My French Supermarket

Photo on 2013-07-05 at 06.59

Here is a map I drew of my Carrefour supermarket. The one that has random American products and where the stunning checkout girl came out to me. Because our apartment has only a dorm-sized fridge with no shelves inside, I am forced to go here at least every other day.

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Picture Post: Ladies Lunch in the South of France

A couple of weeks ago, Sheila, Fi and I decided to throw caution, obligations and their kids to the wind and have lunch together on a Tuesday afternoon.  We had a delightful meal at a tiny restaurant called La Grange, just behind the Palais du Justice. It was a quirky little place run by a husband and wife, with her cooking and him hosting. Every time he brought a plate out, he would say, “La fameuse…” and name the dish.  I loved every moment of it.

La Grange
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Montpellier’s Renegade, AWOL Mardi Gras

Dateline, Montpellier, France: Le sigh.

So, Montpel had their annual Mardi Gras celebrations last night. Kind of. Sort of. Well, in a way. Actually, unsurprisingly, in the only way that seems fitting for this town. Read the story after the jump.

Montpellier

The foundation of caca-pipi-talism: Two bikes and an IKEA shopping cart, just like the pundits say.

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A Trip to the Doctor’s in the South of France

Cal and I got up super early last week and went to Dr. Navarro to see what was up with this dry, hacking cough I’ve had since Paris. I don’t usually need someone to accompany me, but my knowledge of French doesn’t extend to medical terms. It turns out to be bronchitis; but, in the surreal world that is Montpellier, there is more to the story than that.

Dr. Navarro's Office
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Wine: It’s a Riot

OK.

I know rioting isn’t fun or funny. People are injured, businesses are ruined, and tensions run high long after the last of the tear gas has dissipated. It’s no laughing matter – especially when it happens where you live.

I also know that the wine culture – from those who grow the grapes on verdant hills to those who sip and sup throughout the world – is a civilized one. A healthy respect for centuries-old traditions combined with a true love of living makes for generally peaceful people.

But, these are not peaceful times. Continue reading

Summer in the City: Montpellier, Languedoc, Provence

Last night we went to see George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (in English) at the Diagonal. I had to close my eyes several times – not because it was scary, but because it was shot with a handheld camera. It was a highly entertaining, socially heavy-handed zombie flick that delivered.

While we were waiting for the salle to open – there were 12 of us milling around, waiting to sit in air conditioning for a while – Cal perused the racks of publicity materials and brought over to me quite a gem: For the first time in Europe, Weegee‘s photographs are being exhibited – for free! – at Le Pavillon Populaire on the esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle.

It starts today and goes through September, so anyone who is going to be here – STACY, I’m looking at you! – should definitely head over to see the New York photographer’s work.

Cal’s parents are in town for a few days next week, so we’ll start off the summer right with some touristy things. They’ve rented a barge and have been drifting down the Canal du Midi, gliding through the various locks and will arrive here on Monday afternoon.

We’ve compiled a “to-do” list for them, which includes:

  • The Camargues National Park, to see the white horses (and pink flamingoes!) of the Camargues. It’s haunting and rugged and utterly beautiful. And, there’s a vineyard in the middle of it!
  • Aigues Mortes. A walled town on the Mediterranean, it’s a great place to stroll around and have a lunch outside in one of its many squares.
  • Arles. I didn’t love Arles, because I’d already been to about 778 other towns that look just like it down here; but, it certainly does put van Gogh’s work into perspective.
  • Avignon. We have to be careful that the fete isn’t still on, as a million drunk Frenchmen really isn’t fun for the whole family.
  • Lavender. Fields of it. This is the one thing I have always wanted to see in France, so I’m excited to grab my camera and head out to see these famous crops.
  • Beaches. We’ll probably take them to Carnon or Palavas-les-Flots – family places with enough moules-frites on hand to sink a ship. We’ll avoid Cap D’Agde, which is so incredibly nudist, people wear their birthday suits to go to the bank!

That should be a busy couple of days. I also would like to see the water-jousting competitions in nearby Sète.

And lastly, I think I am ready for a bullfight, a popular event down here in the South (and so close to Spain). The closest I have come to it was when we took Sheila’s kids ice skating this winter in the arena outside town. If anything, I’d like to at least be in a town that is hosting one – probably Nimes, I’d think.

Wherever you live, make sure to get out and about this summer. Too many people wake up one day and it’s September, and they kick themselves for not having enjoyed the season.

South of France to Rome, Italy: Why So Hard?

When I leave today for Rome from sunny Montpellier, I will walk to the end of my street and board an express train to Nice. I have an hour and a half layover in Nice – just enough time to stroll down to the sea while munching on a delicious sandwich from Paul – and then I take the overnight train to Rome.

The train is lovely. I am usually alone in my sleeper compartment; there are fresh cotton sheets and a snug wool blanket; the porter brings me bottled water at night and tea, pastry and the newspaper in the morning. It’s a hotel that hurtles me toward my destination as I sleep, with constantly changing panoramic views and St. Peter’s Basilica in the morning sunrise. I step off the train at Termini refreshed and relaxed, and within 10 minutes I am at the door of my friends’ house.

The entire trip takes 19 hours, due to the layover and several lengthy stops in Italy throughout the night, which go unexplained but I think allow other trains to pass and also let passengers arrive in Rome at an hour when things are actually open (9.45AM as opposed to the previous arrival of 6ishAM).

Nineteen hours! People exclaim. Surely there must be a better way to get there?

The answer? No, not really. There are some that might take less time by the clock, but are infinitely more hassle, due to the fact that they all involve flights.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love flying. But trains were made to be easy, and they are. Heck, on the return tip’s Nice layover I rent a chair on the beach for the morning!

Sure, Ryanair, EasyJet and the rest of them fly from roughly my area (Carcassonne, Lyon, Marseilles, Paris; I mean, it’s all the same country, at least) to Rome’s two airports. But the airports are a hassle to get to from the trains I have to take to get to those towns (Paris Beauvais, anyone?); the planes often leave at bizarre hours, prompting either overnight hotel stays (goodbye, savings) or bizarre contortions of time and space (I can’t get to the airport 14 minutes before my flight; my only other choice is seven hours before my flight).

No, give me my train every time. Clean, comfortable, less chance of death, and you leave from and arrive in the center of each town. Also, one time an old Italian porter pinched my cheek and told me I was a star! When’s the last time someone did that on a plane? NEVER.

[EDIT: Ms. Adventures reminded me of another great thing about trains – bring as much heavy, awkwardly-shaped, or fragile luggage as you want!]

(P.S. You think I’m a foodie? Ms. Adventures has me beat! Check her out.)

A reader I suggested I look for cruises!  HA!  Love it.  I think cruise vacations are pretty cool, and that’s my little secret. You never have to worry about finding holiday apartments, and you can get good travel deals that tie in with the cruise part of your trip, too.

Mistral Sunday: Pictures

I had to do some thinking before I quoted an Italian translation job today, so I grabbed the camera and took some pictures around the house. The sky color has not been adjusted, by the way. Anyway, here’s a look at what I see every day:

I love the way the light hits this building across the street in the afternoons.

Moon! And Mistral blue sky.

Veuve, baby. Empty, sadly, and now used as ashtrays on the balcony.

Ladybird “Squirt” Johnson.

The Most Depressing Sofa On The Planet. It’s usually completely covered with that chenille coverlet.

Cal’s desk. This is why we don’t share a work space at home. In contrast, here is my desk:

Awwwwww. Nice, right?

Next Stop, FUN: The French Summer Party Train!

As Miss Expatria’s gentle readers well know, I don’t love France. But just when I start to think there’s nothing fun about this existentially-shrugging, chain-smoking, c’est-pas-possible country, they turn around and surprise me!

My discovery of Beaujolais Day was one of those times. Held on the third Thursday in November – making it a delicious alternative to Thanksgiving Day for American expats – everyone in France who’s healthy enough to raise a glass heads to their local bar and samples the year’s new wine, which is arguably best when drunk as soon as possible after it’s been bottled. (Many oenophiles insist on waiting a month to get the true flavor, but that simply means more room at the bar for the rest of us.)

Another fun thing is Fete de la Musique, on the summer solstice. Once again, all of France shuts down and takes to the streets – not to strike, surprisingly, but to walk around town listening to live bands, DJs, string quartets, and anyone else who wants to make some noise on this day. Unfortunately for music fans, there’s been an alarming trend toward almost exclusively reggae and reggaeton, and much of the Fete’s international or even traditional French fare has fallen victim to booming Honda-sized speakers growling about Jamaica. Although, last year I heard a live reggae band segue from Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” into “So Lonely” by the Police, and was blinded by the brilliance.

And now I hear of France’s newest scheme to get people riding the rails.

GENTLEMEN, BEHOLD!

iDNIGHT – THE PARTY TRAIN!

That’s right. Starting this summer, SNCF is booking overnight trains from Paris to Biarritz, Montpellier and Nice – three towns very familiar with partying, even without the government’s blessing – complete with bar cars, DJs, dance floors, video game and talent competitions, and low-lighting cars for chatting up fellow passengers.

What the articles I’ve read don’t cover is what any of these three towns plan to do with a trainload of drunk 18-30 year-olds spilling en masse into the town center between 4 and 5 AM. If it were America – well first of all, it would never happen, but if it did – there would be some enterprising young group who’d be set up at the end of the platform with greasy breakfast sandwiches and strong coffee. At the very least, companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks would be in on the fun, and would probably tie in with return ticket promotions so everyone gets back home in one piece.

As a resident of one of these destination towns, I seriously hope that SNCF has come up with some sort of plan, and that they’re not depending on the foresight of the type of kids that would say, OMG PARTY TRAIN ALLONS-Y to realize ahead of time that they’ll be arriving in another city, hundreds of miles from home, in the bright summer morning sun without an exit strategy.

I have half a mind to rent a hotel room overlooking the station entrance for the inaugural trip. It should be, well… FUN!

Sunday In The Garden With Expats

**This is an entry from way back, summer of 2006, I believe. I’m on a deadline with a client, so you’re getting archive treats!

Brunch at Auntie Lu’s English Restaurant – most of their tables were outside, accommodating a group of 12 women celebrating their friend’s impending trip around the world by taking her out to a different ethnic cuisine every day/night. Lu gave them an English Culture Quiz and the winner got a bottle of wine!

So there was a lot of room inside the restaurant, and I looked up from the Times Culture section to see Cal, Gwennie, and Lu dancing. I think Lu might have had a spatula in her hand. Merlin the dog was also frolicking around. Anna, Louis and Natalia came in to pick up the pub’s lunches for takeaway. Shelton ate a hangover brunch outside, then moved over to the outside lounge area so that Jeremy and Paulette could have their hangover brunch. It felt like the first scene in a play, set in the place where everyone comes in and you get a bit of each character’s persona by hearing what they did the night before., and seeing them interact. I was a blissful, quiet observer and I left fully satisfied.

Later that day we went to Fiona’s for a huge pork feast. Her youngest, Flo, chose to pick this day to feel unloved and so she was dramatically flung onto the couch wrapped in blankets and weeping amongst the kittens and cats. Rose and various other teenage girls were slinking around, looking conspiratorial. Fiona’s two-room cook’s kitchen was a mine field of mess and splatters and bowls and pots piled high in Dr. Seuss-like fashion. It is obvious she loves to cook. The younger kids jumped with abandon into the pool or crawled up into the cherry tree to feast. Margot was on a platform built into another tree, cooing at a kitten she had brought up there for company.

The terrace was taken over by the grown-ups. Two enormous wooden tables and a motley assortment of benches, wicker sofas, and Adirondack chairs were dragged from every corner of the property to accommodate the stream of people coming in all bearing wine and beer. Mismatched, beautiful plates were brought out in huge heavy stacks and 25 of us feasted on roasted pork, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, and an assortment of salads.

Dessert was an ENORMOUS Pavlova, and huge piles of mismatched and elegant bowls were brought out, and everyone had at least seconds if not thirds.

Various unnamed people hijacked the kids’ stereo and we sang cheesy ’80s pop songs at the top of our lungs and corrected each other’s misheard lyrics and screamed laughing. One of the kiddies brought back fresh eggs from the chicken coop and we marveled at their warmth and there was an egg toss that ended badly for Cal and Jeremy.

Wine and stories were traded back and forth. Eva sang and played guitar, and I sang, and Dave played some great oldies on the guitar for us to scream to, and then we settled back into laughter and more stories.

Cal left early with Andy, and I shared a taxi back around midnight with Lu, Mu, Sam and Janet. It was raucous and when we got out, Sunday night in Montpel welcomed us back to its silent streets, little bits of songs and lost logic and we bade goodbye in the street and we all made it upstairs and into the correct apartments.

I think that rereading my journal from Rome has taught me that it’s up to me to seek and capture a magical life, which this weekend was the determined and successful start of. If New York is my first great love, and Rome is my one true love, Montpel is the one who you accept a date with on a whim, and you can’t get a taxi to the restaurant, then it’s closed and you go to another place and wind up getting some kind of food poisoning, and you lose your cell phone, and the kiss goodnight is clumsy, and you wrote his number down wrong, but you wake up the next morning and realize you had a really great time and he’s a really good guy.

Thanksgiving Dinner in France

This evening, Cal and I went to Brasserie du Theatre (with 900 accents on that last word, but I can’t be arsed) for a non-Thanksgiving dinner.

(That last link is just because I like the phrase, “Cooking without pants.”)

Cal started off with a gin and tonic, which in France means they give you a lowball glass with a shot of gin in it and a tiny bottle of Schweppes tonic. I had a glass of champagne, because I am classy like that.

For grub, Cal started with a delightful and buttery grilled foie gras served with creme freche (again, with the accents) and artfully placed potato crisps, while I chose to go sea with about 147 crevettes (yes, heads and all) with a garlicky aioli and a high-society finger bowl on the side.

For our entrees, I had an enormous piece of steak-like and hearty lotte with a sesame crust, onion confit and carrots gratin. Cal enjoyed grilled veal brochettes, which he labeled as “interactive” since he had to disassmeble the brochettes, cut a bite-size piece and then pour the caramelized sauce over each bite.

I had a tinsy bottle of Riesling, my favorite white wine EVAH and a most satisfactory complement to my fish dishes, and Cal had another gin and tonic because he is allergic to wine and felt strange buying a beer in such a class joint.

We finished our meal with a calvados for Cal to offset his diverticulitis, and I had a chocolat fondant with creme anglais, which frankly I could drink creme anglais until I literally got sick, and the fondant was exactly as it should be – a bit crusty on the outside, but break it with a fork and chocolate half-liquid lava flows from the inside, and the creme anglais is cold.

I wore black, of course and many layers of pearls, and Cal looked like a respected rock star in exile at an interview in a Paris bistro, with his layered look and his always-trusty blazer but without the fey cravat, more like this but all in greys and blacks and his chipped black fingernail polish from the Marilyn Manson show last weekend and his titanium glasses.

We then went up to the Vert Anglais to see the band and then Le Huit for a righteous cocktail. Le Huit looks like the bottom of a swimming pool and has impossibly cool patrons who are an average of 12 years younger than Cal and myself, but surprisingly it’s not hipper-than-thou and was packed for a rainy night.

Cal went back to watch the rest of the bands’s set, but I am back at home in my comfy PJ’s and ready to kick some butt on CSI for Playstation.

HAPPY TURKEY BOK BOK.

Giving Thanks Where Thanks Is Due

Cal and I are lazy and the only two Americans we know here, so we’re going to go out for a swank dinner in a couple of hours and eat copious amounts of exquisitely prepared French food.

On this day, a day of giving thanks, I am going to give myself some time to really appreciate the amazing adventure that is my life.

I am thankful for amazing southern French blue skies, warm winds from Africa, city-sized pedestrian zones, crumbling old buildings, foie gras, Tempranillo wine, chocolate-flavored cigarettes, candles, and quiet, rainy afternoons.

I am thankful I have found a job that I love, and that liberates me, and makes me fiercely proud of what I produce.

I am thankful that Cal is a part of my life. His love for me is true and consistent and real and about as close to unconditional as anyone could hope for in this world.

I am thankful for Ladybird “Squirt” Johnson, who gives good snuggle and who is adorable and who can make me laugh and bring me out of A Mood with a simple, inquisitive, “Meow.”

I am thankful that my parents are healthy and happy, and for my enormous, supportive family.

I am thankful for my gay mafia. I love them with a fierceness that defines what love is. They are every good thing.

I am thankful for cacio e pepe, the best food on earth, and for Tempranillo wine, the elixir of the gods and my current favorite red wine.

I am thankful for my dreams at night, which are always interesting and give me much to think about.

I am thankful to be living in a really cool apartment. I love this apartment, I love that everything has its place in its own room, I love our balcony, I love our enormous French windows, I love its large rooms with high ceilings that roll from one to another in a big haphazard pile.

I am thankful for my girlfriends here in Montpel. They make my heart light and remind me how strong and cool and funny I am.

I am thankful for my unstructured daily schedule. It’s such a gift.

What are you thankful for today?