Saturday, May 27. 2006
*plus 180 american dollars s&h
it's a two part system. one half features a modernist floral pattern etched on a sliding glass door that stores all your favorite beverages. a mirrored bottom and gold toned faux-quilted background up the value times ten of that cheap vodka of yours. on the other side, a lacquered door with a complementing gold handle hides your plastic tumblers and twisty straws. how can you refuse the cachet of this modernist/50's revival gem? that is, if you live in portland or san francisco or any other u.s. city that's got it going on. if you live in france it's ugly as all get out and you want nothing to with it.
i made flyers a few days ago and put them up on grocery store message boards and at the university in an attempt to sell our furniture and recoup some of our initial expenses. and i'm pleased (and quite surprised) that we have actually sold nearly everything by now. as of yet unclaimed is an beautiful art deco style end table that i snagged for 2 euro. portland market value = $40 at least. anyone have a college apartment to furnish? we also still have lamp made out of a tall vintage chianti bottle. it's a new yet old, chic yet shabby spin on your beer bottle light. and then the bar. your friends admiration of your refined yet tounge-in-cheek taste = well worth 10 euro plus shipping.
Saturday, April 29. 2006
lets play catch up. this was originally going to be a series - I, II, III - because our travels with seth's parents encompassed three distinct voyages, but then there were the times that we weren't taking two day vacations, when they were here in avignon, and those parts bear mentioning as well. so we'll divide it differently, and somewhat arbitrarily, like those memories are now --
I. nice & monaco - seth's folks had just arrived in marseille from the states, and first thing booked it for the sunshine. we can't blame them, so we decided to meet them on the côte d'azure for two days. nice was a big french city, but with palm trees and stone, richesse and beach. the best part of this trip was the drive from nice to monaco. there are three possible drives - the low, medium, and high roads, each with their own spectacular views, each with their own odd histories. we took the low one to monaco and the the medium back. beautiful both. the sea is green-blue, the rocky cliffs gray and tiled roofs clay-red coloring the scene pure mediterranian.
II. rick steves - one of the handful of guides that seth's folks brought with. when i was in sixth grade i had a social studies teacher, mr beam, who one day taught us about communism. "if you live in russia, you can't decide what you want to be when you grow up. they give you a test and the results determine your job," he said bitterly. it sounded like a great idea to me. maybe we're getting older, but sometimes we're tired from traveling and thumbing through the lonely planet, tired from making choices every few minutes about this museum over that restaurant and that historical landmark, and we want someone to make up their mind for us. that's where rick steves comes in. compact, concise, easy to read. tell us, rick, tell us what to do next.
III. the côtes du rhône and luberon - malaucène: we stopped for the wednesday market. i bought olives with herbes de provence. i love those things. and i bought goat cheese made that very morning. crestet: population 37, but since it was early in the season the town was practically deserted but for one, an old woman walking up the hill when we arrived, still walking up when we left. a quintessential provencal town nested in a mountain. so many of these towns up high, carved into rocks, overlooking gorgeous valleys below. vaison la romaine: not much of interest in the lower, more modern town but a good lunch, and we didn't make it up to the top. oddly, i did run into a fellow assistant walking down the street. much to his chagrin he was stationed there. didn't seem so bad to me. fontaine de vaucluse: this is where we spent the night. it's a beautiful town under a high rocky cliff with a clear blue-green river running through it, the sorgue, the start of which magically bursts forth from some rocks. we could spend days here. also the home of the surprisingly delightful santon museum. santons are basically dolls that originated as nativity figurines. a regional specialty, they feature provencal archetypes - the painter, the old woman carrying lavender, the shepard. isle sur la sorgue: called the venice of france (many bridges, a river), it's pretty charming. famous for its 200 antiques dealers, but they only open thursdays and sundays. rouillson: called the colorado of france (golden mountainous terrain), everything is a ruddy brown color on account of famous clay earth everywhere. they sell pigment to tourists by the scoop. gordes: a mideval castle town, again carved high into a rock. on the drive there, when the town comes into view from across the valley you gasp ooh and ahh, (or at least i do), it's so stunning.
IV. coq a vin - we wanted to cook a nice meal for them, something quintessentially french, so we gave this dish a whirl. first we had to buy the coq, but unfortunately the baker didn't carry coqs, so we had to settle for a poulet, head and feet still attached, bien sur. i giggled and elbowed seth - you'll have to cut off it's head. but the butcher heard this, and offered to prepare it for us. with a butcher knife he whacked the head and feet clean off, took out the insides from the cavity and put the good ones back in, trained a blow torch on the skin to burn off the remaining feather parts, and finally tied it all up in twine. this took him about two minutes. but we had to finish it up at home, cut up the bird to fit in the casserole, and we have never done this before. thank you internet for helping us through. (when you think about it, it's amazing that this was the first time cutting up a chicken, so far from our food that we are.) after that it was seth that took the cooking reigns, melting the butter, frying the bacon, frying the veggies, frying the chicken, all in the same dish so that you build up a nice multi-layered fond, then adding a whole bottle of wine and boiling some off. it was a lengthy preparation, but the result was delicious.
V. arles - arles is a like avignon, but bigger and grittier. instead of the palais des papes there's an old roman arena. arles is the one time home of van gogh and a bunch of impressionists, but not much remains of that but sunflowers canvas totes. we stayed in a nice family run hotel with sunny rooms and a good breakfast. the hotel had a gallery, and this month was host to a photographer whose specialty was photographs of barbie doll women with arched backs being sprayed with water. we put a down payment on one right away. On the more tasteful side of culture, we throughly enjoyed the arlaten museum which is devoted to all things past and provençal. it was created in 1896 by frédéric mistral, a provençal regionalist writer and educational advocate (i teach at a school that bears his name), and contains costumes, furniture, tools, objects relating to religious and superstitious traditions, that illustrate life in provence during the 19th century. would've sounded dry to me a year ago, but living here made it fascinating. i want to dress up provencal and be a sheep herder and cheesemaker.
VI. camargue - i was looking forward to seeing this area, one of the few nature preserves in france. it's a swath of marshy land where the rhone meets the mediterranian, and it's famous for it's wild horses, flamingos, and mosquitos. Oh, and did I mention the salt? There is a famous salt distilled here that retails for up to 6 euros a container. And there's a salt museum, that (un)fortunately was closed when we stopped by. When we visited there was very strong mistral (not related to the writer, by the way) a blowing, and we could barely get to the salt hills from the car. but the photos attest to us setting foot on this martian landscape for all those unbelievers. behold.
Saturday, March 4. 2006
we've been eating pretty well here, whether from our own slowly developing culinary skills or from eating out, despite a few bumps in the road to our stomach. thanks to all, by the way, who have contributed recipes. i've made quite a few of them and they've made us happy and full.
now that the weather is getting warmer, all the cream and butter, bread and chocolate, wine and undercooked meat that are so beloved by the french (and now us) are starting to feel heavy. all the mental and physical sluggishness of winter needs to be sloughed off. the crocus bulbs that i planted in a window box when we arrived are beginning to bloom. they say, "the spirit is in need of renewal!" in their flower language. they urge me to clarify and purify. and they push a radical diet transformation. they tell me that we'll call it the 10 day cleanse. no dairy, no wheat, no sugar, no meat, no caffeine, no alcohol. add some daily yoga and meditation, candle-lit essential oil baths, and a massage from the significant other and we have a diy home spa retreat, "nestled in the south of france." hurry! for a limited time only!
i was vegetarian for a couple years in high school, having gotten bitten by the animal rights bug. then dropped the stringency and started eating chicken and fish occasionally, and this pseudo-vegetarian diet was with me for almost a decade, that is, until i met seth. i won't blame him wholly; it was about the same time that many of my previously vegetarian and pseudo-vegetarian friends started reverting back to omnivores (ironically, about the same time we moved to portland, one of the most vegetarian friendly places in the western world). i will say that having never been a vegetarian, seth didn't attach any special importance to eating a steak or italian sausage. it was natural to him, guilt-free. it might sound strange, but having only dated the vegetal variety, being so comfortable around someone who is so comfortable about eating meat, naturally transformed me in into a meat eater once again.
i'm now on my fourth day of my cleanse and my diet has thus far included: cooked buckwheat, pumpernickel bread, spelt almond and sesame cookies, kasha pasta with mediterranean galettes vegetal (flat vegetable and whole grain cakes) and olive tomato sauce, apple and prune compote, pears, strawberries, pineapple juice, rice milk, hazlenut & almond rice dessert, tofu and pepper stir fry with brown rice, chickpea and tomato curry with red rice, herbed spinach with carrots, green vegetable soup, rye crackers and rice cakes with curried vegetable pate, herbal teas, and lots of filtered water.
some of these things were bought at the local health food stores and organic co-op. i was happy to find out that they exist here too, in almost the same configuration as they do in the states, and with almost the same patrons. now, one doesn't need a natural foods store to do a cleanse. you can be even more basic about it - just fruit and vegetables and whole rice. you can make it about eating humbly. or you can eat all raw food, or go a step further and do a juice fast. the idea for me was to invert my ordinary dietary patterns, thus altering my daily choices and considering ones that i take for granted.
so far i'm keeping the cravings under control; my self-discipline is intact. but i'm curious as to when exactly i'm going to begin dreaming of cheese wheels and baguettes.
Monday, February 20. 2006
were you wondering? the last entry i wrote included a cliffhanger - we were going somewhere for my 30th birthday and i didn't know where. so were you curious? or did you already figure it out, maybe cheat and sneak a peak at seth's photos. i could hardly blame you. we are taking a long time to talk about it. and now i'm prolonging it even more. and now even more. okay enough.
through some schedule changes, i was able to secure an extended weekend, from friday january 20th to monday the 23rd. the only clue seth gave me was the time that the train was supposed to leave - 10:30am. should i bring a swimsuit? maybe. should i bring a winter jacket? sure.
did we rush to the station?, you wonder. we did a little bit, yes. but then we sat down in the train car with five minutes to spare. and in those five minutes seth gave me two presents to unwrap. the first, a coupland book, "to read on our long ride"; the second a lonely planet guidebook, en francais, to barcelona, spain.
it was a long train ride. the first leg was about seven hours through the south of france on the t.e.r., the slow train. we did not mind much; the scenery was lovely. it was not lush, it had a high desert quality to it. and there was graffiti, lots of it, most of it improving the train sides and industrial areas it decorated. we saw goats, sheep, horses, and vinyards. the buildings would change from familiar french Mediterranean architecture, red tiled roofs over beige stucco buildings, to spanish mediterranean architecture, which was very similar but more strikingly archetypal, more starkly contrasted, more dried up and rich. when that first stretch was over we found ourselves in port bou, spain.
this was the station where we would catch the local train into barcelona, but that wouldn't be for 2 hours. so we took our bags down a flight of stairs to the entrance of the station. it is good that we did not exit too quickly, lest we fall down a steep, long flight of stairs outside the doorway. the station was atop a big hill; the town was carved into a mountain along side the sea. we walked a small horizontal path alongside the station that led to a statue, a bench and vista area patrolled by feral black and white cats.
the best description of the town is windswept romantic. every section of the panorama belonged on the cover of a pulpy romance; seth belonged in a bullfigher regalia and me in an off-the-shoulder peasant dress. our drama would be the train is coming.... too soon... will we ever... meet (the town) again?
the train that would take us to barcelona is a new commuter rail. it is like a max, but with uncomfortable seating, and the ride is two and a half hours long. it is a train etap. we get to the central station and then we hop on the subway and then viola! we are at la rambla! the main street in barcelona where our humble hotel is located, the pension dali...
Wednesday, January 18. 2006
have i mentioned how fast time is going? it zips from here ⎜-------------------⎢to here like this ⎜---⎜. i am exactly at the halfway point in my contract and i want time to s-l-o-w down. here it is clarifying and relaxing. i get to read, write, learn french, dabble, cook, and teach. i have, like, one friend, a fellow english teacher from australia, but in my solitary activity i'm becoming anti-social anyway. i made an account on myspace a year ago after someone sent me an invite, but then promptly forgot about it. on new years day i was on my computer and found the window still open (on account of my sister just visiting). so i went on and found a great blog by an old friend noah about all the penn state kids and their zany misadventures. i was feeling sentimental as i called my friend alexa to wish her a happy new year. she picked up and announced, "it's a reunion." coincidentally, she was at an old friends house in philly with some of the people i had just been thinking about. she passed the phone around and it was great but so strange to hear peoples voices that i was separated from by such time and distance. and in those brief conversations i realized that i forgot how to communicate. mostly what i said was, "wow," and "gee, good to hear your voice," and then i'd hear my voice sound so strange to me and i wouldn't know what more to say.
today i am excited because on friday we leaving for a trip to celebrate my 30th birthday. it is a present plus, because not only are we going on my annual birthday sejour, but seth is planning it all. i don't have any input on the place or how we're getting there, on where we're staying or what we're going to do. seth has taken to walking around laughing and taunting, "you don't know where we're going, you don't know where we're going." i don't mind though. when you're the trip planner in a duo, there is something so freeing about not having any choices.
Sunday, January 15. 2006
i think with seth not around i was a little more scattered then usual, and i packed in a rush right before we were ready to leave to catch an afternoon train. the reason we were taking a later train was that april was waiting for lufthansa to deliver her misrouted baggage. but then the airline said that they were going to deliver the baggage to our hotel in paris, so voila.
so we're rushing to the shuttle stop a few blocks away and then arrive to watch it pull away. we had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. when we got to the station the line for tickets was long and we couldn't use the machines because we had the passes. one of those familiar situations when i'm watching the digital clock and then the line, the clock, the line. it is an inexorably slow yet nerve wracking race. one of the participants is taking their time at the finish line, arguing with the referee. i predict the outcome to april: we're not going to make it. but then there's two quick sprinters in front of us and we make it with five minutes to spare. but is it good enough? yes, it is. with a wink and smile, we are processed quickly and we qualify. so we run a quick lap up some stairs to the train directly overhead, and we run towards the front, where first class* is, and jump on board. but wait we are train number 12 and this is train 2 and the train is actually two trains strung together; the first part is completely separate from the the second part and the trains are full. we disembark with our awkward baggage and run towards the second train. i dash up to the first door and hear a ding and the door closes right in front of me. all the doors closed at the same time. there is no conductor saying "all aboard" or staff removing a set of stairs. it's all automated -- of course it's automated -- and we are not getting on that train.
we waited for two hours for the next train. i was in a rotten mood. i was right. there. but april, besides reminding me, "we were on the train," is more upbeat. after all, we are going to paris.
(they were having a sale on france passes: $99 for 2 trips anywhere; $129 for first class. my sister angled for first, and reasoning that it was still cheaper then buying our tickets here, i thought, well, pourquoi pas?
Monday, January 9. 2006
i just updated our profile on couch surfing and thought i'd post it here as a gentle prod to those of you still on the fence about visiting:
a host and host's door in béziers
i'm a professor de langue anglais in ecole primare, and am in the midst of fulfilling my life-long goal of living in france. my fiancé is in midst of fulfilling his life-long goal of programming in the closest to solitude as he's likely to find. content as cats we are with our chocolate, wine, and bread. want to stop in? if we are not hosting other travelers or traveling ourselves, you might be able to find a spot on our clic-clac. it sleeps two comfortably (well, relatively comfortably).
for those of you who don't know, couch surfing is a great site that allows people to connect to, well, couch surf. it's developing friendster aspects but it started before all that in the spirit of egalitarian travel. last year we stayed with a nice woman in tokyo for three days who we with met through there. on a related note, i'd also recommend servas, a more formal hospitality program that has been around since the 60s. we spent several days with servas hosts in ise-shima, japan and it was one our most connecting and profound travel experiences.
i traveled alone at the end of october to nearby béziers and stayed with servas hosts yvette and claude. both are artists, but most remarkable are claude's abstracts, which due to a handicap in both arms are painted with a brush held in his teeth. see him in action here.
Thursday, December 15. 2005
there are some things that i really miss about america right now, and they all belong in the stomach. yesterday, feeling a lack of good food in my life, i went to the super sized hypermarché to buy some harder to find groceries. i know that i shouldn't expect much from prepackaged sauces and food kits from the ethnic isle, but tonight for dinner i made the "cantonese style stir-fried rice mix" and it was so salty and flavorless i almost cried. not exaggerating there. i'm trying to salvage my tastebuds now with some baguette, cheese, and sauccisson sec, but i fear they may be too far gone for tonight so i will drink some vanilla coke that i've been stowing and finish off the meal with something predictably, trashily, good.
of course i should not be looking at grocery store isles for amazing food, but at produce stands and boucheries and my own imagination. but as of late i've been culinarily uninspired and the meals that i've attempted have been disappointing. and our kitchen is difficult to work in. we went down from a sad three square feet of counter space in portland to oh-so-very-very sad one square foot, so when cooking i often have to put things on the floor and the aforementioned echoey apartment acoustics when i do this, or any cooking activity for that matter, produce a jarring clatter that insures an unrelaxing cooking experience. we only have two burners that are very close together, and the bigger of them doesn't heat up as much as it should and we have a toaster oven instead of a regular oven. so while it seems that we got a bad deal somewhere, in actuality all of the places we looked at had measly kitchens, most even more so. for a supposed land of food, apartment dwellers aren't given much to work with.
this food homesickness, while usually low-grade, is exacerbated right now by seth's absence. he is in san francisco right now getting his visa and eating. he has been relaying tales to me of all the wonderful food there, with pavlovian effect.
when we've eaten out here we've had some good food sometimes, but not with the success ratio as say, portland dining. and portland is not necessarily a culinary capitol. but i'm realizing what makes american food so great is that the best of it isn't american. burritos and udon, green curry and chicken tandori, ethiopian stews and pho. i miss all of this so much and you just can't get it here. what you can get is moroccan food, which has been our favorite meal so far. but the asian restaurants have been, well, weird asian hybrids: thai curry with chinese vegetables and vietnamese shrimp chips. these cuisines are so good on their own, but it doesn't follow that they'd be good all melangé.
and then there's breakfast. i know, i've mentioned it, but i love big breakfasts and the french just don't understand. seth and i went to aix-en-provence the day before he left, and my lonely planet revealed that there was brunch at one of the restaurants. i was so happy because the only brunch in avignon is 55 euros. but then we got there and it was 28 euros which is just really hard to justify spending, especially since only one of us is a brunch hound, but then again we used to go to breakfast nearly every sunday, so if you add all that up.... okay, so instead we had some italian for lunch, provencal for dinner, and during both seth ended up with the better meal. and the next day i awoke, hours after seth left to catch his flight, and went to have a breakfast. saw a sign advertising brunch for 9.50 euros. finally. but it was an otherwise traditional french breakfast - bread, butter, jam, coffee or cocoa, and juice - with the addition of a savory part that filled a hot-out-of-the oven ceramic dish: two runny dippy eggs, one broken, and two big fatty bacon slabs all mangled together. don't they understand? bacon is only good because it's fried and crispy!
i will soon be praising french cuisine, i know it, but for the meantime i think i will long for the food that i cannot have. ye salad roll, ye yakisoba. eggs benedict, you soft pillow of bliss.
p.s. okay, as stated, i'm needing a little cooking inspiration. so if anyone has suggestions for cooking sites they swear by, or favorite cookbooks or even personal recipes they'd like to share, do let me know. what i'm looking for are good simple recipes that, given our limitations, involve a minimum of preparation steps and not too exotic ingredients. pastas need not apply.
Wednesday, November 30. 2005
it seemed a bit lonely to split a turkey breast between seth and i. there are some fellow english teachers that i hang out with here, so i decided to have them over for thanksgiving. one girl brought mashed potatoes. she was going to bring sweet potatoes too, but couldn't find any sweet potato or yam-like produce. another girl brought a mixed vegetable dish. one guy brought flan, his french roommate lasagna. and then we sat down on our rug, the one that doesn't cause an allergic reaction, and ate and ate and ate. and when we were all finished we watched a charlie brown thanksgiving.
so the turkey. they don't sell whole turkeys here, at least not that we've seen, and even if they did we wouldn't be able to fit one into our toaster oven. so our only turkey option was to buy it in parts. the last time we went grocery shopping i noticed little paupettes de dinde, which looked like little turkey breasts tied into a small serving-size ball with string. but then when we went shopping for thanksgiving dinner i actually read the ingredients: the first thing listed was 68% assorted pork meat. i did not want a turkey with an ingredients list, especially if the first thing listed is not turkey. so we settled on a rôti de dinde which is an all turkey roast, well, except for the big band of pork fat holding the whole thing together.
we finished off our meal with some chocolate, cheese, beaujolais, and some eau de vie de poire. yes, it's called water of life. it is this pear liquor and it's amazing. when i think of fruit liquor i think of schnappes, but this is not that. there is no thick syrupy sweetness; it's just pure alcoholy goodness with the a radiant hint of pear.*
hmm... what else? we splurged and spent 11 euros on christmas decoration for the event and for our own sheepish christmas streak: tinsel, little silver balls, a garland of red shiny beads and a string of christmas lights.
*i just did a google search and the first hit was for a distillery in oregon. ah, the exotic discoveries we are making.
Sunday, November 13. 2005
this year we got to witness the fascinating phenomenon of the importation of holloween.
all saints' day or toussaints is the holiday on november 1st. i know that it exists in the usa on wall calendars, but since i'm not a catholic, i have no idea how it is celebrated back home. here it is celebrated much like memorial day, by bringing flowers to dearly departed in cemeteries. there may even be a parade or procession of sorts through the graveyard.
the halloween that we know didn't exist here until very recently, and it still has a long way to go before it reaches the frenzy that exists in the us. according to the french who i spoke with about it, it's been around for less then ten years. the french have mixed opinions about halloween. they recognize it as being an american holiday and hence some view it as yet another example of the encroachment of american culture on france. hand in hand with this is halloween's strong commercial aspect: halloween came here in large part because of advertising and store merchandising. but of course it appeals to kids for obvious reasons, and so most parents are likely to go along.
in the stores there were small sections peddling pumpkins and pre-packaged witch and devil costumes. when i asked my classes what they were going as they all answered, "witch... witch... devil... witch... ghost... witch... devil."
from october 29th to 31st i stayed with a middle aged couple in béziers. the woman had bought a big bag of hard candy for the trick or treaters but when one showed up on october 30th she shushed him away, telling him to come back the next day. on halloween afternoon, about 4pm, the next-door neighbor shows up in costume, which is basically an orange trashbag with a picture of m&m's trick or treating. above the picture in black magic marker he wrote, "happy halloween," and across the bottom, "bonne halloween". it was a self-referential halloween costume.
the neighbor then invited us over to show off the halloween decorations that they had put up: a paper skeleton on the living room wall, a plastic spider clutching a bunch of stretched cotton over a corner, and "caution! risque!" yellow tape rolled out across the front of the house. the family was proud of their halloween display in a way that suggested it's novelty, in a way we might feel about having a dia de los muertos display in the usa. look! sugar skulls!
trick or treaters are not called trick or treaters. i have no idea what they are called, but i don't think they pluralize their halloween command: bonbons ou bâton, literally "candy or stick".
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short accounts by missy and seth, at least tangentially relating to life in avignon, france.