Friday, November 29, 2013

The Camargue

   The Camargue is an area in the Bouches du Rhones, south of Arles, covered with saline marshlands, ponds and bordering the sea. I have been wanting to go since arriving in France but knew it can be swelteringly hot there as well as provide a haven for bird-sized mosquitoes. The Camargue is famous for wild horses, black bulls and pink flamingos.
  We went to Saintes Maries de la Mer a few weeks ago. After our harrowing drive with the road blockage and many extra hours on the highway, we arrived in the sleepy town and our adorable motel. Needless to say, it was dark but we could still see a white horse from the patio of our room.
   The weather was not the most favorable the weekend we were there, but after a great hotel breakfast, we donned hats, gloves and parkas and hit the beach. As you know, we love the water so no matter what season, we have fun chasing waves, collecting shells and wandering over the sand. The town was pretty boarded up as the season was over, but it looked to be full of fun shops and restaurants. We found a great mussel lunch which pleased all of us-even Middle Child decided on that day that she liked mussels- a major breakthrough to expanding her limited culinary repertoire.
   The hotel owner arranged a trail ride for us in the afternoon. We were a string of about 12 riders of varying ability all on the famous white horses. Unfortunately, for Youngest Child's birthday, he got thrown off, something he was not at all happy about. At least he will remember the adventure.
   We did not see the black bulls famous in the region, but we went to an ornithological park where there were thousands of pink flamingos as well as other migratory birds that attract visitors from all over France. Trails zigzag throughout the park, making it easy to wander for hours through the salt marshes, admiring these gorgeous birds.
   We all want to visit the Camargue again in the spring. The hotel owners suggested April-before the crowds and the mosquitoes arrive. We will certainly try to fit another trip in before departure time.
Jumping for joy
Hard to imagine this parking lot overflowing with cars
St. Maries de la Mer is also a fishing village
Wishing I had a kitchen
thousands of them.. 
Our string of white horses
Aren't they great looking?
Wandering the docks

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It's Getting Colder

   I like a mild winter. Skiing is my favorite thing to do, but fact of the matter is, I like it all the more when the sun is shining. I grew up in Maryland where the winters are frigidly cold due to the high humidity. There is often plenty of ice and howling wind. Freezing fingertips and dripping noses are the norm.
   I spent my high school years in Massachusetts which was even colder, but at least there was snow to sled and ski on. My path later led me to California for a year- I handled that winter with ease. I don't even remember having a coat. Next was Northern New Mexico which was much like my present(other than this year) home in southern Colorado where the sun shines at least 300 days a year, but also snows plenty to keep winter sport enthusiasts happy for a quarter of the year.
   This is my first European winter and lucky for me in started late. Just the past few weeks have cooled down to close to freezing at night and we saw our first snowflakes a few days ago, no accumulation. Today was a brilliant, sunny day with warm temperatures close to 15 degrees Celsius, a pleasant change from the cloudy, wet days that proceeded it.
   On days like today, we replenish the woodpile, wander the woods collecting kindling and pine cones, and eating lunch outside. The winter landscape is a bit harsher and as the solstice is approaching, days are very short. I chase my kids around outside for the hour of daylight after school before we retire to our cozy home for the long evening. I hear the first two months of the new year are cold, wet and can be dismal, but sunny days are thrown in to keep the inhabitants from fleeing to warmer climates. (Warmer climates are only an hour away on the French Riviera- I should manage.)
Persimmon Tree
Evening Soccer

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Charm of Rustic Living

   My wonderful friend and inspiration for my being in France for a year was visiting recently along with another good friend from my hometown. It was wonderful to have them near for dinners together, casual conversation(something I am seriously lacking while surrounded by a culture of people I do not understand) and companionship. I wrote about her few months ago here:
   Her mother has a cabanon in Entrecasteaux where she comes in the spring to visit old friends and enjoy her former way of life. My visiting friends stayed there where there is no electricity, running water or other modern comforts. You can't get the car up to the house(unless you are one of those people who abuse your rental cars.) It is truly remote, removed and secluded, though just 10 minutes from town.
   We went over for an evening of games, supper and wine one late afternoon. The house sits atop a hill, with fabulous vistas and overlooks a tidy vineyard. The house itself is lovely with warm, plaster walls, shuttered doors and windows of a pale, earthy green color and a charming patio to sit upon and gaze out at the view. Unfortunately, wintery weather had already set in, so we each found our cozy space inside and lit candles in every nook and table. The candlelight offered the perfect venue for a hand silhouette show, orchestrated by Oldest Child. Later, Younger Two Children got a hold of a couple of headlamps and climbed up into the loft to play. The rest of us puttered about, making plates of hors d'oeuvres, sipping rose and enjoying the peace this home offered.
   My Friends made a fabulous soup and the meal was a memorable one for many reasons, but mostly because of the charm of the rustic cabin.
Below the cabin

Incredible ambiance
Mirrors behind the candles cast more light- clever.
Memorable meal with friends and family. 
The show....

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Baby is 9

   Youngest Child turned 9 yesterday. There are two things that I fret about on a regular basis. The first is what happens to all of  the trash, and the second is how fast time goes. Like many others, I clearly remember my mother preaching to me over summer vacations when I complained about being soooo bored, preaching the words: enjoy it now because time only goes faster as you get older. Well, now I am older and I can't stand how time disappears.
   All of my children will celebrate a birthday in France, or some other neighboring country of choice. I am the only who won't have an European birthday, so we will have to celebrate my half birthday which will come up in another month or so. Nonetheless, for youngest Child's birthday we went to the Camargue, a wonderful coastal area east of Marseilles that is famous for its wild, white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos. (And warplane sized mosquitoes, but luckily they were done for the season)
It is similar to Chincoteague Island, near where I grew up. The beaches were wide and sandy, the marshes were teeming with waterfowl, white horses were everywhere though I don't know if there are any wild ones anymore, and bull was served on many menus. Restaurants served fresh seafood and wandering the docks in the morning was proof of the plentiful day's catch. It is a gorgeous area that we vowed we would return to, before mosquito season starts.
   Youngest Child starting whispering in my ear about 4:00 A.M., wondering if he could open presents yet. The night before, we discussed having to wait until the sun was up. Considering this is the child who wakes the entire house anywhere between 2:00-4:00 A.M. on Christmas morning, I knew it would be challenging for him to practice patience. Lucky for him, he is so cute. He made it until just before sunrise, then just could not handle it any longer. We came back to our house after a really pleasant weekend voyage and shared a delicious cake with our wonderful neighbors who make us feel so at home here in France.
  Happy Birthday, Baby Boy.
From 9 years old and 93 years old
Jumping for joy...or just trying to stay warm
Opening presents in the wee hours of the morning

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Week in Review

   As we all know, the French love to express their displeasure with governmental choices through strikes and demonstrations. My children have already experienced with great joy, the teacher strikes and last week, they gotten another round of those.
  They already have a 4 day school week, Monday was a holiday and Wednesday was put on the schedule as to not loose too many days on the school calendar, but Thursday was a planned teacher strike so we are back to only 3 days last week. Then, unknown to me, there was a parental boycott of school on Wednesday- yes, with only 3 days of school planned, another was scrapped for the same issue the teachers were striking for. I won't go into the reasons for the strike.
   As I am the American in the dark, I sent my kids to school on that Wednesday and they were the only children in the class that day. They and I were more than happy as they got a 3 hour tutoring session with their teacher! Yes, I picked them up half day. I did not want them to be all alone in the cafeteria, too.
   Thankfully we haven't had do endure an air traffic control strike or train blockade, but this weekend, on our way to the Camargue for Clay's birthday, we were stuck in the middle of a major demonstration by farmers and truck drivers opposed to a bio-tax. Traffic was at a stand still on a 4 lane highway, the sides of the highway had been lit on fire by the protesters, firetrucks were desperately trying to get though the millions of cars blocking the interstate. An easy 2 hour drive ended up taking us well over 6 hours, and a royal headache trying to navigate a detour through the city of Arles. It was quite an experience that I really do not want to do again.
   More on our weekend in the Camargue later -hint- there are wild, white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos. And it is on the coast- a favorite place to be for us.
I think all the white trucks were riot control-there was about 20 of them that sped by.

Protesters had set fires along the highway.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Aix en Provence, Take 2

   With friends in town, we are easily persuaded to do some local touring, so after dropping the younger two off at school, the rest of us piled into the Peugeot, and headed to Aix en Provence. We went there over the summer to see the wonderful impressionist exhibit which was a real treat, but time was not on our side in July, and we did not get to see much of the city outside of the gallery.
   This time, we wandered throughout the old part of Aix, a charming, clean city bubbling with youthful energy as it is home to several universities. It is very international, and if one is short of words in French, everyone speaks English-very well. We started strolling down the Cours Mirabeau, the main tourist drag, which was lined with market vendors with cloths, scarves and other goods. Turn a corner, and there is a food market with gorgeous displays of produce, mushrooms, cheeses, meats, and more. Through a corridor and a lively brocante is taking place, selling, well, stuff.
   Pretty boutiques are tucked into small places along these narrow streets. We have noticed that the French like shoes- gorgeous, expensive shoes. We stuck out like sore thumbs with our Clogs and Converse sneakers. Oh well, at least we can eat like the French do.
   We indulged in a cafe lunch that was not impressive, just expensive. Earlier while at the market, we all shared the most delicious sandwich, but as we wanted to have a real meal, we decided on only a taste of this delight. Oldest Child had suggested we make a meal out of it, and get more than just a taste. The grownups explained our desire for a mature, seated lunch at a cafe. Once again, Oldest Child's suggestion was the best, but we did not listen. The sandwich was made with a good baguette and freshly sliced ham of some sort. Then, the merchant had a raclette melter with a half of a wheel of a mild raclette cheese which was slowly being heated and once bubbling, would be scooped off to make a warm layer on top of the ham in the crusty baguette. It was delicious. With a crisp apple, maybe a small salade verte, it would be the most perfect lunch. We each savored the bite we had, assuming our real meal would be able to stand up to its predecessor. It did not. Some day, I will listen to Oldest Child.
    With Christmas fast approaching, I have shopping on my mind. Aix has wonderful things as so many stored have unique gifts. I was wondering how to sneak some things onto the counter without Oldest Child noticing but that was impossible so now I just have to plan another trip to Aix-en-Provence without any children!

Beautiful display of mushrooms 
You know it is fall in the markets
This is the ham....
Scooping the cheese...oh my God, was it good!
Oldest Child's Octopus Salad
Anchoiade Salade- an anchovy-garlic dip with a sundry of raw and cooked veggies
Fun Looking Cafe-wonder what the interior was like?


Monday, November 11, 2013

They Came...They Went

   We were having a leisurely coffee at the bar the other day, watching not much at all going by, when we started to hear the distant sound of bells. No, Santa was not coming early, the sheep were passing through town. I do not know where they start, or where they end up. Well, we all know where they ultimately end up- but they came through Entrecasteaux, a few hundred of them, accompanied by a two or three very skilled dogs and a charismatic sheepherder who seemed to love putting on a show for the townspeople and tourist. (I am the only tourist left in Entrecasteaux)
   I never would have thought a sheepherder would be characterized as charismatic, but he was amusing. As the sheep saw the vegetables set up outside the epicerie, some renegades quickly changed their course to try to get an exotic taste of the lettuces, carrots and cabbages, only to be realigned with their herd by the comic herder.
   Even though temperatures are fluctuating right now, we took a picnic to the lake this weekend as we have friends in town who want to see and do, as much as possible, of course. And with fine food available, little else really matters, does it?
They came-
They went-
Good company and -
Good food.
Crisp, cold day for a picnic

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Stumbling Over Words and Sticks

   The weather got quite chilly around here last weekend, but thankfully, we were back in t-shirts today. The wind is wildly blowing branches out of our big tree, rattling windows and causing a little bit of edgy-ness, as wind can do. This seems to be the weather trend in the south of France- storms are followed by the mistral.
   Two Kids were back to school this week, after two weeks off. The return was not too painful- surprisingly. I had a brief rendez-vous with their teacher, who speaks no English. She confessed that she thought my kids are starting to catch on, and understand a little bit. Hallelujah!! Don't get me wrong, they can not put a sentence together on their own yet, but maybe it really will come, someday...There is a tutoring session a few days a week after school, and I would love to sneak my kids into the mix, in hopes of speeding up their grasp of the language.
   I wonder what it is like to listen to someone speak to you in a foreign language when the speaker is struggling to find words, mangling pronunciation, stuttering and looking generally pained? Well, I know that I will be most sympathetic in the future if I am on the receiving end of such a conversation, as everyone here has been with me.
   While the other two were at school the other day, Oldest Child and I had a lovely lunch in between home school sessions that was basically made up of whatever was left in the kitchen. Resembling a Nicoise Salad, it was missing several elements and any proper French person probably would have sited so. There are so many traditional recipes, probably many that you know, and people make them regularly. But, I don't think they like the recipes messed with-it is kept a classic. Soupe au Pistou, Blanquette de Veau, Ratatouille, Coq au Vin, Aioli-the list goes on. I toyed with the idea of spiking an aioli with some chipotle chiles to see what people would think of such renegade cooking-it hasn't happened yet, but we still have plenty of time.
Make shift Nicoise Salad
Looks a little different in the falltime-
But flowers still bloom.


Sunday, November 3, 2013


   The French elementary schools in my area have two weeks off every six weeks. I wonder how they re assimilate after so much vacation? I wonder how my children will re assimilate after all of this time off? I wish I could say they were beaming with excitement, but that is just not the case. Youngest Child would put up a fuss about return to the classroom no matter what country we are in. Middle Child is accepting of the return, but desperately wishes she could speak the necessary language. Everybody tells me it will come. Problem is, I was so sure they would be speaking within two months of starting school-it has been six weeks- and barely a word. They are frustrated, rightfully so.
   On another note, we have enjoyed our free time, as we always do. After a week in Scotland, we have not gone more than 20 km. in any direction. There have been picnics, chocolat chaud in town, even a couple of social get togethers. And...Halloween.
   Back home, we have had an annual Halloween party, inviting all of our friends, new and old, to celebrate with food, games, fire and costume. Like for most Americans, trick or treating is a favorite holiday, big business and a competitive one, at that. Kids race to beat the pack behind them to the next door up the street. If a house has turned off their front door light in order to deter candy callers, kids consider them Scrooges. They reap enough candy to induce a sugar buzz in an entire third world country. So, after a very pleasant jaunt around Cotignac as one large pack of trick or treaters made up of the village's school children, they each had a couple of handfuls of candy. The "parade" visited merchants, not residences, excpet for a very sweet pass through the retirement home, which was my kids' favorite. Youngest finished his entire cache before we returned home. Yes, he complained about how sick he was while I giggled at his foolishness. Live and learn....
   But, I never found a pumpkin for carving. I had not one decoration. Costume making was difficult as inexpensive materials do not seem to exist here. It came, it went and we are all looking forward to Christmas as I know that is a very festive holiday for the French.
Awaiting the start of the Trick or treating parade with a friend from school. Guess what? He is Belgian....
Trick or treating at the Maison de The
Trick or treating at the Fleuriste
Even at the Tapissier...