Monday, September 18, 2017

Settling down for Fall

We had a busy summer, after my last letter. We spent a few days with Emma and Gabriel and then met up with Claire's family for lunch. That was an interesting drive. We left Najac early in the morning and drove through the countryside to get on to the autoroute to Bordeaux. I had suggested getting off before Bordeaux and getting back on country roads to the supermarket/shopping center where we were meeting them but that got nixed. We hit the circular road at Bordeaux at the same time as vacationers coming up the Atlantic coast and from the Pyrénées also hit it. We were, theoretically, 7 km. from our destination, but it took an hour. No worries; we were still on time for lunch.
After lunch, we took off with A..., for our two-week holiday with her. We had a very nice bungalow setup at the Belambra club at La Palmyre, a village that is part of Mathes, just north of Royan, on the peninsula. These clubs are patterned after the original Club Med. There are clubs for 3 or 4 age groups of kids; the kids can go for half days, full days, stay with the club for lunch, or not go at all.
That first week, A... went in the morning on Monday and we picked her up at lunch time to meet our old friends, les Chau...., who were at another club-type place south of Royan with their granddaughter E.... We met at the La Coubre lighthouse. Paul and K... didn't even try to climb up the stairs of the lighthouse. I got up maybe 100 but couldn't go any farther; the Nordic walk in the morning had wiped me out. M... and the girls went all the way up and had a glorious view of the beaches, Royan in the distance and the forest. There was a food truck right there, so we had a long, leisurely lunch before heading off to the beach. It was a hot, hot day, but the section of beach we were on was not densely occupied. It reminded me of Barnegat Light, with the lighthouse in the distance. The girls (A... is 8 and E... is 10) got along very well. E... is Franco-German and A... is Franco-British, so they have French in common and after a bit of hesitation on A...'s part, they were chattering away. Many years ago, when Claire was just a bit older than A..., we met the Chau.... at a smaller version of these family vacation clubs. Next year, we shall try to arrange to be at the same one at the same time, but the German and British school holiday schedules are not at all in sync. Driving along beaches in France is horrible, whether it be the Mediterranean or the Atlantic coast. It had taken us an hour to drive less than 10 km. to the lighthouse and it had taken them 2 hours. Our drive back was quick, but theirs was even longer as they hit the Royan traffic.
Tuesday, it was rainy and we went to visit the Louis XIV rope factory, La Corderie Royale, in Rochefort. Rochefort, inland on the Charente river, but deep enough for 17th century ships, was the ship-building capital of France. It was natural that they would want to make the ropes for the ships, there, too. The building, however, is 300 meters long and is on marshy ground, so it needed some buttresses after a while -- not the kind on Gothic churches, but buttresses nonetheless. The building was left to ruin after ships became steam powered and the German army burned it when they left Rochefort at the end of WWII. In the 1960s, the city bought the ruin from the government and rebuilt it. They did an excellent job. They've now centered a whole tourist industry around it.  The building is 300 meters long because the ropes needed to be 200 meters and when you wind the rope, the total length shrinks by 1/3. The permanent exhibit is interesting and takes you from preparing the hemp fiber, spinning, and finally, winding the rope to the different thicknesses required. There's a fine restaurant, where we had lunch, and a well-stocked bookshop on all things concerning navigation and more.
After lunch, we walked over to see the Hermione, a replica of the ship that LaFayette sailed to America to help the Revolution. It wasn't a guided tour, but there were a few members of the crew around talking to the tourists. It's well worth the visit. I think the story of building this replica and the passion the volunteers put into it are more interesting than the actual ship. They manage to sail it every so often for big occasions; they have a wall of pictures. Coming right after the visit to the rope factory, I took great interest in all the ropes on the ship -- different thicknesses, tarred, not tarred, ...
The next day was a day at the Palmyre zoo, one of the major zoos in France. One of the advantages of being in a big club was having the little tourist train that came and picked us up in the morning. The conductor sold us our zoo entries, so when he dropped us off, we didn't have to wait in line at the ticket counter. The zoo has a lot of births; the major one this year was a baby giraffe. He's very cute. The zoo was crowded, as expected, perhaps too crowded. You start following the circuit and then can't get back to the amphitheaters for the shows. It probably wouldn't have mattered if we had gotten back in time, because I bet all the seats were taken up well before show time. One thing that angered me was that they sold bags of popcorn on the premises. I was always taught not to feed the animals, that they had their own diets and were fed accordingly. Well, people were feeding popcorn to the fish, the ducks, the zebras, the elephants, .... It was pitiful.
Finally, on Thursday, A... got to spend a day at the club, which she really enjoyed. In the evening, the kids put on a show. Fun was had by all. Friday, more of the same, without the show. Every evening, before dinner, there was a game time at the bar which we did not participate in -- not really our thing. After my Monday morning Nordic walk, I could hardly walk at all, so I did not participate in other exercise activities. We played Yams (Yahtzee) every evening and pétanque. There was a very nice, big, warm swimming pool and I had an interesting book to read.
Saturday, Louis and his family arrived nearby, south of us, but still north of Royan (Again, nearby is a relative term on the coast; it took 45 minutes to get there.) They were in an apartment in a town that has its own little beach, but not really on the ocean, more inland. Still, it was salt water and affected by tides. The cousins were excited to see one another and to play on the beach. We all had dinner together at a beach side restaurant. We invited S... to come and spend the night with us in the extra bed in A...'s room, but he declined. Another day, we spent some time on the beach with them; they came over to our place for dinner (and another try at the sleep--over invitation); we took a family boat ride on the Seudre river. Paul and I did a hike in the oyster-raising area along the Seudre and ate lots of oysters. We also visited Saintes, which was the terminus of the via Appia from Lyon. There is a very big Roman amphitheater and an Arc de Triomphe from then. And a medieval Abbaye aux Dames from the late Middle Ages (pre-Gothic). We also spent a day at the beach at the Coubre Lighthouse. Even in the area under lifeguard surveillance, it wasn't crowded.

 We stopped for a few days in Nogent before taking A... back to England for her birthday and the start of a new school year.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Plum jelly, or something else

The plum tree is producing small plums this year. I find them a bit too tart for just plain eating, so Paul asked me to make an open pie (tarte) with the first batch he collected. That was disastrous. It was too much work to get the pits out, so I warned him I was putting the plums on, whole, and he'd just have to watch out for pits. I didn't want to put too much sugar on it. I forgot to put crushed almonds to absorb the liquid. I forgot to smear egg white over the crust before putting the plums on it. Plums are full of water and, well, so was the pie. Really, we had stewed plums in a pie shell.
The next batch went into what started out to be jam, but, again, I was lazy and didn't feel like pitting all those little plums. I cooked the plums and sugar together; the brew thickened; I skimmed the froth; I put the plums through a sieve to get the stones out. All  went well. The brew was looking more like a thick jelly, though. It coated the spoon, indicating the right thickness to put it into the jars. The next morning, I tipped one of the jars and, well, it's not a thin syrup, but it's not a thick jam or jelly, either. It's more the consistency of what the French call a "coulis". I have looked through the online dictionaries and it seems we haven't come up with a better term in English. I can imagine it over cheesecake. I used it on vanilla ice cream, yesterday. Very nice.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

More summer nothingness

We had another heat wave that broke gently. Yesterday, we had light rain in the morning and a big storm in the early evening so the sky is clean -- not really clear; it's very cloudy. It's even chilly!
Last Monday, though we were in the midst of the heat wave. The temperature got into the mid-30°C range. I went to visit a friend who was having her chemo treatment at the Hôpital Européen Pompidou way over on the far side of Paris, near the Place Ballard in the 15th. I took the RER into Paris and connected to Line 8 on the Métro, which I took to the end. The RER train was one of the new ones, air-conditioned, and line 8 was not jam-packed, so it was bearable. The treatment ended at about 3:30, so she and the other friend who had come to visit went their way and I decided to take a bus. A trip home by bus from that hospital is 3 buses. It usually takes a little over 2 hours, but I had an e-book.... I thought that at least one of the lines I was taking had air-conditioned buses, but it turns out, they don't, or they don't any more. As I was getting on the 46 bus at the Gare du Nord, the driver and I talked about the heat and he said they were eliminating the air-conditioned buses because of the COP21 Paris agreement. I have trouble believing that. If the aim is to push people out of their cars into public transport, then public transport should be comfortable. I also mis-judged the mid-summer traffic; there should have been less. The buses should have been able to go faster than usual, not slower. It took almost 1 1/2 hours to get to the Gare du Nord on the 42; my ticket was just barely valid for the 46. Then, it was another hour to Vincennes. The 114 was over-crowded, but I was one of the first on the bus, so I did have a seat. This is no way to convince people to take public transport -- almost 3 hours point-to-point. There are shorter paths, I know. I could have gone back underground to reverse my trip. I could have taken the tram from Ballard to Porte d'Orée and gotten the 46, there. My complaint is not really about the time it took, but about the discomfort. One thing I think I should also mention, though, is that 47 years ago, I would have remarked on the stench, and now, that is a thing of the past -- people wash and use deodorant.
We went to see the Christopher Nolan version of Dunkirk ( on Wednesday. It's quite well done -- once you figure out the time scale. What's happening to those from the beach is happening over several days, What's happening to those in the sky is in hours and those in the small boats a full day. Lots of noise; there's very little dialog. It's not really about the battle leading up to the evacuation (, which was shown on TV on Thursday, here) , nor about what it was like on the beach, especially for the French troops (; "Week-end à Zuydcoote" -- the original French title). This is about the evacuation. Sure the other films are also about the evacuation, but they have more background leading up to it. This has a little background, but our heroes find themselves quickly in the sea. In fact, now having seen the 1958 film, I think this one seems to take a lot of its scenes from the end of that one. It's definitely to be seen on a big screen. I noticed it is also in IMAX -- for me, that would be too much.
We've started eating the first cherry tomatoes from the garden. The big tomatoes are really big this year and haven't started turning red, yet. I hope the first ones are ripe before we go south. The red plum tree is producing this year. The plums are not quite ripe, yet. They, too, usually get ripe when we're not here. Paul picked some yesterday, hoping I'd make a pie, today. I'd better get to it, then.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Let's see. We had some strawberries in May and June, but any new ones are now found by the snails and ants before we get to them. The raspberries are finished for the first crop. I've cut the branches that had fruit to make room for the branches that might have something in September. I have 3 bags of frozen raspberries in the freezer. The blueberry bush we bought in May is producing some nice fruit, but not enough for a whole dessert. The other day, we split a harvest of 10 berries. The red plum tree has lots of fruit this year. If the past serves as any indication, the plums will be ripe and fall off the tree right when we're on vacation. The greengage tree, child of the wonderful tree that was here when we bought the house, which produced such succulent plums, seems to have a branch with some plums on it this year. The old tree was chopped down several years ago, after losing yet another branch. This young tree grew right on the property line. Normally, we would have had to cut it down because you're not supposed to have trees or shrubs grow over 2m. high less than 2m. from the boundary, but our neighbor likes it and his side of the tree apparently produces more plums than ours. We just had to cut back the maple trees at the back, which I had planted to be trimmed as shrubs, but which grew into trees anyway. They were up against the boundary wall and were high enough to cast long shadows on that neighbor's yard.
Bastille Day, which is simply known as Fête Nationale, here, is over. The parade was very nice, as usual. The fact that the US President was invited was normal as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the entry of France in WWI. There was a demonstration against him on the 13th, organized by Indivisibles-France and Democrats Abroad. The consensus is that the invitation was the right thing to do, no matter who the President is. And the parade was excellent, with the sun shining and mild temperatures, so it went off without a hitch. As usual, when I see the planes flying over the Champs Elysées, I go up to my room and open the windows to see them fly over us barely a minute later. They don't fly exactly over us, some veer off to the left, over the Marne, and others fly just to the right, more over Fontenay, than Nogent. Still, we have a nice view and the noise drowns out everything.
After that ceremony, Macron flew off to Nice for a much sadder event. It was the anniversary of the 2016 terrorist attack by truck during the fireworks. It was a moving commemoration. I didn't see this last part, but have read about it this morning -- the singer, songwriter Calogero wrote a song about fireworks (Feux d'Artifices) some time ago, not for this, not right after the attack; it's a song that was already on an album of his. It's about taking a kid to see the fireworks, to put him up on your shoulders, to see the "stars", the "constellations", and so on -- you know, what people do at fireworks and what it means to them. He was asked to sing the song after the minute of silence last night. He couldn't finish it. He broke down. There were no fireworks in Nice this year. They had 86 lights up in the sky for the 86 victims.