Friday, October 22, 2010

Attention Deficit

Visitor season is not quite over yet. My mom and my aunt are arriving Saturday and will stay for two weeks. In December, my niece will be staying with me for a week as part of her after-college-European-adventure (feels kind of good to be included in a  22-year-old's adventure!) Anyway, all this is well and good and I am excited about their visits. 

However, I'm a college student now. And just as when I was a student 25  30 years ago, diversions are...just so diverting!  I have absolutely no innate attention span. I can't even get dressed in the morning without finding something else that interests me more... in between my dress, my boots, my hair, etc....Geez!  I thought I'd grow out of this eventually! And I'm trying so hard to be a good student. You know....tow the line...get home immediately after class and start my studies. But let me just say, it's not easy getting home from school each day without being redirected from all my good intentions.

First there's the Parc Jourdan. On a beautiful, sunny day...which is most days...I just want to "park it".

It's a great place to study but I really want to do this...

Then there's the flower shop. When my favorite vendor at the market stops selling her garden sunflowers for 5 euros a bunch, this will be more difficult to pass up. Because a house SHOULD have flowers in it at all times!

And then I have to pass this least 4 or 5 times depending upon which route I take. Yesterday, I was not strong.

When I arrive at Cours Mirabeau I have to walk past about 5 cafes that call my favorite is Le Grillon.

 And of course, there are the shoe stores. My little problem is boots. OMG! I WANT them all! This is a lifelong weakness that has only been exacerbated by living in France.

Why the hell do they leave their doors open? It's an evil trap, that's all I'm sayin'!

Then of course, there are at least 5 lingerie stores on the way. This has never been a weakness before...but France has changed that!

If I were to fall to my need (okay...want) to own this little set, it would put me out to the tune of 150 euros.

 Then, just when I think I'm out of the woods, there is Place Richelme.  A coffee and a little people watching can't hurt, can it? But no...I must keep moving.

then there's the wine store... the ice cream shop...more boots, more bakeries, the roasted chestnut vendor...

and when the finish line is finally in sight... there is one more shoe store. And this pair of red boots. I'm hoping they will eventually just go away so I can wipe the drool off my mouth and think about more important things. Like world peace.

But I have not succumbed. And just as the smell of victory begins to waft beneath my nostrils, I need to walk through the Place de Marie. And between the sunshine, the jazz musicians playing under the Plane tree, and the cafe crême that I must a reward for walking past those red boots, I cannot stop myself from sitting down to delay...for just a few moments...writing my paper that's due tomorrow morning.

I guess I won't have to worry about visitors diverting me from my studies. I have (almost) proven how strong I can really be! However, it would be nice if they brought a little Ritalin with them in their carry-ons.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Life Ring

Today is Monday which means I'm posting an article written for the newspaper, one year ago this week. I began writing those articles...I believe it was supposed to be four in all, when I moved here to France. When I wrote this article a year ago, I was on article 29. Today, deadline day, I'm writing number 70. I don't know what the subject will be today. Any ideas?

Last week I arrived home to find cardboard package, exuberantly bound in duct tape, sitting in my living room. It had obviously come a long way and this wasn’t just some itty-bitty package. This box had some heft! My name was right there on the shipping label, so I dug in. I’ve only received one other package here and once again it felt like a grand occasion.

I slashed the tape with my best kitchen knife (my mother would kill me if she saw me do that) and the first thing I found inside was a typewritten note. In it, a couple from the Wittenburg area introduced themselves and explained that they read my articles each week in the newspaper  and wanted to send me a package of things I had mentioned in a previous article. Things that I missed that I couldn’t find in France. They said it was an early Thanksgiving present.

Please pause here…..because I sure did. I was absolutely floored! Literally. I sat on my old terra cotta tiles, paring knife in one hand and this note in the other, staring at the page and shaking my head. I eventually gathered my wits about me and realized that I had a package to open!

I tore threw the crumpled newspaper that protected my treasures and eventually uncovered 2 bottles of molasses, 2 tins of baking soda, 6 boxes of Mac and Cheese, 2 bags of brown sugar, 1 bottle of ranch dressing, 2 boxes of Bisquick, 3 jars of Skippy and several containers of spices! I was squealing…yes, I think I can definitely call it squealing…with delight and arranged all the items in a little tableau on the floor so I could admire them.

On the outside of the box was plastered the international shipping label…a mass of paper, in triplicate, which discloses the value of the items and the dollar amount that was required to send the package. Now, I know it’s extraordinarily expensive to send a package here, which is precisely why it never happens. But I had to look. The shipping total was $110!

Time for another pause…...a really long one. I just received a package of some of my most needed or wanted things, all involving food mind you, from a couple of Wisconsinites whom I do not know and who do not know me. They spent a lot of time and a lot of money to do this thing and the only reason I can come up with is plain and simple kindess.

In last week's article I finished with a mention of the little lifeboat that always travels beside me. This wonderful thing that happened to me is a prime example of the life rings that are continually thrown to me. Always.

Several weeks ago, during an on-line conversation with my editor at the newspaper, I said that I often feel that I’m in some sort of weird, one-sided relationship. I write every week about the details of my life, some of them trivial and some more significant. I write about the good days and the days when I feel absolutely finished. And at least a few people in Wisconsin read my articles, and have for 29 weeks now. At least, I hope they do. Anyway, those people know me and I know absolutely nothing about them. I don’t know their names and I don’t know their stories, which are most assuredly as interesting or much more interesting than mine.  They are strangers to me and it just seems a little off-balance.

But then this package came. It could have been a book of matches or a coloring book; it wouldn’t have mattered. But it tipped the scales a little bit. I don’t know this couple…. yet…. but I know of them now, I know their names, and a little something about them. This package delivered to me here in France was more than flavors, carbohydrates and proteins. It was a box of good-will and thoughtfulness. And appreciated more than I can ever explain in writing.  I sent a thank you note immediately. But I wanted to also say thank you here. Because this gesture was a significant detail of my day…a good day…. and it was anything but trivial.

Je vous remercie, Monsieur et Madame Block. C’etait tellement sympa. Vous êtes très gentils et vous m’avez donné beaucoup de plaisir.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Le Grève…or How to Get A Day Off School

I don’t have to go to school today…na na ne boo boo! I didn’t have to get up early and trek the two miles to the University because today we’re in the throes…again…of the French national sport…Le Grève or The Strike.

The French are known for their passion for striking. Government workers are the most frenetic. This includes postal workers, public school employees and utility workers. Transportation workers are equally enthusiastic and even students get into the act.

There has been unrest for months now and things started winding up Friday.  I had an appointment at 9 am. Sharp. I could not be late. I arrived at the bus stop at 8:15 in order to catch the bus at 8:20 and get to my appointment 20 minutes early. I waited for bus number 3. It didn’t show. Bus 4 passed; followed by bus 1, then number 23…then another number 4…and another number 1!  There should be a number 3 in between each of these! No number 3. I’m checking my watch as I pace and others are just leaving. Finally when the third number 4 stopped, I jumped on and asked the driver why I’d been waiting 40 minutes for number 3. He said he wasn’t sure but perhaps it was because of the manifestation.

So I’m standing there, wondering what this all means and why only bus number 3 is on some sort of strike. Finally I asked a lady standing next to me, who also appeared late…but not nearly as worried about it as I (the French don’t ever seem to worry very much about being late). She said, in fact, the students at the junior high (a college in French) down the road were holding a manifestation (a public demonstration) and they had blocked the main road that travels the periphery of the city; the road bus 3 has to travel on its route.  She said they had completely blocked the road for hours, this was the second day and they would probably do it again tomorrow.

“What are they mad about?” I asked.

She replied that, of course, the manifestation was in response to the government’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.

Oh sure, when I was 13, I could think of nothing else but my looming retirement and exactly what age I would be before I got to enjoy it.  It was on my mind night and day. I was such a wreck!

In fact, the pimply-faced little hormones-in-overdrive are strikers in training.  I think this was not a manifestation…it was an internship!  And who doesn’t want a few mornings off of school anyway?

So what’s the fuss? The French government has voted to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and move back the age of full-benefit retirement from 65 to 67. If I’ve read things correctly, that’s exactly the policy in the U.S.

A huge deficit and enormous expenses burden the French government because it’s an extraordinarily top-heavy government. Declining birth rates are leaving a very few to pay for the retirement of many. Sound familiar?

And in fact, the French retirement is longer and benefits more expensive because not only can they retire earlier but they also live longer. According to the C.I.A. 2010 estimates, France has the 8th highest life-expectancy rate in the world. The U.S. is 49th…just above Albania!  In case you’re wondering, Macau is first. Ever heard of it?

So it would follow that something needs to be done. Right? Not if French workers have anything to do with it.

The strangest thing about French strikes is they are the first “words” in the process of negotiations. In France, the opposing sides do not sit down, discuss, attempt to pound out an agreement, sit some more, pound some more, and then if all else fails…call a strike. The workers strike as a way of opening talks. And…they strike for each other. If the teachers are upset that they are expected to do more work for the same pay, the railroad workers/ air traffic controllers/ post office employees (pick one or all of the above) become their buddy-strikers.

Sometimes it’s just really hard to get anywhere or get anything done around here!

Last month, on the way to Marseille, my friend Claire and I nearly got caught up in a 30-mile traffic jam on the autoroute. Apparently, the carnival companies, (the people that travel from village festival to village festival with their tilt-a-whirls, ring toss games, and smelly stuffed animals), were upset that nobody was hiring them. (This is of course because these are tough times… the little villages ain’t got no money) So they took to the freeway, piled their trucks up 3 across and miles deep and stopped all traffic to the country’s second major city.  For hours! Well that should really solve the problem!  I’ll bet the little village boards were just scrambling to see who could be the first hire the carnies for next year. Sort of as an apology.

Today apparently I’m benefiting from this free-for-all form of liberty and equality because a general strike as been called. Nobody is really sure whom this might involve and I’m not all that happy about it. I like school.  My professor was going to have class anyway because, as she told us, we paid for it. But since 

1. Most of the professors will be on strike as well as the students...

2. Any of the students who need to take the bus into town won’t get there...

3. It will take her 2 hours to get to work because the narrow peripheral roads will be jammed with the cars of those who normally use public transportation...

4. The electric workers will most likely shut off the University’s electricity...

...we decided to add 30 minutes each day to our class until we make up the time.

So I’m sitting here wondering what sort of strike I should go on today. I could schedule a sit-down outside of the driver’s license office until they let me have the license they’ve refused me. I could stage a hunger strike in front of the prefecture until they finally give me my second year carte de sejour which I filled out all the paper work for in April. I even could picket the office of Securite Sociale because they denied my student health insurance. They said I lied about my income (in fact they inverted the conversion rates from dollars to euros and thus inflated my income…their mistake not mine). I could do all of that I suppose. But there will probably be no one in those offices anyway. Because of that darned buddy system.



Monday, October 11, 2010

La Mer

Another Monday Memories. Publishing articles that I wrote one year ago at this very same time are so interesting for me. Sometimes, they just bring back memories of discovery, sometimes they open my eyes to the progress that I've made. And that is a good thing. I'm back in school again. And now...this time.... I can actually understand what the teacher is saying! What I'm doing is no different than what millions of people have done...most under far more difficult circumstances. But now, I can truly empathize. 

This morning I came downstairs to find my mess from the night before. It was a pile of papers, books, notes, frustration and anger…. and a couple of half-empty wine glasses. The night before, Simon and I had been cooking, talking and studying (me studying and whining, him drilling me and making an attempt to teach me the correct usage of pronouns) and finally the fatigue got to me and I had to quit and go to bed. I moaned about all I had to do the next morning and all I had not accomplished that night because of my studying. Simon, my young British friend who is staying with me until he finds a new apartment, told me he would be my ghostwriter and write my article for me…. as if he were me. I nodded an affirmation, which was all I could produce at that moment.

This morning I read the article. It was good. Many of the things I’ve said before but he doesn’t know that. So I’m going to rewrite it a little. But in fact, this is Simon’s article. He knows, first hand, exactly what I’m going through and just reading it was a little spooky.

In class the other day, as I was trying to discuss groundwater pollution in Wisconsin  (don’t even ask me why), I was unable to pull up the words for a point I was trying to make. I mean why would I know the word for pesticides anyway? Or seeping? My teacher told me to keep on going and traverse the sentence in another way…whatever way I could manage to get my point across.  I did and though everyone understood me, I think I heard a tiny snore by the time I reached the end of my convoluted story. But the fact is, it worked.

I was at a party Friday night with a group of French people and the woman next to me asked me a question. I tried to answer but couldn’t find the words…so I did what my teacher told me and tried to get to the point in another way. Finally, after a lot of pain and agony, most of it hers, she interrupted me and said to me “how long have you been in France anyway?” She knew the answer because I’ve known her since the beginning. It was a little dig…I think…. and it shut me up completely. And later, I went home and cried.

The truth is, spending all this time in school and the evenings with textbooks working through the exercises…. I am probably starting to know a little bit about the French language. Enough, sometimes, to be able to express what I mean. Enough to understand many of the sounds. But for every little bit I understand, I realize how much more there is to learn…. like someone who has dreamed forever about swimming the English channel and who, having set out, now realizes how much distance REALLY lies ahead. How every stroke involves an effort, and act of strength, and how quickly the fatigue promises to set into the muscles.

The question “how long have you been here anyway?” The answer is 10 months. TEN MONTHS! And me still floundering like a fish out of water. I should be speaking better after all this time. What have I been doing wrong? Progress report: not good.

Her question not only made me feel ridiculous, it made me feel bad for bringing her to the end of her patience. I can’t blame her entirely. To be honest, how much patience would I have with a foreigner who, not speaking English, insists on producing the facts of her little life in such a painful manner when all I was doing was being nice? What had been this woman’s act of courteousness, a triviality of dinner conversation, was for me a review of the present, past and imperfect tenses, expressions of time and place…. added to the problem of using one’s voice as if it were an altogether different instrument, straining to produce sounds that it has never uttered before…”eu”….”ieu”…”uis”…. ellE…. She asked a simple question and I reacted as if I were trying to work out the square root of the year we are in, or solve some bushy white-eye browed mathematician’s formula!

Someone told me (it was Simon) that George Orwell  wrote that the life of an ex-patriot is a permanent struggle against being laughed at. He was right. And I don’t mind being laughed at…sometimes. But sometimes I’m just too tender to take it. To come to live in a foreign country is to volunteer yourself for an experience that is fundamentally different from the one you knew and to try to adopt a system of signs and sounds that people around you have held unquestioningly from birth. For whom nothing could ever have been different but which for you is completely…foreign.

The French language has logic of its own, which is not our logic. When the French say ‘je t’ai envoyé or ‘je te l’ai dèja ennvoyé, they are not saying ‘I sent you a letter’ or ‘I’ve already sent you a letter’. What they are saying is ‘I you have sent a letter’ or I you it have already sent’. Geez, what planet am I on? And to add to the mess, the language has irregularities and incongruities that even the French don’t understand!

I’ve started to grasp a little about how I’ll eventually manage this language…manage being the key word here. I’m learning what’s different about it…it’s rules and regulations…its bizarre and confounded system of genders (la soleil, le lune). And how the distinction between masculine and feminine is not just a cosmetic nicety but something that has rules and specifications of it’s own…. gender agreement, the preceding direct object….ya da, ya da, ya da.

I come back to this every evening. To how much I don’t know about something so vast and unknowable. I write often about the moments of joy…like walking out of my new apartment to see an incredible evening sky as the setting sun lights up this little ochre town. But to be honest, the joy and the pain have been in equal measures.

So I’m swimming and starting to feel the pull of the tide…the hardship settling into my body.  I can see I’ve not traveled far from the shore and I certainly can’t even make out the opposite shore. I could turn back.  But I can’t. It’s going to have to be long, slow strokes and good breathing techniques that get me there. And maybe a few provisions from the lifeboat that always seems to travel beside me.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Packages of Fig and Chèvre

Okay, I have to share a nummy, simple recipe with everyone. I'm not sure where and when fresh figs are available to everyone, but I just checked my blog stats today, and I apparently have readers in 34 countries! Even if half were accidental hits or spammers, that leaves 17 countries, a few of which must have figs.

Last month my friend Claire and I stopped to eat at a little restaraunt near my apartment called Viktor on Place des Trois Ormeaux.  I had been there before with some friends where we all sampled a different salad. All of them were top notch. Which means one should always test again to be extra sure. I mean, when it comes to FOOD, I need to be extra sure. So we stopped in for lunch and both ordered the intriguing sounding salad with packets of chevre and figs. Whatever that might be! And one bite of these warm, bundles of melted goat's cheese and sweet figs and we were ooing and ahhing. 

Last week a friend gave me a box of figs from her tree. And as it happened, I actually had chevre in the fridge and a package of phyllo pastry in the freezer. There was no choice. The kitchen called.  And these were so simple!

So here we go. This is what you need:

Phyllo pastry (Filo)
fresh figs
Chevre (goat's cheese)
sea salt

I love working with phyllo pastry. It's simple but if you've never done it, I'll walk you through it.

First important step is to thaw it properly. Leave it in the box and thaw it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. If you let it thaw too quickly, it will get doughy and stick together. Once thawed, open the package, unroll the stack of paper thin layers of and cover them with a cloth just SLIGHTLY moistened. This keeps the layers from drying out at which point they're unusable. Carefully lay the first layer on the board or counter and brush with a light layer of melted butter. Gently pull another layer off the pile and cover the buttered sheet (keep the rest covered as you work). Don't worry if the sheets tear.  Just piece them back together and all will be well. I promise. Continue the process with as many layers as needed. For this recipe, I only used 5 layers. When you're finished, roll up the extra leaves, put them back in the package they came in, wrap with plastic wrap and put them back in the freezer.

Cut the dough into squares, about 4" by 4". In the center of each square, place a slice of fresh fig, a slice of chevre and sprinkle it with sea salt. Not too much. Just enough to pop the flavors.

Fold the dough around the filling like a little package and place them on a baking sheet, smooth side up. Brush a little melted butter and the top and pop them into a 375 degree oven for 10 minutes. 

okay...the pan looks dirty...because it was. I was on batch number 2! And yes, you can take a little more time to make the packets look neater. Taking pretty photos for this blog was not my top priority at this moment.

That's it! C'est tout!

Serve these warm as an appetizer (apero or entre) or as we ate them, atop a mixed baby green salad dressed with a light balsamic vinaigrette. In the interest of taking photos, which I still haven't mastered, I ate TONS of these. Oh how I suffer! All I need is one little remark about how bad these photos are, and I'm going to have to do it all over again... until I get it right!

Bon Appetit!


Monday, October 4, 2010

The Ascension

I climbed the mountain St. Victoire yesterday. Yessireebob, I’ve finally done it! I am woman! Hear me roar! I am strong, I am invincible…I am 51 ½ years old and today my feet hurt, my knees ache, my body is stiff and if I had enough energy to stretch, I would. But I don’t.

One of the young men in my new class at the University, decided to organize an “activity” for the weekend. I’m all for that. I learned in my last class that it serves all the students well to become a sort of team. It helps us lose our inhibitions so we’re able to speak, explain, and question in French without worrying about how stupid we sound.  So I was game to the idea. Well, that and the fact that I was staring down the throat of a completely empty, single-person weekend. And besides, I’ve lived here in Aix en Provence for nearly 2 years and have never climbed the mountain. This had to be remedied tout suite!

In the final moment, it turned out to be just me, and 3 young Chinese boys, one of whom bailed at the last minute. He took one look at the two young men and me and came up with an excuse not to go. I have absolutely no doubt that he lost interest because none of the cute young girls in the class had chosen to join us.

There are dozens of entrances to the walking paths and dozens more paths that criss-cross the terrain. Our goal was to reach the summit, not to take one of those meandering-around-the-forest-for-the-fun-of-it sort of hikes. We had a destination! However, we didn’t want to kill ourselves either.

The paths are marked on a map as to their difficulty but not on the actual trail and by the time we were ¼ of the way up, I was wondering if I had gotten my French words mixed up. I’m sure facile means easy…I’m just sure of it! And I was told that this was the facile trail. I was feeling like an out-of-shape old bat until the young men began to ask if we could stop and rest.

“Oh of course…if you NEED to, I can take a few moments.”

Actually, I didn’t say that. It was more fun to commiserate together. So we plugged along trying to chat as we went. I can’t decide which is harder, climbing a mountain or trying to understand bad French in a Chinese accent!  But every time we caught a glimpse of the cross, Le Croix du Provence, which is perched on the summit and surveys all the valleys below, there were exclamations of disbelief from all of us. And those translated perfectly well! That damned cross (will I be struck by lightening if I use the word damn as an adjective to describe the word cross?)  never seemed to get any closer and always looked completely out of reach.

So, in between deep breaths and trying to ignore the red-hot bands of steel that seemed to be steadily tightening around my knees and thighs I just kept repeating…”on peux faire ça, on peux faire ça”. We can do this. It kind of became a rhythm to move me forward and upward.

Just before reaching the summit, we passed the Prieuré de Sainte Victoire, a 17th century priory built around a 5th century chapel. It had the feeling of an oasis, a soft garden holding it’s own against the cold white rock of the mountain. And just past that, we spit out on the summit next to the cross.

Standing on top of the world…at least my immediate world... was worth every muscle-searing minute of the preceding hours. Perhaps a dozen people were lounging on the peak, resting, eating, chatting…one guy was even sleeping. The view was extraordinaire…the sky its stunning Provençal blue with just wisps of clouds to make it interesting. The air was clear and clean with a light breeze and and not the devastating and often dangerous wind that is often the case up there. And as we were resting our weary bodies, smiling into the sun, some guy popped up over the other face of the mountain…out of nowhere!  He just popped up like a jack-in-the-box! I went over to the edge, where he had made his startling appearance and peered…almost straight down a rocky mountain face. Okay, now I understand why our path had been called “facile”.

So before all this I was kind of thinking that I’m all that…young for my age, in good shape, ya da, ya da. Until I attempted to get out of bed this morning. Well, that and the fact that the two young men (whose ages together don’t even add up to mine) addressed me as “Madam” all day yesterday! If I can move tomorrow and actually walk the several miles to class, I’m going to immediately put an end to that Madam business.

 Because, in fact, I checked the map today (yes…the day AFTER the expedition) and the trail we had climbed was not labeled the welcoming colors of green for “très facile”, or blue for “facile”. It was not even the warning color of red for “moyen”. That trail we had taken was actually at the top of the list…. in dark, dangerous, how-can-you-be-so-stupid-to-not-read-the-map-first purple…for “difficile”. So I am sort of all that…. and that’s Madam All That to you!

For more about St. Victoire click here                                         

 Le Croix du Provence photo courtesy