Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The French Consulate Owes Me $300

According to le Président de l'université, as it says on a small piece of paper I was given yesterday, I am now officially a student. I registered as an "independent auditor" which means I can - with the teacher's and/or the program director's permission - sit in on any class offered on any campus. I just can't take the examinations, darn it ... oh, and I don't get credit or anything. But that's okay. I will be changing my status to something else next semester when the cheese diploma program starts, and I will get credit and official certification upon completing that. I'm not sure what classes I'll be going to this semester, because I'm waiting to hear back from the director of the professional license program about what classes are being offered in the dairy sciences area. I expect that will all get sorted out next week, and classes start on the 10th.

I have my student ID card, which allows me to get into any of the libraries, and will be able to start my cheese research now in earnest. I bought the passeport culturel étudiant for 7 euros, which allows me to go free to the museums around town, and get discounted tickets to plays and shows and concerts, and half-price admission to some of the chateaux in the area. I can get a season ticket to the symphony for 50 euros, and discounted opera tickets. While I was waiting to have my picture taken for my student ID (que c'est moche comme tout!), I noticed a poster for choral auditions on campus for a group doing the Rutter "Gloria" and the Brahms Requiem this semester, and I might check that out, just to get a little more music in my life. There's a music conservatory in town that has a Renaissance program and a recorder teacher, and I'll call him/her later next month to find out if there are any groups to play with. All depending on timing and time available, of course; my priorities are (1) school; (2) freelance and other work if I can find it; and (3) everything else.

Though given what I learned yesterday, items (2) and (1) may change places. Contrary to what I was told at the French consulate in San Francisco last June, I am not eligible for nor am I automatically covered by any type of student insurance merely by registering. If I were 20 years younger, yes, but that benefit stops after age 28. Perhaps my youthful appearance fooled the consulate worker - though he had my passport and was entering my vital statistics into the computer at the same time - but it did not fool the registrar's office here. Fortunately I did buy a year's worth of travel insurance, so I'm covered au cas où, but unfortunately I have already had several weeks of lymphatic treatment that I am now going to have to pay for myself, and which cannot continue on the schedule the physical therapist recommends. I'm going to have to go back to once every other week or so, and pay out of pocket. I'll just have to budget that in. I'll check my travel insurance but seriously doubt that ongoing palliative care is covered.

So there it is, and here I am, about to start another day of freelance work on a cool and cloudy morning. Last night Seb and I watched "Galaxy Quest" in French, while he ate pizza (he works for a frozen food delivery company and has a vast stockpile of packaged dinners) and I ate a very tasty casserole I'd made. Here, I'll give you the recipe:

Baked Eggplant With Meat Sauce

2 small eggplants, sliced into 1/3-inch rounds
3 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp Hildegarde of Bingen herb salt
1/4 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
2 small onions, diced
1/2 red pepper, diced
1 cup ground chicken sausage meat
1 cup tomato sauce

Heat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Brush a baking sheet with 1 Tbs of the olive oil and arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer. If you have to layer them slightly that's okay; they'll shrink as they cook. Brush 1 Tbs olive oil over the top of the eggplant and sprinkle with the herb salt and pepper. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the slices over and bake for another 20 minutes. Don't worry if they look a little dried out. Keep the oven on.

While the eggplant is baking, saute the diced onions and pepper in the remaining 1 Tbs olive oil until soft, then add the chicken meat. Stir to break up any clumps of meat, and cook for another 5 minutes or so until the chicken is cooked through. Add the tomato sauce, stir well, and cook until the sauce starts to dry out a little bit (i.e. there is no excess liquid) - you might want to cover the pan with a screen to keep the tomato sauce from splashing about as it reduces.

In a one-quart round casserole dish, layer the eggplant slices with the tomato sauce, ending with a layer of sauce. Press the mixture down firmly into the casserole, cover with a lid or a sheet of aluminum foil, and put the casserole into the oven for half an hour to fuse everything together.

Note: When I was assembling this, I thought "this would be better with cheese" but I found I didn't miss the cheese at all. However, you could probably scatter some mozzarella on top of each layer of tomato sauce in the casserole dish and it wouldn't hurt.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Atermoyer

There are many ways to say it: tergiverser, remettre au lendemain, renvoyer à plus tard, procrastiner. I've been having a hard time getting into one of my freelance projects, one where I need to be completely immersed in the text and channeling my client's thoughts in the rewriting/editing process. When I find myself just staring at the page, I stop the clock and go do something else for a while - usually that's reading. Unfortunately, I then get immersed in the book, and end up not going back to the project ... this is a habit I need to alter, and quickly.

However, I have been learning new words in the process, so there's some small gain. After I finished "Le Seigneur des anneaux" (The Lord of the Rings) I found a copy of "Bilbo le Hobbit" in Seb's storage room, and read that.

Attercop! Attercop! Laisse-toi tomber! Jamais tu ne m'attraperas là-haut dans ton arbre!

I killed a spider in the bedroom the other day, the first I've seen since I got here. There have been fewer mosquitoes as well; moving to the room over the parking lot rather than the one facing the woods might have made a difference, and I've not been bothered by them lately.

I've also read French translations of two chick-lit books, one by the person writing as Sophie Kinsella, and they gave me all sorts of interesting new phrases. I wrote them down as I came across them, but haven't looked them up yet. Let's see what they mean ...

longue comme un jour sans pain
"as long as a day without bread" (very long and dull)

faire la nique
"to make a lifting of the chin" (to jeer or scoff, from a rude gesture dating back to the Middle Ages)

se prendre les pieds dans le tapis
"to catch one's feet in the carpet" (to screw things up, fall flat on your face)

un mal de chien
"a sickness of the dog" (a hard time, a lot of pain)

découvrir le pot aux roses
"to discover the container of roses" (expose a secret, often a shameful one)

poser un lapin
"to set down a rabbit" (to stand someone up, as on a date)

faire des gorges chaudes
"to make hot meaty tidbits" (to make fun of and/or gossip about - apparently this comes from the old practice of "tidbitting" one's hawks with fresh raw meat to make them fierce; I've been seeing the expression "giving the crowd raw meat" in relation to political conventions in reference to saying things that you know will get them riled up)

être soupe au lait
"to be milk soup" (to suddenly change temperament, usually in anger, like milk suddenly boiling over)

faire un fromage
"to make a cheese" (to exaggerate)

arriver les doigts dans le nez
"to arrive with your fingers in your nose" (to accomplish or win something easily)

tomber des nues
"to fall from the clouds" (to come out of nowhere, be very surprising)

Well! My conversation will be scintillating from now on, I'm sure, as I fall out of the clouds with my fingers in my nose.

I discovered premade 100% buckwheat crêpes (made without milk or eggs!) at the downtown Carrefour shop, and made up a recipe last night, after getting back to the house with the panting tired dog. I'd taken her for a two-hour walk down to the Lac des Bretonnières, a smallish artificial lake just south of the Cher behind the public swimming pool (where I'm headed shortly, determined to get into the schedule I planned earlier). We walked all around the lake, and watched the sailing school students veer around each other at one end. I'm glad I walked yesterday, because it started raining again early this morning, and so I won't be tempted away from the computer. No, not even for books ... anyway, the recipe. The next time I make it I'll have a glass of champagne, to go with the theme.

Salmon Bellini Blini (or crêpes technically, but blini is more fun to say)

For each crêpe:
a large handful of fresh arugula, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp champagne vinegar
a dash of salt
1/2 small white peach, thinly sliced
1/4 c diced smoked salmon
1 Tbs crème fraîche (I used a soy alternative called "Sojami à cuisiner")
a large buckwheat crêpe

In a bowl toss the arugula with the vinegar and salt, then gently mix in the sliced peaches and the salmon. Warm up the crêpe (which I didn't do, which is why they cracked when I folded them, as you might notice in the photo). Spread the crème fraîche over one-half of the surface, then pile the arugula-peach-salmon mixture over a half of that (one-quarter of the crêpe). Fold the crêpe in half over the filling, then in half again. If your crêpes are sturdy, you might be able to pick them up to eat them, but I had to use a fork.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Language Lessons on the Loire

It seems like every time I open up my beak these days, I make some mistake in French. Part of that is, naturally, the fact that I'm speaking French all the time and in situations never covered in classrooms. For example, I have yet to be asked where my aunt's pen is currently located. On the other hand, being surrounded by people speaking (mostly-)grammatical French on a daily basis is doing what I'd hoped, and bringing all of the classroom French out of my head into shapes and forms that have practical real-life applications. It's helpful too that many people, after unraveling one of my particularly tangled sentences, tend to restate them correctly with a oui? or c'est bien ça? at the end for confirmation.

One thing that I was worried about was remembering to use the formal vous and the informal tu (basically "thou" and "you") along with their respective verb conjugations in the appropriate settings, but that's not been a problem at all. It seems perfectly natural to say bonjour, monsieur to my physical therapist and salut, toi to my roommate, and I don't even have to think about it most of the time. Of course, it helps that I don't really know very many people here yet and so the number of people I address in the more informal matter is vastly outweighed by those with whom I am more formal. In general, following the rules drilled into me by my grade-school French teacher, I use the formal terminology unless the other person starts using the informal, and then I follow suit. There's even a verb for that in French - two in fact, vouvoyer and tutoyer. On the outing last week with another On Va Sortir group, I was talking with a woman I'd met on the previous hike, and using vous, but she asked why I was being so formal. I told her about the grade-school rules, and that even though on my first OVS meetup I was assured that everyone used the informal address, I had been talking to an older woman using tu and she seemed to be somewhat startled and a bit offended by it, so I switched back to vous unless, as I explained to my walking partner, "on me tutoie." In any event, I used tu for the rest of the morning.

We walked along the north bank of the Loire from the suspended bridge at l'île Aucard west to the community/suburb (or commune here) called Fondettes, about three miles away. By that time it was getting quite hot, and I was running low on water and energy, so I took advantage of the fact that two of the bus lines back into town went down the road above the river that we'd been paralleling to bail out and ride back home, rather than turning around and retracing the path with the rest of the group. I look forward to more walks and hikes around Tours in the future, when the weather cools down again; until then I think I'll stick to swimming. After being a desk potato for the better part of the last year, I've lost my stamina and need to build it back up again - my typing fingers are the only part of me that's in shape, right now.

I have opened a bank account here, with La Banque Postale, the bank run by the postal service. That's how a lot of people did their banking in Tokyo, when I was going to school there, as I remember; I'd buy stamps and withdraw money from my account at the same time. In the process of filling out all the paperwork and choosing the type of account, I explained to the woman helping me that I didn't need a credit card, just a debit card, because I was only going to use the account to write rent checks and the card at "the boxes in the walls where the money comes out." Or "distributeur automatique de billets" if you want to get technical about it, and now that I know the name for those boxes in the wall, that's the term I'll use in the future.

Reading books in French is definitely helping. My friend Lilian sent me the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy last year, but I couldn't get into it until I got over here, for some reason. It seems natural to be reading in French and, as I found when I listened to an NPR podcast yesterday on my way to the physical therapist, unnatural to be listening to something in English. Peter Sagal and Carl Kasell are just going to have to switch languages.

The verb ignore means "to not be aware of."
The adjective fastidieux means "tedious."
The verb vouloir means "to want" but the verb en vouloir means "to blame."
The phrase en catimini means "stealthily" or "secretly."

La rentrée is the first part of September when everyone's back to work after vacation. All the schools in France start on the same day. The shops are full of parents buying notebooks and pens and other required student supplies. On Thursday I'll be talking with the program secretary to find out about my options at the university this term. I will address her as vous.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Monday Morning: Coffee and Cat

Coffee in the bowl on the desk, Charlie on the ledge at the window.

If it's a choice between opening the door to get a breeze going through to cool down the room in the early morning and keeping the annoying cat out of my room, I'm going to have to choose the breeze. I had the door shut last night so that the two cats and one dog weren't wandering in and out all night, and as a result the bedroom stayed at approximately the same temperature as it was outside yesterday, i.e. too hot. There's a trip to IKEA in the future for purchasing of things to make this a three-person rather than a two-person apartment, such as extra shelving and baskets for the kitchen and pantry, and I have a list of my own for this room: a hanging lamp near the bed, a shade for the glaring overhead light, skirt hangers (which I haven't found in any store yet), maybe another pillow or two, and I think I might add "screen door" to that list. Though as there are no screens in windows anywhere, that might be difficult to find.

I'm still having a hard time with the "full-time" aspect of freelancing, though maybe that's just the heat lately. Okay, maybe not. That's another reason why I haven't blogged this week - the heat, plus the other computer work, plus the not being able to arrange my day so that all the pieces slot together correctly. There's something to be said for externally-imposed schedules; I must work on my internal dayplanner now. I have my sunrise alarm clock hooked up, finally, after buying yet another transformer, and I think these early morning hours, coffee at hand, will be a good time to do the personal blogging. The swimming pool doesn't open until 9am, and that might be the next thing on the agenda. Then back to the apartment and work.

Of course, this doesn't include school, but I still don't know what's going on with that. I sent an e-mail to the program secretary and hope to hear from her this week, so that I can get enrolled (finally!) and see what classes are available for me to take this term. If I can't get into anything cheese-related, I'm considering first-year Italian. I've realized just how easy - well, relatively easy - it has been to fit in here in France, and how hard it would have been if I didn't speak French. Since I hope and plan to travel with this cheesy career, and Italy is (a) really close; and (b) another of the world's ancient cheese centers, it makes sense to get familiar with the language. Don't you think? Of course, there's Spain as well ... and Greece, and Bulgaria, and finding out if they make cheese in the former Soviet bloc countries like Estonia - and yes, I'll send you a postcard, Michael - and then traveling from Allgäuer to Ziegenrolle to see who's making cheese in Germany, and on and on. I'll either need to become polylingual or start earning enough money to hire translators. Both, by preference.

Speaking of which (the earning money part), it's time to shift gears and do a bit of paid blogging and then get back to work on my editing/rewriting project, while the day's still cool. It's about 60° right now but forecast to be back up to 90° by the end of the day, and since both my brain and my computer were overheating yesterday afternoon, I must take advantage of the fresh air this morning.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Des pensées décousues

Sipping espresso at a cafe near Gare Vinci, August 9, 2012.

The panhandlers here ask for two euros. "Brother, can you spare approximately 25 dimes at today's exchange rate?" But I have only seen a handful of them, as opposed to the dozens on the streets of Portland.

Outside of Port Orford, Oregon, May 25, 2012.

The first time I went to see the mastectomy specialist at #31 Boulevard Heurteloup, I couldn't find her name or the name of the shop on the list of doorbell buzzers on the stoop of the doorway labeled #31, so I went back to the pharmacy on the corner and asked the woman there if she knew where it was. "It's this way," she said, leading me back down the street past door #31 to the second door labeled #31 on the block. Of course it is.

Kate making a Spock hand through a lava hole, May 12, 2012.

I need to get a cell phone number this week. I have the cell phone already, the one I bought in England back in 2007, but I need to get a new French SIM card. And then I need to get some new business cards made up so that when I meet people I can hand them out. I'll need an electronic version of one as well, to attach to e-mails to prospective clients. Not that I need to go out and find more clients right now, as both Pascoe and Marc are keeping me busy this month, and I haven't even started my own projects. I have now earned approximately as much as I have spent in France so far, so business is good. This just might work, this crazy world-traveling freelance-writing career!

Cheese drying on racks at Rivers Edge, April 13, 2012.

At one of the first markets I went to here in Tours, I met a man selling goat cheese, the St. Maure of the region, both fresh and aged. I asked him if he made it himself, and he said no; that for the last 20 years he had made cheese, but the recent regulations that will go into effect January 2013 requiring all animals to be electronically tagged at birth made him get out of the business. It's an extra expense, he said, and not something that smaller producers had time or money for. Plus it's too much government interference. And remote surveys of your livestock, at any time - they don't even have to come on the property, he said, just drive by. It's not right and I don't agree, he said, so I'm quitting. He told me that he knows of one cheesemaker with approximately 1,700 goats who's also going to shut up shop. He thinks it's driven by the factory cheese producers, who want to drive the smaller ones out of business. It was all too depressingly similar to what I was hearing in the States, when I thought that I'd be going to France to rediscover the small-scale regional cheesemaker's paradise I imagined. Perhaps my independent project will be to document the disappearance of that paradise, if it ever existed at all.

Stub Stewart State Park west of Portland, August 12, 2010.

There was a Perseids meteor shower event at a planetarium to the south and east of Tours this past weekend, but I didn't manage to connect with anyone with a car who was going there. I was out Saturday night watching a movie on a big screen in a park until close to midnight, but there was still too much ambient light for me to see many stars, and I didn't see any shooting stars at all. And Sunday the clouds moved back in, and all I saw were raindrops, and the flickering light from the television in the front room where Seb was watching the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

Amur leopard alone in her cage, Oregon Zoo, July 25, 2008.

The excitement of being here in France has worn off a bit and I'm starting to feel a little lonely sometimes. I'm glad I found the On Va Sortir website, and I have signed up for another hike on Thursday, plus one of the women from the last hike and I will be getting together soon. And it's not like I'm not busy in any event, so I'm not sitting around moping - far from it. Just a little dislocated, out of alignment. I think I'll see if I can schedule a massage for this week, one to put my body back into synch. And I'll go swimming tomorrow morning. That will help.

Lily pond in Monet's garden, Giverny, August 7, 2007.

I've started doing research for next May and Mom and John's trip here, which will involve visiting Giverny, and a self-guided canal barge trip on the Marne through the Champagne region. Fossils, Paris, and the south of France are all still part of the vacation planning process. I think they'll have to be here for at least three weeks. My friend Jean is coming for a quick visit in mid-September, and as soon as I find out the exact dates of the midterm break here, I will be making my plane reservations for Oslo, and my visit with my high school French teacher Bea, who retired to her native Norway and now lives in a small town on the south coast there. And I have all my relatives and friends in Scotland and England to go see ... I think I'll have to be here for at least three years.

The Old Church House, Ashburton, Devon, September 21, 2005.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Strawberries and Rabbits

... for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth!

I was watching a random cooking show the other day and the host was traveling around Spain, and the local chefs showed him how to make a traditional rabbit paella with snails and garlic and roasted peppers, and for some reason that sounded really, really good. I remembered seeing rabbit in the case of the mobile meat market, so yesterday when I heard the distinctive squawking horn of the small truck as it pulled up outside the apartment complex, I grabbed my camera as well as my wallet. The woman in front of me bought a chicken (with head and innards, but no feet) and a dozen eggs, after discussing with the vendor whether she'd need one large chicken or two smaller ones for her Sunday dinner ("parce que nous serons quatre cette semaine"). Then it was my turn, and after buying four thin smoked-duck sausages - I'd gotten them last week and they're absolutely fantastic - and two escalopes of chicken breast marinating in olive oil, lemon, and mint (I'll cook those on Monday with sautéed zucchini), I asked for rabbit. And a picture of it before it was cut into pieces. The butcher straightened his coat and buttoned it up ("je dois être bien habillé") and solemnly held out the toothy carcass. The rabbit was a bit large, though, so I ended up buying its back legs only, plus one more. Rather than a paella, I decided to cook it in the oven with new potatoes and fresh tomatoes that I'd picked on Wednesday evening, plus bacon and onions and herbs and garlic and white wine. Here's the recipe:

Roasted Rabbit with Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Herbs

2 Tbs olive oil
3 small red onions, peeled and chopped
1 cup of diced pork belly (lardons) or unsmoked thick-cut bacon
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
3 nice fat rabbit thighs (bone-in)
8-10 small new potatoes, scrubbed and halved lengthwise
4-5 small ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered
3 bay leaves
1/2 Tbs dried thyme
3-4 branches fresh tarragon
salt and pepper
1 cup white wine

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

If you have a covered roasting pan that can go on the stove, use that to sauté the onions and bacon; otherwise, use a skillet. Heat 1 Tbs of the olive oil in the pan or skillet and add the chopped onions and diced lardons. Cook for 3-4 minutes until the onions are soft. Add the garlic and remove from the heat. If you're using a skillet, transfer the contents to your roasting pan now.

Arrange the rabbit thighs on top of the sautéed onions and fit the halved potatoes and quartered tomatoes around them. Scatter the bay leaves, thyme, and tarragon on top. Drizzle with the second tablespoon of olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper (note: if you've used smoked bacon, use less salt). Pour the cup of wine over everything, cover the pan, and cook for 45 minutes covered, then 15 minutes uncovered. Baste the rabbit every 15 minutes with the liquid in the pan.

Serve with a crusty baguette to sop up all the delicious juices.

I got a ride back after the hike on Wednesday with two of the women I'd met that day, one about 10 years younger than me, I'd say, and her mother. About fifteen minutes from Nouzilly, we passed a large field where people were walking about picking strawberries, and they asked if I'd mind if we stopped and got some. Not at all, I replied, thinking of the lack of fruit in the refrigerator. We turned around and went back to Les Jardins de Meslay, and got our baskets and bags, and headed out into the fields. The strawberries are cultivated at shoulder height in long troughs with automatic watering systems, which makes it very convenient, and it was nice to not have to stoop over after the 9-mile hike that morning. There are also plastic-covered tunnels with hot-weather plants, and a field of lettuces, and I picked a handful of tomatoes and a few small eggplants. Aline pulled up a nice big head of red-leafed lettuce, and her mother wandered around in the field of zinnias near the shop. They dropped me and my picnic bag and vegetables back home, with promises to get together again soon.

I had purchased endive and arugula the day before, and was thinking that a salad with endive and strawberries might be nice. It's not an original combination, as you'll see if you Google "strawberry and endive salad," but my take on it involves pistachio halvah. I'd bought a square of it at a small shop on Rue Grammont but hadn't eaten it, and I thought that the combination of the bitterness of the greens with the earthy sweetness of the halvah might be interesting. I thought it turned out quite well, actually. A refreshing summer salad, whether you're exhausted from a hike or just enjoying the evening breezes on the balcony.

Endive, Arugula, and Strawberry Salad with Halvah Crumbles

1 pint strawberries, cleaned and quartered
2 tsp white wine vinegar
a good grinding of salt
1 Tbs olive oil
1 medium head Belgian endive, cored and cut into ribbons (about 2 cups)
1 large handful of arugula, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
about 3 Tbs crumbled pistachio halvah

Toss the strawberries in a salad bowl with the vinegar, salt, and olive oil, and let sit for five minutes or so. Add the endive and arugula and mix gently. Just before serving, stir in the halvah crumbles.

Friday, August 10, 2012

On Va Sortir!

Loosely translated, "we're going out!" (to have fun). It's a French version of MEETin.org, which I found by typing something along the lines of "go out with friends in Tours" into Google. I'm looking at the event schedule for this afternoon, and if I wanted I could join a game of pétanque in Rochecorbon, go for a walk in Joué-les-Tours, or join a picnic at Lac des Bretonnières or another at the Parc Honoré de Balzac (hmmm, that's actually not too far away from here ...) - many many things to do, if you have enough time, and a car. For the car-free, it is more limited, though I was able to get a ride to and from Nouzilly on Wednesday. The "to" part was a little iffy at first, since François was relying on his GPS, and it was directing us down dead-end roads and into farmhouse barnyards, until we finally made it to the parking area by the side of the pond. The event organizer planned a 10k walk, followed by a picnic and a pétanque tournament, and about 15-16 people were waiting for us. We headed off across the road, up a grassy path along a wheat field, and into the woods.

Sometimes we walked through dense scrubby forest, only to come out of the woods into a field leading through the side yard of an isolated house surrounded by fields of wheat and corn. We walked on single-lane paved roads connecting these houses, or on the grass verge between two fields, and for a while on the way back were precariously teetering on the far edges of a busy road with trucks and cars whizzing by, shouts of "voiture!" passing up and down the line.

Most of the wooded areas were second-growth (or third or more; this area has been settled for a long, long time) scrub, though with some larger trees along the roads and larger pathways, but we did walk by one grove of poplars seemingly abandoned in the middle of the forest. The woman I happened to be walking with said that there aren't as many cultivated groves around as she remembers, and that she's not sure what people use the wood for these days. French Wikipedia says poplar wood is used for cheese boxes, but when I looked up "poplar-wood cheese box" on Google, it came back with the address of a factory in China. Like many other things, perhaps what used to be local has gone global.

My new friend also told me about the mulberry trees that used to be grown here, as food for silkworms. Back in the mid-16th century, Tours was the largest producer of silk in France, famous for its Gros de Tours and employing nearly half of the people living in the area in the industry. Over the centuries the mills and plantations shut down, and now there is only one producer of silk in the area, Le Manach, but they no longer raise their own silkworms. She had visited the gardens where the mulberry trees grow back in 2007 when they were in the process of closing the facility and selling off some of the equipment.

The hike turned out to be around 15 kilometres rather than 10, and since I'd mentally used the wrong conversion factor (2.2, which is how you convert pounds to kilograms, only I'd also reversed that) I was expecting to go about three miles, or what I was used to when I'd walk to work in the mornings in Portland. As we started the third hour and the ninth mile in the now-hot sun, I began to realize that perhaps I had miscalculated. I ran out of water about half an hour before I ran out of energy, but fortunately we were back at the pond by then, and I begged water from my fellow hikers who were with me at the front of the pack, since my other bottle was locked in the car, and the rest of the group was fairly far behind.

Once we were all assembled again, the coolers and bags came out, the wine bottles were opened, fruit sliced and shared, and conversations and laughter floated on the breeze over to the side of the pond, perhaps a bit too loudly judging by the irritated glances occasionally thrown our way by the fisherman near the willow tree.

Of COURSE I had my chicken bag with me, and received many compliments on it.

I got caught up in a heated discussion about whether or not it's appropriate for there to be a law against women wearing a veil in France, and heard the argument that I've heard before in several countries, "If they're going to come live in our society, they should adapt to our society's rules." One of the examples brought up was traveling in Japan; someone pointed out that when you're living there and you go to someone's house, or to a ryokan, you have to take your shoes off at the front door and put on slippers, and that there are separate slippers to wear when you're going to the toilet, and how you get in trouble for mixing them up or for not taking your shoes off in the first place when walking on tatami. I wish I had been able to articulate what bothered me about that argument, and finally when I woke up this morning, I realized it's this: there are no laws in Japan about taking your shoes off. You're not going to be fired from your job if you wear bathroom slippers in your cubicle. But a woman can get fired here for wearing a veil at work. Of course, we also talked about women's rights and such, with a lengthy digression into the First and Second World Wars, but it still came back (for me) to the issue of laws vs. cultural norms, and where one can draw the line. Having drawn no conclusions one way or the other, we decided it was time for games.

This was my first attempt at pétanque, and I quickly found that I'm not a natural at it. The proper technique is to hold the ball cupped in the palm, with the palm facing downward, so that when the ball is tossed the fingers provide a bit of backspin. It's not so much rolling the ball as it is flinging it with intent to drop and roll forward slightly. After my preliminary tosses caused the other players to back away to a safe distance, I decided to pretend I was bowling, and had more success with that. I was quite good at hitting the cochonnet in fact, though since this often had the effect of moving it closer to one of the other team's balls, it was not particularly successful in terms of winning the match. Given that it was my first game, and my teammate's second, I think we did quite well at only losing 5 to 13. I will have to buy a set of boules of my own if I want to keep playing, though - I had to borrow someone else's set, and they were too heavy. That's my excuse, anyway.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Working and Eating

As my Facebook friends know, I recently had an epiphany: "full-time freelance work" does, in fact, involve working full time, a concept that had not quite made it into my consciousness before now. I have spent much of my time since last Friday sitting on the couch with my laptop and a pad of paper, a cat at my feet and a bottle of water on the table, earning a living. While I am quite happy to be back in a situation where I don't have to get out of my pajamas in order to go to work, this freedom has a price, and that includes working on the weekend. And first thing in the morning. And between errands. And any and all hours it takes to finish the projects I've committed to. Picturesque French adventures are in my future - I'm going to spend the day tomorrow walking around a small lake near Nouzilly with a group of people I haven't met yet, followed by a picnic on the lawn, and a friendly (I hope) pétanque tournament after. The weather forecast calls for sunny skies and mid-70s temperatures; it's been cool and overcast and often rainy the past few days, which has actually been fine, since that tempts me less to walk away from the computer.

But there has been food, though not really anything too different from what I usually eat, with some exceptions. Like this "Hildegard of Bingen" salt that I've been putting on many things, including the tomato and cucumber and herb salad in the photo above - the one accompanying the gluten-free baguette (!) topped with pâté de campagne. Besides sea salt, there's paprika, hyssop, parsley, chives, garlic, galangal root, sage, and ramsons (wild garlic, or "bear's garlic" in French, the spring green that Rapunzel's mother craved in the fairy tales). All of these are, according to the producer, taken from Hildegarde of Bingen's medical writings and combined to make "a delicious condiment with digestive, tonic, diuretic, and body-reinforcing virtues." I added some to my breakfast of soy yoghurt-topped lentil salad this morning.

I did not buy any of the donkey's-milk soap at the garlic and basil fair last week, but I had an interesting conversation with the vendor, who told me that all of the soap sold in France is regulated and has to be produced by one of five laboratories. While anyone's free to make their own soap, there are no cottage industries here for soap; if you want to sell your soap, you send all of the ingredients and instructions to the lab, and they make it for you. I may look for it again though, because the stuff I bought at the store is drying out my face something fierce. And if it was good enough for Cleopatra, it's good enough for me.

I must get back to work now, so that I can go to Nouzilly tomorrow with a clear conscience.

Mieux vaut une conscience tranquille qu'une destinée prospère. J'aime mieux un bon sommeil qu'un bon lit.
- Victor Hugo (1846)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Wednesday Promenade (With Cheese!)

Last week I met with the owner of a mastectomy supply/support shop, who gave me the name of a doctor I could see to get a prescription for a prosthesis (which I am considering, amazingly, and will tell you more about later) and also the name of a physical therapist who specializes in lymphatic drainage. I called the doctor and immediately proceeded to piss her off by giving the impression that I only wanted to pop in to have her sign a paper and that's all, and she is a doctor, she said, who sees patients and treats them, not a prescription-producing machine, and while there are doctors out there who don't care to practice medicine that's not her style, and so there it is, that's her opinion, and if I do want to have her as a treating physician, I'll need to bring the official paperwork, what do you mean what paperwork, it's the one everyone uses, just look for it on the internet, I'll see you Wednesday at ten o'clock, goodbye Madame, click. I was left with a buzzing telephone receiver and my ears buzzing from the torrent of impassioned French which I had to replay in my mind to understand. But I did find the required official paperwork on one of the French social services websites and got it printed out, and then screwed up my courage to actually go and see this possibly really angry doctor, whose office is in the Quartier Blanqui-Mirabeau area of old Tours, in the northeast corner, which has as its center the Eglise Saint-Pierre-Ville, originally a 9th-century chapel but now a large church, most recently rebuilt in the 18th century. I took the Fil Bleu 2A line and got off at the Ursulines stop (there's also an old convent in the area), and after locating the office went and sat in front of the church for a bit, as I was half an hour early and it was a lovely morning.

As I was wandering back towards the doctor's office, strolling along and looking around me at the houses, a young woman stopped me and asked if I was a tourist (I must have looked like one). I said yes, and a student here to study. She said she was too, a student that is, from Egypt and enrolled at the University to study modern literature for a year. We chatted for a bit and exchanged e-mails, and may get together for a cup of coffee and a conversation in a language not native to either of us.

The doctor turned out to be very nice, and after I apologized for any misunderstandings due to my defective French, she apologized for going off about the prescription, and that it's her main pet peeve and she had just gotten back from vacation and was dealing with accumulated paperwork in any event, and I just happened to trigger the outburst with my request for yet another piece of paperwork. We arrived at a mutual understanding, and I gave her my medical history, got a quick physical, and received a prescription for the prosthesis and another for the physical therapy work. I don't have student insurance yet, and so all the paperwork will be filed in a month, but once it is I should be reimbursed 100% for everything. I haven't had to pay anything yet, however; both the consultation with the mastectomy specialist and the one with the doctor were free, and the physical therapist will wait to bill me until after I'm on the student insurance.

The doctor's visit finished, I decided to take a walk along the Loire, since I was practically on the south bank of the river at that point. I walked across the Pont Mirabeau and then worked my way back towards the river, and the parc de Sainte Radegonde, a large greenspace on the north bank that has play areas, botanical gardens, and walking paths. And goats. The enclosure had a sign saying "llamas" and I could find no other explanation for the barn and the small herd of miniature goats, but there was construction going on, so perhaps it will be a petting zoo or a "farm life in the city" display for children.

Looking back across the Pont Mirabeau to old Tours, and the towers of Saint Gatien's Cathedral.

A footpath runs along the riverbank, sometimes paved, sometimes dirt, sometimes cobblestone. Steep stone or concrete steps lead down from the streets farther up the slope, and continue to the water's edge, or to within a few feet of the water, in any event, as the river seems to be fairly low right now, judging from the distance between the rusting metal rings for tying up boats and the current river level. I'm not sure if the river gets high enough to flood the path and lift these boats, or if it's just a convenient place to park them.

There are several small islands in the middle of the Loire as it runs through Tours, and you can reach Aucard Island by going over the suspended Pont Saint Symphonien from either direction.

Pont Wilson is named after President Woodrow Wilson, although that name wasn't given until 1918; the bridge itself was built between 1765 and 1788, and didn't appear to have a name, necessarily, though it replaced the 600-year-old Pont d'Eudes, which was falling down. During World War II the bridge was bombed both by the Germans and the French (to stop the Germans from advancing), but those spans were repaired after the war. The bridge started collapsing section by section in 1978, cutting off water and power to thousands of people and seriously disrupting traffic in the region, but by 1982 the bridge was rebuilt exactly as it had been originally designed 200 years earlier, in a series of graceful arches.

I crossed back over the Loire on the Pont Napoleon (noting the stairs leading down to Simon Island and the public park on the island, and making plans to take a picnic lunch there soon) and into Old Tours, where one of the University campuses is, and also the covered marketplace Les Halles, where two dozen vendors of charcuterie and fish, fruits and vegetables, pastries, wine, and cheese have their shops, all in a large building out of the rain. There were vendors in a square outside the marketplace as well, where a brocante (what we might call a yard sale, but you might find antiques at one, or used plumbing, or old books, or pretty much anything, really) had been set up. I paged through a few books and considered buying the birdcage to lock up the really annoying cat I now live with, but decided to pass.

I had to stop and take pictures of the cheeses in the marketplace. Dozens of goat cheeses I'd never seen or heard of before, in new (to me) and intriguing shapes and textures, and several of them made here in the Indre-et-Loire. The vendor told me that he could give me the names of the cheeses and contact information for some of the producers, and so I will be going back to that shop with my camera and notepad, and starting my cheese-related projects soon.

It was past noon by then, so I found a restaurant and had a lunch of crêpes au sarrasin (buckwheat), one filled with sauteed leeks and onions and mushrooms, the other with fig jam, and a small green salad. I think that although they're gluten-free, I should not eat crêpes much in the future, because there's milk in the batter, and butter is usually what's used to saute the fillings ... a shame, really, because they're delicious and inexpensive. Damn these food sensitivities anyway - they make travel, and life, a bit less fun sometimes.

I wandered back through the center of town, heading towards my next appointment, picking my way through the shattered streets that are being stitched together again with the streetcar system that's scheduled to be completed in a year, but which right now makes both pedestrian and vehicle traffic a matter of navigating through and around many barriers, and makes the city not as picturesque as it probably usually is. But there's always something interesting around every corner, and I found this lovely old church, the église Saint-Julien de Tours, at the south end of Pont Wilson, surrounded by video stores and fast-food restaurants. Such undignfied company for an edifice that's been there since the 13th century. The lower levels of the structure are now the home for the Museum of Wines of Touraine (the name for the area around Tours), which was closed that afternoon; another place to visit, possibly for something to take on my picnic to the park on Simon Island ...

After my first lymphatic drainage session in a month (and a sorely [literally] needed one), during which I got a half-hour précis of the history, development, and future of the theory and practice of lymphatic drainage techniques in France, I decided both that I need to get over feeling weird about disrobing in front of men I have just met and that it is very nice to be in a country where this proven-successful method is actually covered by insurance. The lymphatic drainage, that is, not the taking off of clothes in front of strange men, although I'd probably be able to find someone to reimburse me for that, too. It's the end of my second week here in France, and I continue to learn new things as I fit myself into a new life and routine. And speaking of routine, I think I'll go swimming now. It's a gorgeous day.

À tout à l'heure!

The calèche run by the bus company during the summer, which travels around the old area of Tours; I was waiting for the bus back home at the Place Jean Jaurès. A carriage ride is also on my list of things to do, especially since it's free. Touristy, but free.