Thursday, September 30, 2010

Teresa's Texas Bounty

I usually don't post twice in one day but in this instance I have no choice.
I just received the nicest pick-me-up you can imagine from the mailman in the yellow van. He rang my bell and gave me a box full of Texas goodies from a wonderful Texas friend.
Thank you Teresa for the sweet, delicious, exciting, generous care package! Now that's Texas friendly..and just when I needed it.
I'm off to gorge myself on Cap'N Crunch before the kids get home.

Blues Got Ya Down?

As I drove home from the school run just now, spent from battling with the Middlest over the fit of his blue jeans, I knew I needed to do something to lift me from the indigo slump I was in. So I need a little pick-me-up today. Maybe you need one too.
What to do then but make a list of things that make me happy....
1) "Lunch was soooo good today. It was like a big chicken nugget filled with ham and cheese!", the Middlest. (that's cordon bleu to you and me)
2) Ma Fille made chocolate truffles and we ate them all.
3) I made a salmon and potato tart for lunch yesterday and Ma Fille said I could sell them and become super rich because it was so good.
4) I watched the Middlest practice football yesterday. He looked really happy and runs really fast.
5) I have a vase of olive branches with small green olives as a centerpiece on my dining room table; cut right off a tree in my back garden.
6) The Baby says, 'Thank you Mama".
7) And finally. Mon mari is coming back tonight from two weeks of business trips.
8) One  more....I live in the South of France. Suck it up lady and stop your moping.

Think of yours and help make  my day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Back before we had kids I worked as a teacher among other things. But when I was pregnant with Ma Fille I was in teacher mode and I taught elementary school. I loved it and felt like I'd finally found my niche.

I'm telling you this because I keep thinking about how life works in such weird ways.You know we've always had a thing for France. Always wanted to live here, blah, blah, blah. But did you know that while I was teaching, little girl cooking away on the inside, I had a student from France? She was the same age as Ma Fille is now and she was thrown into English public school without a word of our language. Interesting reversaroo, huh?

When I was Marie's teacher I was sympathetic to all the changes she was facing. I was extra sweet to her, spent time talking with her mom about how she was doing and stayed after school three days a week to help her along with English. I remember we would just talk about different things, nothing special really. Just time spent one-on-one speaking and practicing her second language. I had no idea that some day my baby girl (plus two brothers) would be going through the same things. And we've been blessed with a wonderful school and kind, patient teachers who are doing the same things I did back then.

As I watch them skip off to French school, happy as can be, holding hands and chattering away in crazy Franglish with their friends I think of Marie and her family. What a crazy life this is that I'd be here in France standing by in awe as my kids become bilingual.

After Ma Fille was born I didn't go back to teaching. I don't know what ever happened to Marie's family; if they're back here in France or still living happily in Texas. I do know that life is crazy and that there are myriad connections we just can't see, guiding and shaping, waiting for us to trust, dive in, let go.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Making Boeuf Bourguignon

Just a quickie for your Sunday.
Yesterday I decided to try a very French and very celebrated recipe: Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon. The weather is changing and it makes me think of beef stew, red wine and of course bread and more bread.

In France they live and eat by the seasons and you can see it in the markets and grocery stores, even the super-big HYPER-big ones. You won't find French apples in summer and the melons, nectarines and peaches are slowly disappearing as we enter autumn. If summer is all about grilled sausages then fall and winter beg you to make warm, all day, fill the house with wonderful smells stews.

Now that you can find meat for boeuf bourguignon, it is marked on the packaging that you are to use it for this purpose, I couldn't resist trying it.
And because I owed my amie Canadienne beaucoup for her bail-out last week, I made enough for her too.

I decided that while cooking I needed a bit of bubbly to channel my inner Frenchie (I don't know if they drink bubbly while cooking but I like it) and so I enjoyed pink nose tickling deliciousness while I worked.

If you've ever made the iconic recipe you know that it takes a while. But that's part of it....what makes it so fun to do. You boil the bacon first to get rid of the too strong bacony taste, then cook it and leave it aside while you trim and cut your beef, pat it dry with paper towels and then brown it in batches in the leftover bacon grease and olive oil.
Sip, sip, tickle, tickle.

Then you put the bacon and browned meat all together with already sauteed onion and carrot and do your seasoning bit, add some flour and put it in the oven on really hot for 4 minutes. Take it out and stir, hot, hot and put it back for another 4 minutes to get the meat all crusty with the flour. Sip.

Next comes the bourguignon, or red wine from Burgundy, nearly a bottle glugged in with some hot beef stock, a bay leaf, some garlic and thyme. Sip.You cook all this loveliness for ages until the meat is fork tender and your house smells like your most elaborate French food fairytale--rich, warm, heady with flavor and the anticipation of dipping your crusty baguette into the luscious brown sauce.

My favorite part was browning the champignons de paris while the meat cooked. They did just what the recipe said they would do, initially absorbing all the butter and olive oil then releasing them back into the pan and turning a perfect golden brown; silky and crisp at the same time.
You lay these beauties gently atop the bed of cooked meat and vegetables while you simmer the strained sauce until it turns into spoon-coating velvet.
And then you get to eat it and savor your day's work, sharing it with friends and family, making everyone feel warm and satisfied from the inside out.To my mind, there's no better way to spend a Saturday.
Bon apetit!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Class Reunion or Je Me Suis Trompe, Toujours

I'm always messing things up. I get dates switched, times wrong, misunderstand some vital piece of information. I suppose/hope it's only the language that's got me all mixed up and not some form of dementia. It could be a combination of the language, three kids, and a calendar that starts with Monday rather than Sunday.

My latest snafu was this week when I thought the Middlest's class reunion was on Tuesday when it was actually on Monday. My lovely and very important husband is away all week so I had to be organized. I arranged for a friend to watch the kids on Tuesday night, planned the dinner I'd prepare for all of them while I was at the meeting and patted  myself on the back for being so efficient.

The trouble started when on Monday at pick-up as I exchanged trois bisous with Msr Bon Ami he asked me if I was coming to the meeting. 'Oui, bien sur, demain.', I replied, full of confidence and efficiency. 'But the meeting is tonight', il m'a dit. What?! Tonight?! Oh, crap. I've gotten it all wrong again.
To make matters worse the meeting was at 6pm. I discovered my inefficiency at 5:15, had three children to contend with and the arrangements I'd made for Tuesday didn't help me at all on Monday night. Msr. Bon Ami said he would take them for me but he had a doctor's appointment for his daughter and dancing lessons for his son. No can do.

Now this is one of the things about being far from home that really is the worst. When your husband is in the Netherlands or Germany or somewhere not where you are when all your well-laid plans go bust you feel quite frantic and alone. For some reason I never considered not going to the meeting. Not really for some reason, but for a couple of reasons.....1) this is their first full year in French school and I need to look like I'm on top of things 2) I love the teacher and want to show her how much I appreciate her efforts and 3) I get the feeling they take these meetings very seriously.
And thanks to my wonderful amie Canadienne I went. I owe her big time.

On to the very serious meeting. Of course it was all in French....I keep saying this and I know you know it but it really is true...they speak a lot of French here.
We started with general information like the date of the fete and spectacle (in June) and reminders of the drop-off and pick-up times, lunch times, and basic housekeeping stuff. Then we moved on to the meat of the matter.
First, to reading. Which is obviously important. I have a deeper furrow in my brow from all my brain grabbing words like consonne, voyelle, and syllabe as they flew through the air. It almost started to sound like English after an hour or so. And I felt this weird feeling I get here sometimes when I realize the problem isn't the words themselves but putting them in the right order. It's like it all makes sense when I hear it but I could never repeat it or say it myself.

After reading we moved on to handwriting. You should know that they start writing in cursive here very early. The Middlest is in CP which is roughly equivalent to 1st Grade.The kids call it 'special French cursive' because it looks a bit different than our American script. And special it is.
I don't know if you remember learning handwriting in school but it wasn't that big of a deal, was it? We practiced a letter every morning in our cursive handwriting book and then moved on. Mme. Gentil had drawn lines of different colors (violet and bleu) and widths just like in the copy books on the board for the specific purpose of showing we parents how it should be done. She then gave us examples of where the letter should begin: at the wide purple line, and how far up different letters should go: for the round letters, only up to the first blue line, for letters like 'l' all the way up to the bottom of the third blue line and for some reason the 't' only gets to reach as far as the second blue line. I'm not kidding. 
This was when people started getting excited. One mother raised her hand and asked a question about something very important that I couldn't understand but the answer required a lot more writing of letters like 'p' and 'n'. Then a conversation broke out about how to hold a pen and how not to start off with bad habits that would last a lifetime and oh, no what to do about those 'gauchers'. Did you know that the 'cross' on the letter 't' is called a 'casquette'? Which, incidentally is the same word for cap. Cute. But did you also know that under no circumstances should the casquette go through the 't', only start at the right side of it and flow out? I didn't. But now I do.

And in closing on the subject of handwriting, we were told the following, "It is important to learn properly and only then can they begin to develop a writing personality, a 'facon d'ecrire'. What is your writing personality?

Turns out that all my kids got the stomach bug Monday night, missed school on Tuesday and most likely left a disgusting calling card for my lovely amie Canadienne and her trois petites. Now I super rock n' roll owe her big time. I don't think a handwritten note will do it no matter how much personality I put into it. I think this calls for bubbly wine. And lots of it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What a Nemrod

To paraphrase one of George Costanza's misguided and painstakingly thought out comebacks, "The nemrod store called and they're runnin' outta YOU!"

Embellish as you like. I couldn't resist taking this photo in Apt over the summer.
Bon apres-midi!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Picard--And I Don't Mean Jean-Luc

Have you ever heard of Iceland? Not the country, the frozen food store. They are all over the UK and Northern Ireland and sell their frozen burgers, chicken goujons (not French by the way, nuggets to we Americans), pizzas and I assume veggies too.
I've never been in one but they are famous for LOW, LOW, LOW prices and their spokeswoman Kerry someone who is famous for being famous in the UK talks about how she's an 'Iceland Mum'. Like it's a good thing.
It seems like the kind of place that keeps Jamie Oliver up nights.

This is what we've been conditioned to think of frozen food, especially entire shops devoted to it.

You can understand then, why it came as such a surprise to find that the French, world-renowned foodie snobs, have their own version of Iceland. The thing is that it's only like Iceland in that everything is frozen.
It's called Picard and I have come to believe it's the dirty little secret of French home cooking.

For one thing, Picard is closed for lunch--for two hours. Very French.
For another, it's very understated, only recognizable by its blue and white snowflake and simple all lowercase 'picard'.
They have lovely little magazines with recettes gourmandes for making fabulously famous French things at home with less of the fabulously famous French fuss.

They have 'aides culinaires' or frozen packets of buerre blanc, sauce bearnaise, sauce au poivre, and veal broth. Chopped garlic, ginger, chives and herbes de poisson for when you need just the right freshly frozen seasoning for fish.

It is a frozen food wonderland and I love it. Their desserts are gorgeous and you can buy whole lobsters and real shells filled with scallops and mussels in a gratin sauce.
I just got back from there today because I like to go going drawn there. The staff are always friendly, there are monthly specials--today I bought these cute little cheese puff pastries for nibbles--and it is all very neat, orderly and cold.

There are always very glamorously put together older ladies buying pretty little glasses filled with appetizers and frozen grilled aubergines to make a fabulous ratatouille for their extended family from Paris who are coming down at the weekend to visit the country chateau.....because that's what I've envisioned them doing with all those frozen eggplants and tiny, shot glasses of avocado puree.

Kerry what's-it can't come close to these scarved fragrant ladies.
And I'm learning. I served Michele cold avocado-cucumber soup from perfectly adorable glasses when she came to lunch this summer.
And when she complimented me on how lovely it was I just smiled and said, 'Merci!'

Littlest Update--Has the Bull Been Tamed?

I've been remiss. I haven't updated the Littlest's progress at creche and people have been asking how it's going for him. First of all, you know how he took the creche by storm in the beginning. Well. It was an entirely different story when left alone. He wasn't as cocky flying solo. There were tears upon tears, from both of us although I hid mine valiantly, pin pricks behind my eyes as I jogged away my inquiet.

One of the problems was that he was in the petite section with children just under and just turned two. That helps explain the difference in levels of robust a bit more. So we've moved him up to the moyene section where he can stomp around headfirst with kids more his size. He is a big 2.

All in all, we'll be fine. I'm not going to back out and keep him here with me, although the thought did cross my mind. Next week begins his regular schedule--unleashed on the world at last. I have a lot of jogging to do.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Miss Emerald Isle

Today is cleaning day. And to make it more fun for myself I like to turn on the music and dance like Hank Azaria in The Birdcage. Today as I swept and the Baby followed me around with the dustpan, the Chieftains began to play. And their resonant fiddles and Gaelic rhythm pulled me in, transported me to another place, blew sound through the tiny hollow left from leaving Ireland.

I did not expect to miss the small, green island so much. To be honest, I couldn't wait to leave the constant chill and grey skies. I longed for sun and warmth and now I've found them. I just didn't know how warm all my Irish friends made me....all the tea, laughter, talking, talking, talking.
Being taken back this morning made me remember what unique joy there is in rushing into a warm, dark, pub from the frigid cold of outside; shedding coats and scarves, warm greetings beckoning, cheeks flushed from the wind, sitting down to a pint of Guinness.

I love it here in France, no question, and there are things here that are just as lovely in their own way. We all know them and you've heard countless people rhapsodize about them. And this is because they're true.

But what is also true is the love of good friends, the common misery of braving cold, slicing rain, the richness and sadness of the music when it's sung and played genuinely in a small pub, and laughter that fills your eyes.

I'm homesick for you Ireland. Homesick. It's true.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Word about Wine.....

Well, maybe a few.

In September all the grocery stores have what's called a foire aux vins...or a festival of wine. In a nutshell what happens is that they stock up big time on wines from all over France and expect you to do the same by providing beaucoup incentives, prix choc!, and unavoidably inticing advertisements pushed through your post box. Beckoning. Buy more wine.

As we've heard from a couple of friends the thing to do is go to the grocery store with your advert flyer or 'PUB' in hand or with your favorite oenophile and stock up. They've made it easy really, categorizing wines by region and AOC of course but also by letting you know what's good now (tiny wine glass), what might be okay now but better later (tiny wine bottle upright), and what you must not drink now under any circumstances or you will self-combust or at the very least go down in the hall of French shame (tiny wine bottle on its side, resting). Rather you must put it in a cave for a range of years, some extending from 8-10, and drink it later, later, later. Patience, please.

What does all of this mean to me? It means that my beloved husband who is learning about the various gradations, regions, tannin levels, etc as quickly as he can drink the wine has gotten the bug. He now wants to buy cases upon cases of wine, an electric cave (read: fancy refrigerator) and store them for years to come....for that day 5 or 8 years from now when we can break out the big wine guns and toast our cleverness. This is all fine and good--it will be nice to have a few special bottles to remember our first years in France. 
I'm all for having nice wine always at the ready--five years from now!

But really I'm more interested in buying a few cases of 6 bottles to get us through the winter. We can chose the wines with the little wine glass symbol which means 'it's ok to drink this now' and store it happily at 17 degrees Celsius in our garage.

I'm sure we will come to sort of agreement and buy some for now, some for later. We're sensible people after all. 
If you have any tips for me I'd love to hear them. Or a bottle of 2002 Bourgogne that's finally ready to drink?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bull in a China Shop or How my American Kid Stands Out in a Crowd

The Baby is starting mother's day out. Except in France it's called creche or garderie and is affiliated with the ville we live in. It is essentially free and if you live in the town the have to let your baby attend. Now when I say 'baby'  you know I mean my 2 year-old. He's been with me non-stop until now but he's the third child and therefore very 'thirdish'--independent, physical, dare I say it?, spoiled.

As is the way of living a life abroad, especially in another language that you have only a finger-hold grasp on, all of these daily things take on a different hue. I just put myself out there, find the information and act on it; swallowing my fear, insecurities and confusion. So, I do what I'm told and try to roll with it. Yesterday was his first day and I was to come with him, stay for an hour for 'adaptation' and then we would both leave. We weren't the only mother and child team being groomed for creche yesterday but we were the only American duo.

Off to a great start, he played with the cars, climbed on the jungle gym and loved on a baby doll. Well-rounded. Then it was singing time and he was supposed to sit in a tiny chair arranged in a circle and calmly listen to French songs, dutifully placid and properly tranquil. The one moment of energy and chaos akin to what most KinderMusic groups I've been in was when three of the children spontaneously stood up and began dancing. 'Ah, danse, danse!', clapped the teachers. And it has to be said, they looked uncomfortable about it.
This is where it went wrong. Where my little American baby shone. Where the other mothers and teachers tut-tutted, smiled tentatively, shared dismayed glances, 'Why won't this child sit quietly like the others?'. And this is where I worried that they might not have to let us in after all. Maybe there's some French loophole that says if the child won't calmly listen to les chansons then he's out of there.
Intensely Calm

The interesting thing, on a sociological level, is that my child, while being legally an American, has never lived in the US. He's only ever spent 2 weeks there. He's lived all his life abroad. Yet, he is different. He is American. Because we are.

Thankfully we were invited back. We went this morning and he was the same during song time, only today he was more vocal, 'NOOOO!!!', when I tried (cringe) to make him sit still and listen. I hopelessly tried to channel a message to him, 'play the game man, be cool and act's only for a few minutes!'

Tomorrow I'm supposed to bring him back for half an hour. On his own. What will he do? I feel sick just thinking about him let loose on all those docile, petite, French kids. Dial down the American would you, please, please for the love.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A greivance with la grève

La rentree, or 'back to school' came and went last Thursday. Without a hitch. The big kids happily, if only a bit nervously, got right back into the groove of French school. It will come as no surprise that Ma Fille has eaten lunch a la cantine every day since starting. And they both wave goodbye at the white gate and bound away to start a new day, French style.
We've been building up to la rentree for weeks now. There've been signs all over the shops competing for euros with promises of being pas trop cher. And we've received at least three very formally polite letters from the mairie (mayor's office) reminding us how important it is that our children attend school for the first four days--Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday. This is because they're being counted for the fiscal year and how much money flows into the school depends on this count. Same as at home as you know.
I must stress this point to you because a) it was stressed to me by the mairie and b) it makes what's happening on Tuesday very funny.
Ok, I'll get on with it. After all this build up for head count on these critical four days it was announced, very quietly in a note from school, that there will be a teachers' strike on Tuesday. That's right. No school for on the fourth day of the new year.
I don't really know how to feel about this. One one hand it humors me. On the other, I was very happy to have some time back and really wanted to go shopping tomorrow.
And you know there's no school ever on Wednesday so they essentially have a weekend in the middle of the week.
What can you do? When in Rome.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

La Belle Vie...or why the French really aren't rude

The French have a reputation. You know it. I know it. They know it. Sometimes it's annoying, like when they think they invented brownies and berry cobbler just because they've started making chocolate cakes and crumbles. But what their reputation is really about in my opinion is pride; in culture, art, language, food and wine. And if you think about it, they've got a lot to be proud of.  Of course their medical exams are weird and I've yet to visit the rumored horror that is the Prefecture, but nobody's perfect. They know how to live and I'm fully on the lifestyle bandwagon.

I like the fact that most stores close for lunch and on Sundays. It took some getting used to but now I plan accordingly. At least they're thoughtful enough to post the names, addresses and times of the stores and pharmacies that are open on Sunday mornings in the weekly paper just in case you forgot some vital something, like wine which you can buy at 8:30 on a Sunday morning if you like. I have to admit that my Southern dry/wet county upbringing makes me feel a bit naughty buying it then The Sheriff or Miss Tammy Lee from the Evangelical Church are going to pop out and surprise me with an admonishment,"Girl, you may jus' be on th' road ta hell fer buyin' wiiine on a Sund'y!"

It is kind of annoying that my boulangerie closes all day on Thursdays but only because I always forget and want a delicious croissant aux amandes or a banette and feel deflated when I see the shuttered doors.
I'm happy that consumerism hasn't taken the country completely over. There are big box shops here that sell tat made in third world countries for pennies but even those close for lunch. You have to draw the line somewhere, right? And there are extravagances--parfum, lingerie, expensive and rare wines. But these are seen to improve the quality of life, not just to fill it up. The add beauty, art, and joy to life.

Their language may be one of my favorite things. It is well-known that they prefer it if you try to speak French when you're here. Americans like it when tourists and immigrants speak English too. But what I didn't understand until moving here is how much they love their language. And why. They do have a lovely turn of phrase and can make the most mundane things seem beautiful. There are many different ways to get a point across and they like subtlety, word play, and is a French word after all. This is one of the reasons French is hard to learn. For example, what do we call a tablecloth that runs the length of a table? A runner. That is what it does--runs across the table and that's kind of cute and descriptive I guess.  But the French call it (channel your inner Depardieu or Pepe Le Pew here) a 'chemin de table'. A little lane down the table. Nice, huh?

And when you taste wine, first you smell, then you swirl and the wine slowly spreads down the insides of the glass. This tells you if the wine is high or low in alcohol depending on how much and how slowly it spreads. Interesting enough on its own if you ask me. But they have a word for this coating of wine inside the glass that makes it even more lovely, 'une belle robe' or beautiful dress. If the wine is good it will wear a beautiful dress. Or then again, maybe you can't always be fooled by a beautiful dress. Works both ways I'll bet.

And as much as I was offended by Msr Fromage last May I have a better understanding of him now. He wasn't able to express himself as poetically in English as in French and that makes the point. Words are tools for creating masterpieces; beautiful, descriptive sentences. As Michele says of  her village, "C'est comme un poeme." This summer at the market a kind monsieur told Paul and me that 'our eyes together make the sea--vos yeux, ensemble, les couleurs de la mer' as a way of describing the color of the kids' eyes. Poetry.

Rude, proud, haughty--call it what you will. Aren't we all just as proud of our country and culture as the French? I'm glad I'm learning why and so far, on a good day, it feels like they have good reason.