31 October 2014

La Seine, trois fois

Here are three photos of the Seine taken near the Place de la Concorde, in central Paris. I took them Wednesday morning about 11 o'clock, actually from the Pont de la Concorde in front of the Assemblée Nationale (the Palais Bourbon). As always, you can click or tap on the images, often twice, to see them at full size.

It had been a foggy morning and the sun was just breaking through the haze. Above, that's the Eiffel Tower and the Pont Alexandre III, with the Palais du Trocadéro in the background. Tour boats and freight barges ply the waters of the Seine.

Looking in the other direction (east), people are crossing the pedestrian bridge that links the Louvre and the Tuileries garden to the Left Bank and the Musée d'Orsay, with the towers and spire of Notre Dame cathedral in the background.
And finally, for today, a view of the same pedestrian bridge (La Passerelle de Solférino) and a couple of Batobuses (public transit boats), with part of the buildings that make up the Louvre museum in the background.

I was just beginning what would turn into a 10-kilometer walk through the middle of the city, winding through Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Quartier Latin, the islands called Cité and Saint-Louis, and the Marais, all the way back to the Gare d'Austerlitz to catch my train to Vierzon and on to Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher.

30 October 2014

Wednesday morning on the Place de la Concorde

I'll get back to the Burgundy trip report soon. Right now, I want to post some photos I took in Paris, while the experience is fresh in my memory. I went there yesterday because I needed to get a document notarized (U.S. term; légalisé in French) at the U.S. Embassy on the Place de la Concorde.

When I got to the Place de la Concorde at 10 a.m., the top of the Eiffel Tower, in the distance, was shrouded in low clouds.

Why the légalisation? Walt is going to start taking a retirement pension from California in December, and because California is a community property state, he is required to have a notification form signed by his spouse (me) and notarized. The spouse, by law, must be made aware of the pension being collected, and California wants proof. France doesn't have notary publics, so I had to go to the U.S. Embassy — the consulate, actually — to see a notary — a consul, actually — for the official stamp and seal.

A quiet moment on the Place de la Concorde in Paris (29 October 2014)

To get an appointment at the U.S. Consulate — these days, you can't just walk in — you have to make an appointment weeks in advance for a specific day and time.There are two security checkpoints to go through before you can enter the building. You're not allowed to take any electronic devices in, so they have to be left at the second security desk. That includes cameras, computers, tablets, and mobile phones. The consulate says it can't be held responsible if any device is lost. I also was not allowed to take in a Chapstick that I had with me.

The traffic on the Place de la Concorde can look kind of chaotic, but it flows well.
That's the Eglise de la Madeleine in the background.

I arrived early for my 10:30 a.m. appointment and I had to wait around outside for 30 minutes before I could be admitted. When I did get in, there were at least 100 people seated in a big waiting room where there are a couple of dozen teller-style windows with big screens that display the ticket number of the current or next "customer" to be taken care of. People are there to get visas for travel to the U.S., new U.S. passports, or, like me, to get a document notarized or make a sworn statement in front of a consul.

About the first thing I saw when I left the consulate was this bus. Maybe I could have hitched a ride home on it. The ZooParc de Beauval is just two miles from our house outside Saint-Aignan.

At 10:30 sharp, I was called to a window. The whole process took only 20 minutes — I was amazed, because in July 2013 I had to go make a sworn statement at the same place, and because I had an afternoon appointment, I had to cool my heals for a couple of hours. Morning appointments (a new feature) are the way to go, and getting there early to be the first in line really helps. I walked out with my notarized document, carrying the raised seal of the U.S. federal government. It cost me $50 U.S.

Looking up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe

Okay, I didn't plan to write all that. It just flowed out. The U.S. Embassy/Consulate complex is on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, just at the eastern end of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées and not far from the Louvre and the Seine. You can see the Eiffel Tower from there. The Place de la Concorde is an expansive space that is often filled with speeding cars and lumbering buses. I took some photos, above. Click or tap on the images to see them at a larger size.

29 October 2014

Arrêt momentané

I have to go to Paris this morning. My train leaves Saint-Aignan/Noyers at 6:44 a.m. I'll be in Paris before 9:30, if all goes well. I have an appointment at the U.S. Embassy at 10:30. It's no big deal — I just have to have my signature notarized on an American document, and the embassy in Paris is the only place in France where I can have that done... for a $50 fee.

Add to the $50 fee — notary publics in the U.S. charge between $5 and $10 for the same service — the train fare from Saint-Aignan to Paris and back, plus lunch in a café or restaurant, and the total cost is about $150 U.S. I'm trying to remain sanguine about that. C'est quand même du grand banditisme...

Yesterday's lunch was a blanquette de boulettes de veau with a mixture of white and wild rice. I had made veal meatballs a week or two ago and had some left in the freezer. I used chicken broth instead of veal broth to make the blanquette sauce.

On the positive side, the weather in Paris is supposed to be sunny and fairly warm. A walk from the Embassy, at the Place de la Concorde, through Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Quartier Latin and on to the Gare d'Austerlitz might be the day's most pleasant activity. I'll be back in Saint-Aignan before 6:30 p.m. this evening, if the trains run on time. The Burgundy saga will resume tomorrow.

28 October 2014

Crossing into Burgundy

When you cross the river at Sancerre or Pouilly-sur-Loire, you are officially in the Burgundy region. Pouilly is in the département called la Nièvre, which has Nevers [nuh-VEHR] as its main city. We were just going to drive through, because our destination was the Yonne département, whose main city is Auxerre [oh-SEHR].

Houses along the road as we arrived at Pouilly-sur-Loire

We had planned to have lunch in Pouilly. I had picked out a restaurant by looking at French TripAdvisor reviews. It was called Chez Mémère, which means something like "granny's place" — mémère is baby-talk. We crossed the bridge over the Loire and turned left up the town's main street.

This street narrowed radically as we drove into the village center.

It turned out that the main street through the town (pop. 1,710) was very narrow and surprisingly busy. There were cars parked on one side of the street, which meant there wasn't enough room for two cars to pass each other. One had to wait. I think it was just the lunch-hour rush, since it was ten past noon.

Walt had just read through the menu when I snapped this shot.

We easily found a place to park, told Callie to guard the car, and walked back to the restaurant. There was a chalkboard outside on the sidewalk advertising a 14-euro menu that looked excellent, with three courses (starter, main dish, and dessert). Fourteen euros is about $18 U.S. these days. Wine and coffee would  add a lot to the final check, so lunch would have cost close to $60 for the two of us.

Chez Mémère's front door seen from inside the restaurant

We pushed open the door and found ourselves in a room crowded with 15 or 20 tables, of which two were already occupied, each by a group of four. Those people all turned and looked at us with curiosity, and I nodded and murmured Bonjour. There was a second room on the side, which had maybe as many tables and was empty. The hostess of the restaurant came out to greet us. I asked for a table for two.

A winery across the street

« Vous avez réservé ? » No, I said. I don't know why I hadn't. It had been hard to imagine that a restaurant in a small town like Pouilly would be all booked up on a Tuesday at lunchtime. Well, we were turned away. No room at the inn. I wonder if all the tables were really reserved, or if it was the kind of restaurant that really cooks fresh food and makes only enough for customers who have reserved in advance.

A doorway near the booked-up Chez Mémère restaurant

And why did they put a signboard out on the sidewalk advertising their menu if they knew that they wouldn't be taking any walk-in customers? The woman — was she Mémère? — was nice enough to point us toward another restaurant, which she described as being « à l'autre bout du pays » — at the other end of the village. We moved on. It's funny how people in the French countryside use the word pays (which means "country") to describe a village.

27 October 2014

Riding the roads in central France

Our trip to Chablis and Avallon took us through the Cher Valley, the southern end of the Sologne, and the northern part of the old Berry province before we crossed the Loire River and entered the region called La Bourgogne.

Open roads through the vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly

As we approached the wine-and-cheese town of Sancerre (don't French towns sound like so many fancy parties?) we made the decision to bypass the town to the south and head directly into the neighboring wine town of Pouilly-sur-Loire on the back roads.

Tree-lined highways through the Berry countryside

There is a bridge across the Loire River at Pouilly, and we had a restaurant in mind for our lunch there.

At Pouilly, a narrow bridge across the wide Loire River

As you can see, there wasn't an awful lot of traffic (read: "almost none") on the roads of the region, despite the fact that this is a major school vacation period in France. It's the Toussaint, or All Saints' Day, which includes the Hallowe'en holiday.

Villages that look deserted, especially at lunchtime

Maybe the lack of traffic had to do with the showery, windy weather. People just stayed home.

You see more farm equipment than passenger cars on the roads.

Walt was driving and I was navigating, so I had time to snap pictures of the roads and roadsides as we drove along.

Choose your direction and destination...

As usual, you can click or tap on the images to see them at full size.

26 October 2014

Leaving home in a hurricane

I know, that sounds more dramatic than it really was — but it's the truth. As we left home last Tuesday morning for the drive to Burgundy, what remained of that hurricane that hit Bermuda the week before was sweeping across northern France and the British Isles. It was blustery and rainy, which didn't augur well for our mini-vacation.

The drive is a straight shot through the forests of the Sologne region.

The drive takes about four hours. The northern part of Burgundy, centered on the small city of Auxerre in the département called l'Yonne is basically due east of our part of the Loire Valley. We headed out across the flat, forested Sologne toward the midway point of the trip, which took us past the wine village of Sancerre and on to the other famous wine village of Pouilly-sur-Loire.

There are curved roads through the villages and towns along the way — which one was this?
Notice the sign that says Toutes Directions — a driver can't go wrong.

There's little or no car traffic in the Sologne woods, but you do have to be careful not to collide with animals like deer and wild boars. Such collisions usually occur at night, however, and we were traveling in broad daylight. We did see a deer or two during our trip, and I saw a fox standing next to the road at some point — I'm not sure, though, that it was on this particular day.

Every town and village has its church and a few businesses.

Other than the woods, the Sologne road takes you through a series of small towns and villages, including Theillay, Neuvy-sur-Barangeon, and Méry-ès-Bois, and then into the old Berry province through Henrichemont (a planned town dating back to the early 1600s), La Borne, and Neuilly-en-Sancerre. Each town or village as its own old church and its business selling farm equipment, along with a few shops like bakeries, groceries, and cafés.

As you reach the eastern edge of the Sologne and approach the Loire River, you leave the flat country behind.

We planned to have lunch in Pouilly-sur-Loire, where I also wanted to pick up a bottle of a wine that I had never tasted before. It carries the name of the village and is made with a different grape, Chasselas, compared to the nationally and internationally known wine called Pouilly Fumé, which is made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes in the same area.

The Sancerre area on the west bank of the Loire is famous for its vineyards and especially for its Sauvignon Blanc wines.

By the way, I've been taking my finger splint off for several hours at a time for the past few days and carefully exercising the damaged digit. When it starts to ache, or when I plan to engage in some activity (including sleeping) that might put the finger at risk, I put the splint back on. This morning, for the first time since the accident happened back in August, I am typing on the keyboard using all ten fingers!

25 October 2014

We're back

I hear Walt's fingers dancing on the keyboard in his office, and I don't know what he is typing. I'll just say that we got back yesterday from a four-day trip to a different region of France — a region that I have been wanting to see for a long time now. We didn't write about the trip because we didn't want to advertise on our blogs the fact that our house was going to be unoccupied for four days.

We didn't have great weather, but we had a good time. I haven't had time to organize or process any photos other than the one above. And we have a friend from California visiting this weekend, so we are still busy. I'll have to leave you dangling right now...

24 October 2014

Pre-Hallowe'en images

It's only October — my 9th-year blog anniversary, by the way — but you can see Hallowe'en scenes in the environment. All it takes is a foggy, misty morning to reveal the presence of spiders and webs around the vineyard.

I've been keeping secrets. We are doing a road trip. We'll be back at home this afternoon.

23 October 2014

Artichokes in autumn

Here's what comes to mind: c'est la fin des artichauts...

That's a joke.

22 October 2014

Bœuf Bourguignon in the slow cooker

Not a recipe, but a concept. A couple of pounds of beef shank and stew beef; some carrots and onions; a few bay leaves, cloves, and black peppercorns; and finally, a bottle of strong red wine — in this case, a Corbières from SW France.

Put it all in the slow cooker at low temperature for eight hours. No real need to brown the meat before you put it on to simmer, because the red wine will brown it for you.

Finally, to fill out the plate, a Gratin Dauphinois — thinly sliced potatoes cooked for 90 minutes in a medium oven with just enough whole milk to cover them, salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg.

21 October 2014


All the spiders really get busy all around the vineyard in late October.

Maybe they're building webs this way all summer, but we don't see them the way we do now because of the heavy dews of autumn.

20 October 2014

Dew, not rain

This photo shows a late-season rose touched not by rain but by dew. Well, that's changing today.

We enjoyed a summery weekend. On the news, they are reporting that the last time it was this warm here in October was in 1954. I took the sensible advice that French Girl in Seattle gave me and put off until later the autumn gardening chores so that I could enjoy the last day of our very late 1014 2014 summer. Today's forecast: damp weather and falling temperatures. That's normal as La Toussaint approaches.

19 October 2014

The remains of the garden

Every day, I tell myself that I'm going to go out and pull up the plants (such as they are) left in the vegetable garden. And every day, I find something better to do with my time.

Besides, the weather is downright summery right now. Callie's enjoying it too. Pourvu que ça dure... encore un peu.

18 October 2014

Bringing in the leaves

The weather is supposed to be exceptionally warm and dry this weekend. It's time to start working on getting all the outdoor plants that won't tolerate frost or freezing moved into the house again.

It's a big job and sometimes I wonder if it is worth it. I guess if I move the plants slowly and gradually, I won't get too tired of it and them. Petit à petit l'oiseau fait son nid...

17 October 2014

“Pulled lamb” in the mijoteuse

I haven't said much about it since mid-September, but I am pretty happy with the slow-cooker or mijoteuse/mijoteur that we bought back then. I've cooked pork roasts, chickens, and beef stews in it. I've also cooked dried beans with good results.

Night before last, I cooked a whole lamb shoulder that was on promotion at a good price over at Intermarché in Noyers-sur-Cher. I had about 6 cups of rich vegetable/chicken broth in the fridge, so I put the lamb on a rack in the bottom of the cooker and poured the broth over it. Basically, the lamb steamed in the cooker overnight, for eight hours, on the low temperature setting. A side benefit is that we are taking advantage of the lower electric rates charged during nighttime hours.

After it was cooked, I pulled all the meat off the bones and separated the fat from the lean meat. (I'm sorry I forgot to take a photo of it before I pulled it all apart.) That nice lean meat ("pulled lamb") can be sliced or diced and seasoned to make different kinds of dishes — we had tacos with beans, rice, lamb, lettuce, and cilantro for lunch yesterday, for example. I can see a nice shepherd's pie in our near future. Or a Greek moussaka. Or some Kentucky-style barbecue.

16 October 2014

If this is Thursday...

...it must be old picture day. Here's one from about 1977. I'm sitting at my desk at the offices of the American Association of Teachers of French in Champaign, Illinois. Notice that fancy typewriter on the right, and the map of France. I wore my long hair in a ponytail at that point.

The AATF job was a part-time engagement. I was assistant editor of the AATF newsletter, and I helped organize the annual AATF convention in places including Philadelphia, Fort-de-France (Martinique), and Quebec City over the four years I worked there. I was also a graduate student and teaching assistant in the French Department at the University of Illinois, where I taught French language courses every semester.

I don't know exactly how many professors (12? 15?) or TAs (30? 35?) there were in the French department, but I do know that some 35 or 40 thousand students were enrolled on the Champaign-Urbana campus. Every year, half a dozen French students came to the U of I to give conversation classes, and that added to the atmosphere. I was friends with many of them. For sure, it wasn't Paris, where I had lived and worked in 1974-76 and would return to for three more years starting in 1979, but C-U was an exciting place to live and work.

15 October 2014

The little Peugeot

In many ways, I think the little Peugeot 206 that I bought in 2003 might be the best car I've ever had. Maybe it seems that way because I don't drive nearly as many miles per year as I used to. Or maybe it's because it's a small car with a big diesel engine.

When you look at the photos of the Peugeot here, you'd never think it was 14 years old, but it is. Its engine is going strong, and the car looks good inside and out.

I've owned a lot of cars since 1971, when I got my first one: a 1966 Ford Fairlane. My father gave it to me as a graduation present when I finished college. I kept it for one year. Over the years, I've owned a 1973 Opel, which I bought new in North Carolina back then for about $3500 U.S. It was pretty basic. And  for a year in Paris I owned a 1972 Renault R4, which was nearly ten years old when I paid $350 for it. That's not a typo. The R4 was even more basic than the Opel, but it was more fun to drive.

Subsequently, I owned two Subarus (one used, one new), three VWs (all new — a Jetta and two Passats over a 12-year period), and now the Peugeot. The new Subaru (1984) was a great car and lasted nine years, and the last Passat (1996) lasted seven. It was almost a luxury car.. Now I've had the Peugeot for more than 11 years, after buying it used here in Saint-Aignan.

The Peugeot 206 was the best-selling car in Europe for many years. It's too bad that French cars don't get much respect in America. You can't even buy one over there.

14 October 2014

Stir-fried chicken wings and vegetables with noodles

I love cooking chicken wings in all different ways — Buffalo-style with butter and tabasco sauce; with rice and vegetables braised in the oven; baked with yakitori sauce or with a lemon and honey marinade and basting sauce. Yesterday, cooked some in a wok, stir-fried with julienned vegetables and Asian wheat noodles.

This wasn't a recipe but a spur of the moment idea. I like wings when they are well-cooked and moist, with the meat almost falling off the bone. That's what you get when you stir-fry them and then cover the pan and add some liquid for them to braise in for a few minutes.

In this case, I quickly stir-fried, in a good amount of canola oil, one small onion and two large cloves of garlic that I had sliced up. That gave the oil good flavor. I took the onion and garlic out of the wok and put in one large carrot that I had peeled and cut into julienne (matchsticks). That gave the stir-fry oil even more flavor, plus a nice golden color. After three or four minutes, I took the carrot sticks out of the oil and put in the six chicken wings (12 pieces) that I had and stir-fried them well, until browned.

Once the wings were golden, I poured over them two or three tablespoons of soy sauce, the same amount of Japanese mirin (a sweet rice wine; any sweetish white wine like a sherry or Chardonnay would be good), and a quarter-cup (60 ml) of chicken broth. I covered the wok and let the wings braise in the liquid for 15 or 20 minutes, adding a little water as needed to keep it moist. The wine helps caramelize the wings, as you can see.

When Walt was coming back from his walk with Callie earlier in the morning, he had looked around in the vegetable garden and found two more... guess what... zucchinis. So he julienned one of those on the mandolin. It went into the wok when the wings came out and, after two or three minutes of stir-frying, back in went the other vegetables and 200 grams of cooked wheat noodles (could be spaghetti or angel-hair pasta).

When the vegetables and noodles were well mixed and heated through, we served everything right out of the wok with the chicken wings on top and some spicy hot peanut butter sauce on the side.

13 October 2014

Some fall colors

A quiet Monday... can't trust that day, though. It's time to go pull out and dispose of all the tomato plants.

These two photos are already a week old. Our weather is turning mild and dry again, after some hard rain yesterday.

12 October 2014

The last grapes

Just a few grapes are left in the vineyard. Some are red grapes but most are Chenin Blanc, the white grape grown over in Vouvray and Chinon. Here in the Saint-Aignan area, some of the wineries make a late-harvest "mellow" wine (un vin moelleux) from Chenin Blanc in years when weather conditions allow the grapes to ripen completely. Chenin also goes into the local sparkling wines.

The grape leaves are now taking on their fall colors. Before long, all the leaves will be gone and the annual pruning of the vines will be under way. The grape juice will be fermenting to produce the 2014 wines for next spring and summer.

11 October 2014

I can move

I thought I might not be able to move this morning. That's because yesterday morning we moved and neatly stacked all that firewood. I felt sure that I would be very stiff and sore — courbaturé — this morning, but I'm not. Even my splinted finger feels okay.

Most of the log had been split, but some were whole and round. Those were the heavy ones. Well, they were all heavy, actually, but the round ones were the heaviest. The job is done. Now each meter-long log has to be sawed into three pieces. That's because our wood-burner can hold logs only up to 40 cm in length.

Yesterday we talked about buying a new wood-burner next year that would take 50 cm logs (that's about 19 inches). Then we might be able to buy logs already cut to that length. It would make life a lot easier for the couple of old geezers that we are rapidly becoming (je parle de moi et pour moi, bien sûr...).