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!

 

Marseilles/Marseille

We’re just returning from our spring vacation and have seen some magnificent sites and scenery in France.  We started out heading to the Cote d’Azure (what Anglophones call the Riviera).  We were heading to Toulon, but stopped for a few hours in Marseille, or Marseilles as we spell it in English, who knows why.  It’s a very historical city, the oldest founded city in France and has a beautiful vieux port or Old Port.

The Old Port of Marseille is 2500 years old, founded by the Greeks.  It is a lively place to pass some time.  A good place to park and walk around the city.  Marseilles was the European Capital of Culture and there is the new museum of the Mediterranean called the MUCEM.  As you walk from the museum toward the Old Port where all the boats are parked, you can see the church on the hill opposite – Notre Dame de la Garde.

 

A beautiful church in the neo-byzantine style that hovers over the harbour and watches over the city and protects the sailors.  You can see the lovely boats suspended from the ceiling of the church, it’s just beautiful. It is worth the climb up to visit (or take the “petit train”) and the views are magnificent.  We could see over to the Chateau d’If, famed prison that figures in the Comte de Monte Cristo.

 

Afterwards enjoy the walk back down into the city.  Just stop and soak up the sunny blue skies and have a coffee and people watch in the Old Port area.  It’s easy to walk over to the Opera House, Prefecture building and explore the main shopping streets.   As the second largest city in France, it’s worth a visit.

 

Spring has Sprung

With Spring comes a whole lot of work in the garden and the preparation of our vacation rentals for the season.  Lilacs, cherry trees, apple trees and the magnificent wisteria are all in full bloom, and color is everywhere.  All the trimming and pruning of the last year finally pays off!

I’ve also been really busy practicing my piano for a soirée musicale that my pianist friends and I put together.  It was fantastic evening spent with musical friends.

We played our piano duets and invited our musician friends to participate and play their instruments, too.  It’s all very casual and usually a very nice moment spent with friends who love music!

I also did a translating job for the first time in my life.  I was a guide translator for a UNESCO conference on Biosphere Reserves. 

Here in the Dordogne, our river basin is a UNESCO classified Biosphere Reserve and people from 42 other countries and their Biosphere reserves came to this conference on Man and the Biosphere.  Our relation to nature and how we must respect it, protect it and how we can communicate to the public its importance.  The Dordogne River is the cleanest in France, so if you ever come visit – enjoy our beautiful river!

 

Classics of French Cooking

When we first moved to France, I was very interested in cooking and discovering the classic French recipes.  Of course, we have some of these present in American cooking and many of us have seen the film about Julia Child, bought her book and tried some of those recipes out.  But, even some of her recipes are more complicated than what a typical French cook would do at home.  I just made Coq au Vin this last weekend and did a basic version, with all the required ingredients for flavor, lardons (little pieces of bacon), onions, carrots (or you can use mushrooms), red wine and of course a good farm chicken.  But, it’s not necessary to use pearl onions as one finds in many recipes.  Those are complicated to peel and prepare and regular onions work just fine.  A good wine is, however, essential.  I like to use wines of the Southwest or South of France, in this version I used a Fitou, probably because this sort of wine from Languedoc Rousillon pairs nicely with our regions’ food.

Another classic of French cooking that is worth mastering is Blanquette de Veau.  This is a sumptuous dish that bowled me over the first time I ate it, in a lovely restaurant in the 8th of Paris.  I was immediately searching for recipes.  And, if you don’t like Veal, there are versions with turkey and a particular favorite of mine is one I found on Pinterest, Blanquette de Saumon, yes salmon, and leeks, to die for!

Boeuf Bourguignon is another top dish in the French dictionary of classics.  If you read French, a website with excellent recipes that are reviewed and commented on is Marmiton.org.  It’s a real “go to” for me with classic French dishes and sauces too!  The French are known for their sauces, which can essentially make the dish.   I just made a beautiful pepper sauce for tournedos de canard that is a real keeper.  I found it on Pinterest and the site is called  grands-meres.net, how sweet, grandmas.net.

I’d say that another classic of French cooking that is always appreciated by your guests is a good French Onion Soup.  Of course, they don’t call it that. It’s Soupe à l’oignon.  It’s easy to make a veggie version of this, i.e. no beef broth, and I found the best recipe in Delia’s Vegetarian cookbook.  The difference is the color.  When you don’t use beef broth it’s not as dark.  When you use chicken broth it’s not as dark either.  However, it tastes just as good.  I even bought the special onion soup bowls to serve it in!

Hachis Parmentier and its version with duck figures in the top Classics of French cooking…it’s pretty simple and amounts to a very good mix of veg and meat topped with whipped potatoes and put in the oven to gratin.  Delicious!  This is a very homestyle meal, similar to Shepherd’s Pie.

Most of the classics of French cooking are not particulary difficult to make and use the ingredients one can find at the local market or supermarket.  They are satisfying and always a crowd pleaser.

Les Vacances de Février – Winter Break

The French school system benefits from a series of school breaks that make the school year much easier to get through than the American one.  At least in my opinion.  There is a vacation about every 6 weeks which helps everyone recharge.  The first one after back to school in September is at Toussaint (or all saints day).  It’s usually at the end of October/beginning of November.  Two weeks.  Then, there is the two weeks at Christmas, which is normally the same two weeks in the States.  After that, there is the “vacances de février” as they are called.  Though, because the school zones are staggered, some regions have part of this vacation in March.  It has been traditionally a vacation for skiing for many French families.  It still is quite a busy period on the slopes of the Alps and Pyrenees during the February break, all the ski stations are full. However, many families go abroad, too.  It’s the high season in the Caribbean  and there are also many people who go to Guadeloupe or Martinique, French departments.  You might be wondering what families do if they can’t take off on vacation during these periods of 2 weeks and no school?  Well, they rely a lot on grandparents and there are also programs provided for the kids called “centre aéré”, which are sort of like a day camp for the kids.  That way mom and dad can go to work and the kids get a break from school.  The next school break is normally in April, around Easter, and is called the “vacances de printemps” or Spring Break and is 2 weeks also.  After that is the Summer Vacation, which usually starts the first week of July.  I follow this school year even though my kids are grown, because I teach English to school age kids.  So, we took off for Australia during my “vacances de février”.

It was really a beautiful trip.  Thanks to our time in France, I’ve made a lot of Australian friends.  If we didn’t live in France, I probably wouldn’t have made so many Aussie buddies.  They like coming to France, to live and to vacation.  With our vacation rentals here in the Dordogne, we’ve met many Australians that travel here.  It’s sort of fun to have this contact with them and it gave us the inspiration to look into visiting their country.  On our trip to Sydney and down to Melbourne we met up with friends we’ve made here in France and it really made the trip special.  We’ve got Australians coming this season in our gites, and now we’ll feel a little more connected to where they are from.  Traveling makes the world smaller and having the vacation rentals brings us closer to people from all over.  Australia is a beautiful place with wonderful countryside, beaches, wine and great food, which is probably why they enjoy those same things here in France!

 

It’s Wisteria Pruning Time!

It’s that time of year when I need to get out, get on the ladder, and prune back the wisteria.  I was telling my walking group friend Andrea all about my big plans for this week in the garden.  She said, why don’t you do a blog post about pruning wisteria?  And so here it is.  It’s a big job, our wisteria must be at least 50 years old.  In French, it’s called  la glycine, and that is a pretty name, non?

This time of year is perfect to trim on a wisteria, you can also do it at the end of fall/beginning of winter.  The most important thing is that it’s not freezing (and we’re have a really beautiful week with temps in the teens Celcius/60’s Farenheit) and before March.  If you do it in March, you won’t get that spectacular flowering on the wood.  I always aim for end of January/beginning of February, when the snowdrops come up.

the wisteria before

Wisteria flowers on the wood first, then throughout the season it flowers again.  Especially if you take time to lightly trim it back during the summer.  I usually do a mid-summer trim, not a big one, but just to control it.  Wisteria is super invasive and will get in the roof tiles and windows.

Now, I’m not a fan of working on an extension ladder, but I’ve had to “get over it”.  I hate looking down from heights, like when I was skiing in Chamonix and we had to get off the cable car at the top of Grand Montets – so scary I would get sick looking through the steel-grill steps that took you down to the slope.  Not fun for me.  The heights of gardening have become my extreme sport.  I even managed a selfie!  I mean, it’s not Mont Blanc, but I am up on a ladder working with clippers and it does make me feel badass.

Pick a few of the major branches, visualize them, and then just get to whacking back all the tendrils. To the 2 buds point…always cutting en billet as they say in French – or at a 45 degree angle.

the wisteria from above, choosing the main branches helps

 

 

Then, in the Spring you’ll enjoy the results of all the hard work!

The New Lascaux

Last weekend, Peter and I headed to Montignac to check out the new, highly-praised Lascaux center.  Lascaux is an incredibly ornate prehistoric cave full of thousands of engravings and drawings, discovered in 1940. Lascaux II was a reproduction of the original cave made to avoid the damage of visitors to the original Lascaux.  The new Lascaux is bigger and better than ever.

This newest Lascaux is reproduced to the millimeter and is even used by researchers who come to study the parietal paintings and engravings.  They have reproduced more of the original cave than Lascaux II.

When you drive up to the new Lascaux, it is a striking, modern building, all in cement and situated just in front of the site of the original Lascaux.  The entire visit is remarkable in its attention to detail and history, the high-tech use of video and re-enactment of what the area would have looked like thousands of years ago.  The actual visit of the cave is about an hour and a half and it is truly a stunning work of art itself.  It is a guided tour and very well-explained.  The tools and materials that Cro-Magnon man used, the animals that were part of time period,the attention of these pre-historic artists to detail in the placement of the drawings and engravings, using the form of the cave itself for the animals, will entrance you.

After the cave visit, you are escorted to a very high-tech facility called a studio where you can study parts of the cave again, with an interactive tablet that you wear around your neck that has further explanations.  It is all extremely well thought- out.  After the studio, there are two cinemas with films about parietal (cave wall) art in other parts of France and Spain.

 

You should plan to spend about 2 or three hours at Lascaux, and plan on being captivated by our ancestors and their concept of art in their time.  Reserve on line in advance, http://www.lascaux.fr/fr