30 September 2020

A gîte in Vouvray in the Loire Valley

In the spring of the year 2000, Walt and I decided we wanted to go to France and stay not in Paris, but in some other region. We had already seen a lot of Provence, Normandy, and Brittany. We seriously considered renting a house or apartment in Alsace, in a village not far from Strasbourg. Neither of us had ever been there before. At the last minute, before reserving a vacation rental (un gîte rural), we changed out minds and decided to go spend some time in the Loire Valley. We found an attractive house near Tours that we could rent for a week at a very affordable price.

We asked an old friend of ours, Sue, if she wanted to go to France with us in October. She said yes, and we decided to spend a week in this house in the wine village of Vouvray. Then Sue went off on her own for a week in the Pyrenees and Basque country. Walt and I drove to Champagne and on to Rouen in Normandy for the week. Finally, we met up with Sue in Paris and spent the last week of our vacation in an apartment in the Marais neighborhood. It was a great trip.

Walt and I had spent a week driving through the Loire Valley back in January 1992. I caught a very bad cold and I was pretty miserable. The weather was gray, chilly, and damp — typical weather for the season. This time, in early October, we had plenty of sunny days, and we stayed very busy driving from village to village and château to château — Chenonceau, Chambord, Cheverny, Azay-le-Rideau, Amboise... Sue had never been to the Loire Valley before. We all wanted to see as much as possible.

An anecdote: when we decided to rent the house in Vouvray, Sue bought a couple of guidebooks for the Loire Valley. In one of them, she read that Vouvray was a famous wine village but there wasn't really an awful lot to see there. She wasn't convinced we had made a good decision. She asked me why I hadn't decided to rent a place in a more picturesque town or village. I was a little nervous that she might be disappointed.

On a Friday in early October, the three of us flew to Paris, picked up a rental car at the airport, and drove down to Vouvray, arriving on Saturday afternoon. We settled into the gîte and over dinner decided it would be a good idea to spend our first day just walking around the town and through the vineyards that were just steps from the gîte. The weather was beautiful. That Sunday, Sue, using a film camera, was taking a lot of photos. We had a good time out in the sunshine and fresh air. We walked for what I'm sure was several miles. It was a good way to stretch our legs and shake off jet lag after a 10-hour flight and a three-hour drive.

On Monday, we decided to go see the Château de Chenonceau. Sue continued taking a lot of photos in villages and towns all along the way. At some point, she apologized and said that she was going to need to find somewhere to buy more film, because she had already gone through most the rolls she'd brought with her. I expressed surprise. You said you had brought plenty of film for the whole trip, I said. "Yes, I thought so," she said, "but you didn't tell me that everything would be so beautiful."

29 September 2020

Those shipping crates

It's a funny coincidence that I took the photos of the storage crates in this post exactly 10 years ago today (Sept. 29, 2010) and posted them on September 30, 2010. Our attic conversion was completed by then. The question of the old shipping crates we've been using as bedside tables came up in comments yesterday (thanks, BettyAnn). Here's their history.

Yesterday [in 2010] I finally got my "new" furniture finished. The two pieces are shipping crates that were in our attic when we moved into this house in 2003. They were full of old papers — mostly French tax forms and form letters left here by the woman who owned the house previously. She was retired from the French tax administration.

The papers had no value. We'll burn them in the wood stove this winter. But when we cleaned up last spring, in anticipation of the [2010] attic conversion, I thought the crates were things I wanted to save. There are three of them. The man who had this house built [in the 1960s] was employed by the French aeronautics and space agency. He spent a few years on assignment in Kourou, French Guyana, where French satellites are launched. That's in South America.

You can see the new hinges on the side of the crate.

When [Jean] Kientzy moved back to France, he and his wife apparently packed up some of their belongings and had them shipped back to Mareuil-sur-Cher, a village adjacent to Saint-Aignan, along the banks of the Cher River. Jean Kientzy's first wife was a native of Mareuil, and they had had this house built here.

This all happened in the 1970s, I believe. You can see the addresses on the lid of one of the crates. Les Bagneux is a hamlet in Mareuil.

Here's the door open so you can see inside. I plan to put in a shelf later.

I took two of the crates outdoors and scrubbed them with soap and a stiff brush. That was when the weather was hot, and I let the wooden crates dry in the hot sun. Then I varnished them, inside and out, applying several coats. I decided to use them as little tables, or plant stands, and to store things in them. I put feet on the bottom (the side, actually), and I put hinges on the lids to make them into doors. I attached one of those little magnet clips to each box to hold the doors shut.
This is the second crate. The third one isn't done yet [in 2010].

And now I've finished that part of the job and I'm using the two crates in the loft, as you can see in the pictures here. For the moment, I have put printer paper in one, and in the other I'm storing a ton of CDs and DVDs that are in binders in plastic sleeves. Those items are heavy and give the boxes some heft and stability. They are ballast, I guess.

I've become handy and resourceful in my old age. Well, I've always been resourceful, I think, on some level. When I worked in Paris, people — employers, colleagues — told me I was très débrouillard. La débrouillardise is resourcefulness. It means the ability to make things happen, to figure out creative solutions to everyday problems.

Back to 2020: Here's some of the backstory about the shipping crates. Jean Kientzy was a native of the Vosges area in Alsace-Lorraine. He was born in 1914. I'm not sure where or when he met his wife, who was from Mareuil in the Saint-Aignan area. They had a house built in Mareuil in the late 1960s and spent summers here until he retired. I think they came to live here year-round in the mid-'70s, when he would have been in his 60s. I'm not sure when he was on assignment to Kourou, but it must have been in the 1960s or early '70s. He and his wife had some of their things shipping back to France in these wooden crates. Then the crates were stored for decades in the attic space that we had converted into living space in 2010.

In the late '70s, Jean K. and his wife went on a long driving trip in North Africa (Morocco and Algeria). Somewhere along the way, they were involved in a terrible car accident. Mme Kientzy was killed, and Jean was seriously injured. He came back to live here in the house we've lived in for the past 17 years. He recovered from his injuries. Sometime in the early 1980s he got involved in a book club that had weekly or monthly meetings. At one of the meetings, he met a divorced woman named Josette who was originally from the big town of Châteauroux, 45 minutes south of Saint-Aignan. Jean and Josette ended up getting married in about 1985.

Josette in her Saint-Aignan apartment in 2003, when she was 76 years old

When Jean and Josette were married, Jean told his new spouse that he didn't want to live in his retirement house any more. He said the winters were too damp and gray here, Josette (who sold us the house) told me when we got to know her between 2003 and 2005. Jean wanted to live in town, so he bought an apartment in Saint-Aignan and they lived there. They kept the house, and they would come and spend a couple of months here in the summer to take advantage of the good weather. Jean had a dog, and he would come out here (the house is just 2 miles from the apartment they lived in), park his car in the driveway, and go for long walks with the dog in the vineyard.

Jean fell ill sometime in the 1990s. He would have been about 80 years old. He had to be hospitalized in Tours at some point, and Josette rented an apartment there (35 miles from Saint-Aignan) so she could help take care of him. He passed away in 2000, I believe. Josette inherited his Mareuil house (Jean had no children) and soon put it on the market. She found a buyer, but the buyer couldn't get the mortgage he needed to seal the deal. So Josette (who is now 93 years old) put the house back on the market in 2001 or 2002 and listed it with a real estate agent over in Montrichard. That agent showed the house to Walt and me in late 2002, even though it didn't match our description of the kind of house we were looking for. He said he thought we'd like the location, l'environnement. We did, and we were able to buy it when we sold our house in San Francisco.

Josette, Walt, and I having lunch in a sidewalk café in Romorantin in 2003

What I think is that Josette felt no particular attachment to this house. It wasn't hers, but belonged to Jean and his first wife. Besides, Josette was alone again, and she had a daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter who wanted her to come live in Tours, in the neighborhood where they lived. Josette ended up moving to Tours in 2004 or 2005. We helped her move by packing up our car and driving over there. We once invited Josette and her family over for a Sunday dinner so that they could see what we had done with the place. The granddaughter had good childhood memories of summer vacations she spent here. We enjoyed having them over, and we tried to stay in touch, but as the years went by we eventually drifted apart. Here's a post I wrote about Josette's 80th birthday party in 2007.

28 September 2020

Le nouveau matelas Actiflex

As I've mentioned a couple of times over the last few days, our new mattress arrived last Thursday. It came in the box you see on the right. It was in sous-vide packaging (vacuum-packed). We had to take it out of the box, pierce and cut away the plastic the mattress was wrapped in, and watch and listen while it "self-inflated," re-expanding to its actual size — 2 meters by two meters by 24 centimeters (that's about 79" wide, 79" long, and 9½" thick).

We left the new mattress on the floor, on a clean rug and covered in a sheet, until yesterday (Sunday) morning because the manufacturer recommended letting it keep exanding for 24 to 36 hours, and for another reason I'll come to later...*

Meanwhile, we continued sleeping on our 25-year-old Simmons Beautyrest mattress (not a Sealy as I mistakenly said earlier) over the weekend. We slept on the new mattress last night, and I found it pretty comforatble. I'll see what Walt thinks of it when he gets up in about an hour.

This is the new mattress re-expanding on the floor, covered with a sheet. Now the old mattress is there on the floor and the new one is on the bed. We don't want to try to take the old mattress downstairs before we are sure we like and want to keep the new one.

We held our breath as we lifted the new mattress onto the platform bed frame yesterday morning, fearing it might be too big. It fit perfectly, though, as you can see. The new extra-large fitted sheet we had ordered for it fit perfectly too. Unfortunately, when the XL mattress pad that we ordered for the new mattress arrived, we discovered that the vendor had sent the wrong size. I had to send it back because it was too small.

Above is a photo of our espace chambre (bedroom area) up in the loft that I took just before we stripped the bed and moved the old mattress. The doorway you see opens into the half-bath we had put in upstairs in 2019.

While we were lifting the new mattress up onto the bed platform, we stood the old one up against a wall. It wasn't in such bad shape, really. But 25 years old... I looked up Simmons Beautyrest mattresses on an American website yesterday and saw that the king-size models cost something like $2,200.00. Yikes!

So here it is, cleans sheets and all. The flat sheets and comforter covers we already had fit it just fine. We ordered a couple of fitted sheets in the new, larger size, and now that we see we are happy with them, we'll order at least one more. That should hold us for a while.

And here's a link to the same information in French on Amazon France.

P.S. The other reason we kept the mattress on the floor and continued sleeping on the old one for a couple of nights is that one of the animals — we don't know if it was the cat or the dog — jumped up on the new mattress Thursday night... and peed on it! Bad cat! Or bad dog! They are both tight-lipped about which one did it. We carefully cleaned the mattress with an Oxyclean-type product, and then with a mild bleach solution, and let it dry for an extra 24 hours. Why do these things always happen? Both animals are otherwise perfectly house-broken. It's not as bad as it could be, however. When the old mattress was brand-new back in the mid-1990s, the bottom of it got soaked in skunk juice. That's a long story. It took us weeks to get the awful smell out of it.

27 September 2020

Appartement, rue de l'Université, janvier 2000

In late January of the year 2000, we spent three or four nights in an apartment in the 7ème arrondissement of Paris, on the rue de l'Université. We had flown to Paris for a long weekend. It was very extravagant, but maybe not as extravagant as it might seem. The other alternative to a quick trip to Paris from San Francisco was a quick trip to Las Vegas, and that, as it turned out, would have cost even more. It was a lot more fun to go to Paris. I've written about this trip several times over the years, including in a post in March 2019 and again in a post in January 2020.

The apartment we rented for that weekend adventure was in the building above. There were long, narrow balconies across the front. Since we were there in January, being able to sit outdoors to enjoy a meal or a drink wasn't exactly a priority. Even so, it was good that the building across the street was the one pictured below. These are the offices of the Institut National de Recherche Agronomique. In the evening there was nobody there to see us in our apartment, so we didn't have to worry about shutters or shades. We were on the top floor.

In fact, January 2000 was not really cold, but it was pretty damp. We enjoyed walking all around the city, but we took our meals indoors. What we did like about the apartment, which consisted of a living room/bedroom with a separate kitchen and a separate bathroom, was the view we had out the front windows over the rooftops — photo below.

We also enjoyed the neighborhood. We were only there for three or four nights, and we were happy to eat in restaurants. We didn't do any cooking. I also didn't really take any pictures inside the apartment because, to tell all, we had stayed there one time before, in 1997, for a much longer time. That was before I began to take photos. That year, I was on sabbatical from my job at Apple and I spent a month in Paris. Walt spent two weeks but then had to go back to San Francisco and return to work. My mother and my 15-year-old niece flew over and stayed with me for the rest of the time. My mother hadn't been to Paris since 1982, and my niece had never made the trip before. We saw Paris and then went to spend a few days in Normandy.

Even though we didn't do any real cooking, it was nice to be able to run downstairs (there was an elevator, actually) and get a fresh baguette and some croissants for breakfast. There was no lack of boulangeries in the neighborhood.

We also enjoyed dinners in neighborhood restaurants. One of them, the Thoumieux, was also a place where we had enjoyed meals on earlier trips. I saved the receipt when we went there again in January 2000.

Remember when prices were still listed in French francs? The dollar was really strong against the French franc at that time, so the full meal for two — with starter salads, a bowl of cassoulet, a steak, (too much) wine, a cheese, a dessert, and coffees — cost us less than a hundred dollars U.S. (the U.S. dollar was worth 6.7 FF).

By the way, Walt just pointed out to me that he has photos of our 2003 gîte in Provence, which I posted about yesterday, on his blog in three posts here.

26 September 2020

Staying in Paris apartments and gîtes ruraux

The first time Walt and I stayed in any place on vacations in France besides in a hotel room was in 1993 — except when we both lived in Paris in 1981-82, of course. We were celebrating our 10th anniversary as life partners in 1993, and I wanted to go spend a couple of weeks in Provence. I learned about the Gîtes de France association, and I started searching the internet to find a house or apartment we could rent for our vacation. The one I found was in a village called Mérindol, which is just 32 kilometers — 20 miles — north of Aix-en-Provence, where I spent a semester on a study-abroad program in 1970. It turned out that the house in Mérindol was no longer listed on Gîtes de France service (a gîte is a vacation rental out in the country). I contacted the owners of the house directly, and rented the house from them that way. We loved the place, which gave us easy access to Peter Mayle country, the Luberon and the Vaucluse. His book A Year in Provence had recently been published.

For a 1999 stay in Paris, Walt and rented an apartment in this building not far from the Rodin museum.
(I hope this post featuring photos from Paris in 1999 but a description
of our 1993 vacation and rental in Provence isn't too confusing.)

Things I remember about the 1993 trip and that house in Provence: there was a beautiful patio (terrasse) with the limbs of a huge cherry tree overhanging it. We could sit outside, enjoy a glass of the local wine, and gorge ourselves on fat, sweet red cherries we just reached up to pick off the tree. We had a TV so we could watch a favorite French movie, the news, or TV shows in the evening while we ate dinners we had prepared in the house's well-equipped kitchen. We could go shopping for food in open-air markets in the area as well as in local supermarkets. I especially remember being almost overwhelmed by the variety of foods available in the nearby Intermarché supermarket in the little town of Mallemort, which was like the Ali Baba's cave of grocery stores.

The 1999 apartment was just a studio — one big room plus a bathroom — but it had a kitchen with a stove and refrigerator.
The kitchen could be closed off by a big folding door.

During the years we stayed in hotels (1988, '89, '91, '92) we couldn't cook because there was no kitchen, we didn't have private outdoor space, and often we didn't even have a TV set. The gîte experience was much more enjoyable. A gîte didn't cost much more per night than a Paris hotel room, and we saved money by buying food we could cook, or prepared foods like salads, quiches, pâtés, cheeses, cooked sausages, and roasted chickens to eat at the house in the evening instead of going out to restaurants. In addition, in 1993 the gîte owners invited us over to their house one evening for dinner. It was almost like when we lived in Paris a decade earlier.

Some days when you're on vacation for two weeks and you've been walking all over the city, you just feel like sitting down and resting for a few hours. Apartment-living is perfect for that, as in this photo of Walt relaxing on the sofa in Paris in June 1999, probably in front of the television.

Unfortunately, those were the days before digital photography, so I wasn't taking pictures back then. On the other hand, Walt was taking pictures — slides — with a film camera. We still have those slides, but they've been packed away for years now, and we no longer have a projector. Walt has scanned some of the slides so that we can display them on our computers, but scanning is a laborious and time-consuming process. I'm not sure you can still buy slide projectors, and if you can I bet they are very expensive. We stayed in gîtes out in the country or in short-term rental apartments in Paris many times in the 1990s — on the Ile Saint-Louis  in Paris (1994), in the Lot near Cahors (1995), in Paris near Les Invalides (1996), in an apartment just off the rue Cler market street, not far from the Eiffel Tower (1997), and then in a different apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis (1998).

The bed and the sofa in the 1999 studio apartment were in the same big room. The kitchen was on one wall of the room.
I know there was also a full bathroom too, but I don't remember what it looked like.

I got my first digital camera for Christmas in 1998. It was a present from Walt and my old friend CHM. That spring, we rented an apartment on the rue de Babylone, near the Rodin Museum and the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, and I took photos of our Paris accommodations for the first time. I have no memory of how I found this apartment or how much it cost per night to rent it. I'm sure it wasn't much or even any more expensive than a hotel room, and again we could shop for our own food, eat supper at the apartment, watch the French news or a French movie on TV after dinner, or just go out for a walk around the neighborhoods in the center of the city after dinner when the weather was nice. We didn't have to spend so much money in restaurants.

This is the courtyard of the building where we stayed for two weeks in 1999.

CHM was in Paris while we were, and we enjoyed spending days with him seeing places in and around Paris that we wouldn't have known about if we hadn't been with him. Our rented apartment was in the same neighborhood as his apartment, where he was born and lived until he moved to the U.S. in 1969. With CHM, we rented a car one day in June 1999 and drove up to see Monet's garden at Giverny, which we'd never seen before, and to visit old friends of mine in Rouen, where I had spent a year living in an apartment and working as a teacher (1972-73). It was a great trip. According to the timestamps on my digital photos, we were in France from late May through mid-June in 1999.

The 1999 Paris apartment faced on the street on one side. I took this photo, a favorite of mine just for the colors,
looking down from one of the front windows.

We've stayed in a dozen or more rental apartments in Paris and gîtes ruraux in the French countryside since the year 2000. I thought I might post some photos of them over the next few days and weeks, with descriptions and memories. In future posts, I'll try not to mix up the years and the places as I've so clumsily done today.

P.S. Walt just told me he has photos of the 2003 gîte in Provence on his blog, in three posts here.

25 September 2020

Thai basil chicken

We make a lot of Asian-flavored stir-fried dishes because they are quick to cook and so tasty. Our closest Asian grocery stores are in Blois and Tours. That's a problem, because in the spring we were en confinement and not enthusiastic going into urban environments. We are running out of sauces and certain ingredients we like, may of which are not available in our local supermarkets and open-air markets. Unless we are again put on lockdown, we'll soon be ready to drive up to Blois (25 miles north) and do some shopping. The Asian grocery stores are very small, with narrow aisles, and sometimes pretty crowded. Blois has a very cosmopolitan population, including many immigrants from Asia and Africa.

Thai Basil Chicken

2 Tbsp. oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 bell pepper (red, green, or yellow), trimmed and sliced
10 oz. ground chicken
6 bird’s eye chilies, or 1-2 fresh jalapeños, cut into slivers
1 carrot, cut into slivers or coarsely grated
4 or 5 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. sugar (or more to taste)
½ tsp. sweet soy sauce
1 big bunch Thai basil leaves, lower stems removed
a grind or two of black or white pepper, to taste

Heat up the oil in a wok and stir fry the garlic, shallots, and bell pepper slices until aromatic. Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside. Then put the ground chicken into the hot wok. Use a fork or spatula to quickly stir-fry and break the ground chicken meat into small lumps.

When the chicken is pretty much cooked, add the chilies, fish sauce, sugar, and sweet soy sauce to the wok. Stir to combine well. Put the stir-fried vegetables back into the pan. Add in the basil leaves and do a few quick stirs until the basil leaves are wilted and fragrant. Add the pepper and do a final stir. Serve immediately over steamed rice.

P.S. Don't be afraid to add other vegetables to dishes like these. I put in some blanched Swiss chard ribs that I had in the freezer. Some sliced celery stalks would add good flavor.

P.P.S. The mattress arrived at noon yesterday. It was rolled up, vacuum-packed, and fit in a box measuring 17"x17"x46". That's 43x43x117 in centimeters. The package weighed 41 kilos — 90 lbs. — but we managed to carry it up two flights of stairs, open the box, cut away the plastic wrapper, and watch and listen as the mattress self-inflated. This mattress is not latex or foam rubber — it has "pocket springs" (ressorts ensachés) inside (I think we call that an "innerspring" mattress). I don't understand how such a mattress can be rolled up the way it was, but it obviously worked. We have it on the floor up in the loft and are letting it continue to self-inflate (or re-expand) for the recommended 24 to 36 hours. We've measured it and it seems to be about 197 cm wide, which means it should fit on our 200 cm-wide platform bed just fine.

24 September 2020

The new mattress

We're supposed to be getting our new mattress today. It's being delivered by truck to the house, sometime between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. So we have to be on the lookout for it all day... until it arrives. We ordered it from Amazon France and it's coming from a company in Brittany called Home Avenue (pardon my French!).

The reason this is such a big event for us is that our old king-size mattress is one that we bought in California in about 1995. So it's pretty ancient. We had it shipped to France in 2003 when we moved here from San Francisco. It's an Eastern king mattress, which means it's not exactly the same size as a California king-size mattress. We bought an Eastern king mattress in California because we already had a king-size platform bed. We had bought it in 1983 when we lived in Washington DC. The bed-frame is modular so it's easy to take apart, move, and put back together. It measures, if we've measured it accurately, 200 cm wide x 203 cm long. It's a very big bed. The old mattress itself measures 193 cm wide by 202 cm long. The new mattress is just as thick (25 cm) as the old one.

If you want to see how complicated all this can get, have a look at this Wikipedia page on mattress sizes in different countries. Here's an excerpt:

...a King size bed may measure (in width by length):

  • 150 cm × 200 cm (59 in × 79 in) in the UK.
  • 165 cm × 203 cm (65 in × 80 in) in New Zealand.
  • 180 cm × 190 cm (71 in × 75 in) in Portugal, but is also available in 195 and 200 cm (77 and 79 in) lengths.
  • 180 cm × 200 cm (71 in × 79 in) in Indonesia.
  • 183 cm × 191 cm (72 in × 75 in) in Singapore and Malaysia.
  • 183 cm × 203 cm (72 in × 80 in) in Australia.
  • 183 cm × 216 cm (72 in × 85 in) in India.
  • 193 cm × 202 cm (76 in × 80 in) in the US.

The mattress we've ordered is supposed to measure 200 cm x 200 cm — that's slightly more than 6½ feet by 6½ feet — so we are optimistic that it will fit the platform bed in width as well as in length. If it doesn't fit, I don't know what we'll do. How will we ever be able to return it to the vendor? The old mattress is still in pretty good shape, but it really needs to be replaced. We've been worrying about the problem for more than a decade, because we have never been able to find an American Eastern king-size mattress in France up until now. We've considered getting two single mattresses for the bed — that's what we had between 1983 and 1995, and it was fine. The problem is that French single-bed mattresses are narrow (just 90 cm wide) so two of them together, at 180 cm, wouldn't be wide enough and might slide around on the platform bed.

The new mattress in a photo I grabbed off the Amazon France site.

A couple of years ago, I started looking into companies that sell custom-made mattresses. You can order the size or sizes you want. We could have ordered two 100 cm-wide mattresses, or one that was 200 cm wide, or better, a 195 cm-wide mattress. That would fit easily. But custom-made mattresses didn't fit my idea of what I should have to pay for a new mattress. The cost would have been well over two thousand euros. Other options, like getting rid of the old platform and "downsizing" to a standard-width French bed would cost a lot less.

Another Amazon France photo — this is not our king-size bed.

We also tried to find a king-size mattress through U.K. companies, but had no luck. A British king size bed is about the size of an American queen-size bed, and what is called a super-king over there is still smaller than our platform bed. It was only when it dawned on me that I should check Amazon Germany that I suddenly found a range of 200x200 mattresses. Then I looked a Amazon France again and voilà — there they were, and at a quarter of the price of the custom-made mattresses. We've also ordered a new mattress pad (un protège-matelas) and a couple of fitted sheets for the new mattress. We have plenty of flat king-size sheets that will work with the bigger mattress, but our current fitted sheets will be too small.

Fitted 200x200 sheets sold by one vendor on Amazon France.

So wish us luck. We won't be getting rid of our old American mattress right away, because if we really don't like the new one we'll want to put the old one back on the bed. I think we'll be able to store it in the garage until we're sure we're ready to part with it. I'll update all this in a couple of days.

23 September 2020

Sausages and peppers...

...with onion and garlic, herbs, tomato sauce, and gnocchi. Sausages and peppers seems to be an Italian-American dish, not really Italian. I've never seen it on menus in France, at least not that I can remember. However, I see recipes for a similar preparation called rougail saucisses, something people make and eat on the islands of Réunion (a French overseas département) and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

For this version, the peppers came from a friend's vegetable garden. She was really nice to share them with us. The green peppers are mild; the red pepper is a piment d'Espelette, which is medium hot and comes from Basque Country in SW France. I seeded and sliced all the peppers and then cooked them in some olive oil with sliced onions and garlic before pouring on the tomato sauce. The gnocchi came from the supermarket. They're dumplings made with mashed potato, flour, and egg, and just have to be heated up in a frying pan.

The sausages also came from the supermarket. They're basically saucisses de Toulouse, which are plain (not smoked), plump pork sausages. These had herbs in them. Walt cooked them on the barbecue grill. The tomato sauce is not home-made, but store-bought. It's purée de tomates — just tomatoes, salt, and citric acid. I had bought some when it wasn't clear how large our garden tomato crop would turn out to be this year. The herbs are dried oregano (from our yard) and dried thyme from the store.

P.S. Yesterday morning Walt was out on the terrasse (our front porch) and saw a badger (un blaireau) on the side of the road just outside our front gate. I've seen badgers in the vineyard a few times, but from a distance. One of our neighbors told me a few years ago that she often saw a very big badger on the road, early in the morning, when she was driving down the hill through the woods toward town. The one we saw yesterday was a small badger. I hope it wasn't injured or ill. It disappeared into the neighbors' hedge after just a couple of minutes. I had time to take this photo.

22 September 2020

Focaccia bread with toppings

There seem to be two main differences between a focaccia bread with toppings and a pizza. The focaccia is made so that the bread is breadier and thicker than a pizza crust. And the pizza is topped with a liquid sauce, while the focaccia has only "dry" toppings. I made a focaccia bread the other day and topped it with fresh chunks of tomato, "sweated" onion and garlic, ham cut into strips, black olives, herbs, and chunks of dry (aged) goat cheese. You can see the steps in this slideshow.

Here's a simple recipe for a dough that makes a very tender focaccia bread.

Focaccia Dough

½ tsp. honey
1 cup water, warm... not hot
1 tsp. instant yeast
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. olive oil

A cup of flour weighs about 120 g, so that's about 330 grams of flour for 8 fl. oz. (240 ml) of warm water. Be prepared to adjust the amount of flour or amount of water slightly to make dough that is neither too dry nor too wet and sticky. All the other measurements work internationally, I think.

Mix the honey into the warm water. Separately, mix the flour, salt, and yeast together in a bowl (the bowl of a stand mixer is good.) Add the wet ingredients, including the olive oil, to the dry ingredients and stir well (again, a stand mixer works great — you could certainly use a bread machine to do the blending and needing for you) to form a nice dough ball. Then knead the dough for 5 to 10 minutes.

Put the dough ball in a lightly oiled ball and cover it. Let it rise in a warm place (I favor using the microwave oven but don't turn it on!). I also put a cup of very hot water in the microwave with the dough for the heat it releases and for the humidity it adds to the air in the oven.

After a couple of hours, when the dough ball
has doubled in size, punch it down and put it into a lightly oiled baking pan or dish (a lasagne pan...). Using your fingers, spread the dough to fill the pan. It should be about ¾" (2 cm) thick. Cover it and let it rise for another 15 minutes. Put on the toppings and bake it for 15 to 10 minutes in the oven at 180ºC (350ºF).

As for the toppings, I had:
  • 6 or 8 small tomatoes (20 pieces of tomato) — you could use cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 2 slices of boiled (sandwich ham, called jambon de Paris here in France)
  • fresh or dried herbs and hot red pepper flakes à volonté
  • 1 onion and 2 garlic cloves, sliced and "sweated" in olive oil
  • 12 black olives (pitted or not)
  • 125 grams (4 oz.) goat cheese (or use whatever cheese you like)

You could use chicken, turkey, or bacon instead of ham. And vary all the toppings as you please. Drizzle on some good olive oil at the table.

21 September 2020

A Notre-Dame slideshow

Here's a slideshow featuring photos I took of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris more than a decade ago. Today is the last day of summer (or is it the first day of autumn?) and my virtual Paris vacation is winding down. The coronavirus situation seems to be worsening everywhere, and I'm afraid we might go back into lockdown (confinement in French) any day now. I don't think there are very many cases in the Saint-Aignan area, but people in the big cities are being hit hard.

The first two photos of the south bell tower of the cathedral were taken from my sister's hotel room window on the Rue des Carmes in the Latin Quarter. The three following shots show some of the stone statuary on the cathedral's west façade. Then there are six photos of some of the stained glass seen from inside.

I decided to show these photos as a slideshow just to make sure I have it working the way it should. If you let the show run twice, you might notice that on the second showing the photos are more in focus than the first time around. I think that has to do with giving them time to download to your computer or tablet completely. Maybe the speed of your internet connection makes a difference — ours isn't super-speedy.

20 September 2020

More about blogging issues, and more about Notre-Dame de Paris

I've had some luck experimenting with the New Blogger. I think I've got a few things under control now. I'll see as I go what glitches I run into, but so far, so good.

Inside a cathedral it's often pretty dark. If it's sunny outside, one thing you can attempt to take decent picture of is stained glass. Without using a flash, anyway, which is something I don't do much.

Or you can stick to taking photos of features on the exterior of the building.

Above is a photo of the rose window in the north wing of the transept at Notre-Dame. In other words, it's north facing, so there's less light shining through in in the afternoon that through the south-facing window across from it, below.

If neither photo seems very much in focus to you, remember that they were taken 13 years ago, using a camera of that time. Besides, when you look at stained-glass windows from a distance, you don't see much clear detail anyway. I also don't use a tripod in such situations. The colors are nice.

Here's one more photo of Notre-Dame before the fire burned the roof off and the steeple fell.

P.S. I want to show you what I work with to prepare my blog posts. A lot of the work is done in what is called "compose mode" and the photos and text look approximately what you see when you open the blog in your browser. However, photos need to be resized and placed in the blog window where you want them. I do that work in "HTML mode" on screens that look like this one. It shows today's post, and if you look you can see my text in it. The rest is HTML code and it takes some getting used to before you can work with it with confidence. Actually, I had already cleaned this code up a little by adding some line breaks to make it more readable.

This morning I'm trying to figure out how to do one of the slideshows I've been posting for a couple of year now. I first upload the slideshow, in mp4 format, to YouTube, and then YouTube gives me some code I can use to "embed" the video in my blog post. Or that's how it used to work. In the new Blogger interface, it doesn't work any more. There must be some other way to include a slideshow in a blog post...

19 September 2020

Notre-Dame de Paris — maybe my final post on this blogging service...

Today I'm posting a few more photos of Notre-Dame de Paris before the 2019 fire.
Tomorrow, we'll see if I can post anything at all.  See my explanation below.

Maybe you are aware that Google and Blogger have introduced a new interface for blog authors to use to produce formatted posts as HTML code. What you might not know is that the new interface, along with the HTML code it produces, is a complete mess. It just doesn't work.

I've spent nearly an hour this morning trying to get just these photos uploaded and put into a satisfactory format. Also, you probably don't know that I have spent the past 15 years working with and tweaking Blogger-produced HTML code to size images, format paragraphs, and make everything fit together. The tweaking had become almost second nature to me, and I was usually pretty happy with the result (well, except for all my typos...).

Until yesterday, we bloggers could still fall back on the old interface to produce our posts. While it was not perfect, was at least reliable and stable. I've continued experimenting with the new interface and found it really frustrating. It's hard to think about what you're writing when you have to spend so much time fixing the HTML code. Now Blogger has taken away that old interface. The new interface is absolutely not ready for prime time. It produces unpredictable code and results that are nearly impossible to clean up.

I'm starting to wonder if it is worth it to try to continue blogging using this Google/Blogger service. I'm not at all sure what to do next. I remember companies in Silicon Valley that went belly-up when they introduced new versions of software that were not reliable or did not give predictable results. Blogger may well be going down that path right now. I hope somebody from Google is reading this and will take it seriously.

18 September 2020

Pauvre Notre-Dame de Paris

The metal roof of the cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris burned off — melted, actually — in April 2019 when the wooden structure that supported it caught fire. The tall steeple fell into the church. I posted some photos I took in October 2019 here. I was on my way home to North Carolina and I had a few hours to spend in Paris. I was meeting friends from California for dinner in a little restaurant near the river before flying out the next day.

But that was 2019. These photo are some that I took in 2007 when I went to the cathedral with my sister and a good friend of ours. This was the last time I went inside Notre-Dame.

Compare this photo I found on the internet this morning. It's one of many photos published by the New York Times in 2019. Credit where credit is due — photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

In 2007, you could still get close to the cathedral and go inside. Now it's closed to the public and reconstruction and restoration work is ongoing. It's all fenced off. I haven't been to Paris to see it in about two years now. Above, that's saint Denis de Paris holding his head in his hands. According to legend, he walked several miles north carrying his own head and preaching the gospel after he was beheaded in the 3rd century.

I'm so glad our friend from North Carolina really wanted to walk through the cathedral that afternoon in September 20076, even after we had spent eight hours walking through Paris starting at 7:00 a.m. The line to get in was long. There were hundreds of people inside the church. My sister took a pass and said she would just sit outside and rest while we walked around inside.

I don't know who this statue represents. The woman actually looks a little like Judy Collins, if you remember her. By the way, the beautiful south-facing rose window in the photo above survived the fire at Notre-Dame, I understand. I published a series of posts about the cathedral in April 2019, in the aftermath of the fire. Start here and click Newer Post at the bottom of each blog post to see them and a lot of photos.

Even since the fire, when you look at the west-facing façade of the cathedral — the two tall bell towers — you can't really tell how much damage the main part of the building behind them suffered in 2019. By the way, my first trip to Paris was in 1970, and I lived in the city for several years way back when — 1974-76, 1979-82, etc.  I certainly never expected to see Notre-Dame suffer such horrible damage in my lifetime.

17 September 2020

Five more Eiffel Tower views

In September 2007, my sister, a friend of ours, and I drove from the Mont Saint-Michel to Paris after spending a fun afternoon there. We pulled in to Paris at 11 p.m. and this was the site that greeted us. I even was able to take this photo from the car. My two passengers were thrilled.

The next day, we did a grand tour of Paris. We went up to the top of the tower. We had lunch at the Bouillon Chartier. We walked through the Tuileries garden and the courtyards of the Louvre. We also went to Notre Dame cathedral and we went inside despite a throng of other visitors. As that was my last trip to the top of the tower, that was also the last time I was in Notre Dame, which suffered a great fire in 2019.

Here's what I wrote about this leg of the trip in 2007:
We left the Mont Saint-Michel at about 7:00 p.m. and drove the fastest route to Paris. That would be the autoroute that goes from Avranches past St-Lô to Caen, and then on to Rouen and Paris. I figured it would take us at least three hours. What with stopping to pay tolls at several booths along the way, and a couple of rest stops to get a cup of coffee and make a phone call home (not to mention my getting lost in Avranches at the beginning), it ended up taking us exactly four hours.

One Paris monument that my sister really wanted to see was the Eiffel Tower. She wanted to see it lit up and sparkling on the hour after dark, and she wanted to go to the top during daylight hours. I wanted us to do both also. I had been 10 years since my last trip to the top.

As we approached Paris on the autoroute from Normandy, I was watching the clock on the dashboard of the car and wondering whether we might arrive in time to see the 11:00 p.m. Eiffel Tower light show. At one point I decided just to drive around the boulevard périphérique (the Paris ring road) and go directly to our hotel, which was on the other side of the city. That meant putting off the Eiffel Tower light show until Friday night.
Luckily for us, as it turned out, the south- and westbound lanes of the boulevard périphérique were closed for maintenance work that night. I had no choice but to go north toward the Porte Maillot, an exit I know and which leads to the Arc de Triomphe. We drove around the arch and down one of the broad avenues to get to the Place du Trocadéro, where you have a clear view of the tower.

We pulled up at Trocadéro at 11:00 on the dot and the tower started twinkling. It was perfect. While the light show continued, I drove around the Palais de Chaillot and down to the bridge that crosses the Seine at the foot of the tower for a close-up view. Then we drove around to the Place de l'Ecole Militaire and along the boulevard that passes in front of the military school at the top of the Champ de Mars for one more look. At about that time, the light show stopped, but that was fine — we had seen it.

It was midnight when we finally got to the hotel and got checked in. I found parking. The next morning, we got up at 7:00 and headed out on foot up to the Place d'Italie to catch the métro. It was direct from there to the Bir-Hakeim station just down the street from the Eiffel Tower. We were going to the top, come hell or high water.
The Sunday before, we had gone to the foot of the tower, but the ticket lines were just too long. We needed to get on the road and back to Saint-Aignan that evening, and we were all exhausted. I asked a guard what time the tower opened on weekday mornings, and he said 9:00 a.m. So our goal was to get there by 9:00, and we did. We were extremely goal-oriented that morning. We even found a street toilet along the way and were able to be sure we would be comfortable standing in line for an hour or more if that's what it took.

When we got to the tower, we queued up with the other tourists. The line wasn't as long as we had feared it would be. It was a beautiful morning. At 9:05, the line still wasn't budging. I left my sister to hold my place and went to check the sign above the ticket windows to see what time it opened and how much it cost to go up. The sign said 9:30, not 9:00, and the price of admission was 11.50 euros.

Nine-thirty came and we were soon in the elevator on our way to the top. It hadn't taken long at all. Even on the second level, where all the visitors coming up from the ground on different elevators in the four feet of the tower have to line up again and get on a different set of elevators to continue to the top, the wait wasn't more than ten minutes.We had made it... and had it made.

I'll be moving on from the Eiffel Tower tomorrow. Enjoy these last few photos.