Thursday, April 28, 2011

Home Is Where the Tarte Is

Easter isn't exactly the same and not always easy when you live far away from your family. If I were in Minnesota, I probably would have spent Easter Day at my sister's house with my boys, my family and friends. I would have made baskets for the boys (one is never too old for an Easter basket), we would have eaten ham and cheesey potatoes and then sat around a groaned about how full we are. In fact, because of the miracles of skype, late Easter Sunday I was able to join my mom, my sister and her family and friends as they were sitting outside enjoying the brand new spring (however, it snowed there last night) as they were groaning about how full they were. It was wonderful to be able to share it like that. And I talked to the boys, who both spent Easter at their respective girlfriends' homes and both seemed content and well-fed.

But holidays away from family are a little easier these days. With time, one finds people who become family and though they don't replace those who you can't be with, they're a hell of a good substitute. My Easter weekend began Thursday when I picked Claire up from the train station and turned over her precious car keys. We drove down to the Camargue to spend a couple of days with her mom (and my friend) Saro. Going to Saro's is a bit like going home for me. Not only do I arrive to a warm and inviting home and a good friendship, but the Carmargue is one of those places that feels strangely familiar to me. Perhaps you know the I've lived there before.

My "job" was to feed Saro's retired, 35 year old horse and Pedro, her adorable donkey... after being shown the ropes, of course.

We ate, laughed, drank, and when we finally left the house to do a little shopping in the village, which is right on the sea, winter-like weather kicked in. It became cold, rainy, and windy and our shopping venture into town produced not much more than a bone-chilling cold, sand in our teeth and an urgent need to get back to the house, put on our woolies, and turn the heat on.

Saturday afternoon, Claire and I returned to Aix where I made my tarte au citron for Sunday's lunch at my friend, Holly's. Okay, it's not my tarte au citron...the recipe came from Sharon over at My French Country Home and you really need to try it. It's a perfect blend of sweet and sour, so simple to make and always a hit.

Sunday, I boarded the early bus to my friend Brigitte's in Rogne, carrying my tarte and a bottle of Rosé. (For some reason, I always seem to be traveling by bus with baked goods!)  Since it was a beautiful day and the only really nice one of the weekend, Brigitte and I freed her 1967 Triumph from it's parking space in the garage....

took off the roof, and headed out to traverse the Luberon Valley to Holly's house in Peypin d'Aigues. I wish I'd taken more photos because it was a beautiful drive, through all the suprisingly busy villages (I assumed they'd all be shut down tight for the holiday) and the lush green of the countryside. I was really wishing I had an elegant headscarf and a giant pair of sunglasses however!

Holly made us a superb lunch of smoked salmon, gnocchi and salad. We drank our share of champagne and Rosé on the sunny terrace and finished off with the lemon tarte.

Afterwards, we did the normal, holiday thing. We moved from chair to chair in a well-fed, semi-stupor, groaning and complaining about how full we were, and finally decided to walk off our meal with a tour  of Holly's village. The tour of tiny Peypin d'aigue, a village of no more than 400 people, one bar and no other commerce whatsoever, took all of 7 1/2 minutes at which point we were back on the couches...groaning.

As I hiked home from the bus station Sunday night, my ever-present bag holding the empty tarte pan and a bottle of Sirop Châtaigne (chestnut syrup that is really good in a sparkling white) that I bought from Holly's next door neighbor (after I found him surveying the Triumph and complaining that somebody had parked that car like a Parisienne...taking up two spots) , I returned home to start my skype/ telephone Easter.

I had a fabulous easter weekend. No it wasn't with family...and come to think of it, the boys would have probably spent Easter with their girlfriends' families anyway, but I got to spend it with some of the family  I've created in my new home. How wonderful to have both.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

...And Don't You Come Back No More

As I was's so great to have a car this week. Yesterday, still running off the high produced by my freedom adventure this weekend,  I made my plan for the day. There are a couple of calanques south of Marseille that I've heard are beautiful and I thought I'd head down there and do a little hiking and photography. The Plan de Compagne, a centre commercial or shopping/commerical area, is right on the way and I had several little errands I needed to do there as well. Perfect! Gather map, camera, hiking boots, shopping bag, water bottle...and out the door. Let me TREAT you to another day on the road.

Marseille is only about 25 minutes south of me so this is an easy trip. I pulled into Plan de Compagne, which is just about the ugliest commercial district I have ever seen in my life. In fact, I'm always amazed with how incredibly ugly ALL commercial districts are here in France, considering how beautiful so much of it is. It's a god-awful mishmash of signs and metal box buildings, with no attempt at an sort of continuity or design. Just going there makes me all hinky. However....first stop, the little electrical appliance parts shop. My microwave is missing the glass turnplate...the part that would assure that my coffee is heated evenly! I brought along the actual part that turns the plate for size reference.

I explained what I needed and the young monsieur dug around in the back until he found one that fit.

"Oh, that looks a little big for my microwave."

"Don't worry, Madame, if you get this home and it doesn't fit, call me with the actual numbers off the microwave and I'll get you the proper part. You can exchange it."

Not good. I may not EVER get another car for said exchange.

"Okay, how much."

"34 Euros."(this translates to roughly $45)

After I picked my jaw up off the counter, I reacted in completely french fashion without a thought. (I'm getting there)

"C'est pas vrai! C'est pas possible! Non....c'est pas possible!!!!" (I also threw in some classic French facial expressions for good measure)

"Yes, madame, that is the price."

"That's more than the price of an entire microwave in the states! And I found the damned thing in the garbage can! I can't pay that price to repair something I found in the garbage can. It's just not possible"

At least this got a laugh. It did not get me a glass turnplate for my microwave.

Off to the giant-sized used furniture store. I'm looking for some old frames. I arrived at 12:10. The pull-down, metal security door was a quarter of the way down for some reason but I ventured in, hoping to find some good stuff, cheap.

"I'm sorry madame but we're closed. We open again at 2:30."

I checked the hours on the door. They close at 12:30 for a two hour lunch.

"But it's only 12:10."

"I'm sorry, but we're preparing to close. Come back at 2:30."


Off to BUT, a store that sells home items. I need a wall shelf.

Metal doors all the way down...locked up tighter than a bank on Sunday. Hours on the door? Closed for lunch from 12:30 to 2:30. It's now.... 12:15. Please keep in mind that Plan de Compagne is one of the largest commercial districts in the country. These are REALLY BIG stores. And this 2-hour PLUS lunch thing is all fine and dandy affects me!

I did find another store open and did a little tour, but I needed to get a move-on in order to get to the calanque, have my fun, and get out of Marseille before rush hour. I do not like driving in Marseille. I've been lost here before. This is the second largest city in France, with a population of almost 1 1/2 million people....a super-sized city built centuries ago. And with the construction that is going on, it's a big mess, especially for the unfamiliar.

So with my mapquest directions in hand, I headed in. As I arrived at my first, and most important turn, I realized it was blocked...for construction. I kept going hoping to find another way, as traffic got heavier, streets got narrower, and all order of any kind did a time warp back to the 17th century. After a harrowing trip through the city, trying to read, drive, and fend off the honks and gestures that seemed to be coming at me from all directions, I saw a sign directing me to Aix en Provence. And I took it. I chickened out! I bailed! I'm ashamed! But this is not a job for a person alone. It's just not. My hiking boots began to silently weep on the floor next to me. This is where I was going to go... the calanque Sourmiou. I imagine it's very beautiful.

Okay, I'll save the trip by going to Ikea. I still need a shelf.  Just follow the signs to Vitrolle. Except there are no signs to Vitrolle. I tried to take a short cut, which after driving down two streets the wrong way (more gestures and horn honking) and spilling my water all over my lap because there are no cup holders, I arrived in...Aix en Provence. Where we do not have an Ikea. Double Merde! Not to have the entire trip go completely down the drain, I headed back south to Ikea. And I did find the shelf that they've been out of for 9 months. I did! And I did have my parking place when I returned. I did not have a bottle of wine at the house when I got home! C'est pas vrai! C'est pas possible! 


Monday, April 18, 2011

Hit the Road, Jack!

I have a car. I have a car! I HAVE A CAR!  Okay, it's not my car but I have one for a week. Last week my friend Claire went on a trip and she gave me her car to use in her absence. I don’t know why.  But when she proposed that I take her to the train station and pick her up when she returns and in exchange, she would give me her car for the week, I kept my mouth shut and accepted. Because, in fact, I would have taken her to the train station with or without her generous offer. The theory here being “never look gift horsepower in the mouth”.

The first thing I did, on the way home from the train station, was stop at the grocery store. Yes, the supermarché….the BIG ONE!  I will sometimes stop here on my way home from work, because the selection is better than the little, tiny supermarket down the street (the one where two people can’t get past each other in one of the two miniscule aisles). But Thursday afternoon,  I was free to buy what I wanted…no matter how heavy. Because I could drop it directly at my door without lugging it to the bus stop, onto the crowded bus and then across town and up 3 flights of stairs.

I bought big bags of cat food and litter, large sized quantities of toilet paper and paper towels, laundry detergent and softener…..and bottles. Bottles and bottles! Sparkling water, vodka, wine, olive oil, milk, diet coke, juice…it's a good thing I bought toilet paper. I have no place to store these things but I'm ready for a draught, in any case.

And when I got home, the little “parking spot” on the sidewalk in front of my door was magically available, just for me (mine is the green door. Whoever lives behind the blue door, although I believe it's vacant, cannot get in or out at this point). So I only had to lug the kilos and kilos of groceries up the stairs. Wow!

Friday morning I drove to work. I didn’t have to get up an hour early in order to catch the bus. Oh man, this is so cool!  

Saturday afternoon after market, (I don't buy vegetables at the supermarché) I got in the car with my map of Provence and a bottle of water (what? No drink holders?), set my course for a general direction, deliberately avoiding all tourist spots that I now know by heart and I’m not sure I ever want to see again, refolded my giant sized map into a small square that I could handle, and took off.

With the windows wide open, I drove the country roads northwest of Aix, most of which are only wide enough for one car.  Oh man, I miss driving. I miss the road. There is something just so delightful about driving to no place in particular, stopping and starting wherever I want, playing the radio at full blast, and having a gas needle that cooperates with my joy by barely moving to the left.

I drove through the vineyards just outside of Aix where the vines are now glowing with their halos of lime green leaves. I stopped in a couple of larger villages…okay I slowed down….no parking places….anywhere! I turned into a nobody-wants-this-junk-at-its-real-price-discount store and found a bunch of stuff that I wanted at a price I could never find in Aix. I now am the proud owner of several apero bowls exactly like the ones I wanted to buy at a shop in Aix and a vase for the lilacs I pilfered from a roadside bush. 

I arrived in a region that my map told me was Les Alpilles (little Alps) where the stark, white, limestone rock of the mountains are timelessly settled into the acres and acres of almost ghostly, silvery green olive trees. Van Gogh painted this range often while living in St. Remy.

I stopped for all the great views, passed a few really OLD places that seem to need a little fixing up...

and made stops in the smaller villages where I could find a place to park. At the entrance to one village, there was a sign that said “Attention, village en fête” which literally translates to "Careful. Village in Festival". I was very careful, although the festival looked to be over. But apparently this festival thing is serious stuff. I passed another sign at the gateway to another village that said “Danger. Cimetière”. "Danger, Cemetary”. Now what do you suppose that means, exactly?

I found what I’m sure must be Rapunzel’s tower! I'll never find it again because I don't know where I was so the secret's safe with me.

I passed these guys, playing in the sky and wished I could be up there with them. I AM going to hang glide…one day very soon. I am, I am, I am!

I followed a little sign to a local olive oil vendor, and was invited into her house, where she gave me a lengthy and very complete run down on everything I ever wanted to know about olive oil and how it’s produced. To hear her talk, you’d think this stuff was a magic elixar for everything that ails you. Of course, I bought-in to her theories and purchased two, beautiful bottles of the liquid gold.

At some point, fairly early in the journey my map ended up on the floor, forgotten and unwanted. Taking whatever road I felt like was just far more fun. It was freedom times ten.

As the light changed into it's evening clothes, I made my way home…the long way I’m sure, and I found my little parking spot waiting for me again. As I parked, jumped the curb and settled in behind the posts placed there to prevent people from parking, a police car pulled up and parked in front of me.  Two of the officers got out and took off to places unknown and the remaining officer seemed completely uninterested in my criminal activities. I finally went up to his window and asked if I could just leave my car there while I unloaded my things.

He said, “Madam, I’m not going to ask you to move. Don’t worry. I’m not the parking police. That’s not my job. You do whatever you want.”

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta love France! And I've got 3 1/2 more days to love it in a car!

Whatever your voyage is today, I hope it's a fine one.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Flat Out Foolish

I'm just finishing my ironing. I'm ironing sheets and pillowcases. Yes, you heard me right...I'm ironing sheets and pillowcases! I'm doing this... again... because my first visitor of the season just left and I've got another one coming today. Which really, as I think about it,  isn't a very good reason, is it? I mean, who irons sheets and pillowcases, anyway?

The French do, that's who! The French seem to iron everything and I seem to be integrating whether I like it or not. 

I had an ironing board in the states. And yes, I used touch up my work clothes or iron the boys clean t-shirts that I'd left folded neatly on their beds and subsequently found laying in a heap on their floors. On Easter Sunday I would iron their only dress shirts, only to find that their arms had grown 3 inches since last Easter and it wasn't worth the bother.  My ex-pectorant used the iron to touch up his shirts between wearings, but he sent out his white collars and let somebody else do it.  Otherwise, the ironing board stood there and collected stuff. You know, just stuff. Like the kitchen table collects stuff, or the top of the washing machine by the back door collects stuff.

But it seems here in France, they're serious about their ironing. I am a femme de menage. This means, I'm a cleaning lady but I like the way it sounds in French better (do not mention this to the french government). I clean toilets, kitchens, bedrooms, fireplaces, and windows. And I do the ironing. The first time I went to my job, my boss opened a closet to reveal a stack of ironing like I've never seen before. I gasped. It's not like I don't know how to iron. When I was growing up, the bathrooms and the family ironing were my job and my mother carefully taught me how to do them both properly.  So apparently, returning to my childhood while here in France, I ironed washclothes, sheets, duvets, pillowcases, shirts, dresses, sweaters, leggings, nylon gym pants, old painting clothes and JEANS. Yes, jeans! In fact, I ironed a mountain of towels as well, which she later told me wasn't necessary...they just happened to be in the same closet. But still...washlclothes? Paintclothes?

When I see students moving in or out of their flats, there is always an ironing board involved. I'm not sure that my sons have ever owned an ironing board or an iron! My apartment is furnished and, of course, it came with all the equipment to do my ironing as well. I have since improved my equipment because I found a really nice, practically new iron (aside from the fact that someone obviously dropped it and it leaks...but only in a certain position) in the dumpster. It’s a plain, regular old iron. I point this out because when it comes to ironing, the French are not messing around. This contraption is very common here.

It's called a centrale vapeur. I don’t even know what it is but I hope when my heart stops, I will be here in France. Most certainly some well-meaning stranger will be able to defibrulate me with this sucker.

French artists seem to love ironing as well. Or rather, they like to paint women ironing. Obviously an interesting subject that Edgar Degas especially loved. This is just one of his many.

But Pablo Picasso, 

Louis Boilly 

and Armand Desire Gautier

got their hands in the picture as well.
 In the picture, yes, but I imagine not in the ironing. When I do the ironing I look more like Picasso's version than Boilly's lovely maiden.

Not to say that men don't iron here as well. In fact, I noticed that the champion of the Fer d'Or, a national ironing contest sponsored by Phillips Company, always seems to have a male champion. This time a Parisian barman. 

The strange thing is that I don't really mind this job. And there is something really heavenly about sleeping on freshly line dried, ironed sheets (not having dryers has a lot to do with the necessity of ironing). Okay, so I only do my pillow cases and the tops of my sheets. But the old linen sheets that I've been buying at the brocantes simply must be ironed. They just must. And of course, the linens for visitors. But I'll be damned if I'm going to iron jeans...or leggings! Anything that has to stretch that tight doesn't need to be ironed.

The assimilation process continues. I noticed today that my medicine cabinet is starting to look very in...full to bursting. But that's another post.


clipart provided by graphics fairy

Monday, April 4, 2011

Telephone Terrors

I actually wrote this in November for the newspaper. I've got a visitor here right now and haven't the time to write something fresh. However,  this terror remains it will work!

Ten minutes ago, my phone rang. My phone doesn’t ring all that often, and when it does, the name of the caller pops up because, of course, I know them. When a strange number comes through, I generally ignore it. Okay, first I go into in insta-freeze because I know that this means if I answer, I will have to speak French...on the phone... with somebody I probably don’t know and who is unaware that my telephone abilities are the merde! (It also brings on some bad memories of a time last year when I was threatened on the phone by a stranger) Telephone conversations  are the most difficult. It’s even harder than listening to the news on the radio because people speak rapidly and generally more street language. 

So this was the conversation…translated of course.

“Hi Delana…this is _______”.



“I’m so sorry, I have a difficult time on the telephone. This is who?”

________. The friend of ________. Do you remember me?

“No, because I still didn’t catch your name. I’m so sorry. Can you repeat it, please?”


Then follows a minute of completely incomprehensible French. It seemed that perhaps his name was Frederik and he might possibly have been a friend of my old friend Simon. It’s possible... except I didn’t remember anybody named Frederik…at all. And, in fact, I’m condensing this conversation. This ball was tossed back and forth many more times!

“OH! OKAY. I’ve got it now!”

Probably a dumb move, pretending to know who this mysterious caller was. But I was just too embarrassed to admit that I simply COULD NOT understand.

“So I’m just calling to see what’s new?”

So what do you tell a person that you’re pretending to know, what is new? When do you suppose the last time was that I had a conversation with this person? What might we have talked about? Do we know each other well? If we do, I’d better act like it. If we don’t, I should probably not be talking to him.

“Well, I’m a student at the University now”.

That remark just revealed to possible stranger danger that I believe I haven’t seen him since at least September. I crossed my fingers and waited to offend.

“Really? What are you taking?” (whew! Good stab in the dark!)

“French of course. And you, what are you doing these days?” (I’m bound to get some sort of clue from this question)

One more Bad Idea. Another minute or two of gibberish and I understood one word. Internship. Okay, probably somebody young. Maybe an old classmate from last year’s course.  And I’m hearing a few speech patterns that seem remotely familiar.

“Oh yes? Tell me more.” (Eventually, this has got to come to me. Please give me some clue, some name, some event, something! Of course he probably already has… at least 10 times… but I’m too inadequate to understand)

Another several paragraphs follow and you guessed it, nothing!

“Listen, we don’t learn how to talk on the phone at the University. I’m horrible at it. Perhaps it would be better if we text. I can understand written words much better.”

“Ah, okay…blah, blah , blah....Skype blah, blah, blah, MSN blah blah blah blah”

I understood Skype. Yes, Skype!  We can chat online on Skype!

So I proceed to text a perfect stranger my Skype address, just so I can figure out who the hell this person is. His name comes through requesting permission to talk. Ah…it’s Cedric! Of course, Cedric, the friend of Simon, who I ran into and spoke with briefly this summer, who made me oysters 2 years ago before he moved to Argentina for a year. Who is all of 33 years old and obviously still… interested? My body relaxes, I get comfortable in my chair, and I begin typing in French.

Delana:  Cedric! How are you these days? Now repeat everything you said to me on the phone…just so I’m sure that I got it right. Tell me everything that’s new.

Et pourquoi pas? (And why not?) I don’t even know the word for cougar in French!