Thursday, December 26, 2013

Finding cheer in a cookie

I spend the whole morning (and part of the afternoon) on Christmas Eve baking American-style peanut butter cookies and chocolate chip cookies. Ken provides quality assurance.

Despite the drizzle, we set out with a dozen or so packages of petits gâteaux. Our mission is to wish our voisins (neighbors) bonnes fêtes (happy holidays). The gesture is more for us than for them: We need a little cheering up as we are really missing our family this first Christmas abroad. (Technically, it's our second Christmas away, but we spent much of the holiday last year on a runway in Dallas.)

Our first stop is at Madame Alba's, the matriarch at the end of our block who broke her hip last summer. She  is wrapping gifts and eager for her niece from Milan to arrive tonight. We chat for a few minutes (always a challenge as our sweet 80-something-year-old voisine has a strong regional accent and speaks très rapide). She insists we accept a jar of her homemade apricots soaked in eau de vie. Bien sûr!

A stop at Charlotte and Bruno's nets us a bunch of holly for our table, so gorgeous that I at first think the sprigs are made of plastic.

Our next stop is at the home of a retired headmaster. He, his wife and their son, who is visiting from Picardy, insist we have some tea and cake. We chat about our plans for tomorrow's dîner de noël and I tell them I'll be preparing gigot d'agneau. The monsieur disappears to a back room and returns with a bottle of 2003 Bordeaux, which he assures us will be the perfect pairing with lamb.

Our promenade continues to centre-ville where we give cookies to our boucher and a couple of other commerçants. We notice that everyone seems a bit surprised by our little gesture. One voisin offers an explanation. He tells us that bringing gifts to one's neighbors is not something he has often seen in France. Perhaps, he speculates, it is common American hospitality? And, because our hearts of full of cheer, we agree.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Journée de filles à Bordeaux

Moi (center) with mes amies Linda et Julie.
This week, two friends and I took the train to Bordeaux to do a little shopping, touring, eating and dishing. The petit voyage was much needed: a break from our husbands, and for nos maris, a petite pause from us.

We arrived in time for a late lunch and passed nearly two hours over our saumon (me) and lapin (Linda and Julie). We demurred from ordering dessert since we correctly predicted we'd be ready for some coffee and sweets later in the day.

Carousel topper
Mother Nature did her part supporting our girls' day out: ciel bleu and mild temperatures. We spent most of the day at the Bordeaux Marché de Noël and in the main shopping district. I was alarmed at the prices at the Clinique counter in Galleries Layfayette and decided I could hold off buying my favorite moisturizer until my next trip to les Etats-Unis.

Christmas trees and cheval near Grande Théâtre de Bordeaux

As the sun set, we walked a bit along the quay on the Garonne River, hopped on a tram and made it back to Gare de Bordeaux-Saint-Jean just in time for our train home. As we did more browsing than buying, I returned with a nearly full wallet (happy husband) and with two better amies (happy me).

A stall at Bordeaux's Marché de Noël

Linda models a handbag made from an old 
45 rpm record.

Sculpture by Jaume Plense
One of two sculptures recently installed in Bordeaux 
by Catalan Spanish artist Jaume Plensa.

How does he do that?

My café gourmand

Fountain at Place des Quinconces

Fountain at Place des Quinconces
Fountain at Place des Quinconces

Monday, December 9, 2013

Rock 'n' Roll samedi soir

Geoff Barker is our local celebrity rocker.
The winter doldrums are set to begin in about three weeks, but for now, our little corner of France seems to have a lot going on each weekend. On Saturday, it was a rock 'n' roll benefit for a school in a neighboring village. We shared some laughs with our British friends.

Nos amis Linda, Dave and Gill.
The salle des fête is all decked out for Noël.

We bring our own dishes and 
silverware to village soirées.

Gill is our artistic friend.

Une jolie petite fille has lost most of her
face paint.
I love watching les enfants 
slide across the dance floor.

Ken gives me the look that says,  'About ready to call it a night, honey?'

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christmas shopping: French style

Even in this part of rural France, one can choose to Christmas shop at the Walmart-type (sans mal) store or virtually shop at This probably is how most people do their holiday shopping. But although all the grands magasins are decked with more than enough lights and tinsel, and even though a recent trip to Toys R Us in Bordeaux assured us that les enfants in France covet the same kind of crap, I mean toys, for which American children ask Santa, our rural corner of France offers another option for holiday shopping. 

Marchès de Noël are similar to craft fairs hosted by high school booster groups in Reno. We're on the cusp of winter here, with little to do on weekends. (The chateaus and other tourist attractions have shut their portes for the season.) So even though we're not doing the gift-exchange thing this year, we still take the opportunity to brave the cold and browse the booths at the marchès each weekend. 

Many vendors offer homemade treats or original arts and crafts. Some sell cards and wrapping paper. If I were in the market for earrings, I'd have hit the jackpot. Instead, today all we buy is a bag of chocolate-covered prunes.

There are A LOT of Brits in this part of France, so it isn't surprising that many of the vendors are britannique. Our friends assure us that Christmas markets are popular in the U.K. But there also are many French vendors, offering items made with their own, talented hands.

There are no big crowds at today's marchè in our neighboring village. But there's color, light and sweet smells. There are friendly artisans eager to talk with us about their wares. There's rich coffee and warm crêpes au caramel salè (salted caramel) to savor.

And, when we get home, we can chow down on some surprisingly delicious pruneaux enrobèes au chocolat. Hey! Don't knock 'em till you've tried 'em!    

Friday, November 1, 2013

Une petite escapade d'automne to Charente-Maritime

A colorful carousel is a site 
common to nearly every French ville.
Since we returned to France from our three-week trip to the U.S., Ken has spent nearly every day trimming our unruly pommier (apple tree). With the weather getting colder every day, we decide une petite escapade is in order, so we head several hours north to the Charente-Maritime department.
The guidebooks tell us we must taste Cognac on our first stop, but we have a long road ahead and neither of us particularly love Cognac (the drink). But we stop for coffee and a W.C. break. Ken is most impressed that a rugby team is at the café, having coffee and playing cards.

Next, we head to Saintes. While we ponder where to eat lunch, we check out the Roman Arch of Germanicus (AD 19), which used to mark the entrance to the only bridge over the lower Charente River.

Arch of Germanicus, Saintes
Arch of Germanicus, Saintes

For lunch, Ken boldly tries the plat de jour (something to do with veal liver ... mon dieu!), and I choose a big bowl of fruits de mer.


We work off lunch with a long walk through the city's garden, and admire other landmarks as we search of Saintes's first- century Roman amphitheater.

It's a longer trek than we had anticipated, and by the time we get to the amphitheater, we decide to skip the entrance, take some pictures from afar, and head back to the car.

Roman amphitheater, Saintes
Roman amphitheater, Saintes
Roman amphitheater, Saintes
Unlike our usual mode, we intend to be footloose and fancy free on this trip. I haven't made any room reservations; our friends have assured us we would have no trouble finding places to stay. I had written down the addresses of some promising gites and chambres de l'hôtel. Good thing, too! Our first two stops (about 50 km from Santes) come up empty: the first is locked up tight and the second is full. We pull out our emergency phone and finally find a place (50 km back the way we have come). Turns out we hit the mutha load: a gracious welcome, a comfy room and a phenomenal breakfast in the morning, complete with a wide assortment of homemade confitures.

La Rochelle
It's raining as we say goodbye to our hosts, Patricia and Daniel at Magasin de la Coinche. If we ever find ourselves in Chérac, we certainly will stay at this B&B again. But now, it's on to our primary destination: La Rochelle.

A few nervous minutes of big-city driving, and we are safely parked in an underground garage. With my 20-centime guidebook procured from the office de tourisme in hand, and with a gusty vent blowing, we're ready to explore this belle ville maritime.
La Rochelle
La Rochelle

La Rochelle
La Rochelle

As is our custom, each day at noon, we are hungry and it's time for déjeuner. I tackle more crevettes and their cousins, this time in a delightful salad. Ken has something else: decidedly NOT veal liver.

Mid-afternoon, we decide to let our fingers do the walkin' and we call about a dozen B&B's with no luck; everyplace is full. So we decide to look for a room in one of La Rochelle many small hotels.

The view from our room at
Hôtel de Paris, La Rochelle
The receptionist at the Hôtel de Paris hands us the key to No. 3 and urges us to check out the chambre. Converted from two rooms into one, the room is huge and quite clean. It overlooks one of La Rochelle's charming little shopping streets. Oui! This will be more than acceptable, we decide.

La Rochelle
La Rochelle

Down the block, there is another carousel to photograph on Place Verdun. (Love those merry-go-rounds!) And in the morning, we visit La Rochelle's colorful marché.

La Rochelle
La Rochelle

We finally are graced with a blue sky when we arrive in Rochefort. Another city with with a rich maritime history, Rochefort's main attractions are ... not stinky cheese, if that's what you're thinking ... its shipyard and Corderie Royale, where visitors can explore the art of rope-making.

Our last stop is the tiny, picturesque village of Talmont sur Gironde (pop. 100). The village was built in 1284 by England's King Edward the first. Our brochure says Talmont is a "peninsula on the estuary of the Gironde river (the biggest of Europe)." (I'm not sure if the pamphlet refers to the peninsula, the river, or the estuary, but I suspect it is the estuary that is the continent's largest.) Since it's off-season, Talmont is pretty much closed up, but the day is glorious, and Ken and I agree that our time here has been well-spent. What a perfect ending to our impromptu little autumn getaway.

Talmont sur Gironde
Talmont sur Gironde

Talmont sur Gironde
Approaching Eglise Ste-Radegonde, Talmont sur Gironde