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...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Cake Worth Singing About

This is my favorite French cake, the Opéra... several layers of heavenly chocolate, almond sponge cake, rum and coffee. It's got plenty of the most essential vitamins B and C.... butter and cream.

The sponge cake is called joconde. If this word is vaguely familiar, that's because La Joconde is what the French call The Mona Lisa, and the cake is named for her. Its exact origins are disputed; some say it was named for the Paris Opéra House in the 1930s. Many agree it was made famous by the Paris bakery Dalloyau.

While researching this cake online, I found a recipe in English (www.epicurious.com), and plan to try it soon. It says it takes two hours of "active" cooking. Yikes. If it looks anything like this photo, I'll share my results here. And if it tastes anything like this one did, you'll find me stowed away on the 3rd floor with a large fork and gigantic glass of milk, along with a nice thick book...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Taking the Bridge

Here, when a holiday falls in the middle of the week, people often fait le pont, or "make the bridge," as they call it. It means they take an extra day to make a long weekend. Since yesterday was Armistice Day and it fell on a Thursday, many public offices will be closed today; many private company workers will take the day off. Vacation planning must be done with care to ensure you're not missing out on a chance for a four-day weekend! In my husband's case, his entire company is closed.

Last week, our schools opted to come back a day early from the 10-day fall break break and have school on Wednesdays for once. School's not usually held on Wednesdays here in preschool and elementary. This was so the kids could "make the bridge" in May when Ascension falls on a Thursday. Yet, for some bizarre reason, they're in school today. No bridge for them. The stores will likely be hopping today with parents doing Christmas shopping... like us.

The local tax office, pictured above, is shuttered today for the long weekend. Last week, when November 1, All Saint's Day, fell on a Monday they were also closed on Tuesday. Not sure what that's called... "extending the bridge," perhaps?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The War to End All Wars

Despite a chilly rain, about 80 people turned out this morning for La Ferté Saint Aubin's Armistice Day ceremony. The mayor (wearing the red, white and blue sash) placed flowers on the town's war memorial, gave a brief speech and invited residents to un pot d'amis, literally a jar of friends, a.k.a. drinks, at city hall. There are 154 names inscribed here under the heading A Nos Glorieux Morts 1914-1918, To Our Glorious Dead. That's a staggering count for a town that had just 3,500 people at the time.

The armistice was signed in the Compèigne Forest, about two and a half hours north of here. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch (pronounced "Fosh"), the Allied Supreme Commander in World War I who signed the agreement, has a large avenue named here for him. Boulevard Marechal Foch leads to the train station from our main street, which is named for another French war hero, Rue du Général Leclerc. La Ferté has many streets named for war heroes. More on this in future posts...

My heartfelt thanks to all of you who are serving or have served our countries, and to your families as well. You've made enormous sacrifices. Living where I live, I am constantly reminded that freedom is not something to be taken for granted... Happy Veteran's Day, everyone.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Our Growing Collection

Poux and coqueluche are two words you don't want to need in any language. Respectively, they're lice and whooping cough.

I first learned poux (pronounced "poo") a few years ago. There was a sign on Ellie's three-year-old class' door that said something like: ψείρα" έχουν poux φθάσει στα σχολικά μας and had a picture of a menacing insect. I gestured to the image to another mom, then scratched my head. She nodded, confirming what I feared. Soon after, the mountain chain of laundry began. (No matter how clean you are, you can still get these buggers, so I was forced to learn...)

Now the kids are in elementary school (primaire) and this time when the note came home in their parent/teacher communication books, I could thankfully (?) read the words myself. I immediately checked the kids over. A week later, the mountain chain of laundry reappeared, and a certain little girl got a much, much shorter haircut. They don't accept the kids at the coiffure with lice, so I --horror-- had to chop it myself.

Around this same time, I learned the word coqueluche. (Though at first I kept saying Coluche, a deceased 80's comedian, who could perhaps be called France's George Carlin.) Alex was the first victim. I kept him home a week from school; no one slept. Next, it was Ellie's turn, and now Bernard's.

If my turn comes along, I know the path to the pharmacy all too well. And if that happens, I'll just have to console myself regularly...there's a bakery across the street.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rainy Days and Chocolate...

♪♪♫♪♫...always lift me up. As long as there's chocolate, anyway.

This morning one of our local bakeries, Lancteau Martial, moved their chocolate production to the front of the store so chocoholics like me could witness the magic in the making... I must confess I stood like a dog at attention, captivated by everything rolling off the production line. I enjoyed all the treats sent my way, too... I bought my bread first, so I wouldn't be tempted to buy anything unreasonable...

They're in production for the holidays, and it'll take them the week to make the 100 kilos planned to get them through the New Year. Among the varieties being churned out are pâte d'amande (almond paste interior), ganache au café, ganache au framboise (raspberry), and the most popular... praliné. Ganache is a creamy chocolate filling...to die for.

Now, lest I've given you the impression that living here is all pastries and tastings, check in tomorrow, when I'll share the sad reality of my visit to the place across the street... ;-(

Monday, November 8, 2010

Half Day o' Homeschooling

My kids attend French public school, and today Alex's teacher is sick... It's rare to have last-minute subs ready to go in these circumstances. We're told at the gate by another teacher, and a quick round of negotiation takes place among parents. "I can take Marie 'til noon, if you take Hugo this afternoon," etc... For parents with no other options, kids sit in another class, but usually with little instruction. It's total Dullsville.

So, this morning, it was cooking school with mom... chicken tarte with green beans wrapped in ham. After that, some idiot box science classes: C'est Pas Sorcier (this expression means "it's not rocket science") and Il Etait une Fois la Vie, a.k.a. Once Upon a Time... Life. BTW: If you find the latter online, beware of biology lessons offered in these cartoons that may result in many questions from your small children....

Ellie came home for the two-hour lunch break with big news: a sub had been found, so Alex has been summoned back! She was quite pleased to inform him.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

French Drive-In Theater

Welcome to the "Cinémobile," a specially built 18-wheeler equipped with a 100-seat movie theater inside. The truck comes one Saturday per month and plays recent releases. On this occasion, we saw Shrek 4. Seats are comfy--I fell asleep--and it's clean. No food sold, nor allowed. Tickets are actually cheaper than the theaters in Orléans: it's 5.40 euros (~$7.50) for adults, as opposed to 7.50 (~$10.50) in the city.  The Centre Region bought three of these custom trucks to bring movies to people in 46 communities who are living at least 15 km from a regular theater....

Friday, November 5, 2010

Heeeere's Johnny

No matter how much I like Phil Collins, I would never think to have his mug plastered all over my car hood...

Meet Johnny Hallyday, a famous French singer who got his start in the 60s... He and his (much, much) younger wife Laeticia are regulars in the national gossip magazines. I'd say he's on par with Elvis in terms of popularity, except that he's not dead.... and I haven't seen him on any velvet paintings. Yet.

PS: Allume le feu = light the fire.

Hey, Don't Mince Words

The French can be known for being pretty direct.... The translation here: "Smoking kills." On the flip side: "Smoking creates a strong dependence. Don't start." Words to live by.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What Day is Mardi?

Well, even if you don't know, it doesn't matter. It's right here in grey and white, in English. And in Spanish. And in German. So believe it or not, the Louvre in Paris really is closed on Tuesdays... Know before you go!

Like I Need Another Reason

To eat more chocolate???? This one tells me it's rich in magnesium....

Poulain, one of the oldest French chocolate brands, is named for creator Victor-Auguste Poulain. He started mass production in 1848 in Blois (pronounced Blwah) back when we Americans were busy pursuing less important things, like gold. Poulain is the French word for colt. The company was sold to Cadbury in 1988.

In case you're wondering, you can breathe a sigh of relief that there's no sodium in this bar. Just don't ask about the calories, because if you have to ask, you can't afford them...

An Office With a View

When I worked for Texas A&M University years ago, I would have loved to have this view out my office window! The University of Orléans has some of its administrative offices in this castle, which overlooks Parc Floral in La Source. Park visitors can stroll among 35 hectares of flowers and 67 species of animals, mostly birds. There's also a very cool butterfly enclosure... At 6 euros an adult and 4 for a child, it's a bit pricey, but if you don't already have an office with a view, this does make for a lovely place for some R&R...