31 January 2008

Things I like about summer, IX

Hot-air balloons
floating overhead

First you hear the whoosh of the burners that heat the air inside the balloon. Then you hear dogs barking all over the surrounding countryside. You look up and see the balloon headed your way.

Sometimes they fly low enough over the house that we can wave at the people in the nacelle. And take pictures. Observing us is not the point of their flight, however. Châteaux are.

30 January 2008

Things I like about summer, VIII

Tomatoes
ripening on the vine





Credit to Walt for most of these photos, taken in August 2004. That was the first year we had a vegetable garden at La Renaudière. May the summer of 2008 be as fruitful.

I continue my summertime series because the weather is so miserable. Yesterday it was gray and foggy, with a really low ceiling all day and temperatures just barely above freezing. This morning it's still freezing and there is a fine cold mist in the air. Rain is coming in toward noontime, according to the radar weather sites. And then it's supposed to rain off and on until Sunday, without warming up much. Yuck.

Only one more day left in January. Maybe February will be spring-like, printanier. That can happen. Or it can be even colder and turn snowy, as it did in 2006. Surprise us!

29 January 2008

August > January

Pictures taken at the same place,
the first in August 2004...

...and the second in January 2008.

28 January 2008

A sunny Sunday afternoon

We're in a period of cold frosty nights and warm sunny days. Temperatures vary from below freezing (-3º or -4ºC) in the morning to chilly but pleasant in the sun (+6º to +9ºC) in the afternoon. In other words, 25º to 50ºF. I have no complaints about this kind of weather. It's dry and bright.

The woodpile under the carport

The wood stove has gotten a workout this winter. Walt makes a fire every afternoon, usually before five o'clock, and it burns until about ten in the evening. When winter started, we had a good supply of wood — a lot of oak and some softer wood too — that we had delivered, oh, at least two years ago, and it is holding out. We'll need to buy more this coming summer, though.

Rooftops at La Renaudière

What we started running out of was little twigs and branches to use as kindling. Walt went around our yard and gathered up all he could — we've had a few windy days that blew some dead wood out of the trees.

Primroses have started coming up and blooming in the yard

A few days ago, our neighbors from Blois were here. They were cleaning up some things in their yard across the street from us, and Callie went over to see them so I did too. We were talking about things in general when I remembered I needed to ask them about kindling wood.

Callie likes to nip and bark at the wheel of
the 'barrow when we roll it around.


They have a quince tree that blew over last fall and is just lying there for now. All those twigs and little branches were tempting me, but I didn't want to go and just take some without asking. When I asked, the neighbors said we could help ourselves. They said any little sticks and limbs we picked up out of their yard would be that much less work they would have to do before the mowing season begins.

The bell at our gate, a gift from a friend
four years ago already


The neighbors have 2½ acres of property. Part of it is meadow that they mow, and part is woods. Even in the meadow, there are quite a few trees that drop branches in wintertime. Since the neighbors spend very little time here in winter, they don't build very many fires in their fireplace. That means more kindling for us. We gathered some yesterday afternoon.

27 January 2008

Things I like about summer, VII

Little café/restaurant places with tables outside,
just waiting for a noontime rush.

This one is in Saint-Aignan, on the banks of the Cher River. The picture is from June 2003, when we first arrived. At lunch, it was 11 euros for four courses, and that included a third of a bottle of wine per person.

That summer of 2003 was really exceptional. We had hot, hot, hot weather from early June through late September.

26 January 2008

Fast forward to winter

This morning it is about -3ºC, or about 27ºF, out. The ground
is semi-frozen, and there are a lot of deer tracks frozen
in the sand and mud we had because of all the rain
we had earlier in January. It is frosty this morning.

It was my morning to take Callie out. We left the house at 8:20,
just as the sun was starting to peek up over the horizon.
Everything was silvery blue, almost monochromatic, until
the orangey pink of the sunrise took form.

Then I started noticing colors. Rose hips, for example,
coated with the light frost.

The barbs on the wire around the donkey pasture out back
were frosted over too.

And then the sun got higher and broke through the trees.

The past few days have been dry and sunny. It's a nice change.
The afternoons are almost warm.

25 January 2008

Things I like about summer, VI


R a t a t o u i l l e !

Onions, zucchini, and bell peppers

Summer's classic vegetables. The ones we grow in our gardens when the weather cooperates. Cooked in the style of Provence.

Add tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, thyme ... and stir


Ratatouille is one of those dishes that is more photogenic before you cook it than after. But it needs long slow cooking for all the flavors to blend and the textures to soften.

The ratatouille in these pictures was one in which most of the vegetables — onions, peppers, eggplant, and summer squash received their own light cooking before they all went into a big pot together. I think it was inspired by Julia Child.

You knew my summertime theme would eventually get around to food, didn't you?

24 January 2008

Things I like about summer, V

Flowers, especially fields of sunflowers.

Near the Château du Bois-Doucet in Poitou, July 2006.

Other flowers too. And insects, especially bees,
butterflies, and moths.

Near the Château du Grand-Pressigny in south Touraine, July 2006

Can't you feel the heat in these pictures?

23 January 2008

Things I like about summer, IV

Green leaves and grapes on the vines.

June at La Renaudière

I'm still getting used to seasons, after so many years in San Francisco, where there aren't any. It's amazing to me that summer can be so different from winter. In SF, we had flowers in the garden in December and January as in July and August, but we had cold, windy, gray weather in "summer."

As you might have seen from recent pictures, there are no leaves or grapes on the vines in January at La Renaudière.

22 January 2008

Things I like about summer, III

Washing rugs and hanging them outdoors on a rack to dry.

Drying a rug in June 2004

I guess I have a theme going here. But after winter, it's time for spring cleaning. Make that late spring or early summer for drying rugs outdoors — you have to wait for the sun to get high in the sky and temperatures to climb into the 80s. Then the rugs dry fast.

I sometimes just sit in a chair and watch them dry. Okay, often I also do a little reading, or listen to the radio, too.

21 January 2008

"Doing" the vines

At 8:40 this morning I was standing in front of the sink, washing up a few dishes that wouldn't fit in the dishwasher, when I heard the horn blow. That's Roselyne, the bread lady, who toots the horn of her little white van when she gets here. She was about 20 minutes earlier than usual. I hadn't even opened the roll-down shutter on the kitchen window yet.

Walt was out walking the dog so I had to rinse and dry my hands, grab some change, and stumble downstairs to get our daily baguette. Roselyne was sitting in front of the gate working on her fingernails with an emery board. That's the first time I've seen her do that. She seemed to be thinking about something.

The vines in the foreground of this picture haven't been
trimmed. I assume the work will be done before spring.

« Bonjour, Monsieur ! », she chirped. She calls me Monsieur but then she uses tu, not vous when she talks to me. On Saturday, she had told me that she and her husband were making the three-hour drive that afternoon to go down to supervise some work being done on the old house they are restoring in the Auvergne region, very near where Callie came from.

I think they just had a septic system put in. She told me a week or two ago that the septic tank was the first priority, because when they go down there for a few days or a week, not having adequate toilet facilities gets old really fast. They can do without a kitchen right now, she said, since there are cafés and restaurants not too far away.

« Ça s'est bien passé là-bas samedi et dimanche ? » I asked, politely inquiring about their weekend trip and activities. Yes, she said with a smile, we got a lot of work done. In fact, I think all I do is work these days. The house project, my bread rounds, and today I start doing the vines — « je commence à faire les vignes. »

I asked her what she meant by "doing" the vines. Trimming them, she said. Cutting off the sarments. I thought the sarment de vigne was the thick, heavy stem or trunk of the vine, but I just looked it up and it means the "vine shoots" — the long canes that they carefully trim back every winter, usually leaving just one or two slender branches for the next season's growth. We see people doing that in the vineyard out back all winter.

Vines trimmed and ready for the new growing season

"Do you cut them off and then burn them?" I asked her. Oh no, she said, when you burn them you go home smelling like a fireplace. I just cut them and stack them between the rows of vines.

I asked her why some people burn the trimmings and others don't. Because they did it that way in the old days — autrefois — she said. But nowadays, with the equipment the grape-growers have, it's a lot easier just to stack the trimmings down the rows and then send out a big grinding machine that runs up and down the rows and pulverizes the sarments. I didn't think to ask her if they just deposit the resulting sawdust back on the ground or if they haul it away.

« Alors, bon courage », I told her. Oh, I like the work, Roselyne said. When it's not raining and it's not cold, like right now, I can spend the afternoon out there by myself, just clipping and stacking. It's nice. When it starts to get dark, I go home. Some days, when he can, my husband comes and helps me.

I asked her if she listened to the radio. She said she had done that, but she gets tired of it pretty fast. She said she doesn't like to wear écouteurs — headphones or ear buds — because then she can't hear what's going on and she risks being surprised by a dog or a wild boar! She said she'd rather just listen to the birds singing.

« Je suis payée à la pièce, » she said — it's "piece work." In other words, they pay me for each hectare I do (a hectare is 2½ acres). That way, I work as long as I feel like it and then I quit for the day.

Here you can see the trimmings stacked up and down the rows.
They arrange them up and down every other row so that
they can walk up and down the other rows to do the work.


I asked her if she worked in the vineyards in our village or over in hers, which is called Couffy. Neither one, she says. A lot of the growers have their regular workers. The one I work for is in Pouillé — that's the next village up the road from ours, about five miles from here. There are wine villages all along the Cher River from east of Saint-Aignan down to Chenonceaux.

So there's an example a Frenchwoman who works at least two jobs, both of them part-time. That's life in the country, I think.

Saint Vincent day celebration

This is the text from my latest Today in France sidebar. I think I'm going to end that sidebar because I want to preserve these articles on the blog. The sidebar text, as I've been doing it, just gets thrown out every day.

According to my calendar, tomorrow is the day devoted to Saint Vincent, the patron saint of grape growers and wine makers. An article in our local newspaper describes a festival held on Saturday in Saint Vincent's honor at Cherverny, 15 miles north of Saint-Aignan.

Giant wine bottles headed up a parade whose grand marshall was a ten-year-old boy named Baptiste. It was his first wine festival, and he carried a traditional wine grower's staff. For the villages of Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny, this was the 22nd annual festival to promote the local vintages.

The lively celebration was organized by the Cheverny brotherhood of vintners (la confrérie des vignerons du cheverny), and more specifically by the group's wine-steward section (la section des Echansons). The Grand Master explained that "in their time, the échansons were wine stewards to the King. But our organization was founded in 1974."

The parade, including a band playing the wine-stewards' theme song, made its way to the church in the village of Cheverny, where a mass was celebrated to the accompaniment of local hunting horns. Afterward, a gargantuan feast was served in the orangerie at the château (the orangery is a greenhouse where oranges are grown).

The Cheverny/Cour-Cheverny wine appellation covers 550 hectares (about 1400 acres) south of Blois and Chambord. Cheverny produces 255,000 cases of cheverny wine annually, and Cour-Cheverny produces another 12,500 cases.

The wines labeled cheverny include whites (Sauvignon Blanc), reds (Pinot Noir - Gamay blends), and rosés (Pinot Noir - Chardonnay blends). Wines with the label cour-cheverny are reds made from the local Romorantin grape.

20 January 2008

Things I like about summer, II

Hummingbird moths in the geraniums on the front deck.

video

The first time I saw a hummingbird moth (AKA a sphinx moth) was the summer of 2004. That's when I took this video, which is not great but will give you an idea of what it was like. Here's a site with a lot of pictures.

I thought I was seeing the smallest hummingbird I had ever seen, and we had seen a lot of them in California over the years. I even asked my neighbors if there were hummingbirds, called colibris in French, in the Loire Valley. They said no.

I did some quick searching and found out that hummingbirds live only in the Americas. But these hummingbird moths seem to have settled into the same niche in Europe. We only see them when the weather is very warm.

19 January 2008

At age 25? J'aurais éclaté de rire.

In a comment a few days ago, Claude of Blogging in Paris told me she thought I should answer a meme she had answered on her own blog. I resisted at first, but then the questions kept swirling around in my mind as I was trying to go to sleep at night or starting to wake up in the morning.

A meme is basically a questionnaire — the same, or « même », set of questions that other bloggers have answered on their blog. Autolycus, for example, who sometimes comments here, has also responded to this meme. (I recently realized that I know him from an Internet forum we both participate in.)

Okay, on to the meme. The task: list five things in your life now that, when you were 25 years old, you would never have imagined would be part of your experience.

I turned 25 in 1974. By then, I had already left my native North Carolina to go to Illinois for graduate school. As a student and teacher, I had spent 6 months in Aix-en-Provence and 9 months in Rouen. France was already a big part of my life and I think I knew it always would be. Learning to speak French was and is my life's biggest accomplishment. I got my masters degree in French literature when I was 25. I was working toward a career in teaching, and hoped to become a university professor.

Walt. The most important part of my life that I couldn’t predict at age 25 was to be my meeting Walt six or seven years later. That meeting radically shifted the course of my existence. At 25, I knew I wanted the kind of relationship that he and I now have and that we have had for 25 years now. I just didn't know it was possible.

In fact, one day years later an old friend asked me how it all happened, and whether it was a surprise to me when it did. I told her no, that somehow I had always known I would meet Walt. Then I realized that was silly, because of course I didn’t know. It’s just that I knew that I wanted to meet somebody like Walt, and I was ready to try to build a life with him when I was lucky enough to meet him.

If a clairvoyant had told me I would end up meeting this person in Paris, I probably would not have been surprised. And that’s what happened.

Washington. I had wanted to live and work in Washington for years, so at 25 if a fortune-teller had predicted that I would do so I wouldn’t have been surprised. Washington was the natural big city for somebody from North Carolina to end up in.

When I did leave Paris in 1982 to go to DC, I lucked into a job as a translator. I worked on the French edition of a magazine published by the U.S. government. The editor who hired me is one of my closest friends today, and I learned more about the French language from him than I had learned in 7 years of university classes and 7 years of living in France. I wouldn't have been ready, of course, or hired, without the basics and the literary references I learn in school or without the conversational fluency and real-world experience I had gotten in France.

After a couple of years I left the translator’s job and became a reporter/writer/editor. If at 25 someone had told me that in 10 years’ time I would be traveling around as part of the press corps covering the charismatic president Samora Machel of Mozambique and president Seyne Kountché of Niger, with his band of gun-toting bodyguards; interviewing Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King’s sister Christine Farris for a magazine article about the King Center in Atlanta; and flying off to Africa on Air Force II with Vice-President George H.W. Bush (and 250 of his intimate associates and invited guests) for a tour of famine relief camps in Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger, and Mali, plus a UN conference in Geneva, I would not have believed it. I can hardly believe it now.

California. I certainly would never have predicted that I would end up spending half my work career in California, and at 25 I would have laughed if anybody had told me that was going to happen. I needed to leave Washington because the policies and politics of the Reagan years were just too depressing. However, I was so focused on France that I had never had the least desire to relocate to the U.S. West Coast (with all the other fruits and nuts, as we said back then).

Walt did have that desire, however, because through work connections he was able to go to California to complete his university studies despite our lack of resources (he ended up with a couple of masters degrees from Berkeley). And I had two good friends who had moved out there after spending time in France and Champaign-Urbana, so I said, "Why not? They love it. Let’s go." After I agonized for a year, of course. The California dreaming lasted nearly18 years.

Software. In 1986, I had no idea what I was going to do to make a living in California. I was in my late 30s and needed to get settled in a career or at least a job before I turned 40. I had fantasies about working as a writer, maybe in the wine industry, and about using my French in San Francisco, which I hoped would more resemble Paris than Washington DC. I did go back into teaching French, but only part-time, giving evening or weekend classes at S.F. City College for several years.

Neither of my main career ideas panned out, though. I ended up working for three years as managing editor of a computer magazine. Then one of my above-mentioned old friends, who had moved to California nearly a decade before I did, called me and said I should come to work as an editor in the software company where she was working. It was a top-flight company called Software Publishing Corporation. I interviewed and got the editor’s job. That led to a job at Apple Computer’s software subsidiary, Claris Corp. Then I got laid off, and the nature of the Silicon Valley software industry changed from a focus on end-users like me to a more corporate orientation, and I hated it. Actually, I never really liked working in software documentation, even though I worked with a lot of very talented and interesting people while I was there.

Country living. Now if at 25 I had been told that I would be living in France by the time I was 55, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But if somebody had told me I would be living out in the country, I would have laughed. Paris, okay. But tromping around in the mud, walking a dog? Hanging clothes out on the line to dry them outdoors? Ha ha ha. Heating with a wood stove? Spending most mornings doing nothing more challenging than blogging and cooking something good for lunch? Going for days at a time without starting the car? You're kidding. Never getting on a bus or subway any more? Plowing the ground with a rototiller to plant a vegetable garden when I am nearly 60 years old? Scraping, sanding, and painting the walls in several rooms of my house? At my age? Naaaa.

This would all have seemed perfectly hilarious when I was 25.

What ever happened to that old song about keepin’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? We’ve put a new twist on that one.

18 January 2008

Things I like about summer, I

Being able to hang laundry outside to dry on the line.

Line drying is best.

Recently I've been reading BlueVicar's posts about trying to find a folding rack for drying clothes. She lives in Colorado now, after living in France for a while. In France, a lot of people don't have clothes dryers. Even though we have one, I don't like to use it. It seems like a waste of energy.

If Walt or I had to get dressed and go to work every day, we wouldn't have the luxury of drying clothes on the line — in the garage in winter, or outdoors in spring, summer, and autumn. It's a luxury. That seems paradoxical, I guess, since for most people drying laundry in a clothes dryer would be a luxury.

17 January 2008

Comment ça va ? Humidement.

Water flowing through the vineyard

When I imagined coming to live in France for all those years I was sitting in traffic jams on the California freeways — and when we seriously studied the possibilities five years ago — I really didn't picture myself living in a vineyard.

Reflections in a vineyard

How it happened I'll never quite understand. A real estate agent showed us a house that we wouldn't have even considered if we had seen a description on paper. I just wasn't what we were looking for. I owe that agent a big thank-you.

Rust

I did imagine the rain, however. I told Walt it would probably rain every other day, or one day out of three. A third of the time. The big surprise came we we arrived here at the beginning of the great heat wave of 2003. And then it didn't rain much at all in all of 2004, 2005, and 2006. But now...

And more rust

This January we have already had 88 mm of rainfall. That's 3½ inches of water in just over two weeks. We are getting used to it. This could easily turn into the rainiest month since we've been here, especially since more rain is in the forecast for the next few days. Luckily, our house is withstanding it and we don't have to worry about flooding up here on the heights.

The fire danger is not very high right now.

So some of my good friends might say about my life in the vineyard that I'm comme un poisson dans l'eau — like a fish in the water. And now we have the water to go with it. Others might say I'm as happy as a pig in... oh, never mind. You can fill in the blank. Je patauge dans la gadoue... I splash around in the mud every time I go out for a walk with the dog, which is every day.

16 January 2008

Another thought about turnips

To be good and sweet, turnips need to be young and fresh. Turnips that have sat too long on the shelf develop a bitter taste.

The other thing that the cooks on French Cuisine TV always say about turnips is that you can't just peel them lightly with a vegetable peeler (un économe). They have a thick outer layer under the thin purple and white skin that needs to be removed too. It is the bitter part.

Peel turnips so that you remove the peel an eighth or a quarter of an inch down and you see the bright white flesh. The bitter outer layer is not so white. Try that and see if it makes a difference in the taste.

Census

The French government is preparing its latest census of the population. Census takers will be visiting us sometime between tomorrow and February 15. For us, it will be interesting to see what kinds of questions they ask.

The funny thing is that just as the census-taking is about to begin, the government organization responsible for it announced yesterday that the French population is now 63.8 million, or 64.5 million counting the residents of overseas départements —Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, for example — and territories — French Polynesia, etc.

The census organization, INSEE — L'Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, which is part of the Ministry of the Economy — says 816,500 babies were born last year in France, and 526,500 people died. Immigration totaled 70,000.

In terms of population, at nearly 64M inhabitants France is the second-largest country in the European Union, after Germany (82M) and just ahead of the United Kingdom (61M). The French birth rate is the highest in Europe. Nonetheless, France is aging, with people over 65 accounting for 16.3% of the total population.

A male child born in 2007 has a life expectancy of 77.5 years, and a female child 84.4. Life expectancy for those born in 2007 is three months higher than for those born in 2006. People under 20 make up 24.9% of the population, a slight decrease from 2006.

Now what I wonder is why, if they know all this already, they are now going to do a census. Seems like a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

15 January 2008

Turnips and gizzards for lunch

The kinds of food ideas and recipes that I put on this blog are things we probably wouldn't be eating if we lived in the U.S. Sometimes the ingredients are available there, sometimes not. Usually I try to highlight a particularly French ingredient, or one that you find more often on the French table than on the American table. And I like to cook following classic French methods, which often means long slow cooking.

Turnips

When it comes to ingredients, cooking French country-style means using a lot of vegetables. Turnips, for example. How many Americans really buy, cook, and eat them? How many people wouldn't touch a turnip with a ten-foot pole? (One American woman we had over to dinner last year made a terrible face when I offered her a cooked turnip.) You can say the same about carrots — especially cooked carrots, which appear everywhere in French everyday cooking. Some people really don't like them.

Gizzards

And then there are meat products like chicken or duck gizzards (gésiers). They are available here in the supermarkets in shrink-wrapped packages. Vacuum-packed, in other words, and Fresh, not frozen. I imagine most people who buy them use them in salads. Salade de gésiers is a classic in French cafés and restaurants.

The other day I went shopping at the local Ed store — Ed stands for Epicerie discount (épicerie means grocery store), and falls into a different category from full-service supermarkets like Intermarché and SuperU. Ed is a speciality store with a more limited line of products — groceries only (imagine that!). The category it and similar stores (Netto, Aldi, Leader Price) fall into is called "hard discount" in French (or Franglais, if you prefer). Pronounce it ard discoont.

Put the gizzards in a warm pan and wait for the duck fat
to melt. Take the gizzards out with a slotted spoon and
then cook chicken and vegetables in the fat.

Anway, at Ed they had a big crate of beautiful round turnips (navets). I hadn't cooked turnips in a while, so I was tempted. I bought six, and I thought I'd figure out something to do with them. Ed also had carrots on special: a two-kilogram bag for 99 cents. That's 4½ lbs. for less than $1.50. I couldn't pass that up. It meant we had to be creative with carrots for a week or two.

Peel some shallots but don't bother peeling
the garlic cloves until you find one on your plate.


I walked out of the produce section and passed the meat counter. Up on the top shelf I noticed packages of gizzards. Duck or chicken. The duck gizzards cost about twice as much, so I bought the chicken gizzards. They were confits — that means slow-cooked in fat (in this case duck fat) until they are very tender. The gizzard is a tough muscle and you can't really eat it unless it is cooked slow and long. Tender, it is succulent and tasty.

Fry the chicken skin-side down in duck fat first.
Turn the pieces over and add gizzards and vegetables to the pan.

I thought the turnips and gizzards might be good together. One classic dish in French cooking is duck with turnips (canard aux navets). So why wouldn't chicken and turnips be good cooked the same way? Or chicken gizzards? Especially ones that have already been cooked in duck fat. I also had some chicken leg & thigh sections in the freezer.

You can take the chicken pieces out and put them in
a warm oven toward the end so that the gizzards and
vegetables have a chance to brown a little in the duck fat.


Then I remembered a Jacque Pépin method for cooking duck pieces with root vegetables. It was on a TV series he did with Julia Child. We have the DVDs and the cookbook.

Jacques cuts up a duck and fries the pieces skin-side down in a pan until they render all their fat and the skin is browned. Ducks render a lot of fat, as you may know. Then he turns the duck pieces over and adds some whole, peeled shallots, some unpeeled garlic cloves, and a few chopped parsnips to the pan with herbs, salt and pepper. All of that cooks in the rendered duck fat until it's done, and then it gets removed from the pan with a slotted spoon so that the fat stays behind.

Chicken with gizzards and root vegetables.

I did the same thing, but using turnips, carrots, chicken pieces, and chicken gizzards. I used the duck fat from the gizzards and added some that I had in a little jar in the refrigerator. It was a very good lunch with red wine and French bread.

14 January 2008

Electoral packrats

In France, municipal elections are coming up in March. The leaders of the Socialist Party are hoping for a good showing, and they are making a lot of noise about how Sarkozy and his government have not followed through on their electoral promises from last spring. The cost of living is rising and salaries are stagnating, the socialists say.

There are more than 36,000 majors of cities, towns, and villages in France. All stand for election at the same time.

One of the arcane features of French political like, at least for Americans, is that many officials are allowed to hold more that one office at a time. The system allows le cumul des mandats — accumulating electoral mandates. Jacques Chirac, for example, was both mayor of Paris and member of the national assembly (the parliament), and even prime minister, at the same time. A lot of members of parliament are also the mayors of cities and towns.

Members of the president's cabinet aren't allowed to hold a seat in the assembly concurrently with their cabinet job, however, because that would have them straddling the constitutional line between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Now, several of Sarkozy's cabinet ministers are running for mayoral posts, or for re-election to municipal offices they already hold. The minister of culture, Christine Albanel, is running for mayor the the 4th arrondissement in Paris; the minister of finance, Chrisitine Lagarde, for mayor of of the 12th; and the minister of justice, Rashida Dati, for mayor of the 7th. Holding all these offices concurrently is a way of consolidating a political party's power.

Last summer, when parliamentary elections were held, Sarkozy declared that any cabinet member who lost an election bid would also be required to give up his or her cabinet post. It was a controvesial move, since a cabinet minister who won a seat had to give either it or the cabinet position up anyway. As a result, one of the most experienced members of his cabinet, the controversial ex-prime minister Alain Juppé from Bordeaux, had to resign a fancy cabinet job that had been created just for him.

There's no word yet whether Sarkozy will do the same this time. Maybe not, since he risks losing a lot of his most stalwart ministers if he does.

I started my Today in France sidebar a few weeks ago, but now I realize some of the subjects covered there are ones I would like to keep on the blog for longer than 24 hours. So I'm putting this topic here instead of there. I'm not sure what to do with Today in France.

13 January 2008

Continuing the sun theme

To think there was a time in my life when I cursed the rising sun!

I lived in San Francisco. In hindsight, how anybody could be unhappy about seeing the bright sun in a town that is so gray and foggy is hard to explain. A San Francisco summer, at least in the neighborhood I lived in, meant 25 mph winds off the ocean carrying heavy, wind-driven fog and drizzle for much of the day, with temperatures around 15ºC/60ºF. Not exactly balmy.

Sunrise
12 January 2008

I would be up early every morning, preparing for my drive down to Silicon Valley, where I worked. Often before daylight, I would back my car out of the garage, race down the hill, zoom onto the freeway, and speed south on Highway 101, the Bayshore Fwy., past Candlestick Park, cruising along the edge of San Francisco Bay, and then skirting the airport.

Sunrise
12 January 2008

Just as you cleared the airport, the southbound freeway turns slightly east, following the contour of the shoreline. And there it would be: the cursed sun. Right in your face. Low on the horizon. Bright and blinding.

That was the problem. Traffic would grind to a halt. All four or five lanes of it. Brake lights for miles. People sitting in their cars trying to read the newspaper, singing along with the radio, shaving or putting on makeup, eating breakfast, or just fuming. I was a fumer, I guess. I had left home before dawn hoping to beat the traffic, and there I was stuck in it. Who knew for how long?

Sunrise
12 January 2008

On really bad mornings, traffic would be backed up for a mile or two before you even got to what I'll call Sunrise Curve. At that point, you had a choice. You could turn off on Hwy 380, cut over to I-280, and head south on that. Hoping you wouldn't come face to face with the sun somewhere along that freeway. Or run into some other kind of traffic clog.

But often the blinding sun would take you by surprise, if you left home as early as I did. There didn't even have to be much traffic for the grinding halt to delay you for 30 minutes or more. And you were in a hurry. Time was of the essence. Time was money. You had a meeting to attend, or a report to finish before mid-morning. You just wanted to GET THERE.

Sunset
12 January 2008

I hated the sun on those days. Isn't there something fundamentally wrong with that?