29 May 2016

Ballooning : Le Trophée François Ier

It turned out that the hot-air balloon event we had witnessed involved as many as 25 entrants, so we had only seen about half of them. It's called Le Trophée François Ier. There's a Facebook page about it.

I grabbed this 2015 image off the Trophée François Ier Facebook page... with my thanks. It shows the late 15th century Château du Moulin, about 20 miles east of Saint-Aignan, near Romorantin.

Unfortunately, yesterday's flight had to be canceled because of the threat of stormy weather. Here's a local newspaper's article about the annual ballooning event, with a video shot just a few days ago up at Cheverny, about 20 miles north of Saint-Aignan.
As I said, I couldn't get any long shots of the balloons other than the ones I posted yesterday, because they were just too close to the house. But I did take a lot of zoomed images of the individual balloons as they floated by.
The balloonists were lucky to have a beautiful morning on Thursday. We had had a violent thunderstorm overnight, but the day dawned clear and calm. Yesterday storms threatened but never materialized here at Saint-Aignan. In Paris, three adults and eight children were injured when they were struck by lightning in the Parc Monceau, near the Arc de Triomphe. Rain delays were called at the French Open tennis tournament up there in the afternoon.

28 May 2016

Balloons — une flopée de montgolfières

Rolling thunder woke me up this morning. Then a flash of lightning. It was only 5 a.m. but I had to get up and see what was happening. According to the Météociel web site, most of the storm and lightning strikes were to the south of us, between Valençay and Châteauroux (45 minutes away). It's raining here but the lightning and thunder seem to be finished for the time being.

What a difference between this morning and the morning we had day before yesterday! At 8 a.m. Thursday Callie started barking like crazy and it wasn't obvious what was upsetting her. It turned out that she had heard the whoosh of the burner on a hot-air balloon approaching from the east. Then we started hearing it. Walt stepped out on the front deck and yelled back that had spotted a balloon... no, three balloons... no, four... in the sky, headed our way.

There turned out to be a dozen montgolfières, and they were flying so low that they nearly scraped the treetops and our chimneys. We hoped they wouldn't hit the electric wires in the hamlet. Mostly all I could do was take photos of the individual balloons — they were too close for me to be able to get many long perspective shots.

If I'd had time to get my longest-zoom camera I could have gotten better shots of the people in the baskets suspended under the balloons, but there was not time. Check back tomorrow for images of the 10 other balloons that flew over on Friday morning.

In this last image, it looks like the man in the balloon is looking right at me as I take the photo. I should have waved.

27 May 2016

Poulet à l'estragon

I'm running late this morning because instead of doing this blog post I've been working on all the photos of hot-air balloons that I took yesterday. I'm not ready to post them yet — maybe tomorrow. At least a dozen montgolfières floated right over our house yesterday morning, just about scraping the treetops. And then a minute ago we had a power cut. That also slowed me down. It was a blip, really, but it crashed our computers and our satellite TV even though it only lasted a second or two. Who knows if it's related to strikes? Could be... or just a coincidence.

Anyway, we have a beautiful tarragon plant growing in a pot on the front deck. The plant is probably 4 or 5 years old and it comes back every spring. We both like tarragon, and try to find opportunities to use it in our cooking. I repotted the plant into a new and bigger container early in the spring, and it is growing like a weed.

So one of the real classic dishes using tarragon — estragon in French — is poulet à l'estragon. I see a lot of recipes for it in English (Tarragon Chicken) and in French on the web. Here's the recipe I followed — we used to watch Bernard Laurance's cooking show on Cuisine TV before the channel was taken off the air.

Walt had gone to the market on Saturday morning in Saint-Aignan and bought a fine free-range chicken from our favorite local poultry processor and vendor. I didn't take any photos as I prepared and cooked it, only of the leftovers. That's what you see here. The sauce contains chicken broth, aromatic vegetables like shallots and garlic, cream, and of course tarragon. We had some cooked celery in the fridge, and we like celery as a side vegetable, so we cooked some rice and there we had our lunch.

By the way, Callie spent a quiet night without once moving and now she's gone out for a walk with Walt. I think her back leg is already getting better, because I saw her running when I looked out the back window.

26 May 2016

Wild times

There won't be any need to water plants today. We had a wild storm overnight and recorded half an inch (12.5 mm) of rain in the gauge in just under an hour. There was thunder and there was lightning. When it first started, and at another point or two during the storm, I thought the noise sounded like hailstones hitting the roof tiles and the skylights upstairs. I didn't get up to look, though. Maybe it was just big fat raindrops. I see no evidence of any damage to plants this morning.

Random photos: last night's sunset

Callie is acting up. I wonder if she sensed somehow that the storm was brewing. The dog does not enjoy thunder and lightning. About 8 p.m., Callie seemed to want to climb the stairs up to the loft space, which are narrow and steep. She just couldn't do it. She stood at the bottom of the staircase and whimpered, putting first one front paw and then another onto the bottom step and then pulling her paws away again. It was as if she couldn't find her rhythm and get all her legs coordinated for the climb. I hope the problem is psychological and not physical.

Callie the collie keeping watch in the back yard

I think she just didn't want to go upstairs, but Walt and I were up there, as is our normal routine. She finally made it up the steps but she seemed nervous about it. The rain and lightning didn't start until about 1 a.m. When Walt got up during the storm to go have a look around the house and out the windows, Callie followed him downstairs. She didn't come back up. When I got up this morning, the poor dog gave me all the signs that said she needed to go outdoors, so I opened the back door for her. She sat out back under a tree for about an hour, and then she came back in. I don't know if she had business to do, or what.

Collard greens...

Oh, by the way, last night before bed I saw a headline that said the employees at all 19 of the nuclear power plants in France had voted to go out on strike. This morning that has been revised to say that "only" 16 of the power plants will be affected by strikes. Meanwhile, one-third of the gas stations in France have run dry because oil storage facilities and refineries are paralyzed by strikers. The country has dipped into its emergency fuel reserves to keep things moving. And the trains are mostly still running on reduced schedules because railway workers are continuing their strikes. Those unions have announced a strike of unlimited duration starting on June 2. I'm supposed to go to Paris on June 5. We'll see.

...and Swiss chard starting to grow in the garden

Life goes on otherwise. The tennis tournament in Paris is in high gear, but forecasts are for lousy weather from now until at least Monday. Rain and showers will slow things down in two ways: there will be rain delays, and the clay courts will be damp and slow. The Roland Garros tennis complex doesn't have a roof over any of its courts and it doesn't have lights for night play either, so the weather is a huge factor in the tournament.  It's kind of like the vineyards in France, in which irrigation is forbidden. It's all about the weather.

P.S. at least a dozen hot-air balloons just floated right over our house, really low. Some event we hadn't heard about, I guess. I took photos.

25 May 2016

Strikes and the local “soil”

The French police are "liberating" refineries and oilstorage depots one by one. Some have been blocked for nearly a week by strikers and demonstrators for a few days now, and gas shortages have become widespread. Six of the country's eight oil refineries are either closed or not operating at full capacity. Now they say that the workers in at least one nuclear power plant in France have voted to go out on strike. Are we going to start having power cuts and brownouts? The labor unions — the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) right now — are upping the ante against the government's new labor legislation.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd give you an idea of what the ground looks like where we live, outside Saint-Aignan and on the edge of an extensive vineyard. It's not soil, actually, but clay and rocks, and it's called perruches in French. Grapes thrive where other crops don't, in such rocky soil. The rocks absorb heat from the sun during the day and release it slowly overnight, moderating the low temperatures and helping grapes grow and ripen. You can click on the images to enlarge them.

Other plants grow in it too, but they have to be hardy. Can you imagine that we have a vegetable garden in this kind of soil? Over the last dozen years I have picked up wheelbarrow loads of rocks and moved them while tilling. I know at least one man who has had truckloads of rich topsoil hauled in to make his garden easier to plant in and care for. We haven't done that. The soil down in the river valley, less than half a mile distant and down the hill, is much sandier, softer, and richer.

The photo above is one I took last Saturday, right before the big storm front passed over us and gave us about 1½ inches of rain. Luckily, we didn't have strong winds or any lightning.

The grapes are really leafing out now, and the landscape is greening up. By the way, if you don't see a new blog post from me some morning over the next week or so, you'll know we've had some kind of power outage. There are still train and metro strikes going on too, so I'm getting worried about my plan to go to Paris in 10 days or so.

24 May 2016

Cars, trains, and plants

Yesterday turned out to be a pretty one. The rain ended before 8 a.m. — we collected 37 mm or 1½ inches in the gauge between Saturday evening and Monday morning — and the sun warmed us up to a pleasant temperature in the high 60s ºF.  But it's cold this morning — 8.5ºC (high 40s ºF). It's supposed to be sunny again today, with showers tomorrow.

I kept this big coleus plant and two others going all winter indoors. My plan now is to take cuttings and start some new plants to put out on the terrace this summer.

Even with the pleasant dry weather, the ground is really saturated. The pond out back was still overflowing late in the afternoon when I took Callie out, with a steady stream of water running down the hill on the north side of our yard. As a result of the wet and the cold, we still haven't been able to set plants out in the vegetable garden.

Peonies in a neighbor's yard...

Yesterday I got my tickets for a short trip to Paris in the beginning of June. I want to go see the renovations and restorations at the Panthéon and, especially, go up onto the balcony around the dome for the views from up there. I spent several years working in the neighborhood around the Sorbonne and the Panthéon back in the 1970s and early '80s, and I'd like to see it all from above. If you're reading Walt's blog these days, you'll see why.

...and roses in the same yard

One of the big news stories in France right now has to do with gas shortages because of strikes and demonstrations around the country's refineries. According to reports, lines are long at gas stations all over the country. Sunday morning I went over to Intermarché to pick up a few things and I noticed that cars were four or five deep at the three or four pumps over there. Lucky for us, the Citroën's tank is full and the Peugeot's is half-full, so we don't have anything to worry about. We don't drive much anyway.

I don't recognize these berries growing in another neighbor's hedge.

I'm glad I decided to take the train to Paris rather than try to drive. I'll only be there from Sunday morning until Tuesday evening, and I won't need a car. In fact, it's a hassle to drive in the city — I don't enjoy the stress of it any more — and it's expensive to park a car, because there's no free parking in the city now — not even on Sundays — during daylight hours. A space in a parking garage costs 25 to 30 euros a day. If you park on the street, you are required to move your car every two hours and find a different space. If you don't you can get an expensive ticket.

The amaryllis bulbs I brought back from North Carolina and potted up this spring have started to bloom.

If I lived in Paris — and at this stage I doubt that I ever will again — I definitely wouldn't own a car. Out here in the country, you can't really live without one, because public transit is so scarce. I see a lot more taxis on the roads around Saint-Aignan that I did 10 or 12 years ago, however, so there must be some demand for their services. You can always take a taxi to the train station (there are special low prices for those trips) if you don't have a car, and the train service here is good, whether you want to go to toward Paris, Lyon, Tours, Brussels, Bordeaux, or Toulouse.

23 May 2016


These flower photos might give you the wrong idea today. They were taken on Saturday, when we had sunny weather. Now we've been in a deluge for 24 hours. I lay awake much of the night listening to hard rain beat against the roof tiles and skylight windows up in the loft. And it's still raining now, but not as hard for the moment.

Anyway, the peonies out back have finally bloomed, as you can see above. They were growing here when we moved to Saint-Aignan in 2003. We had made an offer on the house in December 2002 and the deal was closed in April 2003. It's hard to believe it was so long ago.

Another spot of color that the people we bought from, Jean and Josette, left us are these purple-blue bellflowers around the front of the house. They put on a good display at this time of year and are perennials. As you can see, the amaryllis bulbs I brought back from North Carolina recently have started to bloom too. More photos when the rain stops.

Jean and Josette also left many rose bushes all around the house. Some of them are just starting to flower now. I hope the hard rain hasn't knocked the petals off the blooms. By the way, we often get very hard rains at this time of year.

Finally, one more shot of a peonie. Josette, who'll turn 89 in a few days, used to call this place « un havre de paix dans un océan de verdure » — "a haven of peace in an ocean of greenery" — and this time of year you can see why. Obviously, there are colors other than green, too.

22 May 2016

The dog, the garden, the rhubarb

Callie was happy yesterday afternoon when we went out for our walk, and so was I. For Callie it was because she got to spend most of the day outdoors. We left the doors wide open, and some windows too. The sky was hazy, so it didn't get as warm as the weather services had predicted but, at 24ºC, we weren't complaining.

For me, the happiness had to do with getting some garden work done. At about 10, I went out and fired up the rototiller. But first, I dug four or five wheelbarrow loads of compost from one of our two piles and spread it all over the garden plot. Then I tilled it all in. Tilling also uprooted weeds that had started growing in the earth.

Above, you can see the two rogue rhubarb plants that had come up in the garden plot this spring. In that photo, I hadn't yet finished tilling up the whole plot, which we enlarged a few months ago. I stopped to harvest one rhubarb plant. In the photo on the right, you can see that the plant is gone. I dug up the root with The tiller and a shovel.

I will harvest the second rhubarb plant this coming week. We have half a dozen plants growing in a different spot, out in the back corner of the yard, so we don't need these two, Above, you can see that there is one corner of the garden plot that I didn't till, because I already have some little collard greens growing there.
Here's the harvested rhubarb. The stems, leaves removed, will make quite a few tarts, crumbles, or jars of confiture.

21 May 2016

Training into Blois

Wow, temperatures here are supposed to be very close to 80ºF today (that's 26ºC), with bright sun. That'll be fun, but then tomorrow one weather site says we're going to get about an inch (24 mm) of rainfall and have a high temperature of 60ºF (about 15ºC). It's a veritable roller coaster ride.

The good weather today and the rain following means it really is time to get out the rototiller and run it over the garden plot one last time before we set out the tomato, bell pepper, eggplant, kale, and squash plants. I want to get that work done so that I can be freed up to go to Paris for a few days.

There's a nice view of this building from the new footbridge at the train station in Blois.

 I got to the train station at 2 p.m. without having had lunch, so these pastries were tempting.

Here are a few more photos that I took in Blois the other day when I drove up there to meet Walt at the train station. He was coming from Paris after flying back to France from Montréal on Air Canada.

The first train here is the one Walt was on. It was coming from Paris and going on to Amboise and Tours.

Here's the train from Paris-Gare d'Austerlitz pulling into the station at Blois.

Walt, by the way, is still struggling with jet lag. Sleepless nights and groggy afternoons are the pattern. It's gradually getting better, but he's not up yet this morning so I don't know if he was actually able finally to sleep through the night.

Tomorrow, maybe some photos of my gardening exploits...

20 May 2016

Blois: the new railway overpass for pedestrians and cyclists

One of the newest features of the train station in Blois — la gare de Blois-Chambord — is an imposting pedestrian and bicycle bridge that connects residential neighborhoods on the northwest side of the rail line to the hostoric center of the town to the southeast.

It also provides access to the station's platforms for travelers who are getting ready to take a train or have just arrived on one. There are several elevators as well as a wide, gradually sloped ramp for bicycles. For those who want, stairs are provided as well. There are also good views from the footbridge.

Before the bridge was built, travelers had to walk down a set of stairs into an underground passageway and then back up another set of stairs to get to the departure and arrival platforms. There were no elevators or escalators, and for people carrying heavy baggage it was not an easy process.

Now you can take an elevator or the stairs (or the bicycle ramp) up to the pedestrian bridge and then take an elevator back down to the platform your train is leaving from — or vice-versa if you are arriving at Blois by train. The new bridge lends a touch of modernity to the old train station, both esthetically and functionally. I hope it ages well.

19 May 2016

Traveling these days

An Egyptian airplane disappeared in the skies over the Mediterranean Sea overnight. It had taken off from Paris late Wednesday evening. I'm so sorry things like this keep happening — it's horrible to imagine... I would have been a nervous wreck if it had happened 24 hours earlier, with Walt in the air. The last two or three times I've flown across the Atlantic there have been similarly horrible events during my travels. A pilot crashed a plane full of people into a mountain in the south of France, for example. The Paris terrorist attacks in which more than 100 people were killed in a theater and several cafés happened just two days before I flew back from Atlanta to Paris. And so on. I'm not sure travel is worth it any more. For a long time, flying was fun. Then over the past 20 years it has become an ordeal because of security and planes that are more and more crowded and cramped. Now it's just too stressful, I think.

So Walt got back with absolutely no trouble. I left home at 1:00 p.m. in the Citroën, filled up the tank at a local gas station (at Intermarché), and drove little back roads up to Blois. It took me about an hour to get there. I was early, and I had time to take some photos. Walt's train pulled into the Gare de Blois-Chambord shortly before 2:30, right on time. We drove back home to Saint-Aignan and arrived by 3:30. We had champagne. We had a late lunch. Walt told me more details of his trip and of friends and family that he saw. He hadn't been to the U.S. in four years; I've been over there three times since March 2015.

The two photos here show you the Gare de Blois, now known as Blois-Chambord. Blois is a small city of maybe 75,000, and Chambord, one of the most famous Loire Valley Renaissance chateaus, is less than half an hour away by car. It was lucky that one of the trains running yesterday, despite the strikes, was the 12:59 out of Paris Austerlitz station to Orléans, Blois, Amboise, and Tours — direct. In other words, no need to change trains at any point and wait around in some other train station. And no need to haul a heavy suitcase off one train and back onto another. It's much easier and less expensive to take the train to and from Paris rather than drive your own car. As you can see, the station at Blois is not what you would call mobbed.

18 May 2016

Waiting, and staying busy

Walt's in the air this morning, on an Air Canada flight. He should be on the ground at Paris CDG airport in about two hours. Then he'll race (I hope) into central Paris to try to get the 12:59 train from Paris-Austerlitz to Blois. It's a 90 minute train ride for him, and for me a 45 minute drive up to Blois to meet him.

Dinosaur Kale

The Télématin news this morning says, of course, to expect perturbations. Both the transit kind and the meteorological kind. They are predicting rain for this afternoon. As for transit, something like 75% the normal number the RER trains are running between the airport and central Paris, and approximately 67% of the mainline intercity trains are running. With any luck, Walt will get where he wants to go, even though passengers might be packed in like sardines.

A Fireball Tomato plant

Yesterday afternoon the neighbor from across the street came over and rang the bell. She and her husband were down here from Blois over the weekend, and some of their children and grandchildren were here too. As they were preparing to drive back to Blois, she came over to say hello and to bring me some foie gras they had left over from weekend festivities.

Squash seedlings

« On dit que le foie gras n'aime pas voyager », the neighbor told me, « alors j'ai pensé à toi et à Walter. » I had some for my « quatre-heures », which is also called le goûter, the French name for a mid-afternoon snack. There is more for us to have as an appetizer this afternoon when Walt gets here, and I also bought a bottle of champagne for the occasion. And I have a fig or two left over to go with the foie gras. Life is good, even when it's raining outside...

When I bought the champagne at the supermarket last Friday, the man ahead of me in line at the checkout stand looked at what I was putting on the conveyor belt and offered his opinion that the champagne I had chosen was one of the best I could ever hope to taste. "I tell you that because I know the Heidsieck Monopole well — I come from Reims," he said. Reims (or Rheims in English) is the big city in the Champagne region, where some of the very best sparkling wine is made.

I'm posting here a few more pictures of seedlings in the greenhouse tent, as well as a photo, above, of the elephant bush plant (Portulacaria afra) that has traveled several times across the Atlantic Ocean. As far as I know, this one started life in Salton City, California, sometime in the 1980s or earlier, spent about 10 years in San Francisco, and then came to Saint-Aignan via a new séjour in Southern California in 2003. CHM brought a cutting here in 2004, and I've kept it going.