lundi 24 mai 2010

Oh dear

Just got back from the market, where a busker had set up a microphone and an amp with a backup tape. He reminded me of a young teenager I once saw busking on the subway in NYC--his exquisite, well-trained voice floated through the subway car with, "When I fall in love, it will be forever. . ." and I reached for my wallet, but then zipped my purse right back up again when he continued with, "When I never fall in love. . . la-la laaaa la-la, la-la-la. . ." Dude. If you're going to sing in public, learn the words.

This guy was singing something in French as I arrived and started picking up zucchini and carrots, and I was really impressed with his honey-smooth baritone. And then his backup tape changed songs and he began a rousing rendition of "You've Got a Friend on Me." Oh dear. Oh, dear.

lundi 17 mai 2010 bien sûr!

Lest you think that the people of Cannes have enough glamour in their lives that they aren't interested in Miss Monroe:

Here she is on the sign of a beach restaurant:

Here are 3-D Marilyn portraits gracing the wall of a café where we (and many lanyard-wearing festivalgoers) got a snack:
The artist painted these portraits and then added real bijoux--the top Marilyn has earrings and a necklace stuck on to the canvas and the bottom Marilyn's collier is made from a vintage rhinestone brooch. The top Marilyn also seemed to have some problem with her lips. We think they were put on crooked.

And in case you're only driving by the outskirts of Cannes but still need your Marilyn fix, here's a giant mural:

We also popped into a store ("Bathroom Graffiti") with an entire Marilyn section: espresso mug sets, Marilyn's-lips sofas, makeup bags and I think I lost track after that.

Yes we Cannes

Our friends David and Jessica were here visiting this week and Jessica wanted to see Cannes during the film festival. So off we went, she and I, to get our fill of glamour.

Cannes is, a la base, a little seaside town-turned-festival city. The old town (including castle) perches on top of a peninsula that juts out into the sea beside a little port.

On the other side of the port is the main festival pavilion—location of the official red carpet.

Then stretching along the beach is the town: a mix of fancy hotels, like the “Hotel Splendid”:

And of course the Ritz-Carlton, where lots of les stars stay, apparently.

Did we bump into any of the famous people who were at the film festival (Woody Allen, Cate Blanchett, Tim Burton. . .)? Nope, not unless you count George and Brad.

We determined pretty quickly that the celebrities only come out at night. I pointed out to Jessica that this was like cockroaches. I had bugs on the brain with the whole termite/scorpion/cockroach/landlord-not-concerned-enough-about-it situation. Anyway, I don’t blame them (the celebrities); there are tourists everywhere and they would get swamped, plus, I think they’re there to promote their films to other industry people and go to official events, not party. Aside from the gawking tourists, the atmosphere of the festival was just like that of a big convention for any industry—people in business clothes coming and going and grabbing business lunches and talking on cell phones. We could tell who was connected to the festival because they all had lanyards with ID cards on them and a “we’re doing important work” look in their eyes. As opposed to the people not connected to the festival, who had a “we’re hoping we run into George Clooney” look in their eyes.

There’s no way for someone unconnected to the festival to get into the films short of begging, which dozens of people were doing in front of the theatre, holding up signs pleading for tickets. As far as I can tell, though, the other movie theatres in town show a different selection that is still loosely affiliated with the festival. We started to walk to one of these other theatres, where a French friend had told us we would be able to see a film for free (!) and people associated with it would probably be there (actors, directors, etc.). On the way to the theatre, we ended up roaming around the old city, and stopped at the castle on a hill, and decided that the town was too interesting to spend half of our remaining 4 hours sitting cooped up in a theatre. So we walked back through town, along the main (shopping) street.

It was a pretty weird mix of shops—the normal “high-street” brands (like Zara and Mango) peppered with pretty high-end retailers. Nothing über-fancy, though. I think that stuff is carefully tucked away from gawking tourists. We DID find a second-hand shop with red-carpet-worthy duds—and oh, how I love this dress.

I would wear it if I were going to make a red-carpet entrance. Although it’s probably out of the budget of a humble English teacher—the frock hanging next to it was Lanvin and I think the shoes were some equally haute marque.

After strolling around town a bit and getting caught in a rain shower (luckily we’d brought umbrellas, thank you MeteoFrance for being right for once in your weather predictions) we went past the festival pavilion again. . .

And saw everyone set up to photograph the stars as they arrived for the evening’s events. I think those are all photographers (or at least very determined and devoted fans) under those umbrellas.

Earlier in the day we’d seen the ranks of ladders set up for strategic picture-taking.

I think the “real” photographers with press passes get to go into a special cordoned-off area. We waited and watched for a while perched on a wall across the street. I think we were just too early for anyone in evening wear, although we saw some people not dressed like celebrities coming in and out.

But we had to catch our bus, and the two hours of sitting were still not enough to erase the fatigue of a full day of walking. So, tired, damp, and chilly, we got home to our unglamorous but warm apartment with a husband waiting for each of us. After pretending that we’d seen Russell Crowe, we fessed up that all we’d seen was the town and lots and lots of people with lanyards. The celebrities only come out at night, I told Josh. “Oh,” he said, “like cockroaches.”

lundi 10 mai 2010

Les Macarons

If you’re a connoisseur of French culture, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t ever mentioned macarons. Or you may be wondering what macarons are. For those in the second group, a macaron is a VERY distant cousin to the American “macaroon”—they’re both made with a base of almonds (or coconut, for the American version) instead of flour, and they’re both made without a leavening agent—but as far as I know, the similarities stop there.

I am not at all qualified to be explaining macarons. They have a following that makes twi-hards and trekkies look apathetic. There are blogs upon blogs and books upon books dedicated to them. When it comes to macarons, I’m pretty much just a casual observer. A friend of mine who actually knows how to make these incredibly tricky gourmandises says that there’s a special technique to whip the batter (almond flour, sugar, and egg whites) into the fluff that gets baked and hardens into the macaron shell. Two macaron cookies are then sandwiched together like a gorgeous hamburger and filled with buttercream, ganache, fruit jam, or even special surprises, like a whole (pitted) cherry. Wikipedia says that this stereotypical macaron is actually the Parisian version, created by the pâtisserie Ladurée in the early 1900s. This makes sense, because at the artisanal foodmarket here in Aix, I’ve seen rustic cookies looking much more like American macaroons than Ladurée’s creations.

So, did I discover macarons in a pastry shop here in France? Nope, I first had one in the kitchen of Josh’s neighbor Mrs. L. We went over to say goodbye to their family before we left for France in 2008, and sat at Mrs. L’s kitchen counter and sampled some of the delicacies she was in the process of whipping up that day. Chief amongst them was an Ispahan macaron, a marriage of raspberry, rose, and lychee with fresh berries tucked into the rich buttercream and cubes of some magical sugary substance that I cannot even hope to describe. Mrs. L showed us the inspiration on Pierre Hermé’s website, and I kindof nodded and mmmmm-ed, oblivious to the privilege I was experiencing.

It turns out that Pierre Hermé is rivalling Ladurée for recognition as the top macaronerie in the WORLD, and Mrs. L had managed to re-create a Pierre Hermé concoction in her kitchen in Pennsylvania. The magnitude of this didn’t start to dawn on me until we got to France and I got around to shelling out 75 centimes for a macaron at a bakery and it didn’t even hold a CANDLE to Mrs. L’s. I started doing some research, reading Paris Breakfasts (a macaron lover’s paradise of a blog) and asking des françaises in-the-know for their opinions. It finally boiled down to one thing: I was going to have to do some in-person experimentation.

So, when my family came over to visit last April and we went to Paris, on the itinerary was a macaron taste test. We stopped by Ladurée and Pierre Hermé and made some purchases, and then took them to the Luxembourg Gardens to get down to business.

From Pierre Hermé, we had pistachio-cherry, vanilla-olive oil, jasmine, blood-orange cointreau, passionfruit-milk chocolate, and rose-grapefruit (I think. . . it was a lot of sugar and my memory is a bit blurry).

From Ladurée, we had. . . I think green tea, coffee, caramel au beurre salé, and rose. And oh, the experience. The shell is craquant and makes a little pop as your teeth break through it, and the inside is creamy and rich. And then there were surprises, like the cherry inside this pistachio-griotte macaron.

Winner of the macaron challenge: Ladurée’s rose-flavored macaron. Ladurée’s flavors were simple but amazingly intense.

The Pierre Hermé flavors were more fun but a bit weird (you can tell from their store front that they’re all about pushing the envelope):

Because we were going for mini-macarons, we didn’t buy one of the full-sized ispahan creations from PH. We DID, however, get an ispahan croissant. De-li-cieux. It was filled with a raspberry-rose paste with candied rose petals sprinkled on top. We ate (worshipped) it on the TGV back to Aix.

mardi 4 mai 2010

A Lovely Day in Venelles

Today was one of those delicious blustery days when your umbrella blows inside out more than once but it's not so cold that you hate your life. After I take the bus to Venelles (about 20 minutes), I walk up a steeeeeep hill to my first school of the day, perched on up in Venelles La Haut, the medieval hilltop town, or village perché. I teach one class at the école on top of the hill and then walk back down to the newer part of town. On my walk back down, the view of the valley is amazing. I can see the Alps off in the distance when the weather's clear--here's where they should be.

No snow-capped peaks today. Even Mt. Sainte-Victoire was hidden by clouds, and the fields in that direction were veiled in a filmy mist.I love to look into this house's garden as I walk past. They have a little orchard and a fish pond, but it's not very well laid out--gives the feeling of a constricted jumble. Still, it was cool to watch spring creep up on it.

Around the corner, Spring is starting to give way to summer. The blossoms are saying their goodbyes.You can tell Venelles is a pretty ritzy bedroom community of Aix. Some of the crosswalks are made of marble paving stones!

I poked my nose into the grocery store to pick up lunch--I'd left my carefully packed pique-nique at home. After I came out, the storm had cleared up and Il faisait beau. Sainte-Victoire was peeking back through the clouds.
Venelles seems like a great place to live. I wish we could afford the rent here! There are mostly just houses for families, not much for a young pair of americains who miss their backyards but don't want a whole maison. There are apartments, but they're for families or retirees. The complex by my second school even has a daycare connected to the building! And you barely walk out your front door and you're by the biblotheque. I missed a class this week because my 1st grade (CE1, as they're called here) took a stroll over to the library with their teacher.
The way from the bibliotheque down to the next school is almost as nice as the walk down the hill. There are tree-lined streets with little townhouses that seem to be going for quality, not quantity. They look well-built, and snuggle in sweet little walled and gated gardens. No "contiguous lawn" democracy in France--here, the liberté, égalité and fraternité is maintained by strong fences to make good neighbors. Not so sure how well that's working for them.
Friendly as neighbors or not, these houses have become my new "dream homes": they're small, but they have yards and garages (that's important) and are close to shops and bakeries and civilization. Venelles has a concert series, an exhibition space, and a giant park with walking and biking trails. It really feels like a "town" and not a suburb.

My students walk to school and go home for lunch (remember, lunch break is 2 hours). If their parents work, they stay and eat at the cantine and play in the cour. One thing that all of the schools I've worked in have in common is la cour, a big enclosed schoolyard. Usually you have to cross the cour to get to the cafeteria, the music classroom, or the computer lab. Two of the schools I've worked in were actually built as a loose chain of classrooms with the cour in the center--when you're in a Mediterranean climate, it's not a problem to have to go outside to get from one classroom to the next. Here's a picture of École Marcel Pagnol, the school by the library--the kids play outside or in the indoor/outdoor space between the two wings of the building.
Can you tell how many of the little girls are wearing leather boots? I'm telling you, it's a fashion must-have around here.

To end our lovely school day, Marlin (the German assistant) and I found out that our last few classes were canceled for an assembly. So we wandered around town (I had never seen the main street, so Marlin took me there en voiture) and then into Aix where we had le goûter--an after-school snack. Normally parents meet their kids at the school gate with a pain au chocolat or some baguette with nutella. Marlin and I found a little bakery/coffee shop and had tea and hot chocolate and quiche...
But after chatting for an hour with a pastry case staring at us, we melted and split a tropezienne, a pastry so amazing I'm not even going to describe it. I'll just give you the recipe.
Comme c'est belle, la vie. Life is beautiful sometimes, non?

dimanche 2 mai 2010

Au Boulot!

Exams are coming up in a few weeks and Josh and I both have beaucoup du boulot--tons of work. Not much more than should be expected for people both in school and working, but since it's the first time we've tried this, it's a bit overwhelming. I pulled an all-nighter last Thursday to finish a paper and my college roommate sent me this:

Hear, hear! Makes me want to toss the books and go get ice cream!

samedi 1 mai 2010

Muguets du Printemps

Spring is here! Sortof! The trees have all flowered and then leaved (grown leaves?) but it's still kinda cold and rainy. What happened to this being the south of France!?!?! One particularly nice aspect of the rain (aside from how gorgeous a cloudy sky looks over the hills) is that the rain chases away the droves of smokers who hang out on the doorstep of our apartment building. Our alley is just wide enough to count as a "place" (pronounced "plahss," the french equivalent of an open square or plaza), and everyone working in the neighboring shops seems to come here for their smoking break. And since our building has the most sit-able doorstep. . . we get a lot of second-hand smoke. Josh is especially not-cool with breathing in chemicals, so I wasn't surprised the other day when I stuck my head out for something and the smokers jumped up and asked if they were bothering me. But I WAS surprised when they added, "Is that your husband who lives here with you?" "Yes...pour quoi?" I hoped Josh hadn't pissed off this particular group of loiters--they looked like up-to-no-good teenage punks. "Because he's a really nice guy! He let us ride his bike!" Josh told me later he had gotten them to lend him a hand while he was changing a bike tire and they'd struck up a friendship. The last time we saw them take their smoking break (they've moved up the alley, I guess Josh did mention he's not cool with breathing tar), Josh even called them over to try some banana bread. "It's our job to be good cultural ambassadors," I told them. "We want everyone to know that Americans eat stuff other than hamburgers."

So, anyway, Spring is here, and today was May 1st, which is Labor Day here. For some reason, on May 1st everyone gives each other lily-of-the-valley, which I think is really cool. Unfortunately for the flower, its french name is muguet, (moo-GAY) which is just not as pretty as its American name, but it's still hugely popular here. I think the story goes that some fair maid gave a spring to her knight-in-shining-armor before a tournament and it became a good luck symbol...but what it has to do with May 1st is beyond me. It's a flower with a soft spot in my heart from being the favorite of my dear old great-great-aunt Kitty, and the name of one of my little cousins, and I was excited to see it pop up everywhere on May 1st last year. We were in Paris with my family, and I snapped a shot of the window of the Ladurée patisserie, one of the nicest in the city of lights:
(I just love that little box with the bouquet on it in the lower left-hand corner! so cute! so french!)

I thought about buying myself a sprig of muguet at the market this morning--I'm not french enough yet to think of getting it for someone else. After spending WAY too much on broccoli and splurging on a barquette of gorgeous local strawberries, though, I decided it was an unnecessary expense. I could have gotten a potted lily-of-the-valley, too (how cool is THAT?) but our ivy is hanging on by a tendril and I didn't want to kill something I got because it reminds me of Aunt Kitty. So I contented myself with the lovely springtime purchases of picture-perfect strawberries and a fresh local goat cheese:

Mmmm... made for a good samedi brunch.

I LOVE getting our fruits and veggies from farmers with dirt still under their fingernails. Tonight's dinner was another market offering, summery courgettes farcis. As we were sitting down to eat it, we were interrupted by someone outside yelling, "Hey, Uncle Sam!" Seriously. We went over and opened the curtain, and it was the punky teenage loiterers. "Sorry," they said. "We couldn't think of something else to call you." And then they handed us a spring of lily-of-the-valley and thanked us again for the banana bread.

I love my life some times.

Uncle Josh wants YOU to be kind to your neighbors!