31 January 2020

Built-ins in the "den"

The other room in the house that could serve as a bedroom, but was more likely designed to be an office or study, features a big set of built-in cabinets and shelves. We use it as a kind of library, and Walt has his desk and computer in there. The room opens onto the living room, so is not really close to the toilet or bathroom.

We used this room as a guest bedroom from 2003 until 2010. Some of you reading this post may well have slept in there. At first we had a double bed jammed into the room, and later we bought a single bed for it.

Now there's no bed in there at all but there is a cabinet where we keep some dishes and other cooking utensiles. Kitchen stuff seems to be stored in nearly every room in the house. I guess that means the kitchen is too small, or badly set up where storage space is concerned.

We haven't done anything to the built-ins that are in this room — no paint or anything. But we did finally take down another whole mess of wall paper in there. You can see it in these photos. In 2004 painted the walls a lighter color, but a few years ago Walt had the room re-done in brown. We already had the rug you see in the photos, and it works in there, along with the beige armchair. Since the room is used as a study or computer room, we also took the door down.

Our main redecorating work in the house began with this room in 2004. In 2005, we continued by taking down the wall paper in the downstairs entry hall and painting the walls and ceiling white. We also added a shower stall in the bathroom. And we sanded and painted the living room walls and ceiling — that was the biggest job and took us 6 weeks to complete. In 2008 we repainted the kitchen. And then in 2010 we had the loft space (the attic) converted into living space, and we took the rest of the wallpaper off the walls and ceiling on the landing and down the hallway. Somewhere in there, we also re-painted the WC (half-bath) in blue.

30 January 2020

Bedrooms, closets, and windows

One of the unusual things about this house that we've been living in for nearly 17 years now is that all the rooms on its main level, with the exception of the living/dining room and the "throne room" (the WC), are about the same size. They include the kitchen, the bathroom, a bedroom, and a kind of den or study. All these four rooms measure approximately 3.4 x 3.2 meters, which is about 11 x 11 feet, or 120 ft² — that's pretty small, at least by U.S. standards. It's the equivalent of a 10 x 12 ft. room, I guess.

This place in Saint-Aignan is basically a one-bedroom house, unless you use the den, with its door that opens into the living room, as a second bedroom. Actually, we used it as a guest bedroom from 2003 until 2010, when we had the attic converted into living space. The actual bedroom has a door that opens onto the main stair landing and into a short hallway that leads to the WC and the bathroom. Strangely, the bedroom had a vinyl tile floor instead of ceramic tile floors like the other rooms.

One of the first things we did was have the bedroom carpeted. First, however, we had to take down the awful, ugly wallpaper in there, repair cracks in the plaster, and paint the walls and ceiling. Before we did all that work, and before our furniture and other belongings arrived from the U.S. — about five weeks after we arrived — we slept on the bedroom floor on air mattresses that we bought here in Saint-Aignan. In a way, we were camping — we had enjoyed many camping trips in California over the years.

While the bedroom and den are small, the bathroom, which is about the same size, is relatively big. Most bathrooms in French houses are small, but not this one. I wonder why the people who had the house built decided to put in such a large bathroom, but no shower stall. More about that to come. For today, I've prepared a short slideshow showing what the house's one bedroom looked like. It had a built-in closet, which is the only American-style closet in the house. Americans might be surprised to find out that French houses don't usually have closets the way ours do. People have large pieces of furniture called armoires ("wardrobes") instead, and those take up a lot of space in what are already small bedrooms.

As for the bedroom in this house, it was so small that we weren't sure that if would accommodate our U.S. king-size bed, which measures nearly 2 x 2 meters. Once we decided to sell our house in San Francisco, which had one large bedroom and two smaller ones, we had to decide what furniture we would ship to France and what furniture we would leave behind. We wanted to keep the bed, which is of modular construction and would be easy to disassemble and ship. We've had it since 1983. Buying a new mattress for it in Europe is a problem, because such big beds are not common here.

The bedroom and den both have very big windows. The woman we bought the house from once said to me that the windows in this house were trop grandes pour les pièces ("too big for the rooms"). I was at first mystified by that statement, because for us one of the most attractive features of the house was its big windows, which let in so much light. Then I came to understand it. Because French windows open into the room, the wide glass window panels swept across nearly the whole room when you opened them, given that a room that's as small as ours are. The window panels were almost dangerous. We ended up having them replaced with sliding glass windows, which are common in the U.S. but not at all common in France. The man who installed them later told us he was convinced we wouldn't like sliding windows because people here are not used to them. He was surprised to learn that we love them.

29 January 2020

December 10

On that December day in 2002, we saw three properties in the Saint-Aignan area that were for sale. One was on the east side of the town, in the village called Seigy [say-ZHEE]. It was a big house perched on the side of a steep hill — nearly a cliff. The hillside had been landscaped at some point, but the "hanging garden" was completely overgrown and would need a lot of work. The house's so-called kitchen was an empty room with just a couple of pipes sticking up out of the floor. The house's upstairs level was partially finished but still basically an austere space that the owners gave over to their grandchildren as a game room. In front of the house, across a narrow road, was a fast-flowing stream (or ditch) that the owner of the house told us it would be our responsibility to keep clear of debris so that it didn't get blocked and overflow, causing flooding. That same man was selling the house because he had heart troubles and couldn't deal with its two or even three steep staircases you had to negotiate in order to live there. We passed on that one. We picked the house above instead.

The other house we saw that afternoon was on the west side of Saint-Aignan in the village called Mareuil [mah-REUH-yuh]. It was on a hillside that was not quite as steep as the one in Seigy, but it was obvious that a back yard on such a slant would be very difficult to mow or even just walk around in (or on). The inside of the house was a significantly bigger mess than was the house we ended up choosing. Besides, this hillside house had a big unfinished basement space that was full of almost knee-deep water — there was a drainage problem and a lot of water flowing down that hill. We passed on that house too, even though it was within easy walking distance of the village center, where there was a good boulangerie (bread bakery) and a fine little supermarket. It was in a pretty setting but if you happened to stumble when walking around the yard you would probably roll down the hill and land in the front neighbor's back yard! We chose the house you see above, on its level piece of land — even with its wreck of a front terrace that would have to be repaired and re-surfaced right away.

So house no. 3 was looking more and more attractive. It's half-acre yard was flat. It's big living/dining room was welcoming, with a big north-facing window and an east-facing, wide porte-fenêtre. The kitchen was serviceable, not requiring major work immediately and right next to what would become the dining area. The living/dining room and kitchen taken together made for a 525 ft² living area, and there was a landing where a couple of big pieces of furniture holding kitchen things would fit easily — another 50 ft². The stairs leading down to the ground-level entry hall were wide, not too steep, and very solidly built of the limestone material called travertine. In all, it was the most attractive of the three Saint-Aignan houses by far, even though with just two small bedrooms it offered less sleeping space than we thought we would need or want to have for overnight guests. We hoped to have a lot of friends visiting from America...

We had never heard of Saint-Aignan, as far as we knew, until the real estate agent in Montrichard mentioned it the day before and said he wanted to show us some houses around the town, which is about 15 km (10 miles) east of Montrichard on the south bank of the Cher river. He said we'd get more house for our money there. We were staying in a village called Pocé-sur-Cisse, which is across the Loire river on the north side of Amboise, 25 miles distant, and thought we might like to live in that area. Since the agent mentioned Saint-Aignan and couldn't see us until the afternoon of the next day, a Tuesday, I told Walt we ought to drive over to Saint-Aignan the next morning to see what it looked like. (Actually, a year or two later, we realized that we had passed through Saint-Aignan in 1989, when we took a week-long driving trip from Grenoble to Toulouse to Bordeaux and then north through the Loire Valley toward Chartres and Paris.)

I feared that Saint-Aignan might be some kind of so-called ville nouvelle featuring a lot of medium-rise, low-rent apartment buildings, and terrible car and truck traffic. Maybe it was half-abandoned with a lot of shuttered store-fronts. Maybe it was in the shadow of a nuclear power plant or on the edge of big garbage dump. Well, it turned out to have none of those drawbacks. Instead, the town obviously had character, charm, and vieilles pierres, with a grand Renaissance château and an imposing Romanesque church. We had a decent lunch in a little restaurant near the bridge across the Cher for just 10 euros each, and talked about how we might have lunches there frequently if we ended up finding a house in the Saint-Aignan area. We relaxed a little and began to trust the realtor we were relying on to point us in the right direction and help us find a satisfactory house in a pleasant, convenient, not-too-remote area.

The photos in this post show (1) the north side of the house we've lived in for the past 17 years; (2) the double doors leading from the living room out onto the terrace; (3) the living room with views through doorways out onto the terrace, into the kitchen, and onto the stair landing; (4) a view down the travertine staircase to the ground-level entry hall; (5) the door from the landing into the kitchen and the double doors that open into the dining area; and (6) the wall of the kitchen across from the sink, with its few upper and lower storage cabinets. I think we decided on that December day that this might well be the house for us, and the next day we asked the realtor if we could see it again and take some photos before we left the Loire Valley to return to California. I took some of these photos on that Tuesday afternoon, and others two days later on Thursday, when we had more time to look around and talk about the possibilities. Those were exciting days. Adrenaline was flowing because of jet lag, and we were operating on very little sleep.

28 January 2020

We decide to buy

It was surprising to see the state that the house was in when we first saw it. Back in San Francisco between 1995 and 2002, I spent many Sunday afternoons wandering around the neighborhood where we lived going to see open houses that were for sale. It was so interesting to see how houses were furnished, how the rooms were arranged, and how one compared to another. And to ours. The many houses I walked through back then were consistently spruced up, clean, neat, and orderly. (Somebody had obviously mopped this floor.)

This house in France was a mess. No effort had been made to dress the place up a little bit, to make it more attractive to potential buyers. That must have had to do with the history of the place. It was built between 1965 and 1970 by a couple who lived in Paris and planned to retire here. The man was born in 1914, so he would have been in his early 50s. His wife had family here in the Saint-Aignan area. As you can see, he house had some attractive features: the floors were in good shape, the windows were big so the place wasn't too dark, and the bathroom was a large room.

The people who had the house built with retirement in mind spent time here in the early 1970s, I think. In 1976, around the time he retired, they took a car trip to Morocco. They had an accident, and the wife was killed. The man was seriously injured, but after he recovered he came and lived here alone for a few years. He might have still had an apartment in the Paris area too. Much of this information I have gathered from conversations with our neighbors, and some of it is recorded in the the deed.

In the early 1980s, the widower who owned the house met the woman who eventually would sell the house to us. She told me that she married him in about 1985. He told her that he didn't want to continue living in the house. He said it was too depressing to spend winters out here, isolated. Too dreary. Too cold. He was in his 70s by then, and I think his health was declining. His widow is now in her early 90s and lives in an apartment in Tours, near her daughter.

The man then bought a small apartment in a modern building in the center of Saint-Aignan, and the newlyweds moved in. He kept the house, and he would often bring his dog out here for long walks in the vineyard. Also, he and his new wife would come and spend a couple of months here in summertime.

So the house had never really been much lived in. I don't believe the second wife, who sold the place to us after her husband died in about the year 2000 (he would have been in his mid-80s), ever really liked the house or thought of it as hers. It was the first wife's house. She put it on the market without the services of a real estate agent, and she found a buyer. Unfortunately for her, that buyer never could come up with the money or a mortgage to complete the deal. In about 2002, she turned the job of selling the house over to an agent in Montrichard, and he's the one who answered my e-mail when I started thinking seriously about finding a house to buy in the Loire Valley.

As you can see from the photos here, the combination living/dining room is big — about 40m² (more than 400 ft²). The floor and the white tile in the kitchen were nice and clean. The garage was big but full of junk we had to get rid of when we moved six months later. There was room for a car, and there was also a rustic-looking carport out front. The shower in the utility room was fine, but it wasn't practical because that room is not heated. Off the utility room there was a walk-in cold pantry — un cellier — for wine and food storage (photo below).

The house was a mess compared to the houses I had visited in California — it needed "refreshing" but so were most of the houses we saw that week in December 2002. In this area, the sellers are often at home when you visit the house they've put on the market. It makes for awkward visits, because you feel obliged to ooh and aah over features of the house that the owners are proud of, as you keep thinking things like: Could I live with that? Oh, how awful! How fast could I change this feature or that one? Would a good coat of paint be enough? One surprising thing was that we saw half a dozen houses with no kitchen at all. Often the room destined to be the kitchen was completely empty, with just a couple of pipes sticking up out of the floor where the sink would go. We wanted a house we could just move into, probably for short stays at first, or even if we decided to relocate and come live here earlier. We didn't want to live for months or years in a construction zone. This house had basically been empty for five years, and it had a functioning kitchen. No stove, no refrigerator, but cabinets and a sink with running water. We looked forward to buying all new kitchen appliances, and getting a washer and dryer put in downstairs. And there was central heat! We would soon decide to sell our house in San Francisco...

27 January 2020

Would you have bought it?

In 2002, we really didn't know what to expect when we decided we wanted see if we could buy a house in France. I had quit my job, and Walt was still working. I was at home with nothing much to do, just recovering from the stress of office politics, long workdays, and a daily 4 or 5 hour commute. At home I had my computer and a good internet connection, so I started looking at French real estate sites. I contacted two French realtors by e-mail, and one of them answered me. He said he'd be glad to help us find a house in the Loire Valley. So I told Walt we needed to go to France and see if the affordable, attractive houses I was finding on the internet were in reality as attractive as they looked.

We saw about 15 houses in four days. They were in Amboise, Montrichard, and, because the realtor recommended it as a place where we would get more house for our money, Saint-Aignan. One of the Saint-Aignan area houses was modern and sat on a huge, empty lot (2 or 3 acres, if I remember correctly), but it was very close to a rail line with frequent, noisy freight and passenger trains rolling by day and night. Two other houses were located on steep hillsides, with back yards much higher than the roof of the house. We had been there and done that, because our house in San Francisco was on such a hillside. Then, on just the second day of our search, we saw the house above. Would you have considered buying it?

The terrace above the garage was obviously a big mess. Rainwater collected on it and leaked down into the garage. The owners had covered the terrace with tarps in an effort to minimize the leaking. The fact that the house sat on half an acre of land that was basically flat and was surrounded by a tall hedge was attractive. It was also on a dead end road, or at least a road where the paved road turned into a dirt road, so there wouldn't be a lot of car and truck traffic passing by. We liked the fact that the main living area was not at ground level. And that the house had very big windows.

Above is what we saw when we walked into the downstairs entry hall. And that wallpaper!

Through the door with Mr. Ed (the talking horse of TV fame) on it was a large utility room, with the boiler, a water heater, a laundry sink, room for a washing machine and dryer, and, for some reason, a shower stall. It was unfinished space but the woman who was selling the house had tried to dress it up by hanging a lot of fairly tacky curtains all around. The poured concrete floor was covered with big sheets of cardboard.

Upstairs from the entryway was the kitchen, the living room, two bedrooms, a WC (a loo, or half-bath), and a big bathroom with a sink, a tub, and a bidet (but no shower). The kitchen had white tiles on the wall around the sink and under the hood where a stove would go. The white tile had a border of ugly blue tiles with "decorative" scenes of windmills and farm animals and such. What would we do about that?

The kitchen was small but was about as big as our San Francisco kitchen, which we had had re-done in 1999. So we knew we could work with it.

The half-bath, though, was a long narrow room that looked like a hallway leading to a toilet. And it wasn't an actual flush toilet, but the kind of fixture you might find in a campground in California. No tank. Just a little spigot that you turned on to squirt a thin stream of water around the rim of toilet bowl, which had a flap that opened to let whatever was in the bowl out. The little hand sink was in good condition, but had separate hot and cold water taps — you could freeze one hand while you scalded the other. That didn't seem very practical. That room was going to need some work that we'd have to figure out, and those curtains definitely had to go.

Above the main level of the house was a huge attic. It was accessible only by a drop-down folding ladder, and it was completely unfinished. There was not even any insulation under the roof tiles, so the cold winter wind blew right through.

The realtor, who had recommended this house although it didn't meet our basic requirements — we wanted three or even four bedrooms but there were only two — told us how we would be able to have the attic space finished to our own specifications. Since we didn't even have a plan to leave California at that point, doing so much work seemed at best a distant project. We thought we would probably continue  living and working in San Francisco for years and just come spend summer vacations here. We'd start fixing the place up slowly, to prepare it for our future retirement.

26 January 2020

The back yard on a sunny January day

This is a follow-up to my post yesterday about the cyclamens that come up and flower in our back yard in January and February. We've been having a spell of dry, sunny weather, but that's about to end now. There are only five photos in this slideshow.

The logs in the photo above are what remains of a couple of diseased apple trees that we had to have cut down last year. In the first photo of the show, you can see the west-facing side of our house with the greenhouse we had built a few years ago.We've also put in all new windows since we moved here in 2003; the ones you see on the back of the house had to be put in back in 2004, to replace the old wooden ones which were neither air- nor water-tight.

The next photo shows the garden shed. It's a masonry structure on a concrete pad. IWe had a new door put on it in 2004 and now it needs new shutters. We keep the lawnmower, rototiller, some wheelbarrows, and other odds and ends out there. There's no electricity or heat in the shed.

Then there's a shot of the yard where you can see not only my long shadow but also the vegetable garden plot, part of which is covered with a big tarp. There's kale growing in the garden now. And there's a hazelnut hedge behind the garden plot. The woods behind that hedge are not part of the half-acre of land that we own and live on.

The last two photos show the pond that's out beyond our back hedge. It is owned by the commune (the village authorities). As Walt showed recently on his blog, the temporary construction site has now been cleared of equipment. The green box embedded in our hedge is an electrical transformer that was put in when our power lines were undergrounded a few years ago.

This morning I've been looking at some photos of the house and yard that I took in 2002, the first time we saw the place. I'm going to try, time and motivation allowing, to post some before and after photos of our place in France over the coming days and weeks.

25 January 2020

Cyclamens flowering in the yard

Every year since we moved here, and this is our 17th winter in Saint-Aignan, cyclamens like these come up and flower in our back yard in January and February. A few days ago, during our recent spell of sunny, bright, and cold weather, I went out late in the afternoon and took the photos in this slideshow, which runs for just over a minute.

Cyclamens are perennial plants that are native to Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. If I remember correctly, when I asked the woman who sold us the house in 2003 if she knew how they got here, she said that she would buy some in little pots every year. When they finished flowering in the spring, she would throw the plants out into the yard. They thrived. They've moved around the yard over the years, coming up in different spots. They grow from little tuber that resembles a beet. Both their leaves and their flowers are attractive and brighten up the winter.

24 January 2020

Don't forget about onion soup

I know I post about French onion soup — soupe à l'oignon gratinée — every year. It's another classic French dish. If you can get some big onions, you'll cut down on the amount of work you have to do to make it. Peeling and cutting up a lot of small onions is time-consuming. Peel and then cut the  onions into slices like these.

Once the onions — about 1½ lbs. (700 grams) — are peeled and sliced, they need to be slow-cooked in butter or olive oil until they are soft and starting to brown.

I once made onion soup at my mother's house in North Carolina. She had a basket of beautiful, big, round onions sitting on her kitchen counter, and I couldn't resist. She was amazed when she saw how I cooked them. "Oh, if you stew them down that way they're bound to be really good," she said. Right.

Start the sliced onions cooking on medium high heat, but as soon as they start to "melt" turn the heat down. Season them with salt, black pepper, powdered allspice, and bay leaves. Keep stirring them so that they all get coated in butter or oil and begin to wilt. Let them cook on low heat for 45 to 60 minutes.

Toward the end of the cooking time, when the onions start looking this this, add a teaspoon or two of sugar to the pan. Stir it in. The sugar will take away the sharpness of the onions' taste, and will help them caramelize for added flavor. Finally, stir in a tablespoon of flour, which will thicken the soup just slightly when you stir the cooked onions into a couple of quarts of hot, well-seasoned beef or other broth (chicken, turkey, vegetable...).

Let the onions cook in the broth for 20 minutes or so. You can eat the soup just like that, but what really makes it special is melted cheese. Take a few pieces of stale or toasted French bread and float them on the surface of the soup. Grate a good amount of cheese — American "Swiss" cheese resembles the French cheese I use, Comté, which is made in eastern France not far from the Swiss border.

Make sure the serving dishes you're using are oven-proof. Sprinkle the grated cheese onto the floating bread and pop the dishes in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes, until the cheese is melting and browning, and the soup is boiling hot. Be careful not to burn your tongue or the roof of your mouth when you eat it. Serve a green salad with a mustardy vinaigrette and garlicky croutons afterwards.

23 January 2020

Standards and classics

I guess I just don't have a lot to write about today. I just have a few photos to share. Some are 20 years old, and some are just an hour old.

Here's a chalkboard menu (l'ardoise, meaning "slate") posted outside a restaurant in Paris 20 years ago. You might notice that the prices look pretty high, but that's because they are in French francs, not euros. Divide the prices by 6.5 to get them in today's money. The main courses were 80FF that day, which comes to about 12 euros. But the thing that's really interesting about the menu is that it's so hard to read if you don't immediately recognize the names of the dishes as classics. It's in handwriting, yes, and French handwriting is often so different from American handwriting that it's hard sometimes for us to decipher it. How many of the names of dishes can you read easily? (And why is that gratin made with just a single mushroom?)

Here's another menu from the same year. Is it easier to read? Some of the words you might not recognize are bourguignonne (and why is it in the feminine instead of the masculine?); andouillette and Troyes (why doesn't it start with a capital T on the menu?); brochette and beurre blanc; and finally, côte and Salers. Why is the veal so much less expensive than the beef? Would you prefer the blanquette or the andouillette? If you ask the waiter to explain what these different dishes and specialties are, there's a good chance he will look puzzled by the question. Everybody knows what these things are. You might just have to take a stab at it and take your chances.

Here's my version of blanquette de veau. We had it for lunch the other day. I leave the carrots in it because I enjoy eating them with the meat, pasta, mushrooms and cream sauce. But I won't call it a blanquette à l'ancienne, because you-know-who will scold me for being inauthentic. Blanquette is one of the easiest French food classics to make (recipe here) — if you can get good veal. You can make it with turkey or chicken, but it won't be as good. Try it with lamb...

Lately I've taken to buying a lot of croissants, another French classic. I turned the ones in this photo into my version of croissants aux amandesrecipe here. That means making a filling using sugar, powdered almonds, butter, and eggs. Slice the top off the croissants and spread the filling on the bottom. Put the top back on, brush it with sugar syrup, and sprinkle on some sliced almonds, which should stick. Bake it.
And finally, these are deux pains aux raisins I brought home yesterday. Raisin rolls, I guess we could call them. They're not really bread — they're pretty sweet. Raisin buns, maybe. I pretty much have to buy these pastries at the supermarket. Oh, I could go to a bakery, but if I want to have the pastries fresh for breakfast I have to go out in the car before about 7 a.m. and drive several kilometers to the nearest bakery and bake. It's not worth it except on very special occasions. It's easier to buy pastries at the supermarket, keep them in the fridge or freezer overnight (or longer), and then carefully heat them up in the oven when you want to eat them. Make sure they are labeled pur beurre when you buy them. Back when I lived in Paris, I could just run downstairs to the neighborhood bakery, buy a couple of pastries, run back upstairs, and then devour them with my coffee or tea. They're different realities, urban life and life out in the country.

22 January 2020

July 2000 in Paris

Walt and I traveled from San Francisco to Paris and back three times in the year 2000. We were still living in SF. The first trip, which I wrote about a few days ago, was to attend a concert at the famous Olympia "music hall" near the Opéra and the Madeleine church on the right bank. We stayed in Paris for just three or four nights before flying back to SF.

The second 2000 trip was on July 4th weekend. Walt had flown from SF to Italy for a work trip. He spent maybe a week in Tuscany. He was required to fly on a U.S. airline from SF to Europe, and he found a flight to Paris, where he changed planes and flew on to Florence. He had decided to spend a few days in Paris on the way back, since he was changing planes at CDG airport anyway.

The Eiffel Tower was lit up and labeled for turn-of-the-century festivities. Below, you can see it from the observation deck on top of the more modern Tour Montparnasse building.

That was enough to motivate me to buy myself and round-trip ticket from SF to Paris and spend the weekend there with him. We stayed in a hotel not far from the rue Cler market street and the Eiffel Tower. It was also not too far from CHM's apartment. By coincidence, he too was in Paris at that same time. He was there with his partner Frank, and his old friend Jeanine happened to be in town too. She was a French woman CHM had known for many decades, and with whom I had worked at the U.S. Information Agency for a few years (1983-86).

One of the things the five of us did together was to go up on top of the [in]famous Tour Montparnasse  high-rise building to take in the views of the city from the 52nd floor. People say that the views from the observation deck on top of that 1970s-era skyscraper are probably the best in Paris — even better than the views from the top level of the Eiffel Tower. The Tour Montparnasse stands about 700 feet tall.

Why are the views better from there? For two reasons, the wags say. For one thing, from the top of the Tour Montparnasse you can see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. It's spectacular. When you're up on the top level of the Eiffel Tower, you can't actually see the Eiffel Tower, of course. The other thing is that the view from the top of the Tour Montparnasse doesn't require you to lay eyes on at that ugly 1970s monstrosity itself! The photo just above shows CHM's Paris neighborhood.

Another thing we did together was a visit to the big outdoor market that is set up in CHM's neighborhood on Saturday mornings. We weren't buying but sight-seeing and taking photos (see below). The weather was hot and muggy. As CHM mentioned in a comment the other day, I believe we all went for lunch together afterwards at the nearby Bistro de Breteuil.

Walt, Frank, and Jeanine resting after our July 2000 market visit.

Walt and I flew back to the U.S. separately, because he had a ticket on a United flight but I had booked my flight on Air France. The weather had turned really stormy, and I caught my flight got out of CDG airport on time, but Walt got bumped from his flight. He arrived back in SF 24 hours after I did.

The first meal I ever had in Paris, in December 1969, was a roasted suckling pig like this one we saw for sale ($30 with vegetables) in the market that July 2000 morning.

21 January 2020

Local gossip and photos

I use the term gossip with some hesitation. Nothing bad was said about anybody, really, and certainly not about anybody still living. Yesterday I went to get my hair cut. The young woman who owns and operates the salon de coiffure is very talkative. She has a three-year-old daughter and she is pregnant again because she and her husband wanted to have two children but no more. And she recently learned that she'll be having twins this time! She said she cried for weeks when she found out she'd soon have three young children. Yesterday was my first haircut since early October.

It seems also that the coiffeuse had an aunt, or great aunt, who passed away recently at the age of 96. She left a big mess behind because she either kept a lot of secrets or simply didn't remember things, write them down, or confide in anyone in her family about her life, possessions, or net worth. She died with no heirs and no last will and testament. Everybody just assumed the woman had drawn up a will.

She was not a blood relative of the coiffeuse or her mother. She had been married to their uncle, who was a blood relative and who passed away in 2006. Still, the coiffeuse and her mother took care of their aunt. The mother would go get her aunt almost every weekend and take her to her house, where she would cook her a good lunch — even though the aunt would no longer allow her niece to enter her house. They invited the aunt to Christmas and Easter dinners, and to family birthday parties. The aunt admitted, I gathered, that the house was a mess and she'd prefer that nobody see it.

A few years ago, the aunt told her niece that she could no longer go the the supermarket or do other shopping because her car was so old and unreliable that she was afraid to drive it. So the niece, mother of the coiffeuse, bought her aunt a car. The aunt would always plead poverty. I don't have any money, she would say, so I couldn't bring a gift to the birthday party you invited me to. The family took the aunt's word for it.

When the aunt died, the notaire handling her estate told the coiffeuse and her mother that he wanted them to go and clean up their aunt's house, and especially go through papers to see what they could find. Even though they weren't legal heirs, they could keep things like family photographs and other small objects that had sentimental value. All of the aunt's estate — anything that had any monetary value — would go to the French state because the woman was sans héritiers et sans testament.

The coiffeuse said her aunt's house was piled from floor to ceiling with who knows what all — every room. Outbuildings too. She said she herself spent two days cleaning out and going through what just was stored in the bathroom. And there, she found bank statements showing that the aunt actually did have a certain amount of money in the bank. She might have forgotten about that particular account, or might have though it was an account in francs, not euros, and therefore it was not a significant amount. (The euro is worth a fixed rate of about 6.56 French francs.) Speaking of francs, the aunt had never converted into euros the franc banknotes she kept in the house. The deadline for doing that passed years ago. The coiffeuse and her mother found 30 thousand francs (the equivalent of about five thousand euros) in cash in one drawer at their aunt's house.

And then, a few minutes later, the coiffeuse found a bank statement revealing that her aunt had another account, with a different bank. The mother of the coiffeuse is a banker herself, and she said she couldn't believe her aunt had an account at that particular bank. C'est la banque des riches ! is what she said to her daughter.

That second account had 400,000 euros in it! All that money will go to the state. The uncle who died in 2006 was a collector of classic cars and classic farm machinery. All that will be sold at auction and the proceeds will go to the state. The same applies to all the furnishings in the house, the house itself, the outbuildings, and the land, which is evidently extensive. Even the car that the mother of the coiffeuse bought for her aunt will be sold at auction and the money will go to the state. Let that be a lesson to us all. The aunt who died always resented having to pay taxes, and now all she hoarded goes to the tax authorities.

P.S. I took the photos in this post yesterday afternoon. We are in the middle of a sunny and dry, but cold, weather pattern right now.

20 January 2020

In 2000, a January weekend in Paris.

A few days ago I wrote about our lives here in Saint-Aignan 10 years ago. That made me think how, twenty years ago, we were still living and working in San Francisco. Many of our vacations during those years involved flying off to France, often for stays in little apartments in Paris for anywhere from a long weekend to a couple of weeks. We also enjoyed French vacations in Provence, Champagne, the Loire Valley, and the Dordogne over the years. We took a lot of vacations when we lived in California, but we also worked long, hard hours, and commuted for many hours every day on congested freeways.

We flew to Paris for long weekends several times. That was extravagant, but often on those occasions one of us was coming to Paris for a work junket, and the other just couldn't resist the temptation to fly over from SF because we always enjoyed spending time together in Paris whenever we could. In the year 2000, however, we both paid for tickets and flew over in late January because there was a concert we didn't want to miss at the Olympia theater in Paris. It was an 11-hour flight each way, and we stayed in Paris for just three or four nights.

I took these photos 20 years ago with a Kodak DC260 digital camera, which was the first one I ever owned.

We rented a small apartment in the 7th arrondissement, near the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and the rue Cler market street. I think it cost us $75 per night because it was being rented at wintertime rates. Actually, we had stayed in that same apartment for a couple of weeks in 1997, but in summertime, and we knew the neighborhood pretty well. So it was a no-brainer to rent the same place again.

This was the view from the apartment, with a construction crane thrown in for no extra charge.

The singer/songwriter whose concert we wanted to attend is a woman named Véronique Sanson. She would have been 50 years old then, just like me, because we were both born in 1949, within a month of each other. I'd been following her career since the mid-1970s. French friends in Paris introduced me to her music back then. As I've said many times before, listening to and learning French songs was a great help both to me and to Walt in improving our French pronunciation and in learning words and expressions as well as the rhythm of the language. You end up learning a lot by understanding what rhymes with what in French.

When we got to Paris for such a short stay in January 2000, we didn't make much of an effort to get over jet lag. We just lived nine hours out of sync, because that's the time difference between Paris and SF. Because we had an apartment, we could buy food in the neighborhood and have daytime meals without needing to go to a restaurant. At night we could go out late to a restaurant and have what was dinner in Paris but at an hour that was actually lunchtime in California.

The weather was about like our weather here in Saint-Aignan this January — mild for the dead of winter, and mostly misty. We could walk all around the central neighborhoods of Paris, so we didn't need to be worried about whether the subway or the buses were running. I remember our dinner after the Véronique Sanson concert was at midnight at a restaurant called Le Vaudeville, across the street from La Bourse, which is the Paris stock exchange. We had a non-smoking table — it might have been the only one so designated in the restaurant. We sat in the middle of a sea of tables and a mob of diners who were smoking furiously. The only thing that made our table non-smoking was that there was no ashtray on it. Whoever was managing the restaurant was unclear on the concept. The food was very good, however, and it was a lot of fun.

19 January 2020

Fridge-dried cheeses

I'm on a kind of cheese roll these days, if you see what I mean. Lately, I've been drying leftover pieces of cheese in the refrigerator. Why? So that they get hard like Parmesan cheese and can be finely grated the way Parmesan is grated, using a micro-plane grater. I've fridge-dried Cheddar, Comté, and other cheeses you wouldn't expect to find "ripened" this way.

A selection of cheeses that have been dried or are still drying in the refrigerator

This all started in 1994, actually. Walt and I were spending a week or two in Paris, in an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis. An American couple that Walt knew from work in California were in Paris at the same time, staying on the rue Monge in the Latin Quarter. One day, shopping on the rue Montorgueil, I went into a cheese shop I remembered from the days a dozen years earlier when I lived in that neighborhood, and I bought a goat cheese.

When dinner time rolled around, I unwrapped that goat cheese and found out that it was as dry and hard as a rock. At first I thought I had been rooked. What would I do with that hard chunk of cheese? Well, I decided to grate it and melt it in cream sauce to serve with pasta. When I grated it, I realized it was like grated Parmesan, but with a slightly different flavor. I made the pasta and the cream sauce with grated goat cheese and served it. We were all blown away when we realized how good it tasted.

Above: grated Parmesan and grated goat cheese

Another reason for fridge-drying cheeses is the fact that we've never been able to find the Italian cheese called Peccorino Romano here in the Loire Valley. It's made from ewe's milk. One day a year or so ago, Walt wondered if we could make our own Peccorino Romano by drying slices of Basque Country ewe's milk cheese ourselves. We did, and it worked.

Serve grated fridge-dried cheeses with pasta dishes like this one.

So how do you go about drying cheeses in the fridge? Well, I just cut fairly thin (say half an inch, about a centimeter) slices of fresh cheese and wrap them in a paper towel. I leave them in the refrigerator for weeks, examining them from time to time, waiting for the time and the cheese to get ripe. Then we can grate the cheese over pasta or into a cream sauce.

Two of these pieces of ewe's-milk cheese have been drying for a week, and one is fresh. The semi-dried pieces have taken on a more pronounced yellow color.

Goat cheeses are really good done this way too. In fact, sometimes you can buy them already dried, the way that long-ago cheese in Paris was dried. More often, you find demi-sec (semi-dry) goat cheese at the market. They're soft enough that you can cut them in half with a knife. For those, there's no need for a paper towel. I just cut them and put them in a paper bag and set them in the refrigerator. Grated, the goat cheese is delicious.

Here's a close-up of some of the fridge-dried goat cheeses that we are enjoying these days. The rind of the cheese is perfectly edible and can be grated along with the white part of the cheese.