Jake’s Visit

October 4, 2009 10:37 pm

Viva l'EvolucionMy son Jake came from San Francisco for a visit last week, and we spent a whirlwind 5 days putting him to work in Anna’s field, checking out the roman ruins in Nimes, playing boule, dining alfresco at various restaurants, and introducing him to our many wonderful friends here. He charmed everyone – no surprise – and impressed everyone as well with his remarkable language abilities. He doesn’t speak much French but I’m sure he’d pick it up in no time if he stayed for than 5 days at a time. (Hint, hint!) He speaks Spanish with a fluency and authentic Guatemalan accent that is stunning. What really amazed me, though, was how he conversed with Anna in Italian. She speaks not a word of English, and they could communicate only with smiles and gestures until Jake started speaking Italian to her. I knew he had studied it for a year at UC Santa Barbara, his alma mater, but I didn’t realize that he could speak it as rapidly as he speaks Spanish. He certainly didn’t get his language facility from me …

Anna meets Le PetitAnna nicknamed Jake “Le Petit,” because he reminded her so much of her grandson – a “petit fils” in French. Ha! She prepared a huge lunch for us after the morning’s work in the field. She had several courses but the highlight was escargot in her special sauce of garlic and Provencal herbs. (I passed; I don’t eat bugs, amphibians, reptiles, or things with visible mold.) But Alain, Anna, Kevin, and Jake wolfed them down.

Le Maison Carrée in NImesWe also visited Nimes, where I showed Jake some incredible Roman ruins. La Maison Carrée is a beautifully preserved Roman temple right in the middle of the city. We also checked out Les Arènes, the Roman coliseum which has an excellent audio guide explaining the gladiatorial fights that took place there 2,000 years ago. Another day, we visited more ruins at Glanum, the ancient Roman town next to St. Rémy de Provence.

Come back soon, Jake. Your mother misses you! In the meantime, check out some more pictures of the visit.


Quick Trip to Brittany

September 12, 2009 6:41 pm

OystersI returned a few days ago from a whirlwind tour of a small section of Brittany. I took the TGV to Rennes to meet my friend Mary  from America and from there we established our base in the beautiful village of Combourg. Each day we drove to a different town, most of them along the northern Brittany coastline. First we went to Cancale – the main feature of which was huitres – oysters. We had a fabulous three course meal that cost only 15€, very reasonable by French standards. The first course – l’entrée –  was a dozen oysters, the second – le plat – was moules frites (delicious mussels and fries), the third – le dessert – a cinnamon-laden mousse au chocolat. We had a perfectly chilled bottle of Muscadet with the meal. Afterwards, we walked along the windswept cliffs overlooking the acres of oyster beds below and Mary, a French teacher, helped me with my French.

Mont St. MichelThe next day we drove to St. Malo, a stunning granite-walled city on the coast. The weather was perfect but I could tell that, for most of the year, its ancient ramparts are battered by wind and sea. In the Middle Ages it was a fortified island and notorious as a haven for pirates. These days it is filled with seafood restaurants and, it seemed to me, loads of English tourists. From there, we drove to Mont St. Michel. I heard that this incredibly beautiful place has become extremely touristy and, for that reason, I didn’t really want to go there. However, I kept seeing the island way out in the water from Cancale and then St. Malo, and its siren call finally worked its magic on me. I just had see it up close. I’m so glad we drove the short distance there. I love the picture I took of the island but if I had turned around and snapped that view instead – well, let’s just say that “enchanting” is not the first word to spring to mind. My friend told me it was even more touristy on the island, so I left with only the gorgeous exterior view in my memory.

Show me more… »

Anna and Alain

August 30, 2009 11:14 am

P1020537P1030283We’ve become great friends with two remarkable “agriculteurs” – farmers – here in Barbentane. Anna is a Force of Nature – a tiny 87 year old ball of fire, originally from northern Italy, who’s lived in Barbentane for almost sixty years. Except to sleep (briefly) at night and to faire une sieste every afternoon, she never stops working. She rises between 4:30 and 5:00 every morning and starts cooking. First she bakes a cake to share with the endless stream of visiting friends and purchasers of her produce. Then she cooks vegetables that are past their prime for les ‘poo-lay’ (les poules, the chickens, which in French sounds like ‘pool’ but not with Anna’s undiminished adorable Italian accent). Before 7:00 am, she heads down to her large champ (field) near the Rhone, about a 5 minute’s drive away, with Alain. He’s originally from the area around Bourges in central France, in his 70’s, and lives in Anna’s big house on the floor above. Over the years, he’s worked many fields in Barbentane and has been working Anna’s ever since her husband, Romeo, died years ago.

Together they work the field every day of the year. In summertime, the air is cool and fresh when they arrive. By 10:00, though, the sun is starting to simmer and reaches a full boil shortly thereafter. I know this because this summer Kevin and I have been working in the field occasionally with Anna and Alain. The thought of Anna bending over and working away in the Provençal heat is worrying, so we wanted to help out with all the endless chores that must be done at this time of year. We love hanging out with these two, who don’t speak a word of English, and – being frustrated gardeners with no growing land of our own – we’re thrilled to be working a real patch of ground in this region, renowned  throughout millenia for producing exquisite fruits and vegetables.

Show me more… »

Leonard Cohen in Concert in Nimes

August 21, 2009 3:17 pm

P1030217When a friend told me that Leonard Cohen was giving a concert in the Roman coliseum in Nimes, I balked at paying the hefty 96€ for a ticket. Then, the day before the concert, I thought “Am I crazy? Who cares what it costs? It’s Leonard Cohen!” Plus, I realized, he will be 75 years old next month and he might not be planning another world tour any time soon.

So, off to Nimes last night to see a performer I’ve been in love with for 40 years. Can that be possible? He recorded Suzanne, the first song I heard by him, in 1967. Mon dieu …

P1030200I knew the concert would be wonderful but I didn’t expect that I would say afterwards – without exaggeration –  “That was the best concert I have ever seen in my life.” After literally every song, he received a standing ovation. The audience was all over him. I was stunned that he left the stage for good after only 4 encores. It was all over so fast!

P1030172The concert was in the two-thousand-year-old Roman coliseum, Les Arènes – a superb venue for a concert (and, I suppose, for the gladiatorial shenanigans of yore). The air was soft and warm, the sky was clear and dark, and the music was pure magic.

I have been steeped in Leonard’s music all day today and I am watching and listening to Leonard Cohen, Live in Concert as I write this post. Friends Doris and Hu gave Kevin and me the DVD when they visited recently from California. I highly recommend it. Last night’s show is pretty much the same as this London concert of July 18, 2008.

On the DVD, he told his audience that it had been a long time since he had stood on a London stage: “It was about 14 or 15 years ago – I was just a 60 year old kid with a crazy dream.”  Leonard, you’re timeless.


A visit to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (Midi-Pyrénées Observatory).

August 19, 2009 9:41 pm
It looks like a Medieval Fortress (with modern bits)

A Modern Fortress!

A place with a view

A place with a view

As part of our trip to the Pyrénées our host very kindly took us to see the Pic du Midi observatory.  Since he worked there we were in the privileged position of having a much better tour of the place than members of the general public.

We drove up into the mountains and parked in a small town of Bagnères de Bigorre where we were greeted by several Llamas wandering around the car park.  Being a ski resort there were many ski lifts and cable cars around. We went to a cable car building and caught the first of two cable cars to the top.

Getting close to the Pic du Midi was quite a sight, buildings nestled right on the peak of the tallest mountain in the area.  The very first building there, now part of the cafe, took eight years to build! Everything was bought up manually and they only had three months of the year to work as it was too cold at other times. The view from the top was pretty spectacular too.


The Coronagraph

At the top we had a good look around the outside of the site and then went into the deep recesses of the buildings to see all the equipment that was hidden from view. The first thing we went to see was the Chronagraph, a special telescope for studying the Sun’s corona.  A Coronagraph simulates an eclipse of the Sun with a disk over the centre of the Sun of just the right size to allow the corona to be seen.

Coronagraph Control Screen

Coronagraph Controls

We were allowed to sit at the control console and using the mouse we were able to point the Coronagraph precisely at the Sun and to take some photos of the corona. It was a little tricky to keep the Coronagraph pointed properly as the Sun was moving all the time (relative to us!) so we had to keep adjusting our aim. Once we had it precisely centred, we switched from pointing mode to observation mode and took several pictures using different instruments mounted on the gimbles.

Ruth and Kevin look at their picture of the sun

Look! It's the Sun!

Here we are looking at the picture we had taken.

Next we went to see the large telescope, a 2m telescope known as the Bernard Lyot Telescope, named after the inventor of the Coronagraph. It was housed in a large dome at one side of the site. We had to descend a few levels to get into the building and then took the lift up to the telescope level and found ourselves in a large, dark dome which was freezing cold. The temperature has to be maintained at a few degrees below the air outside. This is to stop perturbations of the air rising when the telescope is in use and distorting the picture. There was not a lot to see inside the dome, partly because it was so dark and partly because it was controlled from elsewhere; no one actually looks through it, it has cameras for doing that.

The telescope dome was followed by a look at the control room and then back to the visitors’ area and a visit to the museum there. We had a thoroughly enjoyable visit and and have put more of our photos of the trip in our Pic du Midi gallery.

Here are some useful links:


Visit to Les Pyrénées

August 16, 2009 5:23 pm

Our Picnic Site on the Canal du MidiThis week we drove to the Pyrénées for a short visit. On our way there, we stopped to picnic alongside the Canal du Midi, built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and thus to avoid the then month-long journey through the pirate-laden waters around Spain. It was so breathtakingly beautiful there that I didn’t want to leave. But the lure of the mountains got us back on the road.

We stayed with French friends in the little village of Momères, which is just at the base of the Pyrénées and very close to Spain. There aren’t any foothills; rather, the mountains seem to just rise straight up. The first day, we drove up Le Pic du Midi de Bigorre – which visit Kevin is going to write about. Later that day, our friends took us to Lourdes, where thousands of “malades” come daily looking for miraculous cures. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette in a grotto along the river Gave de Pau in 1858. That apparition converted Lourdes from a tiny village into a huge pilgrimage-tourist site. (The only city in France with more hotel rooms is Paris.) The Catholic church built huge cathedrals on the site, both above and below ground.

PyrenéesThe next day, we drove back up into the mountains, this time towards the Col d’Aspin. We hiked up to a small lake, where we were surrounded by cows, sheep, and horses. It’s August and hot, but there were still plenty of wildflowers there – including tall blue delphiniums. Hiking in the Pyrénées looks superb and I cannot wait to get back.

Of course, when visiting France, we always dive head first into the Gastronomic Specialties of the region. We bought a Pic Bigourdan, a type of cake that is meant to resemble a mountain peak (hence, “pic”) but looks more like a fir tree. It’s made by pouring batter over a spindle as it twirls in front of a fire. We also bought a Tourte Myrtilles, another cake, much different in shape – small, high, and round – and filled with blueberries.

At the market in Tarbes, we bought Haricots Tarbais from a bent-backed woman who looked over a hundred years old. These are the beans the French make cassoulet with. I cooked ours today with bacon, onions, carrots, hot peppers, tomatoes, and a bouquet garni. Incroyable!

We keep intending to start a diet but we never seem able to empty the refrigerator first. Maybe if we stopped buying all these tasty delights …

Check out our photos!


Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

July 28, 2009 12:59 pm
Yay!Our wonderful adventure-travel friend, Pasquale Scaturro, is starring in a current History Channel series, Expedition Africa. Unfortunately, we don’t get the History Channel here in France, but we did manage to see four exciting episodes while we were in England earlier this month. The series is about four adventure travelers retracing H.M. Stanley’s renowned search for Dr. Livingstone deep in the interior of Tanzania. The 970 mile journey took only 30 days to complete, and the group had to rely on only what was available to Stanley in 1871, even for navigation.

We’ve been lucky to accompany Pasquale on several adventures in Africa (see our photos of tribal people – including ones sporting plate lips – from the Omo River Expedition in Ethiopia in 2006). I have finally gotten around to finishing tweaking our Mt. Kilimanjaro photos, so I’m adding them with this post. We actually made it all the way to the tippy-top – 19,340 feet high. We climbed the Machame Route which, over the course of 5 days, took us through several distinct ecological zones: tropical forest, moorlands to the Shira Plain, semi-desert, Alpine, and arctic. On our final ascent starting at midnight, our camel-back tubes froze almost immediately. We arrived at the summit after 6 grueling hours of climbing a distance of only about 2 and a half miles. Seeing sunrise that morning is seared in my memory. Truly the most magnificent hike of my life.


Henley Hat Time

July 16, 2009 10:21 am

Henley Hat

The beginning of July is Henley Royal Regatta time and off we went to England for the event – my 7th year in a row! (Kevin estimates he’s been more than 30 times.) This year, I found my favorite Henley hat of them all. First prize goes to this lovely woman whose entire outfit was stunning, although unfortunately we only have a photo of her hat. And Best Runner Up goes to the Lady in Red in the background. Her hat was enormous! How these two manage to travel to Henley with these hats is beyond me. The few times I’ve taken my hat boxes on a plane, I’ve felt conspicuously like Zsa Zsa Gabor …

Another big first at this Henley: it didn’t rain once while we were there. In fact, believe it or not, it was scorching (although the G & T’s helped me cope.) I had brought my Wellies (Wellingtons to the uninitiated – knee-high green rubber English gardening boots) all the way from France but I didn’t have to wear them with my fancy outfits even once. Hurray!

Le Quatorze Juillet

July 15, 2009 11:37 am
Moules Frites en Centre-ville

Moules Frites en Centre-ville

One of my favorite things about living in Provence is the social life that takes place outdoors. Whether it’s celebrating holidays, dining, or picnicking, it’s so pleasurable to sit in warm air with friends, often under the canopy of giant plane trees or in pine forests, and to eat fabulous food. For this year’s Bastille Day, our village offered Moules Frites with a cabaret. Our French friends told us the moules (mussels) had a “Sailor Sauce” (haha!) – that is, “Mariner,” which consisted of mustard, cream, and Provencal herbs. We sat at long tables set up in centre-ville and servers brought large trays filled with the steaming hot mussels. As we finished eat tray, the server set down another one. The moules were delicious, especially with the frites (how and why did Americans ever start calling them French Fries?), and so was soaking up the sauce with bits of baquette, and washing it all down with vin rouge or chilled rosé. The meal concluded with a cheese course, then ice cream. Parfait.

Show me more… »

Les Coquelicots … and Remembrance

June 1, 2009 11:31 am


Flanders Poppies Field

I’ve thought a lot about my negative experience of religious paintings in Valencia since writing my last post. I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about feeling uncomfortable viewing crucifixion scene after crucifixion scene. I’m clear in my belief that I can’t and don’t want to associate that type of imagery with any notion of “spirituality.” However, I have been wondering lately about just what “spirituality” does mean to me.

Then I came upon this magnificent field of coquelicots, the beautiful brilliant red wild poppies with jet black centers in bloom here everywhere at the moment. I had a sort of gentle epiphany. As I stood awestruck before that field, I realized that Nature is the temple I choose to worship in. When in the presence of such natural beauty I can’t help but feel a mixture of reverence, wonder, and an almost delirious joy  –  the proverbial “religious experience.”

Show me more… »