Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France

Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Just Navel Gazing

Aidan, who I know best as @conjiregverbs on Twitter, tagged me on this fun questionnaire. I was always taught it’s impolite to talk incessantly about yourself, but since she asked, here goes.

1. If you have pets, do you see them as merely animals or are the members of your family?
No actual pets, but we live at the edge of a very small village so we tend to get a lot of “nature” wandering into the house. I’ve come to think of the HUGE spider who lives in the basement as almost a member of the family. We call the basement stairwell the “spider room” in his honor, and we introduce him to all our guests.

2. If you can have a dream come true, what would it be?
I’m going to dream really BIG:   I wish that my youngest child would never say three “Mommy” more in a row.  “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” is just barely tolerable. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, …” becomes unbearable very quickly where there are no other words in the sentence.

3. What is the one thing most hated by you?
Stupidity. Just  THINK people.

4. What would you do with a billion dollars?
Build the basement spider his own house so he moves out of mine!

5. What helps to pull you out of a bad mood?
Time.  I’m pretty committed to everything I do, including having moods. I cannot be jollied out of a perfectly good grump.

6. Which is more blessed, loving someone or being loved by someone?
I reject the premise of the question – like the two things are mutually exclusive and you have to pick.

7. What is your bedtime routine?
That one is tough since California’s online world is just getting interesting at France bedtime.  I check Email/Twitter/Facebook/Blog one last time. Check door is locked. Brush teeth. Check Email/Twitter/Facebook/Blog one more last time. Look at kids sleeping and think how beautiful a sleeping child is. Turn off lights. Check door is locked again. Check Email/Twitter/Facebook/Blog just one more time. Jump when JM insists that it’s time to shut off the computer and scurry into bed.

8. If you are currently in a relationship, how did you meet your partner?
My graduate-school-officemate married JM’s-high-school-friend and they introduced us. I was doing tech support for a software product JM was using to write his master’s thesis. He started emailing questions about the product. The questions were a bit obvious. I wasn’t sure if he hitting on me or just a tad dim.

9. If you could watch a creative person in the act of the creative process, who would it be?
I wouldn’t.  Don’t want to ruin the magic.

10. What kinds of books do you read?
I read two kinds of books. The ones I won’t admit to reading, and the ones my book club chooses (hi ladies!) which can best be described as “eclectic”.

11. How would you see yourself in ten years time?
Sitting in the audience proudly watching my daughter collect an international award for her work on global spider/human relations.

12. What’s your fear?
Big spiders.  (Just developed that one recently.)

13. Would you give up all junk food for the rest of your life for the opportunity to visit outer space?
No way.  It’s complicated to pee in outer space. I don’t need the hassle.

14. Would you rather be single and rich or married, but poor?
With the existing known husband or a theoretical husband?

15. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
Put on my glasses so I can see to do all the other things.

16. If you could change one thing about your spouse/partner what would it be?
He would be punctual…  sigh…

17. If you could pick a new name for yourself, what would it be?
Yikes. I only named my kids because I had to do it before I left the hospital or face terrible and horrible bureaucracy. I had months to work on those.  No way I can come up with a name for myself this fast.

18. Would you forgive and forget no matter how horrible a thing that special someone has done?
Forgive, sure.  Forget – NEVER! What’s the fun of a grudge if you don’t hold onto it for years and years!

19. If you could only eat one thing for the next 6 months, what would it be?

And now I want to hear from:



March 22, 2011   3 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

Truffle Hunting

Thanks to well-connected friends, we were invited to a truffière (truffle farm) to enjoy the action of finding truffles. With truffle season at its peak (and the high-demand mushroom selling at markets for about 800€/kg!), this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

The first surprise was that it was indeed hunting, and not at all like when you pick mushrooms. Truffles grow underground on the roots of oak trees and they are found by smell. We went “hunting” with a specially trained truffle dog that was raised from birth to smell the truffles. Puppies from proven truffle dogs sell for 5,000€ each!

Truffle Dog at Work

The next surprise was how easily the dog found the truffles. For us, the hunting part was keeping up with the dog, since he found truffles faster than they could be picked up, brushed off, sniffed, and admired. The dog would smell a truffle, dig until the truffle was uncovered enough for the handler to gently remove it, yap non-stop until he got his treat (usually a piece of sausage), and then run off for his next find.  The truffle farmer normally does this every other day during the season which lasts from November to March.

Will Dig for Food

L Holding a Good One!

Of course, being in France, every hard afternoon’s work must properly end with the very famous and much appreciated (and well-deserved?) apéritif. Our group gathered at the truffle farmer’s house for a couple of bottles of wine and some truffle sniffing, while we judiciously selected the one(s) we wanted to buy. We choose a very, very small one. We paid well below market, but it was still très cher.

A Truffled Apéritif.

So why are truffles so expensive? It turns out that growing truffles is very much like gambling for the farmer. Some farms produce truffles on more than half of their trees while others don’t produce anything at all.  The farm we went to had 180 trees but only a dozen produced the beloved mushroom, giving a yield of less than 10% (this is not unusual). All trees were planted with truffle spores at their roots, and the soil condition was supposedly perfect for production. The trees at this truffière were 15 years old, and some started producing truffles only last year. So a farmer wants to keep every tree, even the non producing ones, as they may suddenly produce in just one more year. It’s the never-ending hope for the French version of  “black gold”.

March 14, 2011   3 Comments

Has the trip changed you?

I was asked this question by a friend. The answer is yes, although it’s complicated to say exactly how. But here’s a really simple example.

Lunch in Venice – Delicious!

This is a picture of a lunch I was served during our trip to Venice. One year ago I would have thought of this as: “My lunch is looking at me – yuck!”

Now I think of it as:  “Absolutely perfectly prepared fish.  Delicious.”

Lunch in Venice – Delicious!

March 13, 2011   4 Comments


When you discuss other cultures, big differences come up frequently. Many of the things I heard about France before we came here are true:  the food really is that good (REALLY!!!), there is a truly unbelievable amount of dog poop, businesses close for weeks with no notice while their proprietors go on vacation, and Provencal men pee out in the open even if there is a perfectly good bush only a few feet away.

But there are the smaller things that are different here. They really are not worth mentioning, but I notice them. For example:

  • The milk is stored in the CUPBOARD! Of course there is UHT (shelf-stable) milk in California, but normally you buy refrigerated milk and drink it within a week or so. Here in Provence it is much more common to buy milk that you stick in the cupboard for up to nine months.  It comes in smaller bottles – typically one liter – and once opened it should be used very quickly.

    Shelf stable milk

  • Less fundraising – In California somebody is always asking us for money. Our California school has three huge fundraising events a year – a carnival, a gala, and a wine auction – plus about half a dozen smaller ones. Neighbourhood kids knock on the door to sell magazines, cookies, wrapping paper, and chocolate.  Our little French village is different.  Here fundraising is a rarity not the norm. The only fundraiser our Provence school does is a plat a emporter (take out) dinner twice a year. 7€ for a really, really amazing meal. I wish they’d do that fundraiser every week. The only other fundraiser was the firemen that came to the door in January to “give” us a calendar, but would of course accept a small donation. (Sorry ladies, it was full of fire-prevention tips and everyone was fully clothed. Quel dommage.)
  • No facecloths – It’s a small thing, but several times a day I reach for a facecloth that doesn’t exist.  We did find some small towels that are sewn together like thumb-less mittens. They do the job cleaning dirty faces, but it’s not the same.
  • Recycling and broken glass – Our village recycling station has a bin for plastic and cans, one for paper, and one for glass. The bins are the size of a small garden shed with slots for recyclable items at eye level. But here’s the thing – when you put the glass items in near the top of the container, they fall to the bottom and shatter. You can hear the breaking and I find it a bit disconcerting. When I first arrived I was sure I was doing something wrong, so I hung around trying to look nonchalant until a local came to recycle their glass so I could watch. They just tossed it in and didn’t flinch when it broke, so that’s what I do now too.

    Recycling in the Village

Somehow it’s these tiny, silly, irrelevant things that make me realize I’m in a foreign country.

February 27, 2011   8 Comments

Sabbaticals are the Mother of Invention

A year is an odd length of time for a trip. We don’t want to acquire stuff, but we do want to be comfortable. Trying to find the balance requires creativity.

Last fall the wasps decided to build a nest inside the stone wall of the house – of course right beside the patio table where we ate most of our meals. JM used France’s most common household item to solve the problem – a wine cork. It worked great.

Wine Cork - the Natural Solution for Wasps

The house we’re renting is mostly used as a summer home, and there are a few things that are missing for winter living. Our landlords have been fantastic and told us to buy what we need, but the spirit of “make do” has kicked in, plus we don’t know the stores or the brands so it becomes a huge effort to buy anything out of the ordinary. We couldn’t easily find a coat rack to buy, but we did find a ladder in the basement. Add a couple of those “over the door hangers” from the supermarket, toss a couple of baskets underneath for mittens, and Voila!

Designer Coat Rack

L turned 7 last month, and she asked for a pinata for her birthday party. In California I would have just gone and bought one, but I had no idea where to do that here and the “How to Make a Pinata” video on YouTube seemed pretty straightforward. It turned out to be a lot more complicated, but we figured it out and every kid got at least one turn before the pinatas broke.

Pinata in Progress

Pinatas Ready to Hit

Of course, there are limits to making do. We have invested in a few key things that we won’t take home with us. The printer/scanner has been a lifesaver many times.

When the battery on the car got too weak to start on cold mornings, JM figured out how to start the car by rolling it down the hill to get enough momentum to turn the engine. Creative yes – but  that was definitely worth the effort of fixing before we ended up with a dead car at the bottom of a hill somewhere far away.

February 8, 2011   2 Comments

Crime in the Village!

It was during our usual school day morning rush that I noticed a pink notebook lying in the driveway. It took a while to register that the notebook actually belonged in my purse, and then it took a few more moments for my brain to understand that SOMETHING BAD WAS GOING ON.

Lying in the driveway was my empty wallet, next to my empty purse, with various pens, lipstick, paper, and the other stuff that used to be inside the purse. What was not there was money or credit cards.  We’d forgotten to lock the door that night and someone had come into the house while we were sleeping and stolen my purse.

It took almost an hour to cancel all the stolen ATM and credit cards, and then we called the police to report the robbery. I frankly didn’t expect much. The cards were canceled, it wasn’t that much money, they hadn’t taken my driver’s license, and all other important papers were still in the house.

But the gendarmes were impressive. They were at the house about 45 minutes after we called, and took the whole thing very seriously. They asked if I’d touched the purse and were disappointed that I had contaminated the evidence. Of course I know you never touch anything at a crime scene, but it even never occurred to me that they would bother for a petty crime like this.

JM was checking around the perimeter of the house with one of the policeman, and the other one asked me to show him were I had found the purse that morning.  With bad French and lots of charades I indicated where I had found everything. That took us to the end of the driveway where I stopped, but he kept heading across the road to the field on the other side.

Just like a modern Inspector Clouseau he found more clues!

He showed me the tire tracks in the field where the thief had parked, and then said something that sounded like “let’s find your credit cards”. I thought probably I hadn’t understood his French or maybe he hadn’t understood that THE CARDS WERE STOLEN. They were gone, and I had canceled them.  But he followed the tracks around the field and a few minutes later voila! we found all of the missing cards.

Field were the thief parked

Of course, the cards were all useless at that point, but they were not contaminated. The police pulled out a massive metal toolbox-thing. One of them took a swab while that other took a picture of the swab being taken. I have watched enough police dramas to realize they were establishing a chain of evidence. They asked for our contact information both here and in California so they could reach us when they found the thief. I liked their confidence that they would actually catch the guy.

In the end, we lost the equivalent of a couple hundred euros, and I have the inconvenience of a couple of weeks of living without my own credit and ATM cards. It could have been much worse. If they had taken my driver’s license or gone further into the house and found the laptops or (I can’t even imagine) gone into the girls’ room…

Thankfully we were robbed by thieves that were not vindictive. But from now on I will store the backup credit/ATM cards in a different location than the main ones. And we will carefully lock the doors every night!

January 29, 2011   10 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