30 June 2007

Coincidences

A few days ago Claude published a picture of a bronze figure she saw on a tomb at the Montmartre cemetery in Paris. I looked at it and thought I recognized it, even though I have no memory of ever walking around that cemetery. Claude said the figure represented an unknown Polish soldier.

I thought about it a little more and remembered that the statue I had in mind is located in the courtyard at the château de Montrésor. Montrésor is a village about 12 miles south of Saint-Aignan, and the château there was bought by a Polish family named Branicki about 200 years ago.

The statue in the courtyard at Montrésor
February 2005


When Claude was here about a month ago, she and I drove down to Montrésor (among many other places on a whirlwind of a day). We walked through the 16th-century church there, but we decided not to go into the château grounds. We just didn't have time.

Funerary sculptures in the church at Montrésor
June 2007

I've posted topics about Montrésor several times, with numerous photos. They are here and here. It is one of the 150 French villages that has won the Plus Beaux Villages de France designation. The château is the one where my friend Laurie played the piano that had been played by Chopin.

The 16th-century church at Montrésor

Montrésor has a lot to recommend it. There's the church, the château, and a river walk from which you get great views of both. Nearby is the town of Loches, not to mention the Chartreuse du Liget and the old fortified farm called La Corroirie. And the château de Montpoupon.

29 June 2007

Le temps reste maussade

It feels so strange this year, not having any summer weather. Or at least not since April, which was abnormally warm and dry. These gray, rainy, blustery days... no, weeks — more like October than June, except it stays light until nearly 11:00 p.m. — remind me too much of the weather in San Francisco in summertime. They make me feel restless and dissatisfied.

Look, blue sky! It's nice to see that once in a while.
The photos are from a walk with Callie a couple of days ago.


The lack of extended periods of warm, sunny weather in San Francisco during the summer months was one of the things about life there that really tired me out. Now I'm getting tired of this weather we're having in Saint-Aignan.

Our house and a neighbor's under a brooding Loire Valley sky

You can't really enjoy being outside, unless you keep moving. You have to dress in long pants, sweatshirts, and shoes and socks. For all the other summers since we've been here, it's been shorts, tee-shirts, and sandals from May until October. With the exception of last August, that is, when we also had a rainy cool spell.

Our garden, which we put in late because the rainy weather in May was not conducive to working the soil and setting out plants, is very much en retard compared to past years. I'm starting to wonder if we will get any tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and squash at all this season. I'm sure we will get some, of course, and the plants are growing. There are blossoms on the tomato plants. But the temperatures are not yet hot enough to coax the plants to set fruit.

Callie, 26 June 2007. She's doing fine for now and
enjoying walks in the vineyard again. Sweet face...


It's supposed to rain again today, to be fairly nice and significantly warmer tomorrow, and then be almost hot on Sunday, but with thunderstorms. I guess that's better than blustery, chilly, and misty/drizzly. Maybe we'll have some exciting thunder and lightning.

Because we have Callie this year, we aren't getting out much. We haven't seen our local friends nearly as much as in past years, so we are kind of out of the gossip loop right now. It wasn't supposed to be like this. We waited until springtime to get a dog, calculating that we would be able to spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun with her. We'd enjoy a season in the yard and garden with her, where she could run and play — and not chew up everything in the house.

Here you can see how her belly was shaved for the operation.
I'll spare you the pictures of the six-inch incision and all the
stitches. I wish we knew why the got sick the way she did.


Instead, as soon as we got Callie in early May, the weather went south. If anything, I'm feeling a touch of cabin fever. It's just the way I used to feel in June, July, and August in San Francisco. Close the windows and doors, dress warmly, and stay inside as much as possible.

No sitting out on the deck and watching the stars as the dark closes in at 11:00. No stars anyway, too cloudy. Few bright sunny mornings when you feel like going out and pulling some weeds or watering (not necessary this year) or repotting plants. Or just listening to the birds sing.

Instead, we get weather that the forecaster on France Inter radio just characterized as maussade. The dictionary definition of that term: Qui inspire de l'ennui. - Ennuyeux, terne, triste. It's weather that inspires boredom, restlessness, sadness.

Remember Judy Collins singing that melancholy Randy
Newman song called "I think it's going to rain... today..."


The difference here is that this situation is likely (though not sure) to change. In San Francisco, people always smugly remarked that there were never more than three sunny, warm days in a row. They were glad it didn't get hot and muggy there. After the third decent day, the city's natural air-conditioning — fog and cold wind off the ocean — would kick in and the air would turn chilly again. People enjoyed that.

At least in Saint-Aignan, there is a chance that it will turn hot in July and stay that way in August. The garden hopes it will happen. I hope it will happen. I know I'm not alone in this.

28 June 2007

Croissants aux amandes

Last week on an Internet travel forum I participate in, an American who was spending some time in Paris posted a question to ask people what they thought a good French croissant aux amandes — an almond croissant — should look and taste like. She had bought one and had been surprised to find that it was soggy with syrup rather than flakey and light.

I found a picture of a good almond croissant on a blog (The Girl Who Ate Everything) and posted a link to it on the forum. The discussion of croissants aux amandes went on for a few days, with a lot of people weighing in with opinions, experiences, and recommendations about where to find the best one in Paris.

Well, that set my mouth to watering. I don't remember what day of the week it was, but the fact is that our bread lady delivers to our front door five days a week. On Mondays and Saturdays she comes at about 9:00 a.m., but on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays her route brings here here at about 11:00. That's a little too late for a breakfast of croissants aux amandes. I waited, and then kind of forgot about it.

Ten butter croissants for €1.50 at Intermarché this week. I bet you could pay that much for one croissant in a lot of places.

Friday came around, and I remembered to ask the bread lady if I could place a special order for an almond croissant the next morning. I don't normally have any on Saturdays, she told me, because the bakery usually sells out of croissants on Fridays. It's only when the baker has left-over croissants that he makes croissants aux amandes out of them the next morning.

Really? I said. I never realized that almond croissants were a way to use up leftovers. Yes, she said, you can't really make a good almond croissant out of a fresh butter croissant. The fresh ones are too delicate. The croissants you use needs to be slightly stale.

I reported that to the Americans and British people who read the travel forum, and some were frankly disillusioned. Others just wouldn't believe me at all. They were sure that the Paris bakeries they frequented would never pull such a stunt. One woman in Sacramento said the Vietnamese baker in her neighborhood baked almond croissants fresh; she was sure. I have no reason to doubt her.

The next day, the bread lady surprised me by bringing me an almond croissant, despite it being a Saturday. She said the baker had made it especially for me, since I wanted one, and he had used a fresh croissant. Be careful, the bread lady said, it's kind of falling apart because of the freshness of the croissant. And it was.

Actually, she had two croissants aux amandes in the van that morning, and I bought both of them. I thought Walt might want one. She charged me €1.25 apiece for them; a regular croissant au beurre costs €0.75.

Walt didn't want one, so I ate them both. I had heartburn for the rest of the day. They were good though, even if they were a little soggier and stickier than I would have liked. Damned fresh croissants!

Yesterday we got an Intermarché flyer in the mail, and one of the specials this week is a sack of 10 croissants au beurre for the amazing price of €1.50. That's 15 cents a croissant, and the ad says they are made with butter, not margarine. The ones made with margarine, which you hardly ever see any more, are called croissants ordinaires.

Last year I asked in a boulangerie whether they still made ordinary croissants. The woman behind the counter said no, there's no real call for them any more. Croissants are a luxury item, a special treat, so you might as well buy the ones made with butter, she said. I remember having croissants ordinaires in Paris back in the '70s.

How much do you pay for butter croissants (if you ever buy them)? The baker in our village charges 75 cents, as I said, and I think that's a fairly standard price out here in the country. I bet they charge more for them in Paris.

Since Intermarché has such a deal on 15-cent croissants (and I'm sure they are not as good as the ones made in bakeries), I decided to look up recipes for almond croissants on the Internet. Sure enough, here's one on the famous cooking blog called Chocolate & Zucchini that Clotilde Dusoulier writes. And sure enough, she uses day-old croissants to make hers.

"You will find croissants aux amandes in most traditional French bakeries," Clotilde writes. "Originally devised as a way to sell not-so-fresh croissants from the day before, they are simply croissants filled with almond cream, sprinkled with sliced almonds and baked again, until the cream has set and the elbows of the croissant have crisped up."

That's definitive, I think.

My next project is to make the rounds of the seven or eight boulangeries in the Saint-Aignan "metropolitan area" and buy a croissant aux amandes in each one to see who makes the best one locally. Then I'll have to start going on two or three walks a day with Callie to burn off all those calories. And I'll have to do it before our supply of Rolaids runs out.

I don't think I'll be making almond croissants anytime soon, however. Too dangerous.

27 June 2007

Colorful slugs

I mean snails without shells, not any other meaning of the word slug. A slug is called a limace in French, and people don't eat them. Many years ago, when I used to take meals in university cafeterias in Aix-en-Provence and then in Paris, I always saw people turning over the leaves of their lettuce before they ate any to make sure there were no slugs hiding in the salad. Washing salad was not a strong point of the university restaurant staff.

On her French blog Vieux c'est mieux a couple of days ago, Claude posted a picture of a big orange slug (une limace rouge) that she took in the park at the château de Chenonceau when she was there a few weeks ago. I told her that I would post a picture of a California banana slug this week.

Une limace rouge que j'ai prise en photo
un jour d'automne dans la rue de la Renaudière


I had found such a photo, long forgotten, when I was recently sorting through, inspecting, and organizing the two or three hundred CDs that I have archived all my photos on over the past 10 years. I ran out of space in my CD storage system so I had to transfer everything to a different system. That involved looking at some of the older CDs to see what was on them.

A California banana slug that I photographed at Butano
State Park
in the Santa Cruz Mountains ca. 1999.

I would include a link to Claude's blog in this post but both her sites seem to be down this morning. I know she's been having trouble with her blogging software.

These two slugs are of similar size, but the yellow one was all stretched out, whereas the orangey red had assumed a more compact shape for its street crossing.

26 June 2007

Back to normal

Callie spent a normal night and was obviously glad to get back into her routine this morning. She woke me up at 6:10 and I took her outside. She trotted around the yard and did her business the way she is supposed to. She ate a good breakfast. And she's back to chewing on everything in sight.

She has a 6-inch incision that runs down the middle of her pretty belly. I guess she is going to have a big scar. But it doesn't seem to bother her at all. We hope she won't start picking at it — otherwise she'll have to be fitted with one of those funnels around her neck and head. So far, it's not a problem.



~~~~~~

Green is
the color
of our
summer
so far.

~~~~~~



And guess what! It's raining this morning. They say on the radio that there was major flooding in northern England yesterday. Here is it was really windy and black clouds blew by spitting a few drops of rain here and there. The weather in France makes it feel like October or March, not June. Meanwhile, it was over 100ºF in Rome and Florence yesterday, and it was closer to 110ºF in Athens, Bucarest, and Sofia. Southeastern Europe is having our summer.

25 June 2007

It wasn't what she ate

Callie is back home. The vet said what Callie had was not a classic bowel blockage, but a swollen lymph node in her stomach. Why the lymph node became inflamed, nobody seems to know. The vet said she had only seen two other cases in her career, both involving three- to four-month-old puppies. She said it shouldn't happen again.

Because the lymph node was swollen and Callie was in pain, the vet said, the dog had eaten some sand and little stones. Those showed up on the x-ray. The other dogs with the same condition had done the same thing.

The dog's pain got a lot worse when the swelling and the sand and stones all formed a blockage in her stomach. That's when she started moaning, groaning, and whimpering. Also, her bowels were full of air, so she was having cramps. The vet said this condition is much more painful, actually, than the standard intestinal obstruction.

Callie will be on antibiotics for a week and she'll have the stitches out in 10 days. She'll have to take 5 doses of antibiotics a day until then. But she should start eating normally in a day or two. She did a crotte this afternoon on the lawn out behind the vet's office, and everybody praised her lavishly.

The way it was supposed to be

Except for the occasional emergency, this is what life was supposed to become. It's the way I imagined it, the way I wanted it. We would retire from the work life and commuting hell in the big city (San Francisco, in our case) and go live the quiet life in the country. It was a choice. A plan.

Why France? Well, I lived here before, back in the 1970s and early 1980s. I "grew up" in France and lived through either my second childhood or my first retirement — I look at it both ways — in those years, before I went to Washington and then California to work for 20 years, to have a career.

I couldn't really imagine where in the American countryside two guys like us would settle and feel comfortable. I knew France would be fine for us. We would learn a lot, especially when it came to the language and the history. We might travel a little.

So what do you do with your time after you retire? That's the big question that faces you. You work on your house — cleaning, repainting, calling in contractors to do specialized tasks, and working out a list of priorities based on the amount of money you can or want to spend.

You garden. That's a seasonal task in the Loire Valley, there being five months out of the year when you can't really do much outside because of the rainy, cold weather.

But year-round, you shop and cook. Luckily, I love to plan meals, prepare fresh food, and cook. You try to stick to a healthy diet and not eat junk food. You go to outdoor markets and supermarkets and you compare not only prices but quality. You try to buy the best produce at the lowest price. You avoid prepared foods because you don't want to spend a fortune and you want to know exactly what there is in the food you eat.

You can spend a good part of the afternoon pitting the tiny
red plums you gathered for free in your neighbors' yard


You also look for specials on meats. You buy what you can when the price is low and put it into the freezer for later. You spend a lot of time learning how to prepare meats, and you spend a lot of time trimming, de-boning, cutting up, grinding, and cooking meats. You fall back on the French classics — boeuf bourguignon, boeuf aux carottes, coq au vin, lapin en gibelotte, blanquette de veau. You can't go wrong with the classics.

In the garden, you try to grow as much good food as you can. Tomatoes of course, eggplant/aubergines, cayenne and bell peppers, squash/courgettes, collard and mustard greens, okra, haricots verts/green beans, cucumbers, and pumpkins. Herbs. You take advantage of untended cherry trees out back and the generosity of friends and neighbors who have a surplus of plums and quinces. You pick apples in the yard and blackberries out on the edge of the road.

You make clafoutis, and if you can you make French-style tarts with apples, plums, pears, cherries, and blackberries. And you make jellies and jams and preserves. Even if you don't really eat that much jelly and jam, you make it anyway. You end up with a lifetime supply in the pantry. You try to give it away. You just hate to see the fruit go to waste.

You go and actually count the number of jars of jam and jelly you have in the pantry. There are about 30 of them, and some are quart jars. You think you ought to start selling the stuff at an outdoor market.

And then you make more preserves because
that's what you do with surplus fruit


And you blog. You write a blog. You read blogs. You leave comments and you spend a lot of time reading and writing e-mail messages. You read a lot of newspapers on the Internet, and you try to resist ranting too much about the current state of the world.

You only start the car and actually go somewhere a couple of times a week, especially since you get fresh bread delivered to your front door five days a week. That's the one thing you would have to go out for, or spend a lot of time making.

You get lots of visitors, especially from the U.S. You make some friends among the local people. But you don't seek out a busy social life, preferring to spend your time doing all the things you need to do to keep your life on track, as listed above. You never really have enough time, do you?

Voilà. A new life. Just as busy, but less stressful. That was the point, wasn't it?

24 June 2007

Sick dog

I re-ordered these posts so that they would read
chronologically from top to bottom.

Not much of a post this morning because Callie is sick and we can't figure out what's wrong with her. We had a sleepless night. The poor dog cries and whines and groans, and seems to be hurting.

Yesterday we kept a friend's dog and Callie and the other dog rough-housed for hours. As soon as our friend came to get her dog yesterday evening, Callie started moaning and groaning and then threw up on the living room floor. Okay, so she over-ate during the day, I thought, showing the other dog that she was dominant and could eat all the kibble. She did eat a lot more than usual.

But her discomfort obviously didn't stop there. We thought maybe Callie had hurt herself — twisted her leg or pulled a muscle, for example — because she was walking a little funny and she had to be coaxed to climb the stairs. She also kept trying desperately to lick her rear end, and whining and moaning at the same time, so we decided to look there and see if we could see anything wrong.

About 11:00 last night, we found what we thought was a tick on the poor dog's anus. We took that off, and she settled down for maybe half an hour. But then she started exhibiting the same symptoms again. This went on all night, in fits and starts. It's still going on.

Callie and her dog buddy playing in the laundry room yesterday

This morning she went outdoors and peed, or at least squatted as if to pee, but she refused to go all the way out into the yard. I walked the whole perimeter hoping she might come with me, but she stayed close to the house and just watched me. She couldn't wait to get back inside, and when I let her in she just went and hid in a dark spot behind the water heater downstairs.

I just picked her up and carried her upstairs, and that obviously caused her some pain. And I just got her to drink a little bit of water. I think she's starting to shiver.

I also just called our vet's office and listened to a message that gave me the number to call for the vétérinaire de garde — the emergency vet service. I'm going to call and see if we can get an appointment, or at least some advice. She is still licking her back end compulsively, as if she has an irresistible itch or pain. And she's whimpering. I wish we knew what to do.

Callie update — surgery

I phoned the vet who's on call today — it turns out he's the one who took care of Collette between 2003 and 2006 — and he told me to bring Callie in immediately. I did. He took an x-ray and said he could see that Callie has swallowed something that has blocked up her digestive system. It could be a little rock, or a little green apple (the yard is full of them), or a cork or other piece of wood.

The upshot is that she is having emergency surgery this afternoon. The vet will call later to let us know how she comes through. And then, if all goes well, we'll be able to bring her home tomorrow during the day.

It's always something, isn't it? Keep your fingers crossed.

Callie's prognosis is good

The vet just called and said the operation was successful and that Callie is awake and alert. He wants to keep her until mid-day tomorrow.

There was no single object blocking up her intestine. It was just a mass of dried material. She probably had chewed on too many pieces of wood and her gut was clogged up. That'll teach us to let her decide what it is appropriate to chew on. No more Mr. Nice Guys from tomorrow forward...

23 June 2007

High finance in francs, euros, and dollars

Earlier this week the bread lady and I were talking when she stopped by to bring (or sell) us our daily baguette. We usually spend a few minutes chatting or gossiping when she comes by. On Monday, she told me that she and her husband had decided to look for an old house to buy down in the Auvergne region, in the département called the Puy de Dôme.

She said they had been looking at real estate ads on the Internet and now were ready to drive down there and see what the houses for sale looked like in reality. They know the area because they went down there on their vacation last summer, I remember, and they may have been down there many other times for all I know.

The bread lady makes her deliveries five days a week, with Wednesday and Sunday off. So she and her husband had decided to leave Tuesday afternoon, spend the night down there, and look around on Wednesday before driving back late that day. The place where they were going is about a three-hour drive from here.

It's raining again today. I took this picture yesterday afternoon.
If you can't actually see the rain falling, you can judge by how
green everything is the amount of rain we've been having.


On Tuesday, I asked her again to tell me the name of the town near which they were looking for a house. She did, and I looked it up on the map. It turns out it is just 30 km, less than 20 miles, south of the village where Callie was born. I thought that was a funny coincidence.

Yesterday, the bread lady told me that they have now signed a contract on a house, and she told me the name of the village it's in. It's not quite a ruin, she said, but it doesn't have running water or any kitchen or bathroom facilities. She said it's four big rooms, each about 25 m2 (that's approximately 15' x 20'), and it needs a lot of work. The old stone walls need to be scraped and cleaned — she says she wants to leave the stone exposed. There are big beams that need to be sanded and stained. The stone floors need to be polished. While there's no running water, the place does have electricity.

This is the result of a photo break between showers.

I didn't ask, but she volunteered the information that the price they are paying is deux millions — two million francs, I understood. But what francs, I didn't know. Before the euro was adopted as the national currency in 2002, France had used what came to be known as old francs (anciens francs) until about 1960, and then new francs (nouveaux francs) from then until 2002. People kept counting in old francs well into the 1980s or even 1990s — especially older people and people in rural areas.

It was very confusing until you got used to it, and now it's still confusing to hear people quote prices in francs instead of euros. When you get into large sums, it's hard to know if somebody is talking in anciens francs or nouveaux francs.

One new franc was worth 100 old francs. It was as if they decided to call a dollar a penny, so that five dollars became five cents, if you can imagine that. One hundred francs became one franc, and 10 new francs were worth 1,000 old francs. Is that clear?

The bread lady's two million francs, then, could have been either $4,000 or $400,000 in U.S. terms (you divide francs by five to get dollars). One conversion that always helped me keep it all straight in my mind was the value of un million, meaning one million old francs; that was $2,000. I figured it in my head really fast, and I concluded that it wasn't possible that they had bought a house for $4,000.

What dogs do on rainy days. There was actually a ray of sunshine
coming through the window the moment I snapped this picture.


But I also couldn't imagine that they had paid $400K for the house she described. Or that they would have that kind of money to spend even on a very nice house. You never know, though.

I asked her if her deux millions figure was in anciens or nouveaux francs. She realized how confusing it all was, and said, "Let me tell you in euros." She got out a calculator but the battery was dead. So she grabbed a scrap of paper and a pen.

I don't know where the two million figure came from, but she said the purchase price of the house they're buying is about 26,000 euros. That makes sense to me, for what she described, and for such a property in that area of central France. At current exchange rates, that a little less than $35K.

22 June 2007

Of mushrooms, plums, and cacti

Okay, big news this morning. It has to do with the weather. Can you guess? It's RAINING! Today it's a fine steady rain falling from low gray clouds. Pretty soon we are going to have to develop more words to describe all the different kinds of rain, the way people in the polar regions have dozens of words for different kinds of snow. (Or used to, if you see what I mean.)

A daisy with raindrops

Come to think of it, there are already a lot of French words to describe various kinds of rainfall. Pluie fine, bruine, averse, giboulée, ondée, déluge, trombes d'eau, torrents, grosses gouttes, des cordes, comme vache qui pisse, and on and on. Maybe that should have been my first clue. The only one they don't have in French has to do with it raining des chats et des chiens.

Champignons, 22 juin 2007

So here it is late June and we have mushrooms sprouting in our yard. There are three different kinds, but two of them are growing under big trees where it is too dark in the morning gloom for me to take a picture of them that isn't totally blurry. This is the kind of weather that produces a lot of blurry and grainy photos.

If Gisèle comes over and sees these mushrooms, she will probably encourage us to pick them and cook them into an omelet or something. We are not that adventurous. Besides, they are probably growing where Callie has fertilized the ground, if you know what I mean.

Le monde entier est un cactus,
il est impossible de s'asseoir-oir-oir...


Not only do we have a mushroom bloom on our hands (don't take that too literally), but we have an invasion of escargots as well. I notice that the snails don't eat the mushrooms — they are probably too smart, despite their tiny snail brains, to take chances like that. But escargots do eat cacti, I've learned, spines and all.

This is probably the snail equivalent of browsing in the imported foods section at Intermarché, where you can get Mexican tortillas, fajitas kits, and salsa in jars. Except in this case, what's being treated like a burrito is the cactus my friend Charles brought me from Southern California, which was growing so beautifully in the hot April weather we had. The recent damp has obviously taken its toll.

When I took Callie out for a walk yesterday afternoon — it wasn't raining but it was threatening to — she didn't want to go out into the vineyard because there was a big yellow tractor out there going up and down the rows of vines pruning or spraying something. So we took a walk around our neighbors' extensive yard. The neighbors are in Blois right now; that's where they live when they aren't spending vacation time in their country house.

Petites prunes — that's "little plums" in English.

Walking around the edge of their property, I spied a tree that is bearing red fruit. Cherries? No, plums this time. Little red plums. I tasted a couple. Sweet and good. Red skin, yellow flesh. A little later I took the dog home and went back over there to pick some plums — or pick some up, actually. There were more ripe ones on the ground than on the tree.

I'm sure the neighbors won't mind. As you can see from the picture, the ones I got were in beautiful condition, and this morning they are perfuming the kitchen with their good plummy aroma. At least 95% of them were already on the ground. I have to figure out what to do with them. Jam? Clafoutis? A crumble? I'll have to spend some time pitting them, whatever I decide to do.

I'll try to salvage this by gluing the pieces back together.

I had a kitchen accident yesterday. I don't think the item I broke ever made it into Walt's Kitchen Collection feature on his blog. It was a pottery spoon-rest that I kept next to the stove. We bought it in 1993 in a market in the town of Cadenet in Provence, when we were on the trip that Walt is currently chronicling on his blog (though he hasn't gotten to the Provence part yet).

21 June 2007

The last day of springtime

Now that the dog likes to go for long walks in the vineyard out back — or at least is willing to do so — the plan is for me to take her on one walk a day, and Walt on another. We want to keep her tired out!
Remember, you can click on any picture to see an enlargement.

The gravel road runs out into the vineyards that are part of
the Domaine de la Renaudie winery, run by the Denis family.


Seriously, the exercise will be good for all of us. Now if the weather will just improve a little so that we can enjoy the walks without having Callie stop for mud baths in big puddles along the way, we'll be in good shape.

The silver lining in the weather situation is that we are enjoying very dramatic skyscapes these days. The gravel road through the vineyard runs westward away from the house, and there isn't much to obstruct the view of the western sky. Our weather usually comes in from the west or southwest, off the Atlantic, the Pyrenees, and the Iberian peninsula, this time of year.

The big sky out over the rise, looking north

I just heard on the radio that the South of France — Provence, specifically — is having very hot weather and a pollution alert today. People are being asked not to do strenuous work outside or to jog or do other vigorous exercise. The air isn't good.

France is divided in half by air masses right now. The hot South is sitting under an upsurge of stagnant hot air coming off the Sahara. The north is plagued by unstable, humid air coming in off Spain and southerly regions of the Atlantic Ocean.

It's been showery with fairly frequent bolts of lightning and claps of thunder for a couple of weeks now. But breezes are keeping the air fresh-feeling most of the time.

The western sky looked stormy yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday it was warm and muggy. It didn't rain at all. But at 2:45 this morning, I was awakened by heavy rainfall. We have a plexiglass awning over our back door, which is just below the bedroom window, and heavy raindrops really set up a clatter when they fall on it. It poured rain for 10 or 15 minutes, it seemed to me, but then I was drifting back off to sleep by then.

I checked the rain gauge when I took Callie out at 6:15 this morning. We got just 2 mm, hardly a trace, of water from the early morning shower. To think that about 10 days ago we had a storm that dropped 35 mm of rain in less than 90 minutes. No wonder our roof sprang a temporary leak in that deluge.

Looking out over the rows of vines from
the edge of the surrounding woods


Yesterday afternoon when I took Callie out she stayed out of the puddles. Actually, I avoided walking close to any puddles by taking her around the periphery of the vineyard, along the edge of the woods, on the way out. She prefers that anyway; for some reason she doesn't like to walk away from the house on the gravel road.

The paved road a mile from the house is designated as
a route touristique through the Touraine vineyards.


When our path along the periphery took us back to the gravel road, about half a mile from home, Callie wanted to turn back. But I kept walking farther out, stopping frequently and calling her as I went. She would stop and sit and watch me for a while, but when I squatted down and called her she would come running to me, all squirmy if you know what I mean. We did another quarter of a mile in that mode.

The Domaine de la Renaudie vineyards

That's when we arrived at the paved road. A car went by just as we got there, and that scared Callie. So I put the leash on her, attaching it to her harness, not her collar. We walked east on the pavement for a couple of hundred yards with her on the leash. Another car came by (such traffic!) and Callie and I stepped a few feet off the road and just watched it go by. She needs to get used to cars.

Callie, 20 June 2007, looking fine in her harness

Then we walked along a line of trees and down a row of vines to get back to the gravel road for the return home. She likes that part of the walk the best. She was way out ahead of me on the leash. I was able to keep her out of the puddles; she wasn't even too interested in them, focused as she was on getting back to her home territory. This time she didn't need to be hosed down when she got home.

Today is the first day of summer. So far, it doesn't really feel like it. Predictions are for more cool, breezy weather next week.

20 June 2007

Moroccan chicken with fennel

This is another tajine idea. In French it's called Tajine de poulet au fenouil. The ingredients are two big bulbs of fennel, four chicken thighs, four chicken legs, one whole lemon, a couple of garlic cloves, and some Moroccan spices or curry powder. Add some potatoes if you want, or serve the chicken and fennel with rice or couscous. It's an easy recipe.

Ingredients for Moroccan chicken with fennel

If you have full leg sections of chicken as I did, cut the thighs and legs apart to make them easier to cook. I used four leg sections, but you could easily use six. Salt and pepper the chicken before cooking it.

Chicken legs and thighs, salted and peppered

Wash the fennel bulbs, discard the blemished outer layers, and cut the bulbs into quarters. Cut the lemon into four or five slices and remove the pits.

Fennel and lemon ready for cooking

Sauté the chicken pieces in a little olive or other vegetable oil. When they are starting to brown, add a good pinch of fennel seeds if you have some, a good pinch of hot paprika, and three tablespoons of curry powder (or your own mix of spices like cumin, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cayenne pepper, and others).

Chicken pieces browning with spices

Stir the chicken around with the spices and then add the fennel pieces and lemon slices to the pot. Throw in a couple of bay leaves and a couple of whole garlic cloves in their husk. Add not quite enough water to cover the ingredients — you can always add more water later if you think it needs it.

Chicken, fennel, lemon, and spices in the pot with some water

I decided to add some little red potatoes to the tajine because I had some in the cellar downstairs. Steamed potatoes are good with a curried sauce.

Add potatoes to the pot, or leave them out and eat
the chicken and fennel with steamed rice or couscous.


Cover the pot and let the chicken, fennel, and potatoes simmer on low heat for about 45 minutes or longer. Test the fennel and potatoes for doneness by poking them with a skewer or knife. If the chicken falls apart a little, that's okay.

Moroccan chicken with fennel ready for the table

For mine, the chicken was falling off the bone and the fennel was tender. The potatoes were completely cooked. I thought there was too much sauce, so I poured it off into another pot and boiled it down until it reduced and thickened a little. Then I poured it back over the dish, which I had kept warm in the oven. Taste it for salt, of course.

I thought the cooked lemon slices were good to eat, skin and all. Walt thought they were a little bitter.

Another ingredient you can add toward the end of the cooking is a dozen or so big green olives. Give the olives about 15 minutes to poach in the sauce before you eat them. They will add saltiness, so be careful with the salt shaker if you add olives.

19 June 2007

About thunderstorms and dental charges

We woke up to thunder at 5:00 this morning. It was one of those textbook thundershowers. First there were low rumblings off in the distance to the southwest. Daylight was just beginning to break. The dog was awake and listening.

Then there was the first flash of lightning. I started counting. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand... The storm was nearly 20 miles away. After the next bright lightning flare, I only got up to 15. Then 12. Then seven. Finally four-one-thousand was the highest I could count before there was a loud thunderclap. That's as close as it got. It moved past us on the west and continued north.

La Renaudière yesterday afternoon, 18 June 2007

We had eight or 10 bright flashes of lightning and claps of loud thunder between 5:00 and 5:30. The wind came up, rustling the leaves of the linden tree outside the bedroom window. And it rained — lightly at first, then much harder, and then in a steady light rainfall that lasted until about 6:15.

In the middle of all that, it was time to take Callie out for her early-morning constitutional. I put on my rubber gardening shoes and took an umbrella with me out into the yard. Otherwise, I was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. Callie did what she needed to do and then scooted back into the house to get dried off.

************

Callie sits with the tip of her tongue sticking out of her mouth.
It's one of her favorite looks. The tip of her tongue
looks like
a pink artichoke leaf, I think.

************

A couple of weeks ago I had to go to the dentist's to have an old filling repaired. I mentioned it on the blog then, and lately I've been wanting to tell you about the cost of dental care in France. I'll do it here.

When the filling replacement was done and after scanning my new French medical insurance card into the office computer, Dr. Christian Bigot presented me with a bill for €46.29. That seemed very reasonable to me. I assumed he was just charging me for my portion of the cost of the treatment and that the French national medical insurance plan would pick up the rest of the tab.

———————————————————
If we keep finding
recipes for cookies
like these Biscuits
aux amandes et pignons
,
I'll get to take full advantage
of the reasonable rates that
dentists charge in France.
———————————————————


I even asked Dr. Bigot if he knew what percentage of the cost was being covered. He said it depended on the plan I was enrolled in. Even if my coverage is only 50%, I calculated, that would mean the treatment cost less than a hundred euros. I've been happy with the result.

The other day I got a statement from the medical insurance plan up in Blois. It showed the €46.29 dentist's charge, and then showed a reimbursement of about €32.40. I looked at that and thought well, the social security coverage is less than 50% after all. I thought I had paid more than half, and they insurance had picked up only the €32.40.

And then I realized (thanks to W., who explains these things to me) that, no, the national insurance had deposited a reimbursement of €32.40 into my bank account. The total cost of the dental treatment was €46.29, and I was getting 70% of that, or €32.40, back! How reasonable is that? A new filling for about fifteen euros.

18 June 2007

A victory with a grimace
and a defeat with a smile

The big news in France this morning is the unexpectedly strong performance of the Parti Socialiste's candidates in yesterday's second-round of parliamentary elections. While President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party won a clear majority in the parliament (called the National Assembly) with 322 out of 577 seats, it fell far short of the landslide predicted just a week ago. Pundits who said the UMP would win 400 seats or more in the new Assembly were wrong.

Une rose

The Parti Socialiste (or Labor Party), despite losing in the presidential election, won 40 more seats in the new Assembly than it held in the outgoing one. That will make it much more interesting to see if Sarkozy and his prime minister can get their entire program passed by the legislature this summer and fall. There will be a more interesting debate than there might have been.

************

Blue vs. pink The press in France is describing Sarkozy's party's performance in yesterday's legislative elections as a "victory with a grimace" — the president's party actually lost seats in the National Assembly compared to the last elections in 2002, even though it retained a majority.

The Parti Socialiste's performance is being called a "defeat with a smile" — the socialists picked up 40 extra seats compared to their numbers in the outgoing Assembly.

All along, pundits and analysts had been predicting a "blue tidal wave" for Sarkozy's candidates. His UMP party is represented by the color blue, while the French socialists' color is traditionally pink (for the color of a rose). One headline I saw yesterday said that la digue rose (the pink sea wall) had held back la vague bleue (the blue wave).

Hydrangeas are just starting to bloom.
Ours are turning pink, not blue.

It's interesting that in the U.S. it's the Democratic Party (the left) that controls the Blue States, and the RepublicanParty (the right) that rules in the Red States. It is the opposite in France, where the right is blue and the left is pink. That is symbolic, I think, of the differences between France and the U.S.

Most of the big names in French socialism won the right to keep their seats in the new National Assembly, and some won very comfortably. François Hollande, who has been head of the party, for example, won 60% of the vote in his district. Former culture minister and socialist éléphant (heavyweight) Jack Lang won 55% in his. Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, two other éléphants of the party, will be back too.

Centrist François Bayrou did better than expected, with his party winning four seats in parliament, and the Parti Communiste won 15 seats or more. Overall, the left-leaners will have 230 or so seats, and the right-leaners will have about 350, in the new Assembly.

In the district we live in, the Sarkozy candidate got about 55% of the vote. This is a fairly conservative, rural area.

***********

Au revoir Some of the people who were defeated yesterday were Marine Le Pen (extreme right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter and heir apparent), Jean-Pierre Chévènement (a former government minister and presidential candidate who said he would retire from politics if he lost his seat in parliament), and especially Alain Juppé, still mayor of Bordeaux but as of today without a seat in the National Assembly.

Yesterday's weather

Juppé was a Chirac favorite, was seen as the wonder boy of French politics until scandal brought him down a few years ago, and had been appointed über-minster of the environment and the economy by Sarkozy. He's been compared to Al Gore for his focus on environmental issues and sustainable development policies, and his general wonkishness.

Juppé lost his seat in the Assemblée by 670 votes to the socialist candidate in Bordeaux, a woman named Michèle Delaunay. Now he will turn in his resignation as a government minister this morning. His national political career may have bitten the dust last night.

By the way, there are about 30% more women in the new Assembly than there were in the outgoing legislature, according to France Inter radio. That's 107 women now, out of 577.

************

Splitsville To nobody's great surprise, Parti Socialiste presidential candidate Ségolène Royal announced last night that she and François Hollande are ending their 25-year concubinage (they have four children together) . Rumors that their relationship was on the rocks had been circulating ever since Royal secured the Parti Socialiste's presidential nomination last winter. Hollande has long been the general secretary of the party, and some speculated that he wanted the presidential nomination for himself.

************

It's the taxes, stupid Why did the socialists do better than expected in the legislative elections, and why did Sarkozy's party fail to realize its dream of an electoral landslide? The analysts seem unanimous in blaming Sarkozy's minister of the budget, Jean-Louis Borloo, for the party's relatively poor showing. He's the one who last week raised the prospect of a hike in the French value-added tax from 20% to 25%.

Callie's reaction to the whole situation

The value-added tax, or VAT (which in French is the TVA, la taxe sur la valeur ajoutée) is fundamentally a sales tax. Whereas in the U.S. the sales tax is added to the price on an item at the time of purchase, in France the TVA is just part of the advertised price of things you buy. The price you see is the price you actually pay at the cash register.

In that sense, it's a hidden tax. If a computer is advertised for sale in a store at €500, for example, about €100 of that is the TVA that the government collects.

It's ironic that it's the right wing in France that proposed a tax increase, and the left wing that reaped the electoral benefits of the public reaction. That's what they call counter-intuitive, in American terms. Right-wing American politicians accuse the left of always wanting to raise taxes.

But what the Sarkozy people were talking about was lowering the payroll taxes that businesses pay and making up the lost tax revenue by increasing the taxes consumers pay on the goods they purchase. It's seen by those who advocate it as a way to encourage businesses to hire more workers.

Someone said that businesses will be able to lower the prices of the goods they produce if they don't have to pay so much in payroll taxes. Do you believe that? I'm not sure I do. But if it were true, the added sales tax wouldn't actually increase prices for consumers.

Sounds like the old voodoo economics of the Reagan years to me. The TVA debate will be a major component of the political noise coming out of Paris for the rest of 2007.


17 June 2007

Talking with le père Denis

We had a pretty nice day in Saint-Aignan yesterday, though it wasn't particularly warm, and there were times when it got pretty windy. It didn't rain — that's what makes me say it was pretty nice. On the radio they're saying another front is moving in off the ocean this morning, so we can expect rain this afternoon. So what else is new?

Despite the rain and cool temperatures,
daisies are starting to bloom in the yard


I took Callie out for a walk in the late afternoon; I'm trying to make a habit out of doing that. We had walked out just a few hundred yards and were approaching the little cabane de vigneron — the vineyard workers' shed. These little stone buildings are used nowadays exclusively for tool and equipment storage, but in the past they were a place to spend the night instead of walking all the way back home and returning early the next day to continue working in the vines. I noticed a white car parked next to the cabane.

What to you suppose these gendarme bugs are up to?

Then off to the right, on a tractor trail that runs diagonally off the gravel road, I saw an older gentlemen dressed in blue work clothes and accompanied by two dogs. I waved bonjour his way and planned to walk on by with Callie, who was trotting along right next to me. Then I saw the man's two dogs running toward me at full speed. Uh-oh.

Callie saw them too and turned a ran at full speed herself, down a row of grape vines back toward our back gate. She was headed home. One of the man's two dogs was right behind her, but the other one stopped and stayed near me. I turned around and walked down a row toward the back gate too, figuring I would find Callie sitting there waiting to be let into the yard.

A fading rose in a neighbor's yard

When I got to the end of the long row and could see the back gate, there was no Callie in sight. Then I saw the man in blue waving at me, telling me that Callie had come back to him with his dog. So I walked back around the pond and up the gravel road to where I had started.

The man turned out to be Monsieur Denis, who owns all the vineyards out back. He is more or less retired now and his son Bruno operates the winery, along with his wife Patricia. They must be in their mid-40s. We know them and buy wine from them. This is not the first time I have seen the senior M. Denis out in the vineyard over these past four years.

Our friend Gisèle gave us a cutting off her begonia a couple
of years ago. This summer it is thriving on the front porch.
The drooping clusters of pink flowers are beautiful.

In fact, one day in January or February 2006 I was walking Collette out there and we stopped and said hello to M. Denis. He asked me what kind of dog Collette was, and I told him she was a Sheltie-mix SPCA dog that we had brought with us from California.

A few weeks later, Collette had a stroke and died. It was mid-March. Before long, I ran into M. Denis in the vineyard again, on one of the times when I tried to go for a walk by myself out there.

« Où est votre chienne ? » M. Denis asked. Where's your dog?

« Elle est morte au mois de mars, » I told him, « elle avait 14 ans. » She died in March at the age of 14. Oh, he said, I see. That was the extent of the conversation.

Walt transplanted some cala lilies earlier in the spring.
They enjoy the rainy, cool weather we've been having.


Yesterday M. Denis and I stood and talked a lot longer, while the dogs played. I told him Callie was not yet four months old, and he said one of his two dogs was just five months old itself. The other one is 11 years old. She's a basset hound or beagle, I would guess, and the younger one is the kind of spaniel, maybe a Brittany spaniel, that they use for hunting around here. M. Denis said it was the first time he had brought his puppy out into the vineyard to run around.

He said his work in the vineyard was finished for the season. He told me what it was he had done to the vines, but he used a technical term that went right by me. Then he said he couldn't very well get the the workers' way or do their work for them, so he was off for the summer. I got the distinct impression he wasn't too happy about the situation, but I could just hear his son telling him to take it easy and not try to do so much.

I asked him if the five-month-old puppy was a replacement for one of Bruno and Patricia's dogs, which I knew had been run over by a car last year. It was very traumatic for their children, Bruno had told me. No, M. Denis said, this puppy was his. But Bruno had taken another puppy from the same litter, so now his family had a new dog too. Both the Denis men are hunters.

Part of the Denis' vineyard

I told him that Callie is a border collie. « Ça chasse, ces chiens-là ? » he asked. Will she hunt? No, I told him, border collies are sheep dogs. I told him some friends had suggested we get a couple of sheep for the back yard so Callie would have an occupation, and he just laughed. He said he had had to put up an electric fence around his vegetable garden to keep the dogs from going in and breaking down all the plants — « ils allaient tout casser, » he said — but with sheep it would be even worse.

Grapes are starting to grow.

He said he'd noticed that his dogs were afraid of the wires the grape vines are strung along out in the vineyard, because they apparently thought those wires were electrified like the ones he had strung around his garden. He thought that was funny. « Chat échaudé, vous savez... » I told him, referring to the French version of the proverb that says "once burned, twice shy." He nodded and said that must be it.

After a few minutes he put his dogs in his little white van and headed for home, but not before Callie and the puppy jumped all over him and almost knocked him over. I was afraid I was going to have to pick him up off the ground, but there wasn't much I could do to keep the dogs off him and he didn't really seem to mind.

Callie after her afternoon mud bath

After he left, Callie headed straight for a big pool of standing water and did a repeat of her water-slapping act the day before. We walked on a ways, with me hoping she would dry out and rid herself of the sand and mud stuck in her fur. But I still had to wash her down when we got home, before I could let her back in the house.