Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nobody Knows the Truffle I've Seen

Bonjour and Happy Ste. Marcelle's (patron saint of smooth hairdos) Day!

Our first face-to-face (tete-a-tete) encounter with the French immigration authorities took place during spring break last year when we drove to the Bay Area to submit our applications for long-stay visas at the French consulate. The people working there were reserved, efficient and impressed with the conscientious preparation we (mostly Lois) had done - most pages had to be submitted in quadruplicate in both languages - so, octuplicate - for each of us - meaning, finally, sixteenuplicate. That's right! 16 copies of EACH page! Even then, we had missed something (I can't remember what) and had to get whatever it was when we got home, get it translated and fax it to them from Portland. Okay. Eventually our passports, with short-term visas attached, arrived, but not before we had bitten our fingernails down to the nub worrying about the time ticking away.

A few days after arriving here in July 2007, we went to the sous (sub)-prefecture in Aix, as instructed, where an appointment was made for us at the Prefecture in Marseilles in October, where we would be expected to submit another sheaf of documents, all or most of which we'd already given the consulate in San Francisco. I've described this experience in one of the early blogs.

The result of that visit was another appointment at the Sous-prefecture (in Aix) on January 3 to pick up (we thought) our finished long-stay visas. But when we presented ourselves, the clerk consulted the computer, shook her head, made this little combination puff of air/tsk-tsk sound that they do so well here, stamped our paper with her official seal and instructed us to return on January 30.

That was yesterday. We dropped Mike off at school and headed downtown for what we figured was the last visit to the Sous-prefecture. The place was almost empty, so we got in promptly and shoved our passports and the stamped document across the counter and under the (bulletproof?) glass, where another functionary, this one a longhaired man of about our age, checked the computer, shook his head, pursed his lips (by this time we know what follows the pursing of the lips as the night follows the day, so it came as no surprise), made the puff of air/tsk-tsk sound, stamped the paper and told us to come back on February 29 (after determining that this was a Leap, or Bisextile, year) and we discussed the U.S. presidential election. He's pulling for Obama.

Lois and I agreed that even if we had to come back every month for the duration of our stay, at least we'd have an excuse to drop into one of our favorite cafes (and, in fact, the very first we visited in Aix - on that first visit to the sous-prefecture, in fact. Beautiful symmetry or something there.) Then we picked Mike up, went shopping for ski clothes on sale for his ski trip in March, and came home. When we checked the mail we found two envelopes from the Republic of France, Agency of Foreigners and Migrations ( des Etrangers et des Migrations) informing us that we have mandatory appointments for medical examinations on the 13th in Marseilles and we have to bring vaccination records, pulmonary x-rays, eyeglass prescriptions, proof of insurance, etc., etc. Oh, and 275 euros each! I believe this is all de rigeur and I remember reading, a couple of years ago now, that a medical exam was part of the process but I'd sort of forgotten about it, and no one ever mentioned it during our multiple visits. Our sojourn is half-over now, and I must admit that the thought of just skipping the rest of the process flashed through our minds, but only for a second. (We know people who are living here and own houses and everything who haven't even applied for visas. "Yeah,", they say, "I heard something about that. What's the big deal with visas anyway?"). We'll go ahead and do what needs to be done and make our (if I'm counting correctly) SIXTH (6th) visit to the many-tentacled (it can get a lot more complicated than merely the right hand not knowing what the left is doing!) monster and hope for the best. But I'll bet we'll have to make at least one more trip, in a month or two, to pick the things up. And since it'll probably be the middle of spring by then, we'll be able to enjoy our coffee at an outside table. Et voila!

Industrial and commercial activities are clustered together here in their own areas, usually between towns, and they're clearly identified as such: Zone Industriel, Zone Commercial, Pole d'Activites, etc. There's a gigantic Zone Commercial called the Plan de Campagne between Aix and Marseilles but we'd never been there, although I had heard a lot, mostly in dazed tones, about it. I had confidently expected to spend our whole time here without ever setting foot in the place, but, wouldn't you know it, Mike was invited to a birthday party at a Laser Tag (!) place on the grounds on Saturday night. So! A couple of freeways instersect near there (coincidence? I think not.) but when I looked on the map I found that the little 2-lane road that we take from Eguilles when we're going north or south goes right to and through the Plan de Campagne. It was a nice drive, the sun was setting, lots of fields and the village of Calas enroute and finally, the road went up a hill through some trees, around a corner and ZAM!, there we were! In a giant traffic jam. And not even on the grounds yet. It took us longer to get from the roundabout at the entrance, to the laser tag place than it did to get from our house to the Plan itself. Unbelievable. Acres and acres, larger than I think I've ever seen anywhere, 200 or so stores, many of them their own separate buildings. I didn't dare use the car once we'd found the laser place (an adventure in itself) and a parking spot, so while the boys were blasting each other under parental supervision, I walked around for a while and watched the sun sink slowly into the west over the biggest agglomeration of neon in France. Very beautiful, and I figured out how to take pictures with my phone. And someday I'll figure out how to download them to the computer and then to this blog.

It wasn't all a waste of time, though. I bought my first (and probably last) pair of French running shoes, which feel good and look FAST! By the time the party was over, the traffic had thinned considerably and the ride home was easy, at least as easy as it gets on dark unfamiliar narrow country roads surrounded by manic Gauls passing you at high speed every couple minutes.

Lois had read about some interesting event - Oh, yeah! A mimosa festival - in some interesting-sounding village somewhere, but when we found it on a map it was way too far away - over by Cannes or Nice or someplace. So instead we went to one of our neighboring villages, a larger one called Pelissanne, for another truffle and olive oil festival. This time, though, we decided to BUY a truffle of our very own and I would use it in a dish to be determined later for dinner. Here are some photos of some of the things on display. They include yellow jars of duck pate, olive wood bowls and other items (Mike bought a small cheese-cutting board), herbs and sirops, terrine of ostrich (that's right!), pottery, woven mats, sausages, macarons, some big cookie things, and honey.

We became interested in this table of olive oils because they were displaying all these medals and things they had won at the California Olive Oil Exposition of aught-6 and aught-7, as well as other tastings and competitions. I opened discussion with my usual sophisticated gambit, to wit, "Desole! Je ne parle pas bien l'Francais, mais..." (Sorry, I don't speak French very well, but..). It usually gains me at least 30 seconds to work with, but in this case the guy responded immediately in perfect, colloquial (though slightly French-accented) English. His wife is American and they returned to his home, Salon-de-Provence, after 30 years in Wisconsin and started this olive oil (and tapenade) business. So we bought a bottle and have been getting all cosmopolitan dipping our bread in it and stuff.

The guy we bought the truffle from was a surly little stocky countryman with dirt-caked hands and he didn't look like he would appreciate having his picture taken. These people carry thousands of dollars worth of truffles around in little bags and they all have sophisticated digital scales (and probably sophisticated handguns) and the transactions are strictly cash. We bought one for 20 euros. It was a little smaller than a golf ball, dark brown, almost black, with a little fine mud caked on it. The smell of these things is very pungent and is aptly described as "earthy" and "gamy". Some people can't stand the smell, but we found it interesting, if not quite ambrosial. I was gonna make omelets, one of the classic truffle preparations, but realized that we like cheddar in our omelets, so I opted for something I found on, where else?, the internet - potatos anna with truffles. Easy: sliced potatos layered with olive oil, butter and truffles. Here's the truffle in the process of being sliced. It has a beautiful marbleized pattern, light brown veins in dark brown flesh.

Sitting at the table groaning and burping (from fullness [or repletion, a great word], not gastric distress) after dinner, we were able to look out the window and see another beautiful sunset, of which there have been quite a few lately.

Last time I mentioned in passing that although every community in France has something named in honor of September 4 (Quatre Septembre) I had no idea why. Thanks to my friend Diane, who was kind enough to link me up with the History channel, I now know more about that date than I would have thought possible. So I can now state unequivocally and with the authority of television behind me that the reason September 4th is so honored by the French is either because the western Roman empire ended when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus in 476, or because Los Angeles was founded in 1781, or Napoleon III was deposed and the 3rd Republic declared in 1870, or the world's first cafeteria opened in NYC in 1885, or Geronimo surrendered in 1886, or the first Boy Scout rally was held in the Crystal Palace in 1909. It's gotta be Napoleon or the cafeteria, don't you think?
I see that Adam Gopnick has written an article about Hyperpresident Sarkozy (AKA President Bling-bling) in the New Yorker, so I feel that my journalistic obligation to bring this wayward chief executive's behavior to the attention of an unsuspecting world has been discharged and I'm not going to write any more about him. Or Carla. Or Carla's interesting history of "relationships" (Donald Trump AND Mick Jagger? Not simultaneously, one hopes.) Or the 2000-euro shoes that his second ex-wife, Cecelia, claims that his sons from his first marriage are accustomed to wear. Or anything like that. People interested in that sort of thing will just have to consult the mainstream media. Actually, though, the President has been largely displaced in the news by the young Societe Generale trader who lost 7 billion euros, at last count, and the continuing revelations that seem to suggest that all the traders gamble - with our money - like he did all the time, but he just was unluckier than most. I think I'll get our meager funds out of Credit Agricole and put 'em under the matelas (mattress).
Until next time, assuming that a ship in the Mediterranean doesn't rupture a fiber-optic cable with its anchor, as happened yesterday and which resulted in blackout of the internet in much of the middle east and India, I bid you a fond Au Revoir.
Go Giants!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don't Let the Sea Urchins Bite!

Bonsoir and Happy St. Barnard's Day!

I'm writing this just after putting Mike, who is fully recovered from his bout of strep throat, to bed and reading another few pages of the first book of Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Ring, to him. Today is Wednesday, which is his half-day at school and which means that we spend several hours in the afternoon and evening immersed in 6th grade academic pursuits, i.e., homework and studying. So we're all a little dazed by bedtime. But his French is noticeably improving, and he loves history, and now in math they're studying geometry, which I liked and which he seems to grasp readily, so the family efforts have not been completely in vain. He has ANOTHER 2-week vacation coming up the week after next, which I'M having trouble grasping! I mean, I knew there was one impending sometime in the future but we just got finished with Christmas break, didn't we? There are, of course, a zillion places we haven't seen yet, and want to, so we've begun planning a series of day trips. It'll be fun.

On Sunday we decided to circumnavigate the Etang de Berre, the largest of the many shallow lakes or lagoons that dot southern Provence. I've mentioned before that this one is ringed with factories and is one of the most polluted sites in Europe, but there are still some unspoiled spots, especially around the western end and on the southern strip of land which separates the Etang from the Mediterranean. We drove west from here across the northern edge of the Etang and down, in a counter-clockwise (or anti-clockwise, if you're English) direction, through more of the seemingly endless supply of picturesque hilltop villages around here. Our first stop was Istres, a medium-sized town of 30-some thousand, which sits between the big Etang de Berre and the smaller and more pristine Etang des Oliviers, which appears in the pictures below. (See the clouds reflected in the water? I've always been a sucker for shots like that.)

(I don't remember exactly when the sunset picture was taken, but it was recently.)

Then we proceeded to Martigues, which is called, or calls itself, the Venice of Provence. (We've since learned that there's another town that claims to be the Venice of Provence. I think it's Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a little farther northwest.)
There's a lot of water in and around Martigues; the channel that connects the Etang with the Mediterranean flows through downtown, and during the season it's a very popular tourist destination. Even as we sat at a cafe for post-lunch coffees (we have begun to take our own lunches with us - baguette, cheese, apples, cookies - because eating in these cafes can get expensive) in cloudy and chilly conditions, a giant tour bus pulled up and disgorged (does that sound contemptuous? I honestly don't mean it to) a crowd of seniors (that is, people not much older than us), who followed their guide around the waterfront like ducklings behind their mother.

There's been an onslaught of publicity for about 3 weeks in the papers and on radio and TV about the big annual Sea Urchin Festival that takes place on the south coast, the epicenter of which is Sausset-les-Pins, which was just a short detour from our route. We had been toying with the idea of going but hadn't reached any firm decision until we realized we were just a few kilometers away, so we said, "Oh, what the hey! Let's take a look." By this time we should have learned that these coastal villages are all huddled down on the beach at the foot of towering cliffs and there's usually only one road that tenuously connects them with the highways up above, and if that narrow serpentine way is somehow constricted - like, say, by thousands of sea urchin fanciers and their cars - you can be caught like a rat in a trap. (Actually, I'm reminded of the ant lions and their prey that I first saw in Florida many years ago when visiting my grandparents. The ants descend an innocent-looking slope and can't get out.) We should have guessed something was up when we saw cars parked alongside the road a couple of MILES above the town, but by then it was too late. The road that took us in was also the only road out and there was only one way to go - forward. One look at the madness around us and we didn't even stop - just kept going, inching along, until we got back up the hill at the other end. I had asked my friend Francois, "So how do you cook sea urchins, anyway? Boil 'em?" He just looked at me and said, "Cook? You eat 'em raw, of course!" Now we've all seen sea urchins on PBS, right?, and they look like little squids with those hard beaky mouthparts. Apparently you rip that part out, or something, and then just swallow the remaining soft parts down with a mouthful of wine. The leathery old sea urchin aficionados on the tube are all speaking Provencau, or Provenco, the essence of which seems to be that the first halves of words are French and the endings are Italian. Alas, another delicacy which I will never be able to bring myself to sample.

After our narrow escape, we continued a few kilometers further along and decided to check out Carry-le-Rouet, which was a little less crowded. We were able to get out, stretch, walk out on the jetty and take a few pictures. Including one, taken by Mike, of a sea urchin in its natural, still-living state. It's the dark brown object beneath the reddish filamentous object, which it might almost be wearing as camouflage. In one of the photos you can see the southern tip of Marseilles across the way, about, I don't know, 15 or 20 miles away. The village was jumpin', but with a subtly different type of crowd, and I later discovered that there's a big casino there, which might account for the uptown vibe. Also, there are some magnificent houses on the cliffs overlooking the sea that belong to big Marseilles executives. Or possibly gangsters.

A small but significant milestone has been reached in our family: Michael is now taller than Lois. In the photo below he might be standing on a rock, but I've measured them on level ground and he's definitely taller. "Never mind, dear," I tell her in my tactful, supportive way, "you still outweigh him."

I've been reading about this orchestra that is funded by the department and which offers a schedule of free concerts in communities throughout the area, from Rognes (pop. 400-ish) to Marseilles (pop. 840,000-ish). It's called L'Orchestre de l'Pays d'Aix and we had intended to go see them last week in Rognes (site of the famous truffle festival of several weeks ago), but Mike came down with what was later diagnosed as strep so we didn't. But I noticed that THIS week they were performing in St. Cannat (pop. a couple of thousand), the next village over, so I was able to go after we got back from our drive on Sunday, alone because Mike and Lois decided to stay home. It was great fun! The concert was in the Salle de Quatre Septembre (I blush to admit that I'm STILL not sure what happened on September 4th, but every community in France has at least one street or building named after it), a civic center and multi-use structure which looked, to my eyes, anyway, suspiciously like a gym, even to the basketball backboard looming over the string section. The place was packed and they had to supply more chairs, and even then there wasn't enough room to hold everyone who showed up. I just sat there bathed in the melodious sound of mostly incomprehensible French emanating from my fellow concertgoers until the music started. It was a program of excerpts from famous ballets, and the orchestra of 57 did a fine job. Unfortunately, no printed program was available so, while I sort of recognized many of the tunes, I may never know which ballets they came from.

Yesterday, after taking Mike to school, I dropped the car off at a garage in Eguilles (a different one, the third I've tried) for an oil change. I spent the ensuing hour and a half in the village, having a coffee and pastries and reading La Provence in the newly smoke-free tabac, stopping in another of the bakeries for a baguette, shopping for veggies at the weekly open-air market (see photo), and just walking around. I took some pictures from one of the scenic viewpoints, which is a street of old attached houses overlooking the Arc river valley and which is where, Lois and I agree, we would like to live if we lived here permanently. I ended up in the village cemetery (don't we all?), which is built around some ancient ruins. There's also a shot of Our Lady of the Pigeons.

Congratulations to the Giants for reaching the Super Bowl against all expectations, and to my brother-in-law Ernie, who has never wavered in his support though his heart was breaking (although his language got pretty colorful a time or two!), through thick and thin, taking the bitter with the sweet, from the ridiculous to the sublime!

Au revoir until next time!


P.S. I've just reread the above and I realize that, because we brought just one suitcase each, we're wearing the same clothes in every picture of us that has appeared in this now several-months-old blog. Good thing we have our own washer! I've also realized that our stay is half-over and we're definitely having mixed feelings.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Saint is a Person in Your Neighborhood

Bonjour and Happy Ste. Roseline's Day!

There is now an authentic Provencal calendar affixed to the wall by the computer, so henceforth when I stare blankly into the middle distance I have something interesting to look at, and it appears that every day of the year has its saint or sainte. Here, for example, is a list of some of the significant dates in the Mathews Family calendar, with patron demi-deities indicated:

January 3 - Ste. Genevieve
January 15 - St. Remi
January 18 (tomorrow?! Ohmigod! I have to go shopping right away!) - St.
May 24 - St. Donatien
May 25 (Mother's Day here) - Ste. Sophie
June 26 - St. Anthelme
July 27 - Ste. Nathalie
August 5 - St. Abel
August 9 - St. Amour (appropriate for an anniversary, no?
Did you know about this when you chose the date, Esteemed Parents?)
August 16 - St. Armel
August 17 - Ste. Hyacinthe
August 28 - St. Augustin
September 13 - St. Aime with an accent over the 'e'
October 9 - St. Denis

Those of you born on January 13 might be interested to learn, if you don't know already, that your patron sainte is Ste. Yvette. Yvette? Is there a Ste. Fifi, too? How about Ste. Lulu? I'll have to check.

This week we didn't go anywhere special and we didn't do anything special. We just sat around coming to terms with how boring our lives have become and caring for our sick child, who was stricken with strep throat and needed our help ingesting the FIVE (5) different medications prescribed by our doctor - 4 to swallow, 1 to spray. I can't remember who wrote concerning French medical practice that the most frequently prescribed means of introducing medicine into the system was the suppository, but I'm relieved to report that it wasn't the case this time. After an unusually disease-free fall and early winter, the cold/flu/sick season finally hit last week and the French are dropping like flies (mouches). The papers are filled with stories about it and the word "epidemie" is being bandied about. Mike stayed home on Monday and Tuesday and several of his schoolmates are out today, and our landlord, hardbitten French farmer though he is, is sick as a dog (chien).

Actually, now that I think about it, the week wasn't totally devoid of memorable events. We celebrated our anniversary on Tuesday and Lois' birthday is tomorrow. Bonne Anniversaire, Cherie!

Since we didn't go anywhere I took the opportunity of walking around the farm and taking some photos of our immediate neighborhood. We live on top of a hill in a cluster of old farm buildings which have been divided into apartments. We're on the 3rd floor of the main building and our landlord (when he's not at his fiancee's) and his daughter (and her boyfriend on weekends) live on the bottom 2 floors. The building right across the courtyard is divided into 4 residences. The biggest belongs to another family (the overlapping ownership is very confusing - it must have something to do with inheritances being divided generation after generation for centuries) the members of which are only here for periods during the summer, and occasionally on weekends during hunting season. It has 3 other apartments which are inhabited by: 1. 3 twenty-something guys (Jean-Remy, Chris and David) who are smart, funny, fluent in English and have a heavy-metal band; 2. Celine, a single woman around 30 who seems to be here only intermittently; and 3. Christian, a 50-ish self-employed electrician who has 3 sons and 4 grandchildren, but whose wife, sadly, passed away after a long illness. Less than 100 yards away on the same hill is a newer and fancier house belonging to a middle-aged couple who have lived in the Bay Area, but no one around here seems to know anything about them. Or, knowing the French as we are beginning to do, they know plenty but aren't talking.

The first pictures are of some wheatfields belonging to our landlord, Michel Olive. You can see the faint green which is beginning to appear in all the fields around here, giving a cruel and misleading illusion of spring. It's only mid-January, after all, and winter-cold, but being surrounded by all this beautiful new growth one can't help but be fooled into thinking that it's early May. Until one finds oneself scraping ice off the car in the morning, anyway. I think it's a crop of early spring wheat.

Every few days the wind picks up and howls for some days, in multiples of three according to local legend, and sometimes it is VERY strong. These are some of the recent casualties. The shallow-rooted ones topple over and others just snap right off, even though one of them is almost 2 feet in diameter. That's SOME wind!

The big stucco house in the distance is the neighbor nearest to our little hilltop compound. It's a family-owned vineyard called Villa Minna which, according to an article in La Provence, produces superior reds. Since we drive by every day we're able to witness the whole annual cycle of the grape. During the harvest, all the roads out here in the country are stained dark purple.

A friend of our landlord leases a big field right behind the house which is visible from our windows, and has divided it into smaller lots for her horses. She currently works in real estate but we understand that she wants eventually to operate an equestrian school, and is enlarging her stock accordingly. There were 7 when we arrived and there are about 10 now.

The poultry, mostly roosters, it seems, strut around the place scratching and pecking. During the winter we can't hear them when they go off at 4:00 or so, but during the summer the windows are always open and after a week or two of interrupted sleep we cordially detest them.
They are often accompanied on their perambulations by some rabbits. It's like those PBS nature programs where herds of different species congregate at waterholes.

Suddenly, the peaceful scene is shattered as a giant crocodile lunges out of the still water and seizes a baby rooster in its monstrous jaws and --- . Whoops! Sorry. I guess I've seen too many of those shows. Curse you, David ("Why Does Dickie Always Get the Knighthoods?") Attenborough!

The cat (can you find him?) just recently appeared and has been sort of adopted by the little community here. He's a great animal and Mike has fallen in love with him and wants him to live up here, but we can't, and that's final!

Well, WE may be leading a boring existence, but the French are having a helluva time! First, in an echo of the American experience of several years ago, the recently selected Miss France has been divested of her crown and tiara as a consequence of having been photographed in suggestive, blasphemous (there was some religious symbolism involved) and scantily-clad poses in ads for a lingerie company. (She was STRIPPED of her crown! Get it?). The first runner-up, who would normally have inherited, has already moved on to school or something and turned down the honor, so the second runner-up is now Miss France.

They take a lot of polls here, and the latest shows President Sarkozy's approval rating at its lowest ever, below 50% in fact. Some attribute this precipitous decline to one thing, some to another. His waffling on his campaign promise to do away with the 35-hour work week? His constant jetting around from one country to another like a hyperactive mosquito? (Although every time he makes one of these visits, the headlines trumpet the multi-billion- [milliard-] euro deals he has concluded with the various sheikhs, generalissimos and presidents-for-life shown shaking his hand and looking guilty.) His butting in and undercutting and contradicting the cabinet members he himself appointed? His lurid and increasingly public private life? (Cecilia, his recently divorced second wife, is quoted in a new unauthorized biography, the publication of which she tried to block, as saying that he has a "serious behavioral problem" and throws himself on women whose names he doesn't even know! I read a biography once of Napoleon III, who was a strange character, a demagogue who almost certainly wasn't actually related to the real Napoleon, who threw himself at every woman HE met [the book didn't mention whether he knew their names or not] and who led France to sudden and complete military collapse and abject surrender to Bismarck's Prussia.) As of today, no one knows if he and Carla Bruni are married yet or not - there are rumors of a secret ceremony being performed at the Elysee Palace, and all those who are supposed to know are being very cagey about it. It's considered a possibility because some of the countries he's scheduled to visit (India, for example) have expressed unwillingness to treat him and Carla like husband and wife. They feel the conservative sensibilities in their countries would be offended, so it would be a pragmatic political maneuver for Sarkozy to legitimize the relationship with her before their scheduled tour, thereby enabling him to continue his post-holiday sales of jet fighters and nuclear power plants. After all is said, done and analyzed in the papers, their president is beginning to make the French nervous. We can certainly relate.

The NFL Conference Champsionships are coming up (if you're not sure what they are, ask a football fan - there's one in every family, somewhere. Usually in front of the TV.) and I'm feeling all, like, sentimental. For years I've had the pleasure of hosting a guys-only (we INVITE the women and children, but, oddly enough, they always seem to have prior commitments) two-game double-header TV and sandwich extravaganza, a veritable ORGY of lunchmeat, chips and salsa! I wasn't able to follow the season with my usual obsessive scrutiny and was pleasantly surprised to find the Chargers and Giants still in contention, and I'll be pulling for them to meet in the Super Bowl. Also, like any true fan, I get a lot of satisfaction, unholy glee you might say, in seeing certain teams beaten. Or rather, crushed! Humiliated! Squashed like bugs!! Like Indianapolis. And Dallas. I like Brett Favre, but since he'll probably play till he's 60, he'll have a lot more chances to win the big one. Just not this year.

I watched, on the tube, my local soccer team, Olympique Marseilles, the most popular team in France, lose in the 91st minute last night (there was one minute injury time added on) at Auxerre literally seconds before the end. The referee, or whatever he's called here, actually had the whistle in his mouth to signal the end of regulation time and the beginning of overtime, when one of the dastardly opponents snuck right by a noble defender, who was taking a well-deserved short nap, and crossed to a sneaky forward who headed the ball into the net past the hard-working goalie, Steve Mandanda. (Speaking of good sports names, like Baskerville Holmes the basketball player, there's a soccer player [in England, maybe?] named Titus Bramble!). A bitter loss, very bitter. But I have every confidence that they'll pick themselves up, brush themselves off and start all over again blaming the weather, the officials, and the lousy visiting team buffet. Why? Because they're highly-paid professionals, that's why!

And now I'm going to pick myself up outta this chair, brush myself off (Lois baked cookies tonight and I'm covered with crumbs. Chocolate chip pecan!) and start all over on the long walk down the hall to the bathroom again. Until next time,

Au revoir!


P.S. I wonder if Judy Garland was born on Meet Me in St. Louis Day

Monday, January 7, 2008

We Didn't Take Our Niece to Nice...

...but we did take her to Marseilles, Les Baux and Cassis. As I mentioned last time, Aja, one of our charming nieces, visited us for almost 2 weeks. She left yesterday (and arrived home safely, as we're informed by e-mail, though sans luggage, which will follow later today), but not before we dragged her across Provence from one end to the other. You know how it is - one feels a manic obligation to show visitors around to all the "sights", which works well for all concerned because you probably wouldn't ever go otherwise.

So after she returned from a short visit to Paris we spent a day in Marseilles, which was one of the places on her "must-see" list. We walked around the old port (vieux port), which is mandatory for visitors, and climbed up into a medieval fortress (St. Nicholas?) which guards the entrance to the harbor and is a perfect vantage point for the photographer.

Although Marseilles' unsavory reputation is overblown, it does still have a sort of raffish charm. It's one of the oldest cities around and has been a melting pot for a couple thousand years. We visited the Marseilles Historical Museum, which is in the basement of a fancy downtown mall!! Why a mall, you ask? Because during excavation for the first incarnation of the mall back in the '70s, a bunch of 2000-year old artifacts, like the walls in the photo and a sunken trading ship with cargo intact, were uncovered. (They sliced some of the amphorae in half and covered the cut surfaces with glass to display the contents. Our favorite is the one with 2000-year old salted mullets. The fish, not the hairdo. Although that would be interesting, too.) Apparently the original old port (the even older port) extended into and covered the area which is now dry land, and very expensive land at that. Marseilles is the second-largest city in France and you can feel that unmistakable "big city" energy, not to mention that unmistakable "big city" traffic craziness. Man, going around a traffic circle during rush hour is like being swept up into a maelstrom - it's a miracle that people survive and, even more, that they get out the right exit. I have nightmare visions of my emaciated body being discovered at the wheel of our car as it runs out of gas while going round and round and round...

And we had another in a long series of superior lunches in a brasserie across the Rue de la Republique from the museum. Aja and I sampled tarte tatin (apple tart baked upside down in caramel sauce and flipped over when served, hot, with creme fraiche and, when requested [which we do] ice cream!!) in restaurants across France, and we were never disappointed. I suppose it's theoretically possible to get a bad piece, just as it's probably theoretically possible to get a bad cup of coffee, but I haven't had one so far.

That was Friday. On Saturday we went to Les Baux, site of the 12th-century castle/fortress of the wicked lords of Les Baux! I don't know what they did that was so awful, but the legend of their iniquity has persisted through the ages. They fought the Saracens, North African Muslims who would sweep across southern France every so often, and the ruins resemble the crusader castles in Jordan or Lebanon. The castle and the village itself seem to grow right out of the rock. This is in a region called "Les Alpilles", or little Alps - appropriately so, as you can see from the panoramic vistas, even on a cloudy day. I've mentioned before how visiting popular tourist spots during the winter is so different from doing it in summer at the height of the season, and Les Baux is a perfect example. When our friends the Gaudette-Sigels were here in August, Lois and Mike brought them here and they had to park miles away and fight their way up the cobbled streets and risk being elbowed off the ramparts by the horde of tourists trying to squeeze onto the narrow, and STEEP, stone stairs. When we visited on Saturday, on the other hand, we parked right in the town and the place was virtually deserted.

The same thing was true of Cassis, our favorite beach town, where we went on Sunday. We had taken the Gaudette-Sigels there, too, during their August visit and the place was packed. The town has parking lots at the top of the hill overlooking the sea, about 2 miles away, and runs shuttle buses to the village square from morning till night during the summer, but on Sunday we once again parked in the middle of town (I hadn't thought that was actually possible) and strolled leisurely among the relatively sparse crowds. The weather was cold and rainy for most of Aja's visit but it was beautiful in Cassis. "See, Aja, the sun really does shine here!"

Mike and Aja really got along well, as is evident in the pictures. We love our nieces and I feel that Mike's lucky to have them as cousins, not least because of their civilizing influence. They don't put up with his adolescent guff - oh pardon me. "Issues", I should say - like we, as parents, do. While we're, like, all "There, there, your majesty, we know you have these feelings, and we wouldn't dream of saying anything that might impede your self-actualization, but some people might not consider it polite to break wind in a crowded Parisian restaurant," they just tell him to knock it off and punch him in the arm. I know he'll be a better man for it. We're looking forward to Kristen's visit in the spring. And maybe, if we're lucky, Micah, too. They say, don't they, that it takes a village of cousins to raise a child?
I guess that's about it for now. Aja's back home, Mike's at school, and we're settling back into our placid routine. For a few weeks, anyway, until Mike's next school break.
Until next time, Au Revoir!