Friday, June 12, 2009

« Au revoir »

We’ve been back in upstate New York for nearly a week now and, while it feels a bit strange after a five-month absence, it’s good to be home. We missed several things while being away: face-to-face contact with our family and friends most of all; the roominess of stores, cars, washing machines, and especially shower stalls; well-stocked libraries; our printer. But we had a great stay in Bédoin and we’ll certainly miss things about being there. On Mondays we’ll remember le jour du marché--the fun of walking up the main street in town which is turned into an outdoor shopping mall, hearing and speaking French, and especially talking to the nice fruit and vegetable man. Wearing un bonnet (“winter cap”) or later on a USA baseball cap, he always had a smile on his face and insisted upon giving things away to us from the beginning; in fact, when he found out it was our last week in Bédoin, he gave us strawberries and vegetables totaling more than we actually paid him that day!

Not surprisingly, the happiest moments of our trip had to do with meeting people. We were so excited to be reunited with our kind and generous friends in Malaucène and Montpellier who had us over for meals at their house. Then there were new folks like Jeannette, the owner of the boucherie, who was quite chatty and probably the first of many to congratulate us on the election of Obama. We’ll recall the couple in a restaurant in Lyon who discussed Asian food and also had a lot of positive things to say about our new American president. There was the Parisian couple in Saint Tropez who loved talking about food and wine and told us about some lovely sights to visit in the coastal city. Who could forget the heavy-set restaurant owner/biker in Ajaccio whose collection of tiny motorcycles lined the walls of one of his dining rooms? Or the director of the tram system in Montpellier who discussed French politics with us in Paris? Too many memories to mention, really, with warm, friendly French people.

The highlight of our trip, though, was thanks to people we encountered at the end of our visit to Paris, just days before flying home. On that Saturday we first ran into some Maghrébins (Algerians, to be specific), a young married couple named Ben and Zahia, who happened to be standing in front of us in line to get ice cream. We sat next to them while eating our cones and started talking. Afterwards, they invited us to continue our conversation while having thé à la menthe (“mint tea”) at their friend’s café. We discussed many things with them: why North Africans pour while moving the pot up and down; the history of the Berbers and their language; the upcoming birth of their first child. They were truly a delight.

Later on that same day, we were enjoying probably the best dinner of our trip at a very small restaurant in the 14e called l’Entêtée when a man and his daughter took the table right next to ours. The limited space (in this case a good thing!) practically forced us to talk to them. Again, the topics varied widely and eventually they invited us to come to their house after the meal for coffee. Which we did. When my husband asked them where he could get good boudin (“blood sausage”) in the city, they asked us to come back to their place for lunch on Sunday! It was such a surprising and generous offer. We took them up on it and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves!

Now that I am back home, I won't be blogging on a regular basis anymore, but I'd like to take the opportunity to thank my readers. Please feel free to use the comment button on the blog to communicate with me. So, for now I'll say, « au revoir »--“till we meet again.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Visit to Quai Branly

On our last full day in Paris we decided to hop a bus down to la rive gauche (“the left bank”) to visit the relatively new Musée du quai Branly. Located in a modernistic building on the Seine hard by la Tour Eiffel, the museum was inaugurated in 2006 by former President Jacques Chirac. Its main purpose is to exhibit and validate art from areas outside the West. One enters via a long, curving ramp reminiscent of the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The exhibition hall, arranged in a continuum on one floor, contains displays which take the visitor from l’Océanie, to l’Asie, l’Afrique, and les Amériques; its walls are decorated to simulate the outdoors and rocks in a cave.
 The permanent collection is astounding because of the number of objects on display (over 3500!) and their beauty and diversity. The visitor sees such a range of items: immense wooden totem poles which make you wonder how they were ever transported to the site; masks, statues and earthenware; carved combs, canes, and oars; beautiful silken shawls and wedding dresses; gold earrings and necklaces. I was particularly impressed by a series of art works made from the bark of trees, seemingly pounded into a kind of paper and then meticulously decorated with ink. The overall impression one gets is that of everyday objects fashioned with care. Groups of small schoolchildren and their teachers seemed to be fascinated examining various items like African masks in the display cases and walking around the large wooden totems on the museum floor.

The museum’s property also includes a small gift shop and a lovely garden with many different types of plants and trees. There is also a café where we enjoyed a delicious lunch last Tuesday; I particularly liked my Asian salad. If we had had time, we would’ve gone back in to see the special exhibit on the jazz age. Quai Branly is a treasure trove and definitely worth a visit.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

An Afternoon at Père Lachaise

We’re not morbid individuals; really, we aren’t. Visiting a Parisian cemetery is like walking around in a beautiful park, only one where there are tombstones! The main inner-city graveyards in the French capital are lined with trees and flowers and have substantial collections of art works by famous sculptors. When we took a tour of le cimetière de l’Est, better known as Père Lachaise, last Saturday, our guide said that it’s like un musée en plein air, an outdoor museum. And that’s exactly it. Named after the priest who was the confessor of le roi Louis XIV, this cemetery in Paris’s 20e arrondissement is reputed to be the most visited in the world, attracting over one hundred thousand people per year.

The guide explained to our group that the 119 acres of land originally belonged to the Catholic Church but that it was purchased by the state in the early nineteenth century under the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte. In order to make the immense but somewhat remote memorial park more appealing to Parisians, the government had the supposed remains of famous people transferred to the location. Visitors can, for example, see the graves of celebrated medieval lovers Héloïse and Abélard, and seventeenth century writers Molière and La Fontaine. The graveyard has become so popular that now families can only “rent” spaces for thirty to fifty years, but the time can be extended...for a fee, of course.

Before the tour started, we were fortunate enough to be sitting on a bench when a photographer came up to take a picture of a tombstone near us. He told us that he had a collection of over a thousand different photos of bustes, médaillons, statues, and stèles ("gravestones") from the various cemeteries around Paris. There is, for example, a Rodin sculpture of Belgian composer César Franck in le cimetière Montparnasse. Yet, he explained, there are no Rodins in Père Lachaise; the famous bust of the author Balzac was done by someone else. He suggested that we visit a nearby marble medallion by Auguste Préault which he was particularly fond of called Le Silence.

Naturally, many tourists come to pay their respects to some of the international celebrities of the past two centuries, from German painter Max Ernst to Irish writer Oscar Wilde. Americans are well represented: authors Richard Wright, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, soprano Maria Callas, dancer Isadora Duncan, and The Doors rocker Jim Morrison to mention but a few. For those interested in classical music, there are monuments to both Chopin and Rossini, though the latter’s grave is a cenotaphe moderne, simply a monument since his remains now lie in his native Italy. The tombs of French singers Édith Piaf, Gilbert Bécaud, and actors Sarah Bernhardt, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret can be found at the cemetery. The guide pointed out that Mother Nature, aided by modern day pollution, plays havoc with the monuments; moss grows on the stones and tree roots upset them. But it is still a beautiful place to visit.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Day in Paris

Our first twenty-four hours are just about over and I couldn’t wait to report on what’s gone on so far. Last fall I’d read
an interesting book written by an Australian journalist who married a Frenchman and eventually moved to le premier arrondissement in Paris. In Almost French, Sarah Turnbull lovingly describes la rue Montorgueil, a pedestrian walkway with lots of small shops and a nearly village-like feel to it. We really enjoyed taking in all of the sights and aromas of the nearly one-kilometer long street today: the wonderful cheese shops, a one-hundred-seventy-year-old restaurant named L’Escargot, the delicious-looking pastries and prepared foods at Stohrer. The latter, an institution in Paris since 1730, was the first to bring baba au rhum to the city.

From there it was a short bus ride to la place de la République and le canal Saint-Martin. The canal was originally designed, along with other similar structures, to bring fresh water into the city. Today there is still some boat traffic on the four and a half kilometer waterway, but most of it is apparently to carry tourists through the various locks and dams to the Seine. Beside the canal we came upon l’Hôtel du Nord, which was reproduced on a stage set in the 1930s by Marcel Carné for his movie of the same name...whence the line of actress Arletty: « Atmosphère ? Atmosphère ? »

After a very nice lunch with the professor whose presentation we translated in February, we took le métro back to the 14e where our hotel is located. From the subway station we walked through the beautiful alleys of le cimetière Montparnasse. A small crowd was gathered at the tomb of Sartre and Beauvoir; some ladies were filling up watering cans for the plants on their family’s graves. We spent a little time on this lovely day wandering around looking for the gravesites of famous people like singer Serge Gainsbourg and authors Maupassant and Baudelaire. Paris has so much to offer and we'll be out exploring for several days to come.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Celebrating le Vaucluse

Our stay in the Vaucluse has been great: we’ve finished all of the research that we’d planned on doing and we took all of the excursions, big and small, that we wanted. But now that our time here is quickly drawing to a close, there are lots of last minute details to take care of--packing up boxes of books to mail home, searching around our rental house to gather up all of our stuff, getting suitcases ready for the trip to Paris and the flight back, and all the rest. Our last week in Bédoin, however, hasn’t simply been filled with chores. We’ve also taken the time to enjoy some culinary treats.
On Saturday night la Cave Coopérative held another of its famous get-togethers. This one, la Fête de la vigne et du vin ("The Festival of the Vineyard and Wine"), is actually a department-wide event taking place on the same date in more than 60 caves in the Vaucluse. Bédoin’s version of the festivities included ATV buggy rides through the vines and a visit to the bottling assembly line. We were more interested in the 16-euro apiece dinner, which included une assiette provençale, consisting of saucisson (“salami”), pâté, jambon cru (“prosciutto”), salade, cornichons (“pickles”) and green and black olives. The main dish was followed by a cheese course, and finally a dessert of fresh strawberries in red wine with crème chantilly (“whipped cream”). There was a live band, playing mostly American music, and of course, being at the cave, the dinner was bien arrosé with lots of local wines. We had fun talking to the people sitting next to us: a young social worker from Zurich who had just returned from climbing Mont Ventoux on his bike and a nice vintner and his wife from Bédoin who made a special trip inside the cave to get a piece of chèvre cheese for us when they found out we liked it.
We’ve also been revisiting some of the restaurants in the vicinity that we have enjoyed over the past few months, two of them being right here on the main street in town. Both have very friendly équipes working there and offer good, relatively inexpensive meals. Le Grillon is a small place whose name, I believe, is more a play on the verb griller, rather than on the word for a cricket. The chef, who comes from a restaurant family, grills your supper in front of you on a wood fire in an elevated fireplace. We’ve had some lovely meals there including a tasty salade au chèvre chaud (“warm goat cheese salad”), a grilled dorade ("sea bream"), une marmite de poisson (a fish soup), and une brochette de canard ("duck shish kebab"). All were very good, but the best was Ray’s travers de porc, a grilled pork sparerib with spices that made it taste like barbecue. Yum! Another place we like in town is the Hôtel l’Escapade’s restaurant. We’ve had appetizers like des cuisses de grenouille (“frogs legs”) and une barigoule aux artichauts (artichoke hearts served with prosciutto). Some of our main dishes there included for Ray pieds et paquets (you don’t really want to know what it is!) and for me a very delicious cuisse de canard (“duck leg”).

My favorite eating place for French cuisine around, and possibly throughout our whole stay here (though others were close), is in Carpentras: La Petite Fontaine. Small with a limited menu, this restaurant serves up delicious meals every time. On our first visit there I had fresh asparagus with a green onion sauce as a first dish, followed by wonderful Saint-Jacques (“scallops”) with a chive sauce that were well worth the 5-euro supplement that we had to pay. Today we both had the 17-euro menu: starting with a half of a small, grilled eggplant topped with melted mozzarella slices and fresh tomato; as a main course, Ray had suprême de pintade (“guinea fowl”) and I got a great piece of grilled tuna. So there you have some meals to enjoy vicariously...more coming from Paris next week, I hope!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Roman Orange

Since we still had the car last Monday, we decided to go see another of the big towns of the Vaucluse: Orange. The area has undergone tremendous transformations and hardships over the centuries. Originally settled by the Gauls, it became a Roman colony around the year 35 BCE. The city went on to be attacked and partially destroyed by the Visigoths in the fifth century. Its population was decimated by la peste (“the plague”) in 1348 and again in 1720. In the sixteenth century the locale was settled by the Dutch whose ruling family is still named “the Royal House of Orange.” But today this city of about 30,000 people, known as having one of the warmest climates in France, is relatively quiet, yet proud of its heritage.

During Pax Romana, the time of peace and prosperity with the Gauls, the Romans created many buildings in the colony that they referred to as Arausio. There is an Arc de Triomphe on the outskirts of town, which is presently undergoing restoration. However, the crowning achievement of Roman architecture in the city is the antique theater. For a small fee, visitors can take a self-guided tour with audiophones of this 1st century structure built during the reign of Augustus. The theater has one of the best conserved murs de scène (“stage walls”) in the world; according to our audioguide only in Syria and Turkey could you also find such an impressive relic from Roman times. The sight of it in the seventeenth century prompted King Louis XIV to exclaim: « C’est la plus belle muraille de mon royaume. » ("It's the most beautiful wall in my kingdom.")

The theater, we learned, used to have statues in all of its niches (like the one of Augustus in the picture), as well as marble facing on the walls, several rows of columns, and mosaics decorating it. The sitting area, called the cavea, provided room for about 8000-10000 spectators, seated according to their status in society. The orchestra, in a semicircle on the ground, had room for movable seats for the highest-ranking dignitaries; on the uppermost tiers sat prostitutes and beggars. All of the presentations were free of charge and a kind of tarp, a velum, stretched across the top of the theater to protect spectators from the sun. After the so-called “barbarian invasions” and the 16th century wars of religion, the theater fell into disrepair; houses were even constructed inside it. But thanks to author Prosper Merimée, a restoration project was launched in 1825. Only the first three rows of seats are original and in 2006 a small glass and metal roof was added to protect the stage wall and to add lighting. The theater was placed on the list of World Heritage Sights by UNESCO. International music festivals, currently called Les Nouvelles Chorégies, have been presenting symphonies and operas every summer since 1869. Plays have been staged there as well; Sarah Bernhardt, for example, performed the role of Racine’s Phèdre at the theater in 1903. The day we were there several groups of young people were trying out the theater’s great acoustics by reading to their friends who were in the upper part of the stands.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Beautiful Day on the Riviera

Last Saturday the "weather gods” were with us as we left Port-Fréjus heading east to see more of la Côte d’Azur and making our way to Cannes. The drive along the cliff road, la Corniche de l’Esterel, afforded stunning views of the red Esterel Mountains which served as a striking contrast to the deep blue of the Mediterranean. We passed through the coastal towns of Agay and Théoule-sur-Mer, stopping from time to time to enjoy vistas of the beaches, the rocky coast, and boats out at sea. In the car, I was putting the digital camera through its paces the entire time, while Ray negotiated the narrow thoroughfare. The biggest problem along the way was not other cars, but cyclists, including some with babies on the back of their bikes, who at times rode two or three abreast.

We were well aware that the yearly Festival de Cannes 2009 was in full swing, meaning traffic and people galore. So we grabbed the first underground parking lot we could find near la Croisette, the city’s well-known seaside boulevard. Our first sight upon exiting le parking was of hundreds of huge yachts in the marina and, looking out on them, white tents with what seemed like conferences going on. Not a bad location, but potentially distracting for those attending! The crowds were enormous, especially as we neared the Palais des festivals et des congrès, where the films are shown and judged. It wasn't the right time of day to catch sight of glamorous celebrities climbing the famous escalier, but it was fun for us to see just the same. Again there were white tents with signs indicating the area of the American delegation, etc., this time barricaded inside a fence. Security was extremely tight, though the guards were nattily dressed in beige suits instead of uniforms to fit the stylish occasion, I suppose. As far as what really goes on at the film festival in Cannes, I have barely a clue. I do know that it’s practically impossible for the average person to get a ticket and actually see a film there. The festival is mainly a meeting place for producers, sales agents, distributors, and buyers from all over the world. Apparently anyone can submit a film and a good judgment by the international jury can launch a filmmaker’s career.

A little further down the boardwalk we passed some lovely, old hotels with their private beaches and matching umbrellas across the street. The majestic, early twentieth century Hôtel Carlton, whose façade was classified as a monument historique in 1989, still draws le jet-set and people like French actress Sophie Marceau who was staying in a room named after her. Just past the Carlton, we came upon l’Hôtel Martinez where photographers and tourists were grouped, apparently waiting for stars like Eva Longoria and her French husband Tony Parker (who were staying there) to exit the building. After a lunch of Lebanese food, we continued down la Croisette where there was yet another marina with more outrageously impressive yachts and the lovely Parc de la Roseraie, full of roses in bloom.