under more than six feet of water.
With that in mind, I'm reminded of Jonathan Swift, who once said, "May you live all the days of your life." I'm off to go do some of that now.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
However, it's the first month of spring here in the Loire Valley. While I read of snowstorms with near-record accumulations back in the States, I've turned down my central heating--although I did refill the oil tank; I'm not a complete idiot--and have begun weeding and sowing seed for early crops such as arugula (rocket), spinach and leeks. Even tomato seeds are to be potted up this week as my sunny, glassed-in verandah should prove a terrific greenhouse for tender seedlings. Leeks and garlic, planted last September, sit in solitary splendor in my otherwise empty raised beds. I went admittedly a little crazy with the seed packets. It's so easy to do and I was so tickled to find bio or organic seeds even in the supermarkets and hardware stores. I've seeds for four different types of tomato plants as well as bell pepper, pattypan squash, carrots, potatoes, romaine, arugula, spinach, scallions, white onion, leeks, radishes and, of course, haricots vert! If the seeds don't do well, I can fall back on seedlings sold at the village outdoor markets.
As I've managed to secure a paid gig of two hours of landscaping work in someone's garden every other week, I'm even more delighted at the early advent of spring. It also means I have to start polishing my nails again. Sound silly? Not at all. It's a great way to hide the dirt....
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
'Tis the season when fêtes abound in France--February is the month for winter fêtes. So I happily traipsed off to nearby Preuilly-sur-Claise for their annual safran(saffron) festival, traditionally the 3rd Saturday of every February. (Photo from www.indianetzone.com/1/saffron_flower.htm.)
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, I'm told, because it's not only labor intensive to produce but it requires nearly 5,000 purple crocus blooms to produce a mere ounce, and an acre of flowers to produce a single pound. For those of you unfamiliar with it, each bloom contains only 3 red stigmas that must be handpicked from among the yellow ones which have no flavor. (This photo, illustrating a jar identical to the one I purchased except for the label, comes from http://whatscookingamerica.net/saffron.htm)
It's actually economical to use, I'm told. Its honey-like yet bitter taste can overwhelm a dish if too much is used. A tiny pinch is typically all that's needed for a dish feeding four to six people. Saffron is added arguably as much or more for its color punch than its taste. I confess that my cooking expertise has never extended to using saffron for budgetary reasons, never having been exposed to it outside the occasional restaurant offering, so I went to the festival determined to purchase a modest amount, both to support the local producers and give me the excuse to experiment.
Like all French fêtes, this one was packed with locals, all standing around socializing, sipping wine and saffron-flavored drinks, and nibbling on baked goods hued in the unmistakeable, warm, yellow saffron color. Tilly, insistent on being carried because of the intimidating mass of legs around her, was, as always, immensely popular, the French all calling her mignon (cute). Even the men can't resist her. She's practically my trademark now, a way for the locals to recognize me when I attend the various local functions, not to mention being a great conversation starter so I can practice my beginner-level French.
With all the attention focused on Tilly, it was easy to dart in to the tables and make my purchases: a small jar of saffron threads and a pretty 4-centiliter bottle of yellow sirop au safran, a saffron-infused sugar syrup, perfect they claim for those de rigueur kir aperitifs. I made my purchase from Marion Babinot, a producer with the regional designation, Le Signé Poitou-Charentes, meaning it adheres to three stringent quality requirements: it must be organically grown; it must contain no yellow stigmas; and it must be sold hermetically sealed in glass so as not to corrupt the contents. Check, check and check!
It appears saffron risotto might just be on the menu for my birthday dinner next month when I return from Paris!
Thursday, January 21, 2010
It's been a real eye-opener for this perennially somewhat naïve gal. In order to get one's foot in the door, one must find someone willing to take a chance on a complete newbie. This means competing against folks from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, etc., all of whom claim they speak fluent English and work for less than a dollar an hour. It means bidding on the lowest-paying jobs, sometimes working for employers who can't write a coherent sentence themselves and arguably can't judge the quality of the work provided. But if I can get a few willing souls to take a chance on me, and if they post excellent reviews of my work product on the site, then, in theory, I can eventually command a more respectable wage for my writing from those choosier employers in America and the UK.
A lot of it's editing and proofreading non-native English but some of it's downright scandalous, it strikes me: people seeking individuals to click ads on their websites so they can reap ad income, or offering fifty cents to have someone write an article that they then turn around and sell to a website that pays them considerably more. Hard to know what's worse--that someone would pawn someone else's work off as their own or that so many folks are willing to do so to make make mere pennies.
So now I've returned to being one of the downtrodden masses, it seems. Well, I suppose it's good to be humbled every once in a while. But it is shocking to think that people will advertise for someone to ghostwrite a book based on a skeleton of an idea, pay them perhaps $20 and then try to get it published as if it were their own. Ugh.
Yesterday I spent 4-1/2 hours completely overhauling 10 review articles for someone in Lithuania who's paying me $4.50. That's a flat rate, not per hour! Kind of surreal. I try not to think of what I was paid by the hour back in the States. But if it's an investment in building up a freelance sideline or even mainstream income, then I am willing to bite the bullet. After all, I'm trying to finance what I consider to be a pretty darned idyllic lifestyle here in France, away from the massive overhead of mortgages, heavy taxes and overpriced insurance. I have to remind myself that more than 50% of my take-home pay back in the USA went solely toward the overhead on my houses.
Here in France I have a teensy house (and still have trouble finding the time to keep it as clean as I'd like) with no mortgage, and my expenses consisting of taxes, insurance, water, sewer and utilities run me less than 1500 euros per year. That's about $2500 which, itself, is not much more than my former monthly mortgage payment! So I am truly blessed.
That said, I still have to eat and put petrol ($7.75/gallon here) in the car so a dollar an hour wages isn't going to cut it long-term. But hopefully it's just a stepping stone to more lucrative writing jobs down the road.
I'd keep my fingers crossed but it's so hard to type that way....
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Back on the 21st of December I drove to nearby Le Blanc, just 20 kilometers away to meet the teacher and take a proficiency test. (The same Le Blanc where we whisked my neighbor when he amputated his finger--which, by the way, he did eventually lose, after returning home to resume cutting stone mere hours after getting back from the hospital. He would have returned to work immediately if he hadn't been so busy picking barrows of produce and buckets of walnuts to give me as a thank you.)
Capucine Roy, the teacher, was there to greet us; we filled out a few forms and, because I wasn't sure if I was good enough for intermediate, I took the 'debutante' test as well as the intermediate.
Capucine put me in intermediate with the suggestion that if I felt I was over my head, I could always default to the deb class. I said I needed it to be difficult, I needed the struggle, as I live here now. I don't want to waste time coasting on what might be a good bit of knowledge I already possess.
Well, today I went, reasonably confident I could hold my own. I found myself in a small class of eight students: 3 couples, another woman and myself. Everyone's British except me. And everyone's had several years of recent French lessons except me. Uh, oh....
We started with impromptu introductions. The man on my right went first. I sat there trying not to panic at his stream of French that went on for at least five full minutes. I was so busy trying to piece together a script for myself I was unable to catch more than a few key phrases in his entire monologue. How much of a workout in class would I be giving that key phrase, "Je ne comprend pas?"
Naturally, due to my state of panic, Capucine chose me to speak next. I muddled through and it wasn't too excruciating, stumbling over the history of where I've been the past few years and how I came to live in France.
For the first half hour of the class, I was almost completely lost. But then things started to click. A glimmer of comprehension. I began catching a few more words. I began getting the gist of most of what she was saying. By the time 90 minutes had passed, I felt reasonably in sync. At the end of the two hours I was both calm and excited.
Now, mind you, to imply that I've got things under control would be deceit at best, delusional at the very least. I don't. But I'm determined to plug away. At least I didn't run screaming out of the room tearing my hair out in despair. (I reserve the right, however, to do that at a future date.)
And all that time, Tilly sat in her kennel at my feet, unbeknownst to the teacher until the very end. Hmm, I wonder how much of her native language she's going to to pick up?
Maybe Tilly can teach this old dog some new tricks.
SPEAK! Et pourquoi pas???
Friday, January 1, 2010
It's a cozy day here in central France, very grey with a few stray snowflakes and drops of rain. Just perfect for staying home in front of the fire with a hot toddy. Or so I told myself as I lit the fire moments ago and made a hot lemon with honey, cinnamon, cloves and rum before sitting down to write this.
Normally I don't make New Year's resolutions. Or, more accurately, I make one and only one and always the same one: not to make any resolutions. But this year I'm making an exception. I really do want to finish the first draft of my travel memoir before my next birthday mid-March. And I want to be more conscientious about maintaining this blog...and finding a job...and learning French....
My first New Year's resolution however is trying to figure out where December went. Does anyone know? Will you tell me?
I took a vacation of sorts from writing after jamming so hard in November. Actually, come to think of it, part of December was spent jamming--literally. I had a freezer full of nearly 12 kilos of fruit from the trees of various neighbors, mainly figs and Mirabelle (tiny yellow) plums. So I put up half a dozen jars each of fig chutney and jam, and a dozen of Mirabelle rosemary jam. I can now actually use my freezer so that's a relief.
December also introduced a new member to my household, albeit temporarily. She's my first professional pet sit client and I'm grateful to be making some cash, even short-term.
Lupe (short for Guadalupe) is a Queensland blue heeler who arrived here December 14th and will stay until January 6th. It took a few days for her to adjust to Tilly's puppy antics and to realize that she had to be extraordinarily gentle when playing with someone about 1/8 of her body weight.
But we've reached a comfort level. And having to bring Lupe out for daily vigorous exercise has been good for me as well. Tilly's quite capable of exhausting herself just running around the coffee table. Lupe, on the other hand, needs to tear across the fields playing catch for nearly an hour to accomplish the same thing.
I'm just not used to having a big dog around though. I nearly had a heart attack last week when Lupe, who tends to pace a lot like a caged animal when she's not outside, passed beneath the kitchen table where I was sitting working. One of the electrical cords caught on her tail and my 500GB backup hard drive was swept to the tile floor with a sickening crash. This, I should point out, is the hard drive that contains the only copy of both partially finished book manuscripts. I froze, staring at it in horror as Lupe continued pacing, oblivious to my distress. My heart thudded into my stomach.
When I plugged the hard drive back in, it hacked like a smoker with emphysema. I prayed it wasn't choking to death on the shredded fragments of my precious data. It stubbornly refused to yield a single file. My laptop beeped a warning, and Windows popped up an error message, telling me whatever I'd plugged into my USB port had malfunctioned. Yeah, I got that. Thanks.
Not knowing what else to do, I unplugged it and set it safely out of Lupe's reach, hoping it was just suffering a brief coma and needed some rest to recover. I tried not to panic. I mean, where am I going to find a life support system for my hard drive out in this rural area? And even if I did, could I trust a stranger who speaks a different language to comprehend that I was not prepared to say goodbye to my treasured book drafts? The sole work product of the last three years of my life?
The following day I took a deep breath and tried plugging it in again. No death rattle. Was that a good sign, I wondered? Or not? I tried to open the drive. I exhaled, aware now that I'd been holding my breath. It worked. I whispered a swift prayer of thanks.
It's temperamental now, shutting itself down without warning sometimes but it's still operational. Oh, yeah, that's another New Year's resolution--back up the backup. Maybe I'd better start writing these down....