Friday, August 24, 2012



August is traditionally the month when everybody is on vacation (doctors, dentists, lawyers, therapists), many businesses close and nothing much happens. Vacationing is taken seriously here, as is the matter of summer reading. Politicians are happy to tell you what they read at the beach or by the pool, and publishers make sure that "novelties" come out just in time for this lull in activity when they have everybody's attention. The slightest scandal or hot topic is sure to be rushed into print in time for the summer holidays.

So it is that Le Monarque, Son Fils, Son Fief, which came out on June 14th, quickly became "the book that everybody is reading this summer". A whiff of scandal, the usual denials, a sudden "career change", and astute timing are the perfect ingredients for a successful summer book. Le Monarque, written by Marie-Céline Guillaume, fits the bill as it tells the story of her four years as chief of staff of Patrick Devedjian, a French politician in the UMP party, close adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, and head of the Département des Hauts-de-Seine (Sarkozy's fiefdom). She paints an unvarnished picture of the infighting, threats, power plays and deal-making in Sarkozy's entourage as well as the vengeful nature of Sarkozy himself. Guillaume calls her book a "novel" but the thinly disguised characters and their real-life political roles leave no doubt who she's talking about. Just to make sure, the book's cover shows Sarkozy's unmistakable profile in the title.

Under pressure from Nicolas Sarkozy and his ambitious son Jean (the Fils of the title) Guillaume was fired by Devedjian and threatened with reprisals. She says she wrote this story not for revenge but as a form of therapy, in an effort to put behind her the hardships and the violence she endured these past four years. The book's record sales should make her feel better already.

Another summer success is Les Strauss-Kahn, the recent book written by two journalists about Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his (soon-to-be-ex) wife Anne Sinclair. Even though much about this couple was already public knowledge - the money, politics, sex and secrets - the book reveals that more than once DSK's risky behavior put his allies in an awkward position but that his wife, his peers, and politicians (including Sarkozy when he was Interior Minister) protected him by discarding police reports or discrediting sources. DSK had such a good shot at the presidency that those in the know preferred to accept his apologies and remain close to this potential winner.

Others in socialist circles kept their distance. During a visit to the Strauss-Kahns' large house in Marrakech, Jean-Louis Brochen, husband of Socialist Party leader Martine Aubrey, expressed his disapproval of the "ostentatious luxury" with which DSK surrounded himself, unbecoming a socialist. And Martine herself is quoted as saying: "Listen, Dominique, when you are rich like that you have to be generous. You should create a foundation. Find a good cause and create a foundation". Perhaps DSK's definition of "a good cause" was different from Martine's.

The French daily Le Figaro judged Les Strauss-Kahn "impossible to put down", a guarantee to propel the book to bestseller status this summer.


Even François Hollande took some time off in August and decided to spend his summer vacation at the presidential holiday retreat of Fort Bregançon, a small island off the Mediterranean coast, connected by a short pier to the town of Bormes les Mimosas in the Var. Easy to protect, Bregançon has been an official presidential retreat since Charles de Gaulle first used it in 1968.

As the "normal" president he promised to be, Hollande traveled by train rather than by presidential jet, and was seen happily shaking hands with fellow travelers, followed by First Girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler who stayed discreetly in the background. Wishing to be close to the people Hollande then proceeded to walk the beach, shaking hands left and right and good-naturedly accepting to be photographed with all who asked. He and Valérie sipped a drink at a terrasse, ate ice cream and did as normal people do. So far so good.
But the day the couple decided to go swimming at the public beach rather than the private pool at Bregançon things turned sour. When they were photographed entering the water, Valérie sprung into action to try and control publication. Claiming a right to privacy she had her lawyers threaten legal action if the photos were published, but to no avail. In spite of (or because of?) the threats three well-known gossip magazines defiantly printed the "bikini photo" on their cover, and Paris Match, the magazine Trierweiler still works for, published it inside. 

The fact that as the unmarried partner of the President she has no official status does not help, but - as the various editors argued - she knew that the press was there (having posed for photographers days earlier), and that former presidents had also been photographed in bathing suits (including Sarkozy with his then-pregnant wife Carla Bruni). Besides, as a journalist she should know that vacation shots of celebrities sell well and are not protected. "She did not like her picture", said one editor, "and thought she could pull it at will". Her actions are indeed hard to understand, especially since she is creating a certain amount of resentment in the journalistic community. But the girl can't seem to help herself in drawing attention where she does not want it. Unintentionally, she made the photo famous and talked about. And once again President Hollande was overshadowed by his girlfriend.


This month of August has been a particularly hot one, with heat-wave temperatures these past few weeks throughout western Europe. Most private homes in France are not air-conditioned, and many smaller hotels offer only ventilator columns or overhead fans. In 2002, the city of Paris came up with an excellent idea to make summers more bearable for those who cannot get away. For one month starting on July 20th, the municipality closes the river banks to traffic, trucks in tons of sand and creates several "beaches" along the Seine, complete with parasols, deck chairs, refreshment stations, and entertainment. The three Paris beaches (Louvre/Pont de Sully, Port de la Gare, Bassin de la Villette) cover many kilometers and include two pools, a watersports complex, play areas, a rollerblading stretch, and a concert stage.

Open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight, the beaches are a huge success and several other cities, including Lille, have copied the concept.


The term La Rentrée (The Return − to work, to school, etc.) is on everyone's lips from mid-August on. Vacationers return from their holidays, businesses offer special promotions, and publishers begin leading up to the Rentrée Littéraire (*) in September when they announce this year's crop of new books. Booksellers, librarians and publishers are interviewed on radio shows to discuss new developments (e-books) and trends, the difficulties of bookshops in high-rent city centers, the folding of some small publishing houses and the surprising emergence of others, and of course to whet readers' appetites for the new releases in September. Among the 646 new books to be announced next month, some are eagerly awaited, such as "Rien Ne Se Passe Comme Prévu" (Nothing is happening as expected), written by Laurent Binet, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2010, about the presidential campaign of François Hollande.

Allocation de Rentrée Scolaire (ARS)

And then there is La Rentrée Scolaire. Every year around mid August the government announces the amount and the payment date of the Allocation de Rentrée Scolaire the cash premium given to low-income families to help pay for their children's school supplies. This year, President Hollande increased the premium by 25 % over last year. It now stands at:  326 per child 6-10 years old; 376 per child of 11-14; 389 per child of 15-18, and will be paid out as of August 21, 2012. Following this announcement, television news channels invariably begin to show mothers shopping with their school-age children for school supplies in supermarkets. About as exciting and as "new" as the predictable traffic back-ups at toll stations on summer weekends. It's a prelude to the early-September television "news" showing La Rentrée Scolaire, the back-to-school ritual of crying children, anxious mothers and soothing teachers to be seen on all TV channels for days on end.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz... Wake me when it's over.

(*) Read more about La Rentrée in Taking Root in Provence by clicking here:

Friday, August 10, 2012



After a particularly busy month of July and first week of August, the next few weeks promise to be somnolent by comparison. A good time to catch up on our siestas.

Too many cultural events take place here during July but we like them all and try to take in as much as possible, which means six operas during our Aix festival, an average of three mid-day Master Classes per week and an occasional evening concert. And then there's Avignon where in a span of three days we saw one late-evening play and five daytime productions. We ended the month of July with a two-day visit to Paris to meet up with our American daughter and son-in law where we "enjoyed" a few unseasonably chilly and rainy days before traveling south together to the dry summer heat of Provence and a week of local tourism in early August.

A calanque near Cassis

It is less stressful than you might think when the tourism includes driving your guests through beautiful countryside in a peppy convertible car, taking them on a boat ride in the calanques near Cassis and to a winery cum art center, letting them loose at the artisanal markets where they load up on goodies, and have them take off on rented bikes to go and explore on their own and bring back magnificent photos of places we have never seen! And of course we always enjoy hearing their raves - as though we had any merit in the matter.

Vacationing is indeed easy in the south of France where beaches, mountains, lakes and gorges offer a wide variety of leisurely or sporty activities for all tastes and ages. And when our young guests pedal out into nature and cool down in ice-cold mountain springs, we leave our hot apartment for an air-conditioned matinee movie and perhaps a brief snooze.


The French are hedonists with enough paid vacation days to take winter and summer holidays. Their hedonism becomes ugly, however, when you know that during holidays they often abandon their pets rather than pay a kennel. Dogs are regularly left (without identifying collars, of course) at gas stations or food stops along highways and byways, or tied to the gate of an animal shelter. In France, 100,000 domestic pets are abandoned this way every year, 60,000 of them during summer holidays.

According to the local SPA, during holidays pets are abandoned far from home in touristy and heavily traveled areas such as Provence. This summer has been the worst ever, it appears, perhaps due to a newly passed law that officially allows home owners and campsite managers to prohibit pets on their properties. Only three beaches in Provence are dog friendly; all others prohibit dogs during the months of July and August when they are packed with people. "There is no excusable reason to abandon your animal", says Michèle Dottore, founder of the Aix animal shelter, who favors a reduction of the dog and cat population as a start. Systematic sterilizations in animal shelters, for example, and - as Stéphane Lamart of Assistance aux Animaux proposes - the cost of sterilization should be tax deductible to pet owners. He would also like to see that private individuals no longer be allowed to sell their litters. This is probably unrealistic and at best would take years to enact, while the nasty habit of abandoning pets continues to claim thousands of "man's best friends".

Curious side effect:  pet adoptions peak in late August/early September when animal shelters are full and some parents take their children to pick out a cute little dog, to love and to cherish... until next summer?


During the gigantic Sextius-Mirabeau urban renewal project in Aix-en-Provence that started in 1997 and lasted more than a dozen years, a large number of dinosaur eggs was found that confirmed the paleontological Aix-en-Provence Basin along the foot of the Montagne Sainte Victoire as one of the richest dinosaur egg deposits in the world. The eggs, estimated to be about 7 million years old, are thought to be those of the titanosaurus, a large herbivore with a long neck that could grow to ten meters which allowed him to feed on tree leaves.

At that time Provence had a tropical climate and a large river ran through the area. The dinosaurs laid their eggs in this river bed and probably covered them with vegetable matter and earth. When the area flooded the eggs drowned and got covered with multiple layers of sediment which preserved and protected them. The 106-hectare Aix-en-Provence Basin has revealed numerous dinosaur nests with 3-8 eggs each, as well as other fossilized remains and a small number of dinosaur teeth of up to eight cm long.

Dinosaur eggs uncovered

Paleontologists at the Museum of Natural History of Aix-en-Provence are studying the sediments found inside certain eggs as well as some remains of embryos in order to determine which of the three known species of dinosaurs of the area laid the eggs.

Over the course of the Sextius-Mirabeau project nearly one thousand dinosaur eggs were found, earning Aix its nickname of "Eggs-en-Provence".


During the hot summer months we usually eat fresh fruits for dessert. For variety, these fruits can take the form of a fruit pie. Here follows a recipe from my book Taking Root in Provence:

Tarte aux Figues (*)    

Figs are plentiful in Provence, with two summer harvests (usually late June and late August), and because fig trees do not require much care or pruning they are very common in provençal gardens. In fact, friends who have fig trees will often give you home-made "confiture de figues" because ripe figs will not keep well and need to be eaten within a day or two or be preserved as jam or chutney. Of course, figs are also available at our daily farmers’ markets and I like to buy the very ripe blue figs to make a fig pie. It is a naturally sweet fruit that requires no added sugar and is extremely easy to make.

Fresh very ripe figs (blue or green), soft to the touch and fragrant
Puff pastry – either a round or a square sheet to fit a pie mold with a 1-inch standing edge
Buy enough figs to cover your pastry sheet with tightly packed halved figs, the cut side facing up.

Preheat your oven to 430 F and bake your pie for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned.
Serve it lukewarm with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

If ripe figs are not picked they will fall off the tree and either be eaten by birds or rot away. But you can collect these figs on a shallow tray, cover them with thin gauze to keep the flies off, and leave them to dry in the sun. They’ll shrink and wrinkle a bit in the process and become an intensely flavored delicious snack that keeps all summer.

(*)  For more recipes from Taking Root in Provence, click here: