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

This is NOT Polly Platt’s France

I turned 40 this week.

Before coming to France, I researched French culture. I talked to people who had spent time in France and read as many books as I could including Polly Platt’s seminal book on life in France, French or Foe. One thing was consistent – don’t expect to have a social life. Not that anyone said the French are unfriendly, just that it took them time to warm up and one year simply would not be enough.

Polly Platt obviously NEVER visited our village. The people here couldn’t be more lovely, warm, and welcoming.  And to the whole family – not just to JM whose “cute French-Canadian accent” seems to charm the ladies (who knew?).

(Side comment:  Despite what Polly Platt says, it is OK to use the restroom when you visit a French person’s house!!!)

Even though we’ve only been here for a few months, we knew enough people to have a party to celebrate my 40th birthday. Naturally we have mostly met people who have kids the same age as ours and who speak at least some English – it turns out there are three English teachers in our village and they were all here.

Forty Tea Lights for my Fortieth Birthday

After the charcuterie (pate-style meat) but before the fromage (cheese), the kids summoned the adults to see the Spectacle (show) they had just made up. They had taken our “reuse toy box” and made a family of very clever puppets:  a king, a queen, a princess, a policeman, and a pig.  They even had a program listing the puppeteers and their roles, with a special English edition just for me. All the parents had been assigned seats on a specific color of yoga mat. I was completely charmed.

Garbage Puppets

We’re really enjoying our village and the people. I especially love the kids, who simply do not get that I don’t understand French. So they just talk normally, and I tell them “lentement” (slowly) and “répéter” (repeat) and use charades until we figure it out. The same exchange can be very awkward with an adult, but the kids don’t care and it’s great practice for me.

Not to paint everything in the village as idyllic. As we get to know people better we are seeing more of the disagreements, politics, and personalities. Apparently they’ve been trying to name the streets in our village for two years now but can’t agree on the names even though there are only two streets! And that charming puppet show the kids put together – we never actually saw the final performance because the kids started to bicker.

The one benefit of not speaking French is that I’m completely oblivious to any issues!!!

November 22, 2010   7 Comments

Scenes from the Village Cafe

I call it “the village cafe“, but it’s actually a multi-commerce (general store). You can buy bread, stamps, and laundry detergent, refill your cell phone, and have a coffee or aperitif.  It’s also a full-service restaurant.  But this is not the “video rental and fresh bait” kind of general store you find in small towns in North America, this restaurant has a real chef and food that is absolutely exquisite.

One of my favorite things about France is that our cafe does plat à emporter (take out) including a really lovely chilled foie gras. You read that right, TAKE OUT FOIE GRAS. Seriously!!!  How awesome is that? Today JM and I had lunch there  and my canard (duck) was superb with a really incredible morel mushroom sauce. Last Friday the pork with chestnut sauce was absolute poetry.

But aside from the amazing food, the cafe is also a great place to experience the village:

  • Today there was a notice in the window announcing the birth of a new baby complete with picture and a general invitation to the baby shower – which would be held at the cafe, of course.
  • While were were eating, a local farmer showed up at the restaurant carrying a HUGE butternut squash under his arm, vanished into the kitchen, and came out with an enormous pail of food garbage.
  • Monsieur le Cowboy, a local character, came in for a drink and stopped by our table to flirt a bit, taking my hand and putting it to his lips, but then kissing his own hand instead at the last minute.
  • As we were leaving, the chef came out so of course JM chatted him up. He gave us a taste of his salt-cured duck, which sounded kind of scary to this simple prairie girl, but was excellent.

A totally charming lunch in our wonderful Provencal village cafe.

November 9, 2010   6 Comments

Friendly Rain

Since Z commented the other day that I had a “gros bedon” (fat belly), I decided that I couldn’t spend all my days drinking wine, eating cheese and sampling the saucissons secs (the excellent dry pork sausages – much better than it sounds). So today, I went out for a 5km run, despite a strong wind and the clouds promising rain.

The always reliable Murphy’s Law chose this opportunity to enact itself. When I was furthest away from home the rain started raining.  I didn’t really care because I was running and a little water wouldn’t hurt.

However, on my way back, and as the rain had effectively stopped, a car drove by and stopped besides me.  The lady in the car rolled down her window and said “Voulez-vous que je vous reconduisent à votre maison?” (Would you like a ride back to your home?).

Perhaps this is part South-of-France culture, or perhaps this is part small-town culture, but I was frankly not expecting that a lady driving her car offers a ride home to a dirty looking and wet stranger running on the road…

October 11, 2010   4 Comments

French Entrepreneurship

France is usually not known for entrepreneurship.  The 35 hour work week and hopes for a safe government job are the more typical stereotypes.  Coming from entrepreneurial Silicon Valley, the last thing I expected to meet in the Provençal countryside are fellow entrepreneurs.  Of course I should have known better.

There is a recession in France, just like everywhere else.  New grads coming out of school can’t find jobs, just like everywhere else.  So they’re making opportunities for themselves.

You may recall Diane’s earlier post regarding Ivan Des Pizzas, the owner, operator and chef of the local pizza truck. Ivan has all the traits of a true entrepreneur, truly dedicated to his business.  His pizza truck visits a different village seven days a week, showing up at around 4:30pm until business stops at around 10pm or so. Judging by how busy he is, his business is thriving.

I bought two pizzas from Ivan the other day and asked him when he planned to expand his great operation to America.  His reply:  “I would love to, but it’s a long drive for my truck.”

Introducing Vegetable Luc

School is off in France on Wednesdays.  We like to use those days to take the girls and check out the area.  We visited a nearby fortified medieval town, built in the 11th century.  We saw many cool things, including an old church that had entombed some prominent nobles who passed away in 1650.  But to the girls, the highlight was meeting Luc at the “lavoir du village” – the town’s main fountain where in times past, people came to wash their clothes. Luc was there, with a large bag of tasty yellow beans that he had just picked.

We started chatting, and of course, recognizing my French Canadian accent, he told me how he wanted to visit Montreal one of these days.  But soon, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in, and he offered to sell me a kilo of his yellow beans. Once I showed interest, he then mentioned his super sweet and tasty pastèques (watermelons).  The girls picked up on that, so for a few Euros, we got a kilo of beans and half a watermelon.

But Luc’s entrepreneurial instinct didn’t stop there.  He gave me his cell phone number, just in case we’d want freshly delivered vegetables every week – he’s only a phone call away.

October 7, 2010   5 Comments

The Tank in the Driveway

This afternoon we were sitting in the kitchen having a snack. I glanced out the window and this is what I saw:

View from the kitchen window

There was a TANK parked in our driveway!!!  A REAL TANK!!!

I will confess that the first thought that crossed my mind was that I needed to pay more attention to the news. Then I realized that there was a bag over the big gun-thing so figured at worst we were being invaded by someone dumb.

The tank stayed there for quite a while.  We could see 3 people in the tank – two poking their heads out the top and you could just see the driver’s googles in the front.  They all waved at the girls, so we were confident that nothing violent was happening, but still didn’t get why a tank would be in our quiet little village. There appeared to be much consulting of various documents, so our next theory was that they were very, very badly lost.

About five minutes later, the scene changed to this:

A second tank drove by, this time coming from the direction of the village and going the other way.  They stopped for a while and chatted, SERIOUSLY blocking traffic for a few minutes, then the second tank left.

After another 10 or 15 minutes the first tank moved out of the driveway. That’s when we learned that tanks do not have a eco-friendly carbon footprint.

Tank exhaust

A little while later we headed into the village.  It was a beautiful day and we wanted to explore.  When we got to the village the tank was stopped there, but now it was accompanied by some kind of jeep.

Luckily the soldiers were moving back and forth, so JM managed to talk to one of the them.  They were taking some kind of exam. I guess tank drivers in France have to know how to navigate through tiny village streets (unlike me).

It was an interesting afternoon.  Not the kind of thing that would have happened in Silicon Valley, or Saskatchewan, or  anywhere else we’ve lived.

October 2, 2010   1 Comment

Driving in France

When we first got to France, JM did all the driving. It was an extra cost to get another driver on the rental car, and I wanted a chance to review my “road French” before I got behind the wheel.  But we bought a car and now I’m a Provence driver.

My first driving trip was to take the rental car back to Valence. JM drove the rental car with the girls and I followed in our recently purchased car.  (Not a “new” car, it’s a very old car that we bought cheap and will sell cheap when we leave.)

Every new experience is a bit of an adventure, and this one started with the simple task of buying gas. Should be easy, right? But for some reason the pump refused both of my US credit cards and my new french “blue card” multiple times before magically accepting the blue card. The trick was to put the card in and leave it, enter the PIN, wait the correct amount of time, take the card out, and then start pumping gas.  It must be done in EXACTLY that order or the pump scolds you in a wide variety of languages. Not sure if the inappropriate words I muttered while entering the PIN were required, but now that I have a system that works I’m going to do exactly the same thing every time.

So fully fueled, we headed to the autoroute. It’s a toll road so I followed JM as he took a ticket an went through the gate. Then I took my ticket, the arm lifted, I started to drive through, and the arm came crashing down on the hood of the car. JM is waiting on the other side, the light is green but I can’t get through, the machine won’t give me another ticket, and the guy behind me is starting to honk (not useful, sir!). I was about to start sweating (o.k. sobbing) when a lady in an orange vest came and talked to me in french. I did my best to communicate “C’est ferme! Je ne sais pas pourquoi.” which didn’t really do anything except convince the woman that talking to me wasn’t useful, but she gave the arm a big tug and I was through.

One thing that is very cool about France – the speed traps are listed in Google maps driving directions:

So now I’m a driver.  But I have a confession to make.  The shortest route to school is through our village. But the street through the village is very narrow with stone houses or rock walls on either side, a sharp turn, and lots of dogs. I’m nervous about the etiquette and practical reality of meeting another car. So I drive the girls to school the long way around to avoid it. But I’d rather blog about that then have JM tell everyone about the time that I ruined our car by dropping two wheels off the side of a narrow road with a deep concrete ditch.

Maybe with time I’ll get more confident and even start to drive like the insane French who pass each other at crazy speeds with big trucks coming straight at them, but for now we leave for school 10 minutes early when Mama drives.

September 30, 2010   5 Comments

Of Clotheslines and BBQs

There is no clothes dryer in our house in France. I am told that this is pretty common across most of Europe and that it is very good for the environment. What we do have is a clothesline and some clothespins.

Turns out that there is actually a bit of skill to using a clothesline. It looks easy, but the first time I put clothes out they blew into the blackberry bushes.  They dried nicely, but it was a tough job to get them out without snags. The second time I got a nasty clothespin pinch. The next time the clothespin made a spot in my favorite t-shirt creating an unfortunate cloth nipple.

Sunny days are good laundry days.

Z's Hello Kitty Drying on the Line

The BBQ is also different. You heat up briquettes in this silver bucket thing, then spread out the coals on the stone part of the BBQ when they’re hot, just below the chimney. There is a grill you put over that to cook the food.


Check out what’s above JM’s head in the picture. Do you see the grapes?  We can snack on grapes hanging above our heads while we stand around waiting for the food to cook.  Natural, organic and zero-effort appetizers. Yumm.

September 21, 2010   7 Comments

The Power of the Village

Hello World!  This is JM’s first post.

France is famous for its bureaucracy.  But we’ve discovered that the natives are aware of this, they help each other simplify things, take short-cuts and make their lives more enjoyable in spite of it. Indeed, we’ve seen that this part of Provence is about the community and helping each other out.  This “community approach” here in the village has become quite apparent during our first hectic week, when many people went out of their ways to help us get settled.

Case in point:  We tried getting cell phones a couple of days ago.  The lady at the store was very friendly and helpful at explaining the variety of phone plans in their intricate levels of details.  However, we hit a snag.  In order to have an affordable plan, it needed a contract, which needed a bank account.  But getting a bank account in France requires a utility bill under our name which, of course, we don’t have since we are “seasonal” renters.

Coming to the rescue is our friendly neighborhood village Mayor!  I saw him last Sunday at the local café and I explained our bank account dilemma.  His reply:  “Let me talk to the local bank manager, first thing Monday morning, and see what I can do”.  The bank was closed on Monday, but the Mayor was going to see the bank manager socially.

Monday morning, 11am.  Someone knocks at our door.  The Mayor shows up, with a smile and a formal letter in hand complete with the official seal of the village.  The letter states that we are residing in the village and have the full rights of a local resident.  Problem solved!  When we went to the bank the next day, we were welcomed immediately and had an account that day.

Merci Monsieur le Maire!  (Thank you Mr. Mayor!)

September 13, 2010   7 Comments

The Village Cafe

We spend a lot of time at our village cafe. It’s about a 4 minute walk from the house (8 if we have to stop while the girls run up and down the old stone steps a couple of times).

Old stone steps in the village

The cafe is a general store with some basics like laundry detergent. They serve coffee and have newspapers. They are a restaurant. And they’re the source of news, information, and advice. This morning we learned that sanglier hunting season has started (sanglier are the wild boar that Obelix always eats in the Asterix books) and we need to be careful when we drive since they run out on the road unexpectedly. The cafe guy had already hit four so far.

One of the things we LOVE about the cafe is they have a playground. JM and I can take our excellent coffee and sit at the last table and watch the girls play.  A relaxing way to spend a morning.

View from "our" table at the village cafe

We have had dinner at the village cafe once.  It’s not completely convenient because they start food service at 7:30 and the kids’ bedtime is usually at 8, but there are three nights a week that aren’t school nights (no school on Wednesday) so there are times it can work, and the cafe is very good about serving us quickly.

The difference between the food in our village in France and the very small towns we’ve been to America is striking. In America we’d expect fries, hamburgers, chicken fingers, and pasta.  Here we had foie gras, salad with “chevre chaud” (warm goat cheese), the most amazing rice I have had in my life, and perfectly seasoned grilled fish (served with the head on – your food does NOT look at you in rural Canada!).

I have left the most important aspect of the village cafe until last – the bread. Our cafe is not a bakery, but you can pre-order bread the day before. This is a very serious thing. When we first got here the “good” bakery was closed for a vacation, and they warned us repeatedly that the backup bread was not as good.  The whole village was quite relieved when the “good” bakery opened up again.

They have a paper-based tracking system with the names of the regulars typed up with their usual order for each day of the week. If you are not on the list, you can place your order and they write it in by hand. You can change your order each day – more baguette or add a croissant or pain au chocolat.  We will know we’ve been accepted in the village when we make the “permanent” bread list instead of being written in as a special case.

Our Saturday bread order

September 12, 2010   6 Comments

Provence Weather Report

Apparently it will rain tomorrow. According to the local gentleman that walked with us to our morning coffee, when the clouds “ça fait des mouton” (make sheep-shapes) it’s a sure sign of rain.

The gentleman in question was wearing one of those string ties that you find in the southwest of the United States along with a thin white cotton muscle shirt. Just saying.

September 6, 2010   4 Comments