Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Ho, Ho, Ho- Merry Christmas Wishes to You!

   Christmas Eve was a festive one with our neighbors joining us for aperitifs which consist of all kinds of nibbles like fresh dates, nuts, smoked salmon, tuna butter on olive bread, oysters on the half shell, cheeses, chocolates and of course, rose. The rain has been falling for a few days and as the days are so short, it was still dark this morning at nearly 8:00, but my kids were rearing to go before 7:00. My head was a bit fuzzy with the ubiquitous overindulgence that so often happens on Christmas eve, but I was ready to watch the youngsters tear into their packages like savages.
   They considerately tiptoed down to open their stockings which were chock full of socks and more chocolate. and fun little toys. The colorful boxes under the sparkling tree were picture perfect. Our tree has grown on me. At first, I thought it was an overgrown Charlie Brown tree, but now I think it is one of my all-time favorites covered with homemade ornaments and twinkling lights. Somehow, those ornaments are going to have to come back to the States with me.
   More food will adorn our table later this evening, but for "brunch" we had scrambled eggs infused with truffle. Did I tell  you I bought my first truffle? I think I have not, so that will be an upcoming story.
   For now, I will like to wish you a very happy holiday and would like to share the e-Christmas card I made for family and friends.
Christmas Eve

And more caroling
Merry Christmas
If you click this link, it will take you to our e-card.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Last Minute Christmas Shopping

   Being the organized planner that I am, shopping two days ahead of Christmas consumed the first half of today. While children spent some time with the French tutor trying to hone their language skills, my mother and I ran by the market to decide what would be on the menu for Christmas dinner. With only a few us around the table, we did not need a huge feast, but something memorable would be nice. My pictures are poor and I am sorry for that, but the choices were varied and hard to decide upon.
   We went with pigeon-I don't think I have ever had pigeon, I know my kids have never had it. When I informed them of our purchase, silence ensued, but I did not hear any major protests or exclamations of fear. All of my children seemed up for the culinary challenge, as am I for cooking it. The rest of our meal will be fairly straight forward and we ordered Buche de Noel from the patisserie in town. I will let you know how it turns out.
   No matter what is on your table or who is around it, I hope you have a lovely Christmas full of happiness and cheer- Salut!
Seafood selection-looks incredible even if it is blurry
A variety of birds for the oven 
Last minute gift ideas-wine bottle stoppers with flare 
Holiday charm

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sapin de Noel

   I forgot to follow up on our hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. As I mentioned a few posts ago, the thought of trudging up the hill, with a dull saw to cut a tree, was becoming quite unappealing to me, but at times in my house, democracy rules so after a quick vote, off we went in the twilight to find a tree.    Youngest and Middle Child decided to cut a small tree of their own for their room. It took them all of 5 minutes to locate and down the perfect 2 foot tree. My search on the other hand, was far more drawn out. You know the old story, in search of the perfect sapin de Noel, one being too big, the next too small, another unevenly distributed with pine needles, further and further we marched. Oldest Child had several picked out, but good ole Mom shot them all down. Finally, I spotted it, just as the sun was disappearing. Oldest, pre-teen Child was very disapproving, sure it would not fit-it was too fat, it would never work....Some sawing, some swearing and off we went to set up our tree. It was dark, damp and cold, but we drug the tree into the house, where we decided very quickly that yes, Oldest Child was right, it was too big. I tried cutting it down to size, but then it looked, well, cut in half. I tosses it out the door with a huff, and vowed to be out of the house first thing in the morning to find the best tree around.
   It did not take long with sunlight- we had a good tree, we hauled it back to the house, slapped the homemade stand onto the bottom and set it up. With carols blasting on the portable speakers, chocolat chaud in hand, and a fire warming the room, we decorated our tree with all of our homemade ornaments that we have been working on. You may think it is bit Charley Brown-ish, but to us, it is the perfect tree for 2013.
They got theirs 
Tree number 2
The fun part
Sapin de Noel

A Church Around Every Turn

It is funny how the few hikes we have been on in the south of France, have led us to a church. Not all of them are maintained, some are in shambles. None the less, obviously people worked hard and suffered greatly to get to their places of worship.
Okay, these hikes are more like a saunter in the woods, but it is curious what you find along the way. Nearby, there is a gorgeous creek lined with majestic plane trees and a trail that winds its way into a canyon with a few caves along the way then low and behold, a split in the trail, and at the top of a hill is a small church.
Outside of Cotignac is a popular area for walkers, picnic-ers, hunters and worshippers. After strolling up an old road, one is welcomed by a large, well-tended monastery. The view is gorgeous, the grounds are very pretty and the history long. You can read about it here
My children, being completely ignorant of all things church related, took a seat on a pew and proceeded to giggle uncontrollably in the silent church while others were concentrating on their prayers. I quickly ushered them out and continued to explore the exterior of this amazing place of peace.
   I say it is an amazing place of peace, but my children are also faced with vivid imagery in all of these churches of Christ gruesomely hanging from his stake. I can not say these scenes are enticing my children to Sunday school.
   My mother arrives tomorrow to spend Christmas with us. There is an ancient Abbey close by that I discovered this fall and I am planning on taking her to it. It is a popular destination and has a fabulous tour explaining the lives and self sufficiency of these worshippers that were probably very happy spending their days praying to their holy Father, making wine from their vast vineyards and pressing olives for oil from their hectares of olive trees scattered about the countryside.

The raucous crowd arrives.
A place of offering 
It was here that St. Joseph appeared to a thirsty shepherd and this water source sprang from the earth.
I am going to go hear the chants, perhaps without my children

Friday, December 13, 2013

Getting Christmas-y

   Need less to say, I did not pack our Christmas stuff for our year abroad. I snuck in a couple of books and videos, and of course, I brought the kids' stockings for Pere Noel to fill, but the rest staying in boxes back home.
   Time to get creative- not necessarily my forte, but we have been busy with salt dough baking and painting, and we have been making our woodland critters that has become a tradition for us as they are so much fun. We have been collecting seed pods and pine cones and all kinds of natural items to form into critters and funny people, thanks to the help of the glue gun.
   My plan was to traipse up the hill behind the house to chop down a tree. My landlord was more than happy to have us thin the pine tree population, but alas, that is just too much work with dull tools for this francophile mommy. We are going to town after school to buy a tree, which I will show you after we have a lovely time decorating, singing and admiring around our first French Christmas tree.
Ingredients for a Daube de Boeuf
Salt Dough ornaments ready for the tree
Some of our Critters
Our kitten tossing her day's catch around. She is proving to be quite a hunter.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Down to a 2 Day School Week

   What a week! The kids started off the school week well, then upon arriving at school Tuesday morning, ready to learn, we were sent home for lack of a teacher. What did we do? We went to the beach, of course. The weather was fabulous and I knew it would be even warmer on the coast so off we went to check out St. Tropez off season, without the crowds.
   It was all but boarded up. We wandered along the port, checking out the multi-million dollar yachts, the children picking the ones they wanted. When I pointed out a modest and charming sail boat, they would scoff at me. Why would I choose a boat like that when the monstrosities had everything from satellite TV to jet skis off the stern?
   After a pleasant lunch on the harbor, we found a beach for a wander and not surprisingly, two out of my three little ones were butt naked, in the sea. It was fabulous! Oldest Child was more than content to lay on the sand, reading her book, wrapped in her down jacket.
   As you may remember, there is no school on Wednesdays and what happened Thursday? You guessed it-another strike- no school. We ventured about an hour north to a gorgeous town called Moustiers St. Maries. It is on the northern side of the big Lac de St. Croix where we have been several times. The town is very well kept, perched on a limestone hillside with meandering, narrow streets. The town is famous for Faience pottery. There is a creek that passes through the middle of the town, under bridges with cafes and restaurants along side the rushing water.
   We wandered up, in search of sunshine and came to a trail that continued up. In dire need of some exercise, I rapidly continued before the kids could protest. The trail took us to an alcove with a shrine of St. Marie. A little further and we found some caves to check out. The view over the town and valley were lovely. Further along the trail that would obviously lead us back to the other end of town, a subsequent trail merged off and we climbed ancient, stone steps to a church lit with a few candles on the alter. After a few minutes of adjusting our eyes to the darAn all-too-realistic, very large carving of Christ on his cross hang from the wall. Going on hikes around here often leads to a cold, dark church, a safe haven for those in search of answers, peace or prayer. For us, it is a bit like a treasure hunt.
   We finished the day with a picnic by the lake, but no, the kids did not swim as the lake water is always frigid. We watched para gliders land in the field right in front of us and enjoyed the sunny, quiet day together. So, it was a two day school week. The weekend is upon us with sunny skies in the forecast. We will see where we end next.
Before they stripped- they wouldn't let me put those on the blog
One of the treasures along the path to the church
Looking down on the tiled roofs of the village 
Moustiers St. Marie
The church atop the hill, above Moustiers St. Marie

An example of the Faience pottery
Sunny day picnic 
Looks like fun.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Sights and Sounds of Christmas

   I was told of a lovely Christmas chorale gathering in Aix en Provence by an expat living there so we made another trip to this city that I am becoming more and more fond of.
   It is a very pretty, small city. I have to assume it is home to a higher income population than other parts of Provence as there are fine shops, restaurants and stores catering to those that have money to spend. The Cours Mirabeau is always clean and decorated tastefully and the small, meandering streets that branch off from the main drag are lined with shops that lead to open courtyards with daily markets, cafes and towering shade trees.
  It was Sunday so most of the shops were closed, but on December 1st, the Christmas Market began. In the cities, these go on all month. Smaller towns have their own, one-day markets where vendors set up stalls selling all sorts of Christmas gifty things. The markets that are set up for the month are in wooden chalets and decorated with lights, tinsel and cheer. The most popular booth in Aix was the one selling Hot Wine and in fact, it was a German booth with pretzels and other German fare that I don't know.
   The French have these wonderful, small figures called Santons. They are made of clay and are to make a creche scene. There are people, animals, furniture, windmills that spin, water wells that pump water, barns with lights and so on. You could collect for years and spend a fortune filling a room with a whole village scene.
   We made our way to the church that hosted the concert. It was an international Christian group that put on the show. The church is a spectacular sight with origins from the 1st century. By the beginning of the 13th century, Aix became the capital of Provence and the population and importance of the city grew. The church, being a center of every town, developed into this incredible Gothic monument. The artwork is unbelievable, ancient and truly moving, even for a complete novice like me. The carvings and sculptures on the exterior as well as the immense, wooden doors carved in 1500 are fabulous.
   Then, the music began...all in English! My kids were thrilled-except youngest child who slept through the whole thing. The pastor asked where the congregation was from,- about 30% stood from Great Britain, maybe 30% from France then the remaining 40% were American. It was nice to be surrounded by so many of "our people", even for just a couple of hours.
   We wandering back through the lit streets with carnival rides and the city buzz producing a wonderful, energetic feeling to kick off the holiday season right. Yes, living in a city like Aix would be easier for us in many respects, but would provide a much different experience that we are having now. Yes, there are fierce challenges to our daily life in rural France, but the hurdles we overcome and bonding we work on will reward us for our lifetimes.
Flutes, Drums and Traditional Musis 
The most popular booth 
Bechard- a fabulous patisserie
Trying to decide 
Just one of the specialized shops in Aix
Buzzing along 
A city aglow

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Camargue

   The Camargue is an area in the Bouches du Rhones, south of Arles, covered with saline marshlands, ponds and bordering the sea. I have been wanting to go since arriving in France but knew it can be swelteringly hot there as well as provide a haven for bird-sized mosquitoes. The Camargue is famous for wild horses, black bulls and pink flamingos.
  We went to Saintes Maries de la Mer a few weeks ago. After our harrowing drive with the road blockage and many extra hours on the highway, we arrived in the sleepy town and our adorable motel. Needless to say, it was dark but we could still see a white horse from the patio of our room.
   The weather was not the most favorable the weekend we were there, but after a great hotel breakfast, we donned hats, gloves and parkas and hit the beach. As you know, we love the water so no matter what season, we have fun chasing waves, collecting shells and wandering over the sand. The town was pretty boarded up as the season was over, but it looked to be full of fun shops and restaurants. We found a great mussel lunch which pleased all of us-even Middle Child decided on that day that she liked mussels- a major breakthrough to expanding her limited culinary repertoire.
   The hotel owner arranged a trail ride for us in the afternoon. We were a string of about 12 riders of varying ability all on the famous white horses. Unfortunately, for Youngest Child's birthday, he got thrown off, something he was not at all happy about. At least he will remember the adventure.
   We did not see the black bulls famous in the region, but we went to an ornithological park where there were thousands of pink flamingos as well as other migratory birds that attract visitors from all over France. Trails zigzag throughout the park, making it easy to wander for hours through the salt marshes, admiring these gorgeous birds.
   We all want to visit the Camargue again in the spring. The hotel owners suggested April-before the crowds and the mosquitoes arrive. We will certainly try to fit another trip in before departure time.
Jumping for joy
Hard to imagine this parking lot overflowing with cars
St. Maries de la Mer is also a fishing village
Wishing I had a kitchen
thousands of them.. 
Our string of white horses
Aren't they great looking?
Wandering the docks

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It's Getting Colder

   I like a mild winter. Skiing is my favorite thing to do, but fact of the matter is, I like it all the more when the sun is shining. I grew up in Maryland where the winters are frigidly cold due to the high humidity. There is often plenty of ice and howling wind. Freezing fingertips and dripping noses are the norm.
   I spent my high school years in Massachusetts which was even colder, but at least there was snow to sled and ski on. My path later led me to California for a year- I handled that winter with ease. I don't even remember having a coat. Next was Northern New Mexico which was much like my present(other than this year) home in southern Colorado where the sun shines at least 300 days a year, but also snows plenty to keep winter sport enthusiasts happy for a quarter of the year.
   This is my first European winter and lucky for me in started late. Just the past few weeks have cooled down to close to freezing at night and we saw our first snowflakes a few days ago, no accumulation. Today was a brilliant, sunny day with warm temperatures close to 15 degrees Celsius, a pleasant change from the cloudy, wet days that proceeded it.
   On days like today, we replenish the woodpile, wander the woods collecting kindling and pine cones, and eating lunch outside. The winter landscape is a bit harsher and as the solstice is approaching, days are very short. I chase my kids around outside for the hour of daylight after school before we retire to our cozy home for the long evening. I hear the first two months of the new year are cold, wet and can be dismal, but sunny days are thrown in to keep the inhabitants from fleeing to warmer climates. (Warmer climates are only an hour away on the French Riviera- I should manage.)
Persimmon Tree
Evening Soccer

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Charm of Rustic Living

   My wonderful friend and inspiration for my being in France for a year was visiting recently along with another good friend from my hometown. It was wonderful to have them near for dinners together, casual conversation(something I am seriously lacking while surrounded by a culture of people I do not understand) and companionship. I wrote about her few months ago here:
   Her mother has a cabanon in Entrecasteaux where she comes in the spring to visit old friends and enjoy her former way of life. My visiting friends stayed there where there is no electricity, running water or other modern comforts. You can't get the car up to the house(unless you are one of those people who abuse your rental cars.) It is truly remote, removed and secluded, though just 10 minutes from town.
   We went over for an evening of games, supper and wine one late afternoon. The house sits atop a hill, with fabulous vistas and overlooks a tidy vineyard. The house itself is lovely with warm, plaster walls, shuttered doors and windows of a pale, earthy green color and a charming patio to sit upon and gaze out at the view. Unfortunately, wintery weather had already set in, so we each found our cozy space inside and lit candles in every nook and table. The candlelight offered the perfect venue for a hand silhouette show, orchestrated by Oldest Child. Later, Younger Two Children got a hold of a couple of headlamps and climbed up into the loft to play. The rest of us puttered about, making plates of hors d'oeuvres, sipping rose and enjoying the peace this home offered.
   My Friends made a fabulous soup and the meal was a memorable one for many reasons, but mostly because of the charm of the rustic cabin.
Below the cabin

Incredible ambiance
Mirrors behind the candles cast more light- clever.
Memorable meal with friends and family. 
The show....