Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Americans are Coming! Le Train Bleu, Christmas Here and There, DSK

What's this??
After the invasion of cupcakes, a new American food item is currently making inroads into the French food chain: bagels. This most American of breads is the newest kid on the block and joins donuts, pretzels (called "bretzels" here), cheesecake and of course "le 'amburger" and "le 'ot dog" as a mid-day meal that is much appreciated by youngsters, among them the numerous American students in the area. In Aix-en-Provence alone, two bagel shops have opened - Bagel Story and Comptoir du Bagel - that are doing steady business and seem to have found their niche. Both shops, one in the old center of Aix, the other on the outskirts, have their bread brought in from New York, and both have a rather large "bagel menu." Priced around 5 euros, the bagel is not cheap (about $7.00) but with its choice toppings makes a meal at lunchtime where it is currently competing with panini and that eternal old-timer: the "jambon-beurre."

A recent French newspaper article on this item claimed that the bagel was invented in 1683 by a Viennese baker to honor king Jan III Sobieski of Poland-Lithuania who beat back the invading Ottoman Turks from the gates of Vienna with a charge of his cavalry. The somewhat unevenly round bread with a hole in the middle is meant to represent a stirrup - a "Bügel" in German. I'll accept this French version, even though several other interpretations exist that claim even older origins than this one, mostly with a Yiddish etymology. A rose by any other name...


On a recent stopover in Paris we had lunch at the restaurant Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon. We tend to schedule our arrivals or departures on the TGV Aix-Paris in such a way that a leisurely lunch at this spectacular restaurant can be included in the trip. There certainly is better food to be found in Paris, but I doubt that there is a more elaborate restaurant decor anywhere. The eyes have it here - and the taste buds won't complain either, perhaps because the eyes are so busy taking in the surroundings. The Gare de Lyon station was built as part of the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and a year later its Buffet (restaurant) was opened by the then-President of France. The most distinctive feature of Le Train Bleu is its Belle Epoque decor, including painted ceilings and murals depicting different sites along the north-south railway network. There are 41 paintings in all, covering every square inch of the large main dining room and the Gold Room, which after suffering the effects of years of smoke fumes from the steam engines have recently been restored to their original state. So exceptional is this restaurant that in 1972 it was declared Monument Historique by Minister of Culture André Malraux.

Le Train Bleu, Paris

And the food? The formal dining room with its white tablecloths is rather pricey and especially appreciated by local businessmen, but the cuisine can be uneven. Even so, one stand-out dessert that never fails is their Baba-au-Rhum which, the waiter will tell you, was invented right here. It is generously dosed with rum when served, and the bottle is left on your table should you want another soak. For those travelers who only wish to have a quick bite and coffee (perhaps with a slice of "Grumble Cake" from their menu), a simpler room is available as well as a clubby side room with leather chesterfields and fauteuils. This exceptional example of Belle Epoque style is well worth a visit, whether you eat there or not.


Christmas means pretty lights and street decorations, especially in the capital cities of the Western world and in their department stores. Paris, the city of light, does a pretty good job, but for my taste the Anglo-Saxons with their extensive use of natural greenery in wreaths and garlands and sprays take the prize.
London Ritz
In London last week I had a chance to see the magnificent Christmas decor at The Ritz hotel, both inside and out, and was struck by the perfect balance between opulence and restraint, with colorfully trimmed trees and lush garlands inside, and simpler greenery lit by little white lights on the outside façade and along the covered gallery. Another beautiful display can be found at Harrod's food court, where each food genre (game, fish, chocolates etc.) has its own Christmas decor. And who can forget the stunning window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue in NYC? I suspect that these "private" enterprises have bigger budgets than municipal treasuries, which may have suffered cutbacks. Yet, last year in Madrid, despite a severe financial crisis, I found the public Xmas decorations very impressive. All along one of the widest avenues brilliant, multi-colored disks hovered overhead and all the city squares had a large tree decorated by a different local artist. It was a dazzling display of creativity.

Paseo del Prado, Madrid

Coming back from London or Madrid at Christmastime to Aix-en-Provence (*) is a rude shock, not because this much smaller city cannot afford rich yuletide displays, but because it is increasingly favoring commercialism over the old traditions. From mid-November to the end of December, the Cours Mirabeau (the Champs Elysées of Aix) is taken over by a children's fair with merry-go-rounds, bumper cars, bungee cords, whistling reindeer trains, games with alarm-like whoops when a prize is won, and other divertissements that have no relation whatsoever to Christmas.

Cours Mirabeau
Between the long row of chalets selling trinkets on one side and the children's fair on the other side, the otherwise beautiful Cours is a noisy mess during the Xmas season. No Christmas tree here, no carols, no Santa Claus on the Cours or in department stores, no wreaths or stars - in short, no Christmas atmosphere. In this lay country, there is no public nativity scene and little reminder of the religious origins of Christmas, but the traditional Christmas tree came from Germany, after all, and has come to symbolize Christmas wherever it is celebrated. As for local Christmas decorations, let's just say that they are forgettable. Churches, on the other hand, often have a nativity scene peopled with hand-crafted Santons (sometimes life-sized) dressed in Provençal costume, and one local midnight Mass includes a real shepherd with a live flock of sheep.

Unfortunately, one recurring incident during the Christmas season is robberies. Oftentimes, warehouses are broken into at night and emptied of televisions, cell phones, toys and so on. The first such heist was just reported in the local newspaper:  27,000 bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape were stolen from their warehouse at Domaine Mayard. Lest we forget:  Christmas in France is mostly a matter of food and wine.

On a more positive note, the French Telethon, which is held annually in early December, hauled in a record number of pledges this year: nearly 87 million euros (12% more than last year). Throughout the year 2011, a total of more than 3.7 billion euros was donated to various causes in this country of about 65 million people, evidence once again that the French are among the most generous people in the world - even in difficult economic times.

For STRAUSS-KAHN followers - it has recently been rumored that he will be moving to Israel where he has been offered a position at the University of Tel Aviv. Presumably after he settles a little unfinished business in New York.

In wrapping up this month, I realize that I have come to the first anniversary of this blog. I'll allow myself a candle on my Sunday pastry and the wish that you have found it worth reading. If I am allowed another wee wish it would be that by your comments you will encourage me to go on - or discourage me, as the case may be. Truly, any comments or suggestions are welcome.

May you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year.


 (*) Taking Root in Provence features a chapter on "Christmas in Provence." To take a look, click here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

G-20 Summit, Festival Image de Ville, Strauss-Kahn

G-20 Summit

The G-20 summit meeting that was held in Cannes November 3-4, 2011, had a touch of drama. This meeting, like all others of this caliber, was prepared well in advance with a well-defined agenda. But the euro-crisis interfered and a good part of the agenda was supplanted by the problem of Greece's sudden announcement on the summit's eve of a planned referendum on the question of whether or not it should stay in the Euro zone. Taken by surprise, "le couple Merkozy" (Merkel and Sarkozy) fiercely attacked Greek Prime Minister Papandreou for highjacking the G-20, and within days the referendum was dropped. Nevertheless, the acute difficulties of the eurozone took center stage and led the foreign leaders to conclude that "Europe must get its house in order" before any consideration can be given to financial assistance. This item, as well as the financial transactions tax proposed by Sarkozy, were deferred to next February -- a rather disappointing result for president Sarkozy who chaired this summit meeting and is facing re-election in 2012.

As if the Greek problem were not enough, shortly after the Cannes summit a new convulsion shook the eurozone, this time coming from Italy where Silvio Berlusconi finally ran out of tricks to hang on to power and lost a vote of confidence in Parliament that led to his resignation. The street received this news with a spontaneous explosion of joy and I am left with the indelible image of a full-throated choir outside the Parliament building singing Haendel's Halleluyah as the black limousine with a somber-faced Berlusconi drove away into the night, pushing through a furious crowd holding aloft signs of
Ladrone! and Buffone!

Next - bunga-bunga parties with pal
Putin in their adjoining estates in Sardinia?

Festival Image de Ville (*)

From 11-15 November 2011, Aix-en-Provence held its annual Festival Image de Ville which features architecture in one form or another in the presence of a "star architect." This year the subject was "La Rue" and what it represents in today's city, and the big architect was Christian de Portzamparc, noted urbanist and the first Frenchman to win the prestigious Pritzker prize (1994). Among his best-known projects are the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the Luxemburg Philharmonic Hall, the LVMH Tower in NYC, the new city of Almere in Holland, the Cidade de Musica in Rio de Janeiro. During four days of conferences and debates no less than 75 films (documentaries, shorts and full-length commercial films) were shown, all of which had a connection to The Street. The selection was wide and varied, including the recent Le Havre by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki (2011), M by Fritz Lang (1931), La Zona by Mexican Rodrigo Piá (2007) and West Side Story by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (1961). Seeing and hearing West Side Story again made me a little "homesick" - so unmistakably American, from the vibrant score by Leonard Bernstein to the fabulous dances on Manhattan's streets - no-one else could have made this movie.
Philharmonic Hall, Luxemburg

Strauss-Kahn deeper and deeper in merde  

The DSK saga continues. As his future darkens under new sex allegations in the Carlton Hotel prostitution scandal that is currently being investigated in France, DSK is on the defensive again. Several French newspapers, reporting on DSK's alleged links to the Carlton Affair, have now added speculation over his marriage to wife Anne Sinclair. When the Carlton stories first surfaced, Strauss-Kahn immediately asked to be heard by investigators in order to put a stop to the damaging rumors and clear his name. To date he has not been heard, but suspicions are growing that the rumors were not unfounded. Even though prostitution is legal in France, the question of who paid for these services is at the heart of the matter and could result in charges against DSK, which would certainly be used in the civil case against him in New York.

Initially, his old friends and allies in the Socialist party took the "innocent until proven guilty" position, but several of them have since made clear that "too much is too much" and are now coming out against him, effectively killing any glimmer of hope for a return to public life that still might have existed.

Recent rumors of an impending divorce have been countered by DSK and his wife filing a lawsuit for invasion of privacy and complaints of "base voyeurism" and media lynching in the absence of any formal charges against him. Who could have imagined this turnaround for a man who mere months ago was the well-respected head of the IMF and the likely next president of France? Used to being surrounded by admirers and sycophants, today he cuts a lonely figure on his way to oblivion.  

(*)  For other festivals featured in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween in France

Halloween in France

We are in holiday mode again with schools being closed the last week of October. Having just come back from their long summer breaks in early September, French children next get a week off for la Toussaint, All Saints Day. Many city dwellers pack up their family and leave for the countryside or the coast for a week "away." And, let's face it, with a starting level of 30 days vacation, the French have enough time off to do this several times a year. Traditionally, this is a time for family gatherings and for going to the cemetery to put flowers on family graves -- usually potted chrysanthemums which, by the way, are considered cemetery flowers here and are never to be given as gifts, especially not on hospital visits. Lately, however, Halloween has become part of this Fall holiday which, considering its Celtic origins, should be no surprise. Even though it still resembles more an at-home dress-up party with scary masks and costumes than the street event where American children go out ringing doorbells and trick-or-treating, French commercials are increasingly featuring Halloween themes, pastry shops are offering special desserts and candies, and pumpkin growers produce extra crops for jack-o'-lanterns. Yet, many French remain weary of commercialism and of the introduction of "American" celebrations. Is Halloween here to stay? The jury is still out...

Halloween in Paris

Strauss-Kahn in hot water again

A rather sordid scandal in Lille, involving organized prostitution in the luxury Carlton Hotel, has claimed its first victims. Police are investigating a prostitution ring that catered to high-flying businessmen and local officials and even supplied prostitutes for encounters in nearby Belgium. The hotel's PR manager and a French businessman are being held for questioning, and the local police commissioner has been reassigned to a lesser post in Paris, which gave him the opportunity to resign and take early retirement. But as the investigation continues, a new big-name client has surfaced:  Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It is claimed that DSK was offered prostitutes from the Carlton Hotel to join him, including most recently at the Sofitel hotel in New York City on the Friday preceding his Saturday assault on a maid in that hotel. DSK has requested to be heard by police as soon as possible "to put an end to the insinuations."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bullfights and Sodas

October 23, 2011


In front of the Roman arena of Nîmes stands a bronze statue of Nimeño II, the brilliant local torero (and brother of Nimeño I) who was severely injured by a Miura bull in 1989 which left him partly paralyzed. Two years after the accident he committed suicide. It is one of the dramatic stories that punctuate the history of tauromachy in France and in Spain, where an anti-corrida movement has been brewing for some time and has now come home to France.
When Catalonia recently outlawed bullfights on its territory and 20,000 aficionados packed the arena of Barcelona for a final corrida, supporters of tauromachy - in danger of losing other territories - began to organize demonstrations to safeguard corridas wherever strong interest still exists. Nîmes is one such place, and during its harvest Feria on September 18th the first clashes broke out between pro- and anti-bullfighting demonstrators. Taken by surprise, the pro forces could not prevent the opposition from "desecrating" the statue of Nimeño II which to many was going too far. So two days ago the pro-corrida fans gathered, three thousand strong, in front of the statue of Nimeño II and placed carnations at his feet. It was noted that many local politicians were present, which illustrates the importance of listening to the significant block of voters in this country represented by a political party called le Parti de la Chasse, Pêche, Nature et Traditions (CPNT). Tradition is not trifled with and change comes slowly here. I suspect that the huge Roman arenas in Arles and Nîmes, as well as the numerous smaller arenas throughout the southwest of France, won't go silent anytime soon.(*)
Homage to Nimeño II
Elected officials demonstrating in Nîmes

Sodas and Soft Drinks

In preparing its 2012 Budget, the French Ministry of Finance has announced that it will double the planned tax on sodas and sugar-enhanced soft drinks from 0.01 to 0.02 euro per can. The measure was accepted by the General Assembly and will be up for a global vote on October 25th. It is expected to be passed. This price hike would result in increased tax revenues of 240 million euros a year. These additional revenues will go toward filling the gap in the national health insurance coffers, the government explained.

Rugby Finals

France lost the World Cup Rugby by one point (7-8) against New Zealand in a well-fought match which, some say, the French dominated. It's at times like these that big guys cry, but when a few days later "Les Bleus" were welcomed back at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where 10,000 fans shouted their support and appreciation for the captain and his players, spirits were restored and it almost seemed that they had brought back the World Cup themselves.

Winning rugby team: New Zealand's All Blacks

(*) To read about the Easter bullfights in Arles in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Elections, Rugby, Pétanque, and Carlos Fuentes

Primary Elections

The Socialist party in France has decided to hold primary elections this year in order to choose among six candidates the one who will oppose incumbent President Sarkozy in April 2012. The first round on October 9th was won by François Hollande, followed by Martine Aubry. In the second round a week later, Hollande increased his lead and became the official Socialist candidate. Note that this was the first primary election ever in France, based on the American primaries which are cited as an example of voter participation in choosing a presidential candidate who was heretofore always appointed by the Party.

Primary debate Aubry-Hollande


In the world of sports, France is currently in the ban of the World Cup Rugby that is taking place in New Zealand, where France will be facing the host country’s feared All Blacks in the finals on October 23rd. French fans are collectively holding their breath and won’t exhale until it’s all over. Stay tuned.


In the meantime, Marseilles has just announced that the next world championship Pétanque (also called Boules) will be held in Marseilles in October 2012. Little did I know that there was such a thing as a “world" championship for this sport, which resembles horseshoe throwing or the Italian bocce ball and is very popular in southern France. But in 2004 the French Ministry of Health and Sports declared Pétanque a “sport de haut niveau” which qualifies it for government subsidies, and since then the Fédératon Française de Pétanque has been working hard at changing the image of Boules as an old man’s hobby into one of a serious sport for all ages. No mention so far who the other contestants will be.

Pétanque championship Marseilles

Fête du Livre 2011

October is also the month for the Fête du Livre in Aix-en-Provence, where the municipal library organizes a four-day annual event that has brought numerous Nobel prize winners and other literary greats(*) to this book-loving city. This year, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes was the guest of honor, who at age 83 continues to write and add to his considerable body of work. An engaging speaker and tireless participant in three days of conferences, he was joined by about a dozen younger Latin-American writers who acknowledged a debt to Fuentes’s work. Together with Colombian Garcia Marquez and Peruvian Vargas Llosa, Fuentes was declared one of the living monuments of Latin-American literature today. How lucky we are in Aix!

(*) To read about earlier guests at the Fête du Livre, including Philip Roth and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, described in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

National Heritage Weekends

September 17-18 – National Heritage weekend

During the third weekend of September all French cities celebrate the “Journées du Patrimoine” when for 2 days many historic buildings that are normally closed to the public are opened for guided tours. In Paris this may include government buildings (Elysée Palace, including the Office of the President, the Palais du Luxembourg where the Senate resides, the General Assembly, Town Hall), some embassies or ambassadorial residences, theatres, libraries, or buildings of particular architectural importance both old and new. Initiated by the French Ministry of Culture in 1983, these Heritage Days have become very popular, as witnessed by the long lines that inevitably form at the designated sites, and have since been adopted in many other European countries. 

Palais du Luxembourg 

Inside Palais du Luxembourg
The Palais du Luxembourg was built by Marie de Médicis, mother of king Louis XIII, in the style of the Palazzo Pitti of her native Florence. As a direct result of the French Revolution these "private" royal properties reverted back to the State and are today accessible to the people in whose name they are used.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Marseilles, Books and Boats

Bad news this morning (9/23) for the new catamaran ferry in the VIEUX PORT of Marseilles. It appears that ever since the launch of this modern solar-powered ferryboat that connects the north bank of the Old Port to the south bank its performance as a technical wonder has been in doubt. This new ferry, baptised with a singular lack of imagination LE FERRY BOAT by the people of Marseilles, replaced the beloved old César (named after the Pagnol character) that was withdrawn in 2008 after 55 years of ferry service. When the City of Marseilles, with due pride and fanfare, introduced the new ferry in February 2010 it made sure to stress its strong points: solar-powered and non-polluting, silent and fast. The shallow-keeled catamaran would make the 293-meter crossing every 3 minutes (at some 900 feet, the shortest ferry crossing in the world) with up to 45 passengers and free of charge (despite its building cost of 1 million euros). Sounded great, but soon one problem or another would interrupt the ferry service and people started grumbling about this new-fallutin' thing in their Vieux Port. A catamaran is by definition light in weight and susceptible to gusts of wind and when the Mistral blows the Ferry Boat has a hard time keeping course even on a short crossing. It has even been known to become uncontrollable and turn around itself in mid-port during strong winds. The Mistral is here to stay, but the Ferry Boat was withdrawn from service today until a solution can be found. Reminds us of some other "only in Marseilles" stories.


I like to go to literary festivals and have even participated in some. They vary from well-organized fairs with some one hundred writers from different countries, to village fairs with mostly French writers and perhaps a few foreigners whose works are only sold in French. Whether the fairs are big or small, they all have conferences and meet-the-author opportunities which add much to the event.  
The village of FUVEAU near Aix organizes a fair every year in early September where a large number of French authors appear together with a few authors from another country. This year it was Spain, two years ago it was America – represented among others by Marilynne Robinson, AM Homes, and my hero Joseph Boyden. They were sitting at the American table behind piles of their books, every single one in French, which caused some confusion when French buyers who did not speak English wanted to communicate with Americans who did not speak French. These book events are very well attended, with hundreds of people visiting the stands and the interviews with selected authors, always in French but with interpreters when needed. Fuveau is a small village and this literary event is entirely run by volunteers, headed by the wife of the mayor, but writers always seem happy to come and often there is at least one celebrity among them. Nevertheless, it remains a French village when it comes to opening hours. Imagine an American book festival that opens on Saturday at 11:30AM only to close at 12:30PM for lunch; then reopens in the afternoon from 2:30 – 6:00PM. “One has to eat,” they shrug, confirming once again that food for the body and soul are equally important here.

Remember DOMINIQUE STRAUSS-KAHN? (see May blog). He came home to Paris earlier this month, and last night (9/18) he appeared on French television where he promised to “explain himself” during a prime-time interview. Not surprisingly, we learned nothing new but saw a sober-miened DSK who from the beginning insisted that what had happened in his Sofitel suite was inappropriate but had involved no violence and no force. Nevertheless, he called his behavior a moral failing and expressed remorse and regret that he had failed the French people. It was the first time he acknowledged that he had indeed planned to be a candidate for the French presidential election in 2012 where he would have been a strong Socialist opponent to incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Though contrite and aware that any future presidential bid was out of the question, he did not rule out some political role where he could “serve the people” in the future. He also left the door open as to a possible set-up in New York. Clearly, he was down but not out. 

The TV ratings for this program were the highest ever recorded for an interview, but the French press remained cautious and skeptical in its comments. “Too rehearsed,” “Not convincing” and “Trapped?” were some of the banner headlines the next morning. Something tells me we have not heard the last from DSK.

By mid-September most tourists are gone and kids are back in school. Locals flock again to “their” beaches, and we look forward to visiting some of the hot spots along the coast, including SAINT TROPEZ, that are too crowded during the high season. The last week of September or first week of October we often attend the “Voiles de St. Tropez” – a big regatta in the bay of St. Tropez where sailboats from all over the world compete in various classes for an entire week. The boats are beautiful, the crews handsome, and the atmosphere in town festive and fun.

St. Tropez Bay

St. Tropez and its annual regatta are featured in Taking Root in Provence; click here for access.

Reminder: Do NOT buy "Taking Root in Provence" together with my earlier book "Ten Years in Provence" whatever Amazon says. "Taking Root" expands on and replaces "Ten Years". See January blog.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dutch cops in France

Dutch police on French freeways!
During the summer season the south of France is overrun by tourists, French and foreign alike, flocking southward like migrating birds. Trains and planes are fully booked, but many vacationers take to the road and move their families to rented houses, hotels, and campgrounds throughout Provence. This massive migration always takes place on the weekends because people rent from Saturday to Saturday, and on every Saturday between early July and late August the freeways clog up with cars. Even though the roads are excellent and well maintained (paid for by tolls) the French do not have a good safety record. Speed limits are broken routinely, especially by motorcyclists who fly like bullet trains past cars and trucks, and radar does not seem to slow down the speeders for more than the time it takes to pass the road-side speed traps. Highway police do their bit but are overwhelmed, so the authorities have now come up with an unexpected strategy. They have asked the Dutch government to send in DUTCH HIGHWAY POLICE to assist the French police during heavy-traffic weekends, especially to pull over the Dutch drivers who often speak little French (and to help out the French police who speak little English). Every summer, more than 1.5 million Dutch people descend on France, often with caravans in tow, with little concern for a French speeding ticket. Nowadays, the ticket will be explained in plain Dutch, including its obligation to pay.  

Dutch police with French colleagues

After a rather hectic schedule of music and theatre in July, we enjoy the quieter month of August to visit friends who have second homes here. Sometimes they are Americans who tend to favor the Var area (incl. the Côte d’Azur), oftentimes Parisian friends who tend to congregate in the Luberon area of Provence made famous by Peter Mayle. There, in the beautiful villages of Lourmarin, Bonnieux, or Ménerbes we get away from urban Aix to find the rugged nature of the Luberon mountains and the cool thick-stoned houses with their shaded gardens and swimming pools. At less than an hour’s driving distance from Aix, this is a favorite getaway during hot summer days. We have a soft spot for the village of LOURMARIN where Albert Camus lived and is buried.


Lourmarin, like many other villages in Provence, has been described in Taking Root in Provence. For more about Village Life in this area, click here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer Festivals

Beginning this month and up until the first weekend in September the French highways will have “orange, red and black weekends.” Literally thousands of vehicles back up at toll stations between Lyons and Nice in the south and around Paris and major cities in the north, when the summer arrivals and departures cross each other. These weekends are designated as orange, red and black (worst) by the Highway officials and warnings are issued via radio and television, signaling the worst backups and urging people to take secondary roads, but nothing seems to stop families from traveling by car on those weekends and enduring the hardships of heavy traffic to and from their holiday destinations.

Summer traffic

As always in July, the city of Aix is full of musicians and music lovers. It’s OPERA time! Five or six operas (depending on budgets) are presented this month, as well as several concerts conducted by the “big” guest conductor of the year – this time Sir Colin Davis and his London Symphony Orchestra. The operas run from early music (Monteverdi) to a commissioned work by a contemporary composer. We have been delighted and disappointed in equal measure by these new works, but we do like the adventure of discovery.

At this time also, the city of Avignon holds its annual THEATRE Festival with an incredible concentration of plays all squeezed into one month of performances that start at 10 in the morning and run until about 2 a.m. at night. Some 30 “official” plays take place in the evenings in the huge courtyard of the historic Papal Palace, while more than 1100 (!) shows of the “Off” festival take place in numerous other venues (theatres, cloisters, courtyards, schools) throughout the city. The joyful street scene of posters, actors in dress, theatre amateurs and merrymakers is part of the pleasures of Avignon this month, but is also a reason NOT to visit as a tourist at this time.  

Both the opera festival in Aix and the theatre festival in Avignon are featured in Taking Root in Provence. Click here.     

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Art and Architecture

We discovered a very unusual new art center, still in the making. CHATEAU LA COSTE near Aix-en-Provence has long been known for making wine but has recently expanded into the world of art and architecture. You can still buy wine at the chateau, but today the premises have been expanded and embellished with new buildings by leading architects such as American Frank Gehry, Japanese Tadao Ando, and Frenchman Jean Nouvel, and a number of sculptures by artists from the US, Brazil, Ireland and elsewhere dot the hilly landscape. Further art works are planned, as well as additional buildings by Brazilian Oscar Niemeier and Italian Renzo Piano. All this in a tiny village a stone’s throw from Aix!  

Chateau La Coste

On the subject of art, it was just announced that the PICASSO CASTLE in the village of Vauvenargues, where he lived for a number of years with his last wife Jacqueline and where they are both buried, will be open to visitors again this summer. This is not a museum, and the private property belongs to Jacqueline’s only daughter who lives in Paris. At the occasion of a blockbuster show on “Cézanne and Picasso” in Aix a few years ago, the local museum director persuaded the owner to open the chateau to visitors for the summer months. It was such a success that this year the place will be opened again for an exhibit of Picasso’s etchings.

Picasso's castle

We are starting to hear the first stirrings of the upcoming Opera Festival with the artists settling in for a month of performances in July. In June, some 30 young singers who have been selected from music schools worldwide will be following Master Classes that are open to the public, and perform in open-air concerts at various venues in and around the city of Aix. These concerts start at sundown and at first the birds chirp along with the singers as if in competition until the dark calms them down. Music is indeed a universal language.

DID YOU KNOW... that a “pretzel” is a “bretzel” in French?  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Scandals and Differences

The case of DOMINIQUE STRAUSS-KAHN, accused of assaulting a hotel maid in New York, has caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic with markedly different public reactions. In the US a rich, womanizing public figure would have little chance before a jury, while in France DSK remains a man of considerable accomplishment whose dalliances are seen as a “boys will be boys” kind of petty flaw or even as the characteristic of a great seducer. The initial shock at seeing their man in handcuffs doing a perp walk in front of the cameras of the world shocked the French and was roundly condemned as brutal and savage. “Innocent until proven guilty” means don’t show him guilty until you have proof, say the French, and sending him to Riker’s Island was meant to humiliate him and bring him down a notch to please the public and the voters. 

As the story evolves, the perception of American vs. French legal systems is becoming clearer. While a former French Minister of Justice had declared earlier that she was “glad that in France we have a different system” it is now nevertheless accepted that there is something to be admired in the equal treatment meted out in America, whether you are a VIP or a nobody. It is even admitted that in France this would not be the case, particularly for the offense that Strauss-Kahn is accused of. A certain droit de seigneur seems to have survived the ages and a “great man” would not be brought down in France for what is still generally considered a peccadillo. Boys will be boys indeed.
To be continued…

In another area, here's another difference between France and America. We had a car accident here where a distracted driver sideswiped our car, doing significant damage to two doors. A passing policeman asked if anyone was hurt and when told that was not the case, he got back on his motorbike and took off. I had hoped that he would draw up a police report for our insurance company, but it turns out that such a thing is not necessary here. Each driver is supposed to carry an accident form in his car that is filled out and signed by the parties involved in case of 'material damage only'. The insurance companies do the rest. While our car was being repaired we received a replacement car and we never saw a bill. No need for lawyers. How simple - how nice - how cost saving.

DID YOU KNOW…  that a “walkie-talkie” is a “talkie-walkie” in French?  :-)

For some unusual French/English translations in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Art and Cupcakes

This year the month of April was set aside for our annual pilgrimage to the Washington DC area to visit our children and friends from those many years we spent there. As always, we had a wonderful time re-visiting favorite sites and discovering some new ones. We never tire of the wide choice of museums in Washington and marvel at the fact that they continue to be free (in Europe we pay). On several occasions we have come across treasures from American museums right here in Aix-en-Provence, during major exhibits on CEZANNE and PICASSO in the local Musée Granet that contained loans from the National Gallery and other American collections. A reminder that Americans often appreciated French masters (notably the Impressionists and Cézanne) before the French did.

Guess what's getting popular in France? Cupcakes, that's what! Apparently the TV show "Sex and the City" had something to do with that, and since its introduction in Paris last year the little cupcake now has its very own little shop in Aix-en-Provence where two young sisters bake and sell "le cupcake" they got to know on their trips to the United States. On Saturday mornings they even have a stand at the market where they do brisk business in this novelty. 


Back to French food, here's an easy recipe:

Brandade de Morue (Cod Fish Spread)

Cod is a fish of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Dry salted cod was shipped from Portugal to the Caribbean to feed the plantation slaves, and has become popular along the Mediterranean.
Fishmongers often carry two kinds of salted cod: the mildly salted kind that is less dry and only requires one or two days for desalting, and the traditional dry salted cod, stiff as a board, that takes at least three days to be desalted before cooking. Either of these kinds of salted cod is suitable to make brandade de morue. As with so many traditional recipes, there are two schools for preparing brandade -- with and without potatoes.
Start by desalting the fish. Soak it in the sink or in a large pot of cold water, changing the water frequently, for two or three days depending on the type of cod. Once desalted, put the cod in a large pot and cover it with water (or with milk) and gently boil it until it flakes easily with a fork (about 20 minutes). Drain it, let it cool, and puree it (in a mortar or a blender) together with as much garlic as you like, adding olive oil and milk (or, if preferred, some cream) until it has the consistency of a thick mayonnaise. Adding boiled potatoes helps achieve a creamy consistency (you may wish to experiment preparing brandade with and without potatoes).
Serve on slices of toasted bread or baguette, with a fresh rosé wine.

Click here to see more recipes in Taking Root in Provence

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mane and Marseilles

We just re-visited the beautiful site of SALAGON in the village of Mane which started as a Gallo-Roman farm before it became a Benedictine priory in the 12th century. Today it is a museum with guided tours, conferences and special events. Other than the well-preserved archeological remains and beautiful architecture of the Romanesque church, Salagon is surrounded by ethno-botanical gardens including a mediaeval garden that features traditional medicinal plants for ailments such as ”female humors, vapors and nervous states.” Wonder if they still work today?  


Another reason to visit Mane is the luxurious hotel-restaurant-spa "COUVENT DES MINIMES" which opened last year in a beautifully restored 17th-century convent of the order of the Minimes Sisters. A major investor in this luxury project was the Occitane company, maker of nature-based beauty products, that is located nearby. The sober decor and the vaulted ceilings of the arcaded cloister surrounding the old courtyard still hint at the original convent, but the discreetly hidden spa with its indoor/outdoor swimming pools, saunas and all manner of massages is more likely to heal the body than the soul. No need to be an overnight guest here to enjoy a lovely lunch on the poolside terrace, or dinner in the indoor restaurant.

Couvent des Minimes

Some months ago, Marseilles was elected European Capital of Culture for 2013. Beating a number of other contestants, Marseilles won because “it reflected an especially nice balance of cultural qualities, political engagement and economic support”, according to the president of the international jury, Bob Scott. No mention, of course, of the city’s reputation for frequent strikes and its tough unions. Perhaps promises of good behavior were extracted in exchange for the expected economic rewards. But rumblings are being heard these days about discord between city officials and builders, promoters and other parties that threaten to slow down the various projects yet to be built. (Shades of the Olympic Games in Athens that weren’t ready until about 10 minutes before opening time – in a manner of speaking). 

Difficult to govern, defiant and with a character all its own, Marseilles with its big commercial port and its trading routes to North Africa and beyond has so many unique assets that its tantrums are invariably forgiven. Click here for a special chapter on this blessed city in Taking Root in Provence.  

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Foods and Festivals

I just came back from the gym with two new recipes. Some time ago, I joined a class for women of my age that focuses on stretching, some abdominal exercises and maintaining flexibility. No machines or aerobics for this group. We do many of our exercises from a prone position which lends itself to chatting and, not surprisingly, the subject of discussion is usually food and how to prepare it. This French obsession has its good side: recipes, advice, and good addresses are constantly being offered. Curiously, these women never talk about diets and not, I can assure you, because they are all pencil thin. In fact, the prototype of the elegant petite Frenchwoman is rapidly changing and a French fashion industry study has shown that French women have gone up one size since the 1980s. When they do acquire bulk, I believe French women simply cover it up better. They have a way with scarves that draws the attention to this accent and away from the waist; they will wear an elegant loose blouse rather than a tight top that reveals bulges, and they will wear high heels till they drop rather than go for the comfortable but sloppy look of running shoes. It’s all in the packaging and the presentation.  

Speaking of food, this month we pay homage to a lowly cookie – the age-old boat-shaped NAVETTE – which either represents the boats that brought the Phoceans to Provence where they established the city of Massalia (Marseilles) more than 2600 years ago, or it replicates the boat that brought Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and others to the Mediterranean shores where they spread the gospel. The celebration takes place in Marseilles where church-blessed navettes are distributed freely and often consumed with a little Pastis in a nearby cafe. In Aix, another sweet – the famous CALISSON – commemorates the city being spared from the plague by its patron saint, Our Lady of Seds. Religion and food are often intertwined here. Taking Root in Provence tells the story -- click here.  

A great getaway from winter chills is the Lemon Festival in MENTON in mid-February. This pretty town on the Riviera near the Italian border has a micro-climate that favors citrus fruits which grow in abundance here and are piled high on the many magnificent floats rolling down the sunny avenues. Almost makes you forget it is still winter elsewhere.   

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Christmas Time

Let’s start with year-end 2010 and the very different ways France and the US celebrate Christmas. French Christmas is all about food, and the most important meal of the year is Christmas dinner, which is often eaten on Xmas Eve. For weeks all media talk about this meal and all TV news channels feature shows where famous chefs prepare part or all of the special Christmas dinner. Advertising focuses heavily on the luxury end of the food chain: truffles, caviar, champagne, and fine chocolates. This emphasis on food cuts across society, and each within his budget will produce an exceptional dinner this one day of the year. Gifts are exchanged, like anywhere else, but the gift of a spectacular dinner may give the French the greatest satisfaction of all. 

Oh, and the French don’t do Christmas carols, don’t deck the halls, don’t do office parties and don’t send out cards. Christmas decoration is usually limited to a tree and a nativity scene, which in Provence may include the typical SANTONS made by local artisans. These are figurines sculpted from wood or clay, painted or natural, that represent village people, a shepherd, the miller, the mayor with sash, or the baker with a bag of flour, on their way to the manger. Some churches have life-sized santons that may carry gifts of lavender, wheat or olives.    

Epiphany: January 6th marks the end of the Christmas celebrations. Called La Fête des Rois in France, on this day we eat a traditional cake in honor of the three Magi: la GALETTE DES ROIS. In fact, this galette is sold in all French bakeries throughout the month of January. The galette is a round puff-pastry cake that is filled with almond paste and contains a fava bean. The person who gets the bean will be king or queen for the day and receives a paper crown. 

Some people prefer the COURONNE DES ROIS, a brioche-like ring of pastry studded with candied fruit.  

We were surprised to discover that Provence can be quite cold in winter, especially when the Mistral blows, and that snow is rare but not unknown here. In fact, last year the city of Marseilles was completely paralyzed by a snowstorm because there is no snow removal equipment here.  

WARNING: With apologies for the interruption, I would like to point out that in this blog I will be referring occasionally to my book "Taking Root in Provence" (2011). In doing so, I am aware of the possibility that you may end up on where the book is for sale, and I want to warn you NOT to buy my current book together with an earlier one called "Ten Years in Provence" (2008), no matter what Amazon says. "Taking Root" expands on and replaces "Ten Years" but unfortunately I cannot remove the earlier book from Amazon where it will stay until the stock is depleted. Appeals to Amazon to remove their statement that these two books are "Frequently Bought Together" have been unsuccessful.

France is a lay country but it continues to celebrate many feasts of a religious nature. Among the oldest and most important is the Fête de ST. MARCEL, also named Les Tripettes, celebrated in mid-January in the village of Barjols where he is the patron saint. During these festivities a bull is roasted on a spit to commemorate the bull that saved the village from famine in 1350, and everybody dances the Tripetttes, a dance named after the bull’s tripe. (Yes… it’s a long story). The colorful festivities last two days and attract huge crowds. (*)

Saint Marcel

(*) Every month has several celebrations of saints, foods or animals. To see Taking Root in Provence for a description of these traditional feasts throughout the year, click here.