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

Category — Village Life

Being the Maman Anglais

To my kids’ school friends, I am the Maman Anglais who speaks a very strange and limited version of French.

Starting in Grade 1, French children study English in school, and some of them like to practice with me. It’s usually a pretty basic conversation, but I know how encouraging it is to have a native speaker understand you when you try to speak their language – and how very discouraging it is when they just don’t.

I make an effort to be supportive of any child who wants to take their English words for a spin, so when a boy came up to me the other day at a village party and started off with our usual English exchange, I gave him my full attention.

Boy:  “Allo”
Me:   “Hello.  How are you?”
Boy:  “Good.”
Me:   “I am good too.”
Boy:  “Cheat.”
Me:   (Very confused because usually they say bye and leave at this point. I don’t understand but don’t want to discourage him.) “Pardon.”
Boy:  “Cheat.  ummm…  Sheet.”
Me:   (Still not getting it but wanting to encourage him.)  “Yes. You have a sheet?”

He left before I figured out that he was trying to shock me with his new English swear word. That boy definitely needs to work on his accent to be bilingually obnoxious.

February 22, 2014   1 Comment

Village Vignette

It was a lovely afternoon so I took a break and walked up the hill to our tiny village.

I love this walk – gorgeous rolling hills in every direction, the field of sunflowers about to be harvested, the pony that runs over looking for treats, and the cemetery that seems to be almost the same size as the village.


(The cemetery has the best cell phone reception in the entire village.)


I also love the village itself.  No two houses look anything the same, the church has the style of the region that looks a bit like a fortress, and there are small pockets of loveliness everywhere.

village_road village_flowers village_church

As I got into the village proper on this walk, I passed a stranger coming out of his house. As village etiquette requires, I nodded and said “Bonjour.”

The immediate reply, in British-accented English. “Well hello. I take it you are Canadian.”


Was it the way I was dressed? Was my smile a little too enthusiastic? Could he be a linguistic savant who could hear an English Canadian accent in a single French word?

Of course it’s none of these. We live in a small village and word has got around.

November 6, 2013   2 Comments


Our landlords very kindly hosted an apero to introduce us to a few people in our new village. It was a bilingual gathering with a mix of French  and local British people. The topics at the English end of the table included local politics, schools, bureaucracy, healthcare, and kids.  The French end of the table had one main topic – FOOD.

In the South of France, food is a serious thing. Eating here is more than simply satiating hunger, it is an experience.

First, les legumes. The best place to buy vegetables is from a farm about half a mile away. There is no sign, just turn left at the first road past the greenhouse. When you get there, you’ll see that the garage door is open and there are big boxes of fruits and vegetables. The price list is on the wall. The vegetable place is only open from 10-12 on Saturday morning, and it is a very social experience since the entire village descends on the farm.


The best vegetables

JM chatted with the farmer, who explained that his vegetables are not bio (organic), because sometimes you need to deal with an infestation and the rules to be bio are very rigid. But his family eats these vegetables and so do his neighbours who see what he does every day. A lively discussion on the merits of horse manure vs. duck manure followed.


The vegetable price list

Next, the boucherie. Everyone agrees the local butcher is excellent, and we heartily agree. The French do not make any attempt to hide the fact that the meat you are eating comes from the animals you see as you drive around. Each cut of meat has a picture of the type of animal that it comes from in its pre-meat state.





We have not yet had a chance to visit the fromagerie with the best goat cheese. He is only open at 6 AM and 6 PM, the hours he milks the goats. Everyone agrees that the level of hygiene there is a little bit suspect, but the cheese is so good you can easily overlook that.

I could also tell you about the best bread, pastries, chocolate, olives, and more, but writing this has made me hungry…


September 18, 2013   1 Comment

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

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

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

A Village Moment…

I went to pick up the bread order at the cafe. They had changed some things this week and didn’t know the new price of the “marquise”-style baguette. They told me to just take the bread.  I could come back the next day to pay for it.

JM went back the next day and mentioned that we still needed to pay for that bread. This time the proprietor was there but didn’t know about the previous day’s lack of payment.  Pas problem.  He just asked how many loaves, and made up a price. Transaction settled.

I absolutely LOVE this part of village life!

January 26, 2011   1 Comment

A Rather Perfect Winter Morning

Not every day is perfect in Provence, but yesterday morning came pretty close. The weather has been just lovely, and as I left the house the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the smell was clean.

My first errand was to take the garbage out. There is a garbage and recycling station a couple of hundred meters down the road, a slight downhill walk with a lovely view.

Walking to the Garbage Station

Garbage and Recycling Station

Next stop – pick up the bread order at the village cafe. As I walked the valley stretched out on my left with a clear view of the neighbouring village.

View across the valley

Our village is quite lovely – a collection of rock houses built into a rocky face halfway up the hill. There are just two roads in the village, so today I took one to go to the cafe and one to come home.

Entering the village

The village has evolved over time, so none of the buildings are the same, and you can’t tell from the outside how things are connected on the other side of the walls. It makes for some very dramatic roof lines and lovely little nooks between the houses.

Love the roof lines

A walkway between the two roads in the village

I stopped to check out how the construction was going at the Mairie (town hall). They are building a new salle des fetes (community hall) at a site on the outskirts of the village, but for some reason tore down the old salle des fetes before even breaking ground on the new one. Ping pong classes have been canceled for the rest of the year since there is no longer any place to set up the ping pong table. L is deeply disappointed.

Construction at the Mairie

From the Mairie to the cafe is a short but steep uphill walk.

At the top of the hill there is a different view of the valley.

After buying the bread I headed back home, carrying the unwrapped baguette in my bare hand (of course!). There are four fountains on this walk, adding the calming sound of running water to the ambiance.

I took the second road on the way back. This is the main road through the village – the one I don’t like to drive on because it is so narrow. But walking is quite lovely, especially in the middle of the day when there is little traffic. The only person I saw yesterday morning was this cyclist.

I got back to the house and the total trip has taken about half an hour. The end of this perfect morning was a piece of fresh baguette.

I hope I continue to see the incredible beauty that surrounds every aspect of our lives here.

January 20, 2011   2 Comments

Medieval Christmas

We’re living in an area surrounded by villages that date back to antiquity or medieval times. We frequently experience interesting and fun traditions just by walking around.

Earlier in December, we visited Taulignan for its annual Christmas market.  Taulignan is a fortified medieval village that prides itself on beautiful walls with a dozen defensive towers, generally all intact and quite spectacular.

Medieval Christmas Faire in Taulignan

Medieval Christmas in Taulignan

Many people take this event quite seriously, dressing up as knights, princesses, bards, medieval soldiers, priests, medieval farmers and so on.  Some folks even explore the market by riding a horse, just like the good’ol days.

[Editor’s side note:  Watch where you walk!]

Taulignan by Horse

The Christmas Market

But the highlight of our visit was the show of people who dance with fire and then spit it from from their mouths.  It’s really quite impressive.  To this day, I still wonder what they drink to make such a spectacular flame.  Perhaps this is a secret best unknown…

Too much chili for lunch?

Let's all sing together...

January 2, 2011   1 Comment

Important Update from the Village

Today when I went to the village cafe to pick up the bread, the whole town seemed to be buzzing with the news. Four different people told me about it. Clearly it was a big day for our small village.

There is a nouveau panneau (new sign) in the square by the Mairie (town hall).

New Sign in the Village


December 17, 2010   5 Comments