Friday, April 27, 2012

Bon Weekend

My favorite pink wine is back and perfectly chilled for apero on the terrace. I don't know if it's the wine I love or the little man on the label. Isn't he the cutest?

We call him Jean-Petit because of his resemblance to this adorable French song.
Chin, chin! Can you danse like Petit Jean?

Clementine and I wish you a bon weekend.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Expats--A Novel

My book list varies from books I'd be embarrassed to share, to those I want everyone I know to go out and read right then so we can talk about them.

Sometimes the urgent reads aren't the best ones and I just want to hear if someone else feels the same as I do; The Marriage Plot currently sits at the top of that list.

And then there are the books that scratch an itch, that come just at the right time and that make the life you're living more fun and enjoyable because you can shake your head and go, 'oh, yeah. I get that.'
For me, The Expats--A Novel by Chris Pavone is that kind of book.

{put it in your beach bag}

It's fun and risky and sometimes sexy but the 'oh, yeah' moments come from the insights into expat life. If you've ever lived abroad you'll see yourself and wish you were as exciting and complicated as the heroine.

Every one of you who lives somewhere other than your home country will feel it too.

The freeing feeling of reinvention, the loneliness that no one back home can understand, the foot in two places tugging and the fast friendships and immediate recognition of yes we connect or no, no we don't at all, are all perfectly expressed. I read it on my way to Venice with the Besties last month and kept nodding my head in agreement. I probably looked like a fool sitting in CDG 2F but hey, what do I care? I'm a misfit--alien and removed by degrees at all times.

Chris writes as woman, something that can rankle if done wrong. You can feel it sometimes but his real-life days at the school gates in Luxembourg taught him a lot about how we women sometimes feel being the non-working spouse in a foreign country. There's only so much satisfaction you can derive from coffee mornings and cleaning toilets and he totally gets that.

The plot is quick, jumping back and forth, unfolding the story as you go but never losing you on the trip. It's fun, smart and engrossing. And right up your chemin if you find yourself living a life as an expat.

Put it on your summer beach reading list and then tell me what you thought.

If you read Jeffrey Eugenides' latest, please tell me how it left you feeling. I just have to know.

And if you'd like to see my reading list or offer any suggestions, I'm on GoodReads

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cassis, France Hiking the Calanques

I have never been one to play the lottery. And I've never been very good at making lists of things I'd do or buy if I won. Until yesterday.

We went on a day trip to Cassis, last s happily pronounced.
And the lottery dreams started. I would plunk down my winnings on a white-washed stucco beauty with a length of double storied terraces overlooking that view, a turquoise kidney of a pool and summer kitchen surrounded by palm treed gardens and cool, tiled rooms with billowy, gauzy white curtains.

And when tourists like we five plus dog came I would sit on my terrace above it all and sip pink wine, or the local white that was saved from extinction by grafted Texas vines, and laugh and laugh. And laugh.

In the meantime, I'll only go during the shoulder season when the crowds are very much there but manageable, hike with my family plus dog up the hills to the calanques, and dream of the day when I live on the hill above the fray.

{it's just pretty}
We made the trip in two hours and so were there just in time for the last bits of the Friday market and an easy lunch of sandwiches in a sunny courtyard back in the village. Local shop owners stopped by our chosen restaurant, Bar de la Fontaine, and ordered their lunches of salads, steak haché and frites, and cold, white beers with lemon.

Clementine lay sprawled in the shade under P-Daddy's chair and shared baguette with the Littlest while the big kids ordered their favorite French kid drinks, water with syrup. P-Daddy and I enjoyed the sun and our own white beers with lemon. We just try to blend.

{calanque, calanque, calanque}

After lunch we made our way to the rocky path that winds along the calanques. Calanques, aside from being super fun to say, are steep-walled inlets developed over time through erosion in the limestone cliffs along the Mediterranean between Marseille and Cassis. That's the technical definition. To me, they looked like the coves of Lake Travis I used to hike to and swim in back in the day, except much, much bluer.

{Port Pin peeking out}

You can take a boat tour from Cassis harbor of the calanques but you can also hike to three of them along this steep, slippery rock path and that sounded much more fun and adventurous to us. 
You start at the well-marked Port Miou and can walk along the protected path as far as 15 km to the En Vau calanque if you like. 
{Port Miou, the start of the Calanques walk/hike i'll take one of those yachts too}
We made it as far as Port Pin, or Pine Harbor named for the towering pine trees that surround it. The small beach there with its white sand and pale blue water proved too tempting to the kids and Clementine. 
{Port Pin Calanque}
The wind was blowing and it was quite cold coming off the water but that didn't stop them asking to dip their toes in. 
It started out rather innocently. First with the shoes and socks.

{toes only}

And then the Littlest's shorts. 

{this can not end well}

And then they ventured further. Too far for the unsuspecting, short legs of the Littlest which met the 'drop-off'. He was soaked. Ma Fille escorted him back to us and his little blue sweater and plaid shirt were wringing wet. 

Stripped down and dried with my handy leopard print H&M scarf, I've learned a lot about scarves living here, he was still shivering. 

{unsuspecting leopard scarf in Venice}

We hung his shirt and sweater on a nearby tree to dry and I dug deep to share my bottom layer; a blue tank top.
{freezing in my blue tank top}

After tying the tank  up in the back and sitting in the sun for a minute to warm up he was off again, playing in the grass.

{happy again}

I couldn't help thinking what stunning photographs the likes of Kirsty and Virginia could capture. The light from the water and sky made even my hack-handed photography look sparkly.

The walk back made us all crave some ice cream, which we had at an outdoor cafe overlooking the harbor. The Littlest kept saying how much he wanted to ride in a boat. Begging and pleading and staring longingly at all that blue harbor water dotted with bobbing white boats. I think he might have made another break for it if given the chance.

{hiking and swimming and baguettes, yes!}

Promises were made for a return trip; a boat ride along the calanques, a night at a hotel, picnics and swimming in the dazzling water and more white beer for the grown-ups.

This time we turned around and came back, making it home in time for hot dogs and baths before falling into our beds, tired and happy.
Imagine how nice it will be when I win the lotto and live like a French princess on the side of the limestone cliffs.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some Things

Here are some somethings.

Something I've screwed up:
I was talking to Mme Bon Amie about something I wanted to show her, but instead of saying, 'If you'd like, I can show you' like a normal person, I said, 'If you'd like, I can mount you'. The problem is in the similarity of the verbs, Montrer, to show versus Monter, to mount or go up like stairs. The image of me climbing on top of my friend springs to mind. The upside to this story is that I figured out my mistake as soon as I'd said it. Which I consider progress.

Something I've been eating:
Chickpea, sweet onion and tuna salad with cilantro. 


Something I've finally finished:
We finally got all the kids' paperwork in order, believe me there was a lot of back and forth on this one, and took them in to the Prefecture. We waited three hours and the kids were remarkably patient and now we have their happy, little French kid visas in their blue American passports. Done.
Something I've been doing:
I have a slight jogging addiction. When it's good, it's real good.  And lately, I've been riding (monter) the elusive high. I'm using Nike Plus coach for a Half-Marathon as a running schedule to follow, figuring if I train for 13 miles then my usual 6.2 will be like a walk in the park. Makes sense, huh? I use Nike+GPS to track my runs and it's super fun to see the little path light up when you've finished. If you're on and want to share runs let me know. I'm supposed to run 7 miles today. Are you with me?


Something I've been waiting for:
We have been asked to be on a little show. And we've said yes. But now we're waiting for the permission of our French landlord. That's all I will divulge for now.

Something I've been reading:
I just finished The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy. It was quick and easy; serious history mixed in with first world problems. And there are recipes at the end. Super idea. 


Something I've been drinking:
Pina Coladas made with Malibu rum with P-Daddy on the terrace for apero. It feels a bit warmer than it really is these on these cloudy, sprinkly April days.


What about you? What have you been doing?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Chocolate Cake + Middlest's Birthday

Well, turns out ol' number 89 wasn't our lucky number. We didn't win the chocolate extravaganza from the boulangerie but a nice man did and they took his photo with it and I'm sure he and his family had a wonderful time feasting on chocolate over the long Easter weekend.

{9x13 pan version, iced}

What is lucky, however, is that this past week my Middlest turned eight. And for his trouble I made him our favorite family birthday, rainy day, summer day, welcome home, i love you, chocolate cake. It's known at home as Texas Sheet Cake 'cause it's a big rectangular sheet of chocolatey goodness.

{baking tray version}

My Grandmother used to make it all the time. I remember sitting at the round table in her kitchen as she melted butter and cocoa, stirring with a wooden spoon. I'd get as close as I could when she mixed wet and dry ingredients so I could get a nose full of the heavenly smell--chocolatey butter mixing with the sugar and flour. Every time I make it I stick my nose real close and it takes me back. My kids all love this part too and we breathe in the deliciousness together.

{i wish it was scratch and sniff, you'd be so happy!}

I think she must have known the recipe by heart because it wasn't in her recipe collection that I was given when I got married, nor did anyone else ever remember seeing it written down anywhere. I looked and looked for it until one day P-Daddy's mom made us what she called 'brownies'. It was the cake I'd always had as a kid, the secret ingredient--buttermilk. And a whole lotta sugar. Thanks Belle-Mere.


Since then, I've memorized it like my Grandmother, but I've also written it down on two blue post-it notes. The Homesick Texan cookbook also has the basic Texas Sheet Cake recipe that comes pretty close, only omit the baking soda, cinnamon and pecans and use buttermilk for the icing instead of whole milk.

Every time I make it P-Daddy and the kids say it's the best one yet.
It's all about the love.


Now to the important part, da, da, da, dum! Happy Birthday Middlest!
Here are eight things I love about my first son.

1. Last week after his football match he shared his chocolate gouter with P-Daddy, offering him the first bite.
2. He loves to make people laugh.
3. He has the coolest hair and the raspiest voice.
4. When he gets a lot of presents he takes time going over each of them, playing, learning and figuring them out in turn.
5. He loves pâté, bleu cheese, terrines, calamari, oysters, mussels, you name it and he'll try anything once.
6. The other day he told me, 'There's no other girl like you'.
7. He's a night owl and a late riser, just like his mommy.
8. On his door hangs a homemade sign that says, 'No Aliens or Girls Allowed, except for Mommy and Sara'. Which one are we?!

Texas Sheet Cake


Grease a 9x13 inch pan OR lay parchment paper onto a baking tray, depending on if you want a thicker cake or not. I've made it both ways and the icing makes up for any thinness if you go for the baking tray.

To Make the Cake:

2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup or 2 sticks unsalted butter
4 tablespoons cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 cup water
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla

Sift the flour and sugar together in a mixing bowl.
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add in cocoa powder and water. Stir and bring just to the boil.

Call everyone close for this part.
Pour the buttery chocolate over the sugar and flour. Seriously. You've got to stick your nose in there!

Mix together until blended. Add in the eggs, lightly beaten, plus the buttermilk and vanilla. Mix well.

Pour into either the prepared 9x13 pan or the parchment lined baking tray.

Put in the hot oven for 30 minutes BUT check it at 20 minutes for doneness. If a toothpick in the middle comes out clean, you're done. If not, give it 10 more minutes, checking after 5. You don't want to overcook it.

Remove from the oven and pour on the sugar, I mean icing.

To Make the Icing:

1/2 cup or 1 stick of unsalted butter
4 tablespoons cocoa powder, unsweetened
6 tablespoons buttermilk
1 box or 1 pound/ 16 oz. of powdered sugar

Melt the butter in the same cleaned out heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add in the cocoa powder and the buttermilk. Stir well and bring to a boil.
Remove from heat and add in the powdered sugar.
Stir well and fast until smooth.

Pour this over the still warm cake and get ready to be crowned 'a girl like no other'.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

French Easter at the Pont du Gard

The Pont du Gard hosted a big, outdoor party over the Easter weekend. They called it Garrigues en Fête or Party in the Garrigue, named after the ecosystem found in this part of France. It encompasses the shrubs, flowers and low-lying growth of the Mediterranean region.We have the same ground in Central Texas, I don't know what it's called there but the garrigue sure reminds me of home.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, just warm enough in the sun and not too chilly in the shade, to enjoy a picnic lunch French style and wander around taking in all the spectacles and animations they'd thought up for our enjoyment.

We went with Ms Butt Bumper and her family and the fabulous Kirsty, her Mister and their quartet. That's eight, count 'em, huit kiddos to wrangle. They loved every minute of it and didn't slow down until the end when the toddlers hit the wall, all in turn.

Now back to the picnic basket or panier that we reserved in advance. You know I have to talk at length about the food, right? Just skip ahead if you're not as crazy about feeding yourself as I am.

We ordered these picnic baskets for 15 euro each thinking it would be nice to have something prepared and ready to go for the adults while the kids ate homemade sausage or ham on baguette sandwiches and chips.

I figured it would be good but I had no idea just how good. I will pack a picnic in just this way from now on.

In true French fashion we were handed three tickets to retrieve our basket, grilled sausage of duck or pork, and two glasses of wine. You had to present each booth with the proper ticket in order to get your goods. Even though they were all within spitting distance.We laughed at the love of paperwork as we dutifully took three paces to the left to grab our paper sacs, then another ten paces to the sausage stand and finally the short shuffle to the wine booth.

Inside the paper picnic sac was a variation of the following:
one crusty outside, chewy inside baguette roll
one glass pot of confit d'oignons
one glass jar of terrine, mine was duck
one small container of chèvre with a sprig of fragrant, blooming thyme
one medium container of fresh salad, mine was chickpea, onion and olive oil
one dessert, mine was nougat
and a set of wooden flatware with a napkin.
Plus the sausage from the grill and two, happy little glasses of pink wine.

We ate at two big picnic tables pushed together, listening to some bizarre form of line dancing music with a wailing singer who kept getting a little too close for comfort, while the kids drew ever bigger circles around the perimeter, bravely venturing further into the scrub oaks and olive trees.

After lunch we decided to have a look around at some of the shows or spectacles that were on the agenda, one of which was the most bizarrely cool thing I've ever seen. 

{Alpine Beasts Carousel}
It was a carousel made of petrified and twisted wood, propelled by a see-saw and accompanied by a temporarily (I imagine) mute man in a long, dusty looking gray cloak.

{Riders on the Storm}

He silently beckoned to the children to take his hand, placing them into the seats of his capricious wooden animals, motioned to two adults to take the see-saw seats, and then took his at the piano.
And began to play Riders on the Storm.

{my guys on the carousel}

Ma Fille and the Littlest shared a seat on a bounding wolf while the Middlest was placed on the back of an eagle.

{the see-saw engine}

We went back later and Ms Butt Bumper and I rode the see saw, pushing off the ground to the delight of the children, encouraging shouts of 'plus vite' helping us make the carousel spin faster and faster.

{hunky and rugged French man}
We also took a ride down the trails of the garrigue along the ruins of the Pont du Gard in a horse-drawn trailer. The ruggedly handsome French man who drove us around told us about the area and pointed out a huge rock formation attached to the side of the aqueduct.

{big hunk of calcified limestone}

He said it was formed from hundreds of years of limestone calcification where a farmer cheated his way to water his crops by boring a hole into the Roman aqueduct. He told us that some farmers were lucky and never got caught. Those who did, weren't and were sent to the arena in Nîmes. Tough punishment.

{stroller babies. BIG ones.}

And then there was this--the stroller babies. I laughed harder than I've laughed in ages, especially because P-Daddy couldn't stop laughing either. The 'baby' made faces and clicking noises and P-Daddy played right along, mimicking everything until the 'baby' started bobbing and shaking in her poussette and charged; tiny baby finger in her grown-up nose.
I don't have to tell you how weird and hilarious this was, do I? I'm laughing just remembering it.

{well, hello there. I'm going to climb on you now.}
There was also this duo of 'muscle men' who acted camp; telling jokes, spraying chewed cupcake and water from their mouths, and pretending to be annoyed with each other.

{I could definitely do this part}
The big guy lifted the little guy in between fake punches and slapstick humor.

{maybe I could do this. to the Littlest.}

{on the way up}

{there's no way I could do that}
And we all looked on in amazement. Ooooo, la, la and wow! Incroyable!

{that's the little guy in the air again}
He did this lift from lying down on his side, little guy held aloft this way the entire time.

{Littlest, P-Daddy, Butt Bumpers and Middlest}

The boys liked it. And proceeded to try it out for themselves afterwards.

{P-Daddy and Ma Fille taking a break}

Oh, yeah. We saw the Pont du Gard too. It's just there in the background, peacefully taking it all in over thousands of years of parties, bizarre carousels, accordion music and hollering toddlers with sticky hands.

Friday, April 6, 2012

French Easter Traditions--The Tombola de Pâques

My local bakery is featuring quite often on this blog, isn't it? This time it isn't about me or what I've eaten, been told, or bought. This time it's about the Tombola de Pâques.

Every Easter the owner/pâtissier/boulanger extraordinaire designs and makes a towering creation of chocolate. It is quite impressive atop the glass patissierie case.

{The Big Prize}

No child can enter without gasping, in awe of what must look to them like the happiest, most indulgent treat ever. Perhaps it's exactly what children would wish for if they could win the lottery, if they even knew what a lottery was.

And thanks to the Tombola, they do. Because the Easter Tombola is just that; a lottery. You buy a square, put your name in it and hope, hope, wish, wish that you'll win the giant chocolate chicken and egg masterpiece. It's all edible, even the boxes.

{little nests}
Of course we bought a square, number 89 to be exact. But what in the world will I do if we win it? It is a lot of chocolate people, 500 kilograms to be exact. I'd  have to have you all over.

I gathered up my courage this year and asked permission to take some photos for you. I was rewarded not only with photos but also with a trip upstairs to the work areas.

{funny bunnies}
I saw where they make the baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat every day. I watched as the owner and one of his employees made sheets of France's answer to tiramisu, the Opera.

{upstairs making cakes}
It was so exciting! I felt like I'd already won the tombola. Msr Boulanger told me to bring the children in after the Easter rush and he will show them around upstairs too. He also said I can come in next year and watch as he makes the chocolate bunnies, bells, elephants and roosters as well as the coming year's tombola tower.

{Msr et Mme Boulanger}
He was so nice, forgiving my horrible French and explaining how the bakery works, showing me everything, even giving me a small cuilliere of chocolate ganache that went into making the Opera.

I am always pleasantly surprised and delighted by how kind people can be. I was shy and afraid of making mistakes, sure I would look like an idiot for asking, but I'm so glad I did. You learn something every day. So what if I look like an idiot, now there's a story behind my baguettes, lemon tarts and croissant aux amandes.

Happy Easter everyone. I'll let you know if we win the chocolate.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ma Fille's French Poesie

Learning and reciting poetry is a big part of the French primary school curriculum at our school. I'm sure it's the same all over.

It teaches children how to plan and study, to memorize and retain information, to read poetry and appreciate the different story-telling that can be done through poems, and it bolsters confidence in public speaking. All that plus, I just like hearing my children recite French poems.

Some of the poems are political, some are enchanting, most deal with death or other heavy subjects made lighter, shown in a simple way.

Last week Ma Fille learned this poem about waiting. When she recited it to us at dinner it made me cry. I couldn't stop myself and when I think of it still, it makes me feel weepy. You all know I am weird like that and strange things like riding a bike along the Canal du Midi can bring a tear to my eye.
{mother and child, both waiting}

The last lines are what got me:
'I'm waiting for a child, says the mother.
I'm waiting for everything, says the child.'

Here she is reciting the original.


J'attends la pluie 
Dit le désert,  
J'attends la paix 
Dit le soldat 
J'attends demain  
Dit aujourd'hui 
J'attends la nuit 
Dit la luciole 
Moi aussi dit l'astronome  
Moi aussi dit l'étoile  
J'attends le vent  
Dit la fleur de pissenlit 
Moi aussi dit l'oiseau 
J'attends mon heure 
Dit le prisonnier 
Moi dit la liberté  
J'attends la paix  
Dit le soldat  
Tu l'as déjà dit 
Je sais dit le soldat 
J'attends un enfant 
Dit la mère 
J'attends tout  
Dit l'enfant

Hubert Mingarell

Next, the children had to write their own version of the poem.

This is Ma Fille's:


J’attends la justice
Dit la guerre
J’attends le soir
Dit le matin
J’attends la réponse
Dit la question
J’attends cent
Dit quatre vingt dix neuf
Moi aussi dit quatre vingt dix huit
Moi aussi dit quatre vingt dix sept  
J’attends le vent
Dit l’arbre
Moi aussi dit la feuille
J’attends mon prince
Dit la princesse
Moi aussi dit la reine
J’attends la justice
Dit la guerre
Tu l’as déjà dit
Je sais dit la guerre
J’attends une cavalière
Dit le cheval
J’attends tout
Dit la cavalière 

Ma Fille 

Monday, April 2, 2012

April Fool's Day Lunch in Provence

Yesterday, the lovely and clever Kirsty made what seemed like a scheduling impossibility, possible.
She invited my little brood plus ma belle Sara and The Husband over for Sunday lunch at hers with her delightful Mister and adorable, dimpled quartet.

Turns out it was April Fool's Day, or as it's known here in France, Poisson d'Avril.
We Anglophones like to play various tricks and jokes on this day and I started the day off by making the kids believe that for one day birds fly backwards, fish swim upside down and flower blooms swap colors. They believed it for about a minute until Ma Fille, bright bulb that she is, twigged it.

The French have a different tradition. The children make fish and then stick them on the backs of unsuspecting (ahem) friends and adults. I told you all about it last year, you can read that here.

This year we went to Kirsty's and my kids got busy making fish in the car, ready to tape to backs once we arrived. They wrote funny sayings like, 'I am bizarre', 'I like nail polish', 'I am a weirdo' and 'I like to run with scissors'.

We went to the boulangerie to find something delicious to take with us and there were fish everywhere. Strawberry tart fish, apple tart fish, hollow chocolate fish in two sizes and puff pastry fish filled with the renowned frangipane of the famous croissant aux amandes. We bought one of those and were on our way. Kirsty wrote about it too.

{kirsty's photo of the frangipane poisson}

We spent a perfect, but fast-flying, six hours together, eating, laughing, joking and enjoying the warm day on Kirsty's beautiful terrace while the kids ran and jumped and played until the Littlest was literally falling down tired. It looked like he'd had as much pink wine as his P-Daddy.

Thank you Kirsty, Mister and La Quartet for the perfect Sunday.
And you too Sara and G-Ton for being so much like family that people think we've known each other for years. 

I don't know what I'd do without all the love that's bloomed from this little blog. No foolin'.