Celebrating the Holidays

As Thanksgiving approaches, I begin preparing for it by ordering Libby’s pumpkin on-line.  Yes, it’s the best and fortunately for me, My American Market in Paris has a great website and delivers to those of us living out in the country.  Since I didn’t go to America this year and pack some cans in my suitcase, I’ve got to order the necessary things on-line.  I also threw in some good peanut butter while I was at it!

When we first lived here, way back when, I thought I’d be all crafty and make my own pumpkin for the pie.  I bought a pumpkin and cut it up, raking all the seeds out, steamed it, peeled it and mashed it up to make my own form of canned pumpkin.  I was sort of proud like after a Martha Stewart recipe has been achieved.  The only problem is that it just doesn’t taste the same.  At all.  It has a pumpkin taste but not the same texture. And I love pumpkin pie, for me it sort of makes Thanksgiving, well Thanksgiving.  That and the turkey of course.  At this time of year turkey, a whole turkey, is quite expensive.  I went to the butcher to order a turkey for my first French Thanksgiving.  When I went to pick it up and he told me 65€ I sort of stared at him. I paid for it and thought how weird that is.  Because about a week after Thanksgiving, turkeys will start appearing in the supermarket for Christmas.  The French often eat turkey at Christmas.  So, that’s just crazy to pay twice as much.  But, that’s just the way it is.  The French think that Thanksgiving is American Christmas.  I guess because of the turkey correlation?  I usually do a whole lesson on Thanksgiving with my ESL students.  I tell the whole story of the first Thanksgiving and have colored flashcards to go along with it.  I should say that I actually colored flashcard to make a story board!  It’s the holiday where I feel the most American and like to share it.

Christmas is really coming along here in France, when we were first here I had trouble finding good tree lights.  Now, they’ve got all sorts to choose from.  They don’t have boxes of Christmas cards, though.  Which is another big expense.  I can find some on-line from England through amazon.co.uk that are a relatively decent price, but it’s not the same.  I really like going to Target or some equivalent and buying big boxes of beautiful Christmas cards.  They sell them individually or in small packets here.  The French don’t really send out Christmas cards, they send out Happy New Year cards with wishes for a healthy and happy new year.  They don’t have box sets of these, either.  They usually send these to all their friends and family in January.  My friend Sylvie in Chamonix was so surprised to get my Christmas card on December 12.  She said, Kah-ren, you’re so early!

One aspect of French Christmas that I love is the amount of chocolate that they have on offer.  Just tons and tons of chocolate.  When you walk into the supermarket it’s like a whole village of chocolate boxes.  It’s a common gift and I think that’s great.  No worries about giving someone something they won’t like or use or wear.  Just an elegant, large box of deliciousness. Chocolate is definitely an area without borders or cultural barriers!

Being Ill in France

When you move to a foreign country, there are so many new things to absorb and understand that it can be overwhelming.  But, somewhere amongst the vocabulary for the weather and how to order at a restaurant, there’s the vocabulary for health that’s pretty darn important to learn.  You probably don’t think about it as a top priority when you’re trying to figure out schools systems and how to talk to the electric company on the phone.  All it takes is getting ill to put that drama front and center.  How do I talk about how I feel when I don’t feel good?  And it could be serious.

I came to France when I was 33 and already had my children, so I didn’t have to learn maternity type language, but I have had to deal with life-threatening health problems with visiting family and even death.

The basics, like cold and flu, can be easy.  Also, stomach stuff isn’t too difficult.  In French they call getting a stomach virus the “gastro”.  It sort of explains itself.  There are some terms that are not so obvious.  For instance, there is the term, “crise de foie” – a liver crisis?  That’s when you’ve eaten a heavy meal usually accompanied by a lot of alcohol and the next day you lament this by telling your friends you’re having a “crise de foie”.  They’ll usually give you a list of remedies.  It’s just that the first time someone tells you this and you literally translate this in your head, there’s that 10 second foreign language pause where you think, oh wow a liver crisis!

There is a lot of slang language for medical words too.  Like the “toubib”, which is a slang word for doctor – it comes from the Arab word for a witch doctor and has come to mean the doctor in everyday language.  It still sort of cracks me up when a friend says they went to the toubib.  All of it is part of the fun of learning a foreign language, especially the slang which usually can be traced back to influences from other cultures and languages.  A big health problem lately here in France is the “burnout”, said with a beautiful French accent!  I’m sure that I could make a list, but won’t bore you.

More serious health issues like heart attack, “crise cardiac” or more often “infarctus” are good ones to know. Especially when a neighbor or someone has just suddenly passed away.  Another biggie is stroke, or an “AVC” pronounced “ah, veh, say”.  The first time I heard this I really couldn’t work it out.  Except for the death part, which I can always clue into.  I get the two confused sometimes, but it’s enough to know they are both pretty serious.

Most doctors here in France speak enough English to get by.  But, then there is YOU, you have to be able to describe your condition.  That’s the big challenge.

France has a great health care system.  It works a bit like Medicare in the US.  We all pay into the system from our income and the national health care pays for most of your care.  You can take a gap insurance for the part not covered.  It’s called a “mutuelle”.  A doctor visit costs 25€.  You’re reimbursed about 15€ by the national insurance, called “sécu” for short and then your “mutuelle” reimburses the rest.  It works like this with all your appointments and hospital stays.  If it’s something super serious like cancer or a long hospitalization, they cover all of it.

So that’s the long and short of it.  If you move to a foreign country count on a learning curve for your health vocabulary and take the time to learn the language!

 

La Montgolfière-Hot Air Balloons

A very popular activity in the Dordogne is the hot air balloon ride over the Dordogne Valley.  Hot air balloon in French is “montgolfière”, so named after the pioneering Montgolfier brothers who were one of the first to achieve flight.  The first flight was in 1783 and the first one with “passengers” shortly thereafter.  The first passengers being a duck, a rooster and a sheep.  Louis XVI and his court were the audience.  There are other examples in French of inventions that have been named after their inventors or their promoters, Guillotine, Poubelle, Léotard and Ampère to name a few.

The hot air balloon rides in our area are quite popular.  There are many companies that have flights twice a day, early morning and the evening.  We took one a few years back and it truly is an exciting adventure, a bit scary but in a fun way.  Flying over the gardens of Marqueyssac gave me a different perspective of the garden’s design, seeing the layout of the river, farmlands, villages and chateaux from a bird’s eye view was incredibly beautiful.

For everyone who lives here, the hot air balloons that fly over almost every morning and evening in the tourist season are our entertainment.  One never knows where they will pass or land and it’s exciting when they get close to one’s house or property.  It’s a beautiful addition to the sky, points of color in the distance that grow larger as they sometimes get really close.  The pilot can only go up and down so their trajectory is not planned.  They follow the air currents.

Here at Le Petit-Manoir, we have a lot of fun with the guests in the gîtes when the balloons fly close to the property, everyone grabbing their cameras and running to get the best shot.  Sometimes they fly so close we can hear the passengers talking in the basket!

 

 

Just another example of one the fun activities available when you come on vacation here.  It’s another way to see the beauty of our valley and feel close to nature, drifting above.

How Le Petit-Manoir came about

After a few years in the Alps, we were ready for country living.  The Dordogne was always in the back of our minds as a place that really impressed us.  We had first visited the Dordogne in 2001, after 9/11.  We had booked a tour of Egypt and with all the scare after 9/11, decided to tour France instead.  So, we headed south at the school holiday called Toussaint.  We were living in Paris at the time, took the new TGV to Marseilles and rented a car.  After Nice, Monaco, Marseilles and the Languedoc-Roussillon, we visited the Dordogne.  Absolutely loved it.  Never forgot it.  In 2006, when we were considering other regions of France for our next move, we kept coming back to the Dordogne idea.  We visited again, picked our favorite part and started looking at houses.  This property was the 17th property that we looked at.  We rolled into the courtyard in front of this classic French house, I got out of the car and looked up and said, oh yeah, I could live here.

We toured the house and property, which included a beautiful old barn and outbuildings plus woodland and park, 3 hectares or 7 acres of land.

A huge project unfolded before us and Voila!  We bought it and started a whole new life.  The day we drove from Chamonix to sign the contract with the “notaire” we did have a sort of brief moment of reality check, a sort of moment of truth.  But somewhere it was lodged in our brain that this was a good place and a good decision, even though we knew not one soul here.

There was a lot to be done in the house, it was livable but greatly out-dated.  The barn, of course, was the brainchild of my husband, to convert into holiday rentals.   Rural cottages in French are called “gîtes”.

The house is a traditional “maison de maître” in French architectural terms.  It’s a stone house, with stucco on the outside and a slate roof.  The barn is a beautiful stone building with a terracotta tile roof.  The park and woodlands around the house would be part of our project for the property.  When we bought the house there was not a proper park in front, it was just a big field, with bumpy terrain that had to be flattened out before we could plant trees and form an idea.  But, first things first, we started on the house itself.  Complete interior renovation.  Kitchen gutted.  I cooked outside in a summer kitchen a few steps from the house.

We had a super kitchen designer and liked him so much that we had him work on the kitchens for the gites as well.  The summer of 2006 was good for our house, it was pretty much finished up by September with a bit left that was finished up by December.  The living room is a grand “double séjour”, with a beam covered ceiling and a massive stone fireplace and mantle.

Then, in January 2007, the barn renovation started.  That was a pretty big project.  Here are some photos from that adventure.  We divided it into 3 different gites.  They had to put in steel girders and pour a slab.  Then, there was the business of punching windows and then framing each window with masonry of local stone.

The summer of 2007 was dedicated to building the pool and landscaping the front garden (field).  We had to create a park for the property.  We planted 32 trees, created a rose bed circle and made all the driveways and paths for the gites.

Once the gites were fitted with floors, kitchen, and walls, there were trips to antique markets to begin furnishing them.  By the end of 2007 we were ready to go.  We needed to think of a name for our business.  It seemed that a lot of the locals referred to our house as “le petit-manoir”, the little manor house.  It felt like a great name for the property and the business and we went with it. The first season, 2008, started to fill up with reservations.  We opened on March 31, 2008 and it’s been a continuing project ever since.  There are always new ideas of things to add to the property…or take away.  Add a fountain.  Take out a hedge.  Add a statue.  Take out an overgrown tree.  Plant flowers, bulbs, hedges, and trees.  Every year.  It’s a constant project, our work of art.  One that is a pleasure to share with our friends and all the guests that we have had the last 10 years of vacation rentals.

Le Tour de France in the Dordogne

The Tour de France is an institution.  Legendary.  The toughest sport out there.  Every year it weaves its way around France and we are privy to the beauty and patrimony of France.  This year was special here in the Dordogne because there was a stage that passed right through our part of the Perigord.  It passed right through Vitrac Port, near us.

The stage went through the most beautiful part of the Dordogne.  It passed 39 castles and by Lascaux, too.  The commentators did a great job promoting our region and telling the history of everything from the chateaux to foie gras to the prehistoric caves.  I rushed to tell my mom and sister to watch it, though it was pretty early in the morning in Texas!

The months leading up to the TDF coming through our part of the Dordogne were busy for all those municipalities concerned.

They had hours of meetings and planning for the villages to prepare for the crowds to descend.  They also had to place banners and organize the closures of roads and businesses.  There are hours of preparation for about 3 minutes of action!  People come from all over the world to watch the race.  Because there are so many passionate fans that come to the roadside to wait on the cyclists to pass by, they have a caravan that passes before, which everybody goes out to see.  There are fun vans and cars sponsored by different kinds of businesses, like sausages, madeleines, sunscreen and hotels…and they throw tons of free stuff at the crowd.  People love to go down to get the freebies, kids AND adults.  I heard stories of old people beating out kids for their free madeleines and sausages and inflatable pillows.  I also heard of people getting hit in the head with sunscreen that was thrown from the parade of cars in the caravan for free.

It’s a real carnival atmosphere.  Many people scope out their place in the morning and wait 3 hours or more for the passing cyclists, so the caravan is fun entertainment for the waiting crowds.

Everyone says afterwards that the ambiance is joyful and positive and fun.This weekend the Tour de France will finish in Paris, on the Champs-Elysée, with the champions on the podium and crowds of people watching them ride through the streets of Paris.

 

 

I would like to thank George Plakiotis and Julie Hill for the photos on this post.

Art and the Pech Merle Cave

 

After living in the Dordogne for 11 years, we finally made it to the prehistoric cave of Pech Merle, Grotte du Pech Merle (grotte = cave in French).  Located in the department of Lot, the department next door, it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive to the cave from our place here at Le Petit-Manoir.

I have been awed by many caves in the area, like in Domme with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, and ones like Font-de-Gaume with its cave drawings and paintings.  What makes Pech Merle special is that is has it all, geological beauty and cave paintings, and it’s not a reproduction.  Large galleries with ceilings as high as 11 meters are filled with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites and the walls are adorned with Cro-Magnon man’s artistic talent.  It is magnificent and just became my favorite cave visit.  Having studied art history in college, but not any courses on pre-historic art, I have found myself using the same analytical techniques from those studies to study pre-historic art ever since my first visit to Font-de-Gaume in 2001.    It’s moving to realize that 29,000 years ago we were able to tackle pesky artistic challenges like perspective or use calligraphic lines to produce a feeling of depth and movement.  There is an intelligent use of the cave’s surface to represent parts of the animals they drew.  Here in Pech Merle, there are two magnificent horses where the cave wall was used to make the head of the lead horse.

There are also examples of the surface of the cave being used to make legs, bellies and tails and this use makes the art truly 3-D.  This is true of all the cave paintings and drawings that I have seen in other caves.  Here in Pech Merle they are equally impressive.  Some things we saw here that I haven’t seen in other caves are outlines of the artists’ hands, footprints of a young Cro-Magnon man and a beautifully rendered profile of a woman, probably some sort of fertility goddess.  What a rich treasure of humanity that we can still visit! Though, I don’t know for how long.  Like many of the pre-historic caves, the number of visitors has been reduced to protect this patrimony of humankind.

We are Cro-Magnon man and it is a moving experience to come into contact with our ancestors through their art.  We know very little about their rituals or what led them to express themselves in these caves of Southwest France.  What is sure is that they were prolific artists, driven to create even if they had to crawl deep into the sides of hills, and that there are probably many more Lascauxs and Font-de-Gaumes and Pech Merles out there, waiting to be found.

 

Air Conditioning and the French

Last week in France we had a “canicule” or heat wave.  So designated by the fact when you have at least 3 days where temperatures do not go below 20 degrees Celsius (about 68 F) at night.  Well, first of all being from Texas, that definition pretty much applies to about 5 months straight of our year – May to October is a “canicule”.  Putting that aside, it is pretty hot. Especially since there are not a lot of places equipped with Air Conditioning, called “la clime”, except major supermarkets and shops.  Even offices, hospitals and schools aren’t always equipped with A/C.  And if they do have it, well, let me explain.  The French have a fear of “getting sick” or a “sore throat” from Air Conditioning.  I once overheard an elderly woman at the hardware store talking about the Air Conditioning IN HER CAR and how she didn’t run it because it could make you sick.    Well, then I noticed the kids said that school doesn’t have it.  Wow!   Granted it isn’t for very long here, even in the Southwest of France.  We probably only have about 3 weeks total of really hot a/c-worthy weather.  They are so zen about it.  They just sit there in the office, calmly working while the A/C (if they have it) is barely on so they don’t get sick. They also are ecologically minded.  A/C isn’t that great for the environment.  Fair enough.

The shops that use A/C also do a strange thing. They often are running the A/C with the shop doors open. Which, of course, defeats the purpose.  I asked them about it and they say that they fear people won’t come into the shop if the doors are closed.  But, what about winter?  They close them then.  Oh well, it’s an uphill battle in my quest to bring the French into the culture of La Clime.  It’s just not part of their culture.

Last week the heat wave was a bit early, précoce.  We normally don’t have heat like this until mid-July or August.  So, we’ve got our A/C on and are staying cool.  Our guests in the gites are using the pool a lot and luckily they have A/C for this unusual early high heat.  We’ll see what this summer 2017 is going to bring.  This coming week the temperatures will drop and all question of having Air Conditioning will be forgotten.

Voting in French

We’re heading to the polls again here in France.  This weekend is the vote for our parliamentary representatives, the “legislatives” in French.  I’ve been voting in France since 2012 and there was a bit of vocabulary to learn that went along with voting in my country of adoption.  In France, the Presidential election is followed by the legislature a month later.  The first interesting thing I learned was that here in France we vote for one elected position at a time.  Not 30 different elected positions on the ballot like we have in Texas (judges, sheriffs, president, congressman, all in one go).  It’s just for the President or the Mayor and his team, or your “député”, parliamentary representative. You’re just voting for one thing at a time.  Already that is a big difference.  The incumbent president or député is called “sortant”.  This means leaving.  It sort of confused me at first because I thought…well, he may win and not leave, you know.  But, now it seems perfectly normal to talk about the president “sortant” or député sortant.

The voting process is different from my American experience.  When you go to vote, you enter the voting station like a school or the city hall and there is a table full of flyers.  There is a stack of flyers for each candidate.  I was confused as what to do.  There isn’t a ballot?  No, you take one of each candidate and an envelope, you go into the booth with the curtain and put ONE of those flyers in the envelope.  The rest you either stuff into your pockets or there is a little trash can.  I sort of just pick up 2 or 3, it’s not like I really care if they see who I’m voting for.  But, it’s the principle.  When you leave the booth, you show your “carte électorale” and your i.d., I mean it’s a privilege of citizenship to vote.

Then you put the envelope in the box, an official says “a voté” and then you sign next to your name on the voter registration book.  That’s it.  It’s pretty fast (especially when you live in a small town!) and there can’t be too many errors with this sort of system.  A vote is invalid if, for example, you put two candidates into the envelope or nothing in the envelope.  Putting nothing in the envelope counts as a “vote blanc” that means you didn’t like anybody on offer.  This was a substantial part of the last presidential election.  One third of the French electorate either didn’t vote or voted “blanc”.

So, that about sums it up.  This Sunday we’ll be going to the polls for our “député” and if there is not a clear majority for our district, there will be a “second tour”, or run-off election in a week.  One really positive aspect to the campaign is that every candidate gets equal time on television for their commercial, and you’re not bombarded with ads and billboards.  On election night, they are not allowed to announce the results until 8 p.m., so no guessing journalists on TV announcing exit polling.

That’s about it…heading to the polls on Sunday!

La Route Napoleon

On our way back home from Corsica, the ferry docked in Nice.  We decided to drive back on the Route Napoleon.  It was a continuation of the Napoleon theme from our stay in Corsica.  His name is everywhere in Corsica, his birthplace.  When he tried for a “comeback” after he had been kicked out of France, he landed in Nice from the Isle of Elba and then made his way to Grenoble.  This route is now named “La Route Napoleon”.  It is known as a road that drivers love to take.

It is a sinuous, mountainous road with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean as you first engage the road.  As it winds its way north, we took a detour to drive through the Gorges du Verdon.  These gorges are cut deep in rock by the Verdon River.  The road takes you to above these gorges with many spectacular views.  It’s a popular place for rock climbers with its sheer cliff faces hundreds of meters high (or deep) depending on where you are.

If you are doing a tour of the Gorges du Verdon, Moustiers is a natural stopping point. 

It is at the bottom of a range of sheer cliffs and is quite lively.  As one of the most beautiful villages of France, there are many small hotels and restaurants.  There are also many porcelain workshops that make for fun window shopping.

On the way back to the Route Napoleon, we took the other side of the gorges and it was equally beautiful.

There are many scenic lookouts where you can stop and take photos and just look at the canyon cut out by the river.  There are places where you can do white water rafting through the gorges.  This Grand Canyon of France is just another example of how rich France is, in exceptionally beautiful places to visit and a variety of nature that never disappoints.

 

 

Corsica, l’île de beauté!

All these years I’ve lived in France, 16 years now, and never managed to make a trip to La Corse, Corsica.  Every time my French friends would speak of Corsica, they would sigh and say how magnifique it is.  Comme c’est beau la Corse!  It’s called L’ile de beauté in French, the “island of beauty” and it certainly merits this name.  I sort of thought it was just a French thing to be so proud of the beauty of Corsica, but they did not exaggerate!  Having lived in the Alps, I have experienced the majestic beauty of the mountains, these mountains in Corsica are the same, but you’ve got the turquoise blue Mediterranean at your feet.  It’s all breathtaking.

We started our trip in Toulon, taking Corsica Ferries on a beautiful Sunday morning to Ajaccio.  It took about 6 hours.  The ferry was kind of fun, there was a lounge and some entertainment.  I got to know the beer of Corsica, Pietra.  It’s a really nice amber beer with subtle tones of chestnut.
We arrived in Ajaccio in the afternoon and drove to Porto d’Ota.  Often just called Porto.  It was about a 2 hour drive.  I have a friend who is from Corsica who recommended Porto as a good place to base ourselves.  We spent four nights there.  It’s a touristy port with lots of restaurants and spectacular views of the mountains and the sea.  Magic!  On the drive to Porto we stopped for a visit in a beautiful village called Cargèse, where there are two beautiful churches, one Latin and one Greek.

We took day trips every day to different places.  The boat trip to see the Calenques de Piana and the Reserve Naturelle de Scandola was a real highlight.  We stopped in a quaint fishing town called Girolata that is only accessible by sea.  The views from the water of the reserve and the calenques were unforgettable.

The sinuous roads and sheer face cliffs make for slow drives but stunning ones.  We drove to Calvi and Ile Rousse one day and passed through mountainous villages.

We did a trip to see Cap Corse one day.  Very unspoilt beauty and the mountains plunge to the see on the this northernmost tip of the island.  A beautiful fishing village located at the bottom of these plunging cliffsides is called Centuri.  The village above Centuri is Nonza and it has beautiful views from the top.

There are vineyards everywhere and the wine in Corsica is quite good.  The terroir is at play here, with the grape type being Nielluccio that is the predominant red grape and you’ll find some syrah, merlot and grenache mixed in.  You can really taste the terroir and many of the varieties were very good.

For about 400 years, Corsica was under Tuscan, Pisa and then Genoese rule before passing to the French.  So, the Italian influence can be felt…in the wine and the food.  Another feature of the island is the tour genoise or Genoese tower.  They are the look out towers built during the years that Genoa held Corsica.  They are perched all around the coastline of the island, built to fight off pirates and invaders.

The southern part of Corsica is dominated by the fortified walled town of Bonifacio. This is a must see.  We spent a couple of nights in Ajaccio to visit the southern part of the island.  Bonifacio is about a 3 hour drive from Ajaccio.  The town of Propriano was on the way down to Bonifacio – it is a lively port town that looked fantastic for a summer beach vacation.  This is also a wine region, called Sartène.

Ajaccio is a medium-sized town with a beautiful old port.  There is a very nice shopping high street called Cours Napoleon.  The old town part of Ajaccio is filled with wine bars and restaurants and we enjoyed some fantastic Corsican cuisine.  They are known for their charcuterie and their goat cheese called brocciu. We ate canneloni and ravioli made with this cheese and omelets too!  The Corsicans also have a whole lot of pizzerias.  That Italian influence of course.  And the pizza is better than the pizza in continental France. (sorry French friends)

The Corsican experience is unique.  Sea and mountains, breathtaking views through forests and mountains seen from winding, challenging roads.  It’s unforgettable.
Inoubliable!