Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Category — Provence

I Didn’t Expect To Be Sad…

This was our final week in Provence.  It has been a week of lasts:

  • The last trip to the market to buy olives, pasta, and cheese and practice my bad French with the very patient people who sell their goods there

    Buying Nyons Olives at the Grignan Market

  • One last picture of the Grignan castle sitting at the top of the incredibly picturesque medieval village where the girls go to school

    Grignan Castle the end of June

  • The last Wednesday pizza from Ivan des Pizzas – a Hawaiian, the American kind with ham and pineapple, not the French version with chicken, green pepper and onion (pineapple optional!)
  • One last pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) from the best bakery of the many, many, many we’ve tried during the year.
  • A last trip to the clothesline… one last walk to the garbage and recycling station… one last mad dash to catch the school bus…
  • And many, many, many last bisous (kisses) with the wonderful people we’ve met during the year

This year has been intense. It’s been incredibly good in so many ways, but it has also been difficult. Everything was strange which meant it was also hard – like the time it took four hours to buy lightbulbs!

I fully expected that right now I’d be feeling glad we came, but ready to get back to “normal” life in California. I didn’t expect that leaving would make me sad.

It was hard to say good-bye to so many people. Claudine, Jacqueline, Augustin, Alain and the other wonderful Chansojeux leaders who immediately embraced our children as part of the village; Emma, Christine, Vanessa, Genevieve and the lovely English-speaking people who let me have a real conversation; Caroline and the other parents who let me practice my French while we waited for the school bus; Genevieve and Jean who introduced us to raclette; Vanessa and Jerome who taught us the traditions of the galette des rois; Julien who gave us homemade pate from his own pig; JP and and his amazing food (takeout fois gras – yum); Gilbert who gave JM tips about growing crops in Provence; the staff at the village cafe who kept us supplied with coffee, bread, pastis, and great conversation; the wonderful teachers at the Grignan school …and…and…and…

We hate to leave. As the girls say, we’d like to stay in California AND stay in Chantemerle.

Au revoir et Merci

Our very warmest and most sincere au revoir and merci to the incredible people who have touched our lives this past year! Vous allez nous manquer!

July 3, 2011   11 Comments

Medieval Days at the Beaucaire Fortress

Once again, we had a plan, but we quickly got distracted.

We were supposed to visit the Tarascon castle, the famous Château du bon roi René (Good King René’s castle), but we got distracted on our way.  It turned out that the Beaucaire Fortress was holding a journée médiévale (medieval day) that weekend. The animated tours are held once a month in April, May and June, then every Wednesday in July and August. And so we changed our plans for the nth time and decided King René’s castle will be for some other time.

The Beaucaire Fortress

Well, it was a great choice. The Beaucaire Fortress only opened to the public last year, so is not in any guidebooks. Plus it was a windy Mistral day, and so the fortress wasn’t busy at all. Best of all, the animators were serious scientists who study medieval life in general and the art of medieval self-defense. So, we were set for an amazing personal tour.

First, meet the troupe de troubadours, the singers & jesters with their chest of ridiculous stuff…

Troubadours or Jester? ...with their treasure chest

Then we all had a turn shotting a 12th-century crossbow – adults and kids.

Shooting a crossbow at Beaucaire Fortress

Next, we were led by our guide to the triangular dungeon.

Inside the fortress

Here, we saw many old graffiti and other cool things.

 

Old graffiti in the dungeon

Tight dungeon stairs to strategically prevent any armed combat

We were treated to a demonstration of the art of medieval fighting.

Ready for battle...

The Art of Medieval Combat

Some little girls got to take part in the action!

Ready for Combat Training

June 9, 2011   1 Comment

The Kissing Thing

I was somewhat familiar with the French custom of greeting with bisous (cheek-kisses) even before this trip. Most French-Canadians greet each other that way, including JM’s family. When JM and I first met, he had been in a predominantly English environment for a long time so he didn’t do any cheek kissing with me. It ended up that both his brother AND his ex-girlfriend kissed me long before he ever did!

But I was not prepared for all the kissing here in Provence. There is a LOT of kissing going on. And they kiss three times – not just two.  (I’m told in some places in France it’s actually four!)

I am still not an expert at the bisous but I have picked up a few things:

  • Don’t actually kiss – the lips should not actually contact anything during the bisous. Simply touch checks lightly while making kissing noises. Ideally the corner of each mouth just barely avoids making contact with the other person’s cheek.
  • Don’t kiss the same person twice in one day – it can take a lot of time to get through all the kissing, especially in a small village where you know most people. The trick to dealing with that is to only kiss each person one time every day. I ran into the cafe owner at the bank one day. I had to almost chase him around the bank to kiss him – but I was determined to adopt French customs. I discovered afterward that was a mistake since I had already done the bisous with him that day during my morning bread purchase.
  • Let the French person take the lead – the only mishap I’ve ever seen during the bisous happened between two English ladies. No one was quite sure of how it happened, but the two sets of lips made distinct contact. It was embarrassing and/or humorous for all involved.
  • Beware of glasses and hats – it took me a while to learn this one, because French men are quite smooth about removing their glasses as they go in for the bisous. The combination of two pairs of glasses bumping into each other is not pleasant, so caution must be used. Hats with wide brims are also dangerous and should be removed before the bisous no matter how bad the hat hair.
  • Some men kiss, some don’t – I can’t figure out any pattern in this at all, but certain men here kiss almost all the other men, some men don’t kiss any other men, and some go both ways. Since I’m not a man it doesn’t impact me at all, but sometimes JM gets some unexpected kissing action.
  • Kiss the village barkeeper, but not the teacher – actually who gets the bisous is consistent, once you figure out the customs. If JM sees someone he knows and gets the bisous, then I get the bisous also since I am his wife. But parents of your kids’ friends are not automatically bisous-ready. When I go pick up the bread or have a coffee, there are bisous for the person behind the counter – man or woman – unless it’s the new lady whose name I don’ t know. But don’t kiss your kids’ teachers even if you see them every day.

If I can just convince my kids to stop telling people they like “French kissing” I’ll be set.

May 27, 2011   7 Comments

XVIIth Century Hotel Stay…

Welcome to the Hôtel Doctrinaires, an old college founded by the Pères Doctrinaires of Avignon in 1635, now fully renovated and converted into a nice hotel in Beaucaire.  Surprisingly for a 17th century hotel, it was very comfortable, and our room was large with a jacuzzi bath.

Here are a couple of pictures to give you a sense of our stay…

Hôtel Doctrinaires – Founded 1635

Hôtel Doctrinaires Lobby

It’s interesting that this hotel was almost empty, despite its awesome charm and great comfort, whereas the much more expensive Best Western was fully booked.  Go figure…

Dinner with the girls (Diane taking the picture)

Dinner was revealing, however, when I realized that L had now fully developed her palate for French gastronomical cuisine.  Indeed, when given the choice between the standard “kid fare” of steak haché and frites (hamburger patty with french fries), she instead opted for the adult salmon main course – along with a small provençal quiche, an awesome preparation of mixed vegetables and a little side salad.  And Z who was notorious for eating only plain pasta, rice and bananas before coming to France, had to “copy” her sister and ordered the same dish. They’ve fully embraced the local culture.  Now that’s my girls !  🙂

L cleaning up her salmon dinner plate!!!

 

 

 

May 27, 2011   1 Comment

Roman Days in Nîmes

Roman Days

We are in the 1st century A.D. at the height of the Roman Empire.  Emperor Augustus is coming to visit Nîmes, and the city promises to mark this extraordinary event with a magnificent show at the Arena of Nîmes featuring gladiator fights, chariot races, chariot battles, barbarian prisoners from northern England, military exercises accentuating the Roman army’s mighty prowess, Roman and Celts simulated battles, etc.  In other words, an unprecedented show to highlight the Emperor’s days of remarkable glory…

The Nîmes Roman Arena before the show

Chariot Races in front of Emperor Augustus

Chariot Battles

Military Exercises by the Roman Cavalry: The flying green ball is a cabbage.

Showing off a Barbarian prisoner captured in northern England. Prisoners were let loose and if they could make it to Caesar before being stopped would be freed.

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The mighty Roman turtle formation

The Gauls in front of the Roman Arena

Two friendly barbarians

Young Legionaries in training…

 

The year was 127 A.D.     🙂

 

May 12, 2011   10 Comments

Confusing?

This sign tells you that the maximum driving speed is no longer 70 km/h. That speed zone is over.

Maybe it’s just me, but I would find it more helpful if the sign mentioned what the new speed is.

UPDATE:  So apparently it is just me. All the other people who live in France (and apparently in many other countries) find it completely normal that you just KNOW what the speed limit is for that kind of road. Any sign that is posted is indicating an exception. This sign is merely saying “the exception is over, go back to your normal speed”. Maybe if we stay here longer I’ll be able to look at a road and instinctively know if it’s a 90 or a 50. Until then, I stick by my original premise that if you’re putting up a sign anyway, you might as well put one up that is informative for everybody, not just those who are in-the- know.

May 9, 2011   6 Comments

Sexism at the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

It is the school break yet again and we are taking day trips around our area. There is still a lot to see and we only have two months left before we leave the village.

We visited Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. We saw the source of the river, which according to the visitor information is the biggest spring in France, and the fifth largest in the world. It is certainly a beautiful spot. The water is crystal clear, and there is some kind of water plant that gives the river a gorgeous green color.

River in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

The source of the river is at the bottom of a cliff, which makes a pretty dramatic backdrop.

Cliff above the spring source

Source of the fifth largest spring in the world

The area is a bit touristy. You can clearly tell how to get to the famous source – just follow the stands selling things. We stopped at one of the most expensive ice cream places, which had the benefit of a view of the river. But the extra 2€ per scoop was worth it for the access to a clean washroom.

As it turned out, the men’s room at the ice cream place had one of the most lovely views in the whole area. Each man who took a leak was treated to this lovely scene:

View from the urinal

(Yes, I looked. But JM checked that the coast was clear first. I’m inappropriate, but with limits.)

But for the ladies – NOTHING!!! Just a white wall.  Not even a picture of the view – let alone the real thing. NOT FAIR!

May 3, 2011   3 Comments

Culture Shock: Easter Egg Hunt

The village hosted an egg hunt on Easter Sunday morning. Our kids had been to egg hunts in California too (shout-out to our fabulous neighbors!), so we weren’t expecting this to be any kind of new experience. We were wrong.  There were a couple of things that were very different.

  1. The eggs are chocolate. These French mamas are not at all shy about sugaring up their children for birthday parties, school events, or the after school goutez (snack). At Easter the eggs are chocolate and they are LARGE. Among our friends in California it would be quite a faux pas to give kids large amounts of candy, so it’s typical to hunt for plastic eggs filled with stickers or small toys. I mentioned this to one of the parents from the village, and she were concerned about the environmental impact of all the plastic eggs. Her view was that the kids just eat the sugar and then it’s gone, but a plastic egg will live for centuries.
  2. The eggs hide in the rocks. There are no lawns in our village, but there are lots of rock walls with plenty of cracks just perfect to hide an egg in.

    Egg hidden in a rock wall

    Egg hiding in a grape vine

  3. Kids don’t keep their eggs. After the hunt was over the girls proudly showed me their eggs. I was very surprised to see them dump their precious eggs into a big basket, and watched as every village child was given exactly four eggs (one big, three little). The eggs the kids went home with had nothing to do with the eggs that they found on the hunt. I wondered if this was just a village thing, but the girls told me they did the same at school. Everybody shares.

    Sharing the Eggs

    This is different from the US egg hunts we’ve been too. If a kid doesn’t make an effort (or have a parent who will make an effort for them) they leave empty handed. This is a very basic example of the difference in the thinking between the individualistic American society and the community-centric French one. It’s not like either approach is clearly better. It’s nice that everyone got eggs, not just the big kids who are faster. But then that kid who sat and whined instead of trying got the same eggs as the motivated ones.

  4. After hunt glass of wine. Of course, being France there has to be a drink. This time it was juice for the kids, and white wine for the adults – at 10:30 AM!

    Apres-egghunt

April 27, 2011   10 Comments

Making Truffle Brie

After our truffle hunting adventure, we decided that we had to enjoy the fruits of our labor and so bought a (very small) truffle. The fact that we had no clue what to do with it didn’t stop us.

The Truffle

Fortunately, the truffle farmer’s wife had many suggestions and tips:

  • Truffles are about smell, and not so much taste.  So when preparing dishes, the objective is to get the dish to absorb their smell.
  • The smell disappears within about a week (or less), if stored in a fridge.  Use a sealed container.  (I actually forgot and the milk tasted like truffles the next day!)
  • Don’t overcook truffles – you lose all the flavor!  Now I prefer not to cook them at all.

So what dishes are good with truffles? A famous Provençal dish is the truffled omelet. One way to prepare it is to put the mushroom with the eggs in a sealed container for a few days, so the eggs absorb the smell (eggs in the shell, or without – both approaches work!)

Other folks make mashed potatoes with truffles (I tried, but we didn’t get much of a truffle taste, perhaps because we overcooked them).

But our favorite by a long shot, is truffled Brie cheese. It’s easy to do, and very addictive because it’s so good.  Here’s how to prepare it:

  1. Slice a wedge of Brie along its length (cross-section).

    Brie Cross-section with a Côte du Rhône for Proper Inspiration


    A sign of quality for black truffles is the number of nervures (white veins) the mushroom has.  The more the merrier (and tastier).
  2. Many 'nervures' Means High Quality

  3. Shave thin slices of truffles on the inside of the brie.  The thinner the slices, the better.  The idea is to maximize the mushroom surface area exposure to the cheese so as to transfer the mushroom smell to the cheese.

    A Few Microns Thick for Best Results

  4. Finally, wrap the cheese in a plastic wrap (saran wrap or equivalent) to seal it.  Store in the fridge for at least 24 hours – two to three days is even better.  This gives it time to impregnate the truffle smell properly.

    Ready in 48 Hours

Now you can proceed to a legendary dégustation with a glass of Côte du Rhône for proper pairing. Mmmm. C’est délicieux!

March 20, 2011   6 Comments

Burning Man: The Village Edition

Carnaval is celebrated many different ways around the world. Our village throws a childrens’ festival based on  Provençal tradition. It was a charming event – with a slightly barbaric twist.

The day started with costumed children “trick-or-treating” around the village asking for the ingredients to make crêpes – eggs, flour, milk, and sugar. Our village was very generous so that was done quickly.

Ready for Carnaval

Next the entire village is invited for a lunch of soupe à la courge (squash soup) and crêpes. We were expecting a simple lunch, but of course it’s France so we had a feast that included sausages, nine different kinds of cheese, bread, three kinds of tartes, wine, homemade liquor made from mountain flowers, and much more.

Making the Carnaval Soup

After lunch, the kids helped to make the carmentran. An old pair of pants and shirt were stuffed with straw, and a head added. The kids painted on a face, and gave him a pair of glasses. He’ was attached to a stick, and straw was piled up underneath him.

Next the kids read the “accusations” where they blame the carmentran for everything bad that has happened to them during the year. This is actually quite funny. Each kid starts with  “J’accuse carmentran…” The carmentran was accused of not buying cereal, breaking bikes, never letting the kids do anything, and many more heinous acts.

Finally, the carmentran was lit on fire, while the children danced around happily chanting “A mort carmentran! A mort carmentran!(Death to the carmentran!).  <- This was the slightly barbaric part I mentioned earlier.

"A mort carmentran!"

To finish up the afternoon, the kids took turns riding on the two donkeys that live in the village.

Donkey rides for all the village children

We enjoyed spending the day hanging out in our village. The people were great, the food was excellent, the kids were amusing, and the donkeys were pedestrian-friendly in all the important ways –  important since I simply cannot get into the habit of constantly scanning the ground looking for poop.

I do want to embrace all aspects of our trip to France and the culture here, but I must confess that I was not completely comfortable watching my kids cheerfully demanding the death of a stuffed pair of pants.

March 16, 2011   5 Comments