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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Joyeux Noël

This is why I don't make New Year's resolutions. I not all that long ago resolved to maintain my blog weekly (what was I thinking?) and yet here it is about six weeks since the last post and two months before that. This is why my New Year's resolutions typically boil down to one: don't make any New Year's resolutions (particularly after a glass or two of Champagne).

Friday, November 11, 2011

Finding Peace

November 11th is Armistice Day in Europe, marking the day the Allies and the Germans signed the peace treaty ending World War One. It was deliberately scheduled at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. An 11-11-11 to signify that it truly was all quiet on the western front. So it’s a national holiday here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Remembering Fallen Friends

   A number of years ago when I was working in downtown Manhattan, a co-worker offered to give me a ride in his helicopter. I met him that Saturday morning at Linden Airport in northern New Jersey.
   "There are no doors on this thing?" I asked, as I struggled to secure the seatbelt.
   Richie gave me a wicked smile. "Let me know if it gets too much for you," he taunted. I'd have to fall out, I decided, before I would scream and at that point he probably wouldn't hear me anyway.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Boulangerie Bread Baked by Me!

Someone explain to me why, here in France, surrounded by myriad wonderful boulangeries, I've taken to baking my own bread?

It started when Anthony, one of my clients, asked me to write yet another set of cooking articles for him. One was on artisanal breadmaking. I mean, what better place to be to understand about the advantages of artisanal breadmaking than France, right?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

I Can Can, Can You?

Canning is always something I relish having done (no pun intended) but rarely look forward to at the time it needs doing.

For the uninitiated, potting up preserves, relishes, sauces, pie fillings and the like means a delicate dance between boiling/preparing the food itself, while simultaneously sterilizing the jars and lids — separately, of course, I mean, why make it easier, right? — and boiling the water in the canner so it's ready to pop the jars in, as well as orchestrating the transfer of the product to the jars with minimum mess and contamination, then placing the jars on a rack in the canner with sufficient boiling water to submerge the jars at least an inch so you can boil them 20 minutes or so before carefully extracting them, all the while praying that the seal is intact; otherwise you're relegated to dozens of jars taking up precious freezer space ...

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Fruits of Fading Summer

All around me people are planning the return of the school year with autumn around the corner. My garden, however, seems to have, at least temporarily, caught itself in a time warp.

Only this week have the tomatoes that went in during mid-May started to redden. The season was so slow that I didn't have the heart to pluck out the rogue tomato plant that sprang from the upward sliding door at the foot of my compost bin, thereby making it impossible to open the drawer without severing the plant. I've had what feels like boatloads of peaches, apples and squash from well-meaning neighbors, more than I can ever eat, can or otherwise preserve. (I still have five liter-sized jars of peaches from last year soaking in rum because I didn't have the time to preserve them any other way.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Living in Days Gone By

I was chatting to an ex-boyfriend just last night, trying to describe how different my life here in France is from the days of Wall Street when he knew me as a complete Type A personality. Those days are long past, writing and editing at my patio table whether the sun's shining or not (who knew with am American-sized patio umbrella that I could work outside even in the rain?) and taking brief breaks from work to hang out laundry to dry in the sun, prune or harvest vegetables, and cut tea roses and hydrangea blooms.

This man could not fathom my tales of buying meats and poultry direct from the farmers (or the high prices we pay for it — in France they do pay a living wage and don't economize by jamming animals into cages — $10/lb for chicken anyone?). He laughed in amazement as I described walking into the village market for supplies on those days when the butcher, veg and bread vans don't drive down my street to deliver. We buy cheese from the cheese-makers and wine directly from the vineyards.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Too Chicken to Blog?

   A friend of mine just woke me up to the fact that my blog has done yet another Rip Van Winkle of late.
   Work, admittedly, has been gratifyingly busy, with several books, articles and short stories to edit, not to mention the articles I ghostwrite for various websites, to the point where my own book has also gone back into its regularly scheduled hibernation.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Carving a Niche for Myself

It was six days before I could return, admittedly somewhat unenthusiastically, to wielding a pickaxe and chisel to finish the roadside garden bed. For a week now, it had resembled a side by side, before and after illustration.

The days have been hot so this particular Saturday morning I rose and was outside by 6:45am when it was still quite crisp and cool out. I finished trenching and laying the stone by mid-morning without seeing a soul. Using the pickaxe of an obliging neighbor, I began breaking up the soil bed into fist-sized "rocks" which I then pummeled with the stone mallet into powder.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Spring Transformations

Lately, I've been hard at work doing the typical spring cleaning and reorg, both inside and out. In particular the garden has required a good deal of time.

The welcome catalyst has been the impending visit of a very dear friend from the US come July. So a lot of the tasks that, in true French fashion, I've been willing to put off until another day, have now taken on a new sense of urgency.

To my neighbors' relief, that includes retooling the garden beds that border the street in front of my house and lead down along to the garage (a freestanding building). Neighbors were bewildered when I cloaked the weedy crabgrass-infested section with black plastic 18 months ago, my lazy way of killing off what was beneath and enriching the soil with the resulting decay with very little labor involved on my part.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bon Anniversaire!

Well, today marks the 2-year anniversary of this blog, as well as V-E Day (Victory in Europe, the end of WWII). It's also Mother's Day back in the States.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, more so for chores now that spring is already giving way to summer here with relentlessly sunny days and temps near or at 80F.

When my friend and I returned from the UK, we collected two very excited but well cared for pups and proceeded to spend Easter weekend in moderate isolation, never happier!

Now, in between editing and writing assignments, I’m focusing on the garden.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Exiled in Exmoor

Okay, hardly exiled but I'm still feeling little Tilly's absence acutely. What fun she and her brother would have had at this beautiful thatched cottage among the other residents—ducks, pigeons, rabbits and countless other wildlife and surrounding farm animals.

This being my first trip to southern England, I can now see why it's considered to be such a garden spot. The rolling green hills, so like Ireland's, are arresting, and the Exmoor ponies roam freely here, something I've never seen before.

Spring and ducks means lots of duck eggs and Maggie, the owner, handed over half a dozen when we first arrived. They're easily twice the size of the normal chicken eggs we typically soft-boil for breakfast so we've taken to frying them just to be sure. Delicious!

The country roads here are incredibly narrow, only fit for a single vehicle although spaces are carved into the flanking hedgerows to permit one car to scrunch in so another can pass. I've had a few close calls, partly because the locals drive these roads so fast, overconfident in the infrequent traffic, and partly because I keep forgetting to drive on the left side of the road. (Not that these tiny lanes actually have a left side, mind you.)

One afternoon, I hit a log jam inside a tiny village. I approached a very tight right turn I needed to make, angled at no more than 45 degrees. Up ahead was a woman in another car who looked as if she was trying to make the same right turn but was positioned at an awkward angle as her way was blocked by this enormous truck. I sat for several moments waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, I jumped out of my car and approached the truck.

"Uh, what's happening here?" The driver pointed to where I was parked and said he wanted to make a left turn. I looked at the size of his truck and the tight 45-degree turn and blurted out, "Are you kidding me?" He shrugged.

"Okay, what is she doing?" I asked, pointing to the car ahead of me, as I'd seen him chatting to her through the vehicle windows.

"She wants to go that way," he said, pointing down past where he was emerging. I looked around. A number of cars had accumulated behind me.

"Wait here," I said, as if there was any chance he could actually go anywhere. I proceeded to walk back about six cars (there was actually a horse in the queue), asking each driver where they were headed. In about 10 minutes, I'd rerouted one car and had the other five back up sufficiently. Then I pulled forward, slightly beyond the turn I wanted to make so the truck could angle around me. I watched as he see-sawed back and forth trying to make the impossibly tight turn.

Crunch! The truck was so big I couldn't see what he'd actually hit. Neither could he. Backing up, it became apparent—a wooden post about three feet high that had clearly been installed on the corner in front of this village home for just this purpose, to save the home from being clipped by oversized vehicles. The post was badly splintered but the truck took one more shot and was on its way. Hesitantly, cars began to inch forward and jockey for position. We still had a bit of a gridlock, with more cars that had appeared but eventually we all maneuvered successfully around each other.

I was struck by the patience for this situation that had easily taken more than 15 minutes to resolve. Not a single horn beeped, not a single driver gestured in frustration (well, aside from me, that is) and, as Innis later wryly observed when I told her what had occurred, they'd probably still be sitting there patiently waiting had I not gotten out of my car to direct traffic.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Best Friends

Although spring and warm weather had deliciously descended on France come March, my friend and I found ourselves hurriedly preparing for a trip to the decidedly colder and wetter UK, taking my larger car so she could return with a few final treasures from her mother’s estate, now that the house had been sold.

 Innis turned cartwheels to find us dog-friendly accommodation in places where we knew we could take them for long walks through Exmoor, a particularly beautiful area in southwest England near her mother’s former home. Too late we discovered that we’d missed the dogs’ rabies shot renewal by a few weeks.

Here in France, rabies vaccinations aren’t even legally required but we’d naturally had them inoculated for everything after their microchipping as puppies and had everything documented on their puppy passports. England, however, is, well, rather rabid about rabies vaccines. And we’d blown it. Missing the annual deadline meant having to have them inoculated, then wait four months to have them get a blood test to prove sufficient antibodies and only then would they be permitted across the border.  I suggested we have their antibody levels tested immediately to illustrate they were still protected. Nope. Unacceptable. There was no way to get around the bureaucracy.

Only an animal lover would understand how devastated we were. And we couldn’t cancel the trip because it wasn’t pure vacation and the cottages had been prepaid, to boot, and were non-refundable. And the few individuals we would trust to look after not one but both little dogs (they can be a lively handful) were unavailable. We looked at each other in dread when we realized there was only one solution—we had to find a kennel.

The vet in Ligueil recommended one in Charnizay, about halfway between my home and Innis’s, so off we went, fully expecting to be riddled with guilt when we saw it. What we saw was a huge farm run by a man who breeds border collies and West Highland terriers, and trains the collies in sheep herding. The kennel cages were spacious with a covered run area and the owner, clearly a dog lover, assured us they could stay together, he didn’t mind the extra work involved in preparing their food (versus feeding them kibble as is the norm) and said they’d get three periods every day where they'd be free to roam unmolested by other dogs inside the massively fenced in area surrounding the kennel cages. We convinced ourselves they were going to camp and would have a great time while we would be the ones languishing, missing them terribly.

So, for the first time on one of our joint holidays the days have been dragging, we’ve each been a bit stressed and we can’t wait to see them again come Easter weekend. We’ve only had these dogs for 18 months and yet we can’t seem to remember how to truly enjoy ourselves without their company. It seems that man’s best friend is woman’s best friend, too!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gas (Gasp) Prices

I've been fretting of late, most recently to my younger sister, about the cobwebs on this blog. This is due not just to my neglect in favor of writing work that actually pays some cash and therefore keeps food on the table, but also to what has been, to my mind, a dearth of subjects to write about. I'm particularly concerned about this diarrhea of the fingers I invariably suffer from, and feel I should try to be pithier in my blog entries. Ideally, I'd be turning them into blurbs so they're a quicker read.  But I ramble...

I returned from Portugal a week ago, and today I ventured out to gas up the car. I've been reading of late — often accompanied by amused eye rolls and patronizing chuckles — of the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth in the USA now that gas prices have pushed up as high as $3.90/gallon in some places such as California, according to a Yahoo! headline just this afternoon.

I drove up to the supermarket station which typically has, within a few pennies (or should I say centimes) the cheapest prices around. I pursed my lips as my brain absorbed the sign: €1.51 per litre. Clearly my income really is meant to put food on the table. It doesn't yet extend to putting petrol in the tank.

Basic unleaded gas had been €1.40/litre when I'd left in late January, pretty much where it's been for the last few years, give or take. I had intended today to fill the tank. I settled for half that and shelled out €40 to the cashier. Had my French been good enough, I might have asked if that price came with an oxygen tank.

I came home and hit the trusty Google. It confirmed first that there are 3.78541178 litres in a gallon. (Sorry, I've been doing a lot of editing of Australian books so my fingers keep writing UK English.)

A currency check confirmed that €1.50 equals $2.10. So, according to my calculations, gas has jumped 75 cents a gallon here in the past week or so, to $7.95 per gallon. Yes, that's up from last week's $7.10-$7.15, a price we've been paying pretty steadily over the past few years, at least since 2007, if I recall correctly.

Oxygen anyone?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Magical Biarritz

Travel seems to come so naturally here in France that I'm often astounded when I sit down and account for all the places I've been recently.

I was reviewing client e-mails in order to update them on my whereabouts and saw one where a client wrote, "Have fun on your trip." I was momentarily startled that I'd already told him of my trip to Portugal. Instead, it was the six-day trip to Normandy and Paris that I'd taken in October/November. He didn't even know that I'd headed off to Portugal by way of Biarritz and Salamanca (Spain) for five weeks.

My friend Innis and I decided that we could pay for the month of February in southernmost Portugal, actually the westernmost section of Europe, for essentially what we would jointly pay for our heating for the month. Mind you, February is hardly the severe month that I've grown up knowing in New Jersey, New York City and Connecticut. When I left the last week of January, my daffodils were already about five inches high, leaving me to wonder if I'd miss their entire blooming period if I didn't come back until the first week of March.

But leave I did, heading first to Biarritz for the first time for several days. I knew of the reputation of Biarritz as a long-reigning spa resort and indeed it still is although it's a shadow of its former glory in a day where such places were completely out of reach of 'regular folks.'

We stayed in a dog-friendly hotel just a block or so from the beach where a stunning compound lies, one which my friend told me was frequented by Napoleon and his Josephine.

One visit and I could see the magic of Biarritz. It was but a short stay but it surely won't be my last.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Learning a New Language

As usual the days, no the weeks...no, in fact, the month has gotten away from me.  I did return to the Martizay French class and had a blast teaching this terrific, enthusiastic group basic English. It brought to light one fundamental fact, however.

With the profusion of Brits in this region and the dearth of Americans, it is as if oftentimes we speak a different language. I bumped up against this in the French class when I realized the vernacular I took for granted wasn't quite so common because the French learn British style English. A sweater to Americans is a pullover to Brits; pants to them are underwear while our version of pants are what they call trousers; what we call suspenders they call braces and what they call suspenders are something men wear to keep their socks from falling down. Suit vests to us are waistcoats to them; their version of a vest is an undershirt.

Since I've moved to France, I'm learning an entirely different language   English. And I'm someone who's grown up with a reasonable exposure to Irish English so I'm hardly as uninitiated as the typical American. I grew up reading English and Irish books and spending summers in Ireland. My mother still remembers how cross she was one September  when one of us   either my sister, Eithne, or I   had been marked off on a spelling test for writing 'colour' instead of 'color.' (Of course our revenge was going on to become local and state spelling bee champions respectively at the age of 14 at that same school.)

Now, surrounded by Brits, I've found myself adopting much of the dialectic slang, a sort of 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do' communication attempt. I stop off to fill my car with petrol, I reach for kitchen roll instead of paper towels, cling film instead of plastic wrap, aluminium instead of aluminum foil, and indicate something's a one-off when it happens but once.

Expressions I still struggle with are numerous: rawlplugs instead of anchors (the plastic plugs you put into plaster when you drill holes to hang pictures and such; rawlplug is apparently a trade name, much as using Kleenex or Xerox in lieu of tissues and photocopies); a crosshead is  a Phillips screwdriver while a slotted screwdriver is what we call a flathead. Aren't all screwdrivers technically slotted?

Words that are not readily apparent are the ones that naturally baffle me the most. "That's completely naff," has me running for the internet dictionary to remind myself that it means inferior, less than desirable or, in more extreme applications, an alternate to one of the more internationally recognized four-letter words. 'I'm chuffed' always makes me pause because it means you're delighted when somehow to me it sounds like I'm chafed or completely annoyed.

Some that are at least potentially fathomable are 'taking the piss out of someone' (making fun of them), or 'chucking it down' (it's raining hard).

It's no wonder that I'm still struggling here to learn French. I'm still learning English!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

English Faux Pas

Recently I had been told of a conversational group that had started up in my village, designed, someone said, to permit French-speaking people to learn English and English-speaking people to learn French. I was quite excited about it although my heavy work schedule meant I had to miss the first few meetings.

Today, despite a still rather onerous schedule, I was determined to attend the two-hour gathering. I spied one familiar face, Marie-Laure, a dynamic and delightful French woman who is a friend to the woman who sold me my house and had dropped by shortly after I arrived in Martizay last year to introduce herself. Her lack of English and my lack of French weren't enough to deter either of us. So I was pleased to see a friendly face.

I was disappointed, however, when I discovered that, instead of being a conversational exchange, this was simply a beginner's course in English for French speakers. Reluctant to be rude and just walk out, I elected to stay for today's session and try to do all the assigned exercises in French instead of English. Marie-Laure kept an eye on my work and corrected any mistakes while doing her own work at the same time.

A bit of a stickler for grammar, I was dismayed to see the first example the teacher, a volunteer British Martizay resident, put up on the board. She was illustrating how to make a negative statement out of an affirmative one. She wrote, "I am good," followed by "I am not good."

I bit my lip and wondered if I'd make it to the end of the two hours without tearing my hair out if this continued. I was half-expecting her to write "I could of" instead of "I could have," another glaring error that seems to be growing in popularity now, likely due to how few people bother to pick up a book these days and actually see the language.

I weathered the class with reasonably few winces (it was a friendly, fun group) and, when they announced that the volunteer teacher would be away for the next two weeks, I asked the program coordinator off to one side who would be teaching. Marie-Christine shook her head sorrowfully and whispered, "No one."

I knew I had a pretty demanding schedule but I couldn't help myself--this would be a great way to become a more familiar face to some of the villagers without being handicapped by my dearth of French. I asked if there was anything I could do. Marie-Christine's face brightened and next thing I knew I had agreed to return next week to teach the class.

Maybe if I do a good job, Marie-Christine will work with me to start a real conversational exchange group. My English may be above average but Lord knows my French sure ain't!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas Expectations

Ever since I left the USA in October of 2006, I left behind all the manic, stress-filled, end-of-year lavish decorating, gift-giving and meal-making holiday prep. I’d abandoned Martha Stewart for Debt-Free-Living. It was both energizing and stressful in its own right. I found myself still trying to buy for nephew and niece despite not having an income anymore--and no prospect of one, traveling abroad relying on my savings. This despite it costing me more than a hundred dollars just in postage for gifts equal to that, not to mention being vastly less than I could thoughtlessly spring for in previous years.  No matter how hard I wanted to shed the material aspect of my former life, it was hard to shed the expectation and tradition at times.

Christmas of 2009 was my first Christmas as a true resident of France, after spending 2006 escaping my first and arguably most nightmarish housesit on the Route du Paulmy in Ferrière-Larçon, leaving idyllic Vienna mid-December 2007 for my second nightmarish housesit in England before bailing for Ireland a mere two months later (but returning to my friend’s in Ferriere for the holiday), and then returning to the USA Nov-Dec 2008 before dashing back to Ferriere for a relaxed New Year’s. Funny but it’s only at this writing that I realize how I always managed to time my return to France to coincide with some part of each and every year-end holiday, an escape from onerous and unrealistic expectations, tensions and stress, short tempers and a feeling of ‘where has the real spirit of Christmas gone?’

This past Christmas, as the year before, was spent with a friend just kicking back, relaxing, no huge turkey dinner to spend days preparing for, and an informal promise to each other that if we chose to stay in our pajamas all day while we grazed on a pre-made buffet of foie gras terrine and other cold homemade finger foods, that would be quite within our rights.

In fact, the only gift-giving was to be to our sibling dogs, and I’d brought the doggie stockings to stuff. Tilly for some inconceivable reason, glommed on to her stocking at first sight days before, despite the fact that I hadn’t stowed anything inside of it beyond a tennis ball and another toy, quite out of sight. Treats and additional toys from my friend had yet to be secreted inside. When I stowed them out of Tilly's reach, she whined and cried, staring incessantly at the embroidered terrier dogs before, exasperated, I gave up and stuffed them inside the wardrobe until it was time to bring them to my friend's home on Christmas Day.

Well, Christmas has come and gone and the stockings emptied. Once I’d returned home on the 29th, the empty stockings resumed their places, hanging from the mantel, a charming accoutrement to the other holiday decorations that grace the fireplace when the evening fire is lit, including fat bunches of mistletoe, which grows rampant on the trees here. But expectations have not been laid to rest no matter how many new toys litter the floor. Each night has been laced with bouts of piteous cries as Tilly suddenly spies her stocking and stands on the fireplace foot, staring covetously first at one and then the other, convinced that more treasures must lie within. Ah, those great expectations!