mardi 14 décembre 2010

Messages of Hope

I am NOT KIDDING; before Christmas I actually heard someone on the classical radio station say (in French), "To create a message of hope, you have to start from a place of negativity." True, but oh, so very French.

I hope YOUR holiday season had the more conventional kind of American well-wishes, the kind that don't pre-suppose any prior state of negativity. We, unfortunately, mostly had the French kind. And there's the reason I haven't been blogging in so long--I've been caught up in the circumstances that provide the appropriate negative context for a message of hope to emerge. They are:

1. The electric company made a mistake, thought we didn't live here, and cut our power off. It took a week to get it reconnected (in below freezing temperatures). Message of hope: neighbors ran an extension cord from their house to ours to power our heater and a lamp. There are kind people here.

2. A small landslide took out our water for almost a week. Message of hope: A new friendship (with another ex-pat who has a functional shower) got enough quality time to grow a little.

3. Our internet died, repeatedly, and we were disconnected for long periods of time from the rest of the world (including my mom, while I was sick, and needed someone to whine to that was long-distance so they couldn't smack me). Message of hope: while calling our internet service provider, one of our great nemeses, I just so happened to get a customer service representative who had lived in Seattle for a year to do an internship. He decided he was going to give us "American Customer Service." But we weren't guaranteed that we would get him when we called back (since our internet liked to work while we were on the phone with tech support and then die when we hung up). So what did this guy do? Started calling us every other day to see if our internet still worked. Which meant we didn't pay for the calls, we were guaranteed no hold time, expedited service (since he knew all the problems already), and now we're his facebook friends. Anybody need to hire someone who speaks French and English and has a degree in international business? He'd love to come back and work in the US again, and boy does he have some mad customer service skillz.

And the last of my reasons for not blogging / excuses-to-complain-about-my-life-thinly-disguised-as-messages-of-hope: 2 months of vomiting. Actually, that one's pretty valid as a message of hope. This hope will be materializing towards the end of July 2011. Hopefully he/she doesn't look quite so much like an alien by then.

lundi 22 novembre 2010

Dogjà Vu

Yesterday we went on a walk in the hills around our maisonette. St. Victoire was lookin' pretty spectacular:

About a third of the way through the walk, we met two dogs, who followed us and chased anything we would throw (well, one chased anything we would throw, and the other kept trying to get the first one to wrestle). I guess being so friendly with strange dogs was a mistake, because...

They followed us home.

And the black lab ran out on the roof to chase peacocks.

And then our visitors waited outside the door, hoping we'd let them come in and play.

Is the universe trying to send us a message? And if so, is it A) adopt a dog or B) don't talk to strangers' pets?

mercredi 17 novembre 2010


This morning I opened up the giant shutter that covers our glass "french doors" and saw two visitors relaxing on our terrace:
I stepped outside to shoo them away (because I'm getting sick of finding peacock droppings on my porch) and realized we weren't alone.

Another one on the roof, and another one in the tree.

I was glad I hadn't seen The Birds lately. It was creepy enough as it was.

Josh had gone on a looooong morning walk in the hills, and when he came back, he wasn't alone-- pup fantastic had followed him for about an hour. Upon arriving chez nous, said pup ran onto the roof--the ROOF, mind you--to chase away the peacocks. Very nice first impression, pup.

We considered letting him stay with us long-term, since his collar was raggedy and had no tags. And then when we went inside and he sat in front of the door crying for ten minutes, we REALLY considered keeping him.

I decided that if he stuck around until we left for work, he was ours. But he took off, probably after another peacock, or to exchange insults with the neighbor's dachsund. And I know that our lifestyle is nowhere near pet-friendly, but I still had a jab of disappointment when we got back home at the end of the day and he wasn't sitting on our doorstep. Somehow between linguistics class and coffee break I had started daydreaming about a certain pair of floppy ears...

lundi 1 novembre 2010

Another Castle Weekend

Our daily life here is definitely more of a grind than it was in the US, but it’s punctuated by almost magical moments that make me wonder if living in Europe might just be worth the hassle, the emotional trauma, and the reams of paperwork.

Our weekend in the Cevennes was one of those moments.

We’ve just started going to an English-language church, [iccp], the only church I know of with punctuation featured in its name. That’s not the only selling point—we’ve really enjoyed getting to know a whole group of other ex-pats. Plus, we showed up just in time to go along on their bi-annual castle trip. An elderly French nobleman, Monsieur de Cazenove, who still lives in his ancestral chateau, invites the entire church to come hang out at his place for a weekend twice a year. It started years back when he knew somebody who knew somebody, and it’s turned into a pretty clutch tradition. Apparently he likes it, too, and I had a good time chatting with him in his study about the history of the house and his family.

Turns out, the castle used to just be a rather large farmhouse, which his grandfather bought in the 1880s and reconstructed to look like a castle.

(Check out where M. de Cazenove stores his plastic lawn chairs.)

On first glance, the chateau seems like it’s from the 1400s, but inside its got all the amenities of an upper class residence from the late 19th century—complete with dumbwaiter in the dining room, connecting to the big kitchen/laundry area below.

The chateau felt both like a castle from a fairy tale, and like my grandma’s house. The palatial living room had medieval-style antiques alongside 1970s velour recliners with the newspaper and TV remote carefully placed within arm’s reach.

Usually when you visit a historical site, all that’s left is the shell—walls and ceilings, and maybe some paintings. If you’re lucky, there will be furniture that fits the time period, giving you some idea about what it used to look like. If you’re really lucky, there will be re-enacters, like the Chateau de la Barben, or even wax figures, like Warwick Castle in England, one of the best sightseeing events of my childhood.

This castle trip was even better. Not only did we get to stay in the castle, but we got to stay there with a group of people. It was amazing to watch everyone fall into what must be traditional “castle” behavior. During the day, all of the “able bodied” (or more adventurous) went off on a hike, leaving the women behind to putter around the kitchen and look after the kids. It felt as if they’d all gone off to work in the fields and stables. Then, everyone met up again in the huge “feasting hall” for dinner. We were all wearing jeans and fleeces, but our group dynamic was right out of the middle ages.

Even the social hierarchy was like that in a castle. The older couples and families with children were assigned bedrooms, and all the single girls—maybe I should call them “damsels”—had quarters together.

I kindof wished I'd been in the damsel's chamber, but Josh and I had the distinction of being a married couple, so we had our own room. We got an air mattress in the octagonal “smoking room” off the great hall—a relic of the 19th and not the 15th century, but intriguing nonetheless with exotic Indian muslin on the walls. It was so cool to have a little corner of a castle that we could call “home,” even if just for a weekend!

It reminded me of what the tour guide had said at Versailles: that courtiers would do anything to get even a broom closet assigned to them, so that they could “live” in the king’s palace with him. I’ve gotta admit, even the broom closet here was bigger than the room I had in Manhattan.

I, being able-bodied, should have been hiking during the day, but I chose to stay back and explore the castle. I don’t think Monsieur de Cazenove has thrown out anything that was purchased since his great-grandparents moved in, and there were antique treasures around every corner.

I ventured up to the attic, where drips from a leaky roof were caught by old chamber pots, and a trunk held generations of hand-me-downs.

I felt a little guilty that I was there instead of my friend J.B., who would have had some kind of fit from the bliss of it all, but I tried to enjoy it enough for the two of us, and take lots of pictures.

But how do you adequately enjoy something that seems too magical to be real?

Coming back downstairs, the kids had given up their hunt for treasures outside in the castle grounds...

...and were playing cache-cache (hide-and-go-seek). I wondered if one of them would hide in a wardrobe and end up in Narnia. Then I wondered if we already were as close as we could get. This impression was heightened when one of the little girls asked if I wanted to go see the stone table.

How do you come back to reality after a weekend like that? Not that the rest of our life feels that much like reality...

jeudi 28 octobre 2010

Steeeeeeerike ... 3? 7? We've lost count.

The Phillies may be done for the year, but it's still grève (strike) season here in France. The port of Marseille is blocked by the striking dockworkers, which means no deliveries of gas. I waited in line more than half an hour last week at a service station...and I was lucky to find one that had anything to sell.

Somehow the airport managed to stay open, and our visitors from London were able to arrive and depart, no problem. We spent a great day hiking along the cliffs overlooking the sea...
...where we could also see the oil tankers waiting for the port to open up again. They're there along the horizon.
Another stop on our "France on Strike" tour was the university, barricaded to I'm not sure if we're on strike over retirement age or education reform.

What I DO know is that, as a teacher, striking is a personal choice, until the students barricade the school and you can't get in. My 6th and 7th graders aren't going that far, although a few of them did try to convince me that a strike is actually an official day off, and if you want to go to the protest, you can, but you DEFINITELY don't need to come to school. Sorry, guys. I'm not THAT out to lunch.

But back to our weekend visitors, and the baseball metaphor: we had a fun "France on Strike" activity planned. According to Josh (because I wouldn't know), strikes are noted in baseball stats with the letter "K." So, we decided to buy a bunch of canvases and put a "K" up on the wall each time there's a strike that affects us in some way. Between the time when we decided to do this and the time we finally got around to doing the paintings, we'd lost count of how many strikes there had been. So we just did five and called it even.

Now I need to figure out how to get them to hang straight. Any tips on hanging canvases?

By the way, the olive tree "K" is Josh's masterpiece. He's really digging les oliviers, which is a convenient fascination, since they're everywhere. We've even got one on the terrace, where we did our "Painting in Provence" afternoon.

We are LOVING our terrace. Yesterday we hung out there after work, drinking tea, skyping Josh's mom, and watching an episode of the office. The terrace was also VERY useful on Monday evening, when our electricity decided to join in the spirit of the grève. We turned on the stove to cook our friends one last dinner-en-provence before taking them to the airport, and POP, we blew the kitchen fuse. And, it was one of those old fashioned ones that actually has to be replaced. No way THAT was going to happen until the next day, so we whipped the burners out of the way cool custom-designed-oven/butcherblock thing and set them up on the bar outside. It was a bit cold standing out there in the starlight stirring greenbeans, but dinner still got cooked and the house didn't smell like pork chops afterward, so we might make the "outdoor kitchen" a more frequent occurrence.

En tout cas
, the painting-on-the-terrace will definitely be repeated: there's another huge strike planned for November 6th, which just so happens to be the day we're heading in to Paris for a friend's wedding. Something tells me we're going to get some more wall art out of this one.

lundi 18 octobre 2010

Alps Camping Fail

A few weekends ago we decided it was finally time to use the tent we'd lugged across the Atlantic. We also decided to take a break from all the stress of moving (including constructing an entire apartment-full of Ikea furniture) and go on a little romantic weekend vacation. We drove up to the French Alps, hoping to see some fall foliage.

Apparently it was too early for fall foliage.

Josh had researched great hikes/camping spots in the Parc National des Ecrins, so we set off up the mountain to find a place to bivouac for the night.

We had forgotten something about the Alps: they're really, really steep. Which means there are no flat parts to camp in--at least not within a three hour hike of where we started. And we'd spent an hour going the wrong way, which meant we weren't going to get anywhere campable before dark. So we turned around to head back down the mountain, and I had a panic attack. Turns out I'm more afraid of heights than I had realized.

I don't have any trailside pictures of the steep part. I was too busy trying not to die.

After Josh (who had to wear both backpacks) finally coaxed me down off the mountain, we debated what to do. I was in favor of paying a campground to let us stay there, legally. Josh was in favor of finding a hidden spot to set up the tent in someone's back yard. I had visions of being woken up in the middle of the night by some ancient disgruntled farmer, threatening us with some kind of garden implement and refusing to call his dogs off. We explored the valley for a couple of hours until we found a spot that seemed remote enough that we wouldn't get caught for illegal camping. It still had me worried.

We set up the tent. We climbed inside. And then Josh realized he wasn't feeling too well.

Three hours later we were back in our apartment, snuggled in our new Ikea bed and stargazing out our bedroom window.

dimanche 17 octobre 2010

New Place

Still no internet in the new apartment, but this poor blog is languishing. So, I’ll give a quick update of life in the Krauthaus.

The car is back from the shop after a new alternateur (luckily covered by the dealer) and we’ve begun our research into French lemon laws. Gee, the things you never thought you’d end up learning about.

Our apartment is faring much better. In fact, it’s not really an apartment—the lease calls it a maisonette, which I suppose translates as “cottage.” Apart from a ghastly sulfur odor that wafts up out of old pipes around here, and the fact that we’ve run into walls, trees, and rocks trying to squeeze in and out of our tiny parking berth, we’re really happy with the new place. Here are some “before” photos, taken while the old tenants were moving out. Once we’ve finished unpacking and decorating I’ll do another virtual tour.

Here’s the kitchen, with that infamous custom-made oven/butcherblock...thanks to everyone who convinced me via facebook to buy it from the last tenants!

The bedroom has custom storage cabinets, too, and a gorgeous view out over the valley.

There’s also a den/guestroom/office, and our favorite part: the terrace!

Complete with a bar!

Too bad it’s gotten too cold for outdoor parties.

We’re also enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside. No loud music! No people smoking outside our windows! But we do have one new neighborly annoyance. Listen to this:

Peacocks. The people next door keep them as pets.

Apparently there was one digging around in our garden the other day; dirt was scattered everywhere and there were telltale feathers:

And a few days ago I woke up and looked out the window to find a peahen watching me from her perch on the next rooftop. Our landlord says we should chase them away, but I’m not sure the nuisance could possibly outweigh the novelty. Peacocks! Oh lala.

samedi 25 septembre 2010

Saturday Guessing Game

Guess what we spent our Saturday doing?

Getting the car towed.

Not sure yet what's up... but hoping the French lemon laws are user-friendly.

And while we we're asking difficult questions, see if you know what Josh's favorite color is:

You wouldn't know it's green, would you?

vendredi 24 septembre 2010

Castle Weekend

Last weekend, a friend from our university days stopped by Aix on a trip around Europe. Her request? To see a castle.

I'd seen signs for "Chateau de la Barben" and it seemed like the most castle-y castle around. Most of the "chateaux" in our region are either grand country houses or primitive-looking ruins. But this one had a good combination of medieval fortification outside and luxury living inside.

The gardens aren't open to visitors, but we could peer down into them as we climbed up to the gates. Since it was le jour du patrimoine, a special holiday celebrating historical sites, there was classical music floating down from speakers set up in the castle courtyard. In the area for tourists to picnic, we ran into a few people that seemed to be visiting from another time instead of another place.
It turned out that the castle was peopled by historical re-enacters for the day. But instead of taking their jobs too seriously, they were all just enjoying the castle like we were. It seemed like a few of the women had just used the day as a playdate, and lounged around the lady of the castle's private salon while their kids played with dolls, ribbons, and puppies.

The kids seemed to be enjoying themselves too--not least because they were given ice cream at the castle's snack shop.

Pretty dresses, an enchanted castle, and an ice cream cone? Sign me up.

Downstairs in the castle kitchen, two women in kirtles and bodices were whipping up a medieval feast in the castle's giant old fireplace/stove/oven.

They had to pause shoving cloves of garlic into one of the largest sides of meat I've ever seen and stirring vegetables in pans set among the coals to wipe their hands off on their voluminous aprons and answer the castle's phone. Chateau de la Barben is in business as a bed and breakfast and this weekend, overnight guests were sharing a feast with the re-enacters.

Hopefully they weren't sharing a bathroom, too.

We finished up the afternoon with a stroll around the castle grounds. The castle is in a tiny swath of deciduous forest (most of what we've got here is scruffy pine groves) and it was lovely to walk around and listen to the birds chirp and the stream gurgle.

And it was the first time we've visited an attraction formerly inaccessible to us due to lack of vehicle! Now that we're car owners we can get to these lesser known, out-of-the-way gems. Well, most of the time. The next day when we went to drive to a coastal town so our friend could see the Mediterranean, the car was dead. After a new battery (and a lot of scrambling around to find out who we know that has jumper cables), we're vehiculé ("vehicled") once more. Just in time for this weekend's destination: a new apartment! Yup, the bugs have won, and we're getting out of here. I'll show pictures once we've signed the lease. This new place seems pretty sweet and I don't want to jinx it. Stay tuned!