Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Getting Politicized

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

The French love to discuss politics. At the dinner table or a cocktail party, rather than pepper you with personal questions or complaints, they are more apt to try to draw you into a political discussion. Since living here, I too have become an adept at the political discussion. I simply care more and more deeply, and I strive to keep myself informed. Back when I lived in the US, I was not in any way politically savvy, nor particularly concerned. I loved reading the NYTimes, but stuck to the Magazine, Arts and Leisure, and the Book Review sections. When it came time to vote, I would call a friend who had worked in political circles for years and ask her to give me the list of her preferred candidates. I knew we thought and felt alike, so I simply voted her suggestions. As a system, it worked.

But since I began living in France, I've felt the need to be informed, and when possible to act. It could be because people here follow assiduously local and national politics, and also international. They're up on Chavez, on our presidential elections, on the political bents of the Germans and the Italians, what's happening in China. There is just a significant majority which reads about and discusses the issues of the day.

I moved to France during the Clinton years, and lived through the Monica scandal on French soil. At the same time, the French were publicly discovering the presence of Mitterand's illegitimate daughter with his longtime mistress. The comparison of our reactions was interesting at the least, and often amusing. Living amidst the less strict French (at least where mistresses are concerned) I felt that it was a bit much to expect a charismatic man in a position of power not to flaunt it. Attracting women is just one of the benefits for these men. I don't applaud it, but I'm not so innocent as to think that those who resist are in the majority. So, perhaps disrespectfully, I would say, why couldn't he have had better taste? JFK apparently bedded some of the great beauties of his time. Marlene Dietrich at least knew how to be discreet. Am I jaded? or just realistic when considering attractive and powerful men? I've definitely got a more continental view on this aspect of the political world.

Living in France means living amongst people who believe their individual actions, when collected into the organized actions of their unions, can change government. The people who stormed the Bastille and overthrew a king are still here. They shall not be dictated to. And yet, they do very much respect authority and the patriarchal structures that surround them. It's an interesting blend. As many visitors have discovered, much to their frustration, the French engage in and support organized strikes, those that can that is. So those who have guaranteed jobs for life with the civil service -- postal workers, the police, teachers, transit workers--or those who are well organized in unions such as the truck drivers strike with amazing ease and frequency.

This means that your average French citizen has to cope yearly with a week or more of no school for his/her child. One year, they missed so much school in the public system that the baccalauriat exam was in jeopardy. Parents were pulling their hair out seeking options for keeping their kids safe and occupied while they went to work (or missed work coping as they could).

He also becomes adept at juggling shifting train schedules (and the lack thereof), potential gas shortages due to truckers blocking all the highway exits, air flights being cancelled, mail not delivered, and so on and so on.

I remember fondly my experience in the winter of 1995 when all forms of transit -- the trains local and tgv, the busses, and the metro-- were on strike. It was just around Thanksgiving, and Erick had to drive me back to Paris and my job there. Once there, I simply walked everywhere -- something I love to do in any case. But I was joined now by all of Paris. Some were on roller blades, some on bikes. Some hitch-hiked up the Champs Elysées in their handmade shoes, cashmere coats and buttery leather brief cases. Everyone arrived at work with bright red cheeks and stories to tell. Those coming in from the outlying suburbs had it the hardest, but they also regaled their co-workers with tales of sharing rides, hitch hiking and general comraderie. I really loved that strike, strange as that may seem. Paris has never been nicer. And I've never had such lovely legs since.

Remarkably few complained of the situation as they were pretty much behind the strikers and they too wanted then prime minister Alain Jupé humbled. And they succeeded. He has now left central government and returned to his city of Bordeaux to be mayor again.

Though the strikes drive everyone crazy, remarkably often they are supported or at least tolerated by the general populace. There's something hopeful and reassuring in knowing that if you make a stink about an issue, and if there are a sufficient number of you, you will be heard and government will respond.

I've also been brainwashed into believing in the virtues of a single party health care system, and one where everyone gets cared for no matter their prior illnesses, genetic history, etc., I like that education is a nationalized system, designed as much as possible to give equal access to all. It is not paid for with local realestate taxes, and as such, the better neighborhoods don't have a complete monopoly on the best educators.

A fascinating media creation here is a nightly show of puppets repeating the news events of the day in the exaggerated personas of real-life politicians, tv newscasters, celebrities and more. It is called the Guignols, and it is the vehicle through which many French school children are introduced to politics and all the major players in France. Because of this show, your average ten year old likely knows the names and faces of a couple dozen major French political figures, from the head of the green party to the workers' party, the wives and paramours of the sitting presidents (and former as well), all the cabinet ministers. It is a brilliant show: funny, pertinent, and wryly informative. Imagine Jon Stewart but as a puppet.

When I go out on my visits, we chat about family, the weather, and politics. The baker follows Obama's visit to Europe and the various reactions to his presence. The chocolatier would like to know who you're voting for (on this particular occasion, it was Kerry or Bush). What happens in the US affects the French. What happens on an international level will eventually touch them on a local level, be it lower wheat yields in Africa encouraging local farmers to plant more grains, or the fighting in the Middle East increasing immigration, or the economic woes of the sub prime lenders reverberating out to pretty much destroy middle class tourism for a year or more.

I've not lived in the US now for nearly fifteen years. And as such, I no longer have any idea as to the political intensity of your average American. I know many in my own family and amongst my friends worked hard to get Obama elected, give regularly to help along medical initiatives, encourage green policies, etc., But there are also many who simply find discussing politics awkward, inappropriate and unsettling. And so, we are careful, tactful, and avoid "going there." I've been unable to not put a bit of oil on the fire though. Each time I've had a young American au pair in my house, she's gone home with a head full of thoughts about politics, whether she agreed with me or not. Indoctrinating susceptible young women was not necessarily part of the agreement when they came over to care for my kids, but, living amidst this world of fierce thinkers and debaters, I couldn't help myself. Spread the word.

Spring Bounty

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

It doesn't take a lot to make me happy. Fresh picked peas oozing sugar and flavor, the first local strawberries. Both need nearly no preparation. A bit of shucking for the one-- a great task to pass to the kids--, minimal cooking (either steamed or a short boil), or not. Fresh in my salad they add a sweet and lovely crunch.

And the strawberries? just rinsed and nibbled on whenever I walk by. My own out in the yard are still green, though there are at least a dozen that will be ready in maybe a week or ten days? Depending on the sun and heat. The only virtue of my now no longer living fig tree is that its leaves won't shade the strawberry bushes. Now, if I can only keep my snails at bay... I'm not up for putting lids of beer for them to drown, but I did hear that a bit of ashes sprinkled about the base could deter them a bit. We'll see.

The farm around the corner is slowly starting to have all my spring favorites. The asparagus is there, both skinny green and fat white/purple. They're selling some zucchini too -- but that must be from the greenhouses. However, I did grab some and prepared it simply for the boys. It had a lovely, sweet and delicate flavor. Hints of summer to come.

Syrop de Sureau/Elderberry Syrup

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Every spring since I've lived in Avignon I've made my kids' favorite summer drink, Syrop de Sureau. The flowers give a delicate but fruity note, never cloying. It can be poured over strawberries, or vanilla ice cream, but we normally just drink it simply extended with water.

I've a wonderful elderberry tree hanging over my terrace, and there is another one out by the entrance to the Mas as well. The bright bunches of white flowers are opening over the top, east and southern sides of the tree. They are not to be resisted. And in any case, flowers in bloom are an ephemeral thing. You must collect them in a timely fashion and put other activities on hold.

So, after a short run this morning (all my good bread and an organic spread called KOKOLO, a blend of hazelnuts and coconut, have added a bit of thickness to my middle this year), I pulled out the ladder and climbed up to gather bunches of flowers.

The basic recipe is very simple: 3 liters of water to 2 kilos of sugar. Simmer till the sugar is fully melted, then add your lemon slices and your flowers. Let sit and infuse for 24 hours. Bring back up to a simmer for 10-15 minutes, and pour through a strainer into your sterilized bottles. This is not a completely stable blend (for that, reduce the water to sugar ratio to 1:1), so I keep it in the fridge. You only need a half inch in the bottom of a glass to be then topped off with water, flat or bubbly.

When Jonas came down for lunch and saw my preparations on the counter he crowed with joy. He does take his soda deprivation very well!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Camarguais Horses on the Plateau

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

When JP was a child the land surrounding his family's property was filled with vineyards. These are being progressively ripped out. Wine is a fickle source of income. For someone like JP who converted to organic 25 years' ago, the market is present and growing. But for those who simply brought their grapes to the local cooperative, to be added to their neighbors' to make simple vin de pays, the market has plummeted. The French are just not drinking like they used to, and the export market is highly competitive.

The government pays a "prime" to those willing to remove a portion of their vineyards, and so many are taking advantage of this, particularly those whose lands are not particularly apt for making quality wine. These lands are not as yet "constructible" or buildable. Those who would preserve the green spaces battle with those who would like to earn a pretty penny selling their land for development. So, in many cases they lie fallow.

Vauvert is the village furthest to the south in the AOC Costières de Nîmes, and it touches the northernmost tip of the Petite Camargue. The vintners are a strong presence, but so also are the manadiers, or ranchers who raise the white horses and the local bulls.

Out on the plateau between the Mas and town, for the time being, horses, bulls and olive orchards have replaced the vines.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Recipe Trials - Bread, Wine, Fermentation

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I tried re-working that poultry recipe with fresh goat cheese the other day. Sophie's was fun, but ever so complicated. So this time, I blended chopped garlic and fresh rosemary with the cheese and put in the cavity, along with some white wine. I then simply sprinkled some salt and olive oil on the chicken, (a nice firm organic one with good flavor), put potatoes and more rosemary sprigs, onions and garlic in its sleeve in the baking pan and put it in the oven. I did a bit of basting to keep it moist, but otherwise kept it simple.

It was good, but not spectacular. It's an interesting thing putting fresh cheese with chicken. I wonder, having lived in Provence for so long, and with a chef who never but never used crème fraîche, maybe I'm just not really up for appreciating dairy and poultry as a combination? I've become accustomed to the cleaner flavors of simply a bit of herbs, salt and olive oil, with often just a touch of water, not even wine, on my poultry.

It's a strange and challenging act to come up with interesting and alternative chicken recipes! And, how can I not include a use of goat's cheese that the goat cheese lady uses all the time?

Here at the winery, I've also been making my bread, but, it's not the same bread as I make at my house. The starter I have in Avignon is refreshed weekly, and kept in a relatively new and well chilled fridge between uses. My starter here at the winery doesn't get refreshed half often enough (i.e. only a couple of days before I have need of it, which might be then only once in a month or even more rarely), and is kept by the vegetables in the bottom of an old fridge. It's perfectly active and bubbles away. My bread rises well, and looks good, but it is far less tender and sweet than my bread in Avignon. Just as the whey starter for the goat cheese at Isabelle and Paul Pierre's has shifted, so has my starter here. These lively yeast are quite persnickety. Temperature, humidity, the air we breathe. For a non-scientist like myself, it can be frustrating, or humbling as the case may be.

This is one of the reasons JP uses prepared and carefully selected yeasts to start the fermentation in his wines. Many who make organic/bio-dynamic/and natural wines prefer using the indigenous yeast of their grapes, claiming that these are more authentic and give a taste of the terroir. However, JP has had the experience of the indigenous yeast going off. One year (quite some time ago) I found his basic AOC Costières de Nîmes completely undrinkable. The farmy barnyard flavor was just too strong. From his oenologists he learned that in many cases, if you let the indigenous yeasts be your fermenting agents, not only do you loose control, but the stronger will kill off the weaker. The end results can be good, or not. To permit his grapes-- healthy, well-tended throughout the season, hand-picked--to show their true flavors, better to control the start of the fermentation by controlling the yeast that does the work. So now, he starts as clean as possible, disinfecting the tanks before putting in the new grapes, and then adds the yeast, and does his best to control the temperatures over the following weeks.

The art of Fermentation in its many forms. It's like having a dance partner with a mind of his own, or taking photos with natural light when many clouds are passing overhead. You just have to adapt.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A visit to the Goat Cheese Makers

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

With the extra free time that my kids' school vacation has given me, I was able to visit Isabelle and Paul Pierre today. Isabelle is on new chemotherapy for her tumor, and her eyes were brighter, her step lighter than the last visit. She had on a new wig which was chicly cut, nicely straightened and shiny gray. She is hanging in there, though perfectly aware that her days are numbered. She and her doctors are doing their utmost to keep her present, able to think and cope in her daily life. She was delighted by my visit -- unable to drive nor truly having the energy to leave the farm these days. And, as usual, I try to keep my visits to an hour so I don't weary her too much, babbling as I do (but then she serves me this wonderful and very strong coffee).

I used to be apprehensive visiting sick friends. I think I'm not alone in having had to pass through a barrier of unease and maladroit sensations seeing loved ones suffering from life-threatening illness. I remember a turning point, however, when I went to see the mother of a friend of Leo and I simply offered to spend the weekend, so our kids could play, and said, what can I do? what would be of help? She was bed-ridden and it was as much to relieve her husband that I came, as to help her have a change of scenery, a new basket of books to read, new dishes to eat, etc., Visiting her as I was able, trying to help, but also making her laugh, I finally "got" it that you're alive while you're alive. Till that last breath leaves the body, whether you are ravaged by a nasty illness or not, you are very much alive and in this world. Avoiding discussing the illness is awkward and not always desired. Isabelle and I always begin our time together with an update on her doctors' visits, her treatments, her energy level, where she's at, and then we pass to life, my kids, etc., On occasion we've discussed other friends and family members who are sick, but more often we stick to the day to day details of our lives, my pleasure in my kids' growing social skills, reading, books, travel, her new grand-son.

When she tired, I went out to visit with Paul Pierre. He was hanging out the laundry. A task that Isabelle used to handle, but that had now fallen to him. We laughed over the necessity of acquiring the proper skills to hang laundry. Seriously! if you don't shake it out properly, and hang it carefully, you'll be ironing all the next day. For those of us none too fond of ironing, cultivating the proper technique and method is essential. Apparently though, Isabelle was finding her sheets rather wrinkled these days... Paul Pierre garrumphed and explained to me how he'd come up with a special technique to not put the marks of the clothes pins on the shoulders of his shirts. I have memories galore of my au pairs looking askance at me as I tried to explain the art of hanging laundry on a line. It was the rare girl who was willing to do it as I suggested. When you've been raised with dryers in all the homes you visit, it is hard to imagine that such an arcane task as laundry requires skill of any kind.

A good curdle in its mold, slowly draining.

From there, Paul Pierre guided me to the cheese laboratory so I could pick up some cheeses for my home. There, he showed me the unfortunate turn of events. Earlier this year he and Isabelle sold their cheesemaking laboratory and goats to a young woman who'd been their intern. With the goats, the equipment and the space, they'd also given her some carefully preserved (in the freezer) starter -- i.e. whey-- from a last batch of their cheese. They'd strongly suggested that once she started making the cheese she put away some of the starter just in case she'd need it in the future. Things became busy, and she forgot. In the last week or two, her cheese starting smelling off -- a bit acidic. Paul Pierre noticed this and suggested that she be a bit more careful. But, the situation simply grew out of her control. And, the last few batches of cheese have been bubbly, forming a far less lovely curdle, a murky whey, and putting air bubbles in her little cheeses, which are not aging correctly.

Cheeses as they should be.

Paul Pierre was disappointed and saddened by the turn of events. The lovely ferment starter that he and Isabelle had tended for 20 years is no longer. Another yeast has been allowed to take over, either by a shift in temperature, technique, humidity, or a slip in hygiene. Whatever the cause, the cheese the young woman is making no longer resembles theirs. And, it is no longer a good cheese. She needs to thoroughly clean out her laboratory, obtain a new ferment starter, and start over clean. She'll need to go back over the basic rules, and find the rhythm that works for her in this particular cheese lab.

Georgeanne Brennan wrote of her efforts at finding the right recipe of time, ferment, and temperature making cheese in Provence. (A Pig in Provence) It is a delicate art. Seemingly so easy, it requires trial and error to get just right, even when you do follow the directions to the letter.

But in time, the young intern will get it right. And in time, Paul Pierre will be able to truly pass the activity to her in full, proud of her independence and her future. The shifting passage from one generation to the next... to each his hurdles to leap.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Neighborhood

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Crossing the Rhône-Changing Values

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I spent the first fourteen years of my French life on the Eastern side of the Rhône, in Provence, the hub of the former Roman Catholic Empire. Erick, the father of my boys, though an avowed atheist, has all the habits and mannerisms of a good Southern Catholic: distrust of the taxman, very generous, a bon-vivant; he can be chaotic, letting money burn the proverbial hole in his pocket. He lives in the moment, often neglecting his health, his future, but with few regrets.

His is a good personality for receiving people, for dealing with whatever comes up. And, I am the first to admit, a crazy and ambitious American wife 16 years your junior isn’t the easiest person to bring into your life, attractive though she’d been. I’d always said his gray hairs dated to my arrival… and the complexities and twists I added to his life.

With his skills in the kitchen, and his love of his region, plus my marketing skills, enthusiasm, and willingness to constantly try new things, to explore and seek.. we built our culinary tourism business centered on the cooking school and Erick’s recipes. Later we added the bed and breakfast, making everything from scratch, as organically as possible. With Erick's funky renovations, it all came together. The fun people who came to visit, the visits in themselves, the hikes, excursions, conversations, meals and more fully occupied my life for the over 10 years.

From Catholic Provence I crossed over the Rhône to the West, the Gard/ Languedoc-Roussillon and there found my organic vintner. Protestant France with its history, its traditions, greeted me. Here many battles were fought for the freedom to practice a different faith, and the over the years, a majority has chosen a simpler, more legalistic, restrained living style. This world is familiar to me. I'm living moments reminiscent of my Protestant New England background: waste not, want not – JP actually is willing to eat left-overs, something Erick would sooner let mold over than dig out of the fridge - and prepares just enough, never in excess. He keeps his house cool, spends a minimum of money, believes sincerely in “if it ain’t broke, don’t replace it)” and spends quite a bit of his time repairing old tools and vehicles. His house is spare, minimal, with no excess. No piles of books, mail, magazines toppling over on every surface, few but well-chosen art pieces on the shelves and walls. Old and serviceable, if not particularly good quality pots and pans.

Part of this world is comforting to me, but it's also disorienting. I was order to Erick’s chaos, and now I am apparently chaos to JP’s order. How far can and will each bend to accommodate the other?

You take up quite a bit of space, he said to me this summer. Yes, I agreed, I brought cooking utensils because I like to cook, and I brought a ¼ of my summer wardrobe, because I like to look well – which you appreciate as well I believe. I brought photos of my boys, and my dog, and my cat with her 5 kittens. And yes, I brought my boys for a time as well. OK. I don’t travel lightly. But, ahem, have you made room for me? Your closets are full, and what closets there are are small. Your kitchen is minimalist if artistic, built for two people who rarely cooked, or rather took small pleasure in cooking. And, forgive me, but I am simply amazed that you were able to share a closet of a meter’s width with the mother of your children …..

The discussion brought me to look at my own house, my manner of living amongst my belongings, collected over multiple lives, in plain view. I have no closets, no attic, no basement or garage. Nor do I really want them. Why hide what I possess? Then it wouldn’t exist anymore, and what purpose would it serve. I am a visual. Either I see and use my possessions, or I might as well get ride of them. And yes, I have (had) cats, and a dog. They get on the furniture, and are frequently on the knees and in the arms of my children, warming their nights. My rooms are painted in different colors, and I frequently bake and have music blasting. Sights, smells, sounds. It is a lively place filled with warm and active bodies who leave their prints.

Meantime JP couldn't operate more differently than myself. Nothing goes to the Goodwill, nothing is thrown out. There is a huge barn on the property into which he's put everything from his past life with the mother of his children and his now-grown children. There it all stays, safely molding away, stashed out of sight. His closets shut with opaque doors behind which order is not always a primary goal (though he's definitely making progress on this aspect). Thus visually communicating a certain Zen ambiance. He lives and eats simply--not monastically, but terribly reasonably and rationally.

Though we have many elements in common, in many important ways we are trying out the cliché of “opposites attract”. Will I adapt to his more restrained ways? Will he adapt to my exuberance and more colorful existence? Lovely as this year has been, the future is yet rather uncertain. Time will tell.

Avignon Across the Bridge

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I now bicycle into Avignon. The good weather (plus potential scratches on the car, nightmarish parking, etc.,) has encouraged this new tact. I used to adore biking, and lived on my bike in Seattle. It's been awhile though, so I'm still getting back into it. I also need to invest in a very secure bike lock.

My ride takes me along the Rhône, by the small ferry which does regular service back and forth now that the 1st of April has come and passed. I see the visitors on the Pont d'Avignon, the gold-leafed Madonna atop the Pope's palace, the ramparts in all their splendor, and high above, the gardens of the Pope.

Meantime, down at river level dogs are being walked, many joggers are out, and school kids are enjoying picnics. In fewer than 15 minutes, I'm over the bridge, and entering the city.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Another Rite of Passage

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

In a life lived, there are rites of passage. Birth, Marriage, and Death. We joyously accept and applaud the former two, and rarely escape the latter. I am not an anthropologist, and my examples are from personal experiences. Funeral rites, saying goodbye to the dead, sending our loved ones on their voyage as they depart this world, every culture, every people, has its ways of handling this meeting of the life force as they depart the physical body.

In the last few years I attended too many funerals and/or memorial services, both in the US and in France. A close cousin from cancer and my father from Parkinson's on the continent to the west, and in France, a nephew of Erick's from a heart attack, a delightful old uncle from old age (98), a much-loved potter out of the blue with a heart attack, and more recently, a colleague and collaborator from Châteauneuf-du-Pape after a long battle with cancer. As Leo, who accompanied me (and it was important to me that he do so) to three of the above, rightly said. Too many.

I am writing from experience and sentiment, curiosity and wonder. I was startled, after the memorial services of my American family to then participate in the ceremonies in France. In the former we chose to bring the individual we so sorely missed back into the room with us through poetry, personal reminiscences, music and song; yet, there was no casket sharing the space, and we did not go to a cemetery afterwards. We did however, gather together for a reception. We extended our time together, the service serving as a family reunion. In my family, spread out as we are, many of us see each other only at weddings or funerals.

In France the ceremonies were of two sorts. In two, religious rites and tradition dominated. The family attended, the priest spoke, we prayed, lit candles, and then followed the casket to the cemetery, no personal words or sentiments were expressed. The patriarchal church tradition orchestrated the day. For the others, to whom religion no longer had a place in their lives, the words were few, but the rites of burying the heavy and imposing casket in a granite tomb still of great importance.

A French friend once expressed her shock to me that John Kennedy Junior and his wife were cremated and their ashes spread at sea. How could they not bury them beside his parents? she exclaimed.

The ceremonies I've attended surprised me in their lack of personal words, as well as by the emphasis on the solid and lasting tomb. From a point of ignorance, and otherness, I observe and wonder.

I'm trying to come to terms with what seems most important to each culture. Soon after my arrival in Provence, I buried my father in law who'd lived the last year of his life with us. I have pictures of him with baby Leo throughout my house, I have memories of this dear man who so befriended me. I welcomed him to my home and cared for him as he ailed. Then, with barely two cents to our name, Erick and I buried him as we were able, with little ceremony in a little plot that we purchased for 30 years. We did gather at the site of his burial, speak a few sincere words, sprinkle bay leaves atop before departing. The burial was written up in the local paper and family and friends came out to the cemetery to bear witness with us of this event. However, we didn't at the time have the funds to build a proper granite or poured cement tomb, and since then, other necessities have definitely taken priority. A proper tomb has not been built above his burial mound.

Have I betrayed this dear father in law in not caring for his grave? I think his sister and niece believe this. Caring for the tomb, cleaning it, putting flowers on it, sweeping it, visiting it at least every All Saints' Day are important traditions to this part of the world. I've been busy with my babies and businesses. I did not adopt this tradition. But nor was I encouraged to do so by my husband. I cared for my father in law during his life, loved him and learned from him, included him in our little family. But no, I have not tended his grave. I have to believe that if it had been important to Erick, I would have done so.

The cemeteries around Arles are fascinating to me. All the stones, the granite, the poured cement. Minimal plants outside of a few ornamental trees. Plaques dedicated to the dead placed upon the tomb: "to papa, from his children;" "To Emile from his pétanque club;" "To Mireille from her loving husband." There are photos under glass, images of a man dancing the Farandole. Mementos and messages writ in stone. And in the cemetery on the far side of the Rhône, signs directing you to the grave of Jeanne Calment, the Arlesienne doyenne who died a decade ago at the age of 122, at that time, the oldest living person in the world whose birth had been officially registered.

In the old world, space is at a premium. The American tradition of each person having his plot of land with a small (or large) headstone is impractical. For families with means, a large and deep granite topped tomb is constructed. It is purchased for the years to come. Into this vault, you can lay up to 4-5-6 coffins. With time, the coffins below decompose, and you can add others above. At the time of his death, my father in law had been immediately preceded by a brother and a sister in law. There was no room for yet another new casket in that particular family tomb. Hence the need to find another spot for Papi. The bureaucratic and cultural maze that Erick and I traversed, baby Leo in arms, to bury Papi stays with me. It was all quite surreal, and I suppose I am still reeling from my incomprehension and unease.

Both my parents purchased small plots beside their parents ahead of time. My father's ashes are in Louisville, KY. My mother has let it be known that she wishes to be in the small cemetery beside our summer home in Michigan. It does matter where we end up. And yet, being so dispersed as a family, I suppose for myself, the place of burial has never held much importance. It is the memories of our loved ones, photos, stories, letters and more that I hold dear.

I bounced this strange idea I had of writing about my limited experiences in this domain with JP. He said to me, in what concerns the ceremonies, "few feel creative at such a time of pain," and "it would be unseemly and poorly viewed to be original." But he also corrected me and underlined my limited experience. When his father died, they decided upon a very personal service, without a pastor or priest, and with words prepared and spoken by the eldest son. They then played Fauré's Requiem as their father had requested, bringing this man back into their midst.

Deep Roots or a Tumbleweed?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

What is it that keeps one person grounded, rooted in their local village, living out a life within view of their place of birth? And what is it, conversely, that sends another to the opposite ends of the earth, restless, eager, looking over and beyond the next hill? How did I end up living in so many cities (Kobe, Seattle, Paris, Arles, Avignon, New Rochelle, Princeton), and practicing so many professions? What was it that pushed a friend and colleague to build a boat, sail the seven seas, settle in Tahiti, then come back to France, renovate a barge, sell it, and set off yet again, this time to Australia for seven years? She's back in France now... but like myself, how rooted will she allow herself to become, or not? Some might say we're running away. But no, we did not flee failed love-affairs, or unhappy childhoods. Though for myself, I confess love can be the hook which decides the destination. She, I believe, like myself, has in her a need to conquer new lands, to test her adaptability and strength by learning new mores and languages. Once successful, there is an urge to move on to a new destination. It is not failure that sends us on our way, but more often, success and an accompanying restlessness.

In my Provençale life I've surrounded myself with artisans and farmers, individuals who chose their professions early, mastered them, and then settled into their activity and their village for the rest of their lives. In many cases, these are people taking over from their fathers, or their mothers and practicing a profession transfered to them from precedent generations. Roots, tradition, expectations, familiar rhythms. These have weighed heavily in their choices, their life's path. The piece of earth that they own, and in some cases where they were born, roots them. But also the mastery of an art and their position socially in their town. They are known, respected, accepted integrally as part of the world they live in. When you are the baker of Maillane, that is what you are. Or the organic winemaker up the hill, or the potter, or the chic chocolatier. You have a reputation, a role to play, you are a puzzle piece that lacking, would affect all who live in your sphere.

A classic attraction of opposites?

Somewhere, somehow, I chose to be outside, other, different. I conclude this, as why else would I have settled in a foreign land where I shall always be told "vous avez un petit accent." or "mais, vous n'êtes pas d'ici." Certainly, a WASP from NY would simply have blended in in a Manhattan bank, or a university faculty meeting, or in the marketing department of Ralph Lauren, or as a housewife in Connecticut. But I didn't reach for any of these possibilities. I chose to live in a land (for a year) where I towered over all and made everyone laugh with my wild hand gestures and creative use of their language (Japan). Then I went flying off to Paris and from there began my life as an expatriée for good, in a land where my optimism and enthusiasm are seen with indulgence as signs of my great naïveté. And where my freckles, height and blondish hair are visual clues to my foreignness.

I am far from alone. Many have come to Provence to settle, and whether you are from Paris or from Tokyo, you are considered an outsider by the locals. So, I cannot pretend that what I live is as disorienting say, as the daily existence of a young American growing up with his missionary parents in a tiny village in Hokkaido. However, I have had the regular jolt and daily reminder of adapting my cultural education to the local standards: the loudness of my voice to the softer French, my driving style to the constantly passing two lanes of the French national roads, a tendency to rush a quick errand to the necessity of taking my time. I've enjoyed the challenge, but I've also accepted that I shall forever not blend in. A curious fact. I simply stand out like a sore thumb, in particular when I speak to my children in public, or tell Filou to sit, or even when I conclude a purchase in a shop and they hear my accent.

With time, I've become accepted as the individual I am. I don't think my closest friends think of me as their American friend anymore, I'm simply Madeleine to them. They've accepted my contradictions, my energy, my way of being.

If I stay here, and my children are raised here. Will they be "normal" or at least considered French? Or have I gifted them a bi-cultural existence along with their lingual proficiency? Will they be tempted to travel far and wide? or feel rooted as their father is, and as so many are in Provence. Many, including my vintner and their father sincerely believe they live in the most beautiful place in the world, to which many (myself included) have flocked. Thus why would they ever want to live elsewhere? Yes, paychecks are small locally, yes, there's very little mobility in the job market... so? Life is made of much more than a career, right? Family nearby, traditions, roots, familiar rhythms, not to mention the mountains, the beaches, the markets, the food, the culture.

Will my children be children of the world? or settle here. Will they want to explore their American side, be educated on the other side of the Atlantic and perhaps work there, or will they feel very French and want to stay put? The friend who spent time in Tahiti and Australia was followed back to France by two daughters, but not by her son. My cousin who married and raised her boys in England left them behind when she returned to her home-town in Massachusetts. And yet others can stay happily home and watch their children travel to the distant ends of the earth, settling in London, Tokyo, Berlin or Florence.

It takes all to make a world. But how interesting to have such different impulses in the hearts of our beings. And those of us who remain outsiders wherever we are, where in the end shall we land? Shall we graft onto others' roots? Shall we share the lift of our wings to carry others in our wake? Is it reasonable for a flighty, restless, traveling woman to be with a firmly rooted paysan?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Greenery Overflowing - Guinea Hen with Honey and a Fresh Cheese

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

It is one of those moments of lush greenery, over-abundant grass, buds on all the rose bushes. The ground has taken in the recent rains (which were plentiful and intense, I'm still cleaning up the leaks around the house), and fed the plants, pushing them high into the bursting sunshine. Except for the fact that I'm more than a bit daunted to get out my light-weight and slightly rusted lawn mower (will it work? will it konk out from the effort? and do I really want to behead those lovely daisies?), I feel a bit like Eve lost in a Garden of Eden. I'm wavering between living with a field out back, or choosing to trim it down to a yard.

All my plants are growing by leaps and bounds, as hackneyed as the phrase may be. Along the back fence behind the pool are two climbing rose bushes liberally splattered in yellow flowers. On the Eastern facade, the jasmin is weaving into the red rose bush, densely covering the wall beside my door. The butterfly trees, small bushes just last year put in along the little fence keeping wee ones out of the pool, are towering above me. All is at its most abundant, excepting my fig tree. It is not looking happy, which has me worried. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it didn't die this winter. However, as I took a walk out my door -- once the repeated thunderstorms had finally ceased -- I saw that many another fig tree is fully in leaf now. Oh it will be sad if I can't have my twice yearly yield of wonderful figs for tarts, jams, sorbets and more!

A happy Fig Tree

It took rather awhile for my day to unfold -- my jet lag still has me a bit woozy. I managed the morning routine, even getting up just a bit earlier to shower and get things on the table for my brood. I got them all off to school, under the dark clouds of the night's storm and the day's rains to come. Then off for a bit of shopping. My kids are ok switching to unsweetened Dutch cocoa with my organic sugar rather than their traditional highly processed Banania brand, so one less item on the list. But, with 6 of us, the need for shampoo drove me to buy the cheap large family size brand (and me, so proud of my glorious mane!) Ah well, there's no hiding away chic shampoo from my kids, ditto for my favorite black currant and blackberry jams. Once they get ahold of them, poof! they disappear. At least no one is borrowing my clothes or jewelry, though my hair brush has gone missing more than once.

I sprang for a guinea hen to test out another recipe from Sophie the beekeeper. The recipe actually calls for duck, but I'm in the mood to test a trick on the dryer guinea hen. This recipe uses Isabelle's (the goat cheese lady) trick of putting a fresh cheese in the cavity of the bird before roasting it. She promises me that this is a great way to keep it moist as it roasts. We shall see hm? Two birds with one stone eh?

I confess to crashing for a serious early afternoon nap. Awakening to blue skies (what could be nicer?) I went for a walk with Filou to drive the dust from my brain, clear some passages (after sticking the bread in the oven... it wasn't a long walk). In every direction: green. It is rather overwhelming. Yesterday I was inspired to weed my garden (yes, a weekly event), and to liberally fill my salad bowl with my collection. Even though so many texts say that dandelion greens are better young when they're just in their crown stage, I happily clipped and rinsed them and added them to our salad with some red leaf, toasted sunflower seeds, freshly sprouted grains, olive oil from the winery, a touch of soy sauce and a squirt of lemon. Delicious!

I also served my first asparagus of the season. I'd waited till the price was under 6E/kilo, and picked the slender green stalks rather than the more work-intensive fat white ones. I chopped and snipped them into 2 inch lengths, and then tossed them with olive oil, a touch of water to let them cook till tender, then minced garlic and a squirt of lemon juice. All but Jonas just dug right in. I'm amazed and relieved that Leo's little boy snookiness about food has now evolved to an age of trying everything. The evolution of a child's palate. One has to have hope and a certain blasé attitude. N'est-ce pas?

Here's Sophie's recipe as I noted it. However, the proportions are approximations of her memory of what she did. She never writes anything down, and she never does a recipe twice. It is only when I'm in her house and at her table that I can ask her about the meal she has just cooked, and thus hope to get at least the full list of ingredients from her. Quantities must then be worked out till they work just right.

Enjoy, and if you try it, please do give me your feed back and/or suggestions!

Duck with Orange and Chestnut (or wildflower) Honey


For the duck:

A farm raised duck if possible
2 mild 20% fat fromage blanc (plain yogurt will work for this, about 1/2 a cup)
a large pinch or two of Herbes de Provence
the juice of 1/2 an orange
One orange peeled and cut into eighths
Olive oil for drizzling

For the Sauce

The juice of 3 oranges
A large pinch of Herbes de Provence
1/4-1/3 teaspoon cumin grains
4 Tablespoons honey vinegar (or cider vinegar)
4 Tablespoons chestnut or a richly flavored wildflower honey

A sauce for the giblets and liver

3 large shallots sliced to form a 3/4 cup
olive oil for sautéing
The giblets and liver minced
1 tablespoon honey vinegar (or cider vinegar)
1 glass white wine (about a half cup)
1 cup of chicken bouillon/stock

Preheat oven to 400F/200C

Take your duck and remove the giblets and liver, put aside. Pour the yogurt and the herbes inside and spread them around the inside of the duck.* Pour in the juice of 1/2 an orange and fill with the orange slices. Pour olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish, place the duck in it, sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in the oven. Baste with the first sauce above after it begins to brown (20 minutes). Continue basting till the sauce has been all used.

* This is a trick that our goat cheese lady Isabelle uses as well – for duck and guinea hen, she always puts a fresh cheese or yogurt in the cavity when roasting. This helps keep the otherwise tough bird moist.

Make the first sauce by simply mixing together the ingredients in a small bowl. After the duck has browned a bit, start using this sauce to baste the duck – the presence of the honey will develop a caramel crust on the skin of the duck. Depending on the size of your duck, it will be cooked in an hour and a half or simply in an hour.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Marriage as a Cultural Clue

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Both the United States and France have adopted the policy of separation of church and state. However, at very different moments in history, and with different goals in mind. The US, from its founding, was a haven for the free and open worship of any and all religions (such was the intention). The English and Dutch Puritans and the French Huguenots suffering in Europe for their faith found, in the new world, a land where their choice of religion did not mean their banishment or their death. The wars fought in Southwestern France (with a few memorable battles and slaughters occurring in Paris under the Catholic Queen Catherine de Medici in the 16th century) to bring the heathen Huguenots, Cathars and other Protestants back to the Catholic faith were vicious and devastating. Remember the phrase, "Kill them all, God will know his own."? This was by Arnaud Amaury in 1208, at the time the legate of the Pope, soon to be appointed Archbishop. He, in the name of a crusade against the Protestants on French soil, directed the brutal burning alive of Bezier's Protestant population hiding in their church, seeking the safety of God beneath his rafters.

France did not adopt the national tradition of separation of church and state till the end of the 19th Century. The goal then was not to liberate the minority religions to practice freely and openly, but to weaken the hold of the Catholic church on the French people. Quite specifically, religion was removed from the schools, and concurrently, public education was made mandatory for all children. Up till that time, the teachers of the upper classes, the flame holders of knowledge were the priests and nuns. Be they private tutors to the wealthy, or benevolent tenders of their bourgeois or peasant parishes, it was men and women of the cloth who taught the French their letters.

Jules Ferry (1832-1893), a prominent French politician, and notably the Minister of "l'Instruction publique," saw and understood that as long as the education of the French was in the hands of the army of the Pope, the French people's first loyalty would be to the church before their country. Over a hundred years later, the overwhelming laicity of the French and the pitifully small numbers that attend Sunday morning mass, are a testament to the success of his mission.

Today, we live amidst the intended and unintended results of these choices. Many have read of the French banishment of the Muslim head scarves (also yarmulke head caps, and large crosses) from public schools. Whereas in the US, Muslim girls have the freedom to wear their scarves if they so choose, even their burkas, and certainly yamulkas were on the heads of many of my friends the weeks of Yon Kippur and Passover; in France, they must be removed before crossing the threshold of the establishment, thus removing any outward show of religious faith in this most public of buildings. One country seeks to permit, finding unity in allowing such a diaspora of traditions, the other seeks cultural integration through a forced adoption of the habits of the host nation.

Personally, I have known Muslim women who preferred wearing their veil full time to continuing their schooling, as well as women who quite easily adapted to the law, removing their veil as they walk into class. It is slowly becoming an issue that touches only the most religious and strict of the French Muslim population.

However, I wished simply to introduce this notion, as it affects other subjects: in particular ceremonies, and in this article, marriage.

Numerous differences between our countries have touched me, personally or tangentially, in France. The importance, or lack there of, of marriage is one of them. JP was quite definite back when we started going out that he would never marry me, no matter our relationship, as he had not married the mother of his children. Erick, at the age of 45, had never been married, nor ever thought to be before meeting me. He acceded to my request and/or need that our union be consecrated. I was of the opinion/belief that you just don't put children on this earth till you are married. You can perhaps imagine that my subsequent experiences and discussions have been eye-opening to say the least.

In France you can only be married by a public official, in most cases the Mayor of your town. If you choose, you can also be "married in the eyes of God" by walking across the town square to your local church and there receive the priest's blessing. But, for the nation, the marriage ceremony of the church has no weight. In the US, we must file our papers with the city, but, we can then be married in a ceremony of our choosing, by any representative of a religion, be he your local pastor, an Indian Shaman, a Buddhist priest, or, the captain of a vessel at sea. A friend sent off the papers to begin his own religion a while back, and we joked on the phone that I'd call him to marry me one day. And legally, wacky though that may seem, I believe he could have.

What this perhaps chaotic freedom offers or protects is a reverence for the ceremony. Or at least so in my mind. If you are free to design your ceremony, have it at the edge of a volcano, or in your own home, re-write the texts (though generally we all include the "will you take this man... will you take this woman..." parts), you can own it. Its importance is thus reinforced. In the US, a wedding ceremony is personalized, and the words we wish to speak aloud, the sentiments we share weighted and uplifted by the act of ceremony. Coming from a sentimental family, I must say that my mother weeps at every wedding she goes to, and I too have tears that come to my eyes at the beauty of a pledge of union and a shared leap into the future.

My sister was married this weekend. It was a second marriage, with the children of both former unions present to share in their parents' coming together. It was relatively traditional in that it was held in a church and my sister wore a white dress. But, after that it was very personal. She and her husband chose the music. A minister she's known for years spoke carefully prepared words of support and encouragement to a woman he has accompanied through times of joy and pain. He personally welcomed her new husband as a man he has come to know and respect.

I've been to a few marriages in France now. I respect that the choice to come together officially is powerful, no matter the country. But, I've always been somewhat disappointed by the tone of the mayor as he unites a couple--just one of his many day's duties. He recites the same text, no matter the two individuals before him. It is an official text that is required by the Nation. Thus diverging wouldn't be appropriate or perhaps even legal. The wedding guests crowd the room at the Mairie (town hall), overflowing into the hallway or stairwell or not as the case may be. The bride is often dressed to the hilt (we girls love this princess moment), and there are official witnesses present. The ceremony is a 15 minute affair (though often the wait is long on a June Saturday as anyone marrying in town must do so in the same way). If we then go to the church to have a second ceremony, as happens in a good number of marriages (family tradition requires this), we then step into the ancient world of the Priest who does all, and a full hour's mass. This, for me, is made doubly painful by the often poor miking of the priest to amplify his voice in a stone chapel specifically designed to acoustically amplify the spoken or sung word. Why, in this 21st century, we feel the necessity of putting screeching and ear-deafening amplification in a tiny stone chapel whose vaults marvelously raise the voice all by themselves is beyond me.

These days, many French simply do not marry. The stamp of the State on their union, their family, their couple, is not necessary to them. My vintner never married the mother of his children. And many friends over the years have expressed to me that for them, a marriage certificate is just not necessary. My friends who have married are thus rare. In a number of occasions they've gotten married after having a first child (as if this were a test?). But, they are also unable to marry till they can afford the party. The ceremony is minimal. It is the party that is important.

And the party is all about food and dancing. This latter goes on all night, and no matter the age of the guest, from the smallest to the oldest, they are boogieing (or more aptly, dancing 'le rock') till the wee morning hours. The food begins with the "apéro" or apéritif hour: lots of nibblies, champagne, wines and more. This lasts at least a couple of hours. Then, the guests who were invited simply for the apéro and the ceremony depart, and the closer guests stay for the sit-down meal. It is a big deal to be invited as a guest to the sit-down meal, as sentiment aside, it could easily be costing the wedded couple from 75-100E/person.

My sister had a delicious and lovely, if tiny, reception back at her house, superbly catered. But, by 8PM many of us were on our way home (happily for me as I was still jet-lagged in spite of my late morning nap). We milled around her house chatting and nibbling. It was a warm moment that permitted the two families to get to know each other a bit, and for cousins to catch up. A night of dancing was not part of the program. It could have been, but, this was a small affair, and we joyfully participated in the very personal and intimate nature of the event.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How French Have I Become?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

In what ways have I become French?

In what ways am I still American?

I’ve lived more than a quarter of my life in France. Do I have any clue what it is to be American now? Fifteen years after my departure? Am I even up on what current American culture is? Social mores have no doubt shifted. For example, when I came to France, I carried with me the belief that you should get married before having children. This point of view was greeted skeptically by numerous friends here. I also put milk in my coffee, to the horror of many a Parisian friend who assured me quite seriously that the combination is poison for the liver. I like open windows in a car. But, I was told, air currents are very bad for your health. Hmmm. In the beginning I went overboard trying to adapt and Frenchify myself. But with time, I've moved back a bit to center. I've in some ways chosen certain behaviors that are simply me, no matter where I live. And, I've accepted that I'm an oddity now, belonging -- perhaps?-- nowhere, and thus anywhere?


If I drink coffee, it is espresso.
I hang my laundry out to dry (or on a rack in the bathroom in winter)
I care about meal times and have salad and veggies, plus a glass of wine, at nearly all (excepting breakfast).
I can, will, and enjoy discussing politics with most anyone.
I know my wines and my wine regions, and have friends and neighbors whose bottles fill my cellar.
I can whip out a simple fresh fruit tart with any and all fruit I find at the market, on a tree, on a bush.
I wear sneakers for playing tennis or hiking. Never in town.
I have my hair done on a relatively regular basis (and if I had the budget, pedicures would be on the list too).
I eat cheese at the end of a meal.
I can wax poetic on cheeses, bread, chocolate and wine.
I can live in small houses built of stone.
I don’t need the latest technical device to be happy.
I believe in long vacations for all.
I believe in shorter work hours that allow me to be at the family dinner table every night, and even better, to pick up my kids after school.
I love the idea of a single payer medical insurance system.
I think it’s normal to be able to drive less than an hour to the sea, and 2-3 to the mountains.
I find myself humming along to George Brassens, and recognizing French songsters. However, I draw the line at Johnny.
I know the names of most of the major politicians in France (thanks to the news, and the Guignols).
I’m beginning to think it’s normal to take kids to modern art exhibits on a Sunday.
I wait patiently in line at the market, and take the time to search for the right change.
I zoom through traffic circles.
I drive my stick shift like a pro.
My dessert portions are small.
I make my own mayonnaise rather than buying it in a jar.
I can keep my voice down in restaurants and cafes, and enjoy a tête à tête.
I’m on a first-name basis with my chocolatier, my baker, my cheesemakers and my beekeeper.
I think shopping in open air markets is normal.
I think paying 1E/litre of diesel is normal.
I prefer not to drive, but to take public transportation when possible.
I bring my dog with me to restaurants, cafés, the hairdresser...
I think jeans should be cut to accent my figure, and a t-shirt is best when slim and form-fitting.
Sandals should be comfortable but elegant.
I don’t wear Birkenstocks.
I no longer say “um,” I say “euh.”
I call my gynecologist a gyneco (ji ne ko).
I wear two piece bathing suits almost exclusively.
I’ve invested in elegant under-things.
I haven’t seen a baseball or an American football since univeristy.
I prefer to bake with grams and milliliters.
I like little cars.
I think it’s normal to make salads with only one vegetable, like green beans or tomatoes.
I care about my children’s penmanship.
I find “do, do, l’enfant do” much easier to sing to a baby than “rock-a-by baby.”
I (try) to serve grown-up food to my children.
Sweet butter is a staple in my house.
Ice cream is not a staple in my house- though it is an occasional luxury.
Herbal tea = lemon verbena, mint, liquorice, orange blossom and chamomile.
I don’t do televised sports.
I know that broccoli grows in the winter, asparagus in the spring
I can handle the topics of sex, religion and politics at the dinner table (though I probably won’t launch the discussion).
A quick & easy dinner is either a quiche or braised meat with veggies in wine.


I love breakfast: pancakes, French toast, waffles, omelets
I put milk in my coffee (even if on occasion it is soy or rice milk)
I put chocolate in my coffee (love that mocha!).
I belly laugh at Jon Stewart, but only chuckle at the Guignols.
I laugh out loud with my mouth open – not quite a guffaw, but, it does carry.
I am optimistic, enthusiastic and willing to take chances.
I cried at the inauguration of Barack Obama, and sang along with the American anthems.
I love Bonnie Rait, Joe Cocker and Bruce Springstein.
I speak English to my boys, and express disappointment with “bummer.”
References to Star Trek and The Wizard of Oz riddle my speech.
I love hamburgers with all the fixings.
I eat potato peels.
I put ketchup on hamburger and saucisses.
I make biscuits.
I make muffins.
I put cinnamon in lots of cakes and cookies.
I read Little Bear, The Wild Things, Clifford the Big Red Dog and other childhood greats to my kids.
I read the NYTimes, the New Yorker and Newsweek to get my news.
I’m learning to use facebook and blogging as business and social tools.
I bake my own bread.
I like cornbread and carrot cake.
My boys are dressed nearly always in t-shirts, jeans and sneakers.
I buy my boys clothes at the Gap, and US Outlet malls when possible.
I like to acquire kitchen accessories and tools.
My main source of books, cds and dvds is
The vast majority of my movie and literary history is American and English.
I connect with Friends and Meg Ryan movies.
I like happy endings.
I do my yoga with American podcasts and videocasts.
I vote in US elections.
I am willing to shout after my kids in public, no matter who will hear me.
If I’m tired, I’ll bring my kids to school in yucky sweats (but I won’t get out of the car!).
I think it is normal to wear yoga clothes in public.
I am known to respond to questions and statements with a version of “unhunh.” Or “hunh?”
I don’t believe one should suffer to be beautiful.
I like to have guys as friends.
I wear clogs.
I still use my measuring cups and spoons.
I keep maple syrup in the house.
I’m not too sure what an iron is for, and in any case, I like that wrinkled look.
I adore Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie.
I’m not really interested in learning the Marseillaise.
If they could choose, my kids would live on pasta, lasagna and fried rice.
I like to chat with the postman, my waitress, etc.,
I compliment people sincerely, and praise them when a job is well done.
I believe in positive reinforcement.
I love to hug.
I like nice.
I like gentle.
I like friendly.
I like cities where pedestrians have the right of way (and cars stop for them!)

No doubt I'll keep adding to this list as time goes by.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Weed? A Flower? Salad?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Driving into Avignon yesterday, I was struck by the garden in the middle of the traffic barrier. Daffodils, tulips and... Dandelions. What? In a groomed, planted, surveyed, controlled, man-manipulated traffic median, dandelions sprinkled throughout? Weren't these the bane of a lawn, the evil intruder?

I love to forage, to taste what I can find in the wild. This spring I've been out for wild leeks, though not yet for wild asparagus (a drive away). I'd always heard that dandelion greens were edible, but I'd not yet harvested them. I'm a bit late getting going for this year's season it seems, as the information I was able to find on the subject (see my list of interesting links) recommends harvesting before the plant buds, and certainly before it flowers. Harvesting the leaves that is, and particularly if you find bitter flavors unpleasant. However, all is not lost as the flower is also edible, in salads, teas, jams and wine, and should I be particularly industrious, so is the root.

Rebecca Wood (see link below) recommends that we, "collect dandelion leaves in early spring before the flowers appear. Harvest again in late fall. After a frost, their protective bitterness disappears. Dandelions growing in rich, moist soil, with the broadest leaves and largest roots, are the best. Select the youngest individuals, and avoid all plants with flowers. Some people eat the greens from spring to fall, when they're very bitter. Others boil out the summer bitterness (and water-soluble vitamins) out in two changes of water. It’s all a matter of preference."

If it isn't too late yet in your neighborhood to harvest the greens, then you can revel in salads and stir-fries from these leaves rich in beta-carotene, iron and calcium, as well as the vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, P, and D, biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc. I was inspired to go out to to my backyard and snip the most delicate looking of the dandelion leaves I saw. I simply rinsed them and tossed them into the salad. And now, I just might have the energy to do an hour and a half of yoga. I'll try the flowers tomorrow...

On an historical note, Dandelions are native to Europe, North American and Asia. They've spread extensively, and can now be found nearly worldwide. They've been a traditional early spring green for many, and still are for those in the know. Immigrants coming to the States would often be seen scrounging about public parks and open spaces, much to the dismay of the more established classes. Only now it seems, with a renaissance of foraging and kitchen gardens, natural foods and wild foods, are we coming back to an appreciation of this vegetable, and in some cases, paying dearly for it at an outdoor market or in a chic suburban store.

I'm curious about the qualities of the root when roasted and infused. According to Wild Man Steve Brill, Dandelion root in decoction is a traditional tonic used to strengthen the entire body, especially the liver and gallbladder, where it promotes the flow of bile, reduces inflammation of the bile duct, and helps get rid of gall stones. Perhaps next week I'll have the energy to go out and dig up some roots in my otherwise lovely (and very over-grown) lawn? Or alternatively, at the foot of my rose bushes...

Wikipedia has a small blurb on Dandelion coffee, a popular and cheap coffee substitute a century and more ago. "Dandelion coffee was mentioned in a Harpers New Monthly Magazine story in 1886. In 1919, dandelion root was noted as a source of cheap coffee. It has also been part of edible plant classes dating back at least to the 1970s. After harvesting, the dandelion roots are dried, chopped, and roasted. They are then ground into granules which are steeped in boiling water to produce dandelion coffee.

Having learned all this, I may be a bit more encouraging as my children blow those seed heads into the breeze.

However you decide to try this most remarkable if ever so common plant, enjoy!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kids, Soda Bread, Gray Skies

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

There are days which begin with a bit more difficulty than others. We know them well. I'm recovering at the moment from my morning -- curled up in bed with Filou by my side and my writing before me.

As one of my charges needed to get to the train station at 8:15, we were all somewhat vertical by 7:10 this morning. Yes, this is not a brutal hour of the day. But, the house rhythm tends to be me up at 7:15, breakfast on the table, hot water for my tea, time to put Filou out, etc., Then, at 7:30 I climb through the house piping up "c'est sept heures et demie, l'heure de se lever" with an occasional musical rendition of "it's morning, it's moooorning" from Singing in the the Rain. Then into Leo's room to physically remove his quilt and roust him. I pick out Jonas's clothes, and bring them to him, either in his bed, or mine. Some mornings he copes by himself. Some days he's particularly groggy and I dress him (being the last, there is just a wee bit of babying going on, of which I am fully aware).

Then back downstairs to dress myself as they emerge. Hot chocolate on the table (yes, when possible with the fresh raw milk from the nearly organic farm in Tarascon run by the happily young family -- I say this as being young, and selling milk being their main source of income, it looks like I can count on them for a good many years to come), my bread, jams, honey from my beekeeper.

But this morning, pretty much out of my bread, I quickly made some soda bread to nourish the hungry hordes (well, five kids), and supply snack options for school. I'm out of my 9 grain flour, as well as whole wheat. Nothing but white in the cupboard. I'll be picking up my bulk organic order this afternoon, a group effort with three other single moms from school (three cheers for the single mom's club).

Amidst the general grogginess of the crew, Leo and Jonas started doing their thing. What is more unpleasant than bickering, fighting, and swatting children at the breakfast table? I separated them and chose the tactic of: Leo, you are older. You should be the wiser. The stronger you are, the more you will be able to ignore your little brother's provocations, and resist reacting. Yes, I wanted to teach him the art of saving face Asian style. He who reacts first loses. Beating up your brother, reacting at every little insult (be it vulgar or simply annoying) is not a sign of strength. It reveals how weak you are in that you are not in control of yourself and your reactions. Hmmm, could this be a rather strong message to grasp for an eleven year old? Leo is a very intense child, and I tend to use pretty heavy-handed methods to teach him. No doubt I talk way too much, belaboring the point excessively. I used other examples of children who are teased, and yes, it is painful, and the teaser is at fault, but, you can be the winner in the situation if you simply don't react. The teaser will eventually stop as it is absolutely no fun to provoke someone who won't let you get their goat.

Something to work on. And yes, I gave Jonas (seven) a talking to as well. To the point of, just stop provoking your brother please? It really ruins the moment, and is simply not necessary. But, I also know, a youngest craves to exist; and that existence is defined by attention from the eldest. To obtain this then, provoking and taunting are legitimate tools (no matter the beating that will follow). And so he does.

I remember welcoming being tickled, or the being used as a practice object for my brother's wrestling holds. All so that he would play with me and pay attention to me. The things we small ones will do...

Leo's second issue was a lost pen at school. A special fountain pen, that we'd recently purchased from the teacher. He is convinced a classmate stole it. However, I suggested, that the better route to recovering this pen would be to use a bit of political tact. Rather than accuse someone of stealing, he might ask the teacher if he could talk to the class as a whole, and say something to the effect of, "I lost my pen the other day. It fell on the floor. It is possible that one of you mistakenly picked it up and put it with your affairs. Would you be so kind as to take a look in your bags please? and if you've a second pen, please return it to me?" And, then, to not pounce on the person who (hopefully) returns his pen, but to say thank you graciously.

Who knows if this second message has gotten through. Leo is a child who "réagit sur le vif." He is quick to react, quick to judge. I do hope I can teach him tact and reason. They don't come naturally to him. His nature is honest, open, generous, but often suspicious of others. Betray him once, and you will forever be banished from his circle of friends. He admires gentleness, honesty, integrity (and exacts these of me as well!).

At least he integrated the first lesson pretty quickly. Still in a bad mood, he was rather obnoxious in the car on the way to school. I reacted in kind, snapping at him. And he said to me, "Mom, you should be ignoring me and not let me get to you."


a quick and easy breakfast:

Yet another version of soda bread. -- though with very relaxed proportions.

I will do my best to give correct proportions, but I must admit that I simply pulled out a bowl, the ingredients and started pouring and sprinkling them in, all judged by eye and experience.

Preheat the oven to 385F or 200C

3 cups all purpose white flour (or play around with flours of your choice, you can also add oat flakes)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup butter in small pieces
1 cup sour milk (or butter milk - or 1/2 cup of yogurt)
1 egg (optional)
1/2 cup water (enough to moisten)
cinnamon and sugar to sprinkle on top

With my hands, (but a pastry cutter or a Cuisinart would be fine too), cut the butter into the dry ingredients till it is pea sized. Add the sour milk, the egg, and mix together. Add just enough cool water to moisten everything thoroughly, but leaving it still in a nice sticky mass.

Turn out onto a baking tray -- I line mine with parchment paper, but you could also use a silpat, or grease a cookie sheet. Pat into a large circle. Sprinkle with the sugar and cinnamon. Place in the oven.

It took nearly a half hour this morning to bake, so I began it at 6:45, to be sure it was ready for the hordes as they emerged. It is ready when the top is nicely brown and crunchy, and warm sweet aromas fill your kitchen. Not too sweet, it is great with jam, honey or butter, or even lemon curd.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Cocooning, Taking Time.

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

The divorce is taking time, for numerous reasons. Amongst these the slow motion of the French judicial system, but also, the high fees of the lawyers and notaries are not easy to pay this early in the season. So, it is taking time. But so am I. I am taking time to get my feet back under me. I am taking time to figure out how to cope in this new reality. And that in itself is a luxury that I am fully aware of. But, I don't find myself able to manage differently. Things are not finished yet. In particular, the b&b is not sold as yet. Many things are on hold.

There are days I charge through my to-do list, and accomplish--if at times breathlessly-- all those accumulated tasks. I keep on top of most of my banking, my filing, the kids' medical appointments (that reminds me, we all need booster shots of tetanus), the bills, food, cleaning (better some weeks than others). And then the next day I'll feel lethargic, and though I nearly never allow myself a "useless" day, it is tempting.

Patience is necessary with the children. Leo's reading is improving, but it is not something that will shift overnight. Jonas is becoming more social and trusting, but there too, constance and presence are necessary. I've been the one who turns on a dime, who finds the solution to the problem with a quick bit of thought, who has a plan B in the wings ready to put into motion. I'm one who has always been in motion, gathering others to me in my wake. And now? Why do I feel a disconnect with this version of myself?

I spent a moment re-reading the Rudolf Steiner ideas of the life cycles as presented by two American Anthroposophists, George and Gisela O'Neil in their book, The Human Life. Ok, it sounds a bit esoteric, but, with my children in the Waldorf school, I've plunged more than a bit into this world and the very interesting ideas and concepts it puts forth on the patterns of a human life, the directions we choose, the moments we live throughout our biography. Concerning myself, moving from 42-43 this year, I am coming out of one seven year cycle (35-42) during which I basically took a look at things, threw a crank in them, and jumped out -- not necessarily with my parachute prepared. This cycle is a time to look at the path we are on, to review it, revise it, and if need be, change it. Task accomplished. It is also considered to be the last period of our 'soul' years. Which you could relate to the will, one's direction, one's values. The need to be on a path in sync with your true self is either heard and followed, or submerged by the insanities and needs of our daily life.

42-49 is a time of struggle, but also a time when the exterior physical forces are diminishing, and the internal life-forces and spirit are strengthening. For those who resist this pull towards the interior, this period can be very difficult, and a physical weariness, or illness is the result. As I re-read these ideas it dawned on me forcefully that my mornings on the computer, writing away, communicating, thinking, contemplating, are inescapable. For years I've been a whirlwind of energy, swirling through my life, exploring, creating, doing. But more and more, I am drawn inward. I am drawn to declare more clearly my values, to accept my limits, and hopefully, to discover new strengths, new directions that tap what is in me, not simply what I put out into the world.

Hence, I am writing. Is what I have to say interesting? Can I resonate with others going through similar moments? Can I bring any clarity, or if not, amusement to the subject? How banal is my situation? A mom newly single, raising her two boys who she is in many ways still discovering, trying to figure out how to earn a living that permits her to raise them as she wants and feels she needs to (at least for the moment). I've an accumulation of life experiences, living as an expat in a beautiful part of the world, working closely with so many masters of their trade. These friends are there, helping me yet with my visitors, my book projects. As all this flows, the seasons play their part, the kids' school rhythms are mine. And into this, I'm trying to cope on having a love life.

There's a theory that a woman can't succeed in all three domains at once, these being motherhood, career and love. Is it so? it certainly isn't easy to juggle the three. And particularly in this world when time is just not extensible. The NYTimes recently published an article highlighting grandmothers who move back in to help with the childcare so their daughters can have full lives with careers and happy husbands, and not in this pursuit neglect the education of their children. Michelle Obama's mother was a prime example. Where possible, this is still the pattern here in Provence. But, as elsewhere, it is becoming ever more rare.

I think we're all scared by divorce, badly behaved children, messing up the tasks we've set ourselves, disappointing ourselves as well as our entourage. It should be possible to succeed in all three domains, right?

Time to go lunch with a good friend and discuss this out loud. And then, of course, more tasks await. My new resume for teaching English and translating. The chapter on the beekeeper for the teen cook book. I'm getting to them, just more slowly than I thought I would, and should.

Avignon cafe life in full swing. And bikers out in force. Next time, I'm leaving my car at home too!

A Sunny Monday

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Back in Avignon, piles of laundry and dust greet me. The Plane trees, aka Sycamores, aka Platanes are dropping their fluff, which wafts on the breeze as it descends, coming into my bedroom and stimulating allergy attacks. Ahhh, spring. I adore the flowers, I adore the greenery -- though my yard is beginning to resemble a jungle. At this point I'll need to take a scythe to the grass before I dare attempt mowing it. Just days after weeding, the vegetable patch more closely resembles my yard than a garden. We had a couple of gorgeous days nearly a month ago already, when spending all afternoon outside in the sun in a t-shirt felt possible. It's cooler this week, and moister. I look hopefully at my mini-herb garden, wondering if there'll be some sprouts there at some point. Perhaps not till it gets warmer? The kitchen does stay rather cool, even though there's gorgeous morning light flowing in the window.

It is still cool enough in the morning that Jonas would like me to light a fire in the stove. But, from sheer laziness, or just being less sensitive to the cold, I've not lit one in quite a while. Last week, there were evenings that were happily warmed by a fire. But we're at that tipping point between the seasons. Do we put away all the winter clothes? Start taking out the linen pants and skirts? Stores are showing their wares: flouncy short summer dresses, sheer beige blouses. It's a time of almost... A time of transition. Beauty flowers all around us, and quick upon its heels comes the overwhelming greenery. White petals flutter to the ground. I pass by the orchard one day and it is bare, another and it is in full regalia, another, and it has already shifted to leaf.

The urge to slip on my roller blades and go for a spin with the boys is growing. Small problem though, Leo's feet are now my size and he feels no guilt in stealing away my pink skates. Fashion was never too much of an issue for him. Far more a "comfort" kind of guy. My actor neighbor has already borrowed my bike and taken out his girlfriend. We're all reeling from the flowing sap. Running into the wind and mild air of this spring.

Hanging out the laundry is a task I enjoy. (and a good thing this, with the household I have). Ever since my year in Japan, I've hung out laundry. There, even during the rainy season, the laundry was hung outside, under a roof, but still, hung to dry in the moist, mushi-atsui, air. Everywhere I go in France we hang our laundry to dry. It is simply standard. Be it from the living room window above the neighbors' courtyard in Arles, or in my backyard here in Avignon, or on the other side of the front lawn at the winery. We all hang our laundry out in the fresh air. On rainy days, or when it is simply too cold, I've a wrack in the bathroom. This year I succumbed to the 'need' or at least deep pleasure of owning a dishwasher. It always runs on the shortest, coolest cycles, with organic/non-phosphate detergent. But never again will I own a dryer. I just don't see why one should.

I've acquired laundry-hanging skills as the years have passed. In Arles, with the oodles of sheets from the b&b I used many doors in the house (which had beforehand been cleaned of their dust), folded the sheets carefully, and hung them over these useful surfaces. T-shirts, pants, wash clothes with fringe, all need serious shaking out before you hang them (otherwise, t-shirts can dry with crumpled sleeves, the fringe clumps). I am not much or an ironer -- which puts me in the serious minority in this country-- but such is life. To get away with this, I am careful to hang pillow cases very neatly, ditto my linen pants and cotton shirts. Anything to accomplish in one task what others might do in two if they are careless.

Then there is the issue of 'hanging one's laundry in public:' do I hang underwear, bras, etc., outside, in view of the neighbors? or inside on the bathroom wrack? It depends. But I've no qualms in delegating laundry folding and distribution amongst the kids as my parents did with myself and my siblings. My boys can fold up girls' undies just as easily as the girls can fold up theirs. It's all a part of growing up and adjusting to a varied world.

My au pairs either willingly learning the laundry tricks, i.e. went along with the program, or, they rebelled and never really adapted to the hanging laundry concept. For instance, no matter how impatient you are, you can't bring it in too soon. If you fold your laundry damp, woe on you the smelly mold that will appear, and that will be nearly impossible to wash out. I believe they felt I was trying to introduce them to the 19th Century. And I did often joke that I was aiming to enter the 20th Century, forget the 21st.

Such is still the case. It is almost painful for me to return to using my gas stove and electric oven after managing so much of the winter with my wood stove.

Ah well. Today, I'm lunching in town. So perhaps I'll leave the dust for tomorrow?