Friday, December 31, 2010

Bring on the Bubbly


Here's what many French kids will be toasting with for the New Year.... On the right, a very popular kids' beverage, meant to resemble the adults' champagne. The Champomy (shahm po' mee) pictured here is apple peach flavor.

I remember the first time I bought this stuff (reluctantly) all too well. My French nieces were coming for Christmas and I bent to my kids' pleadings. They were so proud to show their cousins what Tante Kelly had bought that an over-excited Ellie dropped it, smashing the bottle to pieces and sending stickiness to the four corners of my dining room. I gave my usual broken-glass-on-the-floor-don't-anybody-move speech, "Pretend you're on an island and the floor is the water. Don't get wet," until I could mop up all the mess. The liquid splashed inside the slats of our human-sized radiator (something for a future post) which left a peach-flavored after-scent for weeks... Ah, memories.

The stuff on the left is a "see'-roh," a.k.a. syrup. And no, "bubble gum" is not French. I never buy syrups, but with guests on the way, well.... I bent again. You add a dash of this to water for a kids' drink. But when Alex saw it on the table, he said, "Wow, bubble gum alcohol." I looked over his shoulder to see that there was a recipe for a vodka drink with this stuff. I hadn't noticed the #1 for barmen comment on the top. 

Hmmm.... Mom just might find an alternative purpose for this bottle...

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Former Boys' School


This is the mayor's office, the mairie as it's called in French, of Jouy le Potier, near Orléans. It was formerly "Ecole Charles Rocher," The Charles Rocher School. If you look closely you can see the school name above the French flags.

Rocher was a public school teacher and a Resistance leader in the Libération-Nord. He was arrested by the Gestapo on October 15, 1943. He died in Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Pursuit of Extreme Trivia


When I saw this game in a big grocery store, I snatched it up quickly. It's the version for our region, Centre, and at 38.81€ ($51), it was a bargain, though I didn't know at the time. I thought it would be great for the kids to reinforce what they learn at school, and I'd surely learn a thing or two as well.

I stupidly thought that many questions would center on things I might know from traveling so much and visiting a zillion castles around here, but from the get-go it was obvious to the five of us playing (including two adults from the Bretagne region) that this was going to be tough. "How many inhabitants are there in the city of Blois? About 30,000; 40,000 or 50,000?" (50,000) All three sounded about right. At least on multiple chance questions, I've got a chance. That is, if they read me the question more than once. The cards are all in French, after all.

There were some questions that I did know right away. "What did Auguste Poulain found in 1848?" (Ironically, I knew this from a post I'd done on FPDJ.) And: "What village at the door of the Sologne <the hunting region we're in> used its clay to make bricks for their houses?" Answer: La Ferté-Saint Aubin, my town.

But as we got into questions like "What bedroom in Chenonceau is dedicated to five queens?," I realized it might have been just as well if I'd hunted down the Bretagne version. I've been to Chenonceau twice, but still didn't know the answer: The Bedroom of Five Queens. Like in the classic Trivial Pursuit, it pays to guess.

Perhaps I'll get the Bretagne version for someone's upcoming birthday. Or perhaps not. We'll see. At 54€ ($71) for that one, I have to be sure it won't have a trivial place on a our favorite game list...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Comparing Christmases


...past and present, French and American...

Some gifts haven't changed much over the years. When I was ten, I read anything from Nancy Drew and could play with Legos for hours on end. I read Snoopy in the Worcester Telegram and waited with anticipation for A Charlie Brown Christmas to come on TV. I've not seen it televised here, but the DVD came out here in 2009 and is called Joyeux Noël, Charlie Brown.

The kids each got an MP3 player this year... My how times have changed. Look at the size! I got a big radio/record player for my tenth Christmas, along with Captain and Tennille and the Eagles' Hotel California. Here, like many French kids' song request lists, Ellie's list includes only American artists... Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas...

My mom always made a chocolate cream pie, which I planned to try to duplicate yesterday, until --whoops! -- no crust. I had the serious chocolate powder (100% cacao!) But at 3 p.m. on the Sunday after Christmas, there's little chance of finding a crust, so I had to punt and used the filling for some little chocolate cups I'd had from the local grocery. They were quite a hit! I may have started a new tradition. Note the box Choco Gourmand at the top of the photo. A two-euro bargain. More coming for our New Year's guests!

We used to always get Lifesaver Story Books at Christmas, which are non-existent here. A popular kids chocolate are papillotes, which I didn't buy because they have little firecrackers in them and the kids think it's funny to come up behind their unsuspecting parents. Instead, I bought Vendomes, a good chocolate with trivia questions for the kids such as, "What's the capital of Sweden?" I love trivia... which leads me to the cheese at the bottom of the photo...

My mom also used to cube cheese for us, but usually cheddar was the flavor, not goat cheese or blue cheese. The same company that makes Laughing Cow cheese makes these Apéricubes. Apéro is a word for before-dinner drinks and snacks. And (bonus!) these also have trivia questions... But they're for the adultes. I struggle...

Example: Quel est le métier de Victor Novak, joué par Gérard Klein? Réponse: instituteur.
(What was the job of Victor Novak, who was played by Gérard Klein? Answer: teacher.) Don't know this story, but my mother-in-law got the answer in deux (two) secondes.

More on Trivial Pursuit tomorrow... I bought a game which includes the most trivial of trivia...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Scrumptious


Simply scrumptious. That's just the best way to describe this dish... This is the Penne Rigate au Noix Saint de Jacques et aux Gambas, Roquette from Le Restaurant 128, in nearby Olivet, south of Orléans... (The 128 represents their street number.)

Translated, this is penne pasta, scallops, gambas and rocket, a leafy vegetable considered to be an aphrodisiac. Delicious culinary perfection. And as always here in France, aesthetics are never overlooked, so note the saucy design in the upper left hand corner.

I enjoyed this platter during a recent "soirée de filles," or girls' night out.... When prefaced by a kir (a blackcurrant liqueur topped with white wine) and a standard antipasto, followed by some creamy pistachio ice cream and a buttery cookie for dessert, this evening was all about complete indulgence.

A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do every once in awhile...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Eglise Paroissiale Saint Pierre


From the tiny community of Jouy le Potier, population 1388, we find Santa and two of his reindeer constructed from clay pots... Potier = potter... The town was especially known for its pottery in Gallo-Roman times and the Middle Ages.

The Virgin Mary is overlooking them from the northern wall of  the Saint Pierre parish church, which dates from the 12th century.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Joyeux Noël!


Merry Christmas to all of my readers who are celebrating today!

I just love the purple doors on Saint Aubin Church, located at the south end of our town, La Ferté-Saint Aubin.

We've got just 7,000 people, but there are two churches (both Catholic) because at one time La Ferté and Saint Aubin were two separate villages with a meadow in between...

This church is named for Saint Aubin (pronounced oh-bahn), also known as Albinus. He was born around the year 470 into a noble Christian family in Languivic, in Brittany on the west coast of France. Saint Aubin entered the monastery as a youth, and was elected abbot at age thirty-five. In 529, he was named Bishop of Angers against his wishes. 

Saint Aubin was known for his work with the sick, indigent, widowed, enslaved and orphaned. He's said to have performed many miracles during his lifetime and after his death. Saint Aubin Day is March 1. Today, 95 communities in France have a form of Saint Aubin as part of their name.

I'll offer more details on this church in future posts, but for now, I wish you many blessings on this holiday!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Awaiting His Arrival


Earlier this week, the kids from our catechism classes were invited to come to the church to decorate, and especially, to set up the crèche...

It's hard to tell its size from the photo, but this nativity scene is about five feet across and three feet high...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I'm Dreaming... ♪ ♫ ♫ ♪


♪♫♪♫ ...of a chocolate Christmas...

Yes, you are reading right. The 4.5 kilo bar of Toblerone goes for a cool 54€ ($71)...

Honestly though, it's the Lindt balls in the red box that are my faves... Hint, hint, Santa...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Basilica Notre-Dame de Cléry-Saint-André

Photos just can't do justice to the grandeur of the Basilica Notre-Dame de Cléry-Saint-André near Orléans. It's the burial site for the remains of King Louis XI, "The Prudent," who served as king of France from 1461 to 1483.

The Gothic basilica dates from the 14th century and among those said to have visited include Joan of Arc and numerous kings such as François the 1st and Louis the 14th, "The Sun King."

The church was destroyed in 1428 by English troops; only its square steeple remains. It was reconstructed from 1449 to 1485; in 1483, the Saint Jean chapel was constructed. Two chapels were added in the XVI century.

The basilica was classified as an historical monument in 1840.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Very Cheesy Santa

Yes, even the Père Noël, as he's known here, is a fan of French cheese... Personally, my favorite is Beaufort, one of the hard cheeses from the Savoie region. It's made from cow's milk.

After six years of living here, I've finally acquired a taste for goat cheese, despite the fact that some friends correctly pointed out that these fromages (often shaped like the long one in the basket) smell pretty much the same as your average goat pen...

This was on the window of our local bakery back when we lived in a little bitty village (pop. 2,000) in the Franche-Comte region.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Big-Time Restraint Required


The Santas in the top of this display looked like they were singing in a choir, their mouths drawn open, carefully pronouncing each and every note... Or maybe I just wanted to sing, as I stood there gazing, mesmerized by these luscious desserts...

The critters and characters on the top row are all made from the almond confection called marzipan; the middle row consists of a variety of fruit tarts; and the bottom row....... well, the items on the far left are called Religieuses, a sort of stacked eclair, and they're heavenly. I'll quit here, because I'm not looking to torture anyone, and this is all making me want to head right back there for one of those feuilletines, the chocolate cake just to the right of the center. Steady, girl. Steady....

I left this shop with merely one 200-gram bag of truffles. It rests unopened, still in the fashionable black and white sack in which the clerk presented it. It's sitting under the tree... just waiting until I give it to my mother-in-law on Christmas Day.

No, really.  I'm serious.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

From the Chocolate Food Group


A lot of careful research goes into finding just the right places that can offer endless possibilités for good photo opportunités. This is an Orléans storefront I came across while earnestly conducting my studies.

I didn't dare enter... Every research project must conclude at some point, after all. And there's a shop where I knew I'd buy something the next day, in my home town...

I'll publish results from that mission tomorrow...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Take Care of Your Onions


When my kids were about ages five and seven, I heard Alex say something in French to Ellie that sounded like she needed to pay attention to her own onions. I naturally inquired. Where are these onions that she should be looking after? And in my living room, no less...

It turns out that this is a French expression, occupe-toi de tes oignons, and it translates best as, "Mind your own business."

Friday, December 17, 2010

Église Saint Marceau


This is the Église Saint Marceau, in the Saint Marceau quartier (district) of Orléans... The banner above the entrance lists that Christmas Eve masses will be held at a reasonable 6:30 and 8:30 p.m... I recall my first Christmas Eve after arriving in France... I was surprised that we were going to an actual midnight mass and that dinner was being served after church!

A little history on this site: the first account of Saint Marceau being used as a place of worship dates to 893. The building was reconstructed in 1082 and served for centuries as a priory. It was destroyed during the siege of Orléans in 1428 and later razed again by the Huguenots in 1567. In 1739, a violent storm knocked down its steeple. The current structure was built between 1888 and 1891 and consecrated in May of 1901. Later it was a victim of American bombings in 1944... Saint Marceau has surely seen its share of suffering...

As we continue to approach closer to Christmas, I'll feature more churches from around this area.... Some are quite spectacular...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bécassine, a French Heroine

 

Bécassine is making her appearance here at the Orléans Marché de Noël, this time in the form of hand towels... She's the Breton star of a comic strip of the same name dating back to 1905. This young heroine is considered to be the first female leading character in a comic.

The young housemaid from Brittany (on the Atlantic coast) is usually depicted wearing the green dress above, with a high lace headpiece and clogs. She's supposedly from Finistère, the area considered to be the center of traditional Breton culture. The name Bécassine can be translated as silly goose. Her character initially was meant as a stereotype of French country people, but later she was depicted more favorably. The comic appeared in La Semaine de Suzette (Suzette's Weekly) and targeted young Parisian girls.

I've never seen a picture of her with a mouth. She's been drawn by several artists over the years, and the clear line drawing style from these comics is said to be the inspiration for Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin.

In the late 70's, after a decline in popularity, her character regained notoriety when Chantal Goya's hit single, "Bécassine, c'est ma cousine" ("Bécassine, she's my cousin") sold over three million copies. The song was followed up by a Breton guitarist's song, "Bécassine, ce n'est pas ma cousine" ("Bécassine, she's not my cousin").

In 2001, an animated feature film was released called Bécassine, Le Trésor Viking (Bécassine and the Viking Treasure) and in 2005 La Poste issued a stamp honoring her 100th year. Her image is seen all over France, but especially of course in Brittany (spelled Bretagne in French), my husband's region.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Marrons Roasting...


...on an open feu... And Jack Frost was certainly nipping at my nose. It was 32°F/0°C here yesterday.

Despite plummeting temps, the annual Orléans Marché de Noël is fully underway, with about 50 chalets and stands set up in Place de Martroi, the main downtown square. There's everything from Bécassine* handtowels to origami Christmas cards to decorative winterwear. Gourmands will find goat cheese, hot wine, every type of sausage imaginable, crêpes and of course, foie gras (fatty duck liver).

The proprietor of the foie gras stand tried hard to get me to taste some, and I tried even harder not to say anything that would give away, thanks to my accent, that I'm not from these parts. I succinctly and politely declined...

There's also an ice skating rink (pictured above right.) If the temps would rise just a bit, I might be tempted to take the kids...

The event runs through Thursday, December 30th.

*Becassine is a French comic strip. More on her tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Eh-Pehl-Sihs


One night when Alex was about four, he asked for some applesauce at dinner. I asked him how daddy (who's French) says it.

He replied, "Eh-pehl-sihs.” 

We burst out laughing. 

Actually, it's compote des pommes. While this might not be the most sophisticated French food around, these packets are a very popular after school snack, and I buy them frequently. I buy them now, that is. There was a time when they were banned in my house because they were just all too fun.... Give them a good squeeze, and splat.

Just like those little square juice boxes from the U.S. that squirt everywhere as soon as you hand the open box (liquid grenade?) to your clean child, these probably appear to be a better idea than they really are...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Killer Cereals


The first time I saw Chokella, I was visiting Bordeaux and was handed a sample box in a busy downtown shopping area. I nearly choked over the name. Who would find this name appetizing? Certainly not anyone named Ella, nor most other English speakers of the world... But being the good, non-wasteful mom that I am, who's always thinking of my children even when I'm away without them, who always hunts down just the perfect gift, I tucked it into my bag and gave it as a little treat to my then three-year-old daughter.

Thankfully, she couldn't read.

These sugar-laden treats are being saved for our next guests, because what better way to kick off a full day of large group togetherness than by winding the kids all up right there at breakfast?

Upon seeing these on the table, my kids quickly ID'd the "lame" ones: the Nesquik and the Chocapic. Cookie Crisp is the sought after one. They're gearing up for battle already. And being more French now perhaps than American, my kids didn't bat an eye at the name problem of the Sho-kel'-luh, as they pronounced the top one here.

Personally, I'd go for being thrown some of the Lion. It's got caramel, which is an acceptable match for chocolate in my book. (Don't contaminate chocolate with fruit!) But there will be six kids for our gathering, so I'll be staying out of the ring and eating my usual French breakfast: Special K, Feuilles de Chocolat Noir, not pictured.

Photo credit: Eloïse, age eight

Sunday, December 12, 2010

You Can't Catch Me...


I'm the Bonhomme En Pain D'épices...

This translates literally to "good man in spice bread."

Each time I see the word bonhomme, I think of when Ellie was about two, and I started taking her to a crèche (daycare program) once a week to do my shopping. I've never seen a shopping cart here with seat belts, so this was the most painless solution for both of us. Plus, at the time Ellie spoke more English than French. Full immersion with French-speaking caretakers and children her age was just what the language doctor ordered.

I spoke very little French back then too, so I was pleased when a mom approached me at the crèche exit one day and said in English that her son had said he'd played a lot with my daughter. Ellie confirmed that he was her new friend, so I asked what his name was.

"Bonhomme."

In this sense, "good boy." Parents might say, "Mon petit bonhomme," or "my little good man." After playing for three full hours, Ellie had not acquired his name, but at least she was making friends and picking up some French.

I never got the boy's real name...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

La Déchetterie


When you say the word, déchetterie, it sounds so beautiful. It's pronounced <deh sheh' ter ree>, which just rolls off the tongue with a melodious sound...

However, this place is just what you think it is. The dump. Now, doesn't dump sound so much more fitting for a place that's filled with our trash and yard waste?

I've fooled many a visitor over this vocabulary word with this tempting line: "It's got everything... glassware, food, wine, furniture, decorating items... anything you can imagine." My unsuspecting victims are ready for a shopping adventure filled with delightful things for all the senses. "Grab the camera and your appetite..."

That's all true; it is all there. Most people have a sense of humor, and it's just a one-street detour before we return to Route de Ligny, which takes us to a fabulous castle....

So, usually, I'm forgiven.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Falling Out of Grace


I'm not such good friends now with my little car... as of yesterday. While I was loading groceries into the trunk, her hatch crashed down on my head. It gave me a pretty good headache that required 1000 mg of Doliprane (Tylenol equivalent) both in the afternoon and evening. I may be hard-headed, but that hatch was quite solid too, I assure you.

With the exception of our falling out yesterday, she's been quite a reliable car. The Renault Mégane's a common model here, especially in white, so as with our all-too-common gray Citroën Picasso, I must check the license plate or the back seat for my kids' grand désordre (mess) before trying fruitlessly to open someone else's vehicle.

We bought this 1996 model in 2006 from a coworker's mom. The woman had quit driving for awhile, and the car had just 18,000 km (11,200 miles), despite being ten years old. She's an automatic, a rarity here, and now she's got a whopping 62,000 km (38,500 miles) since I've trucked myself all over this department teaching English. Gas mileage is not the best for an unleaded car, and at today's rates, I pay $7.12* a gallon.

I guess everyone's got the right to be cranky once in awhile, and she's getting on in years. It'll be heads up for me (and all of us) from now on...

*1.42€/liter = $1.88/liter x 3.785412 to convert to gallons = $7.12. Source: www.oanda.com

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My First Picasso


I often joke that I've had a Swiss bank account and I own a Picasso, yet I'm still poor.

The Swiss bank account was from when we lived in Switzerland back in '99-'00. No millions, there. And this five-seater above is the Picasso... We bought it at an auction when we arrived in France seven years ago. I call it our mini-minivan... The make is Citroën, which is Dutch for lemon*, but so far we're not sour on it. This little van gets Bernard back and forth to work like it should...

The poor thing's been through the ringer lately... In September, some vandales decided to steal the radio by smashing the passenger's side window and cutting out the cables. No, the trip to CarGlass was not on my guest's itinéraire that week. And that all triggered some electrical problems that are finally fixed. 

Otherwise, our little Picasso's got over 230,000 km (143,000 mi.) and it's still going strong...  It's a diesel, and at today's gas prices, which are going up again steadily, a gallon is a mere $6.09.**

That's a bargain compared to my car. I'll introduce her tomorrow.

 __________________________________

*To my French readers: the word lemon, besides referring to the yellow citrus fruit, is a slang word for a car that has problems. 

**1.21€/liter = $1.61/liter x 3.785412 to convert to gallons = $6.09. Source: www.oanda.com

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Figures Are In...


Party time! About 350 of our townspeople came out Saturday night for our local Téléthon program. Proceeds go toward muscular dystrophy research... It's like the Jerry Lewis Telethon, but always on the first weekend of December. (Jerry's surely here in spirit.) Since we don't have many local stations here, these town-by-town events -- some 22,000 of them across France -- draw in the crowds.

There were karate kids flipping and spinning, girls and women of all ages dancing to Lady Gaga and Within Temptation, and a musical put on by high school kids featuring several other songs in English. We devoured a fabulous meal of couscous, a cheese plate, and an apple tarte, all catered by La Sauvagine, a top restaurant in town.

About 1,000 raffle tickets were sold, and when it was time to draw, I thought Ellie and Alex would explode with impatience over our six yellow slips. As the emcee got to one of the last prizes, I thought I heard it was some kind of ride in the sky (hot air balloon? helicopter?) over the Chambord castle. Next thing I knew, the emcee, who's also our fencing club president, was looking directly at our table. The winner was from our club... then he said our last name! In fact, it was a private airplane ride, two tickets to Chambord and two bowling passes. Yes!

Among the other Téléthon events here were a karaoke soirée, a toy sale, and a community walk with a circus theme. Organizers say the numerous activities raised a local total of about 7,500€. 

Our little town's got spirit!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Vive La Poste

 

Regular mail delivery in both places I've lived in France has been via vélo. Not sure how much easier it is to get around right now in the snow, but our mailman's been here each day without fail, despite the crackling ice beneath his sturdy tires. Like many French bikes, his is equipped with two saddlebags in the back. He's got two extra pouches in the front for the next deliveries. There are some locked metal boxes strategically placed along the streets where yellow La Poste trucks go around and load up large batches of what he'll deliver, street by street. He also delivers small packages; bigger ones come via the yellow trucks. He says his route length is typical: about 13 or 14 kilometers...

Like in the U.S., French mail is Monday through Saturday here... come rain or shine, sleet or snow...

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Elusive Saint Nick


Our first year in France, I'd read that Saint Nicolas was going to be at our local grocery store one Saturday for an hour. Alex grabbed his precious newspaper cutout of a plastic backhoe, and I loaded a reluctant two-year-old Ellie into a cart. Bernard and I agreed 10 euros was our max for the photos.

At the entrance, the store manager informed us there was no line. In fact, dear old Saint Nick wasn't stationed anywhere. He was roaming the store, and they had no idea where he was. Trying to think like Santa, we hit the toy aisles. No luck. We checked in the chocolate and cheese aisles, veggie and pasta aisles. Still no Santa. At the back of the store, Bernard asked a woman at the watch counter where we’d find Saint Nick. She shrugged, and directed us to the accueil, the main front desk. Or perhaps he was on his coffee break. After all, it was an hour-long assignment.

We continued racing from one aisle to another, telling the kids to hunt for that famous red suit. However, the employees in this store wear vests that are Santa red, and the place was Super Wal-Mart size. Bernard asked another employee who helpfully told us to check the accueil I was ready to tell the kids there was no Santa.

However, we finally found Saint Nicolas hanging out near a big wine display, chatting with the store manager. His costume was beautiful, and I stared at it in astonishment, realizing I’d made a stupid assumption. It was December sixth, Saint Nicolas Day, and our elusive "Santa" was more in his likeness than the Coca-Cola version. Saint Nick smiled for the manager's shots, as well as for two we took on our own camera. A few other children paused to look at him, and continued on with their parents.

The manager said we could pick up our free photos the following Tuesday.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

If You Want My Place...


"...take my handicap." 

Clever signs. They're all over France.

I don't need to park in these spots, but if I did, I think I'd really appreciate the reminder they give to non-handicapped people who say to themselves, "it's just for a minute." 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Siècle 21


When we began looking for a house in France, I asked one of my French relatives about real estate web sites. He said something like, "αιώνα είκοσι μία dot F R." The phone's extra difficult for me, so I asked him to spell it. "C-e-n-t-u-r-y. Two. One. Dot. f-r."

I laughed and explained that my dad once worked for this company back in the U.S. My relative hadn't realized it wasn't a French company until I pointed out that it'd be "Siècle 21" in that case... 

During our research, we were surprised to find so many houses in one town with five or six bedrooms. Bernard looked at one of them and liked it, but wanted to look at the others. So he made the next appointment. But alas, it was the same house! Each time, the important elements, such as square footage, number of bedrooms and land surface had been calculated differently. And of course, the prices varied too.

Here, exclusivity isn't required... And as it turns out, the owners also had listed it on some do-it-yourselfer site, but to their dismay, we hadn't looked there. We thought we'd learned everything about buying French real estate, but ...

<...warning, bad joke coming....>

...at least we were using 21st century methods...

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Newest Crown Jewels?


I always say give a good American trend six months and it'll find its way to France. Finally, they're here,  it says above. We were introduced to Silly Bands while on a trip home to the U.S. this summer. They're cheapo little plastic bracelets made in shapes of different themes... musical instruments, Wonders of the World, New York Yankees, etc...

My kids delighted in trading these with their cousins and were excited to share them with friends back home (even if French kids might not connect the Yankees with baseball). They began pestering me to buy them on every trip to Walmart (about 27) while we were home. At $1 for a packet of 12, I often obliged.

Later in the summer, we saw them for the first time on this continent in the south of France. They were 5€ a packet. I said, "Non," definitively, rather quickly. They didn't ask again. After the whole month of July in the states, they fully understood that 5€ was an even higher figure in dollars. So when we saw this display at a downtown store recently, Ellie nearly danced in the streets. Surely, they'd be more reasonable here? Yes! At 1.49€, she bought some for herself and a packet for Alex.

Now I'm wondering how long it'll be before we find these bracelets in the shapes of châteaux de la Loire? I can hear it already: "I'll trade you Cheverny castle for Chambord."

"No way, Chambord's far bigger." Etc, etc....

Thursday, December 2, 2010

There's the Old Movie House...


I hear the line from Kenny Rogers' "Twenty Years Ago" in my head every time I pass our vacant movie house on the main street, a few blocks from my house... ♪♪ You could find me there every Friday night, twenty years ago. ♪♪

Variétés Cinéma was built in the late 1930's and was initially a factory for shoe inserts and broomsticks. The building was partially destroyed when the town was heavily bombarded in June 1940. It reopened as a performance venue in 1942, and could hold up to 350 spectators, including 50 in the balcony. Among the movies to grace the screen here were James Bond's Bon Baisers de Russia (From Russia with Love) and Goldfinger and French comedian Louis de Funès' Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez. (Think: Leslie Nielsen as a bumbling French policeman.) Brigitte Bardot's Les Pétroleuses (Frenchie King in English) was described as a sex western on the theater's flyer.

The facility was also the setting for many professional and local amateur theater performances, as well as company Christmas parties, school plays, etc. Variétés Cinéma was managed for many years by a local man who'd begun as a mason under his father, but had to change jobs when he contracted tuberculosis. (However, this helped him avoid civil service while the town was under German occupation.) He began running the projectors in the 40s and became its owner in 1960.

In its heyday in the sixties, Variétés Cinéma attracted 750 to 800 spectators a week. But by 1980, that number had dwindled to 300. The company ceased operations in 1981. The town has owned the building for a few years, and supposedly it's slated for another cultural arts purpose in the future...

For now, it sits idle, advertising the monthly Cinémobile movies...

(See French Drive-In Theater from October.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I Want My Two Lives!


In France, cats are said to have just seven lives, not nine like we say in America...

I'm waiting for the day when they all go on strike for their extra deux lives... "No purring past your legs today, monsieur..."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Coldest Place in France


This bonhomme de neige is the creative work of our local grocery store's staff. They crafted him after shoveling out the parking lot yesterday. We're dealing with record breaking snowfall here for November. Three to 5 cm were predicted; we got 20. Thousands still have no electricity, and more snow's predicted for tonight. Nearby Orléans, with minus 14 Celsius (7 Fahrenheit), registered as the coldest place in France this morning.

Having lived in New York, Massachusetts, and Switzerland, none of this is all that unusual to me. What's different for me as an American is the school cancellation system. It's not an all or nothing deal -- open or closed; it's class by class. Under this system, at least it's not a wash for everyone. My kids' teachers live nearby, so we were pretty sure they'd go. The school sent home a note yesterday saying some teachers may not be able to get here. When we arrived this morning, four out of five had succeeded -- like yesterday. Just not the same four.

Since most kids walk, there are no school buses for this age here. A few parents live far enough out that they must drive. We likely won't see those kids for a few days.

Alex's field trip to a museum downtown was canceled, but he's got his pique-nique lunch. And cafeteria service was assured for Ellie, so I was going to be huddled up solo for the day. Then I realized a teacher friend wouldn't be able to get to work, so I invited her for lunch. Her journey is a 20-km trek along a curvy, woodsy back road, so her students are getting a free day...

But since they might not have electricity back on yet at home, it's not sure to be a pique-nique for them....

Monday, November 29, 2010

I Could Be a Bus



In the French region Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the local inhabitants are called the Ch'tis, pronounced shteez. Like the nearby Belgians, they're often the butt of French jokes. The department #59 on this license plate clues us in that somebody's from that region, so he's not helping their case...

I'd never heard of the Ch'tis until the movie Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis (Welcome to the Home of the Ch'tis) debuted in 2007. It was a box office smash, and I first saw it after it came out on DVD. Sort of. It was torture to get past the accents (c'est is pronounced shay instead of say, for example) so I quickly snoozed.

But I got through all of it last night when it ran on TV. This light comedy features a post office director (Kad Merad) who attempts to get a new job along the coast. He gets caught in a lie and ends up being banished to the far northern French town of Bergues. His opinion of the region is that it's nothing but unintelligent beer guzzlers struggling with sub-zero temperatures. But by the end, he warms up to the place and agrees with his colleague (Dany Boon) that visitors "cry twice: once upon arrival and once upon departure."

After the film, Ch'ti products seemed to crop up everywhere... Ch'ti candies and the beer they drank in many scenes of the movie, for example... And tourism picked up. So they might be able to complain about the bad rap they get, but they're surely getting the last laugh...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Noël Gourmand

Q: What better place to go just before you eat your belated Thanksgiving Day dinner?

A: Noël Gourmand, our town's annual gluttony festival.

It's where all the local (and some distant) food producers assemble in late November to tempt you with ideas of what to serve your holiday guests. It's a sampler's delight. Here's my favorite stop, Auger's Patissier and Chocolatier.

They always set up little café style tables and offer free hot chocolate or gourmet coffee, plus a slice of one of their finest cakes. Today, it was a Bûche du Bois Cassés, a new one for 2010. It translates to a log cake of broken wood, but it sounds much better the way they promote it: "a delicious alliance of hazelnut and mandarine orange." It was very rich and creamy, and I'm all for alliances.

There are dozens of vendors for wine, cheese, meats and other specialty foods. I bought a bottle of pricey rapeseed oil... 50cl ( about 17 oz.) for 7€, because I'm a sucker for any company that sets out samples with bread. And this oil -- flavored with garlic and shallots -- boasts 10% Omega 3 fat. Sold.

I also bought a slice of chocolate cake at Auger's. I intended to cut it up to add to our already voluminous quantity of desserts for Thanksgiving. But I forgot about it. And darn, the last guests have left.

Well, just another sacrifice this gourmand will have to make this weekend....

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sparkling Clean?


Yesterday morning, I found one of these little golden sparkles on my son's forehead. We've finally gotten rid of the lice, and now we've got another enemy on our hands... table glitter.

Décorations pour la table is a serious business here. We've got a book, Recevoir (Receiving), that covers creating your own floral centerpieces, proper seating arrangements and correctly placing the crystal stemware. If this down-to-the-last-detail book would only offer expert advice on removing miniscule gold hexagons from the plastic tablecloth. And from the stairwell, the front door, the chairs, etc...

It was my son's first communion, so I wanted to do it up special for him, and these little glitter packets are popular here... We've got angels, reindeer, Christmas trees... But the bigger ones hadn't glued themselves to everything in their path.

I've got some for today's (belated) Thanksgiving Day meal... sparkling burnt orange hexagons. I haven't decided whether or not we'll set them out. I'm thinking they might be easier to shake off the white cotton table cloth I plan to use. And perhaps we could use a less enthusiastic quantity.

Once again, this bit of advice is not offered in Recevoir.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Window Licking...


Unless these panes were coated in chocolate, I can think of other things I'd enjoy more while I'm out perusing the shops... But window licking (lèche vitrine) is simply what the French call window shopping...

This is one of my favorite places to lick the windows... Houses of the World. It's a chain store with furniture, cookware, glassware, gadgets and decorating ideas usually arranged by color themes. This makes it simple for design dunces like me...

BTW, there are no great bargains as you'd find in the U.S. today. For obvious reasons, there's no such thing here as an After-Thanksgiving Sale...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Many Mercis For....

 

First and foremost, I'm forever thankful for the wonderful people in my life! But if I consider the products I'm thankful to have while living overseas, some of the above would top the list...

Cranberry juice--France started importing it about five years ago.

Butternut squash--A bit hard to find, but our town's new indoor fruit and veggie market stocks 'em. They're often labeled with the English word butternut, but the official term is courge doubeurre (soft butter squash).

Pre-cut pumpkin--Canned pumpkin doesn't exist here, and I like all my fingers equally.

Beaucoup de variétés of bread--There's no Stove Top stuffing here. Perhaps in a specialty shop in Paris? I'm grateful it's light to ship or haul.

Peanut butter--Our local supermarche started stocking it within the past year. Great for the occasional cookie craving. My kids almost never eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That combo has actually left my radar after all this time.

My phone--We've got "free" international calls to the US and dozens of other countries for just 30€ ($40) a month for Internet/cable/phone. Pas mal. Not bad.

My computer--I appreciate the immediate, regular access to all my friends and family, and for the chance to blog about some of the interesting/ridiculous/silly things I'm experiencing here.

I'm a glass-is-half-full type person, but I still wouldn't have made a very good pilgrim... Hats off to them!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Noah's Ark Street


Not sure how this street in Orléans got its name, but rest assured that the only special delivery baggies available here were for dogs... Alas, if a dog owner hasn't been kind and considerate enough to use one of these bags, and you step in something unpleasant, don't fret. If you've landed in it with the left, it's considered good luck.

To remember this, left = luck, right = wrong.

(Yes, I used to be a teacher....)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Vegas, Bébé!


Odds are the person at La Française des Jeux who got to choose the theme for these tickets was a fan of a certain programme américaine.... Yes, that teeny-bopper 90's show Beverly Hills, 90210 made it here too, but Brenda and Brandon have apparently grown up. Check out youtube for "Vegas Palace: Brenda, Brandon et Nougatine" the bored pony... Brandon is a J.R. wanabee with loads of bling, and Brenda is his 30-something, effusive wife...

Incidentally, there's no such zip code in France. The closest one, 90200, belongs to eight towns... Zip codes here aren't exclusive to one town. Being in the Franche-Comté Region, they're about as far from Rodeo Drive as you'll find--rural and non-commercial... Rolling hills, not Beverly Hills...


Monday, November 22, 2010

No Pain, No Gain


These are beyond words when served warm and dunked in hot chocolate. They're called pain au chocolat, a.k.a.... chocolate bread. (Pain sounds nothing like our word in English... It sounds more like pahn, with the n barely pronounced.) They're a staple in France for breakfast and afternoon snacks. Before I came here, I didn't know I couldn't live without them. They're nice and flaky with two narrow strips of chocolate running down the inside... Just ten seconds in the microwave and voila, parfait! Perfect.
 
Okay, enough already... I need to go jog around the block ten times before I start trying to think about which of our town's four bakeries are open right now....

Sunday, November 21, 2010

You Are What You Eat


So, what does that make you if you tuck into some donkey sausage?

This flavor of sausage is actually quite popular here. At our downtown open air market this week, I bought four links for guests coming both this weekend and next. I asked the vendor what some of the most popular ones were and chose among those: Comte (a hard cheese from Eastern France), sanglier (wild boar), Cepes, a variety of mushroom, and, of course, the saucisson à l'âne, donkey sausage.

I'd planned an inset photo here, but just discovered that somebody snitched part of one of the sausages. You can only guess which one, so let's just say if that old adage is true, I'll need to be watching the guilty party's behavior today... That particular sausage was about half eaten...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Happy Rails


Joyeux anniversaire to the Orléans tram system, which turns ten years old today. My kids act like we're going to Disney when I tell them we're taking the tram... Thankfully, it's a little cheaper. There's a park and ride lot just 15 minutes from home, and it's 2€ per carload. Then it's a 12-minute trip into the city from there. That compares to the 7€ I paid once-- only once-- for a few hours of parking in the main square's underground lot.

Currently, the tram route runs north to south... Now, it's being expanded east to west. It's a mess downtown, and it surely spoils what's always been a stunning view of the city's famous cathedral. But this part of the work should be wrapped up in a few months. The new line will be open for 2012.

BTW, the cathedral has had a few more birthdays than the tramway. Construction on this Gothic masterpiece began in 1278... More on Cathédrale Sainte-Croix in a future post.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Beaujolais Nouveau


For Americans, the fourth Thursday in November is special each year. In France, it's the third Thursday in November that's an anticipated date. No, there's no Thanksgiving here... it's when the beaujolais nouveau are released for sale...

Today will likely be a bit tough for some French workers... According to the Orléans newspaper, a lot of soirées were planned last night in the city and surrounding villages. These young wines are often shared among friends. They're never expensive, usually less than 8€ a bottle. This one was just 3.48€ ($4.73).

Not sure who the head of the product naming department is for this company, but he surely doesn't get my vote for Employee of the Year....

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Young Wine(r)

What's a French village without a wine shop?

La Cave Solognote has been in business downtown for at least two years, but I'd never had the chance to stop in until yesterday. Once inside, I started chatting with the owner about brownies though, not wine. Ellie immediately got antsy, and began her "When can we leave?" monologue.

"Honey, find me a good Bordeaux," I told her, teasingly, of course. But after a few uninterrupted minutes of my yapping, Ellie led me as I still blabbered, to a bottle of red. Château Tayac: Cuvée Réservée 2005, Côtes de Bourg, and in minuscule print Grand Vin de Bordeaux.

"It's 2005; that's a good year," she stated. I was both proud and mortified. Apparently, she's been paying way more attention than an eight-year-old should at some of our formal French meals. But this is La France, and wine is serious business.

As I was paying, the shop owner reminded me to uncork it two hours before serving, then said to Ellie, "It's got to be good now; she'll tell everyone you chose it."

Actually, there's no pressure on her, but I will let you know how it goes over when we share it at Thanksgiving next week...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Fishy Story


At lunch one day, the kids were noting how often I buy salmon with bones in it. Then they informed me that it said right on today's package: sans arête. Good job, mom--without bones. All this time, I'd thought sans arête meant without stopping--never been frozen. With the price of salmon, I'd avoided that packaging many times. I thought I'd be paying less, so I didn't care if my fish had seen the inside of a freezer.

I should have noted the spelling. "Stop" is spelled arrêt. I knew that. I explained to the kids that I thought bones were os. No mom, fish bones are arête. Once again, they got a good laugh... Mom has so much to learn. (It's tough raising bilingual kids when they're far ahead of you in one of the languages.)

With the kilo and euro conversion, this works out to $11 a pound. I've seen higher priced salmon, but still I think it's steep... I mean, how far is it to Norway from here??? 

These days, we have salmon once a week. The kids tell me they look forward to coming home for what's become our traditional Monday lunch: grilled salmon, mashed potatoes and garlic green beans. 

And, of course, mom's always good for a laugh or two...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dishing It Out

This is the aftermath of our Sunday afternoon déjeuner. French meals always include an overabundance of cutlery, dishes and glassware. Each course gets a separate plate. Fortunately, most of our stuff can go straight to the dishwasher, even the Limoges fine porcelain. It takes at least two loads, so the dishwasher got a major league workout Sunday night, as did the delicate hands of this poor blogger.

On the menu:
Milles feuilles de saumon fumé avec sa sauce à l'aneth, champagne et pointes d'asperge
Moussaka de confit de canard en béchamel de fois gras avec sa sauce au Bordeaux et aux figues
Pommes de terre au gratin
Plateau de fromage avec Comte et Tomme Noir
Milles Feuilles pour dessert

In English: a "thousand layer" salmon appetizer with a dill sauce, champagne and asparagus tips, moussaka with duck in a sauce featuring béchamel, fois gras, Bordeaux wine and figs (photo below), potatoes au gratin, a cheese platter with Comte from far eastern France and Tomme Noir from the Pyrenees. The dessert was a "thousand layer" cake with alternate layers of vanilla creme and puff pastry and vanilla and chocolate icing...also called a Napoleon.

Normally, I will include just one photo per day, but today's an exception. The chef is also tech support, so he'll get to include his creative input from time to time...

We'll all be fasting now for the rest of the week.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Playing the Fool

I always thought Tarot cards were only for fortune tellers who sat in dimly-lit rooms, peering over crystal balls, etc... But here, they're for serious card addicts. Sunday afternoon disappeared in a flash as I lost pitifully to three of our friends...

I was raised playing other trump-based games like Whist, Spades and Hearts. But Tarot's played with a special 78-card deck that includes a separate trump suit. I won't explain the rules here (see Wikipedia), but I will say it's quite a game of twists and turns. Just when I'd think I was going to win a hand, I'd find myself doing something really stupide; I need many more long afternoons to get this game down. It would've helped if I'd read all the rules online first in my own language. I finally understand how a certain card should be played to my best advantage. This excuse card (far right, above) is called the "fool" in English. So now, I'm playing the fool... correctly.

I've yet to win in Tarot, and yesterday my lofty goal was simply not to come in last. My husband and I battled it out to the end for this spot; finally I triumphed. I won't tell you his score since he reads this blog, but you can imagine how splendidly things went for us since my score was minus 200....

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Numbers Games

As I write, someone is probably squirming in his or her seat at our big community hall, anxiously awaiting one last number... Loto is Bingo, and it's big here. This has likely drawn four or five hundred people, perhaps more since it's raining. Again.

The kids wanted to go because the jackpot is an American fridge. Translation: it's usually got one of those water dispensers and it's énorme by French standards. They loved playing with the buttons on these when we last visited the US. I never told them some models could even make crushed ice. Their little heads would have exploded. Our fridge here doesn't even have a freezer. Other top prizes were a 42-inch flat screen TV, an oven, and a laptop. The fridge alone was worth $1,780.

Cards cost 4€, five for 16€ or ten for 30€ (~$5.50, $22, $41). Not cheap! And Loto is really a test of your comprehension of French numbers. Certain categories of numbers still fry my brain. Soixante is sixty, but soixante-dix is 70. So if you need 64, you could start to hear sixty-something and it ends up being seventy-something. For this reason, I've always wished the French would adopt the system Belgium uses, where 70 is septante. Like that, septante et un would be 71. And for 90, instead of quatre-vingt-dix (four times twenty and ten) it's just nonante. Ninety-one is nonante et un. Simple.

So, we didn't go... we were home playing a different kind of cards... more on that tomorrow...