Thursday, June 26, 2008

Arles 6 Reunion Tour '08

Yes, I know, there are 7 people in the photo! I'll explain about the guest later in the post! On June 13, I left Arles and headed to Bordeaux by TGV. I settled into the Hôtel Continental, wandered around the city a bit, ate a great ham and cheese sandwich and then returned to the train station to try to find Rich from Oxford, Mississippi. He is really tall, so I figured he would be hard to miss. I had just about given up when, low and behold, there he was towering over everyone else at Gare St. Jean. The next day, he and I returned to the train station, hoping to find Yolanda and Betty. They made it there safely, too! So, four of the Arles 6 were happily reunited. We boarded a train bound for Bergerac (oui, of Cryano fame!) and when we pulled into the station there, Pat and Joan, were waiting for us. That was a wonderful surprise. We thought we wouldn't see them until we reached our house in St. Cyprien and there they were, all smiles. The Arles 6 all together again. We found my rental car and after an initial problem-- not being able to figure out how to put the Renault Scenic in reverse (minor detail), we set off for our house, La Ferme aux Chênes. What should have been a 50-60 minute trip turned into a two-hour one due to the fact that we couldn't seem to get out of the village of St. Cyprien and on the right road to our house, only 2 kilometers away. I would like to blame my navigators, but I can't, in good faith. The directions we were given were faulty and, honest to goodness, there are at least 5 different ways to get to any small village in France. To continue in the honesty strain, it must be said that I am acutely directionally challenged, too.
At last, we arrived at our beautiful home for the week and we were greeted by Michel, the caretaker of the estate of Bagnegrole. The owner, Monique Boucheron, was away for a few days. We unpacked the cars, settled in, and toasted our successful arrival with the bottle of wine waiting on the table for us. Michel pointed us in the direction of the Auberge de Meyrals for dinner and, seeing the blank looks on all six of our hungry faces, agreed to lead us there in his car. Never let anyone tell you the French are rude. They definitely understand the need for a good hearty dinner after missing lunch!
We made it our mission to visit a different local market each morning to find fresh ingredients for lunch or dinner at our house. We visited the prehistoric caves of Font de Gaume. We saw the lights come on one night in Sarlat. Rich and I took a tour of a farm where geese are force fed ( gavager) in order to make foie gras. Pat made it his mission to find the perfect omelet. Yolanda opted for pain au chocolat. Betty made the most delicious tomato, mozzarella and basil salad imaginable. Joan arranged for us to have a tour of Monique's home, complete with a trip to the attic to see how the roof was made, and then to have wine with her-- a 1988 Saint Emilion made by her husband. We ate well all week, but in my opinion, the best meals were the ones we prepared at our house. I must admit, however, that I sat back and let the masters take over and I washed dishes. I am in no way the chef that the others are.
Keeping the vow of "What happens in St. Cyprien, stays in St. Cyprien", I will only say that if there is anything to the saying that laughter takes years off one's life, we should all live for many years to come --if certain individuals watch it when coming down the stairs...
After we left our house, we took to train from Bergerac to Bordeaux. I'd never been there and didn't expect to like it very much-- big city, not much to see, etc. I was wrong. The tram system is very efficient and the city is well tended. Yolanda and Rich befriended a museum guide who gave them a personalized tour of the old city. Pat bought new jeans and he looks really good in them! Rich, Betty, Yolanda and I took a tour of Saint Emilion one day. We visited two châteaux to learn about how they make their wines and ate lunch at one of them. We had a guided tour of the town, including the underground church. We left Bordeaux after 3 days and headed to Paris. Our first night there, while wandering down Rue Cler, we ran into Caroline Bodager, a rising junior at Durham Academy, and her mom. That was awesome!
Our hotel in Paris, the Hôtel Muguet, was incredible. We found it in Rick Steves' Paris book. I left the group early to return to Arles. I did hear, however, that they helped the French economy by arriving at Galeries Lafayette at 8:00 am Wednesday for the first day of the summer sale. I miss you all and want to thank you for making the past two weeks so much fun.

PS- The extra in the photo is Peter, an Englishman who helped us make our plans in the Dordogne. He owns a home in Cahors and likes Americans, even if it is unfashionable to do so. I am sure that we proved to him what a witty and charming lot we are in spite of what they have heard about us!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Friends come to visit 2006

Okay, I am already back in Provence, but I promised myself that I would write this post before beginning the summer 0f 2008!  So, here goes!
Last summer, I signed on for two months as Érick's assistant in Arles.  As I wrote earlier, it was a wonderful experience.  I was totally accepted in Arles because I had roots.  I read once that the best way to seem like a native in France is to have a dog to take for walks.  That's is so true!  The Vedel family has Filou, a medium sized black dog of some breed.  Not knowing much about dogs, I have no clue what he/she is.  But I loved taking that dog for walks along the Rhône river last summer.  Everyone here is nice to you if you have a dog.  Just watch out where you walk!
Last summer, halfway through my stay, my best buddy in the world, Martha and Monette, her long time friend from high school in Lexington, NC, the barbeque capital of the world, came to France to spend a week with me.  I met them at the airport in Paris the day before Tony and Eva's wedding outside of Paris.  50 Cent was in concert in Paris the next night so when their flight was delayed and we had to clear out one whole section of Charles de Gaulle airport, I figured someone IMPORTANT besides my friends were on the flight.  They arrived, oblivious to the stir they had caused.  We spent three wonderful days exploring Paris.  We stayed at a great little hotel, Hôtel du Pavillion, on Rue Sainte Dominique, near Rue Cler.  I will never be forgiven for not knowing that the Musée d'Orsay is closed on Mondays, but if a certain best friend had brought back my guide books I would've known...
We then took the train down to Arles.  I was so excited about showing them where I was living and working.  Érick and I took them to Châteauneuf-du-Pape to taste wine.  Monette became quite the expert, picking out hints of grapefruit and who knows what else.  I am good at drinking it, not so good at knowing what flavors are present!  I vow to get better or die trying!  Noble of me, isn't it?
During their visit, I came down with a terrible headache, needing the services of a doctor who still makes housecalls.  He apologized for the fact that he would have to charge me 35 euros (about $50) for the visit.  He gave me all the paperwork I would need to file with my insurance at home.  I did share with him the fact that an office visit in the US costs me a $20 co-pay.  
While I was not feeling well, Martha and Monette had their own adventure.  They decided to rent a car and drive to Saintes Maries de la Mer for the day.  They speak little or no French but were successful and spent a lovely afternoon at the beach.  Today's photo is the two of them showing their gratitude to Érick for buying little pastries for them for breakfast.  Martha confessed to being very embarrassed afterwards- something to the effect of a swarm of locusts descending, I think is how she put it.  Not a crumb was left.  
Martha and Monette pitched in by washing dishes one day when we had a group come in for a cooking lesson.  It was so great to be able to show them exactly what I was doing over here and where I was living.   I sent them home with sea salt, wine, herbes de provence, lavender and tears as they pulled out of the TGV station in Avignon.
In March, I brought my traveling buddy par excellence, Chappell Carter, and my group of 26 eighth graders here for four days.  I travel every March with as many eighth grade French students as can take the trip.  This year, we spent four days in Paris and then headed south on the TGV to Arles.  The girls and I stayed at the B&B and the boys and Chappell stayed at the Hôtel du Cloître.  Érick prepared spaghetti for us our first night and we managed to fit everyone in the dining room and kitchen.  We divided the group in two and one group cooked while another went to the beach for a picnic and then horseback riding in the Camargue.  I went to the Camargue with the first group.  My horse and I were bringing up the rear.  There were brush fires burning in the distance and my horse became spooked.  He took off hell bent for the barn and I knew that I was going down.  I decided to roll off that beast and take my chances.  I was covered in horse poop and mud, but luckily no bones were broken.  I vowed to stick to cooking in the future, needless to say.  Much less dangerous for me.  The kids loved Arles because I could give them a lot of freedom to explore the city and find all the best crêpe-makers in town.  I have raised them properly!
So, in the past year, I was able to share Arles with my best buddies, Martha and Monette, and a very special group of students.  Add to that my group from the summer of 2006, now known as the Arles 6, and Dorette and Emily from C'est si bon!  I hope that it is clear why I love this place so much to some of my favorite people.  I am back, having arrived yesterday afternoon, and ready for more adventures.  I am about to set off for an afternoon walk around Arles and tomorrow morning I will board a train for Bordeaux for a two week reunion of the Arles 6.  I miss my two handsome, wonderful boys back in Durham, but I hope that they will be able to visit later in the summer.

Monday, June 9, 2008

L'Assistante Américaine

After a wonderful two-week stay in France, I returned once again to the classroom in the fall of 2006, my 28th year of teaching middle school French at Durham Academy. Early in the fall semester, I received an email from Madeleine Vedel asking me if I would consider coming to live in their house and work for them. I could translate for Chef Érick, she said. They would pay part of my airfare over and I could work for room and board. I thought that perhaps I could turn that into a sabbatical request from my school and stay on from June to December. I applied for the sabbatical but was turned down. Quite a few tears later, I decided to go for the summer. I talked to my two sons and explained to them what a wonderful opportunity it would be for dear, French nerd mom. They have called me a that for as long as I can remember. I've taken both of them to France with me and they love the country. It's conjugating verbs while in their mom's eighth grade French class that they weren't too fond of!
I made all the arrangements to be away for two months in the summer of 2007 and took off for Paris in early June. I had a wonderful seatmate, John Meldrum, an American musician living in Paris with his wife and children. We talked for hours and he assured me that I would have a great summer. I took the TGV to Arles and made my way, for the third time, to 30, rue Pierre Euzeby. I was shown to my room at the very top of the house, on the family side this time.
I took on many of the daily duties of running the B&B- preparing and serving breakfast, cleaning rooms, checking people in upon arrival, as well as assisting Érick with the clients for the cooking classes or stages. I became known around town and at the market as his assistante américaine. I learned to make crêpes from scratch, without a recipe, practicing first on two adorable boys from Ireland. I did this one morning when Érick was away, just in case they were a disaster! The boys were very pleased, I am happy to report.
At the beginning of the summer, Érick and several of his friends began renovating the fifth bedroom, as it became known. It was decided that I would become their lunch chef. I was a nervous wreck on the first day I was expected to have lunch on the table for them. It was a Wednesday, one of two market days in Arles. I went to the market and bought roasted chickens and potatoes. I attempted to make green beans or haricots verts, boiling them first and then frying them in olive oil. The chicken was a hit, but my green beans were not eaten. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with them-- one of the guys took a big serving, bit into one and then didn't eat the rest. He put them all back in the serving dish. I ate most of them myself. I later learned that I had not boiled them long enough-- they were too crunchy, pronounced practically raw by my new food critics. Luckily, I got over being nervous. However, I realized that I was serving too much pasta on the day that Gilbert came in to work one morning and asked for potatoes, no pasta, please. I didn't contribute much to those lunch time discussions during the first several days. After studying French since the age of 14, I couldn't seem to understand them. Their southern accents and the liberal use of Provençal expressions left me in the dark most of the time at first. Lunches lasted about an hour and a half and everything from music to the weather to airplane engines were discussed and debated. As soon as the table was cleared, the guys scattered to various sofas for their 30 minute siesta. They would get back to work around 3:30. When I explained to them that my lunch time during the school year consists of eating in my classroom with my twelve advisees in about 10-15 minutes they were horrified. And no rosé? Uncivilised.
It was a glorious summer. Elijah, a young man from Wisconsin, was there as the main dishwasher. As I was really missing my own sons at home, he was happy to fill in for them. I helped him with his laundry and woke him up every morning when it was dish-washing time. Dorette came with Emily from Chapel Hill as her assistant. They brought two groups of teens. Virginia was there as au pair to Madeleine and Érick's two young sons. We had guests from all over the world-- two fun-loving couples from Israel, Canadians, Italians, Norwegians, and Americans, just to name a few. The group I nicknamed the Creative Ladies were inspirational. Mo, one of them, stayed on in Arles and I was able to spend time with her at the pool of her hotel one afternoon. I learned to clean toilets in French, as Véronique, the woman who comes in to help with the cleaning, was called away to be with her ill father. Sadly, he later passed away. Madeleine and I took several of the teens to Nice for a few days. I lost my wallet at the Matisse museum and, after panicking and calling my best friend back in Durham to figure out what on earth I was going to do, learned that it had been returned by a family from the States. The museum employee lectured me on being more careful with my belongings, the same lecture I give my students every March when we go to Paris. I celebrated my 49th birthday with Dorette, Emily, Madeleine and one of the teen groups by going to Joël Durand's chocolate shop, lunch at Glanum, shopping and watching the street entertainers in Avignon at the summer festival, and finally with dinner at a pizza restaurant across the Rhône river from the Palais des Papes and the famous bridge of Avignon. Érick and his young son, Jonas, took the train from Arles to Avignon to join us for dinner.
When the time came to say good-bye to everyone in August, I was bereft. Véronique gave me a ceramic cicada, Richard gave me a CD by Les Quartiers Nord, a band from Marseille we had seen in concert in Arles, Gilbert gave me a bottle of Bordeaux as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate, and Madeleine and Érick offered me a massage by one of Madeleine's friends to thank me for the hours of hard work. The flower man at the open air market bid me good-bye, telling me I had un accent délicieux. I didn't know whether to be offended or flattered! I opted for the latter, after being told by Érick that it was indeed meant as a compliment.
I decided to leave some clothes in my loft bedroom, just in case I returned the next summer. I also had absolutely no extra room in my suitcase. After all, I had to make room for olive oil, sea salt, spices, three bottles of wine, books on Provence, CDs of local music, etc. I had no idea if I would indeed be able to return during the summer of 2007, as I stood in the Air Canada line at Charles de Gaulle airport with tears dripping off the end of my nose. I will always be grateful to the employee who took one look at me and got me through that line in record time. I think she was afraid I would break out in hysterical sobs any minute. I did know that I had spent two wonderful months in what felt like my home away from home.

Beat three eggs in a medium sized bowl with a fork. Add perhaps a fourth of a cup of milk. Gradually add enough floor to make a really thick pancake batter. As you mix it, it should pull away from the sides of the bowl. Gradually add enough milk to make a thin batter. Do not add too much milk. If you then try to rethicken it with flour you will have lumps that are impossible to remove. (The batter is thin enough if it is easy to coat the bottom of the pan with it as you pour it into the pan.)
Heat a well-seasoned skillet. Melt butter and quickly pour in enough batter to coat the bottom. The pan needs to be hot. The crêpe is ready when the edges brown and start to pull away from the side of the pan. You can try flipping it in the air to turn it or just flip it with your fingers or a spatula. Serve warm with jam or nutella.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Dream Vacation- Summer of 2006

So, what do you get when you mix an art teacher, a hospital administrator, a biology professor, a French teacher, a woman who teaches English at a maximum security prison, and the world's most incredible man (who is married to the English teacher)? The best two weeks possible in France!
At the art teacher's insistence, although no one has ever needed to twist my arm to get me to go to France, and at my best friend's suggestion, I offered the trip to France for adults through a program at my school called Academy Nights. This program raises money for the financial aid fund at Durham Academy. I met with my group a couple of times in the attempt to convince them to write a check and off we'd go. The biology professor wasn't part of the original group. I'll explain how we found him later.
We decided to focus on art and cooking. The first indication that this was going to be a great group of people happened at Charles de Gaulle airport upon arrival. Betty, Yolanda and I were attempting to get ourselves and our ridiculously heavy luggage through the tiny turnstiles to take the train into Paris. Betty's luggage got stuck and she had to climb either over or under the turnstile. She just jumped right over that thing, collected her bags and was ready to board the RER. I was greatly relieved. We stayed at a lovely little hotel in the Rue Cler neighborhood of Paris, near the Eiffel Tower. Betty's son Alex joined us for a few days. Alex speaks French beautifully so we bonded quickly. And he became our restaurant expert. Since I normally travel only with 8th graders, about the only cuisine in Paris I can point you towards is the nearest crêpe stand!
We were joined on Bastille Day by Pat and Joan. We found a spot in the Gucci window to watch the military parade on the Champs-Élysées. My first Bastille Day in France! The highlight of the Paris stay was our outing to Monet's home in Giverny. We booked a bus tour, packed a picnic lunch and off we went for the day. We decided to open a bottle of red (we were in France, afterall, and drinking wine is never off limits there) on the bus to celebrate. Betty proceeded to spill her glass all over the very sharply dressed Alex (a white polo and beige linen slacks, if I am remembering correctly). Yolanda and I were curious to see how this would be handled since we are mothers of boys. Alex flinched ever so slightly and then went about helping his mom soak up what wasn't on him and in the seat. Not a word was said about it the rest of the day. We enjoyed our picnic on a bench in Monet's garden and were the envy of everyone who passed by as we consumed our freshly baked baguettes, various cheeses, ripe red cherries, dark chocolate and wine. Yolanda was asked to be the official photographer of an American guy proposing to his girlfriend in the gardens. The young woman had no idea what was happening until he got down on his knee and later Yolanda was revealed as the photographer. L'amour, l'amour, toujours l'amour.
After Paris, we boarded the TGV to head to Arles. We arrived on the doorstep of the Vedel's bed and breakfast and checked into our rooms to rest for a bit before the welcoming dinner. I was told that one other person would be joining us for the Mini-Gourmand course. I must confess that, initially, I wasn't too keen on the idea. Our group had already bonded. Why throw someone else into the mix? We met Richard, the Ole Miss biology professor who has a thing for turkeys, at dinner that night. He was very quiet but assured us he would be more himself the next day, after a good night's sleep. I was skeptical. However, Yolanda managed to give him a proper welcome to our group the next morning at breakfast by scalding him with the hot water for tea. We seemed to have a problem with liquids. I was told that Madeleine Vedel would not be with us for the week. I would be the translator for Chef Érick. What followed was the most wonderful week in Provence imaginable. Érick is a native, born and raised in Arles. He took us to visit Jean-David, an organic winemaker, to Saint-Rémy to visit the handsome chocolatier, Joël Durand (Yolanda was the only one to catch a glimpse of him, though, and she did get a photo and bragged about it the rest of the trip, bien sûr), to Glanum for lunch overlooking the on-going excavation of a Roman city, to an olive oil producer, Mas des Barres. Thanks to Joan and her ever present curiosity, I had to ask the young man giving us the tour of his family's facility if his "100% extra virgin" tee-shirt had a special significance. I wonder if I blushed? Doubt it.
The highlight of the week was our trip to the lavender field at the Abbaye de Sénanque. I now realized that Érick understands more English that he lets on. We had been discussing lavender amongst ourselves in the van and before we knew it we were off to see it in person without having asked Érick to take us. We had our picnic there and wandered around the abbey for a while.
We reluctantly left Arles, Érick, Barbara, his assistant for the summer, and Richard. I do not believe for a minute that they thought we would actually make it to our next destination, Aix-en-Provence, with me behind the wheel of a straight drive, loaded to the max, Ford mini-van with Yolanda as the navigator. I have absolutely no sense of direction, even having trouble telling my right hand from my left. However, with only a few wrong turns and Joan getting a little testy and telling Yolanda to put her camera away once and for all, we made it. We saw the Cézanne exhibit there and I still remember the warm goat cheese salad I ate. We left for Nice after only one night.
We found our hotel in Nice and had only a short walk to the Promenade des Anglais and the Mediterranean Sea. Pat, through the New York Times, had the names of some restaurants in Vieux Nice. We made a reservation at one, La Table d'Alziari, called a taxi and off we went. The taxi driver didn't recognize the address and, luckily, I had the phone number. The owner came to the end of the street to greet us and take us to his small restaurant. What a wonderful experience! He is from an olive oil producing family and his food was amazing. We went to the Matisse museum and to Matisse's chapel in Vence. We got lost on the way there and ended up half-way back to Aix before getting our bearings (how do they mark exits on the highway in France, Betty?) but made it to the chapel in time for a tour by one of the nuns who cares for it. What a beautiful place. That was followed by lunch at La Table d'Amis, another of Pat's finds (Melanie loves you, Pat!). I believe that we found paradise there. Well, my idea of paradise, anyway! Lunch outdoors among incredibly beautiful trees and flowers with a group of people who had become my dearest friends. The owner's handsome race car driving son serving us, along with his gracious wife checking on us periodically. We were photographed by the local newspaper, Nice-Matin. The food critic was there writing a story.
Now, how exactly did a girl from Spruce Pine, North Carolina get to heaven on earth in the south of France?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

How a French teacher becomes an assistant to a chef in Provence...

I am a Southern girl and grew up around good food, but my mom and grandmother never used recipes. I learned to make biscuits just by watching them. I couldn't do it now if my life depended on it, though. Sorry, Mama. My grandmother lived on a farm and cooked on a wood cookstove for most of her life! I remember calling up my mom when I was in college to ask for her recipe for broccoli casserole and she wanted to know why I needed to use a recipe. Guess she figured I was getting above my raising! My fondest memories growing up involved sitting in my grandfather's kitchen listening to him whistle and sharpen his knives. He tried to teach me about cuts of meat and fresh ingredients, but I was distracted by the smells and sounds he was producing. His beef stew was my favorite. Grandpa Bell had been a chef in a hotel in High Point when he was a young man and he loved to cook. I loved him and I loved to eat so it was a match made in heaven! And whenever a relative would pass away? Not that we weren't sad, but we kids knew that the food that would be delivered by everyone we knew and a lot of people we didn't know would be amazing. Especially the desserts. To this day, whenever someone needs cheering up I turn on the oven.
I went on to college, moved away from the mountains of North Carolina to what we call the piedmont (central NC), and have been here for 28 years now teaching middle school French in a private school. I have been asked many times where the obsession with France and all things French came from. My family thinks I am odd, to say the least. I am the only one to leave the small town we were born in. French people, of course, totally understand my obsession since they do believe they are the center of the universe and the mecca of all things cultural. And I would have to agree. Upon finding out that my ancestors are Scottish, one Frenchman declared that that explained it perfectly. The Scots have always loved France, he said matter of factly. Voilà! Mystery solved. Now we know why I am weird, although why it happened to me and not my sisters or brother, I am not sure. My high school French teacher should share the blame here! What a saint. I'll save that story for later.
In 2005, I received a summer grant from my school to spend two weeks in Arles, France. I found out about a cooking school there from Dorette Snover of the C'est si Bon! cooking school in nearby Chapel Hill and decided to take a 5 day Mini-Gourmand course. Vincent Van Gogh spent his most productive period there painting so I figured it would be a good place for me. I had recently separated from my husband and had never taken a vacation alone. So, why not? Pourquoi pas?
I spent a week at the Hôtel Le Cloître in Arles, a wonderful family run place in a former cloister. I wandered around the streets of Arles, had picnics in the park, looked at the spots Vincent painted, visited Roman ruins and museums, and read a lot. For the first time in my life, it seemed, I was alone and didn't need to talk. I was introduced to the music of Yannick Noah as he was in concert one evening right outside my bedroom window! Oh là là! My students know how I feel about him.
I moved to the bed and breakfast or chambres d'hôte, run by Madeleine and Érick Vedel. This is where I would stay and take the cooking course. I was a bit nervous because my cooking skills were fairly non-existent. I had spent the past several years making family meals, but certainly nothing French other than an occasional dessert! The week was spent visiting a goat cheese maker, an olive oil producer, an organic winemaker, shopping at the open air market, having lunchtime picnics in incredible spots, and taking an afternoon nap before rejoining the group in the kitchen around 5:30 pm. We all worked together to orchestrate our evening meal. Chef Érick speaks no English so Madeleine would translate for the ones who spoke no French. I went home with a handful of recipes and the determination to cook using herbs and fresh ingredients and to make meals more of an experience rather than just a necessity.
Of course, real life set back in, as it always does. I talked about those two weeks non-stop and showed pictures to whomever would look and a friend and colleague at school convinced me to offer a trip back to Arles for adults. We found 3 other brave souls who wanted to join us in the summer of 2006. I had travelled for years with my students but never with adults. I wasn't sure what to expect.