Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Faire la Bise: The Pause to Kiss Cheeks

Of course, I knew about cheek kissing. I learned it 30 years ago when I was here as an au pair. Everyone kissed everyone -- male, female, married, single. The greeting hello was a cheek kiss, both cheeks, usually only once, but sometimes more.
Until we settled in Quillan, my cheek kisses were fairly limited because we didn't know many people. Instead, we would simply nod "bonjour" to the shop owners or the baker when we walked in.
Even though most of our friends here are British or American, we have all adopted the cheek kisses.
Going in for the cheek kissing while someone is sitting can be awkward. 
At a party one evening, as some friends prepared to leave, they wandered to each person and exchanged kisses goodbye.
"It's like New Year's Eve or something," the English woman who was making the goodbye rounds said.
It might be unusual to those of us who haven't grown up exchanging more than a hello or goodbye as a greeting, but it's kind of nice to take those few moments to acknowledge the other person.
Photo from Smosh.com: http://www.smosh.com/articles/13-kinds-kisses-and-kinds-people-giving-them
I wrote a month ago or so that we had moved up to the status of shaking hands with the bartender at a local bar. That greeting, which has now evolved to cheek kisses for me, is not something to be skipped.
When we enter, even if there is only one booth open and we would like to make a beeline to it before someone else gets it, we must first pause at the bar and greet the bartender. Kisses and handshakes finished, we are now free to move on to find seating.
At a restaurant recently, I saw a few young men, in their early 20s like my own sons. They exchanged kisses when their friends arrived. Cheek kisses aren't seen as effeminate; they're simply a greeting, an exchange of affection. I try to picture my own sons kissing their friends. Hugs probably only occur when they're drunk or someone has had a true hardship. Even shaking hands is rather rare among young men in the U.S. I noticed that when teaching college. The foreign students frequently shook hands as a greeting while American young men were more likely to simply say hello and nod their heads.
Walking into town one day last week, I heard some friends approaching from behind on their bicycles. They halted their bikes, and we exchanged kisses before discussing plans for the weekend.
It was a pause, an acknowledgment, a greeting that the other person is important to us.
Not quite a cheek kiss, more of a hair nuzzle. 
As Americans, we will sometimes skimp on the kisses, especially for goodbyes, maybe kissing our fingers and throwing air kisses toward the people down the table rather than taking the time to fait la bise, our sunglasses clinking against each other.
When we showed up for lunch today, five of us women, we exchanged kisses. But another table of acquaintances next to us were celebrating a birthday so we exchanged kisses with them too. A new couple that I didn't know arrived at the next door table so we kissed them too.
The kisses may seem intrusive, but they are a pause in what is frequently a busy life, a way of reminding ourselves of the importance of every person we run into. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Il Fait Bon

Sometimes I get caught up in the touristic parts of France and let the day-to-day life slide past.
One day this week, as I was walking into town to the market, I passed a bench that sits under a tree.
The bench under the tree
It isn't a bus stop. Nothing is happening on this hill into town, but more often than not, someone is sitting on that bench.
A cat looking longingly toward the bench
The bench is shaded by a tree and it looks out toward the mountains on one side of town. 
The mimosa tree is in bloom and the sky is a clear blue above the mountains
Maybe people sit there to rest as they walk up the hill, but the French are formidable walkers. I don't think most of them need to rest.
Instead, I think they sit down to enjoy the day.
As I walked past, a man sat alone on the bench, maybe a middle-aged man, and just as I walked past, a bird began to sing in the tree above me.
I looked up and smiled.
The man on the bench said, "Il fait bon" which means it's a nice day or the weather is nice today and I agreed, "Oui, c'est ça" that's true.
Sometimes, we just need that reminder, to look up at the blue sky, at the mountains, at the blooming mimosa tree and to enjoy life.
Another view, this time a sunset

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Bucket List -- Check

Yes, we made it to the Tour de France and it was everything I hoped it would be.
Ready for the tour with my t-shirt and my buff (a gift from my friend Noreen)  used as a headband
Earl and I rode with our friend Jules, following a British couple, Steve and Lou, who live here in Quillan to Pamiers, France, where we walked along the route a few kilometers toward the summit.
Steve scouted the route and found a bank at the edge of a hairpin turn that allowed us to see the riders as they approached, turned and then rode on up toward the summit at the Col de Pamier.
We sat on the bank above the road, sipping panaches until the caravan and tour arrived. 
The caravan is a parade that comes through, filled with advertisers. They throw out strange and wonderful things. Jules collected a hat of every color.
I got a polka dot one, which is the symbol of the mountain rider, known as the King of the Mountains.

People cheered, music played, packages of small sausages were pelted at passersby, and there was even a chicken float that was kind of freaky. Luckily, they didn't throw chickens, but coupons for chicken, along with refrigerator magnets.

They also threw little packages of sausage, along with Haribou candy and Madeleines, that famous French cookie.

The chicken float coming up the road
Once the caravan had passed, we settled back on the bank of the road and ate our picnic lunch until the riders arrived, about 1:30 p.m.
We had no idea that up the road, there had been a protest by farmers. The police used tear gas to disperse the protesters and some of the Tour de France riders got tear gassed too. The race was halted while everyone was treated.
But all we knew was that the riders were on their way when we heard the helicopters overhead.
Can you spot the tiny helicopter?
We saw the first group of riders, the breakaway, whizz around the curve and make their way on up the hill.
The first rider around the bend

Shortly followed by other riders
 A minute later, the peloton, the main group of riders sped past too.
So excited to cheer for them, if only I hadn't given away our cow bell. 

Here's a closer shot of one of the riders. I've no idea who he is. 
I took a few pictures, then put my phone in my pocket and watched the riders as they went. I wanted to see the event rather than live it through my phone.
The yellow jersey, the man in the lead of the race, rode by and I cheered for him. Geraint Thomas for Team Sky has been ahead for much of the race and it looks like he'll win when the Tour finishes on Sunday.
After the riders had finished, I saw one lone rider in the back near the team cars that follow with extra bikes and mechanics. I recognized his bright blue uniform and turned to Steve, our biking expert. "Is that Marcel Kittel?" I asked. Kittel is a German sprinter and the sprinters don't do so well on the mountain stage. Steve agreed that it probably was Kittel, and I felt a bit like an expert myself that I had recognized him.
Afterward, we walked back down the road to our parked car.
People with data were able to post pictures of the race on Facebook and explain our excitement at being there. One of the most common comments received was that it is "over so quickly," implying the race wasn't worth attending.
That comment kind of made me bristle. That's true for everything that's enjoyable.
Think of the preparation for Christmas day and then the day goes by in a flash. Months of preparation for a wedding and in a few hours it's all a memory.
I wouldn't skip going to watch the Tour de France because it goes by so quickly. After all, who wants to watch a race that goes by slowly. That's not exactly a race, is it?
I loved being there and would have gladly made the trek up to Paris to see the end of the race on Sunday, but the cost of trains and planes this time of year is a bit steep.
Just waiting, I had goosebumps and seeing the riders themselves thrilled me.
You can bet that I'll be back on a mountainside next year cheering on the Tour de France.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Things Are Looking Up, Up, Up

Since I wrote a defeatist post about our attempt to watch the Tour de France on Sunday, I wanted to let you know that you shouldn't feel too bad for me.
I got a good night's sleep in my own bed on Sunday after having slept restlessly in an oversized armchair in our Airbnb rental the night before.
Monday morning was fresh and clear so I ran four miles. Then my friend Jules picked me up and we went to the lake and stretched out on the scooped out rock that serves as a lounge chair.
Giggling into our selfie
Our view from our rock chairs of the lake and the mountains surrounding us. 
As I lay there, reading a book, surrounded by mountains and the buzz of cicadas in the trees that fringe the man-made lake, I remembered how lucky I am to be living this life. Jules and I shared a panaché -- a mixture of lemonade and beer -- and waded in the cool water when we got too hot.
Afterwards we drove to Limoux, about 20 minutes away to do some grocery shopping - at my request.
Since we don't have a car, I usually buy things at the market or at the small store in our town, but with Jules driving, I went crazy, filling up my cart and taking over an hour to stock up on things like bananas, lunch meat, "Frosties" (frosted flakes) and sliced bread, along with the big things, a six-pack of milk and a 12-pack of toilet paper.
After doing some work in the afternoon, we walked to Jules and Jack's house for dinner and played euchre, walking home again after 10 p.m. as the sun was setting.
Not a bad day.
And today, this morning, we are driving to watch the Tour de France.
This shows the various routes of the Tour de France this year. 

Even better than watching the Tour finish on a flat road, we are going to the town of Pamiers and climbing 3.5 kilometers up to watch the riders struggle up a mountain.

This is today's route and I circled Pamiers, where we'll be. 
 It isn't a big mountain to the Tour de France riders, a category 4, the levels go up 3, 2, 1 and then HC, which means "Hors Categorie" which means above category, in other words, super hard.
I will not be standing on the side of a dropoff like this. 
Wish us luck and if you're watching, the riders are supposed to arrive at our area around 1:18 p.m. our time, (7:18 a.m. EST) so watch for us, even though I can't convince Earl to wear a Speedo and run alongside the riders.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Tour Dream Falls Flat

As I write this blog post, the Tour de France is about to set off toward Carcassonne, and you might recognize that name as a place not too far from where I am living in Southwestern France.
Some of the city streets are covered with colorful umbrellas. 
This year, Earl and I planned ahead so that we could see the Tour in person rather than watching it longingly on television. I usually write a post every year about my enjoyment of the tour, which started with a love of the French scenery and ended up becoming an interest in the riders too. Here's a post from 2016.
The Tour is ending in Caracassonne today. It has a rest day there tomorrow (Monday) and then begins from there on Tuesday.
The whole town has Tour de France fever
We made reservations for Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights in an Airbnb in Carcassonne. Because the apartment had two bedrooms, some friends decided to come along.
We knew parking would be awful with all of the crowd from the tour, so planned to take the bus from Quillan to Carcassonne, about an hour at the whopping rate of 1 Euro each.
I received my reminder email from Airbnb a few days before the reservation, but I got nervous when I didn't here from the host, so I messaged him on Saturday morning before we left. Then I texted him on our French phone. Then, as we stood outside the apartment building, I called him. We  never heard from him at all.
I stood there on the beautiful street, next to a church that rang like a doorbell every quarter hour, and wondered what we should do. We'd reserved and paid for the apartment, but if we couldn't get in, it didn't matter. We had our luggage with us and no place to stay.
I called Airbnb. After a few minutes of searching and trying to contact the host, they said it appeared that the host's account had been deactivated and he wasn't renting the apartment any more.
Could they have told us that before we arrived in Carcassonne suitcases in hand?
The Airbnb phone rep said he would send an email with other available beds for the night. He said they would be in the same area, but I knew with the Tour de France arriving the next day, very few places would be available. The email should arrive in about 20 minutes, he said.
As we started to walk away, the phone rang. It was the host. He said he could meet us there at 4:30. Problems solved!
Well, mostly. The apartment had no WiFi, which was a necessity for me since I needed to teach an online class on Sunday afternoon. I made some calls and texts but basically the owner said the WiFi wasn't going to be fixed before Monday at the earliest.
We decided to enjoy our time in Carcassonne by wandering throughout the city, having drinks in the cool evening air before we went to a French steakhouse for dinner, Le Table de Norbert.
Jules wanted to make sure she got some bone marrow, os à moelle, with her steak. 

The entrance had the steer horns for pushing or pulling. 
The dinner was the highlight of our stay in Carcassonne.
We went back to the apartment and played some cards, listening to the church bell ring every 15 minutes, and after midnight we decided to go to bed. Whenever I stay in a hotel or B&B, I pull the fitted sheet back to search for bedbugs. This time there were little dots, which I guess can be excrement of bed bugs, and a couple of shells. We only found it on our bed, not the other bed our guests were sleeping on.
Bedbug husk found under the sheet. Yuck!
Bedbugs, of course, are a nightmare for anyone who gets them. We decided to sleep on the couch and chair in the living room. As you can imagine we only got snatches of sleep. One of our friends had an upset stomach so didn't sleep much either, plus there's just something gross and creepy about being in a place that has bedbugs. I couldn't wait to escape the next morning.
We were ready to go at 8:30, suitcases packed. We couldn't figure out where to store our luggage, plus I had a class to teach online and no WiFi or place to teach it, plus none of us had gotten very good sleep, making all of us tired and grumpy. And our friend who was sick still felt light-headed. It was not a day we could stay and watch the tour, even though we had already mapped out our route.
The shop windows were filled with Tour de France colors and bicycles, too. 
We stopped at a cafe for breakfast and walked to the train station.
Sometimes, we take a train from Carcassonne to Limoux, a city about halfway home. Then a bus picks us up and takes us the rest of the way. As we sat in the station, I realized that the stops for train to Quillan showed that it was actually a bus. I retrieved Earl and our friends and we went to the place that bus picks up riders. But it turned out that the bus couldn't come to the station that day, so we should have waited at a different place.
Yes, once again we had managed to miss the bus and get stranded in Carcassonne. This happened once before when we returned a rental car on a holiday.
Cursing a system that didn't clarify the change of the bus departure, I made an executive decision to call a taxi for a ride back to Quillan. I knew it would be expensive, but with one friend not feeling well and an online class to teach before the next bus, I thought it would be our best alternative.
We isolated our bags, washing all of our clothes in hot, hot water to kill any potential bedbugs, we're waiting to hear from Airbnb that our money is being refunded, but we can't get back that opportunity to be there for the Tour de France.
So here I sit, as the riders skim across the roads on their way to Carcassonne, where I am not. A lifelong dream thwarted by one bad Airbnb reservation. It can happen in any country, of course, it's just frustrating when that bad experience coincides with something we'd long been trying to accomplish.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Coffee and Markets and Les Bleus

On many mornings, my husband walks the half mile to town and meets with a friend for coffee.
It's a nice, retired guy activity. And I am thrilled that Earl has made friends he can hang out with when I'm working or lounging on the beach with my own friends. And being isolated with only our own company in the early months of our France life put stress on our relationship.
So it's a sigh of relief to find that we both can pursue friendships and hobbies on our own.
Wednesday morning as I was getting dressed, I heard my husband texting with his friend Jack. Earl often speaks messages rather than typing them.
"I'm wearing a light blue t shirt and khaki shorts," he texted.
And I laughed to myself, remembering my own middle school and high school days when I would coordinate outfits with my friends.
Earl and Jack aren't trying to dress alike though, they're trying to make sure they aren't dressed identically, like they were on Sunday morning when we went to a market in Esperaza.
They're in the shade, but you can see that they're definitely coordinated. 
We planted ourselves near a busy street so we could listen to the musicians and enjoy a cup of coffee.
Truthfully, Jules and I weren't dressed that differently either, even though she cut herself out of the pic. 

Esperaza is a bohemian town with many hand-made articles in the market. Nearly everything was brightly colored.

Some purses and jewelry
Table cloths packed neatly under an umbrella to guard from the ferocious sun.

More purses and hanging decorations

People were crowded around this "tattoo" shop, but I wanted a picture of the stamps.
After resting Sunday afternoon, we went to one of the squares in the village to watch the World Cup final, France versus Croatia.
When we lived at home, we always watched the World Cup, even before one of our sons became a soccer fanatic. So it was thrilling to be part of the crowd as France vied for the title!
Songs and horns and men in Speedos celebrating.
Exuberant and a little drunk
Pretty much everyone in the square was drinking heavily as they watched the game. And the one guy at the back who would yell, "Allez les Croats!" would unleash a wave of "Allez les bleus!" from the crowd. He probably was drunker than anyone, especially by the end of the game, which France won 4-2.
The bartender worked like a mad man trying to keep up with the drink requests, and toward the end of the game, he walked outside, sweat still flowing down his face, and the crowd cheered for him too.

This girl dressed for the game in her blue, white and red onesie with a rooster on her head. The rooster is the national symbol of France.

She looked happy, although had to be sweltering in the 90+ degree heat. 
Nearly every trip to town now is filled with cheek kisses and greetings, sometimes so much that we don't accomplish what we set out to do, but we'd much rather have the friends and the camaraderie than the limes, or whatever we went in search of.
So making friends in France, even if they're American or British, Australian or Irish, is priceless. We're still working on that next step of French friends, but I'm sure it will come.
If you love posts about France or French books, movies or life, visit Paris in July.

Friday, July 13, 2018

An Avalanche of Socializing

My author friend Suzie Tullett recently shared a meme on Facebook:
And I commented that I had felt the same when I lived in the States, but since arriving in Quillan, my social life has exploded. We were out until 3:30 a.m. at a friend's going away party, and a few other nights found ourselves wandering home after midnight, spending our evenings dancing or listening to music.
Dancing the night away at Delana's Bon Voyage party.
What has happened to us?
At home, we would crawl under the covers around 10 and I'd be up at 5:30 to go for a run before getting ready for work.
So, work is one of those things that has changed. Earl has retired. I'm working online, so our hours are more ours. We were more tired when we had to be at work for a certain number of hours per day and our friends were the same. Who had the energy to go out to listen to music or dance?
With Jack and Jules at one of the local celebrations
Friends are another issue. We luckily met friends here in France who enjoy our company and we get together frequently, playing cards, going to markets, exploring new cities.
During our early months in France, as we wandered from housesit to housesit, we didn't go out frequently, huddled in the cold dark evenings watching flood waters rise or fending off the cold. Now, here in Southwestern France, our evenings burst with activity.
This week we had three possibilities to choose from on Tuesday -- a night market, the France World Cup semifinal at the local bar, or an English quiz night (also at the local bar). We went to the market night and enjoyed duck sandwiches followed by a dessert waffle with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
Wednesday night was the England semifinal World Cup game, and we joined some Brits at the local bar. As the second half continued with no one scoring, I decided to walk home rather than watching the rest of the game (England eventually lost to Croatia).
Thursday, we had no plans, but we ended up grabbing a pizza and a salad and joining our friends Jack and Jules at their house along the river, playing cards until 10 when the light began to fade and we wandered home.
Tonight is a party for Bastille Day, known to the French as Fête National. The city will shoot off fireworks over the "chateau" that sits on the hill overlooking downtown the night before (Friday). But first, I might bike out to the lake with Jules where we'll bask on the stone chairs or drift on the float she brings along in her car.
We lounge on stone-carved seats with the lake and the mountains as our view. 
If we want to watch TV, we head to the local bar.
We've been catching part of the Tour de France
 at the bar where the bartender knows our name

Saturday there's a market then music in the square. Sunday there's a morning market in another town, along with the World Cup finals on a big screen downtown.

Were there this many things to do at home in Ohio and I just didn't pay attention? Probably.
But, we have strategically placed ourselves here so that we can walk to many events, and that makes a difference. If we were isolated, we would hesitate to drive to events. Plus, one of us would have to be the designated driver. Now we both walk, we drink some wine, we dance, we sing, we enjoy the camaraderie of our new English-speaking friends (still working on the French friends).
Another huge difference is that we have no television at our house in France. Television numbs you. You sit and watch without the willpower to turn it off. It sucks away time and makes you tired. Did anyone ever get to the end of their life and say, "I watched a lot of great TV"?
And some people may say they don't have a television, but they're watching shows on their computer instead. Same thing, different technology.
Earl and I were watching more programs on the computer before we moved here and got sucked into the socializing vortex.

So, if I had to sum up the reasons we are so much more social, I'd say it has to do with:
Location (being able to walk places)
Job-free schedules (we aren't as tired as when we worked full-time schedules)
No TV (which sucked up more time than we were aware of)
New friends
And I can recommend it. Being out with people, experiencing new things, making new friends, it feels good. I hope you'll try it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Faux Pas a Day

My latest French faux pas was at the local grocery. Our town has a small store, called Spar, that is right down town. That's where Earl and I go for our groceries when we can't find them at the twice weekly market.
Our market
One afternoon, I decided to use the leftover chicken from our rotisserie chicken to make a chicken salad. I love a nice chicken salad with mayonnaise, apple pieces and grape pieces on a croissant. So I headed down to the spar. I picked a couple of firm apples and looked in vane through the rest of the fruits and vegetables for grapes.
Finally, I went to the register to pay for my other purchases. I told the woman behind the register that I had looked for grapes (the French call them raisins) and couldn't find any.
"Raisins frais?" she asked. Fresh grapes.
Try again in September, she told me. Of course, the French wouldn't carry out of season fruits. The grapes will be harvested in September and that's when I can buy them in the grocery store.
I hurriedly explained that as an American, I'm used to being able to find any type of produce at any time of year. She smiled and clucked slightly.
I went home and used some golden raisins in place of the out-of-season grapes. 
The finished product
Eating is different here, but we're learning.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Wine Flows Like a River

While living in the U.S., Earl and I were occasional drinkers. We'd open a bottle of wine and have a glass or two a few times a week. If we went out to dinner or if we had friends over, we'd definitely drink -- wine, beer, cocktails. One of the things we loved to do in summer was walk to Third and Hollywood for gin and tonics.
But we were never big drinkers.
All of that has changed since moving to France. Wine is definitely less expensive here, but it's also part of the culture. If we're out for lunch, we often drink an aperitif and then wine with our meal.
A glass of white wine in a beautiful glass. 
Dinner is the same.
Now that we've landed in a village and met friends, we frequently gather for drinks before moving on to meals. Festivals, celebrations, games of cards... they all require glasses of wine.
Pre-dinner drinks in this area often consist of blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling wine.
Since I became a mother, I could count on one hand the number of times I became tipsy. Now, I would probably fill up those fingers in one week.
Just this week, we celebrated Fourth of July with a party at some British friends. Wine, beer, spiked punch and watermelon jello shots 
For July 4th, my friend Jules created Jello shots shaped like watermelons. 

It was my first time doing a jello shot. 
were among our drink choices on that incredibly hot day. We had to keep drinking to stay hydrated!
The next day we went on a hike that ended in lunch at a local restaurant. A friend and I shared a 50 cl of wine. I took an afternoon nap and vowed not to drink that night because I felt a bit weak in the evening, but when we played cards with some friends, the wine came out again and somehow we left two empty bottles.
Then came Friday, the Bal des Pompiers.
The workers wore t shirts that proclaimed Bal des Pompiers

 It's a firefighter's ball that is held in most every French town. It starts with drinks and music, then moves to dinner with wine before more music and dancing.

The two of us staking out our places after friends saved tables for us. 

Here's the pork grilling on spits. Plenty for 350 people. 
Again, drinking followed by drinking and dancing, which is fun. But a niggling doubt starts to bother me.
Some pre-dinner beer and mussels (moules)
I did learn the importance of saying no within a week or so of settling here. We went to a new friend's house and every time I set my glass down, someone filled it up. Then I guiltily felt like I needed to drink it.
That ended up with me puking in the bathroom about 11 that night. (It was an afternoon party.) So I determined then and there that I would announce my intention not to drink more and if someone filled up my glass, then they would understand that I wouldn't drink it.
I haven't gotten drunk since then, but tipsy, yeah, tipsy still happens.
Truthfully, a lot of these functions are more fun with a nice tingle from the wine. Things are funnier, my French is better, my dance moves are more enthusiastic. We walk to these events so driving after drinking isn't an issue.
We have another set of American friends who have been living in France for a few years. They admit that when they go home, they aren't drinking very much at all. But when they return to France the wine flows again.
Maybe it's okay to drink freely here, understanding that it isn't an alcohol problem. It's a culture of enjoying food and drink.
So tchin tchin! (That's a toast here, like cheers!)

It's time for the Paris in July meme, so I'm linking to the blog Thyme for Tea that shows a list of all the Francophiles participating.


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...