Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Snowshoeing Success

Gilles and I went on our first snowshoeing trip in the Pyrénées a couple of weeks ago. I was almost ready to write-off the Pyrénées as our past excursions have been disappointing. I couldn’t help compare this mountain range to Canada’s Rocky Mountains, which we love dearly. But the Pyrénées, though beautiful in their own way, are not the Rockies. So as we drove to our destination on the Spanish border with the temperature hovering around ten degrees, I tried to remain open-minded, but was doubtful we would have much success.

As our little car with summer tires (chains in the trunk) climbed the windy roads, the temperature slowly dropped to two degrees and when we reached our destination there was actually snow! Snow, and many Spaniards and French people who had the same idea as us. In past snowshoeing trips, our group had been alone in the great outdoors. I felt like a pioneer, deciding on a route, trudging through mounds of fresh snow. But I am not comparing, right? So we buried some snow beer (some things never change), and strapped on our snowshoes. But our top-of-the-line snowshoes ideal for blazing trails, steep climbs, and icy conditions looked out of place in this landscape. The people around us were wearing small plastic snowshoes, not much larger than their boots. Nevertheless, we set out to the admittedly beautiful pass for some fun in the snow. The area was very large so we were able to separate ourselves from others and do our own thing. We finished our venture by building a snowman. We felt like two kids playing in the snow, and it was great!

One fun aspect to a Pyrénées trip that cannot be had in Alberta is cross-border shopping. At the border, 1750 m above sea level, there are several Spanish bars and grocery stores that cater to the French who cross into Spain for cheaper gas, cigarettes, alcohol, and food. We ventured over and stocked up on chorizo sausage and canned octopus (don’t ask). Further down on the French side was a cheese vendor set up on the side of the road. So, we stopped and bought some of the wonderful alpine cheeses. We just needed to add some bread and wine and we had a perfect post-snowshoe supper!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Saint Nicolas Day

I promised to write about French holidays, so I am going to include St Nicolas day. It is only celebrated in the North-Eastern parts of France, around Lille and Strasbourg, but is observed in many other European countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Hungary,…). First, an explanation of saint days.

Most French would not consider themselves religious. The downfall of Catholicism in France began with the French Revolution, which led to a separation of church and state. Many of the holidays currently observed have religious origins, but the original purpose is long forgotten. Most of the once religious holidays are now a reason to get together as a family and eat.

One religious practice that does persist to this day is the recognition of saint days. Every day of the calendar year has a saint or sainte associated with it. Until the early 1970’s, all children born in France had to be given one of these names. Today the naming rules are not so strict, but the French still recognize the saint of the day. For example, today is Sainte Barbara day, which means it is the ‘fête’ of all women named Barbara. This is in contrast to one’s birthday, which is called an ‘anniversaire’. On your saint day, people wish you a ‘bonne fête’, and you will receive a cake and small presents.

December 6 is St Nicolas day. He is the guy that inspired the creation of our Santa Claus. On Dec 6, he arrives to give children small gifts, often of fruit and candy. In Amsterdam, he arrives via boat and children wait at the port for his arrival. He asks the kids if they have been good, and then proceeds to give them treats. The method of St Nicolas’ arrival varies by country, but regardless of location, the day is finished off with a big family supper. The countries that celebrate St Nicolas day also celebrate Christmas, but no mysterious man arrives to deliver presents to children on this day. Any gifts that kids receive on Christmas are from family.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ethnic Foods

I always chuckle to myself as I walk down the ethnic food section of the grocery store. The selection is very small, which is not surprising because the French like French food. Most ethnic restaurants that we have tried have adapted their country’s food to satisfy the French palate. Our favourite pizza restaurant tops their pizzas with French emmental, crème fraîche, and a raw egg. At the local Indian restaurant we received the blandest curries that we have ever eating. And in case you are not a connoisseur of Indian cuisine, bland and curry should never be used in the same sentence. Even the Blue Elephant, our favourite Thai restaurant in Paris, has scaled back the heat to satisfy the French’s wimpy tastes. The ‘three elephant’ dishes (elephants being the indicator of heat), only cause a mild tingling sensation in our mouths.

In the ethnic food section in the grocery store there are the typical Chinese, Thai, and Japanese items that also line the ethnic food aisle in Canada. But what amuses me are what they consider ‘ethnic’ here, but are commonplace at home. Here are some examples, most at ridiculously high prices:

-Tiny jars of cranberry sauce
-BBQ sauce
-Small jars of a mysterious brand of peanut butter
-Worcestershire sauce
-Fake maple syrup
-Can beans
-Marshmallow Fluff (!)
-English cream crackers (the only crackers to be found in the grocery store)

The list is very interesting, but perhaps what is most intriguing is not what is available, but what is not available. Who decided which items to import? I am unable to buy yellow mustard, baking powder, molasses, chili powder, or chocolate chips, but I can buy Marshmallow Fluff?!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

French Holidays

I often get asked whether the same holidays are celebrated in France as in Canada. And if so, if they are celebrated in the same manner. So I thought I would start writing an entry describing each of the French holidays as they take place. I'll include statutory and non-statutory holidays, if the latter involves something interesting. I will start with le jour d'Armistice, since it was only last week.

In France, Armistice Day is a public holiday. As is the case with most statutory holidays, large grocery stores remain open and smaller businesses are closed. And as is the case 365 days/year, the boulangeries remain open. A day cannot pass without fresh bread!

Unlike the anglo-saxon tradition (yes, the French still call us anglo-saxons), November 11 strictly celebrates the end of the first world war. France's participation in other wars is not commemorated on this day, yet as there are no WWI veterans remaining in France, there is talk of expanding this practice. Ceremonies are held at large war memorials, usually at the location of battles (ex. Verdun). There are not ceremonies held throughout France, as is the case in Canada. Poppies are not worn, despite the fact that the famous poppy fields are in France and Belgium. In fact, very little is made of Armistice Day in most of France. Maybe that will change if/when they anglo-saxonize the holiday. And yes, I just turned the term anglo-saxon into a verb....

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Visitor + Treats = a Good Week!

This week we had a visit from an old friend from home. Kimberly London was a great friend during our days at Mt Allison and an old roommate of mine. She knew us both before Gilles and I started dating. In fact, during our reminiscing we recalled that she met Gilles before she met me. We have done a poor job of keeping in touch with Kim during the last few years, so her visit gave us the chance to get caught up. And a visitor from home always means treats for us. Kim graciously filled her suitcase up with licorice, peanut butter, and raincoast crisps for us. Yummy! And the empty space meant she could buy more treats in France to bring back with her.

She split her time in France between here and Paris, where she has another friend. She had never been to Europe, and really enjoyed her first trip. She was very brave and tried several foods outside of her comfort zone, including tartare, escargots, and veal liver. I was very proud of her willingness to try new things.

The visitor count is up to ten people, with more guests scheduled to arrive in one month. I love our traveling friends and family!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Some of our Favourite Things, Italian Style

Oh Italy! I don't think I could ever tire of travel in Italy. We recently spent two nights in Rome and three nights in Florence. The two main purposes of the trip were for Gilles to get a Gabonese visa in Rome and to buy a watch in Florence. But we managed to also fit in plenty of eating, sightseeing, and shopping. So here is a list of some of our favourite Italian things (plus Gilles' most hated thing):

1. Gelato. And Florence is the top gelato town. There was a gelato shop on every corner, beautifully displaying their product in heaped mounds topped with the main flavour ingredient. While these presentations are pretty, they usually indicate that the gelato is factory produced (with added colour and artificial flavours) rather than artisanaly made. I did some pre-trip homework and found four gelato shops in Florence that make their product in-house using only natural ingredients. We tried all four, and they were perhaps the best gelato that we have ever had in Italy. And that is a big statement considering how much gelato we ate during our six week trip to Italy last year. We named a little shop called Vestri as our top shop in Florence.

2. Nutella. Gilles swears that Italian Nutella is better than French and Canadian Nutella. You may think he is crazy, but he has eaten enough Nutella to be an expert.

3. Campari Soda Cocktails. My favourite cocktail is nearly impossible to get elsewhere, but commonplace in Italy.

4. Italians for their fashion sense. They are amazing to watch.

5. Italians for their craziness. The further south one goes, the more chaotic things get. Coming from conservative countries like Canada and France, it is fun to watch such animated people.

6. Free snacks with drinks. A necessity after a full afternoon of walking. At 6 PM it is too early to eat supper, so these little treats really hit the spot.

7. The food. We love French food, but for us it is hard to beat Italian cuisine. The French win out on cheese, bread, and maybe wine, but for everything else, head to Italy. It's simple, fresh, and delicious.

And now for the hated thing: paying to get into a church. And the Catholics know how to get the most money out of tourists, charging more than non-religious sights for equivalent viewings. For example, we paid 12 euros to enter one church to see a single famous painting, and 12 euros to enter the Uffizi gallery, a large museum containing many famous paintings. To appreciate how angry this makes Gilles, refer to photo above. That's not a happy tourist!

Dream Come True

As most of you probably know, Gilles is a lover of watches. Specifically, top-quality, handmade watches. He marvels at the craftsmanship and science of these time pieces. For years he has been saving money and researching watches to determine which watch to buy. Last week, the day finally arrived to make the big purchase.

After much research and consideration, he decided he wanted a Panerai watch. They are an Italian company, whose watches are now made in Switzerland. Last week we paid a visit to their flagship store in Florence to buy the watch. It was a special experience for Gilles. After buying the watch, we got to see their private museum containing several watches that have been made since the company was founded in 1860. It topped off a perfect afternoon of shopping in beautiful Florence.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Good Intentions

We recently attempted our first hike in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that is just south of us. It is a large range that divides France and Spain, and goes from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast. It was the first time that our hiking boots came out of the box that they traveled here in, but better late than never, right? We consulted a French book on hikes in the area, and selected one that promised a Roman ruin at the top of the mountain. This intrigued us greatly as fans of Roman history, and we have certainly never come across a 2,000 year-old relic at the top of any of the peaks we summited in Alberta.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning when we set out for the hike. We assumed the drive would be about 1&1/2 hours. Unfortunately, we did not anticipate the type of roads that would lead us there. About every half hour we turned onto a road that was smaller than the last. As we entered the foothills, we turned onto a road that was barely meant for two cars. Then, as we drove out of the forests and onto the grassy mountains, we switched to a road that was barely wide enough for our tiny car. Our speed of 130 km/h dropped progressively down to 20 km/h, leading to a 2&1/2 hour drive. Once we arrived (ie reached the end of the road), we spent the next hour trying to find the beginning of the hike. Eventually we gave up, and enjoyed lunch surrounded by the beautiful scenery. We may have been wearing our hiking boots, but there was no hiking to be had that day.

Our misadventure did not mean a waste of a day. The area that we spent the afternoon is magnificent. The mountains in the Basque (western) area of the Pyrenees could not be more different than the Canadian Rockies that we know so well. The Basque mountains are rounded, soft, and grassy. The grass is lush and green, much better than that in our backyard. This is where shepherds bring their flocks in early spring to graze freely on the grass. They remain there until the fall when they are led back down the mountain to their farm for the winter months. These animals are mostly used for their milk production. The milk from the high-alpine grazing makes wonderful cheeses. In fact, the sheep’s cheese from this area is one of the oldest known cheeses in existence. These animals are the epitome of free-range. Although we saw cows, horses, and thousands of sheep, we did not see a single shepherd or fence. The animals roamed wherever they wanted to, including on the tiny road and all around our car. It was quite a sight! We didn’t get to see the Roman ruin, but we did get to see something pretty special.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fungii = Drugs??

Autumn is here, and with it brings a favourite French pass-time: mushroom hunting. The whole family bundles up, and heads for the woods on Sundays in search of delectable, edible fungi. Yet how do they distinguish the edible from the poisonous varieties? Are the French taught the distinguishing features at an early age, or are mushroom related poisonings an issue in France? Turns out, they head to their pharmacist for species identification. Each different type of mushroom is placed in a separate bag; the pharmacist then consults their reference book and gives the green light if the variety is edible. Can you imagine?! This is just another reason why I cannot be a pharmacist in France. Unless I was asleep that day in class, our studies steered nowhere near the realm of mushroom identification! And I am not sure that I would want the responsibility of differentiating a deadly from a non-deadly mushroom for others. I can only imagine that that would boost a Canadian pharmacist's insurance fees!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Canada is Scary!

I am a proud Canadian and think my native country is wonderful. It is a large country with varied landscapes and cultures, offering something for everyone. Canada is a safe, politically stable country, with a great worldwide reputation. And even though I love France, my adopted country, it is sometimes hard not to compare things here to Canada. And because of my patriotic bias, Canada often has an unfair advantage in these comparisons. So imagine how astounded I was when I recently met people that fear life in Canada!

In the past several weeks, I met three French people that were given the chance to move to Calgary with Total, the company that brought us to France. It was three separate encounters, but each one of them looked at me in awe, saying “but it is so cold!” .

One of the families decided to take the position and move to Calgary. I met with the lady of the family to discuss life in Calgary and Canada. She has lived her whole life in southern France, and was clearly uneasy about her pending move. We discussed many aspects of her new life, but somehow about every ten minutes, she brought the conversation back to the weather. Here are some of the questions I received, many of them more than once: How cold does it get? When does it get cold? Do the kids play outside at school? Where do I buy boots? You plug your car in? I tried my best to put a positive spin on things. I explained that Calgary gets several chinooks every winter. I told her the kids would love playing in the snow, sledding, making snowmen. Maybe they will learn to skate. I tried not to mention that the temperature can sometimes drop very low in October, or that it can snow in May. She was anxious enough as it was, I did not need to fuel her fear.

Last week I met a lady that turned down the chance to move to Calgary because of the weather. I was dumbfounded! I would think that being posted in Calgary with Total would be equivalent to winning the lottery. This is a company that does work in some very unstable, isolated, and potentially unsafe locations around the world. This family could alternately be offered to move to Nigeria, Angola, Myanmar, Qatar, but they refused to go to Canada because of a little snow!?! They would prefer potential car-jacking, civil war, droughts and developing world conditions to freezing temperatures!?!

Is life that unfavourable in the winter? Are Canadians really living at a disadvantage? I obviously do not think so, but it is interesting to see how others perceive our country.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Our French Anniversary

Sunday was the one-year anniversary of our arrival in France. We celebrated in a wonderful way: driving around beautiful Provence, shopping in a local outdoor market, visiting vineyards, and picnicking under the warm Provencal sun. Here's hoping our second year in la Belle France is as memorable as the first!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is where we used to live

It’s a little overdue, but I figure it is time to add an entry about our recent trip to Calgary. Truth is, I have been putting it off because I was a little sad upon our return to France. Turns out it was much harder leaving Calgary this time than it was a year ago. For those who don’t know, we spent three days in Calgary earlier this month. Gilles had a conference in Houston, and we figured we could not pass on the opportunity of being so close to our old home, so I tagged along and we extended the trip from Houston to Calgary.

I knew our return trip to Calgary was going to be emotional, and I was right. The overwhelming feeling of returning ‘home’ hit me as soon as our plane started its descent over the city. I looked out the plane window toward downtown, and thought, “this is where we used to live”. We had great lives in Calgary, and it was hard to leave. I was starting to see that it was going to be hard to return too.

The thing about Calgary is it holds so many wonderful memories for us, and our visit became a 72-hour walk down memory lane. A little bit of nostalgia is one thing, but memories were jumping out at me everywhere we went. I looked at the river trails, and not only thought, “this is where we used to run”, but was reminded of training for half-marathons, running late at night, having great chats. While eating paninis at Mercato, I thought about all the times we went there during our condo renos, stocking up on the prepared salads and sandwiches while our kitchen was out of commission. I walked by the Petro-Canada in Kensington, and remembered the day we fuelled up there before a camping trip. It was a warm summer day, and I couldn’t wait to be in the mountains, going for a hike,…. That last memory made me realize how carried away I was getting. Who becomes nostalgic at the sight of a gas station?!

I would like to thank everyone for making themselves available for us in such short notice, and on a long weekend. We would have loved to spend more time with everyone, but even our short visits meant so much. We have so many wonderful friends in Calgary, and while there we slipped back into our relationships as though we had never left. It was a bit shocking, and a little unsettling. I think being reminded of such great commeraderie made me miss it even more.

But now, here we are, back in the land of wine and cheese. Do I want to hop on the first plane with all my belongings and move back to Calgary? No. Despite my feelings, I know that I am not ready to leave France yet. I am just starting to feel as though I have a good handle on life here, and there is so much more I want to do before leaving Europe. Hopefully once it is time to move back to Calgary, we’ll fit right back in again.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bug Addendum

I was just getting used to the generally innocuous bugs in my house until I met the world’s largest HORNET! Apparently, it is called a european hornet, and while it may not be the world’s largest, it is pretty much the scariest thing I have ever seen. They are around 1.5 inches long, and look as though they would deliver one incredible sting (I would say deadly sting, but Wikipedia claims otherwise).

My terrifying encounter with this giant hornet came one night while talking to a friend on the phone while in bed. Gilles, my protector and chief bug-killer, was conveniently away. Suddenly, one flew into my room. I immediately hid under the duvet, shaking and talking to my friend in a hushed voice in case ‘he’ could hear me. After a few minutes of listening to it buzzing around my room and colliding into walls, I knew I had to muster up some nerves and kill the damn thing. So, armed with the latest copy of Elle, I set out on a hornet-hunt. Fortunately, this hornet’s enormous size makes him a little slower than the wasps/yellowjackets/hornets I am used to. So, I squashed this guy good, and despite my shaky legs I was rather proud of myself.

I decided not to close the windows, figuring the last visit was a rare occurrence. Nope! No sooner was I done washing hornet guts off my wall did another one fly in! After giving myself another pep talk, I killed hornet number two. Ironically, I later read that they are an endangered species, and one can be fined 1,000 euros for killing a european hornet in Germany. Oops. Good thing I don’t live in Germany!

I now sleep with my windows closed, but every now and then am awakened in a fright by the sound of the giant hornet’s buzz…all in my head, of course!

French Scents

It’s no secret that the French love perfume. Most of the world’s best perfumes are created in France by master perfumers, there are numerous perfume museums, and there are perfumes shops everywhere. When I am finished getting a waxing at my perfumerie/esthetician of choice, they always ask me if I want to be ‘perfumed’ before I leave. And when I say no, they look at me as though I am crazy; I can hear their appalled thought: “but how could you not want to be perfumed?!”

I am mostly used to living in a well-scented world, but the one aspect of it that continues to baffle me is the people who go for a run with perfume on. No, these people are not running after work, wearing lingering scent from their morning spray. I am talking about people out for a run first thing in the morning! Somehow, along with gearing up with shorts and sneakers, they think it necessary to put on perfume. I get my first whiff as we pass each other, and it lasts for quite a while in their trail. I continue along, sniffing in amazement. I can barely remember to put on perfume when going out for the day, but when going out for a run? Who does that??

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bugs, Bugs, Everywhere

I now know the downside of living in a French house: bugs. There are bugs everywhere in here! The reason for this is that there are no screens in French windows. Hardware stores do not even sell rolls of screen should one want to protect themselves from the pests that freely enter their house.

There are insects of all kinds in our house: moths, house flies, spiders, dandy long-legs, the occasional cricket, and many insects that I cannot identify. I do have two cats that should be helping me with the infestation, but they are unreliable. In the beginning they made half-hearted attempts at squashing bugs, but now they could now care less. That leaves us to do the dirty work. During one weekend, we killed over fifty flies in our house! I am not sure whether I spent more time killing, or washing the smeared guts off windows and walls.

Lately there has been a mysterious insect biting/stinging us during the evenings, leaving large welts on my arms. I just shudder at the thought of what is crawling into bed with me.

Thankfully, there are not many mosquitoes in Pau. We have only seen two to date, and they are scaled-down versions of those found in most of Canada. Unfortunately, one of two was in our bedroom while we were trying to sleep. It buzzed in our ears all night long, conveniently hiding when we got frustrated enough to turn on the lights to try and locate it. I felt as though I was camping, and had failed to jump in the tent and zip the door fast enough to avoid letting in mosquitoes.

As we approach the end of summer, I suspect my insect killing days will be coming to an end for this year. I will miss the long, warm evenings, but I certainly won’t miss the deluge of insects in my house!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ghost Town

August is vacation time in France. It is fully expected that employees will take off several weeks this month. The national attitude is that every French citizen has a right to time-off. They believe so strongly in this that many businesses close for several weeks during the month of August. Restaurants close, wine shops, offices, chocolate shops, little grocery stores. I even saw a pharmacy that was closed for vacation. We were at the local market last Saturday, and half the vendors were closed for ‘les vacances’, leading to unusually long queues at the vendors who chose to stay open. There is no apology for being closed, nor a suggestion for an alternate retailer, just a posted sign stating the weeks that they are closed.

During these holidays, many French flock to the coast, leaving the interior towns and cities eerily quiet. Meanwhile, the beaches and seaside towns are packed. Those who choose not to go to the beach stick around home and enjoy quality time with friends and family. We have seen and met neighbours that we have never laid eyes on before. All over town, families consisting of at least three generations go for strolls and bike rides.

To the outsider, that is me, this August behaviour is unusual, but surely a healthy break. It will soon come to an end though, as the most important work month in the French calendar is just around the corner. September is called la rentrée, or the entrance. It is when everyone heads back to work and school with a clear head for a super productive month. At least Gilles will soon have someone to sit with in the cafeteria!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

TPB Encounters

Gilles was so thrilled with his two Trailer Park Boys encounters while we were in Canada. First, we met Mr Lahey and Randy at the Ottawa airport. Mr Lahey serenaded me with the song 'April in Paris', and Gilles had a chat with the two of them. Then, we visited Bubbles' Mansion while in Halifax. No run-ins with the actors there, but we did get to see a lot of the memorabilia from the show.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Beach Food

Why does food taste so good when cooked over a fire? The food being cooked will likely contain ash, char, and sand (if the fire is on the beach), yet this somehow enhances the flavour. We had lobster twice while home on vacation. The first feast was cooked over a fire on a beach at Campobello Island; the second was cooked over a burner at the LeBlanc home. For both events, the lobster was steamed in salt water from the sea, and the cooking times would not have varied. Yet those who had lobster on both occasions commented on how good the Campobello lobster was. Was that batch of lobster of better quality, or was it the raging flames that made all the difference?

Lobster was not the only thing we cooked over a beach fire. We also feasted on scallops (cooked on a stick & in a pan), smores, hot dogs, and a whole pig. Yes, we tried our best at roasting a whole pig on a spit while in Cape Breton. It was a fun-filled, three-day event, led by one of our family chefs, Shaun, who when armed with a sharp boning knife can tackle any animal. On day one, the pig was purchased, deboned, and shaped for roasting. On day two, a roasting apparatus was constructed using various objects from my father-in-law’s pack-rat’s dream of a garage. That day, the pig was also placed in brine for seasoning. On day three, game day, Team Swine started early by prepping a fire on the beach. The pig made its appearance several hours later when the coals were nice and hot. What came next was not as easy. Credit definitely has to go out to all the guys who were constantly improvising to come up with solutions to the challenges that that pig kept throwing at us. Such challenges included a pig that did not spin along with the rod, a fire that was too hot, then too cool, then while reheating the fire the pig caught on fire, and so on. But it was certainly not all work without play. Our large group enjoyed horseshoes, live entertainment, swimming, snacking, and making a pig-shaped sand castle. But, after nine hours and a pig that was still only at 130°F, the rising tides forced us off the beach. The pig was finished at home in the oven and on the BBQ. Everyone patiently stuck around, and the finished product was well worth the wait. Shaun, I can’t wait for the next South Pondville Beach Pig Roast!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Returning Home, from Home

Our month long trip to Canada has come and gone. We divided our time between Ottawa, Campobello Island, Miramichi, Arichat, and Halifax. With friends and family, we spent our time eating, drinking, laughing, playing a variety of lawn games, and cooking things over beach fires.

We had a lot of expectations heading into our first return visit to Canada. Mostly, we weren’t quite sure what it would be like to be back in our home country after becoming accustomed to another culture. Our first meal out on our first day back was the biggest challenge: Canadians on a restaurant patio being their normal, noisy selves was annoying when used to the more quiet and reserved French. Hearing English seemed strange rather than a welcome break. And being waited on by a bad server, then being expected to give a tip, was almost too much to handle. But by the time we awoke the next day, we were back to our Canadian selves, chatting noisily with the rest of them. Other things were more challenging to get used to: the poor value for wine at the Maritime liquor stores, and the lack of in-season fruit and vegetables at the grocery store. So now that we are back in the land of wonderful, cheap wine and six varieties of local peaches, we can’t help but be reminded of things that are better in Canada…the grass is always greener, isn’t it? So here are some Canadian things that are hard to beat:

1. Clean public washrooms. You can’t really appreciate this until you have traveled elsewhere (not including the United States). Canadian public washrooms are roomy, and almost always have soap and toilet paper. In most European countries (I can’t speak for the UK), the stall is so crammed that it is often hard to close the door, and there is often no toilet paper or soap. One also never knows what type of toilet awaits them: a ‘normal’ toilet, a toilet with no seat (modified squat), or a complete squat (usually for men). In Canada, there is a general hierarchy for bathroom niceness and cleanliness: Fancy restaurants often have matching fancy washrooms, airport washrooms are usually spotless, and are becoming increasingly touch-free, and lower on the list are gas station washrooms where some are good, and some are bad. But in Europe, almost all bathrooms are bad. In fact, I am shocked when I come across a good bathroom. I have counted only two to date: at L’Atelier in Arles, France, and Caffe Sicilia in Noto, Sicily. I also have a list of the worst bathrooms encountered in Europe, but I will spare you these details.

2. Ethnic food. French food is wonderful, but eating the same thing over and over again does get a tad monotonous, unless you are French. So while in Ottawa and Halifax, we loaded up on ethnic food: thai, vietnemese, indian, and sushi. Actually, we had sushi six times while away, including our last three meals in Canada! Hopefully that will carry us through to our next visit.

3. Junk food. Perhaps this is not something to be proud of, as it doesn’t help the expanding Canadian waistline. But it was great to have licorice, smores, hot dogs, creamy dips, and all the other junk food that is missing in France.

4. Canadians. We have spent the last nine months trying to understand the French. We have come a long way in learning what makes them tick, but despite this we will always feel like outsiders looking in, because we are not French. So there is nothing like returning home and being among Canadians, and feeling like we do fit in. There are things that outsiders will never understand about us. For example, on parliament hill on Canada day the (old) Hockey Night in Canada theme was played. In response to recent events, thousands of Canadians in attendance booed. An outsider looking in would not have understood, but I proudly supported the booers. Or the strong feeling of national pride that is brought on by a snowbirds fly-over, or the RCMP musical ride. That is Canada.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

O Canada!

Tomorrow we return to Canada for our first trip home since moving to France. I love living in France, but it will be great to be in our home country for awhile. I can't wait to go to an english bookstore, shop with ease in familiar stores, have sushi, and be surrounded by english speaking people. I know it is time to go home because I am starting to crave silly things like licorice and tuna sandwiches.

We start our trip in a patriotic way with the Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa. Then we are off to the Maritimes for a few weeks. We return to France in late July, hopefully stocked up with lots of treats from home.

A bientôt!

Monday, June 23, 2008


I spent last week with our latest visitor, Ghada Abdallah, who was a friend and roommate of mine at Mt. Allison University. This is only the second time I have seen her since 1999, the year we graduated, but once we were together in Paris it was like old times. We spent a few days in Paris together, then she joined me in the south of France for two nights. While in Paris I saw many of the top sights that I had not yet done: the Louvre, Orsay museum, and a Seine boat cruise. It was wonderful!

Gilles joined us for one day en route from Gabon back to Pau. For that day, we hopped on a high-speed train for a daytrip to Reims, the largest town in the Champagne region. We toured two champagne houses, Pommery and Martel. They were the coolest wine tours we have ever done. Gilles and I love champagne. We have previously taken two champagne classes in Calgary and already knew a lot of its tedious production, but seeing it first-hand in Reims was very special. Champagne is stored in dark, cool caves about 30 metres below ground. Most of these caves were dug by Romans, so have existed for almost 2,000 years. Pommery itself has about 30 km of caves! The wine tours took place in these ancient caves…it was quite eerie. As an added bonus, Pommery was featuring contemporary art in their caves; when we weren’t walking by riddling racks filled with champagne bottles, we were looking at art, including an installation of live birds making music by landing on electric guitars plugged into amps. Trippy!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

C’était hyper-bon!

Here is the final blog entry from our wonderful trip to Provence. On our second evening in Arles, we decided to treat ourselves to a unique dining experience at a renowned restaurant called L’Atelier. The chef, Jean-Luc Rabanel, has been awarded one Michelin star for this restaurant. The Michelin star rating system is the most recognized and influential culinary rating system in France.

There is only one choice when dining at L’Atelier. For 75 €, the diner receives 15 small dishes. The menu changes frequently and features local, seasonal products. Unlike everyone else who ate at the restaurant that night, we decided to dine outdoors. It was wonderful because it felt as though we had the place to ourselves. We could do and say whatever we wanted. And after Champagne and three bottles of wine, I am sure our voices only rose as the evening wore on. Now you may think that 15 dishes is a bit excessive, but we were there for four hours! Surprisingly, we were not too full when we left.

Before I list the dishes, I must commend Amy for being such a good sport. She’s not too culinarily adventurous, but approached the evening with a positive attitude. Turns out, she liked 13 out of the 15 dishes. One of her favourites was a dish featuring a raw piece of fish, something she would never have tried before. In the end, she agreed it was a wonderful experience, and was proud to have tried things that she would normally have avoided. So here is a list of what we ate. I was the note-taker, but as the evening wore on, I must admit that my secretarial skills got a little sketchy. Here goes:

1. Green asparagus fried in a tempura batter with two dipping sauces.
2. Greens, tomatoes, and a fresh anchovy served with an anise biscuit. A savory ice cream was served on the side. We all agreed the ice cream was too bland.
3. Pistachio cream over a sweet (pineapple?) jelly. A white asparagus stalk was inserted into the pistachio cream. This dish (pictured) was very yummy and one of Steve’s favourites.
4. “Non-sushi”: raw tuna-like fish served with citron, peanuts, shaved raw asparagus, chives, and edible flowers. A tomato sorbet was served on the side.
5. Chicken confit and rabbit liver served with green beans, mushrooms, and topped with a foam of balsamic vinegar. It was accompanied by warm pistachio biscuits. A foam appeared on many dishes throughout the night.
6. Purple artichoke, crème fraîche, topped with a prosciutto wrapped tomato bread stick (pictured).
7. Potato puree topped with salmon, peanuts, alfafa sprouts, and a peanut foam. Amy and April did not like this dish.
8. The next dish we called “salad soup”. A tomato stuffed ravioli sat in a thai broth loaded with fresh herbs. On top sat a parmesan tuile. Gilles thought the parmesan and ravioli were too contrasting with the thai broth, but the girls loved it!
9. Citron broth with shaved artichokes. Turbot grilled à la plancha. Beet tops, and another (mystery) foam.
10. Spring lamb chop, fresh peas, roast potatoes and garlic, chocolate smear. Probably Steve and April’s favourite.
11. “Virtual beer”: So yummy. This was the first of the dessert dishes, but most of the desserts had a savoury component to them. This dish (pictured with Amy and Steve) was made of strawberry, pineapple, and passionfruit juices with a non-alcoholic beer.
12-15 This is when the note taking got really bad. So for the remaining dishes we apparently had the following items, but I am not sure in what combination or order: Rosemary jelly with olive oil ice cream (not good), piement tuile, and something that looked like a chocolate turd (sorry, but there is no other way to describe it), Pastis ball, almond and olive cookie, mint jelly, mint foam, passionfruit jelly, limoncello, and an unidentified bitter biscuit.

In my defense, the decline in note taking was not only due to a wine-induced lack of concentration. Our private dining area got crashed by inside diners who came outside for a final drink and cigarette. Then the chef joined his outside clients for a digestif. Then the police showed up, and the chef mysteriously disappeared with them. Then we may have stolen some wine from crazy neighbours who left without finishing it. Then we decided it was time to call it quits. All in all, a wonderful dining experience that was worth every penny!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Provençal Cuisine

Provençal cuisine is very different than that of the rest of France. It is more Mediterranean, using tomatoes, garlic, seafood, olives, and olive oil (rather than the usual French preference for butter). We tasted some classic examples: Niçoise salad (I did not ask for ranch dressing, for those who have seen the movie a Good Year), olives marinated in garlic and herbes de Provence, tapenade, and aïoli provencal. The latter dish intrigued me. I knew aïoli was a garlic mayonnaise, but it was listed on menus as a main dish rather than a side dish. So, I gave it a try. I was presented with a plate of boiled fish, potatoes, and carrots, and grilled fennel, zucchini, eggplant, and shrimp. The homemade aïoli was served in a dish to be eaten with the various items. What appeared to be a bland and strange plate proved to be incredibly tasty. But they certainly did not spare on the garlic when making the aïoli. I am not sure how my companions could stand to be in the car with me the rest of the day!

We sampled plenty of the region’s olive oil and wine. After driving through endless olive groves, we stopped at an olive oil shop in St Remy. There, we learned about what gives olive oil its flavour. Regulated much like France’s other beloved food products, olive oil from the Provence region is made using any combination of five different types of olives. The combination of olives selected, and whether they were harvested will ripe or still a little unripe, gives each olive oil a distinct flavour that ranges from mild and sweet to fresh and sharp. After sampling many types, we loaded up with several bottles of olive oil from orchards we had driven by.

We spent one day exclusively dedicated to wine. The most famous Provençal wine region is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but there are several other, more reasonably priced regions such as Gigondas, Côtes-du-Rhône, Lirac, and more. We started by visiting individual wineries, but unlike other wine-making regions we have visited (Okanagan, Sicily, St. Emilion), they were not equipped to give tours of their fields and manufacturing areas; they only offered samples. Not that we could complain about the samples, but we were interested in learning more about what makes a Gigondas a Gigondas. So for some better education, we ventured over to a tasting cave in Chateauneuf-du-Pape that represents several of the region’s vintners. They aim to educate their clients while doing a tasting. One feature unique to the the vines in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region is how the soil is prepared. The ground surrounding the vines is covered with rocks that help seal in the heat, and protect the soil from the strong mistral winds that blow in the region.

We also enjoyed the quaint little wine town of Gigondas. In this tiny village, possibly too small for a school, we figured that every family has at least one member working in the wine business. At one winery, we were greeted by a lady, surely in her seventies, who gladly let us sample the wine from her sons’ vineyards. She ran around like a woman half her age, and found a way into all our hearts.

Provence Roadtrip

We recently said good-bye to our fifth set of Canadian visitors this year. Amy and Steve Duncan started their French roadtrip in Normandy. They slowly wandered down our way, stopping to visit D-Day sights and museums, castles, and ancient cave paintings along the way. They spent three nights with us in Pau, getting a taste of our French lives.

While here, we took the Duncans on our favourite day-trip from Pau: a visit to St Jean de Luz for a beach picnic, then to San Sebastian in Spain for a walk through the old town and a sample of their famous (and our favourite) tapas.

After a few relaxing days, we packed up our car and headed off for Provence, new territory for all of us. I headed to this region with pre-conceived images in mind. Provence seems to be this mythical place that people fall in love with and choose to settle down in. I had visions of wonderful smells (this is where many sources for perfume extracts are grown), lavender fields, and bright, sunny colours. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Provence is French countryside at its greatest. The prominent harvests are olive trees and grape vines. Both types of fields stretch on for as far as the eye can see. It always amazes me how much wine France produces. The amount of vineyards dwarfs those that I have seen in Canada (not surprisingly) and Italy. The next blog entry will detail our wine and olive oil sampling.

It was a little too early for the lavender fields to be in bloom, but we were lucky to see and smell a beautiful yellow bush that littered the countryside called ginestre, or scottish broom. Every time we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a wonderful sweet and floral smell that ginestre largely contributed to. We wanted to bottle the scent and take it home with us.

We spent two nights in Arles, and three nights in Vaison la Romaine. Between these two towns, we stopped in many other villages and towns, and enjoyed some particularly scenic drives. The Romans inhabited this area 2,000 years ago, and we toured several of their remaining structures, including the Pont du Gard (aqueduct), the amphitheatre in Arles, and the theatre in Orange. We sang and danced (well, Amy and I danced) on the Pont d’Avignon, just as the song tells us to. We snuck into a poppy field to have our photo taken. We retraced Van Gogh’s footsteps in Arles, seeking the inspiration for some of his most famous paintings. And we laughed…a lot. Overall, we had a wonderful time.