Monday, November 30, 2009

Teaching my Native Language

I am now teaching English three to six hours a week. I've from three to eight students and my main role is to get them to use whatever vocabulary and grammar they've gotten into their heads. Thus, I ask questions, I encourage dialog, I get them to read articles, I ask them to write about what they did last weekend, where they went to school, what they want to do tomorrow, or as a job in the future. I ask them about their best memories, and their dreams. I get them to practice various past tenses, to describe meals, to tell me about people in their lives. I get them writing up and acting out conversations and dialogs between customers and hotel receptionists, restaurant waiters, etc.,

It's challenging for me. I speak more slowly than normally -- by necessity as anyone who knows me will confirm! I prepare all my classes with relatively minimal advance notice -- zooming through the internet, seeking ideas, vocabulary, descriptions, texts, etc., And, as each class is a three hour marathon with minimal breaks (the two smokers in the group are good at making sure these happen), it is rather intense.

However, what I find most challenging is simply being confronted by young and middle-aged, out-of-work chomeurs struggling to make sense of this life. They are more than a bit sad and depressed. If I ask what they did over the weekend, the answer is often as not watched a film on TV, slept late, ate lunch with my mother. I feel at times like I'm pulling teeth, but also that I'm there to encourage them in their accomplishments, to reinforce the possibilities of finding a new job, getting their lives in order, etc.,

I feel the weight of the ruts they are in, and at times fear being pulled in with them. I too am juggling, coping, seeking, hoping. I too am sending out resumes for other jobs in marketing, teaching, translating. I too am wishing to hear the phone ring, get my chance at an interview, eager to move forward and upward in this world. I too am scared and at times demoralized, before I get out the bull whip and kick myself out of my seat and get back to work.

It's a curious sensation.

My mother taught beginning French for years. And I wonder how it is that I am revisiting this world of beginning language study. It is not an easy area of study for the students, particularly when adult. You have individuals with a certain limited vocabulary left over from their high school years-- perhaps just 5-6 years ago, or twenty--. Their lives keep them somewhat busy; they have limited resources to learn what you're teaching. It is necessary on the one hand to move along slowly, so they have the time to absorb, take notes, etc., Yet on the other, if you move too slowly, they get bored and annoyed and stop taking said notes (I noticed this when I was putting quite a bit of vocabulary for food on the board yesterday).

And, I don't have the brightest of the bright in front of me. I have the individuals who are not coping in many areas of their lives. They are here having failed elsewhere. It is brave to strive to acquire a new skill, not sure if they're even capable of it. It is clear that too few actually study and work at home. So much of what I've tried to put across each week has simply gone in one ear and out the other (or gotten clipped into a notebook and shelved). As such, the building blocks to more interesting conversations, more depth and greater comprehension are only very very slowly coming into place. For every two steps forward I think I've brought them, I realize that I need to take at least one step back, and perhaps three.

It is humbling, fascinating, challenging and more. There are days I get stumped, and days I get them laughing. Do I dare bring in pop tunes and try to get them singing?? I remember reading about a teacher of English in Cuba who began with the Beatles, "I want to hold your hand," and with time brought his class up to the level of complexity evinced by "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." May I do so well.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Misty Moisty Morning...

Somedays, it is simply a religious experience to walk by the side of a River...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

computer in the shop

I've some great new photos... and other good things, but, with the computer in the shop, I'm rather hamstrung for updates. For all American friends, do enjoy your Turkey day! and I'll be back to blogging soon I trust.

with lots of affection - Madeleine

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thanksgiving far from home

I have a strong attachment to Thanksgiving and all that it stands for. Wherever I've lived in the world -– Japan, Paris, Seattle, Arles, Avignon-—I've managed to put one together. In Japan finding a turkey was near impossible -– so I purchased two large chickens. It cost a fortune – all those exotic ingredients -— but I reveled in recreating it alone for the first time in my life, for those I wished to say thank you to. I managed it in the home and kitchen of my host family, and added just three people to the four already in the house: my boss, my best friend/office mate, and the man who had introduced me to my host family. And there, amongst those dearest to me in that strange country, many of whom had traveled far and wide, I heard what I’d hear again and again in the future; my, but I didn’t know American food could be so good!

From my first winter in France in 1995 – the year of two months of transit strikes in Paris – I tried to offer Thanksgiving yearly. That first year, I was in Arles with Erick, and he invited numerous friends who’d met me over the summer to join us. Nearly everything was a hit, except the pumpkin pie -- my mother's recipe have you! Erick had declared, “c’est pas bon,”after one bite and not a soul took another piece. Ah well, pumpkin pie is an excellent and nourishing breakfast, and so it was for me for the rest of the week.

Returning to Paris I had no worry of putting on extra poundage through eating all my own left-overs of stuffing, corn pudding and pie. In the city of lights I walked absolutely everywhere for the during that two month strike. Add in my sixth story walk-up and I think I've rarely had such great legs in my life since.

As my family celebrated Thanksgiving, and later my Seattle friends, it's a time when everyone cooks, everyone feasts, and everyone helps clean. No one goes home (or to sleep) till the dishes are done. We've never been a football-watching crowd, so this truly included everyone from the oldest to the youngest, male, female, you name it.

But abroad, that just doesn't work. It is the rare French guest who helps with the dishes. In France when you entertain you do the “totale," meaning from start to end, the hostess copes with everything. Guests bring flowers, chocolate, wine, cheese or pottery (should that be their specialty), and go home, happy and well nourished. The potluck (now known as auberge espagnole had yet to really catch on when I first moved here. And, being the owners of a large and well-equipped kitchen, noted for our expertise in the cooking arena … well, it just evolved into a rather large event where I did the maximum if not all the work. Most years, it was pure joy to invite the various artisans, vintners, farmers, philosophers, archeologists and more to my table. I wanted to thank them for helping me, and us, make our business so rich with the warm welcome they offered to me and my guests as I tour Provence and visit them -- often! The irony was not lost on a soul that they were invited to the Provençal chef’s house, and his American wife was doing all the cooking!

From 15-20, from 20 – 28, from 28 to 35 … it just kept expanding. From our dinner table that sat 12 to the b&b table that sat 20, and then to the addition of a long make-shift table of boards, with very wobbly home-made benches alongside. Kids crawled under the table to access their seats – and a few adults as well!

There was the year I wanted to do it Southern style, harking back to my father’s Kentucky roots, and add bourbon to the sweet potatoes, cranberries and pecan pie. Rather than go out and purchase me expensive imported bourbon at the store, Erick got to work distilling wine to pure alcohol in the kitchen. Out came the pressure cooker, some rubber tubing, a copper coil, and voila, I had my alcohol. Granted it wasn’t aged in toasted casks, but, it was pretty thrilling to have your own house alchemist make you pure alcohol on the gas cooktop.

There were years when my American au pairs contributed their favorite family dishes – baked beans, potato salad, green salad with dried cranberries and cherries.... There were years when a Dutch friend came to help out a couple days before the event with grinding the corn through the vegetable mill to prepare the corn pudding base. There were years when my father came and did his special sausage, apple and prune stuffing recipe.

Each year’s feast required an explanation and proper introduction to this strange American tradition. I would tell my version of the arrival of the Pilgrims, their meeting with the Indians, what it meant to learn to survive in the New World, to begin to tame it, to know it … Then I’d tell them what all the dishes were : corn pudding, turkey, apple and sausage stuffing, sweet potatoes, squash, mashed potatoes, corn bread, biscuits, cranberries, and of course, the pies. All these foods of the Americas (excepting the apples). All these amazing food stuffs brought back to Europe from the New World. I added to my old favorites special new recipes for mince meat pie from the New York Times, oyster cornbread stuffing from a book of Indian recipes, Indian pudding.

With such a list of traditional favorites I couldn't delegate, nor entrust the dishes to any one else. I became a bit of a control freak. And the fact that I’d calmed down over how Erick carved a turkey (unlike my WASP dad, he most definitely did not slice the white meat, but removed the entire breast and then cut it in chunks) was already a big deal.

In the last two years much has changed. My home is smaller, my budget minimal, and my energy much taken up by kids, rebuilding the business, job searching, etc., I managed a variation on a pot luck T-day last year at the winery. It was lovely, but required nonetheless grand orchestration. This year, perhaps I'll be with a friend who has an American husband? Perhaps I'll just make a couple special dishes for me and the boys? I don't know. But I'm ok with it. I'm grateful already for my friends, for my world, for good health, for happy and healthy children, for getting along better with Erick, for putting many a project in motion. I will give thanks, even if I don't roll away from the dinner table in doing so!

Fall Foliage takes my breath away

Driving home after dropping the kids off at school I simply had to park the car just off the bridge and photograph. It was just too stunning, and yes, too amazing that I live in such a beautiful place. The fall foliage has come in, the sun was shining, the Rhône was calm and reflecting all those glorious colors. And there was the Pope's Palace, majestic on its rock above the city.

Just extraordinary.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Teamwork hits the nail on the head

When you see kids sitting around looking bored. When they start doing silly things like slamming doors and causing plaster to fall. When the teasing gets a bit out of hand. When you've a collection of young people in your home and you have no TV, nor do you permit computer or other electronic games. Well, they need to be occupied.

There I was with lots of spare wood from my friend's house, and at least five bicycles that would last out the winter weather far more happily in a shed. So, to work.

Time to build a bike shed as an add-on to our store bought garden shed. Time to get creative, to put all hands to work. Time to solve our small dilemma and involve all in the process.

It's not quite finished -- we've still to put the roof on -- but it is far advanced and it quite did its job of bringing together my disparate pre-teens into a functioning team of upbeat workers.

Between bike sheds and piling up 7 cords of wood, we're getting somewhere. Truly, the more often I can get them working as a team, the better the whole household functions. I keep thinking of my cousins and their wall-building/ step-fixing/ roof-cleaning projects. They truly had something there!

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Family Outing to the Ochre hills

Free weekends to do as I please. Time to spend with my boys and our friends. We spent this one making cookies at school for the Christmas fair in two weeks, at a glorious bon fire party at the home of an English friend, and hiking the hills below the majestic Mt Ventoux. Not bad, hm?

Stick me in a kitchen with recipes and ingredients and off I go. My task was chocolate sablets and walnut macaroons, plus shaping vanilla crescents. With many a fellow mother by my side the tasks went quickly and smoothly. And from my discreet nibbles, I can attest that the cookies will be wonderful!

The boys were in their element, taking over the school grounds, walking Filou, coming in to join us when they were simply too hungry to stay outside further. The weather has been balmy and warm. When it came time to depart the only thing that held us up was finding the discarded sweaters.

My English friend A has a knack for hosting parties that are great fun but not too much work. Truly she is gifted. The French tend to hold parties that require scrubbing their house top to toe and putting a great deal of stress into the perfection of the moment. Everything must be just so. As I gather from my French friends, they observe us, and have decided that it is more in the Anglo-Saxon temperament to simply enjoy having friends over. As such, A is a prime example. She skillfully designs events where others bring the food or alcohol, she provides the setting most wonderfully enhanced with candles, outdoor furniture and a signature theme: dancing on the terrace, a bonfire, marshmallows, etc., and we arrive and have a grand time. The pre-party prep is minimal, the clean-up after easy, kids are welcome or not depending on the event. The directives are clear. Our French friends are rather in awe of her relaxed demeanor throughout the event.

From sparklers and marshmallows to a cozy reception at my friend P's, and an outing à six the next day. Under the cherry trees we enjoyed our simple picnic of sandwiches, soup and cold Japanese somen noodles -- a major hit with their gomasio and special sauce --, followed by fruit and chocolate. In all directions were glorious fall vistas of yellow and red, the Mont Ventoux rose above our heads, and ochre hills were deep in the forest, there to climb and explore. We discussed everything under the sun: life, love, children, divorce, happiness, ambition, drive, goals, basic needs -- that's what women do, right? And our boys scrambled and loped, ran and jumped, slid and tumbled.

A most successful weekend.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Olive Harvest

It is the time of year to harvest olives for our wonderful golden oil. The air is chilly, the sun bright. The Mistral wind never fails to blow for at least a week of the harvest -- just to keep you on your toes, and to bring frostbite to your finger tips -- full gloves being useless for an activity demanding dexterous digits.

Depending on the varieties planted in your orchard, or oliveraie the picking begins early November, or early December. Isabelle and Paul Pierre's orchard is filled with Verdale, and Grossane olives. As such, they pick a section early, and another portion later in the season. Teams of friends come to stay with them in their large transformed stone mill for the harvest and together with their two or three nets, a comb per person, their red aerated crates and traditional triangular ladders, they go from tree to tree stripping it of its plump fruit.

The trees are never very tall here. They are pruned in an open parasol shape. And the olives are always picked by hand, not shaken from the trees.

Surprisingly, the scent in the air is that of honey from the bed of white flowers covering the orchard, with an occasional whiff of wild mint and oregano. These scents waft up, warm the soul, tickle the palate and confuse the senses. Happily a hot lunch awaits the workers at noon.

There are over a thousand trees to pick, with varying quantities of fruit on each depending on its exposure to the sun and wind of the season. When I've clients here during this season we always go picking at one of my friend's orchards, be it with Sophie our beekeeper, or over at JP's vineyard, or here with Isabelle and Paul Pierre. It is a local past-time this time of the year, whether you've two trees or over a thousand.

From the farm there will be daily trips to the organic mill up in the hills above Mouriès to bring the day's harvest, fresh. The mill is truly a small structure lost amidst the limestone hills jutting above and around, down a long and much pitted dirt road. You have to be committed to your oil to come this far.

But they are. The trees are all treated organically, and even though recently a product to treat the flies which attack the trees has been officially deemed permissable in organic oliculture, they hesitate to use it, feeling it is an industry decision, not one that is truly safe and considered.

And soon, the fresh oil will be there to drizzle over pasta and bread, baked fish and steamed vegetables...yummmmm

And the milk slows

As I stepped out of my car the powerful musky scent of the billy goat hit me forcefully. Yes, rutting beasts make their presence known. Apparently bears are far smellier, but this billy goat's scent carries far. Aurelie was in the barn, and my arrival was perfectly timed. The goats had charged eagerly up to their milking spots, jumping over each other, skipping a spot here and there, and she was up there trying to disentangle them and get them straight. I was able to jump in and help. I haven't actually spent that much time with the animals beyond milking them. As Aurelie doesn't take them out for long walks, and as I've not been here as much as I would like. But at least I am at ease with them, and can handle a couple that get loose without fear or worry.

It's nearly mid-November already. The goats are giving less and less milk. Most have been gotten with kid by the billy goat now. Aurelie is milking every day, but making cheese only every other day. Thus the labor in the laboratory was relatively light today.

Today, rather than do my normal routine of lots and lots of cleaning and scrubbing, I was able to be just with the cheese. I was able to work on my flipping skills. This was the second flip, not the first. Which means that the cheese filled about a third of the mold, having drained already for more than a day. However, I did it well nonetheless, so I was pleased. I wasn't able to get the technique using my thumb to work, no matter than Aurelie showed me again, and that Paul Pierre had emphasized that this was the proper technique. I've still the image of another goat cheese maker engrained on my brain, Claudine for those of you who've visited with me, and her hand movements are easier for me to replicate. She would tip out the cheese higher up on her palm, flip it down to her fingers and then plop it back in the mold. Clearly, she had mastered this over 30 years of activity, and did it quickly and cleanly. I found this manoeuver far easier for me, and after a couple of tries, was able to do it relatively smoothely, quickly and cleanly, no bits left on the sides, no unsightly finger prints.

A couple hundred cheeses later I switched to pouring out the set curd into the molds for the next batch of cheeses. This is the easy part for me now. I pour off the whey and the more fuzzy skum that forms on the top during the initial fermentation, then I comb my fingers through the curd lightly, to homogenize it a bit (the curd in the middle is denser than that on the sides, and thus makes a different cheese), and then I took the large cup and started pouring it over the molds and the mold holder. No need to over fill the molds with this dense end-of-season curd.

Once finished, I helped clean up these tools, and then hosed down, scrubbed and squeegeed the floor. Then off to lunch with Isabelle and Paul Pierrre where I was served calve's tongue -- a first for me!-- with a lovely sauce of capers, mustard, vinegar, oil, and chopped fresh parsley. In the true sauce a hard boiled egg is separated into yolk (which gets blended with the mustard and oil) and minced white which is added to the sauce. I'm afraid I've forgotten the name of this sauce, but will try to get it in the near future. It begins with a C...

In any case, lunch was surprisingly delicious and tender, the tongue having been cooked for over an hour in the pressure cooker with leeks and carrots and good things in the bouillon. Simple baked potatoes accompanied. It was quite a good peasant feast. Hmmm. I wonder if I served tongue to my boys if they'd have any clue? Best to slice it up first I think, as visually, it is an odd thing to look at, and requires peeling before slicing and serving. They might take a look at it and flee the table. Or not.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I cook

I cook and I nourish. This is an integral part of my being, of how I share with others and operate in this world. I've never made mashed potatoes from a box, nor an instant cake -- thankfully my mother didn't believe in them. For every school bake sale we pulled out the Joy of Cooking and made cookies or brownies from scratch. I don't reheat frozen pizzas and rarely use a store bought pie crust (French pâte feuilletée is the sole exception on this). Feeding my children real food from real ingredients -- the best I can obtain without too much trouble or funds -- is integral to how I'm raising them.

I am building their bodies, and their minds. Those reports from the English school system of the improved grades, concentration and behavior of children through the simple (but enormous) change of quality in their school lunches hit their mark in a person like myself. Now Jamie Oliver is attempting to convert a town in the US with one of the largest obesity percentages per capita. I wish him sincerely well, and hope that with Michelle Obama in his corner, not to mention much of the liberal media, he will succeed in shifting some towards better foods and to integrate cooking into their life. He is a far easier media celebrity to watch and relate to than Michael Pollan for the vast majority of the American population, much as I am riveted listenting to the latter speak.

During my childhood in the 1970s my parents, who both worked full-time, fed me nightly, home-made, sit-down meals. I don't remember it being onerous for either of them (they both cooked): a roast chicken or some piece of meat either broiled or quickly fried in a bit of butter, boiled vegetables -- generally two, and something starchy and white. Add to this a pitcher of whole milk for the kids and a bottle of wine for the grown-ups and you have our nightly spread.

What was once so normal is no longer the rule. It is now a revolutionary act to conscientiously feed our children. From Michael Pollan, to Joan Gussow to Jonanathan Safran Foer's new book on meat, it is becoming trendy amongst the intelligentsia to rethink our relationship to food. But, for the vast majority of individuals, cheap and easy, sweet, salty and fatty fast food still dominates the diet.

And taking time to cook. As Michael Pollan put it recently in the NYTimes, in countries where people make their own food from scratch, there is no obesity, or barely. If you had to slice, dice, soak, dry, pre-fry and final fry your French fries every time you wanted to eat some, would you eat so many as to give you cardiac failure?

So yes, I take the time to cook, and to cook from scratch. I offer this to my children, to myself, to my friends. It is time-consuming, but not in a way that is bothersome to me. I've no tv, I get my errands done as I need, my housekeeping is relatively light each week, and no, I don't work long hours at a job that requires a lengthy commute. I am coping (just barely) not doing so. Is it a sacrifice? professionally no doubt, but personally? Clearly, I've chosen this route, and so I live it. My act speaks louder than any winsome wondering words. Thus I can and do spend an hour or a bit more in the kitchen every evening to make a decent meal for the kids. I bake my bread every Wednesday/Thursday, and at least one if not two afternoons a week I prepare a batch of muffins or cereal bars.

To me it's faster than picking up Chinese or a pizza on the way home, and infinitely cheaper on the budget. My garbage is next to nothing: compost, some containers to recycle and perhaps one sac per week that actually goes to the bin.

But back to cooking, and the choice, need and desire to nourish. I like putting food in front of people. It doesn't have to be a big extravaganza -- though Thanksgiving generally is. And I do confess I enjoy getting a bit of applause for a particularly elegant dessert. It just feels right, and yes thankfully, easy, to whip out a quiche while I'm still a bit sleepy in pjs, chop some vegetables, bake a tart, set the table and then go back and take care of shower, work, tasks, children etc., knowing the arrival of my friends at noon will be delightful and easy, natural.

Politics and belief have affected what I serve my children. Of course I was influenced by my parents, but as a child of my generation, and one who reads, seeks to learn more, and operates with the local organic, agricultural world of Provence, I have gone beyond what they taught me. I cook and serve many whole grains. I bake my bread with my own starter to render it more digestible (long fermenting times). I serve lots of locally grown, in-season vegetables, with the occasional sprinkling of frozen peas in a fried rice. I get eggs from a local farmer. And, I rarely serve meat. I am not a vegetarian. I once tried to be and became quite anemic. I wasn't living in a situation apt to eat a balanced diet without meat, and neither did I have the knowledge and skills to do so. My compromise for the moment -- as for many people, this too may evolve -- is to purchase the best quality, and ideally from a local farmer who has raised his animals in humane conditions with good quality feed and local hay/foraging. This is of course not inexpensive, and thus as I mentioned, meat is a rare presence in the meals I serve the kids, no more than once a week, if that.

And so, in this fast-paced world, have I taken myself off the path to financial wealth and professional accomplishments commensurate with my fellow Princetonians? Yes, I think I have, unless a miracle happens. Who knows, maybe someday I'll be a super-famous novelist? In the meantime, by taking this other path I've chosen to place my bets on a different sort of retirement account: my and my children's physical health.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chocolate Mille Feuille (Napoleon)

I actually baked the other night. With all that's been going on, I've not been in the kitchen much. Basic nourishment for the boys, some rice for me... But, we had company and they are close friends of Jonas and it seemed right that we be festive. So, with a crowd pleasing lasagna for the main course, I prepared a mille feuille for dessert. Truly, a very simple pastry to prepare, and always a hit.

I tried it this time with chocolate, something I'd not done before, and yes, it worked quite nicely.

In France it is easy to find good quality puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) in the refrigerator section of any grocery store. When in the US I go to the freezer section and get the frozen sheets of puff pastry from Pepperidge Farm which need to be defrosted in a fridge overnight before using. Thus, when preparing this dessert, it is round in France, and square in the US.

Ingredients for 8-10 portions

3 sheets of puff pastry (this will be 2 boxes of Pepperidge Farm flaky pastry dough found in the freezer section, or 3 sheets from your favorite specialty bakery store)

For the cream:

1 liter/1 quart whole milk
4 egg yolks and 2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour or corn starch
100 grams/5 oz 60% dessert chocolate chopped in small pieces

Heat the milk in a heavy bottomed sauce pan with the chocolate, whisking gently for the chocolate to melt. While the milk heats, blend your egg yolks and egg, sugar and flour till light yellow in a mixing bowl. When your milk is hot, pour a third of it slowly into the egg mixture whisking all the while. Then pour the mixture back into the sauce pan and whisk steadily till it starts to bubble and thicken. The flour (or corn starch) prevents the eggs from curdling too quickly.

When thickened and just bubbling pour/scrape the cream out onto a lined cookie sheet and place in the refrigerator to chill. (trick from my pastry man)

Lay your flaky pastry sheets out on baking pans, poke holes with a fork throughout to prevent them from puffing in the oven and bake at 400F / 200C till nicely brown. (15-25 minutes). It is important to let them get really brown. Just take a look at any pastry shop's mille feuille, they aren't scared to cook the pastry. It gives more flavor and texture this way. Remove the sheets from the oven and let cool.

To put it together, place one pastry sheet on your cake plate, spread half the cream, then lay the next sheet, spread the rest of the cream, then the final sheet. You can finish off the mille feuille with powdered sugar or a glaze of powdered sugar and lemon juice and/or Grand Marnier, or sprinkle fresh berries, or chocolate drippings à la Jackson Pollock… as the mood takes you. Chill till ready to serve. This time I improvised a home-made chocolate glaze with a very concentrated simple syrup of water and sugar and melted chocolate. The measurements were completely hokey -- 1/2 cup water to start with, 5 oz of chocolate, and I believe 2 cups of sugar... then gently cooked till the texture looked right, cooled a bit and poured on top.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Happy Ending Movies

The kids and I watched Enchanted, so sweet, so American, so Disney, happy endings all round, even for the cynical divorce lawyer. A simple story of a fairy tale princess who ends up in Times Square in her marvelous bouffant gown, her gift of singing to the local animals and getting their help (great spin on this, as since she's no longer in the forest, the local fauna consists of rats, pigeons, mice and cockroaches!), and her belief in true love untainted. She wins in the end, and converts all around her to joy and love and fairy tale endings.

What an odd thing to see when living in France, the land of realism and nuance, sad endings, closed doors and pessimism. Happy endings are such a part of American culture. We believe we can communicate, share, discover, reach out, as if we had no hang-ups, no childhood disasters, no fear of intimacy, no resentment that's built to ungodly levels.

Back during the divorce, I loved watching Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan movies – the slightly wacky but lovable girl gets the guy every time, and it will be ok. So far away, winter in Provence, long dark nights, a marriage in trouble, these presented warmth and hope; that for which they were designed. And I succombed most willingly to the fantasy.

Interestingly, it was the boys who chose the movie.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Staying with Friends

It's fascinating to me how we each approach the act of opening our homes and lives to a visitor, be he/she family, friend or new acquaintance. What is it to host? I was raised by a mother who opened our home every summer to a visiting French teenager, or to a family of five relatives on my father's side for over a week, or to the passing friend through NYC. We welcomed friends to our Christmas festivities. There was always enough food to go around, a spare bed or couch or a mattress on the floor, linens. It just wasn't that big an imposition.

Now, I suppose we had our unofficial guidelines. We preferred guests who helped with dishes, who were relatively independent transportation-wise, who were good company, but who could just as easily go out for a walk by themselves or pick up a book and read in a corner.

And when we went visiting, we arrived with gifts, we offered to make our own beds (if they hadn't already been made), we helped cook, carried babies, did dishes, had a stash of books so we wouldn't be a bother, went shopping with our hostess and purchased (this was my mom's thing) the groceries for the week we were there (particularly when visiting as a family in France). And yes, when the visit was concluded, we stripped our beds and brought the laundry to the laundry machine.

Whenever I go to the States for a meeting or conference, I check to see which cousin lives in town, give a call (or email) and of course I can spend the week. That's a given in our family. The response is always a strong affirmative. Hosting one of our cousins--as we are quitenumerous and we don't all know each other as well as we'd like--is a chance to knit together a stronger relationship with someone we are happy to know better.

When I lived in Arles the house was a veritable welcome spot for many a young cousin, au pair and friend. I remember one cluster of cousins -- all young men -- who from the moment of their arrival were a joy and a help. One took Leo on his lap and read him books, another emptied the dishwasher and set the table. And, before leaving, not only did they strip their beds, but they vaccuumed their room as well! I was amazed, praised these young men to their mother and simply sat back and wondered if ever I'll be able to raise my sons as well. Yes, we fed them great meals, and yes, I loaned them my car to go kayaking, got them maps, set them up for excursions, etc., But that's all part of it, right?

I think on all this as during the week I rented my house, I was a house guest a bit left and right. At the first home, the home of a relatively new friend, I clearly stayed one day de trop. And, I arrived with dog in a house inhabited by cats. Not a recommended act. Said dog was relatively well-behaved, and I, well, I came with gifts, tried to help, but out of sorts as I was, I was a weighty presence, not the helpful being I would like to think I can be (and normally am). I was clearly in the way by the second day. Two nights was one too much.

I then went on to Martine's, and there, I was put to work, and I was able to contribute and while I talked too much at times, I also shut up and simply worked in a zen state at other times. It balanced out. I also came with food, my rice cooker, and dog. The dog caused some issues with a neighbor, but was otherwise well-tolerated and well-behaved. We're still very close, and she is neither berating me for my stuck in my messed-up state-ness, nor does she seem weary of me and my current woes either. She is able to let me be where I'm at without it affecting her personal state too much.

My time at Mireille's was equally nourishing and warm. But there I heard stories of a childhood where friends weren't allowed further than the garage to play. Where sleepovers were unthought-of, and barriers set high. She's made a complete about-face from her upbringing, and whichever child is willing or absent sacrifices his/her bed to me willingly and easily. Warmth and welcome now come naturally.

For me, I think, the trick is not to take the act too seriously. I do what I am able to do. If I've 4 pre-adolescents at each other's throat, a broken-down car, and homework to get done with Leo, well, I'm not able to do much more than make up the mattress on the floor, pull out a towel, and perhaps serve a plate of fried rice. But, I'm okay with that. I have limits imposed on me by the house, the kids, etc., but I still have a spare spot on the floor of my room, and I'll do what I can do. I also have faith that the guest will help out too.

As such, I am perhaps not an elegant host, but I'm an easy host. I usually say yes, and will work it all out as I'm able. Only rarely have people over-stayed their welcome in my home. But it was an extreme case of three months of over-bearing presence, tactless behavior, minimal helpfulness, etc.,

I leave these thoughts unfinished. As they are and always will be. We each do as we can, linked to our cultures, our pasts, our traditions. There are the hosts who lay out the red carpet, and it is marvelous. But as I remember from my time in Japan, if you give too much the debt becomes too difficult to re-pay and the relationship tilts out of balance. But if this is the tradition you heark from, then that is the style of host you will likely be, and in this case, guests may quickly become a burden. ...

Yes, there's always more, and there is no right way. But the blending of styles and cultures will raise issues and occasionally, as when I over-stayed my welcome with my very generous and dear hosts... leave a sense of, oops, something's gone off.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Limits: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional.

Do you work till you drop? Give till there's nothing more to give? Exercise till the body is melting with fatigue? Does the body indicate your limits by becoming sick? collapsing? sending out unambiguous signals.

Or, do you know when the work day is over. Give only what you have available. Offer only what you have to spare. And, physical health is a given, never a worry. Nights are calm, sleep is solid.

And if you put the two in the same room? balance? complimentarity? or complete miscomprehension?


A day with Leo

Jonas is with his friend till this afternoon. So yesterday Leo and I had one of those rare evenings (and today mornings) with just the two of us. We snuggled down to read another chapter of The Lightning Thief -- almost finished-- and then went on to watch one of my favorite kids' films, My Side of the Mountain. I'd fogotten that it takes place way back in perhaps 1969? or earlier? In any case, though the cars and clothing styles are quite dated, the story still resonates for a little boy the same age as the protagonist. Can you really live off the land alone? Is it a true story? Many times since Leo has told me how much he appreciated the film.

There is hope after Transformers, Chainsaw Masacre (I can't believe it, but a friend of his showed him this last week!) and Dofus.

It was a special Mom and son evening and with him there, I slept like a baby, grounded, at peace.

Today was errands' day. The first was to drop off the car for some last repairs. From there, on foot, into town and the tax office, the employment office, and the grocery. Leo accompanied me for all this. So 8:30 on the dot, out the door we were, Filou at our side. From the garage we were off for our walking excursion across our island, across the bridge and into the ramparts. Leo pleasantly at my side, holding my hand.

Me and my big boy who is already 164cm! He nearly tops his dad, though not quite. So I suppose we were an odd sight, but I wasn't going to discourage the hand-holding. It was simply too lovely. Though the morning was long, my meetings went well, and we were back in good spirits, enjoying the light as it turned to warmth and a beautiful blue sky.

Goodness I'm grateful for my kids! And you know, they seem to love me too!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

And the finishing touches advance

A house built of wood, insulated with ouate (shredded cloth and paper?) and cork, air-tight, but with glorious sliding window doors along the South side, solar panels on the roof, a special hot water heater adapted for such, and the help of many hands to put it into place.

With all the necessary tools present and accessible, it was relatively easy, though angles and corners and rounded parts were challenging to put it mildly. Martine has been working nearly non-stop since she arrived for fall break. The summer had been spent in a similar fashion. And slowly, it is all coming into place. Walls are going up, the floor is in in the main room, the kitchen will be installed shortly, ditto the hot water heater. All the bathroom necessities are there, awaiting installation (we camped with a hose for the time I was there helping out).

It is unusual to see a house like this -- built to use a minimum of gas/electricity/energy-- in this region. Most often the houses are cement block and stucco, brick and stone. In the north, and in Northern Europe, it is far more fashionable. As such, Martine is a bit of a rebel in her neighborhood. People pass by and look at this odd wooden house amidst far more typical structures, and they don't always know what to make of it.

However, for someone like myself, the house is marvelous, and makes me dream...

Monday, November 2, 2009

A walk in the early morning

Inspired by my walks with my Scottish friend, and just because I do live in a beautiful place, and because I needed to do something with my thought-swirling, early-rising self, I set out for a long walk along the dirt paths at the edge of the Rhône, right beside my house. I walked slowly, savouring the mist on the water, the awakening world. As I progressed, many a morning jogger crossed my path -- a commonplace sight now in Avignon, and in France in general, compared to when I came to France at the age of sixteen. Filou and I met many dogs, most of whom were un-leashed like Filou. They did their moments of sniffing and getting to know each other, and then Filou trotted after me.

The only awkward moments are when Filou gets it in his head to bark at and follow a jogger. As one might imagine, no one enjoys this, and though he wouldn't hurt a flea, I do need to call him back and reprimand him. Hoping also, that the more he sees these people, the more accustomed he'll get, and then I hope, he'll stop this most anti-social behavior.

I tried to do some centering exercises that my Scottish friend showed me, holding my hands on my belly and back, feeling my body walk, sensing the shock under my feet, reaching up through my stomach and lower back. I straightened my shoulders, took in deep breaths, occasionally closed me eyes. I'm taking each day as it comes, and doing what I can for my wiggy brain and aching heart. Appreciating the beauty right beside me, contemplating what I have here, what is good in my life, is all part of it.

This summer, and much of this year, I've been wavering, and wondering. Where do I belong? Certainly, being out of my coupledom is unrooting me. But, then, why would I flee? And where to? I'm not a deeply rooted person. But I have some very dear friends, two in particular, to whom I can turn. My kids are doing well. This is a mantra I repeat often. And in their school, they've friends who are marvelous, from families I respect, who have outward-looking philosophies. Would I do better for them in the US? They will always have the choice of continuing their studies in the US, if they feel adventuresome.

I am seeking inside myself, what do I truly and veritably want? To write, to raise my boys, and yes, to love. Financially, I'm not there yet, but that could come and I think will. Amongst my moves this week is to receive most of Arles' real estate agents at the b&b to push the sale of said building. Yes, it won't sell at a top price due to the current economy, but, it's insane for me to be struggling so when there are funds there that are mine and which could help me get over this hump.

I've many pots on the burners: hiking and biking programs in Provence for next year, the two books (Provence teen cook book and my foodie memoir), potential collaborations with organic wine importers to the States, teaching English, I hope future translations. I'm getting good feedback from numerous directions, which has not yet translated into income, but I think with time it will.

I remember how it was building the original business with Erick. I would distribute flyers to the hotels, and we'd hear nothing, but the next year, a dozen people would come because they'd picked them up and brought them home. I'd go to the International Associaition of Culinary Professionals' conference, and there, I'd speak, chat, meet, and exchange and in the immediate future, I'd have new friends, but over the long period, many colleagues came and brought clients to us. Each and every effort bore fruit, if not immediately.

Even for JP's wine, Domaine Cabanis (see the website on the side bar). I've gotten it into the hands of Canadian importers, and it looks like things will come through there. And though it is not yet being imported to the States, I've increased his name recognition, shown his style and skills through my posts on this blog, shared the virtues of organic wine in general, and just possibly, all this "soft" marketing will pay off this year. Who knows?

Each act is a step in the right direction, and it all takes time and patience. So, if I can only get that b&b sold this year, recoup much of what I put into it, and thus have the flexibility and funds to go forth less stressfully... in any case, this is what I'm working to put into motion, one step at a time.

Back at my house, I sat down to meditate. I sat down to say thank you and to connect. I found the Anyusara mantra in my copy of Yoga Journal, and then, continued with Ahs, sitting before my window facing East, slowly teaching myself to seek calm and balance. It will be a long haul, but, at least this morning, I felt it.