Thursday, October 5, 2017

Date night

When we lived in the U.S., Josh and I didn't go out on dates very often. We were lucky to have Nana as a regular babysitter, but usually during the day while Josh was at work. Our neighborhood babysitter Morgan was great, as were a couple of others we found through friends, but our routine didn't include regular nights out until maybe six months before we left South Carolina for France. But in our "cultural training" class at Michelin - and can we talk about how useless a generic 'cultural training' class is, when you haven't bothered to train the expats first about the day to day realities of living in the specific country you're sending them? Ugh - we learned that previously expatriated kids almost all report that the move is hardest on their mom. And we knew from living in Japan for a year how hard expatriating is on a marriage, so we decided early on to prioritize time together as a couple.

And then we failed miserably, of course. The daily realities of moving into an apartment, helping the kids adjust, and just managing the thousands of little issues that crop up after a transition like this meant that we kept putting off finding a babysitter and going out together. Josh's accident limited his mobility, and by September, two to three months into our expatriation, we'd gone out to dinner together without the kids exactly twice. 

Last weekend we made good on our promise to change that. After six weeks of near-constant togetherness thanks to Josh's working from home, we had avoided having the real, personal conversations we needed to have in order to process everything that's happened. So we found another new babysitter, the son of Josh's colleague (and our first male babysitter - yay!), and headed to a new restaurant.

Le Bistrot d'à Côté is a new place in Clermont, having taken over the space vacated by Emily's Diner, a cartoonish impression of an American burger joint that really didn't fit into the culture of the city center. The new place is a cocktail bar whose cuisine verges on fine dining, but at really reasonable prices - 28 Euros per person gets you a gorgeous appetizer, main dish, and dessert, plus a lovely amuse bouche. We ordered a bottle of wine and settled in. 

The amuse bouche was a tough one to photograph, but it tasted amazing: an under salted (in a good way) cauliflower soup with cardamom and tarragon. Rich, creamy, and so full of cauliflower flavor - it really hit the spot.

No one looks dignified drinking from a tiny
straw. He's a good sport!

Might've taken a better picture if I hadn't drunk up half of it first.
Next up were our appetizers. I deeply regret not taking a picture of the menu, because it's hard to describe these exactly given how intricate they both were. But Josh's was a calamari dish with a squid ink sauce and some lovely, foamy cream surrounding. Fish usually isn't his favorite, but this was so delicate and tasty that we both adored it. Mine, on the right below, was a room-temperature barely-cooked egg in another foamy cream sauce, with little hazelnut pieces in it, bacon-like crumbles on top, and brioche with bleu d'Auvergne cheese baked right in. I'm going to run out of superlatives to describe this food.

Over the course of this incredible meal, we had a really overdue talk about the past few months, our schedules, and a few things that need to change in order for us to be happier here. Those kind of talks just don't seem possible in the apartment, after a long day followed by cooking dinner, putting the kids to bed, cleaning the kitchen, and staring down every chore that still needs doing. Granted, a restaurant like this one is still a damned fancy backdrop for an ordinary marital rundown, but hey: gotta make the most of this opportunity while we have it! I'm sure a meal like this would cost three or four times as much in the States, if we could even find one.

Allons-y! To the main course!

 Roasted leg of duckling, stuffed with ground duck and liver, surrounded by these incredible roasted root vegetables and a couple trickles of bright, herbaceous sauces. One or two of the roots I couldn't even identify, but I loved them all! Duck is very popular here, and I can see why. I always want more.
 Josh ordered the steak, true to form, and that roasted onion on top was jammy and flavorful and amazing. And those fries? Those aren't fries. They're potato churros, the kind of side dish that doesn't need salt or a sauce or anything at all. They were perfect.

Dessert was, unsurprisingly, delicious. We wound up switching plates - I absolutely loved the apple cookie bowl with yet another creamy sauce dotted with hazelnuts, which Josh had ordered. And he devoured my chocolate cream puff with smoked vanilla cream inside and vanilla ice cream. The cream puff itself wasn't sweet at all, just toasty and warm and intricate. If you can imagine a s'more without the sugar or stickiness, punctuated by little tastes of sweet ice cream, you'll see why we're hoping to come back to this place soon.

 Oh, and the decor was "American."
Just a quick mention of the wine: a 2014 Côtes-du-Roussillon recommended by our waiter for 30 Euros. It's about 13€ in the store, which again is more than we used to spend. But it was so flavorful and delicious and perfectly accompanied all of our dishes. When in France, drink the good wine. Oh, and the lovely, naturally carbonated Chateldon mineral water, which is collected and bottled near here. We are so classy now.

So there you have it: date night downtown! The only thing that's missing from our life here is visits from friends and family to share it with. And those are coming soon!

Kindness, everyday

I really want to tell y'all about our little date night at a new bistro in Clermont - a bistro that took over the former home of a burger joint called Emily's Diner - but I don't want to forget what a regular day feels like here. So let me tell you a bit about today, and a little bit about the day-to-day realities of trying to learn a new language.

It's a Wednesday, but the kids have had a cold for a few days, so it was Lincoln's first day of school for the week. (Remember, there's no school on Wednesdays until second grade). Luckily his cold is all but gone, while Sylvia's is still pretty bad, so Josh worked from home while I took the big kid to class. She's feeling pretty good, considering.
Dino feet!
 Since I was on my own, I brought my little wheeled grocery cart and took the bus from the school toward the local supermarket. When your fridge is 1/3 the size of the typical U.S. one, a couple of sick days means there's no food left in the house! And for some indecipherable reason, my bus stopped two stops before the one I needed and kicked us all off. So I walked through the park. It did not disappoint.

 Irises are my favorite, and whatever this variety or cousin of irises these are, they're incredible. Taller than I am, and so striking with the purple leaves - anyone care to identify them?

I made my way to Casino Supermarché and stocked up on crackers, such as they are, zucchini, bananas, apples, duck sausage - it was on sale and I needed fresh sausage for dinner tonight - and a bunch more random things. I was delighted to come across a display for "La Nuit Halloween!" Apparently American influence is growing, especially when creepy costumes and candy are involved.

It was a momentous trip in that I finally remembered that in France, one has to weigh and price one's own produce. If you bring it to the register without a sticker from the scale, you can't have it, and I allllllllways forget. Yay me! I came home, did a ton of chores while chatting with Sylvia about the Uno games and time outs she'd had while I was gone, and then she came along with me to pick up her brother. 

Back on the B bus! She charmed someone into giving up their seat, as usual, and we enjoyed the warm weather on the walk to Massillon. Lincoln, fortunately, had had a GREAT English class and was given a stack of Pokemon cards from a kind and generous older expat kid in the courtyard. We basically danced our way back to the bus stop, pausing only for the kids to beg for candy from the corner shop. Whoever decided to put a candy/doughnut booth on the corner between the college and the primary school is an evil genius.

Lunch was quick and uneventful, and the kids spent the afternoon drawing and stickering on paper while I put dinner in the crock pot, ironed a bunch of clothes I'd been ignoring, and did a few other household chores. Josh emerged from his home office, i.e. our room, a couple of times to talk or grab a bite, and before we knew it it was time to leave for karate class. 

The 9 bus this time! It's a fast ride but only comes every fifteen minutes or so, so we had to leave early with Uno cards, snacks, and water bottles in tow. Lincoln looks so cute in his gi, and a neighbor we've never met said "Good luck, Mr. Judo-kan" in English as we walked by. Then as we got off the bus at Bughes, a young girl struck up a conversation in French with me - she loves the U.S., helped me learn to pronounce "Bughes" correctly, and let us know when our stop was coming up. On our walk from the stop to the karate class at Maison des Sports, a woman bringing her own kids to class told me that her daughter overheard us, and she (the little daughter) loves America as well. The woman is from Tanzania and lived in the U.K. for a long time, so her English and French were perfect. 

I was so engrossed in conversation that I didn't notice Lincoln watching his feet as he walked directly into a wall-mounted mailbox. WHACK. He smacked his head hard, poor kid! He was ok so I made him go to class anyway, but he was benched for most of it. When he was done, he told me "It's ok. I needed to be there to watch and learn, even if I couldn't do the class." So mature. 

Meanwhile, since parents are strictly forbidden from watching the classes, Sylvia and I had an hour to kill. We busted out our Uno cards on a little table in the lobby and soon collected three more kids who were bored and waiting for parents or siblings. 

This is the part that's all about learning a new language. The most common advice I've gotten from my few French teachers has been "listen to as much French as you can." Whether it's TV, radio, podcasts, or actual in-person conversations, the more French I'm exposed to and/or using, the easier the learning will be. So Sylvia and I spent a good 45 minutes speaking in French to kids around 5 years old, naming colors for Uno when someone played a wildcard, asking whose turn it was, and celebrating whoever had won the last round. It was a special, unique moment in what can be a boring and tedious part of the week, waiting for Lincoln's class to end. 

We missed the 5:07 bus home and had to wait for the 5:22, so at the stop I once again struck up a conversation, this time with an older woman who is originally from Portugal and sympathized with my French struggles! The reputation France has for being unfriendly to Americans is, in my experience, 100% undeserved. People regularly go out of their way to speak to me, help us find our way, aid me in improving my terrible French. 

The kids and I walked home from the bus stop and had a delicious dinner from the crock pot - which they both refused to eat. Le sigh. Josh and I loved it, even with duck sausage and zucchini instead of pork and chard.

The little, boring, everyday days of this life are the ones I don't want to forget as time goes by. Irises and Pokemon cards, sniffly noses and a hundred small kindnesses. That's what I want to remember from this time of our lives.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Debacle d'Automne

What a weekend! Last time I wrote it was almost lunchtime on Friday, and my dishes for the school's annual autumn buffet were simmering away in the crock pot. Friday Fours - five hours with three expat four year old girls, traded off among we their three stay at home parents - was a great success, with only one injury (a fat lip) and about a thousand chestnuts collected and distributed into the backpacks. Many of those were collected on our way to one of our favorite parks, Montjoly. It has two playgrounds and a little hill with exercise equipment that the kids love.

We were on the bigger of the playgrounds when an older man arrived with his grandson. Chloe, one of the girls, pointed to the boy and said that he was in her class at Massillon! That's unusual in our little community of Chamaliéres, so I said Bonjour to the grandpa and started up a little conversation. Turns out that this grandson is the fourth generation of his family to attend our little school, and the grandpa lives right around the corner from the park.

I'll pause here to note that I am, in case you didn't know this, a history enthusiast and a huge fan of the musical Hamilton. After memorizing the cast recording thanks to a good friend who lent it to me in February 2016, I started reading several books of Revolutionary War history, and my personal favorite was "Lafayette in the Somewhat United States," by Sarah Vowell. The Marquis de Lafayette was born not far from Clermont-Ferrand, and at 19 he defied his King to bring supplies and chutzpah to the colonial uprising in North America. Without his courage and diplomacy, it's likely the British would have prevailed and the United States would never have existed at all. And he's an incredibly charming and compelling figure - as is his fictionalized personage in the musical, a role originated by Daveed Diggs. 
SO. The playground. The old man told me, in very slow and patient French, that he'd been to a funeral earlier that week, and that the wife of the deceased is a direct descendant of Lafayette himself! You should've seen me, twisting my brain into a knot as I tried to explain a rap-based history musical and "Somewhat United States" in a language I barely speak. But we had a nice moment. 

After a bunch more chestnut collecting and a quick stop home for potty and snacks, the four of us rode the bus back to school at 4:30 to collect the older kids and reunite the little ones with their parents. A couple of young men stood up when we got on the bus so that the three girls could sit across two seats. The men laughed and flirted with the girls in English, and then asked me "So they are your twins?" I laughed - no, no, these are not my three triplet preschoolers. I'm pretty sure I'd have grey hair if I had three all the time! The two non-Sylvie girls were happy to see their parents and siblings, and Sylvia asked if they can all come over for lunch every day. That's a no, but I'm looking forward to the next play date!

The kids and I rushed home to clean ourselves up and collect Josh, then headed back to school for the Fall Buffet. What an event! There were dozens of primary school families, dishes of food from all over the world of which the Scotch Eggs and Chinese rice and red bean balls were my favorites. At least a hundred kids running wild all over the enormous courtyard in near-darkness, while parents sit and stand and mingle about, drinking cassis- or peach-enriched white wine and switching around among a bunch of languages. We early-eating Americans jumped into the kids' buffet early, feeding our little ones at 7:00 LIKE ANIMALS. (Somehow the French children manage to eat at 7:30 or 8:00 and still get enough sleep at night). I reconnected with some families I hadn't seen much of since the pre-rentrée open house, and had a chance to talk with some closer friends while the kids occupied themselves.

Now for the debacle: My husband does not enjoy crowds, and after Lincoln's playground accident earlier in the week, he was really nervous about all the running around on concrete. So by 8:00 he was more than ready to leave, while the kids and I were having fun. I relented by about 8:30 and we walked toward the bus stop. The electronic sign said our B bus would be there in 8 minutes, but flashed "Pert" occasionally. When a C bus came - one that stops very near our house, but not as near as the B line - we let it go by since the B would be along so soon.

Then we realized that "Pert" stands for "Perturbation," or disturbance, and the B bus wasn't coming at all.

So it was 9:00, an hour past bedtime, and we were stuck at a bus stop with two exhausted kids, one crabby husband, and a certain blogger who had had about enough of the lot of them. I managed to call us a taxi and we took a ten minute ride with no car seats for the kids, punctuated by whines and gripes from the kid who didn't get a window, the one whose seatbelt hurts, etc etc etc. When we finally got home I fairly held the kids down to brush their teeth, then tossed them in bed and huffed and puffed myself into a restless sleep.

Luckily for everyone, Saturday was all about delicious food! I can't wait to tell you about it.

Friday, September 29, 2017


Another busy week has come and nearly gone. It's Friday morning at 10:50 and I have ten minutes before I need to leave for the bus to pick up four kids this time - two other expat parents of four-year-olds and I have begun switching off Friday afternoon play dates, so that we each get a break, and today is my turn with the little turkeys. Sylvia is beside herself with excitement and I am delighted that a) Josh can take Lincoln back to school after lunch, therefore saving me two extra bus trips with four kids, and b) the weather is beautiful so we can spend some of our time at the park. 

This morning I've taken the kids to school, visited two grocery stores to find ingredients for the Buffet d'Automne at the school tonight - it's an annual affair wherein each family brings three national dishes to share: one for adults, one for kids, and a dessert. I'm making pulled BBQ chicken for the adults, cheese quesadillas for the kids (I've been to Mexico a couple times, and cheddar inside a flour wrap is decidedly American), and brownies. Then I came home and got the chicken cooking, prepped some simple lunch stuff for the kiddos, ran up to the Chamalieres butcher shop to pick up a pork shoulder roast I ordered yesterday, and had a fast cup of English Breakfast tea that Josh brought back from London this week. 

Whew! 10:55 now, just a few minutes left!

Here are a couple snapshots of our week so far. First up, check out the bathrooms at the "maternelle" section of the school, which houses kids age 3 (sometimes older 2s) to 6 (end of Kindergarten, known here as Grande Section). Sylvia finds it hilarious, thankfully - a shyer child might be a bit uncomfortable! There's no segregation by gender, and parents and teachers are often in there alongside the kids - helping them, not using the toilets ourselves, haha!

 You may notice that in all of the pictures at school, or on our way there, Sylvie's hair is pulled back. Lice are a big problem at Massillon every year. Known here as "Les Poux" (lay poo), they start up in September and remain until school lets out in June. So every morning we attempt pigtails or a ponytail, then spray both kids' hair with a preventative essential oil blend from the local parapharmacie. So far so good.

Not so good, however, is my attempt at French braids! To be fair, this was my first time trying and I had about two minutes before we needed to leave for the bus. They didn't last the afternoon - Sylvia has started attending school in the afternoon on Thursdays only, during which she has an hour of English class - but she was so patient and loved having them in for a bit! We have some more practicing to do. 

Unfortunately we had a bit of a bad day on Tuesday, the day I took the bathroom picture. It was Lincoln's first day staying for cantine, at my insistence. A lot of the expat kids stay Tuesday or Tues/Thursday for lunch, and he's ready for more independence at school. Plus, the menu is incredible - tuna and tomato tart to begin, then a fish fillet, fries, and green beans for lunch with yogurt and cake afterward. There's always milk, juice, water, and French bread available as well. He was nervous, but excited to eat with his friends. I got a text around lunchtime from a friend - Lincoln had fallen on the concrete courtyard before eating, but she was there collecting her younger child and patched him up with a bandaid. Sylvia and I came home and had a leisurely lunch, basking in the four hours between bus rides. 

But then I got a call from the school. Entirely in French, Lincoln's teacher told me that he'd fallen and been hurt, hit his head. My French comprehension is still fairly abysmal, so I could not tell whether she was telling me he was badly injured or just had a bonk! I was upset, naturally, and managed to ask if it was serious or not - non non, she assured me, ce n'est pas grave. Finally she gave up trying to communicate with me and promised to have another teacher call me back in English. 

Mrs. Seymour called and suggested I pick him up - he wasn't badly hurt, but a bit dazed from the concrete/face collision. And this is how he looked when I arrived. 
 My poor buddy, on his first full day! He'd been playing when another kid grabbed the back of his clothes and started swinging him around in circles, not stopping when Lincoln said "Stop!" and "Arrêt" repeatedly. When he did let go, Lincoln went down face first, bruising both knees in the process. He had a well-deserved afternoon of movies and cuddles, and Josh and I set a meeting to talk with the primary school director - they're looking into it, and promised to keep a closer eye on the physical play at - as some of the other expats call it - the Shawshank playground.

Thursday, needless to say, everyone came home for lunch! I grabbed some sandwiches and tarts from Maison Vacher (our bakery) and a little barquette of carrot salad at the butcher shop. It was a beautiful day, Sylvia's first afternoon with no tears at school, and Lincoln is already excited for cantine next Tuesday. Allons-y!

Thursday, September 21, 2017


I never thought I'd be sending my kids to a Catholic school! But once we learned that expatriating with Michelin was likely, we heard about Massillon, the private Catholic school in Clermont-Ferrand that most expats attend. It contains EBI, Ecole Bilinguale Internationale, which teaches English separately to native speakers and as a foreign language. The school also offers French as a foreign language for first-year arrivals. Most speak English as a first language, but there are also Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, and other languages represented. Lots of local kids attend the school for the Catholic education or for the English. And the catechism classes are optional - our kids will take a global religions class instead, once they're a little older.

SO. School starts later here, early September, and the structure is really different. School is in session for six weeks, then out for vacation. A typical week looks like this for the Maternelle (ages 3-5) and Primaire (ages 6-10) students:

Monday and Tuesday: Classes 8:30-11:30, two hours for lunch, classes 1:30-4:30.
Wednesday: ages 3-6 (end of first grade) are off. Ages 7-10 have class 9:00-11:00 a.m. only. Most kids do a sport.
Thursday and Friday: same as Monday and Tuesday.

French kids don't learn reading in school until first grade, age 6-7, called CP here. But Lincoln loves to read and was moving fast in his Montessori school in the U.S., so his reading was way above the first grade level in his English class here. So after two weeks of school, the directors (one French, one English) of the primary school asked us to agree to a trial advancement, placing him in Grade Two for English, and CE1 for French. We're on day 4 of that trial now, and it's going well. In fact, his FLE (French as a foreign language, or Français Langue Étrangère) teacher casually mentioned to me in a meeting this morning that "Of course he can already read in French, so that is helping quite a lot."

He can read in French?! The hell?

But he can, so after putting both kids through moving away from home and friends and grandparents, learning a new language, starting a new school with lots of kids with whom they can't communicate at all, and adapting to a COMPLETELY different educational environment - one in which the teachers are rumored to yell at the kids and call them stupid, although we haven't had any personal experience with that - we've now also asked Lincoln to start that adjustment process all over again with older kids, no Americans in his French class whatsoever, more school on Wednesdays, and being the youngest kid in the class. This was not an easy decision. But he's so big for his age, and much more studious and calm than many of the elementary school children we know, so his age doesn't stand out like it would for a smaller or more energetic six-year-old. And I really think a full year of studying spelling words he already knows and reading books he could read last year would have been devastating to his overall love of school. Still, we have over a week left in the trial/observation period, so we'll see how it goes.

Over to Sylvia! She's in the equivalent of a K4 class, called Moyenne here. It's much gentler for the "maternelle" kids - no FLE class, English only one hour per week, and for the first few months she's only attending school in the mornings. It's exhausting learning a new language under any circumstances, and since she can't read she's learning it all by listening and absorbing. I can say from personal experience that listening and speaking in a language you don't really know yet is incredibly taxing, so I'm glad she has the afternoons off. Except for Thursdays, because she needs to be there for English class. She had a really tough transition the first couple weeks and cried every morning at drop off. But this week she's come into her own, putting her "cartable" (backpack) on the shelf herself, dropping her snack bag and notebook into the right bin, and walking into class without fear. I give it two more weeks before she's speaking French with some regularity, at least to her teacher. Of course by then it'll be vacation time, after which we start all over again. For now it's really sweet hearing her occasionally drop a French word into conversation with her brother or me:

"What does "qu'est-ce que c'est" mean? My teacher says it every day!"

All of which brings me to my schedule. We live in a beautiful apartment that is within walking distance of the center of Clermont, but far enough out that it's quiet and calm, and most of the noise of the city and the university students is too far to bother us at night. The place is gorgeous and roomy and a stone's throw from a quaint and practical little town square with a small supermarket, two bakeries, a butcher, three or four cheese shops,'s perfect. There are two city bus stops within five minutes' walk of home. But unfortunately we're a half hour walk from the school, which is too far for the kids, so we must take the bus. It winds up being about 30 minutes anyway once we've waited for the bus, ridden four stops, and then walked a few more blocks to the school entrance. I love how much we walk here, and I can feel the benefits in my own health. But because the kids aren't ready to eat at the "cantine" at school yet, I spend FOUR HOURS per day commuting. Half an hour each way to and from the school at 8:30, 11:30, 1:30, and 4:30, four days per week. Of course some days I take the kids out to lunch, or spend one of those 'off' periods in between shopping or something near the school, but it's an inordinate amount of time nonetheless.

I'm tired. The plan was for Lincoln to start eating at the cantine one or two day a week starting about now, but he doesn't want to yet and I don't want to pile one more stressor onto him when he's just started CE1. Lunch at school for the older kids means at least an hour of running around wild with all the other primary kids, in a concrete courtyard - that's "recess" here - and then eating whatever's on the menu when your class is called. Brown bag lunches are strictly forbidden, so some days it'll be a burger and green beans and yogurt, and other days it's squid provençal with bleu cheese after! I think Lincoln would actually love the food, but the extra 'recess' time is intimidating for now. Sylvia's not allowed to eat at cantine until she can speak French. So. I'm tired, and of course Josh hasn't been able to do any of the school runs yet because of his leg. Just this morning he was able to bring them for the first time, so there's an end in sight! Oh, and yes - I could drive. But there is no designated parking for the school, the streets are half the width of those in the U.S., and traffic is heavy in the mornings. It wouldn't wind up saving much time in the long run, and the stress of dealing with parking isn't worth it.

There you have it: French school so far! The kids get a little anxious when I drop them off, but in the afternoons and evenings they're always happy to have been at school. I'm sure I've missed lots of the funny differences, so ask away if there's something you've wondered about! I'll answer questions in either language - may be Lincoln can read the French ones to me.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The best worst day

Click to expand my panoramic shot from the top of the climb!
I've decided not to share any pictures of how Josh's leg looked in the days and weeks following his boating accident. But by Thursday, four days after the injury, he was black and blue from heel to above the knee. He'd gotten a small, flexible knee brace from the pharmacy, but it didn't provide much support. And he didn't want to slow down the vacation at all. 

So naturally that Thursday, August 24th, we took a tour that required walking about eight miles and climbing the equivalent of 15 flights of stairs.

 ...starting with carrying two heavy car seats for a few blocks to the place we were to meet our guide, Vincent! Luckily his van was big enough to fit the seats, and no one else had signed up for the Pond du Gard/Châteauneuf-du-Pape tour that day - so we had it all to ourselves.
I miss the days when Lincoln would smile for a picture on command.
 I knew we were in trouble when we arrived and parked, then walked for a good 8-10 minutes before coming into view of the aqueduct. Years ago, the French government severely restricted traffic and building around this UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the European idea of "accessibility" means "accessibility for anyone who can walk long distances, climb stairs, and doesn't ever have an urgent need for a toilet," so this wasn't a huge surprise. But I was worried about Josh.
Beautiful scene, happy family!

Each of the kids got to take one picture. This is Sylvia's - "No Mommy! Just the MEN!"
 The skies were grey and cloudy, which is extremely rare for Provence in the summertime, and our guide kept apologizing that the weather was ruining our panoramic photos. But it kept the heat within reasonable levels, and arriving before 9:00 a.m. meant we had the place to ourselves. For once, we'd beaten the crowds - at one of France's most popular tourist destinations. Note for the future: hire a guide.

After stopping to take a few pictures, we began the long, steep climb to the top of the aqueduct, while Vincent explained its history. In the first century C.E., the Romans built a 31 mile aqueduct from a natural freshwater spring to their large city where Nimes is located now. Over those miles, the angle of the aqueduct was so slight and so precise that it only descended 41 feet - so this portion, the pont du gard, is 900 feet across and only descends one inch. No mortar or cement was used. The stone was cut from surrounding mountains, and the entire structure was built within a period of fifteen years. It's hard to even fathom the kinds of engineering that were possible two thousand years ago.
Here's Josh standing under an arch that was fitted without the use of mortar. Incredible.

Our first airborne view - despite the weather, it was breathtaking. Those rocks the kids are standing on are marble, so they're white and beautiful but very slick. It's sheer luck that we didn't wind up with any new injuries after the climb.
 Water flowed along the top, which was completely covered with more stone construction when it was in use, to protect the water from evaporation and contamination. After it fell into disuse, locals probably stole many of those easy-to-remove stones for building their houses and barns.

Unbelievably impressive in person! And it's a good thing too, because by the time we'd climbed this high, Josh's leg was throbbing.
 Next we descended again and walked across the stone road bridge that was built more recently. Closeups of the arch pillars show the deterioration that has had to be repaired with new stones. And the stones that stick out from the wall were positioned so that builders - mostly Roman slaves - could construct scaffolding to reach the upper levels.

Oh, and in order to do that, they also had to, you know, invent scaffolding.

 Josh skipped the walk across the road bridge and sat in the back of the van for the next part of the drive, so that he could elevate and ice his leg. Our next stop was Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a small village surrounded by acres and acres of perfect farmland for growing wine. My favorite wine on Earth, and now a place that is near and dear to our hearts.
Perfect rows of grapevines, working their magic.

The view of the city and the farms, from the Château itself.

Snacky kids blocking the view of Daddy's injury!

Et le Château - or what's left of it.
So let's talk a little bit about the history of the village and the castle, and then about the wine. Remember how the Avignon palaces were built so the Popes could escape Italy during war? Well that was in the 14th Century C.E., during the Hundred Years' War. All of the Popes who resided in Avignon were French (no surprise there!) and one of them, Pope John XXII, decided he needed a summer retreat - although retreating from Avignon to Châteauneuf is kind of like retreating from Dallas to Fort Worth. It's right next door, same climate, same food, same everything - except the wine. More on that in a minute.

According to the intrepid Vincent, who is from Avignon and has been teaching tourists about it for 35 years, Popes Clement V and his successor John XXII were fond of wine, women, and, thanks to their vows of poverty and chastity, privacy. Both spent a great deal of time in the "summer residence" for that reason, removed from the prying eyes of the more metropolitan Avignon. John XXII ordered the castle to be built to house him and subsequent Popes, but its construction ended just a year before his death and no other Popes are believed to have visited.

SO. The wine.

France is, again unsurprisingly, very protective of its cuisine and wine. There are hundreds of distinct regions or "pays" (pay-ee) in the country, each with its own wine, cooking style, meats, cheeses, pates...someone telling you they're from France does not actually give you very much information about them, because their regional background can vary so widely. In the early 20th century, the government formalized the system of Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC,  by which it controls and labels certain products as having originated in the proper region and met strict quality controls. Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the first wine (of more than 300, now) to have an AOP, and Vincent told us a bit about its regulations.

First, the "rolling stones" of the area allow the soil to absorb up to a full year's supply of water - so no irrigation is permitted for any wine that will be labeled Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Only 13 grapes can be used in the production of the wines, but they can be combined in any way the winemakers decide. Five of those varieties are white and eight are red, but some reds incorporate the white grapes as well.  Grenache is the "king" of the varieties, because it thrives in full sun with little water.

Another rule is that the 300 vineyards in the AOP, only one of which is a corporation (the rest are family farms), must harvest all the grapes by hand. No machine picking means lots of labor is necessary during harvest time, which is a challenge in France. Just like in the U.S.A., much of the poorly-paid physical labor is performed by immigrants, but outside of harvest time there is no work for them in this part of France. And, according to Vincent, young French people "don't want to work hard," so they won't do it either. About 13 million bottles are produced every year, 95% of which is red wine. Whites are readily available in the region but hard to find outside it.

So let's start tasting! We began our adventure in a wine cave (pronounced cahv) that is thousands of years old and dates back to the Roman Empire. Clearly the adults were happier about this portion of the trip than the kids.

 We got to see an ancient pressing room - the grapes would be put into the upper tubs, pressed by foot, and the juice would run into the lower basins to be barreled.

 Look at those beautiful, dusty bottles. The proprietor told us (in English) that he had a couple of bottles in his collection from the 1940s and 1950s. Every 20 years or so he has to change the corks and replace what's evaporated - which means opening at least one bottle in order to top off the others. And, of course, the open one has to be finished off by the lucky man and his friends.
 We enjoyed every sip and bought our first six bottles for our own little cave back in Chamalières. Our new friend, the proprietor, talked to us about aging red wine - there are good years every decade or so, and it's best to buy the wine young. But whites need a year or two to age, no more than five. Reds need at least fifteen years to reach their full potential. So for impatient Americans like us - he said "I go to New York and I cannot find a single bottle that's been aged properly. As though a 2009 will be ready in 2015!" - he advises buying lots of 2015 reds while we're in France, and even younger ones if 2017 and 2018 are good years. Then, when we return to the U.S.A., "You buy a house, you build a wine cave in the basement. You put a padlock on the door. Then ship me the key and I will return it to you in 15 years!" We laughed, shook hands, promised to resist drinking it all right away, and then headed to another tasting!

This one was in a modern (ish) building with a tiny table and tasting glasses that cost more than the wine itself. We tried a red that was made in tribute to the wine makers' great-great-grandfather, and bore his name. It was only made with grapes grown on vines that were at least 85 years old - can you imagine? And it tasted incredible, despite its youth. We tried a white that was so complex and delicious that the tasting expert AND Vincent told us it was their favorite of all the Châteauneuf-du-Pape whites. Ever. By this time we were a little tipsy, and absolutely on cloud nine. I never thought we'd spend that much on wine, but we're beginning to see it as a real collection. I just hope we can get it all home intact.
 After all that, Vincent drove us home and waited with our wine while I carted it down into the parking garage and locked it safely out of sight in the trunk. We got some lunch and headed back to our apartment for "swimming" in what we lovingly referred to as the cold tub on the balcony, and some general foolishness. All the walking and stair-climbing took a toll on Josh's pain level, so Friday we wound up in the Avignon emergency room, where he finally got a prescription for stronger pain meds. It was a frustrating, miserable day marked by wrong turns in the car - including into the ambulance-only entrance to the hospital - and frustration about the language. The next day we managed to make even worse, trying out a bus tour and a supposedly five minute walk that wound up being 20 minutes, to a Chartreuse abbey that was disappointing, to put it mildly. Every time we thought we were doing something easy, it wound up being difficult, embarrassing, or just wrong. We were scheduled to spend three non-refundable days in Lyon to finish out our vacation, but after some tough talk from friends back home (as I was defeatedly describing trying to find dinner before 8:00 p.m. every night, which is near-impossible), we decided to pack it in and drive back to Clermont.

So our best day of vacation came AFTER (and exacerbated) the catastrophic injury which, incidentally, still has Josh laid up and recovering. Wine tasting and education was a great bonding experience for us both, and I fear our standards will have risen beyond what's really polite by the time we get back to the States! Luckily, we should be able to make up for it with cases and cases to share - after fifteen years or so.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Avignon and Cassis - a brand new sea

It has now been almost exactly a month since our vacation, so I'm going to try to cram the last few days into one or two posts so I can start telling you about our daily life in Clermont! On Monday morning, August 21, we were all packed up and ready to head to the second leg of our vacation: Avignon! When planning this trip Josh found Annecy, recommended by several expat friends, and it was great (save for the injury at the end). Avignon, on the other hand, was my idea - just a 3 1/2 hour drive from Annecy (thanks, toll roads!), hot, beautiful, and in Provence. What a difference! 

We arrived, communicated with our VRBO host and parked in the local garage. We had to drive through some construction as the city is adding a tram line. I'm sure it'll be great once it's in, but the traffic disruptions would be a major headache during our stay. Finally we wound our way through the tiny parking garage "Jean Jaures" and walked - well, one of us limped - to our apartment. 

It was in the pedestrian area of Place des Corps Saints, which is beautiful and quiet but very near the main street. Unfortunately, the apartment was advertised as "premiere ètage," or French first floor, which is up one flight of stairs from the ground, but in reality it was on the deuxiéme étage," so every time we left or entered the apartment, Josh had to contend with two flights of stairs. And there was another flight inside the place. 

After a few hours' ice and rest for Monsieur, thanks to the frozen peas I found at Monoprix, we headed out for dinner. Aioli, mussels, fish and escargots with lots of roasted vegetables was a nice change from the heavy cheese-centric meals in the Alps!

 The next day we said goodbye to High Five Baby Jesus, who resides in the entryway of the apartment,
 and set off to explore. We stopped by the Maison de Tourisme first and bought tickets for the tour bus around the city, tourist mini-train, and a van trip to Pond du Gard and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a tiny village and wine AOP where our favorite red wines come from. That'd be Thursday, so Tuesday we stayed around town.
Even statues love Sylvie!
 The churches are, predictably, gorgeous in this former home of the popes. Le Palais des Papes is a huge fixture in the town, but there are dozens of smaller, yet no less ornate Catholic churches throughout.

This was an enormous hanging tapestry - human being on the right for scale. My little fiber-artist heart went pitter-pat!

Pope Francis in photo, and John Paul II in stone. 
 Naturally, I found some Cafe Gourmand at one of our lunch stops. And shared! The kids adored this latest French carousel.
Yummy! Also the food! :) 
On the petite tourist train. We'd paid for Sylvia since she's a big four-year-old now, but the conductor took one look at her and promptly refunded her fare. "Elle est trop petite et mignone." She's too small and cute to pay.
 The train gave us our first gorgeous view of the famous "Pont d'Avignon," on which one is supposed to dance. Regrettably, we didn't make it there on foot, but it was lovely anyhow.

The huge city wall, erected on order of the Popes who lived here during unrest in Italy.
Wednesday we set off on yet another adventure - a day trip to the village of Cassis, and another reminder that any "sleepy village" one finds on Google is not a sleepy village at all, but a bustling tourist destination that will be packed and crowded. Cassis is just southeast of Marseilles, where there'd been a terrorist car attack just days before. So we arrived, sore-kneed and hungry after an hour and a half drive, to discover that all of the downtown parking was cordoned off in Cassis, and the nearest places were packed to the gills. It was a repeat of how not to find a beach! After a number of failed attempts, Josh finally took over driving (against the needs of his knee) and waited in line to park while I walked the kids down into town to find something to eat.

Luckily, lunch did not disappoint. We chose a pricey but gorgeous place along the waterfront, honestly just because it had tables available right then and no line for the restroom. But it was a happy accident - the kids and I ate fish that was absolutely fresh and delicious.
avec des frites pour le garçon... des pâtes pour la fille!

Josh had steak, as usual, but my food was the star. The first course was bouillabaisse - so popular in France, I frequently see it sold in jars at my local supermarkets - with Parmesan cheese, little crunchy pieces of bread, and a sauce I'd never had before: rouille. It's an orange sauce similar to aioli, made with olive oil, egg yolks, and in this case, saffron or paprika and cayenne pepper. It was divine. Following came a gorgeous piece of ocean fish served on top of thin slices of sautéed summer squash and mashed potatoes.

After lunch we headed out on a little boat to tour the famous calanques of Cassis - high stone formations surrounding tiny inlets of the Mediterranean, formed by erosion and water pressure over thousands of years. We must have been out of our minds to get on another boat, but it was a great time.

Maybe my favorite picture of Sylvia, ever. Her hat kept blowing nearly off from the wind!
 By this time we were all in love with the Mediterranean Sea, the first sea I'd ever visited. So we headed to the public beach - which was absolutely full of people, with barely enough room to set down our towels. But we found a tiny patch and went straight to get our toes in the water.
 The waves were fast and powerful, and the water was freezing, so we all stayed near the shoreline. The beach was made up of millions of tiny pebbles, which were so gorgeous that it was tough to tell the rocks from the sea glass. I gathered some to bring home with us, and they sit now on a shelf in my kitchen.
Almost as beautiful now as they were that day.
We rinsed off most of the sand in an outdoor shower, lamented the lack of public toilets, and decided the only sensible way to find a bathroom was to stop at a crowded, touristy ice cream shop. The kids were allowed two small scoops each. Since MY mother wasn't there to limit me, I had something...slightly more indulgent.
Go big or go home, right? The Peach Melba Sundae had vanilla ice cream, canned peaches, raspberry coulis, and the biggest mound of whipped cream I'd ever seen. Once again, I found it in my heart to share with Josh.

The drive home was an adventure in itself - the kids were exhausted, of course, and naturally once we'd been on the road for 15 minutes, Sylvia desperately had to go to the bathroom. So I thought we'd try the tollbooth stop. Getting in the right hand toll lane, which must've been one of 15 lanes, meant double the wait time of any that were further left. But I was vindicated for my slow choice when we found a clean-ish public bathroom just 10 feet beyond it, with safe and designated parking! They both fell asleep on the road and I dragged their car seats from the curb up into our apartment, so they could safely ride along in our van tour the next morning.

Our time in Avignon and Cassis was a blast, but the strain on Josh's injured knee was probably not wise. Of course, he didn't care, as long as we were having a good time. Which led to some questionable choices the following day - and the best day of our time in France so far. Tomorrow: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.