Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Change is Still Hard

Maybe it was leaving behind the comfort of the mountains in Quillan, perhaps, having seen a comfortable house and imagining myself living there through the end of the year, but something made me a bit resentful as we drove the two hours to Pezenas and pulled in yesterday.
It wasn't the beautiful accommodations with the stone staircase, smelling slightly damp, that curves around to the spacious apartment,


or the gracious hostess who met us at the historic edge of the town and pushed the button for the roadblocks to descend so that we could wind through narrow cobblestone streets. We parked in front of her garage door as she assured us that she would be able to negotiate her Harley Davidson around the car.
We unpacked and spent a bit of time in the apartment, Earl flipping through some Olympic coverage which we hadn't been able to find any place else. Then we went walking.
With my stomach still full from a lunch at a restaurant along the route, I wasn't temped by the patisseries, the boulangeries, the salons de thé, or the many restaurants. And, although we stopped to lèche-vitrines (window shop, but it literally means lick the windows) at many immobiliers, I dreaded trying to negotiate in French-English with the real estate agents and schlepping to look at apartments that don't come with kitchens (if you've watched House Hunters International you realize this, but we aren't committed to buying a kitchen when we don't have a house yet).
Instead, I picture that house in Quillan with the wood beams across the living room ceiling and the veranda outside the kitchen, sun from three sides and a nice stone patio where we could sit in the summer to catch the breeze blowing down from the mountains.


View out the window of the potential rental house
I felt resentful.
Was there nothing to do here but eat and buy property? I wondered.
We passed a theater where a crowd had gathered, but we'd been to see a movie in English with French subtitles the night before.
We hoped we were close enough to the Mediterranean Sea to ride bikes there, but all the bicycle places we looked up didn't open until tourist season.
As we climbed the hill back toward our apartment, we passed Rue du Chateau, and there was the old gate to the chateau, pretty much all that is left.
What's left of the chateau

The plaque by the arched door explained that the site was first built by the Celts in 497 "avant J-C" before Jesus' time. Then it was a fortress of Julius Cesar before a retreat for kings Louis VIII & IX. It finally became the home of  the Constable de Montmorency in 1555 and was destroyed in 1655 by the order of Richlieu who sussed out everything remotely anti-Catholic.
The plaque that charges my ancestor guilty of demolishing the ancient fortress.
Richlieu was an ancestor of mine. One of his daughters became a Hugenot and fled France and that's the line that I come from.
I guess I come from a long line of people trying to inflict their own religious beliefs to others.
We spent the evening in reading books since the WiFi connection wasn't strong enough to stream Netflix, and my unease with the city grew.
I kept thinking, "I'm not living my best life."
Maybe it has to do with the amount of time I have to do whatever I want -- or nothing. If I was home in Ohio, I'd be teaching six classes. Right now, I only have one.
Again, I felt my dream drifting away from me. Had I been wrong to give up everything and come to France?
I always thought I was the adventurous type, but now I dreaded going to talk to real estate agents.
This morning, I messaged a friend who holds my secrets close and told her about my fears. Then I circled down the stone staircase and let my feet explore Pezenas.
After a five-mile run augmented by uplifting music, I walked toward the old city. I paused to read a plaque on a building and noticed that it was a bakery with no customers inside, a perfect opportunity for me since I didn't want to offend people with my sweatiness.
I ducked inside and bought croissants for our breakfast. The woman inside commented - in a friendly way - on my run, my "sportif" activities, and I smiled and agreed that it allowed me to eat more.
Medieval buildings everywhere
We both laughed and I continued on my way, following the map to our stone apartment where my husband awaited to let me in the locked doors, living a life that I had chosen, promising to make my dreams come true

Friday, February 16, 2018

Allo?

Is it just me or does everyone have a phobia about calling people in a foreign language?
It's one thing to talk to people face-to-face, reading expressions and hand gestures. It's totally more intimidating to call and have nothing but the foreign words resonating through the speaker.
Ever since I arrived in France as an au pair 30 years ago, and the telephone rang in the apartment where I stayed with the 3 and 4-year-old American girls, I've had a fear of answering the phone in a strange country. Standing there in that apartment watching the land line vibrate, I finally reached out, picked up the phone and handed it to 4-year-old Brigid.
"Hello!" she said enthusiastically in American. It was her uncle who spoke perfect English, lucky for us.
Me as an au pair in Corsica, after my French had gotten a little better. 
Since then, I've avoided it.
Even my husband, who speaks very little French, tried to call a restaurant the other night to order a pizza that he would pick up. He muddled his way through while I was in the shower after an exhausting hike. I had said I was too tired to go out for dinner and he, like Prince Valiant, rode a white horse up to the barricades, but couldn't quite get through. It turns out that the pizza place he was calling was closed, but he proclaimed the person on the phone very helpful, although unable to speak English. But we went to a take-out restaurant and ordered a pizza, carrying it and a goat-cheese salad home.
Thus far, a month and half into our journey, I have avoided speaking French on the phone. But this village is the one where we need to look at apartments, to decide if we want to rent here.
We visited the 12th Centuy chateau above town. Here's a view of the mountains through the entryway.
As we were walking through town we saw a charming apartment. A sign on the door proclaimed it for rent.
"Call," my husband urged. And I did.
One of the first things I said was "I speak very little French." I just think it's better to be upfront about it.
The man I spoke to didn't add a lot of superfluous words. He told me there were two bedrooms (perfect for you would-be guests) and that it costs four hundred blah blah blah, per month.
"400?" I asked.
"Quatre cent, soixante blah, blah, blah," he said again.
I hesitated. 460? Well, the complicated French system could mean anywhere between 460 to 479, because the French don't have a word for 70. They say sixty plus 10 or sixty plus 15, all the way up to eighty. So, I know it was somewhere between 460 and 479.
He said we couldn't see it until next week.
We leave Monday, I told him in my rudimentary French.
"Monday at 9 a.m." he suggested, and we agreed. We leave Monday morning for the next town.

Earlier in the week, we went to a real estate agent to see if they help with rentals. They don't and told us none of the real estate agents do, but they directed us to the tourism office that had a list of rentals, both in Quillan and in the surrounding area.
Our hosts here at the AirBnB suggested we talk to a different real estate agent because some people who are trying to sell their homes might be willing to rent them out. We tried for two days to contact that real estate agent. It turns out that the English speaking agents are on vacation.
Today is Friday. We had better be serious about finding a place to rent.
We started with a walking tour of the places that included their addresses so we could  size them up. We also stopped at the butcher's shop and asked him about the apartment above, which was listed on the rental sheet. It had been rented, the butcher assured us. It was so much easier to ask in person than to call.
When we returned to our room, after stopping at the bakery, I put off the calls even more. I needed to finish breakfast. I'd better take a shower.
Finally, at 11:40, I emerged from the bathroom ready to make calls. I had 20 minutes before everything would shut down for lunch.
While Earl had showered, I'd made a script, typing everything into Google translate to make sure I got it sort of right.
"L'appartement, est-il toujours disponsible?" I would never have said it that way. Is the apartment always available?
I dialed the first number, took a deep breath and pushed the call button.
A very nice woman answered. When I explained that I only spoke a little French, she gave me a "bravo" for attempting to speak French and promised to talk slowly.
I asked questions like is the apartment furnished and is the kitchen equipped. It is common in France for the kitchen to be only a bare room without sink, stove, refrigerator or cabinets. This one is equipped. She told me she lives 300 kilometers away and she has a locataire locally, someone who will show the apartment. She texted me his phone number and the address of the apartment.
Of course, texting is so much easier!
Another phone call to make.
I left a number of messages for people and answered the phone with trepidation when the familiar theme from Castle played. Another appointment on Monday morning to see an apartment.
A call came in. Another apartment not available.
Maybe after all this, I won't be so afraid of making phone calls in French, but my heart still speeds up at the thought of answering the phone in a foreign language.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Visiting the Mountains

Just a brief update that Earl and I are taking a break from housesitting to visit this village we enjoyed last May. We’ll be looking at apartments in case we decide to move here. 

But we had to begin our week with a hike in the sunshine. 

Up a mountain 

To where it began to snow little snow balls

But we kept going and reached the Pic du Bitrague. It was listed as an easy hike, but running five miles is much less strenuous than this steep hike was. 

And while we hunkered down on the peak to eat our jambon fromage sandwich, a golden eagle soared by. He appeared several times but I never got a good picture of him. 

We made it back safely and are ready for more adventures today. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

My French

I've been getting that question lately, "how's your French?"
Before I came, I would have predicted that my French should be fairly good after two weeks.
Last time I arrived in France for an extended stay, I started understanding the conversations around me after about two weeks. No longer could the French family talk about me while I sat ignorant. And what was it they said, "She must really enjoy French food!"
"No, she arrived that way." Indicating that my weight was more American than French.

Anyway, now, nearly five weeks in, my comprehension of French is not where it should be.
I blame country living. Earl and I can spend the entire day in only each other's company rather than stumbling our way through French conversations.
Of course, we eat out on many days and must make our way through the minefield of French menus and waiters, but we can usually clutch onto something that we recognize and move on from there. And when we don't recognize it, I try to figure it out with the waiter's help.
The other day, I asked a waitress, "C'est quoi 'pintade'?" The menu du jour said "cuisse de pintade" in a celery sauce.
I knew cuisse meant thigh, because I order cuisse de canard (duck thigh) eagerly. But I'd never heard of "pintade" and of course the word was not in my pocket dictionary.
Like chicken, the waitress explained.

So we ordered it, and it was fine. When I looked it up online, the dictionary actually said guinea fowl rather than chicken, but let's be honest, it tastes like chicken.
And another day, the menu said spaghetti de spianata, which it turns out is actually Italian, and means sausage, like chorizo, but the waiter assured me it wasn't too spicy.
It was with some trepidation that we walked into a tech shop to see if they could fix Earl's computer. It's a laptop that turns into a tablet when it's opened backward. The keyboard stopped working the other day. Truthfully, I figured any tech people would speak English, but this guy did not, so I ended up speaking French and using some gestures. He guessed that it was a connection that could be easily fixed. We left the computer after he recommended a restaurant for the afternoon, and I left feeling fairly good about my French.
Next we stopped at French clothing shop for a new chapeau for Earl. He had a knit cap that he wore on outings with the dogs, but we were attracted by the spiffy men's hats with brims, a 1940s throwback. Earl tried on several hats, once we found the extra large sizes. We liked the brown hat with the broad brim, but maybe it looked too much like a cowboy hat. When he tried them on,  he tended to pull them down too far, as if they might fly off his head.
When the saleslady finished helping another couple, she joined us to discuss the merits of each hat. "Il a une très grosse tête," I explained and the woman nodded as she checked the size to make sure it was big enough.
He tried on a smaller hat and the woman tactfully explained that since he was a big guy, he needed a more substantial hat so it didn't look ridiculously small on his head.
Again, I left feeling confident in my language skills. The day continued with French interactions, until we returned to the tech shop. The other technician spoke in a quick French that left me confused. "We needed to reset the computer or they had already reset it?" I asked. We needed to do it, or take it to someone in the U.S.
"We won't be back in the U.S. for a  year," I told the technician who looked worried.
So, my French is better, but nowhere near fluent.
At the barber shop for Earl's first haircut, I explained that his hair should be short on the sides and longer on top. "Mais pas trop?" the barber asked. "Oui," I agreed, not too much.
The finished product
As the barber took a razor to Earl's hair, I worried that my lack of language skills might be a real problem, but it came out fine.
Coming up, we have two weeks in the middle of a village where my French will hopefully improve, before we take a three-week break to housesit in England. I hope my language skills don't slip backward as I try to decipher British English.

Friday, February 09, 2018

One Month

If this was a vacation, it would be the longest I have ever taken. But it isn't. It's my new life, and we have been in France for a month now. I figured I'd better take stock.

Honeymoon Period
We arrived in Paris with three days in a  hotel, included with our airfare because it's cheaper that way. The weather wasn't sunny, but it was so much warmer than at home where temperatures plunged below zero (fahrenheit), below -17 (celcius). So we wandered through the Louvre, visited markets and reveled in a wine and cheese tasting before we eagerly moved to our first housesit.
The Eiffel Tower from La Grande Roux, the Ferris Wheel
Christmas Lights still up on Rue St. Jacques as we walk back to the hotel.
Hovel
We eagerly arrived at our first housesit through Trusted Housesitters. We knew it might be a lot of work, what with three dogs, five cats, a donkey, a mule and two chickens, but we were not prepared for the filthy condition of the house, including fly strips covered with hundreds of flies. At least replace them with new ones when someone is coming to housesit for a week. The homeowners were lovely, but it must be nearly impossible to keep a house clean with that many pets.

 Earl and I uneasily ate dinner with them that night, ratatouille and leg of lamb, and retreated to the upstairs, which was pet free, but freezing, as in, no heat whatsoever. We quickly undressed and slid between the covers. We were plenty warm in bed.
A cleaning lady came the next day and we wished her good luck, but truthfully, she couldn't make a dent in the filth. The homeowner explained that she had chastised the housecleaner for getting rid of the cobwebs, big thick ropy cobwebs like those you'd find in haunted houses because they help cut down on the flies. I'm not sure which I would prefer to live with -- neither.
I later found the container that our dinner ratatouille had been stored in, marked for the freezer "ratatouille August 2014," and I gagged a bit, thinking it was 3 1/2 years old. We couldn't bring ourselves to eat in the house so we would take care of the animals and then leave for a  nice lunch, letting the one meal suffice for the day.
The smell of the house was the thing that probably kept us from eating there -- a kitty pan in every room. The overwhelming smell of dirty dogs along with animal waste.
Earl got sick first, congestion, coughing. I'd lie awake at night and listen to him breath, praying it didn't go into his chest, which he was prone to. His colds frequently turned to bronchitis. But he seemed to be recovering just as I came down with a headache and shivers. I retreated to the cold bedroom at 6 p.m. one day and imagined that I saw an image of Jesus in the shadowing on the wall. My friend Noreen convinced me it  looked more like a backpacker on the Appalachian Trail.
I might have started with the flu, but I ended up with a cold and then probably bronchitis.
On the drive from our housesit to Aix en Provence, I would sneeze so hard and so many times in a row that I'd end up having muscle spasms in my stomach.

Homesick and Unhealthy
Walking into Delana's apartment in Aix en Provence was such a relief. To be in a clean apartment with an American friend. I wanted to sob. But even there, I continued to be sick, coughing through the night with hallucinations of ridding my chest of the congestion that threatened to drown me. I consulted the internet each day wondering if I needed to go to the dr, but the advice suggested that I suffered from a virus and a doctor could do nothing for me.
We accomplished one or two things each day before I would retreat to bed again, wishing I was home in Ohio, in my own bed in a house that I didn’t own anymore.
The beautiful view out a window in Aix en Provence
When we set off for our next housesit, driving across the country again, I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to live in France for the next month, much less the next year or entire retirement. 

Healing
My cough had minimized when we arrived in Chateauneuf sur Charente, driving through the black night on Thursday my roads searching for an address that didn’t show up on our GPS.  When we pulled up, Norman stood outside the door to greet us. The two dogs with wagging tails and a dinner of noodles and bolognaise sauce made the welcome complete. Caroline showed us to our bedroom suite upstairs. Earl and I exchanged looks of relief.
Toby is sometimes naught, climbing on the wall in the back or chewing up my running belt. 
Our days here are made up of sleeping in until 8 most days. We get up, feed the cats and dogs, make breakfast, walk the dogs for 45 minutes or so, shower and then decide what to do for the day. We've walked through mud up to our ankles, slogged through floods up to our knees, seen beautiful swans and herons, and eaten delectable meals.
Slowly, I recovered from cough until this week I was able to run again. Four miles on Monday. Five miles on Wednesday. Today I ran three miles with one of the dogs.

We've visited a castle, roman ruins, Bordeaux and explored Cognac until we feel like inhabitants. Today we went to a computer repair shop, stopped at a clothing store to buy Earl a hat, had coffee twice at a little restaurant, and got Earl his first French haircut.

In the evenings, most of the time, we're home. If we were within walking distance of a village, we might go out to dinner or to a concert or a movie. Instead, we hunker down at home in the very dark countryside, keep a fire going and watch Netflix. We've been watching The Outlander series, which I love, in spite of having to fast forward some of the cruel parts.

Moving On
On Sunday, we'll move on. We have two weeks to ourselves, no housesits, no pets. I worry that we might not get out of bed on some mornings.
Enjoying the sunshine in Bordeaux
We plan to look at apartments and look at houses, trying to decide where we want to live from May through the end of the year.
And right now, I can tell you that I'm feeling pretty at home in France and enjoying most of my minutes here.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Earl's Blog

Earl has started a blog if you want a different perspective of our life in France.
So far, he has written about our decision to move to France and about his attempt to watch the Super Bowl.
Earlier today, he mentioned that he had no comments yet.
I did explain that in order to get people to comment on his blog, he would probably need to visit other blogs and comment on them, but if you're curious, take a look at Earl's blog: Dispatches from France. 

Cognac Ardor

My husband fell a little bit in love with Cognac last week -- the city,  not the drink.
We had been to Cognac before after visiting some Roman ruins, we went in search of lunch and ended up at a circle in the Centre Ville of Cognac.

The weather was warm enough to eat outside and I snapped a picture of Earl with the French flag flapping behind him, but then we headed home without further exploring.
We returned to Cognac on Thursday with a specific restaurant in mind that we had found online, but as we followed the GPS, it took us past the restaurant and we ended up along the river. We parked and began to walk in the sparkling sunshine.

The sunshine makes a huge difference in how much we enjoy a place. As we walked along, we passed the Hennessy cognac house, its red flag whipping in the breeze.

And we passed the towers that were once the entrance to Cognac known as Porte Saint-Jacques and were built in the 15th century. 

The barriers in the photo were meant to keep us away from the river walk, which they were redoing, but we wanted to walk along the river, so we ignored them. 
We made our way to an Italian restaurant called La Scala, and the interior was probably an homage to the opera. 

While eating, I discovered something delicious. It's an aperitif, a pre-dinner drink, called Pineau. Pineau apparently is made from the grape must that is not used for Cognac. Apparently there's a limit to the amount of Cognac they are allowed to make, so with the leftover, they make Pineau. It's not a wine, exactly, more like a wine liqueur. If you've ever had Port, or Porto as they call it here in France, it's very similar. Stronger than regular wine. The choices for the Pineau were white or rosé and I went with rosé. Yum
We enjoyed the Pineau so much, that we bought a bottle at the store so we can have the aperitif at home. 
Afterward, we went wandering around the town in a happy Pineau-fog, and we just found more and more to delight us. The winter sales are still on, so the shop windows are full of tempting clothes and boots. 
We stopped in a magazine store and bought a New York Times to read later and Earl's brilliant idea to search for a pencil sharpener there bore fruit. I'd been searching in the makeup section for a sharpener and was unable to find one, but a plain old pencil sharpener was easier to get my hands on.
The piéce de resistance of Cognac was stumbling upon a Jeff de Bruge candy shop. Yes, we entered and bought a box of chocolates. We debated briefly if we should send candy to our children for Valentine's but then decided that they would miss it more at Easter if we didn't send candy then. So we'll splurge on chocolates for them then. They can celebrate Valentine's with their own special someone. 
We returned to Cognac, about a 20-minute drive from where we are staying, again on Saturday to see the market in Les Halles, a covered market for the winter time. 
This time, we made it to the creperie was had planned to visit, since it was the day after Chandeleur, or Candlemas, and the French eat crepes for Chandeleur. We had galettes, savory crepes, and followed up with sweet crepes for dessert.
Again, we wandered around town, and this time we found some ancient buildings, like this 15th century half-timbered building with carvings in the wood. 


Known as the Maison de la Lieutenance, it has lots of carvings in the wood and I wonder how it has survived the elements all these years, although they are quite worn away. The plague on the house says this wood carving has "two human figures (one upright and the other upside-down). Not sure I see it.
But every walk in this town reveals more intriguing shops and photo-worthy architecture.

I'm sure we'll go back again before the end of our housesit, if  not for a good restaurant meal, then at least for another box of chocolates since the dog jumped up on the table and stole the last piece this morning (he's fine). 
If you go, I recommend wandering away from the main square to find a meal that is worth the walk, along with some beautiful buildings. 

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Food du Moment

I know that I haven't been providing enough food porn for those of you who live for that.
Let me say that we have been getting our share of delicious meals. Many times, we'll go wandering the countryside and stop for lunch. Then if we're hungry in the evening, we might just have bread and cheese. Those three-course meals at lunch really fill you up!
Saturday evening, on a day when we had nothing scheduled, we decided to go out for a fancy meal.
I searched for restaurants near us and found Le Mas Charentais. Mas is kind of like an inn, but they also had a restaurant.
I emailed for reservations because I'm still afraid to make phone calls in French. (Remind me to tell you about the carpet salesman le marchande de tapis) who showed up at the front door dressed in his classic cashmere coat.)
We had a few glitches finding the place in the pitch blackness that is the French countryside, and I might have stopped short at one intersection, causing the seatbelt to tighten across Earl's throat and possibly crushing his windpipe (but he shouldn't have been wearing his seatbelt up that high). Finally, we turn into a road that goes across a farm field of grapes. We come to a T and a sign laying down at the intersection points to the sky. Which way should we go? An impatient car behind me put on its left turn signal so I turned that way.
A driveway dove precipitously past a building and wound around to a dark parking lot. I backed in, ready for a quick getaway if need be.
We climbed stairs and crossed a patio to a well-lit dining room that rang with the sound of French chatter. We stood awkwardly for a few minutes until a woman came hurrying from the back room full of quick French. The gist was that she should have been paying more attention to the customers rather than talking in the backroom since they were a business. I smiled, hoping I understood what she was saying.
We settled at a table for two and were immediately given the amuse-bouche, this is a starter that can sometimes be as simple as a bowl of peanuts. At this restaurant, it was four squares of bread, two with ham and cheese and two with pate and a pitted black olive.
We chose our meals from the menu of the day -- remember, it's always less expensive to choose the menu of the day rather than a la carte from the menu.
Our aperitifs were brought first. I had kir au vin blanc. You may have heard of kir royale, which is kir with champagne, but I'm not a champagne girl, so I ask for kir with white wine.
Yes, I had nearly finished it by the time I took a picture.
Earl had pastis, as usual. He's a southern France guy at heart.
Everyone received a first course of vegetable soup, but don't think American vegetable soup. The French like something called a velouté, which is basically pureéd. So imagine a vegetable soup that is pureéd into a lovely, creamy, smooth soup. This one was a beautiful cream color in a pale striped bowl. I didn't take a picture, but the taste was slightly sweet. I imagined it contained potatoes and cauliflower.
For our next course, Earl chose escargots while I had pate




I've never taken to snails, but Earl will get them occasionally, even though the tools used to eat them can get tricky. My meal included some ham and butter as you see. That's a jalapeno of some sort on top.

For my main course, I had duck. I love eating duck in France, its rich and fatty. A side of squash and some fries that I couldn't finish. FYI, the brussel sprouts are not more enticing in France than they are at home. 


Earl had pot au feu, which is basically beef that is cooked slow with vegetables like carrots, potatoes, leeks. I've never seen it served with a side of noodles.
Then comes dessert. I took this picture because I've noticed a change in the French language. You know how everything used to be soupe du jour, menu du jour -- soup of the day or menu of the day. Well now it's du moment -- soupe du moment, les desserts du moment -- of the moment. We see it everywhere and from Paris to Aix en Provence to Poitou Charente where we are now. 



Time for dessert. The choices of "du moment" are also listed on a chalk board.


I had the créme brulee ...
and Earl had gateau caramel beurre salé, a salty caramel cake with salty caramel ice creme and fruit. He said this visit was the first time he noticed so many salty caramel food items in France.
Of course, we've had delicious meals in other places, too. 
Above is an example of the velouté I mentioned earlier. I had this one at a seaside restaurant in Royan, a day when Earl and I went looking for the sun, but found the Atlantic Ocean instead.


Finally, the ile flottante dessert I had in Saintes, basically balls of meringue in a créme anglais sauce, drizzled with caramel sauce and sprinkled with shaved almonds. As often happens, I relied on Earl to visit my dessert at the end of a filling lunch.

Change is Still Hard

Maybe it was leaving behind the comfort of the mountains in Quillan, perhaps, having seen a comfortable house and imagining myself living th...