31 December 2019

The sun sets...

...on another year. Adieu, 2019. Bonjour, 2020.

Sunset at Saint-Aignan seen from a bedroom window, December 29, 2019

I wish everyone a happy celebration to ring in 2020, whether you are alone or with friends and family.

30 December 2019

A screw loose?

I would like to write more about my six-month stay in Aix-en-Provence. I have a lot of memories. But it takes a lot of time and concentration to piece it all back together and describe the experience coherently. At my age, the words just flow or they don't. Yesterday I sat and wrote what I wrote in some kind of stream of consciousness. The time in Aix, and how I got there, really was a pivotal point in my life.

There have been others, of course. Meeting Walt in Paris in 1981-82, and then both of us moving to Washington DC. Deciding around that time that I didn't want to be a teacher for the rest of my life, and then going to work with CHM in 1983, was another of those moments. Moving to California and working in the computer industry... and now, after more than 15 years here, retiring and moving to Saint-Aignan.

Meanwhile, we've run into a little snag in getting the new chest of drawers put together. Some of the screws that hold the rails the drawers are supposed to slide on are too short to do the job. Walt has to go out to the hardware store today to see if he can find some that will work.

I'm still processing that turkey we had for Christmas. Today: turkey-barley soup. I made the broth by simmering the carcass in the slow-cooker overnight from Saturday to Sunday. Yesterday I strained it and picked some meat off the bones. That meat and more, plus carrots, celery, green peas, onions, and barley will go into the soup. That's my life these days.

I guess I should go back to Aix-en-Provence one day and take some photos. That would really refresh my memory. The last time I was there was in pre-digital 1993, with Walt. I hardly recognized the suburban neighborhood where I lived in a room rented for me by Vanderbilt for those six months in 1970. But the neighborhood in central Aix where the Vanderbilt program was (and maybe still is) located, the Quartier Mazarin, looked the same. It was on the rue Cardinale, not far from the Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, the Musée Granet, and the Eglise Saint-Jean-de Malte — and just a short distance off the Cours Mirabeau.

29 December 2019

50 ans déjà

If memory serves, it was 50 years ago today (or maybe tomorrow) that I first set foot on French soil. I think maybe my flight back then departed JFK airport in New York on December 29, 1969, so I must have landed at Le Bourget airport in Paris on December 30. That day would be the pivotal day of my life. Since then, I have flown across the North Atlantic Ocean about 90 times, because I was always unhappy staying away from France for very long.

In 1969, I was 20 years old. I had been born and had grown up in fairly remote little town on the North Carolina coast called Morehead City, pop. 5,000. Both my parents were born there, and we were part of a sort of a clan, I guess. I had about 30 first cousins, 15 on my mother's side, and 15 on my father's side of the family. I went through school in Morehead from kindergarten through 12th grade. My family was working class, I guess you'd say. My father was a carpenter and cabinet maker by trade. My mother was a clerk in a gift shop from the time I was about 10 years old.

I graduated from from high school in Morehead City in 1967. I was a good student — president of the school's chapter of the National Honor Society. I earned straight A's for all 12 years of my primary and secondary schooling, I believe. Getting a B on my report card would have thrown me for a loop. I had summer jobs from the time I was 15, working as what we called a car-hop, carrying meals out to customers in their cars parked in front of fast food restaurant. Then for two or three summers I rented Sunfish sailboats and gave summary sailing lessons to people who wanted to try them out. And I worked for a couple of summers in the tackle and bait shop at a local fishing pier, including one summer on the night shift as a short-order cook in the pier's grill room, flipping burgers and making egg sandwiches for hungry fishermen from 9 p.m to 5 a.m.

Earlier, I had come into contact with people who spoke French. I must have been 10 or 12 years old when a local man returned home from being stationed in France as a member the U.S. military. He brought his French wife with him. Her name was Colette, and she and her husband had two daughters who were maybe five years younger than I was. The girls and their mother spoke French together, and I was fascinated to hear a "foreign" language for the first time in my life. My high school offered a four-year French program, and I signed up for it. It turned out that I had a talent for it.

When the time came to figure out what I would do after graduation from high school, I of course wanted to go to college (as we say in America, meaning university). It never occurred to me that I could become a student at a university outside North Carolina. Fortunately, there were several very good universities in the state, including the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and, nearby, Duke University in Durham. I ended up at Duke because I got a scholarship — my family didn't have the kind of money it would have taken to pay my tuition, room, and board at a private university like Duke. The scholarship covered it.

I took a test the university used to evaluate new students' level in French, and I was judged to have good enough skills to be exempted from the first two years of French language courses at Duke. Taking two years of classes to attain that level of competency in a foreign language was a requirement at Duke and other universities back then. At Duke, students like me who didn't need the language classes were still required to take a year of classes in French to prove they could do so successfully. That meant literature, and the teacher of the class I took was a very well-known professor — an American who had spent many years in France, and who had written numerous books about French literature.

That professor, whose name was Wallace Fowlie, liked me. He taught in a way that fit perfectly with my style of learning and test-taking. He would give a lecture about some famous author or some period of French literature. Then he would give us a test that was designed to make us to say back to him, in writing, what he had told us in the lectures. I think he taught the class in French, but it's hard to remember. There were about 20 of us in his class, and I got an A on every test, I believe. After my first year at Duke, I had satisfied what was called "the language requirement" and I moved on to focus on other subjects, mostly mathematics and science. I had gone to Duke with the idea that I wanted to become a marine biologist. My father wanted me to be a scientist.

Was I ever miserable during the time I was studying those subjects and taking no French classes! I struggled that year, which was the worst of all the years I spent as a student. At the end of that second year, I and all the other students at Duke were required to choose "a major" — a subject that they would focus on for the next two years to earn their bachelor's degree. I considered majoring in English, but I went to talk to a couple of professors in that department, and they didn't seem very interested in my credentials or prospects. Then I went to talk to a couple of professors in the university's French department. They welcomed me with open arms. I had done very well in professor Fowlie's classes, and they must have thought I had potential. So for the first semester of my third year at Duke, I signed up for a couple of French classes and again became a happy student.

But the truth was, my real and greatest desire was to go spend some time in France. Duke had an agreement with another school, Vanderbilt University, under which we students could apply to spend six months in Aix-en-Provence working on our language skills and studying French literature and history. So I applied and was accepted. Vanderbilt arranged a charter flight for us from JFK airport to Paris. We were on our own as far as getting to New York was concerned. I flew from Raleigh-Durham airport to New York. It was the first time I ever flew on an airplane. It was snowing when I got to JFK and met up with the other students who were going to Aix to spend the spring semester there. I knew several of them from having been in French classes at Duke with them. There must have been about 25 of us.

We landed at Le Bourget and were met by the Vanderbilt professor who was going to be the leader of our group and director of the study-abroad program in Aix. His name was Jean Leblon, and he was Belgian. We spent a night or two in Paris, in the Latin Quarter at the Hôtel Monge on the rue Monge, before continuing on to Aix-en-Provence on another chartered flight. Monsieur Leblon took us out to a restaurant that first night, and he had order a roasted suckling pig for our group dinner. I think he was trying to shock us protected and provincial young Americans. Seeing a whole roasted pig on the table, with an apple in its mouth, did the job. But for me, the pork we ate much reminded me of pulled pork and the "pig-picking" barbecues I had always enjoyed in eastern North Carolina.

I had only had classes with one native French-speaking professor at Duke, and she was a teacher whose conversation classes I did not enjoy. I did like Monsieur Leblon, and I liked the other teachers who worked for the Vanderbilt-in-France program. The class I did best in was focused on French pronunciation and phonetics, but I also enjoyed the literature and history classes. I admit, though, that I mostly just enjoyed being in France.

After a week or two of preliminary pronunciation lessons, the teacher of the phonetics class gave us our first real assignment. We were to learn a 10- or 12-sentence passage (M. Seguin et ses chèvres...) in French and then read it in class while our voice was being recorded. And then the teacher would critique each student's performance, and explain to us how we could improve our spoken French. He was brutally honest with us students, and didn't hesitate to tell some of them that they had a long way to go to become fluent. To me, it felt like he was berating students rather than encouraging them.

When my turn came, I read the passage and hoped for the best. I don't remember being particularly nervous. Over my first two or three weeks in Aix, French pronunciation had suddenly started to make sense to me. I lived with a family, shopped in markets, and ordered food in restaurants. I met some French students who were enrolled in the Université d'Aix. I started listening to French music on the radio and going to French movies. The spoken French language had really started making sense to me.

Well, I read my passage in front of the teacher and the other students, and prepared to be told I needed to make a lot of progress over the course of the semester. When I finished reading, the teacher paused for a minute or two, reflecting on what he had heard, and then he asked the other students what they thought of my reading. They of course didn't know what to say, but the ones I knew as friends from classes at Duke were positive. Finally, the teacher said to the class: Eh bien, c'était parfait. He had no criticism to offer. I was stunned, and of course really pleased. I was off and running. I ended up spending seven school years in France between 1970 and 1982, as a student and then as a teacher — teaching English to French students and adult learners.

28 December 2019

La dinde de Noël... and then some

We ordered a turkey for Christmas from the local poultry-processing company called Volailles Clément. Volaille is the French word for "fowl" or poultry — Clément is a wholesaler who also sells poultry and poultry products (rolled roasts, patés, chicken parts, etc.) at the Friday morning open-air market in Montrichard and at the Saturday morning market in Saint-Aignan. We've been faithful customers of theirs for 16 years now.

Here's what the turkey looked like when we bought it. It had been plucked (plumé) and "cleaned" (gutted, or effilé) in the company's workshop (leur atelier) over in the nearby village of Pouillé, not five miles from here. I've visited the workshop, but just once, when a neighbor gave us a pheasant he had shot on a hunting trip one Sunday. It was not plucked or cleaned, and I didn't want to do that myself, so I asked the people at the Clément stand one market day if they'd do it for me. They said yes, they'd have it ready for me late in the afternoon at the workshop, and I should come and pick it up. When I went to pick it up and asked what I owed them for their trouble, they wouldn't let me pay them. So I never did that again, but I became a regular customer. Below is the turkey ready to go into the oven. I like to roast birds on a rack over water and white wine with onions, celery, bay leaves, and black peppercorns for flavor. That way the turkey or chicken drippings don't burn in the bottom of the baking pan, and you end up with some good broth for other uses.

We regularly buy chickens, capons, guinea fowl, guinea fowl capons, turkeys, and rabbits from Clément when we plan meals for holidays and other special occasions. This turkey weighed just 3.4 kilograms (7½ lbs.). The selling price was 12.95 euros per kilo, which comes to just about $6.50 U.S. per pound. In other words, the turkey cost us between $45 and $50. It was just for the two of us, but at this point we've already had two meals out of it — Christmas dinner and, the next day, turkey sandwiches. We'll have a repeat of the Christmas dinner — turkey, stuffing, sprouts, and puréed winter squash. We'll have more leftovers — a thigh, a drumstick, and a wing — the meat from which will get diced up and will go, along with broth made from the remaining carcass, into turkey-barley soup, a December treat. In all, that will make for at least eight servings for us (likely more), or at least four meals for the two of us. I think we'll get our money's worth out of it.

Okay, so here's what the turkey looked like when it came out of the oven. I had trussed and skewered it to keep the wings and legs in place. We assume this was a farm-raised, or even free-range, bird, but I've never actually asked the Clément people about that. It should be, for the price, and it tastes really good. For a price comparison, yesterday I went to Intermarché, one of our two local supermarkets, and I bought a chicken capon weighing about as much as the turkey. It was on offer at 50% off the regular price. I paid about $12.00 U.S. (one-forth as much, at the sale price, as the turkey) for that bird, which went into the freezer for our lunchtime enjoyment in January or February. That's a bargain price.

We took the meat off one half of the turkey after it came out of the oven. That gave us a gracious plenty for our Christmas dinner, and there was enough of that meat left to make two hefty sandwiches for the next day's lunch. I also boiled the giblets — heart, liver, gizzard, and neck — to make broth for gravy and soup. The liver and the meat from the neck went into the gravy, and Tasha will enjoy the cooked heart and gizzard. So add at least one more serving to the eight or 10 I've already mentioned.

27 December 2019

Jamais deux sans trois

That means: if it happens two times, it will happen three times. Another interpretation: Good things come in threes. The envelope on the right arrived with the mail yesterday. I've whited out my address, but you can see that the envelope was sent to me via Royal Mail, the British post office, bringing Christmas cheer. If you squint, you can see it was sent by The IT Buffs in Leigh, near Manchester in the U.K. I had ordered the hardware from amazon.fr, but the actual vendor turned out to be in England.

Imagine my surprise when I opened it. Out came another display adapter for my computer. Actually, I have just one computer that could (but only possibly) benefit from the installation of a different display adapter (graphics card, video card — why do these things have so many different names?). So unless I send them back, I'll have two left over.

They're colorful, as you can see, and I was just thinking that maybe they would make good ornaments for the Christmas tree next year and on into the future. They would remind me of all the fun I've had celebrating past Christmases with generous and cheerful friends and relatives, as many of our other Christmas ornaments do. I wonder if I'll continue receiving one every week in 2020. Would that be too much to ask?

Meanwhile, I was successful in tracking down another delivery yesterday. It was a flat-pack containing all the boards, feet, knobs, and hardware to be assembled into a chest of drawers (when I was growing up in N.C., this was called a "bureau" or a "bureau-drawers"). The delivery van driver decided it would be better to leave it to at post office in Saint-Aignan, where Walt and I had to go to pick it up and bring in home, rather than delivering it to our front gate as the company had promised.

When we got there, I quickly told the clerk at the post office my story. Why in the world didn't the driver stop at our front gate? We were at home. In fact, Walt was out on the road, headed to our neighbor C's house to feed her cats. He saw the van, and the driver was inside studying some piece of paperwork. We tried to flag him down, but suddenly he floored it and whisked the package away — to where we didn't know. It was already three or four days late in arriving. An hour later, I got an e-mail telling me that I could go get my package at the post office.

The postal clerk advised me thusly: "When you are expecting a Chronopost delivery, and keep an eye out and if you see the delivery van, hail the driver and force him or her to stop. Otherwise, the driver will not make the delivery but just bring the parcel to the post office. This is especially true when the package being delivered is a heavy one."

I'm speculating, but maybe the drivers are afraid that the recipient might ask them to bring the parcel into the house and maybe even carry it up a flight or two of stairs. A lot of older people who would need help like that live out here in the French countryside. These Chronopost drivers say they are underpaid and have to work long, stressful hours, according to at least one article I've read. Enough is enough, they say — trop, c'est trop.

The postal clerk, a middle-aged woman, actually couldn't lift the box that all the boards and hardware were packed in. She sort of dragged it out of the storage room located behind her desk and then examined the paperwork. At that point, we thanked her and we picked up the carton and carried it to the car. We had folded down one of the back seats in the little Peugeot, and the long, heavy package fit neatly, sort of diagonally from the trunk up onto the folded-down seat back. When we got it home and into the downstairs entryway, I opened it up and we carried manageable bundles of boards up the two flights to the loft, where Walt will put the thing together, maybe today, and we we have a spot picked out for it.

26 December 2019

Sunset, Christmas Day 2019

Today we have two priorities: first, go into town, to the post office, to see if we can track down the missing chest of drawers that I ordered about a week ago. It is supposed to be waiting for pickup there. The second priority is to continue "working on" the turkey we cooked yesterday. Today's lunch will be cold turkey leftovers, maybe as sandwiches. We also have some foie gras de canard to work on. The turkey and the trimmings, all very simply done, turned out good. I'm sparing you the photos for the time being.

Yesterday was an example of what is called Noël au balcon in France. The afternoon temperature hit 10ºC, and the sun was shining, which made it feel warmer than that. Considering we're in late December, this is toasty, fine weather. I had a nice walk with Tasha late yesterday afternoon as the sun set. The slide show above runs just about 75 seconds. Télématin just did a report about people who are spending the holidays down in the Alps, on skiing trips. Quite a few of them were out sunbathing yesterday afternoon — no, not in bathing suits, but still — and saying that this kind of weather n'est pas normal!

Other local news: our neighbor C's house-buyers have backed out — ils ont renoncé — so her house is not yet sold after all. Walt has been over there several times the past couple of days to look in on and feed the two cats C and her daughter left behind when they went to spend Christmas with friends and family in the Paris area. So maybe C will still be living here in April and will be able to take care of Bertie for us. Just hoping...

25 December 2019

Much ado about deliveries

In his comment yesterday, Diogenes was pretty close to right about what happened with the delivery of the video I ordered on December 8. The company selling it had turned out to be an outfit called The IT Buffs, located in Leigh, outside Manchester, in England. Four days after placing my order, I wrote to the IT Buffs and asked if they could to get package tracking information about the shipping and delivery. I wrote in English, since the company in in England, and this is the answer I got back:
Cet article n'a pas encore été expédié en France,
c'est à ce moment que vous recevrez un suivi.
Sincères amitiés,
By suivi, the person answering my message means "tracking information." The French is grammatically correct, but I had never before received a message from a vendor using the informal Salut greeting and especially with a closing of Sincères amitiés. I don't know who this person is, but some lessons in business French would be in order. I don't feel like we are friends. Also I don't understand why my message in English, sent to people in England, would get a response in French. Okay, because my address and the e-mail address I have on my Amazon are both in France. Oh well.

I wrote back, again in English, and asked when the display adapter was expected to arrive in France. I got this response:
Les livraisons internationales prennent plus de temps que les livraisons nationales. Ne vous inquiétez pas, votre article vous est dû avant le 18.
Sincères amitiés
To me, that answer sounded slightly patronizing. I wasn't worried; I just wanted to know when, approximately, I might know what shipping company was handling the package and how I would get tracking information. Anyway, our friendship was developing nicely, don't you think? On December 19, I got this message after writing, again in English, to tell the IT Buffs that December 18 had come and gone, but no package had arrived. The  answer, again in French:
il semble que DPD ait perdu ce colis sur son chemin vers vous.
nous pouvons renvoyer cela si vous le souhaitez?
Sincères amitiés,
The name of the shipping company mentioned in the response is one that makes Walt and me laugh every time we see one of their delivery vans. In French, DPD would be pronounced [dé-pé-dé], and when you say that you are might also be thought to be saying des pédés. As in: Tiens, voilà le camion des pédés ! I can explain more if you want, but never mind. In fact, des pédés avaient perdu ma carte graphique.

By then, I had decided I didn't really need to put a new display adapter in my old desktop PC, and I certainly didn't want the IT Buffs to try to re-send the item. I requested that the order be cancelled. This was the answer:
cela a été annulé pour vous,
Sincères amitiés,

Okay, I figured that was that. I checked my credit card account on line and didn't see anything that indicated the IT Buffs had put through a charge for the display adapter. So much the better — I didn't have to worry about requesting a refund of my $35.00.

A few days ago, on December 21 (Walt's birthday) I think it was, the two of us were at the table eating our steak au poivre when a truck pulled up to the front gate and a delivery man rang our bell. I went downstairs and was handed a huge box that weighed almost nothing. It was big, but too small and far too light to be the chest of drawers I had also ordered. That particular package seemed also to have been lost, but by another shipping company, France's Chronopost.

I came back upstairs, sat back down at the table, and we continued our lunch. When we'd finished the main course and I went back to the kitchen to dress the salad I'd made, Walt said he couldn't stand it, he had to open that big-but-lightweight box. Inside, this is what he found, buried in a pile of pieces of bubble wrap of different kinds and sizes. The adapters were not in boxes and not shrink-wrapped in any way.

No, you are not seeing double. There were two display adapters in the box, which carried a DPD label specifying that the package weighed 10 kilos! Ha! It didn't weigh much more than 10 ounces. After lunch, I came over to my computer here in the living room and checked my credit card account again. There was my refund in the amount of approximatel $35.00.

That was nice, since I'd never paid for the display adapter at all. So I'm way ahead of the game. Not only do I now have two display adapters, one of which is completely superfluous, and I also got a gift of $35.00 for all my trouble. Altogether, that makes for about $105.00 in cash and merchandise. I don't plan to keep it, of course, but I think I'll wait until next Monday before trying to straighten all this out. By then, I will have tried installing one of the adapters in my PC, and I'll see if I need to send both of them back. I'll also ask for the $35 "refund" to be taken back too.

By the way, yesterday afternoon I was informed that the other merchandise I had ordered, the chest of drawers, has been dropped off at the post office in Saint-Aignan. That's another whole saga. Walt and I will have to go pick the package up tomorrow (today being a public holiday). I hope the carton or cartons will fit in our little Peugeot. More in a future post.

24 December 2019

Le sapin de Noël, version 2019

Christmas seems to roll around faster and faster nowadays. One blends into another. Walt puts up our tree and decorates it every year. Many of the decorations have a lot of sentimental value for us. Some were gifts from good friends, some were made by my mother's sister, and others were gifts we've given to each other. All bring back happy memories of Christmas past.

We'll be having a merry but quiet Christmas this year. Today I'll go pick up our Christmas turkey from our favorite poultry vendor at Saint-Aignan's special Christmas Eve outdoor market. It's supposed to be another rainy morning. I don't know what to expect. Crowds? Many vendors or just a few? I do know to expect to come home with a fine Christmas turkey. I'm not yet sure what kind of dressing or stuffing we'll have with it, but I do know we'll enjoy it. Just the two of us.

Here's the tree 2019 lighted. There aren't any presents under it, but we have given ourselves a few gifts. I gave Walt a new 1 TB SSD drive for his computer, and installed it. Computers, cameras, and the internet are such a huge part of our life now. Can you believe we been blogging for 14+ years?

I ordered myself a really exciting gift. Two of them actually. One is a new chest of drawers for our loft upstairs. This year I started going through all the clothes I had packed away but hadn't worn in a decade or two, with the idea that I would donate a lot of them to our local Emmaüs charity (a sort of Good Will store). But I found so many T-shirts, for example, that I like, that fit, and that I can't bear to get rid of... so I need a new piece of furniture to store them in. Problem is, the chest of drawers has gotten lost somewhere along the way, and even after half a dozen calls to the vendor and the delivery company, nobody seems to be able to locate it. I hope it turns up soon. I think such problems might have to do with all the transit and train strikes that are going on in France right now.

Another Christmas-season surprise has to do with another computer part I ordered early in December — it's a new display adapter (video card) for my desktop computer up in the loft. Pretty nerdy, I know. I ordered it from a French company, but the vendor turned out to be located in Manchester, in England. We've exchanged many e-mails. For two weeks, I was told the package hadn't yet arrived in France and that I would get package tracking information only once it was in French hands. I never got any, despite a predicted delivery date of December 18. I wrote another e-mail to complain. Then I was told the card had been lost by the shipping company. Did I want to cancel the order and get a refund of the purchase price? I said yes. Then, yesterday came the surprise...

Merry Christmas, everybody!

23 December 2019

Ice-cold showers and steaming hot food

It's not very cold outside these days — the temperature right now, at 6 a.m., is about 8ºC, which is close to 50 in ºF. However, we had an impressive wind event from Saturday night until Sunday evening. A storm named Fabien had blown in off the Atlantic Ocean. We didn't get the worst of it; people in the south of France, including the Bordeaux area, did. Then, late yesterday afternoon, after a few hours of spring-like weather with sun and blue skies — maybe we were in the eye of the storm — we had an unexpected ice shower. That's what is called a giboulée, which is a sudden, gusty downpour of cold rain, snow, or ice pellets. It lasted no more than 10 minutes.

Ice pellets on the glass roof of our greenhouse yesterday afternoon

The house already felt cold because the wind had been howling for nearly 24 hours. What do you do when the weather is miserable and the house is chilly, despite the central heating system keeping the radiators hot? Well, you build a fire in the fireplace, or you cook some hot, nourishing comfort food. It had been my plan to do that anyway. On Saturday I went to the new produce market(Terre Y Fruits) in Saint-Aignan, which features vegetables grown in the Loire Valley, and picked up the makings for what's called a pot au feu [puh-toh-feuh] — "a pot on the fire" — which is a kind of pot roast or boiled dinner.

The vegetables I found included some unfamiliar ones along with others that have made a comeback over the past few years and are called légumes oubliés. Into that category I'd put parsnips, called panais. Ten years ago we couldn't find them here in Saint-Aignan.

Into the category of unfamiliar vegetables, I'd put the two turnips you see here. We get purple turnips, but not shaped like or as heavy as this one. And I'd never seen a red turnip before. (Carrots are something nobody has ever forgotten...)

Walt had come home from a trip to the SuperU on Friday with a piece of beef that was sold as viande pour pot au feu, à mijoter — meat for a pot roast, to be stewed (simmered). I don't know what cut of beef it is, but we are hoping it will be good. It has now cooked with the vegetables overnight in the slow-cooker. That will be lunch today. We'll eat some of the meat with the little pickled gherkins called cornichons in France, and with some moutarde de Dijon, and of course some vegetables, maybe with melted butter.

I peeled the vegetables first, and then I cut them into smaller pieces before putting them around and on top of the meat in the slow-cooker and pouring in a lot of cold water as well as a little bit of white wine. We also had a stalk of celery and a head of garlic in the refrigerator (from the same produce market), so those went in as flavor ingredients. In the spice ball you see here, I put some leek tops we had in the refrigerator, along with bay leaves, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, allspice berries, a chunk of ginger root, and a dried cayenne pepper. That has made a good broth, which may become the base for soupe à l'oignon gratinée between Christmas and New Year's Day.

22 December 2019

December things

As I've said, December is our food month. It starts with leftovers from the Thanksgiving gigot d'agneau, which sometimes becomes a shepherd's pie but this year we turned into a lamb curry. The hot, spicy curry helped burn off some of the chill of our extremely wet start to winter. Then the weather got weirdly warm, with morning temperatures around 12ºC and daytime highs up to 16ºC.(See the ºC-to-ºF conversion table on the right.)

That's springtime weather and called for a big salad (above) for lunch a few days ago — escarole, red beets, bacon, boiled eggs, cubes of cheese, raw mushrooms, a mound of duck rillettes, toasted croutons and toasted walnuts, and a garlicky vinaigrette dressing. You might call it une salade campagnarde.

It all leads up to Walt's birthday dinner of steak au poivre, which we made yesterday. Walt said he wanted to try filet de bœuf, which is supposedly the tenderest cut of beef. He went out and bought a pound of filet, and we cut it into thick slices and cooked it fairly rare. The sauce is a lot of cracked black pepper, a lot of crème fraîche, and some Dijon mustard, calvados (apple brandy), and veal stock. I wish I had sliced one of the steaks before I took this photo.

December is also a good month for spectacular sunrises — providing they aren't hidden by low clouds. Scenes like the one below, the view from our kitchen window, often only last for two or three minutes, so you have to keep your camera close at hand and ready to go.

21 December 2019

C's house: description and photos

I think it's okay to post this information, since it's available to anyone who can find it on the internet. C told me that the house is already under contract, and there is only one small issue to resolve before the signatures (closing) can be scheduled. She seemed optimistic that the sale will go through and she'll be able to move to Bordeaux in March.

Here's the description I found on the real estate agency's web site (my translation):
Located in a quiet hamlet in the Saint-Aignan area. Magnificent and charming 2,150 sq. ft., 18th century stone farmhouse (longère or "longhouse") with 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. Roof in small tiles of the region.

You will love the exposed beams and the hexagonal terra cotta floor tiles (tomettes). On the ground floor, an entry hall leading into a rotunda-shaped office space with a view onto the yard, a bedroom/workshop with a shower room, and a spacious living room with a fireplace and a cathedral ceiling. A beautiful 280 sq. ft. kitchen, also with a fireplace. A second bedroom/bathroom suite on the ground floor off the kitchen.

Upstairs, a mezzanine leading to two bedrooms as well as a large master suite. In the yard, a small outbuilding (430 sq. ft.). Garage with workshop, laundry room, and loft space. Wine cellar. All on a fenced in, fully landscaped half-acre lot.
The asking price is 205 thousand euros. That's about $230,000 U.S. and is surprisingly low in my opinion. There's a slideshow of photos showing many of the rooms here, if you can get to it, and also the description in French. It's always interesting to see what these old French houses look like inside.

In case you can't get the website, here's a photo of the living room (above), and one of the kitchen (below).

And, finally, here's one of the bathrooms.

Yesterday I posted a photo of mine showing the front of the house, facing the yard.

20 December 2019

All good things...

We'll be taking care of our neighbor C's cat, along with her daughter's cat, next week. The daughter, B, is driving up from Bordeaux and then she and her mother are taking C's baby granddaughter up to Paris for a couple of days. They have friends and family up there. C grew up in the Paris area before moving to Saint-Aignan with her parents in the late 1960s when she was not yet 20 years old.

There. I've just summarized the situation. C has decided to sell her late parents' house here in Saint-Aignan, where she has been living since her father died more than 20 years ago. She's moving to Bordeaux to be closer to her daughter and granddaughter, who live down there.

This is our neighbor C's house. More about it tomorrow...

Another of her motivations, I'm sure, is to move out of a huge old two-story house and into a smaller house with no stairs (she's the same age as me, so I understand) — one that will be easier and less expensive to heat as well. The house here is very big for just one person. C's daughter B moved out several years ago to go to college. Then she entered the work world in Bordeaux, and now she has a two-year-old daughter. Besides, C's mother passed away nearly a decade ago. She was a 92-year-old widow.

For us, one of the bad things about C's decision is the cat issue I mentioned above. This phase of our relationship with C began nearly five years ago, when Walt and I got tired of not being able to travel together, to spend nights away from home, because we have both a cat and a dog. The cat, Bertie, is one that we "rescued" nearly 10 years ago when the people he lived with decided to move back to England. Nobody wanted Bertie — not even the SPA (the local animal shelter) — so we took him in. C has always had cats, and she faced the same issue about traveling and worrying about her cat.

Walt and I went on short trips to the Champagne region and to lower Normandy in 2011, after we adopted Bertie in 2010. Three or four days was as long as we felt comfortable leaving him alone. He slept in the garage back then, and we would leave a lot of kibble and water for him in several bowls down in the utility room. The weather wasn't cold.

In early 2012 we had an English friend who came and house-, dog-, and cat-sat while we went and spent two weeks in Upstate New York. That's when we got married. That friend moved back to England later in 2012. In 2014, we wanted to go spend four days in Burgundy. Friends from Australia were staying in the region that year, and they volunteered to come over and make sure Bertie was fine while we were gone. On the shorter car trips, we would take the dog (Callie) with us. Quite a few gîtes ruraux will let people bring their dog with them when they come to stay.

Here's an aerial view of our "hamlet" (neighborhood). C's house is part of a cluster of three old farmhouses.

At some point, in late 2014 or early 2015, our neighbor C asked us if we would be able to take care of her cat while she went on a trip down to the Bordeaux area. We said that wouldn't be a problem. The idea was to go over to her house every morning, feed her cat, and then let her out for the day. Late in the afternoon, one of us would go back over there, let the cat back in for the night, and feed her again. Walt ended up being the actual cat-sitter. It all went smoothly.

A month or so later, we bought a new car (the second-hand Citroën) and I decided that I wanted to go spend my birthday (March 5) over in the Allier département in northern Auvergne. I asked C if she would return the favor we had done for her and look in on Bertie the Black Cat while we were gone. She would be fine with that, she said. I ought to say that C and Bertie had had a difficult relationship for about five years. He was aggressive toward her and her cat. She was actually afraid of Bert. But C admitted in 2015 that she had started feeding Bertie in the evening (we feed him in the morning) and that he was spending a lot of time in her yard and getting along better with her cat. Those were the days when our border collie, Callie, wouldn't let Bertie spend much time in our house. She saw him as a rival, or an intruder.

Several times since 2015 Walt and I taken car trips for a few days or even a whole week (to the Vendée over on the Atlantic coast, and to Le Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne) and C has taken care of Bertie. We gave her keys to our house, as she had given us keys to hers. Walt and I were more comfortable traveling together (with the dog) because we knew that Bert was being looked after. We'll be taking care of C's cat, Shana (or is it Chat-Na?), this coming week, and she had agreed to take care of Bertie when we go up to the Baie de Somme area in April. Now we'll have to find another solution. Toutes les bonnes choses ont une fin — "All good things must come to an end."

P.S. It's raining this morning, and so far no signs of a leak over the wooden staircase. Holding my breath...

19 December 2019

Even better news

So the good news about our leaky roof got even better yesterday. Right after lunch, I got a call from Mr Thépot's office. The woman on the phone said they would be sending a couple of guys out to fix the roof  problem. Expect them at 4 p.m. In fact, they showed up a little early. We hadn't expected to see them before today, and maybe not before Monday. So this was great news.

The guys climbed up onto the roof and  and inspected the chimney and flashing to try to figure out what the problem was. The only thing they could find didn't actually have to do with the metal flashing around the chimney, but with the mortar "skirt" around the base of the chimney. You can see it clearly in the photo on the right. And look at that blue sky!

The guy in charge said the mortar seems to have separated, or come unstuck, from the chimney itself. Water must have started seeping into the tiny crack between the chimney and the mortar. It's true that light rains haven't produced leaking inside the house, but heavy rains certainly have.

While one of the two guys applied a lot of cement around the base of the  chimney to fill the narrow gap where they suspect water was getting in, the other one removed some roof tiles along each side of the dormer on the front of the house and cleaned leaves and other debris out of the sheet metal channels that take rainwater running off the tiles down to the gutters on the front of the house.

Now we have to wait for a good rain to fall again to see whether the fix has been effective. We're supposed to get that rain early tomorrow morning, and even more late Saturday afternoon. Forecasts are for even heavier rain on Christmas Eve — but forecasts can change. The roofing crew told me they are going to be on vacation for two weeks starting Saturday. So we're on our own until January if the fix hasn't worked.

P.S. About the bad news I mentioned yesterday — sorry to be so coy. What our neighbor C. told me when I ran into her at the bank was that she has sold her house and is leaving Saint-Aignan. She'll be moving down to the Bordeaux area next March. We've known her for 16 years now, and she's been a very good neighbor. So it's really sad news for us rather than bad news. More tomorrow.

18 December 2019

Good news, bad news, and checks (or "cheques")

Yesterday was a stunner of a day. I was stunned by both good news and bad news. The bad news came first — I heard it before I got home and learned from Walt that the roofing contractor I'd called, Monsieur Thépot  (I'll be more respectful now...), had showed up at our front gate while I was out shopping for groceries. He inspected the damage inside the house. Outside, he stood back from the front of the house so that he could he could see the base of the offending chimney. He said it must be the flashing that has failed. (Why is that metal called "flashing" anyway?) Mr Thépot said somebody would be out to fix it by Monday at the latest. What a relief!

The photos in this post are purely decorative. This is a picture of our doorbell that I took a few days ago.

The first errand I had to run yesterday meant going to our bank. We needed to pick up a new check book. We write very few checks, but we had gotten down to just one check (that's a "cheque" in the UK) left in the book a couple of weeks ago. It had taken us years to go through that batch of 25 or 30 checks. Most of our regularly scheduled payments (electricity, satellite TV, etc., telephone and internet) are drafted from our checking account — those transactions are called prélèvements. We don't have to worry about them. They just happen.

I had gone to the bank 10 or 12 days ago to pick up a new book of checks, only to be told that the one they had been holding for us for more than a year had been, under bank policy, destroyed. "We can only keep checkbooks for three months. Otherwise, there would be so many of them waiting to be picked up by customers that we'd be overwhelmed," the clerk told me. The fact is, the banks, or at least ours, are stingy with checkbooks. They give out one at a time, and they won't mail it to you; you have to go pick it up in person and sign for it. As far as I know, they won't give customers more than one checkbook at a time.

A few days ago I cooked a batch of American
'field peas' (little black-eyed peas), below.

Why are the banks so stingy? I'm no sure. Maybe it's because checks here don't work the way checks work in the U.S. In France checks can't be canceled once they have been issued unless the bank authorizes it. You can't just change your mind. What do we call that in the U.S.? Oh yeah, a "stop payment" order. Payment of a French check that you have signed and sent to the payee can't easily be stopped. French checks are treated as cash, in other words. You can't post-date them either. They'll be deposited even if the date on the checks is in the future.

When you write a check to pay, for example, a deposit on a vacation rental (un gîte), the decision is, in a way, final. The owner of the gîte we've reserved for a week in April wrote me an e-mail to tell me that he will hold our check, without depositing it, until we arrive four months from now. I know of gîte owners who will take an American check and follow that same policy, thinking they are protected from the cost and inconvenience of a last-minute cancellation. Little do they know that the American check-writer can stop payment on a check that has not yet been cashed or deposited. They'd do better to deposit those checks immediately, given American customs and rules. Oh well... I'm not sure this actually has anything to do with the banks' checkbook stinginess.

When I went to the bank yesterday, there was only one clerk on duty (usually there are two) and there were half a dozen people standing in line ahead of me. I stood there waiting, and then I realized that the woman who was at the counter was our across-the-street neighbor, C. She was also picking up a checkbook. She told me that she had had her debit card "confiscated" by a gas pump at the SuperU service station a couple of weeks ago. "Getting old is pénible (for the birds)," she told me. "I forgot my code secret (PIN number) on my debit card, and even on the third attempt to remember it, I got it wrong again. The machine sucked in my card and wouldn't give it back."

I couldn't help but notice this big spider climbing up the wall in the loft yesterday morning.

"Senior moments..." C. continued. She is two months older than I am."When I got back home, I realized I didn't have any checks left. So I had to order a new checkbook. They said they'd have one for me in 10 days or so." I told her I knew that problem, because we also had run out of checks, and we'd had to wait 10 days too. (At least we still have our debit cards.) C. said she would for a time be one of those annoying customers at the supermarket who has to write a check to pay for groceries — show ID, wait for the check to be run through a machine that prints the amount and payee's name on it, etc. etc. It seems to take forever. We laughed about that.

In the course of our conversation, I learned the bad news. Pretty bad for us, but not so bad for our neighbor. More about that tomorrow.

17 December 2019

Out of the woods?

Well, not quite. In some ways, we are just going in. The roofer we know called me late yesterday afternoon. I had phoned him on both his télephone fixe (land line) and his téléphone portable (cell phone) early in the morning and left him messages. He said he couldn't help us this week, because he is en déplacement (out of town). It was nice of him to call me back from wherever he is.

After waiting for a call from him until noon, I had also contacted another roofer. His name is Thierry Thépot (I call him Terry Teapot, since "tea" in French is thé). The woman who answered the phone when I called took down my contact information as well as some details about the problem, and then said she would have somebody call me back. When I asked her if I could expect a call later in the day, she hedged a little and just said somebody would call très rapidement. Who knows what that means? I'm still waiting.

Our phone rang several times late yesterday afternoon. One call was from a neighbor who, when I told her about our roof crisis, said she'd been calling a roofer named Brinet over in the neighboring village of Pouillé for two weeks and leaving messages on his répondeur. She needs somebody to come inspect and sweep the chimney at her house before the onset of truly cold weather. He has yet to answer her calls, she said. I scratched his name off my list. It dawned on me later in the evening that I ought to call the neighbor back and recommend to her the man who does chimney sweeping for us. He's a plumber and heating contractor, not a roofer.

This green spider was lurking on a window sill inside the house the other day. It wasn't as big as it looks in these close-up photos and it didn't appear to be bothered by my efforts to get a decent picture, even when I used the flash. I'm sure I read something on a blog the other day about somebody being surprised at seeing such a green spider, but I can't remember which blog it was on. I'm pretty sure it was written by someone who lives here in France.

16 December 2019

Same old same old

We have seen the sun for a few hours over recent days. I've even taken my camera out on walks with the dog. These photos are some that I took Saturday morning. We've continued having overnight rains, and the ground is still totally saturated.

As I've said, we here in Saint-Aignan are not too affected by the current transit strikes. It seems that the situation in the région parisienne today will be about the same as it was on Friday (the 13th). In other words, limited service for people who commute in the Paris area, and almost no service during most of the day or in the evening.

According to articles in the Parisien newspaper, which is a regional (not national) paper, many of the city's metro lines will be running a very limited number of trains today and only during morning and evening rush hours. I didn't see any reports about the bus system. Service out to the suburbs, including to and from CDG airport, will be very limited as well.

I have to get on the phone and try to find a roofer who will be able to come see what needs to be done to fix the leak that is our current crisis. According to at least one internet weather site, we are supposed to have heavy rains Thursday night, but not much rain before then. Is it a window of opportunity?

15 December 2019

Strikes and leaks

Here's what the Paris newspaper Le Parisien says in its section about what to expect this weekend because of the current strikes: on Sunday, « Seules le deux lignes automatiques du métro (1 et 14) circuleront dimanche. Toutes les autres lignes seront fermées. » In English, "Only the two automated metro lines (#1 and #14) will be running. All the other metro lines — 12 or 15 of them — will be closed down." The #1 line runs east-west across the middle of the city, and the #14 runs from the northwest (Gare St-Lazare) to the southeast (Gare de Lyon and on toward the Place d'Italie). Both these "automatic" lines run without drivers, so they are not affected by the subway drivers' strike.

A Paris metro station on a quiet Sunday morning

Subway service has always run on a reduced schedule on Sundays, but I can't ever remember the metro being shut down to this extent, and I've been in France off and on for 50 years now. The "regional express"  train line that runs north-south through the city and out to CDG airport will be open, but with only one-third of the normally scheduled trains. Expect all the rail cars to be jammed with people.

A demonstration by striking workers and students in the city of Rouen in June 2003

This turn of phrase I read in Le Parisien, a Paris newspaper, makes me smile: La RATP « invite ses voyageurs à utiliser le réseau de surface », soit les bus et tramways. The RATP is the agency that runs the subways and buses. Aren't they helpful to "invite" their transit users to take the bus instead of attempting to travel by subway? « Le réseau de bus circulera avec un service assuré à 60 % tandis que le service tramway sera quasi-normal. » Sixty percent (the article says 50 percent a little further down) of the buses will be in service today, and the tramway service will be pretty much normal.

The house as it looked the first time we saw it, in mid-December 2002
The weather is lousy, so I say just stay home if you can. Rain, rain, and more rain. Here's the result: our roof is leaking. Water is dripping down onto our steep wooden staircase — the one I slipped and fell on a few weeks ago, spraining my big toe. So Merry Christmas! Now we have to find somebody to come and repair the roof this week. I think the leak is coming from the seal around a chimney conduit that no longer serves any purpose at all. We had it capped years ago, when we had a new boiler installed. At least we think it was capped. I certainly haven't been up there to check on it, since it's maybe 30 feet above ground level, and my ladder climbing days are are just barely visible in the rear-view mirror at this point...

14 December 2019

Mardi prochain — dans la rue ?

Next Tuesday will be an interesting day. Now that the French government has brought up the question of raising the retirement age for those who want to collect a full pension from 62 to 64, the weekly demonstrations in Paris will draw even bigger crowds, I think. Even though this is December and the weather is pretty lousy. Here's a slide show that will give you an idea what it might look like. These are pictures I took in Paris in April a dozen years ago when other issues were roiling the country.

Yesterday turned out to be a sunny, breezy day. One storm moved off to the east as another approached from the west, and we got lucky. The wind howled all night long and the house feels chilly. I hope the weather settles down soon. And the political situation too. Half (or fewer) of the regularly scheduled trains are running across the country, including high-speed TGVs, and about half the Paris Métro (subway) lines are completely shut down. It's a mess. Tuesdays are the big day for demonstrations and protests, but the strikes go on daily.

13 December 2019

A slideshow and a birthday

The overnight rain ended at about 8 a.m. yesterday, well before the sun came up. I waited until sunrise to go out with the dog for our morning walk, and I took my camera with me. This slideshow will give you an idea what the vineyard looks like in mid-December — a lot of rain has fallen over the past three months, and weather reports show rain continuing over the next four or five days at least. Luckily, there are some breaks between weather fronts moving in off the Atlantic and sweeping across the Loire Valley.

One piece of news today: it's my friend CHM's birthday. He's turning 95, and congratulations to him for achieving that milestone. He's in the U.S. for the winter, so we won't be able to celebrate his birthday together. Bon anniversaire, mon vieux !

12 December 2019

A door slams shut

You are probably aware that major strikes by railway workers and teachers, among others, are causing chaos in France, and especially in the Paris region. One blogger we've been reading for years, Loulou of Chez Loulou — who now lives and works in Paris — wrote the other day that she's been walking about seven miles a day to get to work and back from her apartment. I imagine a lot of others have been doing the same, and the news on TV shows mobs of people trying to jam themselves into the cars of the few trains and subways that are actually running right now.

Yesterday, the French prime minister gave a major speech about the government's plans to deal with the crisis. According to an editorial in the left-leaning Paris newspaper Libération, he ventured into controversial territory and has made the situation even worse. When he was running for election in 2017, French president Macron (who appoints the prime minister) promised that he wouldn't raise the current retirement age, which is 62. Here's a translation of the editorial:
Let's salute this tour de force. Yesterday Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave a major speech in an attempt to calm the ongoing strikes against government-proposed pension plan reforms. He has succeeded only in uniting everyone against the government. His goal was to resolve the conflict that is paralyzing the the national railways, only to see it now double in intensity. He wanted to divide and conquer the subway drivers, but now they are more united against him than ever. He sought to reassure teachers, but they're even more uneasy and anxious. He thought he could make a separate deal with hospital workers; instead, they've joined the movement against the government's plans. He reached out to white collar workers for support, and now they will be demonstrating next week as well. He moved to exempt the police from the planned pension reforms — now they plan to take an even harder line against his proposals.

The prime minister thought he might be able to win neutrality from two of the country's major labor unions. One of them has now said that it is determined to prolong the strike, and the leader of the second stormed out, furious. What a stellar  success! The prime minister had warned he could not perform miracles. In fact, he actually performed one: he turned the white flag of surrender into a bloody-red rag.

How did this happen? As I wrote last Tuesday, the main mistake the prime minister needed to avoid was mixing together wide-ranging social and government reforms with short-term economic measures. Instead of avoiding that trap, Edouard Philippe fell right into it. After enumerating a series of changes to already announced government plans that he thought would reassure workers in one group or another — some of his concessions were significant, which shows strikers that their movement is working — he insisted on the idea based on a ​​"pivotal age" that he is now calling an "equilibrium" age for retirees. From here on out, workers will have to stay on the job until age 64 if they want to retire with a full pension. According to the prime minister, people who leave the work force earlier will get a reduced retirement pension, and those who stay longer will get a bigger pension. For him, this is the only logical plan. For the unions, it is the kind of slip of the tongue that reveals the government's real intentions and sends union members and leaders into bouts of apoplexy.

In the current battle, the labor leader who was the government's only possible ally issued only this terse reaction: "A red line has been crossed." Edouard Philippe says that "the door is open" and that "his hand is outstretched." Nevertheless, the door seems to have slammed shut, the outstretched hand has gone  limp, and, in all likelihood, commuters and other transit users will still be hoofing it
next week.
Meanwhile, a fairly big wind- and rainstorm is moving in off the Atlantic today. We will probably be closing shutters and staying in except for the mandatory walks with the dog. I have a pot of beans cooking on the stove for our lunch and I'll make a big salad. Hang on tight.

11 December 2019

Sausages and peppers, tomato sauce and pasta

I'm prone to calling this time of the year "the dark days" but maybe I should just call it "the food days" — even though we try to make and eat good food all year long. It's just that the weather here in November, December, and January (let's not even think about February at this point) keeps us house-bound for days and weeks on end. I always have two projects for the winter doldrums — whatever I'm working on to better organize and optimize my computer and all the files on it, and whatever I can find to cook for lunch.

Here's one that we always enjoy: Sausages and peppers with pasta and tomato sauce. This short slideshow is pretty much self-explanatory. This kind of dish is not sorcier, as they say in French. In other words, you don't have to be a wizard, a witch, or a sorcerer to make it.

We happened to have two kinds of sausage on hand — chorizo from Spain (the one in the slideshow comes from Portugal...) and French chipolatas aux herbes (a mild pork sausage). And we had peppers from the garden as I described yesterday, as well as onions from the supermarket and home-made tomato sauce from the freezer. There was also a box of mini penne pasta in the pantry downstairs. Voilà — tout ce qu'il nous fallait comme ingrédients.

It's raining this morning (what else is new?). We had a fairly dry day yesterday but the soil around the vineyard is still more like gadoue (sloppy mud, sludge) than solid ground. Above is this morning's weather radar map, showing the front that is sweeping across France. Saint-Aignan is not far from the F in the word France on the map. And guess what. It's supposed to be worse tomorrow, with heavier rain and a lot of wind. To spend the winter here, you have to know the meaning of the expression "hunker down"...

10 December 2019

Food sources and inspirations

Twice over the past month we've made a dish called Mongolian Beef for our lunch. Why? Well, we had the TV on one morning and it was showing a travel documentary about Mongolia. One of the segments in the show was based on people riding a train across the steppe and enjoying a meal of Mongolian Beef in the dining car. We both remembered eating beef prepared that way in the past, probably in San Francisco where there were so many good Asian restaurants... back in the day when we still went to restaurants quite frequently.

This is our own addition to Mongolian Beef — peppers. Sweet peppers, actually. Why? Well, because one of the most successful crops we grew in our 2019 vegetable garden was peppers like the ones you see on the left. Our American friends K and J, who live just on the other side of Saint-Aignan, gave us some plants K had grown from seed. She had a surplus, and she offered them to us. The pepper plants enjoyed our hot and very dry weather over the summer. And even after the rains returned in October and November, the peppers kept on producing. Here are some Walt harvested in mid-November, when he was in the process of pulling out the year's tomato and zucchini plants. Those were finished, but not the peppers. We also got a few eggplants at that point.

So how you make this kind of sweet and spicy beef dish? Well, first you need some tender, lean beef, cut into strips. In France, we've been buying a very lean and tender cut of beef called une pièce à fondue at the supermarket. It's the kind of beef you use to make a meat fondue — une fondue bourguignonne — and it's often very reasonably priced. After cutting it up, you dredge the strips of beef in cornstarch (Maïzéna is the most famous brand of such fécule de maïs in France) and you stir-fry it.
Then you take the beef out of the pan and keep it in a warming oven. You pour off most of the fat and you stir-fry onions, peppers, garlic, and ginger root in the same wok until the peppers and onions are cooked but still slightly crisp.

In the meantime, you've made a sweet and spicy sauce by blending together and cooking soy sauce, water, hot red pepper (paste, powder, or flakes), and sugar until the sugar dissolves and the sauce starts to resemble a syrup. You can use brown sugar or what we call raw sugar (cassonade) for extra flavor.

The last step is to put the stir-fried beef back into the wok with the peppers and onions and along with the sweet and spicy sauce. The beef and vegetables are already cooked, so you just need to stir everything around for two or three minutes until the Mongolian Beef is hot and ready to serve.

Serve the Mongolian Beef with steamed rice or some cooked Chinese noodles, with some sesame oil if you like it. Garnish it with fresh coriandre (cilantro) or other herbs you like. We get our Asian ingredients from shops in Blois and over in Tours. Things like noodles and sauces in jars will keep indefinitely, so you can always have them on hand.

Here's a recipe that we based ours on. We added sweet peppers diced and red onion to ours.

09 December 2019

Sunrise, sunset

One of the nice things about living where we do is that we get good views of both sunrise and sunset every day. My friend Evelyn pointed that out to me one day, years ago. Sometimes I grab my camera and take a photo through a window from inside at those hours. Often, skies like the one on the right disappear quickly as the sun rises or wind blows the clouds away. According to the timestamp on it, I took this picture at 7:50 a.m. It was still too dark outside to start the morning walk with the dog.

At about 5:30 p.m., I happened to glance out the window and I saw this sunset. It had rained on and off all day. Hours later, I heard hard rain pelting down on the roof tiles and skylight windows as I tried to get some sleep up in the loft. It's been very windy for about 36 hours as well.

This third image shows the view through the linden tree out back a minute or so later. Today, the sun will rise here in Saint-Aignan at 8:29 a.m. and it will set at 5:06 p.m. That give us just 8½ hours of daylight, and it is dim daylight when rain is falling. It's hard for me to imagine living farther north than this. We are farther north than Quebec City, at about the same latitude as Seattle. In Aberdeen, in Scotland, for example — almost as far north as Juneau in Alaska  — the sun will rise at 8:34 this morning and will set at 3:26 p.m. That's a seven hour day. Evening starts there in mid-afternoon.