The Rain, the Rain!

We are home from a week in Northern Belgium. We were supposed to be just 5 days there, but we missed the check-in cutoff for our Easyjet flight by 45 seconds and they absolutely refused to let us on the plane! Even our squeaky kid did nothing to sway them. The next flight to Toulouse was 2 days later. Gotta love discount airlines! We are quite fortunate to have been staying with good friends who didn’t mind our extended visit.

Their place is a lovely compound of old buildings, some restored, some not, and a newer, very modern house, right on the Dutch border. This area isquite flat with canals running through it and farms abundant. What is also abundant is the rain. Apparently the dreary weather lasts from November until April in this part of Europe putting it at the bottom of our list of travel destinations until the Spring. It did snow one morning though which gave us a chance to get outside and throw snowballs for awhile. Our friends have a son who is 3 months younger than Larken. He had never seen snow before, so we got to see the joyous discovery on his face as he gleefully threw snowballs at everyone. His primary language is Afrikaans, whereas Lark obviously speaks English. Kolya, being male, decided that the best way to communicate with Larken was to push her over. Makes sense. Unfortunately, she would have preferred some hugging and maybe a little playtime with babies rather than swords! He wasn’t mean, just a bit intense for our tender little girl, so there was a lot of running interference between them for a week.

I met Varenka in Barcelona when we were both on artist residency there in 2005. She is from South Africa and we hit it off instantly and have been close ever since. I attended her wedding outside of Cape Town in 2009 when she married Stef Bos, a singer/songwriter from Holland/ Belgium. Had he and Matthew not been married to Varenka and I, we would have thought they’d fallen in love and would run off into the sunset together! Matthew went to one of Stef’s concerts and they had hours in the car to get to know one another. Definitely love at first site!

On December 5, the Belgians and Dutch celebrate a holiday with Santa Claus. Not the full Christmas deal of hoards of presents and all that, but small stuff. I’m not sure what exactly the holiday signifies, but it’s an opportunity the extend the Christmas fun! Varenka bought Larken a pair of sweet, yellow, wooden clogs. The night of the 4th, we put her and Kolya’s clogs out by the fire and magically in the morning, Santa had filled them with little treats and toys. We had a feast with friends and family of Stef and Varenka during the day and Santa made a brief appearance to drop a bag of goodies for everyone present. It was great fun except that Larken decided that Santa was terrifying and refused to go outside for awhile after she heard him on the roof! There was a great deal of wonderful wine and food and conversations ranging from politics to art to children. Matthew and Stef were working on the kitchen clean-up late that night when Varenka and I realized the sounds had gone from cleaning and toying around on the guitar to something more concentrated. By the time we got in there, Stef had retrieved a microphone from his studio and he and Matthew were recording a song they’d been playing with- in French no less!

We enjoyed an evening in Antwerp the day we were supposed to fly home the first time. It’s a beautiful city with an old center of 17th and 18th century buildings. It’s great with children because the whole heart of the city is pedestrian only so they can run around safely. Had it been warmer, the people watching would have been terrific, but between the cold and Lark’s temper tantrum, our enjoyment was a bit truncated.

We came home last Friday after a very long travel day that got us in our front door at 3am! Lark is a trooper. She was running a high fever on the plane and just slept or cuddled the whole time with nary a complaint. Now we are preparing for Christmas here, putting up lights and decorations. We will get a tree this week and then our dear friends arrive from South Africa on the 20th to share Christmas and New Years with us. It snowed here yesterday and then today was cold, but clear and beautiful. Snow is falling in the mountains though, so skiing is not too far away! We are planning to attend some of the many holiday parades and celebrations in the communities nearby this month.

Today we visited a pottery down the road and ended up spending the whole afternoon with the couple that own it. He is a South African, she’s British and they’ve lived in the Aveyron for 20 years. He makes pottery, furniture and small airplanes with fantastic wing designs. They fed us lunch and we talked about all of our various passions for hours. So fun! And today we had a bit of a breakthrough in that Larken actually went willingly and without tears to the gaurderie! Yes! Life is slowly opening up for us here in our little corner of France. We’ve met a few British people who’ve settled here for various reasons. Most of them leave for winter, but will be interesting people to get to know when the spring weather comes.

The photos at the beginning of the gallery for this week are from a walk along the Aveyron River we took right before we left for Belgium. The trail is an old cart path that passes by the ruins of an old mill and then, further on, by the ruins of an even older mill that is disappearing back into the forest. We are starting to find some nice, long trails for running and hiking here. They are just too steep and loose for me to ride, but then the road biking in this area is so astonishing, I don’t really miss riding on dirt!

We hope you are all settling in for winter and the holidays! We’ve received some photos of the snow in Idaho and I’m a bit chagrined that we chose this particular winter to be away. Fingers crossed that it gets that good here too!

 

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Posted in France

Food, Glorious Food.

I feel like I need to tell you a bit about eating in Southern France. Not at restaurants, which we are unable/ unwilling to do with our whirling dervish of a child, but the good old process of buying and preparing food for our daily existence.

As most of you know, Matthew is an amazing cook. He can take a fridge full of random items and prepare a gourmet meal, usually in an hour or less. I am extremely grateful for this. I am an enthusiastic, but not particularly fabulous cook. I can take a fridge full of random items and prepare a simple, fresh meal that is tasty, but not special, usually in 20 minutes or less, which is a good talent to have with a toddler in the house. We did expect to have a different experience with eating here. It’s clearthat the French have a different relationship with food than most cultures. But how pervasive that relationship is within the culture and exactly how it manifests were unknown to us. It’s going to be hard to go home.

The grocery stores here, the Albertsons and Safeways of France are ginormous. They are called Hypermarchés and are a little like grocery stores and maybe Target thrown together. At first, I found this utterly exhausting. Since things are organized a bit differently here, when I was looking for something specific, say baking soda, I’d have to scour aisle after aisle, looking carefully at almost every object on the shelf to see what it was called and try to figure out if it was what I was looking for. I’d get halfway through the store and be ready to go home. Usually Lark would be too, which means we’d just get the hell out of there. I eventually found sodium bicarbonate in the special cleaning supplies section in the automotive aisle. In the baking aisle, there is “poudre lever”, but it is a mix of different leveners, so not useful if you just want baking soda. Cocoa was in the chocolate aisle. Yep, there’s a chocolate aisle at LeClercs.

Much of what you see here is similar to home. There’s an aisle full of soda for example. Not quite as big as a US grocery store, but still present. There are aisles of canned goods, although what’s in the cans varies markedly from home. Lots of duck confit. But here, hard liquor is sold in the grocery store. The wine is astonishingly cheap. I think it’s cheaper than petrol for 99% of the wine in the store, and it’s really good wine. Bottled water is taken to new heights in terms of variety here. The French like their water, almost as much as they like their bread, cheese and meats. But not quite!

I, personally, would never buy a loaf of French bread in a large grocery store in the US. It usually looks pretty good, but when you actually eat it, the crust is thin and flimsy and the interior is closer to marshmallow than bread. Yes, I’m officially a bread snob. Now that I live in France, I am a very happy bread snob. There is a whole other world of bread here than anything I’ve seen at home. The variety of shapes, sizes and ingredients is astonishing. And it’s ALL good! Like really, really good bread. And then there’s the pastry section!

Meat is also far beyond what we see at home. I shop at our local co-op in Boise with its pasture raised meats, chickens, eggs. The meat department, to my very sensitive nose, has only a slightly different smell than the rest of the store. Not so in France. When you are in the meat department here, you smell meat. What’s more is the mind boggling array of meats available. You have your beef, including a vast variety of veal cuts (young, but not abused), lamb, pork, rabbit, chicken, duck. There are 20 pound pieces of cow, a whole section of varieties of intestine cuts. Brains, livers and kidneys of most of the above. The charcutrie, or pressed meats, are like an art form and it’s utterly impossible to determine what might be in them. Best to just eat them.

The cheese department is equally vast and mostly indiscernible to our uneducated eyes. There are so many types of cheeses I have never heard of. The majority are unpasteurized and pretty damn stinky. We’ve had some divine chevres though and morbiers and a few others. Of course the price is a tenth what it costs in the US for such things. I have bought a couple of pieces that were basically inedible for us. And since they are not pasteurized, we’ve had to learn to buy small bits much more frequently than at home. Of course, there is no cheddar here or Jack or mozzarella. There are literally hundreds of French varieties. I actually had to have Matthew bring macaroni and cheese back from Chicago for Larken. I swear it’s for the kid!

The French also like their dairy. We get yogurt, but it isn’t sweetened or flavored. It’s really, really good though. The dairy section is loaded with something called creamy cheese. Looks like yogurt, but I haven’t stepped up for it yet. There are lots of puddings, but far better are the pots de crème. Yep, pots of cream. Delicious! We eat lots and lots of eggs, so I get those from the Bio Co-op, 3 dozen at a time. I love that the French don’t keep their eggs in the fridge. These often have little bits of chicken nest on them though, so I’ve taken to rinsing the ones that are sporting poop.

The fruit and vegetable aisle, in direct contrast to the variety available in meats, cheeses and breads, tends to carry far less than I’m accustomed to. It’s kind of nice to be eating what is grown here, in this season though. It’s not that you can’t get lemons and limes and bananas, but things like that are not in the same quantities or varieties. There are lots of fresh greens, although I’m going through kale withdrawal, endive, a large, flat leaf green that is quite tasty, but I’ve no clue what it is, spinach, broccoli etc. Lots of leeks, onions, shallots, carrots. These things lend themselves well to sauces and stews as well as really fresh preparations. I made braised endive last night, browned in bacon fat with salt and sugar and served with a wine reduction sauce. It was delicious.

A more satisfying shopping experience is to go into the village. We stop at the boulangerie for our bread and pain au chocolate. Across the street is a tiny boucherie with a tremendous variety of fresh meats and poultry. Up the way a little is a small market with whatever the local famers supply in terms of vegetables and fruits. Given how busy the hypermarches are, I can’t say that most people shop this way around here, but these businesses are flourishing, so obviously some people do.

I did discover one of my limits today though. We bought a gorgeous chicken at the market yesterday. The chicken here has a really yellow, flavorful fat on it and this one was bigger than most of the ones I’ve bought. It was in the butcher case, so we bought it and the butcher wrapped it in paper for us. Matthew took it out to bake it this evening and well, she still had her head, tucked lovingly under her wing. Now, my sister has issues with chicken bones. Bones have never bothered me. Heads bother me.Matthew was working when it was time to remove our girl from the oven. He’d left the head on saying it would be much easier to remove once the bird was cooked. Great, no problem, I’ll remove the head. I pulled her out of the oven, took one look at her little face and made some pasta. I’ve always known that if I had to kill my food, I’d be a vegetarian. Apparently if I have to participate in any form of butchering my food, I might become a vegetarian too. Coward? Yep. Know thyself.

We still have some pretty amazing weather here, so we get out to ride our bikes often. We did a family ride through some fabulous little villages the other day and ended up on a high ridge where we could see for miles in both directions. Just gorgeous! Then we stopped at a boulangerie a few miles from home and shared a glorious pastry. Life is good.

We have started bringing Larken to the Gaurderie in La Fouillade. She doesn’t like to go, but when she gets home, she wants to go back to the Gaurderie. She only stays for an hour or so right now, but hopefully she will be able to handle several hours pretty soon. It will give Matthew and I little more flexibility in our days and she will be much happier to play with children rather than just her parents.

Very recently, Larken has taken to her papa in a whole new way. When he was working last night, she wanted go “visit” him and got terribly upset that he was on a call and couldn’t play. She said I should go to work so papa could play with her. I must say it’s the first time I’ve heard that! It’s sort of a relief since I’ve been the needed parent for so long, but it’s also a bit sad. Tiny kids just don’t have much of a conscience, so when she says she doesn’t want me, I know that deep in her heart, she really doesn’t. She might miss me later, but for the moment, I could fall off the face of the earth and she’d be okay with it. Parenting is such a weird endeavor.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all! We will miss sharing this holiday with you, but remain grateful for all the fabulous people in our lives. Enjoy your holiday bird. We’ll be having cow.

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Posted in France

Bikes, Bones and Les Bonnes Randonees

The weeks are passing at a surprising speed here in La Fouillade. It rained yesterday and Lark and I did our first baking experiment. Not so good. No measuring cups, oddly shaped pans and the metric system conspired to make a very strange cake! Amusing though until Larken got frustrated and started throwing lemon juice and sugar soaked apples all over the kitchen. This is cooking with a toddler! She loves the part where you lick the batter off of various utensils though. For some reason she didn’t want to clean up the floor.

Matthew was in Zurich this week, speaking at a conference on Impact Investing and meeting fabulous, interesting people. I decided not to take Larken as I feel like she is still adjusting to our move to France. So, she and I stayed here. We’ve had some lovely walks, all close to home. Friday, we spend 2 hours walking along our small road, through the farms and fields. We found mint growing wild and picked handfuls, chatted with the pony, of course, who whinnied back this time and met the grandmother who lives with her son Rene, the farmer above us. She was taking her daily promenade with Rene’s wife and had lots to say about our mint and Larken’s cuteness. We discussed the weather in very simple French and then continued on our way. I hope we getto see her often!

One hike I took before Matthew left was particularly unique. We have seen lots of maps of “Les Randonees” around the towns close to us. We live above the River Aveyron and the riverbed, while gentle in places, is the site of a series of gorges that tower over it in some areas. It’s truly stunning with white and grey stone cliffs at times to 300 feet over the river. Some of the bridges are incredibly high and narrow. Others are ancient stone bridges that barely allow a small car to cross just above the water. Clearly the access points for these villages for hundreds of years. Farms and villages perch above the river in forested hills. A feeling of timelessness often pervades these views. Until this one hike that is!

I started almost down at the river on a track that traversed the hillside in a gentle rolling path. Lovely running with views through the trees of villages across the river. It was a bit short though, so I ran back and then climbed up a ladder that gets you 20’ up a section of rock and leads to a trail. It’s quite steep, so I wasn’t really running and the views were just getting better, so I stopped to take it all in quite frequently. Then I saw the vacuum cleaner, leaning against a tree as if waiting to be used, but maybe 10 years ago. I laughed and continued and then saw a bicycle… hung from a tree. And then another and then cow bones strewn down the trail. Then pots and pans and wheels, a phone, more bikes, more bones. All arrayed fairly aesthetically along the trail. Clearly someone’s amusement and certainly mine! I photographed a few of them for you to see. They’ve been there so long that they are entwined with the flora of the hillside.

We went to the townof Monteils to explore another system of trails as well. The trailhead is directly above a convent. Monteils is quite lovely and the convent looks to account for about half of the population. The nuns have extensive gardens for growing food, contemplation and apparently, keeping feral cats. When we arrived, the call to vespers was ringing through the town. Beautiful bells! We brought the chariot (our all terrain buggy for Lark) so I could push her and Matthew could run and see what the trails offered. The beginning was super steep, but then you find yourself on a ridge rolling through old farms and forest. One building along the way had clearly been abandoned for some time. It was built of stacked stone, of course. The structures made this way have remarkable integrity. It’s clear that they will last for centuries. Lark and I crouched inside and pretended to cook dinner on the old hearth. A pretty dark and smoky experience.

The trail was an old cart path with ancient walls along side for much of it. They are slowly dismantling themselves and moss and plants have displaced the stones, but you have a sense of what it might have been like to go to Monteils with your horse and cart to sell your wares or trade for provisions. It’s not easy going, slick with leaves and mud and so steep in areas I worried about losing the buggy on the way down. But so beautiful and peaceful. We came across another farm on the trail where the family had clearly maintained part of the older structure, built a new bit and then simply abandoned another section that was still attached to their house! In the US, we would almost certainly have taken it down or restored it, but leaving it to fall down slowly but surely is not part of the American way.

Matthew has been exploring more and more of the area on his bike. With all the hills, I tend to ride a few loops that I know that don’t take all of my free time. He comes home raving of his new favorite town on some tiny road and I take Lark, the map and my camera and try to find it. It will be great to be back in Boise for mountain biking, but the road riding here is going to be very hard to leave!

We have been experimenting with travel procedures here. The easiest thing is not what one would expect. We figured it out because when we attempted to drop Matthew in Najac for the train to Toulouse for his flight to Zurich, they had simply cancelled the trains… all week! There was a guy at the station who had mastered the gallic head shake to let us know there were no trains, but he offered no alternatives at all. One option here is to have Lark and I spend 4 hours in the car getting Matthew to Toulouse and then coming home. I don’t like that option so much. So, we drove directly south to a larger town called Gaillac. It was perfect! 50 minutes in the car each way and loads of direct trains to Toulouse. Matthew walked onto the train 30 seconds after I dropped him and just made his flight by about the same amount of time in Toulouse. Whew!

The drive to Gaillac took us through a wine region that looks to have some very celebrated wines. Unlike the enormous chateaus that American wine producers tend to build in Sonoma and Napa, the producers here have very humble digs. The vines along the road range from very young and spindly to gnarled, old grandpa vines. We will have to explore this area further when Larken has some alternative playmates to Matthew and me. I’m pretty sure wine tasting is not really up her alley!

The cooler weather is settling in. We often wake up in a cloud. The mist settles in the valleys and sometimes we can drive up and out of it to bluebird skies. More often, we watch it slowly lift to reveal high clouds scudding across the sky with storms on the horizon. Lark has taken to hunting mushrooms on the property as there are about 10 different kinds that are nestled into the grasses and forest. She stuffs them into her tiny pockets and forgets about them, but loves doing it again and again.

We realized yesterday that Little Miss has chicken pox. After getting ourselves to the doctor this week to get her “carte de santé” so she can attend school or the gaurderie, it’s sad that she will have to be quarantined for another week or so. We had a family from New Zealand over for dinner a few days ago though. They have a 3 year old son and he and Lark played hard once they warmed to each other. It was great fun to entertain in our new home. Matthew made delicious curried chicken crepes, Timo, Olivia and JB brought lovely wines and we talked until the children started to fall over. It made us miss all of you, but so niceto meet kindred spirits so far from home.

 

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Posted in France