Well, our time is running out and we don’t like that!
Everything we do, every street we walk down is different and interesting. We will miss that when we go home.
We have been experiencing a whirlwind of activities since we have engaged in a very active social life. The interesting thing is that most of our friends are a lot younger than we are, and yet, they seem engaged, intrigued and eager to spend time with us. At home, we were always “my friends’ parents” to younger people, or of a different and not that interesting generation with nothing in common or to offer them. Here, due to how they were raised (a friend our age said that there are no such thing as “adult” parties. Children sit at dinner with everyone – not as the center of attention at all – and then go off and quietly entertain themselves – usually with a book or something that does not need any supervision by the parents -, so they are used to being a part of the social scene). Also, the “kids” that we have met, are very knowledgeable about and want to know more with anything to do with America and English. They treat us respectfully (as I would expect), but also as a peer that has something to offer them. We are enjoying their energy and enthusiasm! We certainly learn a lot from them, too. A good win/win situation.
Also, people have time on their hands. We meet many students, so flexibility is a factor, but the French only work 35 hours/week. We are in a small area (only 10 min. walk or tram ride) and people are out and about without cars. We have our “favorite” bar server at Vin/20, Lucy, and when we were eating dinner, another friend, Julien, walks by and says “Bon Soir” (plus all the kissing, which takes more time than the conversation between the greetings and leavings!). Last minute we’re invited Monday night to a English pub that has trivia games (which are read aloud in both French and English), and what was going to be just meeting up for one beer, became closing the place down (we won, so as winners, our team got a bottle of vodka, which of course we had to finish, especially since half our team – a lot of the younger ones – had left “early” after midnight!). And so it goes….
We’re invited to a friend’s house for a game of Barbu, a French card game, which is sort of like Hearts, loads of fun, and again, a way after midnight outing…had to watch the Tram schedule for that one; however, could have walked home….we plan to teach it to our kids when we are all together at Xmas…a game brought from across “the Pond”.
We learn more and more about wine every day. Our Barbu host, who is actually Canadian, but has lived here for 10 years, tell us: “The best wine from around here is Faugeres, Pic St Loup, St. Cimian. The red wine bottles with ‘shoulders’ (like Bordeaux) tend to have more tannin in them than the ones with smooth sides (like Cote de Rhone). For example, if you like heavy tannins, then usually you won’t be disappointed with bottles that have ‘shoulders’. If you don’t, then choose another shape.”
One day we take a bus to Sete, a delightful seaside town on the Mediterranean. An old city, and charming. Historic district, of course, charming shops, and hills and vistas of the deep, blue sea. One of my friends from cooking club here told us to try Tielles, a unique almost pastry with a very different filling.
Sete is famous for this, even though it came from Italy in the 18th Century and the decedents of the “inventor” are the ones selling it today to markets all around southern France and also in the place where our friend told us to get it, as it’s the best around. It is a pie with a filling made of calamari, octopus or cuttlefish cut more or less finely and mixed with a spicy tomato sauce. The dough is usually bread dough, but no matter what, it is a pie.
The other thing we did in Sete was visit the Paul Valery museum. It was a long walk up a big hill (I tried to take a picture through the trees, near the top, but was not very successful.) Paul Valery was a poet and an artist and a local boy. It was a delightful collection with local artists, many older masters (Renoir, Monet, Degas), and some very modern art also. We enjoyed our time there.
So we had our 26th wedding anniversary while we were here. Who would have thunk it??? We celebrated by going out to eat (remember, we haven’t been going out that often. We want to save money, calories, and live more like a local, not a tourist). But, the anniversary is a special treat. I make the reservation (and usually you don’t need one, as you just wander around and stop in; however, we are going to a top place, so I call) all in French! The name of the restaurant is Saveurs et Sens (Flavors and Sense). We show up at the appointed time, 8:00, and the door is still locked: they haven’t even opened yet! Also, it takes about less than 2 minutes (literally) to walk from our apartment to this restaurant. I hadn’t planned it that way, choosing instead the quality of the place, but all the top places are just a few steps from us in the historic district. Most places give you a choice of 4 or 5 things in each category: “entrees” (which are appetizers), a “plat”, which is the main dish, and a dessert for one price.
To start, Ken picks sardines and caviar (neither taste “fishy” at all – note the presentation of the sardines in the picture: in a little open sardine tin…clever!).
I have pate.
For the main dish, I have duck (I get caviar with this, too, plus eggplant and potatoes in a short glass, with the “sauce” in decretive blobs around the plate).
Ken gets scallops, salmon and a fabulous risotto with lobster.
Dessert (and they bring a glass of champagne to celebrate our “anniversaire de mariage”) is some wonderful chocolate something with crème anglais. Ken has a glace (ice cream) with fruit….sounds ordinary, but it is not! Of course the wine is our favorite local white: Picpoul. For one of the best meals, taking a leisurely 2.5 hours, I have ever had in my life, not only how it tastes, but how it is presented: about $100, including tax (VAT: value added tax of about 25%) and tip, which you only leave a couple of Euros (about $4) due to the wait staff getting paid more salary than at home.
Monday we are off to the country. We take a train and a bus to a small village, St. Pons de Thomasiere, where our landlords, Annie and Gilles have invited us to their home for lunch. We are taken aback by the warm welcome. They live in a 17th century house with an attached farm that had been converted to a small hotel and restaurant. Gilles’ parents had lived there, and then Gilles took over. He has since sold the hotel and restaurant, and he and Annie live in the house. It is huge and gorgeous.
We start out in the garden with white wine and cassis, a flavoring to put in the wine, along with small tomatoes from the garden and foie gras pate on small toasts. The setting seems like out of a magazine.
The dining room where we eat is massive and the table elegantly set. We start with a swiss chard quiche and progress to chicken with a curry sauce and green olives, with some sort of cous cous on the side. The cheeses are then brought out and a wonderful sweet pastry, swimming in a vanilla sauce, eaten with a big spoon. Wine is flowing. The talk is lively and interesting. (Annie understands a lot, but has trouble speaking English. Gilles is our main interaction: he is the perfect host.)
After dinner he brings out two bottles of after dinner liquers from his father’s wine cellar, which are very old (see picture of plaque certifying of their quality). By now we have missed our bus to our next stop, St. Chinian, but from the get go, Gilles has insisted on driving us down (about 20 miles). The lunch, to our amazement, flies by and takes about 3.5 hours! The gardener comes in with the “harvest” from the garden from that day. We are overwhelmed by the reception from these people. After all, we are only the tenants. We have a wonderful afternoon and the weather cooperated by being delightful: sunny and 70’s (it is mid Oct. and in the mountains, after all).
Gilles and Annie drive us to our friends’ house in St. Chinian, another small village. Here the soil is poor and the only thing that grows is the grapevines. St. Chinian is a top quality producer of wine. The topography reminds us in some ways of Sonoma, CA.
We are in for another amazing surprise when we get to Michael and Odile’s house, where we will stay for a few days. Their house is AMAZING!! It is from the 17th Century and used to be a mill and then a factory. They have lived there 30 years and have converted it themselves (Michael doing most of the work) to an amazing house, where they have raised their 3 children, who now are grown and on their own. The river water still rushes right underneath the house where the huge wheel from the old mill used to turn. The living space is about 3600 sq. feet, with 5 bedrooms, each with their own bath. This is unheard of (remember, everything is small here) in France. Michael preserved a lot of the old features/doors/shutters, etc., and yet has made it cozy and livable, while parts of it look very modern and really nice. Michael and Odile are just wonderful hosts. We feel bad as Odile, as an independent translator, just got a huge job that she has to attend to. Hard to have guests while focused on working so much. She was wonderful and seemed to take everything in stride.
For our first dinner, Michael takes grape vine twigs to make a BBQ fire, using the twigs, instead of charcoal. This is called a “sarment”. He grills lamb right on the fire. The vines give it a unique flavor. Their butcher in this little village of 1600, also made some “merguez”, a North African sheep sausage which is very spicy. Michael puts this on the fire also. The result is delicious.
After the meat and fresh French green beans with a chunky tomato sauce to add on top, there is the prerequisite plate of cheeses. These are all local and delicious. They are put out every meal at this time. They are just put back in the frig, without being wrapped (maybe in the original paper they come in) and just tend to “age”.
Dessert is a pear with ice cream, chocolate sauce (made from broken up squares of wonderful dark chocolate and melted) and some slivered almonds. Of course there is a fresh baguette and local wines served with the meal. The talk is lively and interesting. Michael tells me that the “kids” now-a-days (he has a son who is my girls’ age: 22) have a special language called “l’envers”. It says everything backwards so that older people won’t know what they are talking about. His son’s band, which started as a duo, is called “L’oud”as a play on this theme, “oud” being “duo” backwards. Each generation has its thing. Michael is a great source at explaining things, as he is a Brit having lived in France for 30 years. He has both languages, and cultures to draw from. Odile is French. We really like spending time with both of them. Very interesting people, and having been in the area for so long, and loving history, Michael is a great “tour guide”.
The next day we set off for Carcassonne, the best preserved and example of a medieval town in the world. Its origins are from 1500 years ago! It was then preserved and reused in 1659 when this region went from being Spanish to being under French rule.
Being true to the history of the place, it had been restored again in about the 1800’s. It is so interesting to see how people lived. There is an entire town protected by the towers and there are many obstacles invading enemies would have to get through to attack the people. Very interesting.
Our next stop is Minerve. This town had a reign of terror visited upon it when Catholics wanted them to renounce their religion or else burn them, the “heretics”, at the stake. They used a catapult to lob stones onto the town’s well so the people could not get water. In the end 180 people were burned. There is a plaque by the church to note where this occurred. Today, only 28 people live in this town.
There is so much history here, over thousands of years. Michael has an interesting perspective. He says that the French have learned over this history of people being really AWFUL to each other, that it is better to take care of each other. This is why the culture of France is more socialistic. Yes, they pay much higher taxes, but it is the right thing to do and works better than everyone killing each other all the time. We can see his point and how history has taught them this. Their culture is that you do “the right thing”. (Like we did not see a conductor on our train trip, and no one looked at our tickets…we really didn’t have to buy one, but MOST people will, whether they are checked or not. We could not see our culture working that way….we are more out for the individual than for the collective good.) We had many interesting discussions.
On the way home, we stop by a goat farm. Michael had been friends with the original owners for many years, and now the “kids” own/run it. They now have about 100 goats. We miss the evening milking (since the “kids” are getting too big, they now only milk in the morning and in about 2 weeks, they will stop milking for the winter until the new kids are born). They milk about 180 Liters in the AM, and if there is an evening milking, about 120 Liters more. We see the clean room where they make the cheese and then get some to take home, of course. Supposedly, some of the best in the area.
I have been coughing and have had a bad cold for about a week (and have not been sick in years!). Odile calls the doctor in the next town, and “voila”, I have an appointment to see her in half an hour. We go to the office and with no one in the waiting room, no receptionist, Michael comes back with me to see the doctor to translate, as she speaks no English (remember, these are very small villages out in the country). She asks a few questions, listens to my lungs, heart, takes my blood pressure (no nurse around), and in less than 15 minutes, I am diagnosed with bronchitis, given a prescription for an antibiotic, charges $30 (no insurance or subsidies involved….this is what it costs), and am sent on my way.
Waiting until it reopened after two hours for lunch, we stop at a “Pharmacie” and got my amoxicillin (just in a box, my name not on it or anything) and some prescription nasal spray for about $13 (again, no insurance or subsidies involved). So, my total medical experience took about half an hour total and cost about $43, including the meds. Painless!!
We drive into the beautiful countryside to go to a private garden in a town called Roquebrun. The surprising thing is that there are cacti as this particular hillside is bathed in sunlight a lot due to its position in the mountains. A gorgeous vista.
Being in the villages, again, not as a tourist, but seeing how people live, is an amazing experience and another highlight (there are so many!) of our trip. So glad we did it and are so thankful to Annie and Gilles, and especially to Michael and Odile, for making our experience here in southern France so memorable. We hope we can return the favor someday in our neck of the woods.
Think I’ll stop here, as we have Cooking Club tonight and I have to go out and get our supplies for our part of the meal. We have so much planned with our friends before we leave in the next less than 2 weeks (YIKES!) that I’m sure that the time will fly by. I’ll Post again before we leave to keep you all updated. Thanks for following our adventures!