Thursday, June 28, 2018

Village Celebrations

On Saturday, we took part in a village night hike. It began at 7 and ended with a dinner and surprise (to us) dancing.
We signed up because we liked to hike but also because we want to be part of the village community. To our surprise, the majority of the hikers were English-speaking, but we still managed to rub elbows with some French villagers too.
We had to RSVP and pay 15 Euros each. The money was for the meal, and apparently, for insurance on the hike too.
We hiked for two hours, from 7-9, and the sun was still high in the sky when we returned to the village. 
Some of the path was narrow and lined by weeds, other times we walked up roads or wide gravel paths. 
Earl and our friend Jules have long legs and wanted to stay in the front of the pack. I had to scurry with my short legs, but only felt out of breath during the initial ascent up a fairly steep path. The group stopped to let everyone catch up, and one Frenchman was in charge of counting people to make sure no one got lost.
Earl and I were joined by our American friend Jules. Her husband met us at the dinner afterwards. 
My view throughout most of the hike as I tried to keep pace with Earl and Jules.
Earl's back

The hike resulted in some pretty views
I was getting pretty hungry by the time we returned to town.
We ended in a community room set up with U shaped tables. Plates of peanuts, potato chips and other munchies were set up on a serving table. Another table held sodas, juices, pastis and one box of white wine.
In a panic, Jules had us take turns carrying two plastic cups to the table to fill them with wine for our group.
As we were waiting for the dinner to begin, we noticed they had set up speakers for music and some rotating light. We complained that we would have preferred they spend more on wine.
No worries though, they soon served pitchers of wine with dinner.
Our starter included shredded carrots in vinaigrette, a type of coleslaw, and paté.
Then the main course was cassoulet with confit de canard. 

A plate of cassoulet, the specialty of the region. I don't think I ate it all, but by then the wine was flowing freely.
 We talked to the other English speakers nearby, then Jules pointed out that a French woman had no one to talk to and she urged me to speak French to her. The more wine I drink, the better I understand French, so I jumped right in to conversation.
The woman used to run a shoe store so we shared stories about shoes and feet. She'd been in Quillan for 32 years, and Jules blurted out, "Welcome!"
I pointed out the irony since we Americans have been here only a few months.
Earl was invited to a hiking club that meets on Mondays. We felt the conviviality of the whole community.
As we finished eating, the music began to pick up.

Me and Earl, in our hiking clothes eating dinner. 
The beat got our feet to tapping, and it wasn't long before I pulled Earl's hand and he accompanied to the area in front of the tables. We started dancing and soon the dance floor filled with others dancing too.
It has been so long since we danced! Before Earl's knee surgery last September. We danced swing and salsa and then just some rock and roll dancing to mostly American songs, but some Latin songs thrown in too.
We danced Brits, French and Americans all together, throwing our hands in the air like we didn't care.
As the clock ticked past midnight, and my Fitibit reminded me I had over 26,000 steps for the day, we decided to escape outside to the cool air and head home. But first, the French women we'd been dancing with shared cheek kisses.
An Irish woman stopped me and suggested we come to salsa dance class with them, and a warmth started in my belly, reminding me that new experiences and friends are always just around the corner.
Life isn't perfect in this corner of France. I'm not writing about the struggles we have when we miss our family or how hard it is sometimes to know that one of our kids needs help and we aren't there. I'm not even journaling the difficulties of figuring out simple things like bus schedules because we speak a different language.
But, I want you to see that there are ways for us to weave our lives into the French community, whether we speak the language well or not.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Everyday Life in France

In the mornings, as light filters into the bedroom from the shutters that are tented open, I can feel the cool air. But I don't open the shutters, letting them continue to block the sun that beats against the window on the east side of the house.
Instead, I get dressed, usually in my running clothes, and walk out the front door, sometimes paying attention to my phone, starting my app and my music. I might or might not notice the other homes around with me with their shutters and their terraces.
Usually, it is not until I round the corner that I am struck dumb by the beauty of this place. The mountains covered by greenery, until they get near the top where golden rocks jut jaggedly toward the piercing blue of the sky. I stop often and remind myself that I live in this place.

This photo was taken on a recent drive toward Perpignan, France, closer to those golden craggly rocks

I took this photo while on a run. The horse came to pose for his closeup. 

Tuesday night, we returned to Quiz Night -- it's a British quiz night, but the site where we made our first Quillan friends a month ago. We paired up with those same friends we had met, knowing that our odds of winning were nil since we were all Americans and the questions were often geared toward Brits. We were proud to finish 3rd from the bottom, number 6 out of 9, due to the category "France," which gave us a fighting chance.
The bar that hosts the Quiz Night is also the place we have been going to watch soccer games in the World Cup. We don't have a television here, so we wander down to Le Terminus to watch England or France play their games.
Watching France play in the World Cup -- the bar included two men with mullets and three dogs. 

One of the well-behaved dogs watching soccer
This banner hangs above the bar -- tournament of goals (buts) but we don't hear the announcer yelling: "Buuuuuuuuuuts" like we would "goooooooooooal"

The first time we arrived to watch soccer, they handed out free packs of fries (I suppose they would call them "chips" since it was a British game). The second time we arrived, to watch a soccer game, the bartender reached across the bar and shook hands with both Earl and me. Now we felt like we were part of the community.
In France, people don't tip bartenders and waiters. They make a living wage, unlike in the States where their hourly rates are reduced and they make up the pay by receiving tips.
As I was waiting at the bar to order a drink, I saw a British man order a giant beer and then add, "And one for you, Cedric."
"Un panaché," Cedric, the bartender said, acknowledging what drink the man would pay for. So the British man paid for his drink and for the bartender's drink.
Cedric shrugged apologetically at me as he poured his drink before asking my order. "He bought it for me," he said as he mixed the beer and limonade drink.
So, now that I'm on a handshaking level with the bartender, I must remember to occasionally buy him a drink.
Truthfully, I was at the bar to get a drink for the Quiz host. We're hoping to convince him to ask more neutral questions so us Americans might stand a chance at winning someday.
Little by little, we're learning more about life in a foreign country, but trying to remember to enjoy the strange and wonderful aspects of everything we see.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Fête de la Musique

Our French friend Maurice told us that there would be music on June 21st, the summer solstice, so after watching France defeat Peru in a World Cup soccer game, we wandered over to the square near the river and found a park bench. People had gathered at the three surrounding bars, sitting at the outdoor tables ready for the entertainment.
I didn't get my hopes up too high. A gathering of people, young and old in orange polo shirts held instruments -- trumpets, saxophones, clarinets, flutes, drums. Could this motley gang of locals make good music?
There was another band setting up in the other corner of the square, and we had passed another band across town. Apparently, even our small town of 3,600 had several venues for music.
When the local band began, I put aside my skepticism.
We were surprised that they played in a circle with their backs to the everyone, watching their music leader, a trumpet player who won 3rd place for trumpeters in France.
I wasn't the only one who enjoyed the music. I videotaped these little guys dancing, and then panned over to the very drunk couple who were also dancing as if there was no one else in the square.

When the band finished, without a flourish, simply wandering away, I felt let down. I wanted more. Two other bands had set up. I wanted more music.
Instead, I got friends.
Jack and Jules wandered over from their house and we settled at an outdoor table, ordering Perrier for me, gin and tonic for Earl.
Before the next musician began, two other couples arrived as we pulled tables together and caught up before the guitarist and drummer entertained us with mostly American songs.
Friends and music
The highlight was definitely GLORIA, because he had such a tough time spelling G-L-O-Har-I-A. Another favorite was "Born to be WIDE." But who are we, with our barely passable French, to poke fun at someone singing American rock and roll for our pleasure.
The music was infectious, and at one point Earl videotaped these women in the background dancing joyously, with abandon, and possibly without the influence of alcohol.
When the third band began, and many drinks had been drunk, the music was a bit subdued so we straggled across town to another band playing Pink Floyd and "Walk on the Wild Side" so we could sing along "do, do, do, do, do."
One woman, a dancer at heart, visited several bands doing her interpretive dance. Her partner stood alongside watching.

We stayed out until midnight before climbing the hills toward our house. Friends and music are quite a nice way to begin the summer in our new French life. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Long Days Equal Musique

It's the Summer Solstice and in France that means music.
Every city, and nearly every village, is celebrating with the fête de la musique.

We were in Perpignan yesterday and they handed out a brochure with several bands playing in many different squares.
Here in our village of Quillan, we'll be gathering in the Place de la République (after the France World Cup soccer game) to enjoy some mystery music.
We have no idea what band or even what style of music, but we plan to be there.
According to Le Parisien online newspaper, the music throughout the country. could be a band, a chorus, or even a DJ set.
I think it's delightful that the entire country is filled with music on this the longest day of the year.
I've been working to get papers graded all day so I can enjoy the concert with abandon.
Check later tonight (or maybe tomorrow morning) and I'll finish this post with my thoughts on this longest day of the year.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Old-Fashioned Butchers

Today, we went to the butcher in town and it took me back to my childhood.
I'd tried the door of the butcher before, only to find it closed -- on Thursdays, and until 4 in the afternoon for lunch, but with my husband in tow to push open the big door, we entered.
Chez Richard is the butcher and he's a burly man.
My French friend Maurice asked him last weekend if he played rugby, but he said he wrestled instead. Yes, Maurice went to the butcher when he was here, but I had to hurry home to teach an English class so I didn't meet Richard the butcher.
Today, we stood in line behind a woman who ordered three different things, including a sauccisse, a long sausage that the butcher pinched off halfway, about two feet long. He curled it like a snake and wrapped it in paper for her.
Earl and I were there to buy hamburger. I had collected most of the ingredients for Cincinnati-style chili. If you haven't lived in Ohio, you might not be familiar with it, but it includes cinnamon.
I haven't been cooking very much in France. I mean, why would you cook with all of the fabulous restaurants and bakeries. But there comes a time when you have to stop living like a tourist.
I was prepared, a little prepared, because Maurice had pointed out the machine where the butcher would grind the meat.
I'd thought to order steak haché, but as I perused the board, I saw that biftek haché was the way to go. Biftek means steak.
My next task was to figure out how much. The recipe called for a pound, but France deals in grams. So I decided to go for half a kilogram, or 500 grams. That's cinq cent grams in French, if you ever need to order it, and a little more than a pound.
The butcher smiled and opened a cooler, pulling out a large hunk of dark red meat. With a cleaver, he chopped off  a large hunk then chopped it down to three long strips. The meat went into the machine and came out ground before he wrapped it in white paper.
The whole process reminded me of those long ago days when my mom would drive out to Sherwood's Market, a bit outside of town, but the meat was worth it, she told me. It was a butcher shop with a small grocery that grew up around it.
So I thought of my mom as we gathered the paper wrapped meat and walked home with it.
The Cincinnati-style chili wasn't as good as it might be at home. I had to substitute some spices, like paprika for chili powder.
But Earl and I both ate a bowl and there are leftovers for tomorrow.
Now that I have bravely entered the butcher's shop, I'm sure I'll go back. Maybe for a pre-cooked canard (duck) or a turkey breast. Who knows what I might find in the butcher shop and be reminded of a more old-fashioned way of doing things.
Next on my list of things to make, cinnamon raisin bread. I just have to wait until Saturday when the market comes around again so I can buy the raisins. Our local grocery doesn't have raisins, but the woman with nuts and dried fruits does. And this time, I'm getting 500 grams so I don't run out. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

France Profonde

Yesterday morning, I laced up my hiking boots and hit the trail with my husband and our French friend Maurice. Maurice is the husband of my blogging friend Linda who writes at Frenchless in France. 
We met with them in Paris in January, and luckily, Maurice invited us to accompany them on this hike along the pilgrimage route of  St. Jacques-de-Compostelle. This is a path that runs through France before joining El Camino de Santiago, the famous Spanish route known as "The Way" that leads to the ocean and the place where St. Jacques (James the Apostle) is said to be buried. 
During our travels, I learned that this is considered the third most important pilgrimage to Christians, behind Jerusalem and Rome. 
The hike may still be a pilgrimage to many people, but mostly the route is filled with hikers now who enjoy the rolling hills and cows they pass by before getting to the steeper regions in the Pyrenees. 
The scenery and the villages have been breathtaking. 
Unlike in the U.S., and in my book Trail Mix about hiking the Appalachian Trail, the pilgrims here hike from inn to inn, or gîtes to gîtes as they are called here in France. This is much easier than carrying all your belonging on your back and camping each night, going without a shower for days and digging a hole to use the bathroom. 
Linda had planned to be the driver and I said I might hike some. But the first day as we reached the lovely gîtes in Aumont-Aubrac, rain was forecast. I decided to skip the wet walk and to ride along playing tourist with Linda. 
Most of our hike takes place in Aveyron, France 
and we have traveled from one beautiful village to the next. 

Our first stop was at a gîtes in Aumont-Aubrac where we shared a meal with fellow travelers. The chef/owner of the gîtes showed off the "aligot" which is mashed potatoes mixed with so much cheese, garlic and creme fraiche. Yum.
Mostly, Linda and I have focused on food and churches.

Here's a view of the church from the choir loft in Nasbinals
We find churches built anywhere from the 11th to the 18th century and we explore. She lights a candle for a Euro or so.
Sunrise on Day 2 of not hiking
The second day, I decided not to go hiking because the path would be muddy from so much rain. Instead, I went for a six-mile run and saw some beautiful scenery as the sun rose. I also saw a lot of cows and they stared at me like I was crazy.
The countryside reminds me of a Jane Austen novel.
The countryside if full of huge boulders -- maybe they were pushed there by a glacier like in Ohio.

The third day rain was predicted again so I skipped the hike to explore Espalion, a beautiful city wher unfortunately so ancient buildings were torn down as recently as 1968.

The chateau and vieux pont in Espalion
Finally, as the fourth day dawned, I had no excuse not to walk in the beautiful sunshine.
The church steeple in in a spiral and is called flamboyant gothic style. 
This church in St. Chely d'Aubrac had glorious reflections of stained glass windows.
This reflection on the floor.
I'd love to share more, but we must check out of the hotel and I'll be without WiFi again. I've written two other posts that have disappeared because of my insufficient WiFi. Just know that I'm taking photos and planning to take you all along on another hike soon.
The city of Estaing. Another chateau, another old bridge. 
What history, what beauty. Wish you were all along on the journey.

Monday, June 04, 2018

My Nose is a Magnet

There's no other explanation than the fact that my nose is a magnet.
It attracts things like frisbees, roads, toddlers' knees and toy cabinet lids.
This morning, I opened the lid of a wooden chest filled with games. I was looking for a die, you know, one of a pair of dice. I needed it for a lesson I am teaching this afternoon.
I could have held the lid up with one hand and pulled games out with the other, but the thing on top was a heavy wooden box with a checkerboard on top. I knew the wooden box would hold chess and checkers pieces, but I couldn't lift it up with one hand.
I tested the lid of the chest. It seemed like it would stay open, like those chests with the safety latches.
So I let go of the lid and grabbed the chess box with both hands.
You can guess what happened.
But instead of hitting me on the head, for some reason (my nose is a magnet) it hit a glancing blow to my nose, leaving a cut that oozed blood and the beginning of a bump.
I went for the freezer immediately to ice the bump.
Thirty years ago or so, I had a bump on my nose. It was a family thing, the Kincer bump.
But that first incident with the Frisbee and two nose surgeries later removed the Kincer bump.

Since then, I've had an aquiline nose, in spite of a knee to the nose by Tucker when he was a toddler. My fault for blowing a raspberry on his belly.
In spite of a fall while running, where my nose met the asphalt. Stitches to my knee and another surgery to straighten out my nose.
The doctor carefully reconnected the bones and no harm done. I was still wearing the bandage when the first copies of my book arrived.
Just a month ago I taught my first VIPkid class and I got a bloody nose throughout.
Perhaps my nose is in mutiny, planning to take over or make a break from my body. Perhaps it has had enough.
I don't think it's broken this time. Hopefully, just a bump that will heal and disappear, but, as the doctors have pointed out, only time will tell.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Finally, Friends

After a fairly isolating five months, meeting the occasional British couple or reuniting with friends from the past, this week has been a bonanza for Earl and me.
We’re coming up on our second week in Quillan and when we arrive at the cafe along the river, I stick my head in the door and Monsieur says, “Deux café crème?” and I nod yes. 
We aren’t in a place where everybody knows our name, à la Cheers, but the waiter does know our order. 
We sit in the sunshine listening to the rush of the river, admiring the wildflowers that spring from the stones of the old bridge and sipping our coffee with steamed milk. Earl never drank coffee before, being a tea man, but the taste and the tradition has grown on him.
The cafe by the river

The flowers curve upward, sending their roots into the old stone bridge
Excitingly, for the first time this week, we ran into new friends at the market and exchanged cheek kisses. It’s a French tradition that we’ve only shared with old French friends, but we met people Tuesday night, and the next morning when we encountered each other, we exchanged the traditional greeting. 
Beautiful flowers adorn the market
(As I write this, we’re sitting on a public bus, and high school boys are climbing on, sharing cheek kisses to greet each other. I find it delightful.)
If you know the French, you may have guessed these newfound friends who shared the traditional bisous with us, were not French friends. 
We went to a quiz night at a local bar and met a handful of British, Australians and Americans. This American couple has been in Quillan since February. 
The quiz night required a bit of chutzpah. We had seen the signs so brazenly walked in. We stopped to ask a crowd of people drinking outside if this was the place. 
Walking through the bar to a back room, we saw tables of teams all chatting to each other. That could have been the moment we chickened our, but surveilling the scene, I seized my courage and interrupted two women to ask if this was the place. They eagerly explained the quiz and invited us to join their team, knowing we would be no help. 
You see, it was a British quiz night. One of the categories was Sit Coms and the term Friends did not come up. The emcee read a list of characters and the Brits apparently recognized the shows. We'd ;never heard of any of them.
There were a couple of American questions— how many colonies declared independence in 1776? Earl thought it might be a trick question but I stuck to 13 and was right. What Caribbean island did the US invade in 1983? Grenada, obviously. 
But we didn’t stand a chance with questions about which British cities had greyhound racing. 
Our team consisted of Julie, an American from Michigan, and Lou, a Brit who runs an Airbnb. We drank red wine or gin and tonics and ended up in 9th place out of 10. 
The team we beat was Julie’s husband Jack, a retired college basketball coach, and a couple from Wisconsin. See, we Americans were definitely at a disadvantage. 
But we shared some jocularity and can now recognize much of the English speaking community in Quillan. 
Two nights later, we had our first dinner guests at our new home. Again we exchanged cheek kisses as they arrived with their little dog Scooter. Our guests were Jenny and Dennis, Australians who run the bed and breakfast where we first stayed in Quillan. 
We bought way too much cheese, but managed aperitifs, a starter of melon, followed by penne rosa, a cheese plate and homemade brownies, my first attempt at baking in France in a convectione oven. Then we drank more wine on the terrace, admiring the mountains as we laughed. 
So for the moment we’re feeling satiated with new acquaintances. 
Before I moved here, I had criticized the Americans and Brits who befriend each other rather than the French, but the French don’t jump into friendships the way we do. I can continue to say Bonjour to each French person I meet on my walks and runs; I can compliment beautiful gardens and stop to pet cute dogs, slowly building an acquaintance with the cautious French people around me until one day, maybe the woman who weighs my vegetables in the market might step around and exchange bisous with me. Just this week, when she rang up my fruits and vegetables to 10.93 Euros, I handed her a 10 and a 5. She handed me the 5 back waving off the extra 93 cents. 
Market produce temptations.
Can cheek kisses really be far behind. 
For now, we’ll happily engage with our new English-speaking friends. 


The problem with not blogging for so long, is that there is way too much to blog about so then it's discouraging and I'll never be a...