Monday, July 29, 2013

To Get To The Other Side

I have been here a year, and I leave in a week.

This didn't turn out at all like I'd envisioned, but since my visions are usually either impractical, improbable, or impossible without a serious amount of effort on my part, it's not particularly surprising. Instead of being a slim and oh-so-French woman with a portfolio of cheese-related interviews and stories, ready to launch myself into a round of self-marketing and book proposals and about to be inundated with offers to finance my random wanderings in exchange for the occasional magazine article, I'm about the same weight as I was when I left (she says nibbling another slice of hazelnut and pork salami), having done little in the way of cheeseblogging and even less in paid cheese writing, and frankly wondering what it is, really, that I want to do. Yes, it's another post about uncertainty! Yay!

Most of my uncertainty right now, actually, is tied to the fact that I'm about to go live with strangers for a month, which I am sure will turn out fine but that sort of thing is always an adjustment, especially after having this apartment pretty much to myself for the last 12 months. And also to the fact that I haven't started trying to cram all my belongings into my suitcases. I'm leaving that for the weekend, having not quite figured out the logic of packing all my things including computer stuff while still using all my things including computer stuff. And why spoil a 40-year tradition of packing at the last minute now?

Friday it was the annual garlic and basil fair here in Tours, and this year I didn't buy any garlic, since I still have some from the farmer's market. But I bought a pot of basil, and am looking forward to a tomato and basil salad tonight, perhaps with zucchini-and-anchovy fritters. Depends on how hot it gets. It's fairly cool this morning and less muggy than last week, after several midnight storms went crashing through. According to the weather forecast more rain and thunder will be here later, but it's bright blue out there right now. I'm waiting at the apartment for the people who are supposed to come by and clean the water heater, which has been making odd noises for a while, so I can't get out and walk in the clear sunshine, but that's on the agenda for later.

In my researching over the last few weeks for what might turn out to be another book, I came across a mention of smoked garlic, a specialty of northern France in the area around Arleux. They have a garlic festival there as well, the first week of September, but only since the 1960s. The garlic is braided and then smoked over peat fires for a week, which perfumes it and also lengthens the storage time; the braids can be kept up to a year without getting all dried out or starting to sprout.

I don't remember seeing the smoked garlic at the fair last year, and I don't remember the smoked-cheese stand either, but it looks like Le Fumoir de Sologne is a fairly new enterprise. It's the first time I've come across a smoked version of the Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, and it was delicious. I'd like to get more details of the process they use, other than that it's "fumé au bois de hêtre" (smoked over beechwood) at some temperature between approximately 50F-80F, which I would assume is on the lower end of the scale for the cheese products, because otherwise it's smoked fondue. I got to the stand in the middle of a conversation between the proprietor and two men taking notes on a clipboard (probably getting paid for doing what I would be doing for free in the same interview, sigh) as he explained that different results were achieved by smoking the cheese after it ripened for a bit, as opposed to before it starts ripening, but then they moved on to the smoked chicken and fish, and I moved on through the crowd, as it was much too hot and muggy to stand around. One of the thunderstorms had grumbled off just a few hours before the fair opened under a hot sun, and between the humidity and the packed sidewalks, it was like a sauna in the center of town. I grabbed my pot of basil and fled.

I hadn't had breakfast that morning because I was frantically taking notes to get through the books I had to return to the library before it closed at noon on Friday for three weeks, but sweat was already dripping down my face and I'd forgotten a handkerchief. A big pan of paella looked good with its écrevisses and langoustines but it wasn't served cold, and the steaming cauldrons of andouillette sausages were even less appetizing than usual. Instead, I bought five salami for 10 euros (hazelnut, green peppercorn, blueberry eau-de-vie, chestnut, and one more I can't remember) and had slices of those for lunch with a glass of cold rosé.

The water heater repairman has been and gone, and the sun is leaving as well as more clouds pile up around the edges of the sky. Off for a quick walk, then back for more work. Paid freelancing instead of my personal project, and not related to cheese at all. It will be interesting next month to be surrounded by cheese again, and to see if I get more interested in the topic, at least enough to write about it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bearing Fruit

Though I am suffering from the heat, and the effects of too much procrastination, and what might be the start of carpal tunnel from too much typing in too short a period of time (see: procrastination), things are moving along nicely with my projects, both paid and personal. In two weeks I will be milking goats and making cheese, and I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to that. My original plan for living in France, back before I discovered the existence of the cheese diploma program here in Tours, was to work with small-production (or large-scale hands-on) cheesemakers on a part-time basis in exchange for room and board, and to use the other half of my time to do the freelancing stuff, a much healthier balance. I think I need the schedule someone else imposes on me to some extent, as I have been finding it hard to discipline myself to create that same balance during any given week. Rather than putting in 4 hours of typing and then taking 4 hours to swim, or walk, or get out of the house at least, I find myself sitting at the computer from 7am to 5pm for two or three days in a row working, then goofing off but not necessarily getting out of the house, instead continuing to sit at the computer and play games or read books. That's one of the nice things about cheesemaking; there's a rhythm to the day that requires you to be in certain places at certain times to do certain things, but also hours at a stretch where you don't have to be focused on the dairy. At least not if you're merely a worker and not an owner, which is why I do not aspire to have my own cheesemaking business.

Also, I am hoping that it will be cooler in the foothills of the Alps, because while the sunshine has been lovely I have not been enjoying the temperatures in the 90s, especially when I have to close my windows to shut out the noise so I can make the voiceover recordings I'm doing for one of my paid projects. The cats love the heat, stretched out bellies to the sun, but the dog has been leaving panting drips all over the floor. I hope there's a cat at the dairy.

The last time I went to the farmer's market the whole square smelled of apricots and peaches and nectarines. The cherries have been so good that I have to go back to the Wednesday markets because I eat all the ones from the Saturday market so quickly. Tender green beans and new onions, herbs in handfuls, the second wave of strawberries and the first of what the French call fruits rouges even though they're not all red: blackcurrants (cassis), red currants, raspberries. The blueberries and blackberries should arrive soon, though I may not be here for them. On the other hand, since Mme Da Costa sells her cheese at the Sunday market in Séchilienne (at least I think it's a farmer's market) I should be able to keep eating berries through August.

As usual, I did a tour of the stalls to take pictures and compare goods and prices before settling down to shop. The vendor selling the stem-on artichokes looked up at me as I took a photo at his stall, and said, "One euro."

"And if I come back later to buy some of these artichokes?" I inquired.

"Two euros."

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Le Tour à Tours

The roads were blocked off, so people walked in from all directions and clustered at the finish gate, hung out in the food stand area and bought souvenirs, and lined up along both sides of the last of the 218 kilometers between Fougères and Tours to see the end of the 12th stage of the Tour de France. It was clear and sunny but not as hot as earlier in the week, with a nice breeze blowing, something that the riders probably appreciated as much as we did in the crowd. I didn't try to find a space near the finish line, but instead started walking back along the roadway that curved around the parking lot of the Parc des Expositions, listening to the announcers ask trivia questions about the Tour de France, or about bread or sausage or whatever product a sponsor made, and watching the people leaning on the barricades. I found a free space to lean in the shade just as the route approached the main road where the riders would turn in for the last sprint. I'd gotten there about 3:30pm and knew that the riders wouldn't be there until 5:15pm at the very earliest, and was regretting not bringing a book with me, but then the caravan arrived.

All of the race sponsors had cars at the least, but more usually trucks with floats on them, and people tossing souvenirs out to the crowds. This is obviously the tradition, because the family next to me had come prepared with two large plastic bags, both of which were bulging after the last sponsor truck went by. I snagged a goofy red-and-white checked hat from a national salami brand and a small packet of what I'd hoped would turn out to be a cheap plastic wristwatch from the Festina car but which ended up being little jelly candies, but mostly I just ducked and tried to stay out of the way of the flying freebies and the people scrambling to pick them up. I did like the sexy laundry detergent float quite a bit.

As the riders got closer, the announcers started keeping us posted on their positions, and then we heard the horn signaling the last 10k of the race. Soon after that, the film crews in their helicopters appeared, slowly hovering nearer, and more quickly than I'd expected, the lead group of riders flashed across the upper road and screamed into the turn. I barely had time to turn on my camera and they were there - whoosh - and gone again. But it was exciting! I started up along the route and watched the rest of the riders come in, with people cheering for every rider as they went by, even the last one, shouting, Allez allez allez! I found that I had a huge grin on my face that didn't really go away for the next half hour. I saw the Tour de France!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Forever Blowing Bubbles

I wonder sometimes if I should deliberately put words in my posts that will drive traffic to this site, having always in the back of my mind the thought that since I sort of maybe plan on doing something vaguely commercial and profitable with it, eventually, someday, having more than a few dozen hits a week would probably make it more attractive to, say, book publishers. Not that I'm not grateful to you, loyal readers! And actually after my first foray into cheese writing at the beginning, the site quickly became what its two previous versions were, a place for me to ramble on, to share my travels, to put up photos - and I'm okay with that. But it's true that the post I wrote on the dairy in Hawai'i and the one on a specific type of French cheese are the ones that have gotten the most visits, probably because those were the exact keywords people were searching for.

Let's see how this would work.

Hot French women! The sun is back with a vengeance and it's been in the high 80s (30C) for several days, with several more to come. I've been trying to take my walks first thing in the morning before it gets too horrid. This morning after I'm done posting I'm going to go to the pool and swim, and hope to beat the mob who heads to the park by the lake to cool off.

Make money fast! By working. A lot. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to work with a client whose business is booming, and he's sending me enough work that I'm going to be busy for the rest of the month. When it's too hot to be outside, I'll be in my bedroom/office, writing and typing and recording voiceovers, or else in the cool dimness of the stone-walled library at the IEHCA, looking up information for another project I have simmering in my head.

Miracle health food! I bought fresh sardines at the market last week, and did them up in an escabeche style. I needed something with calcium, since I've been forgetting to take my supplements, and if you cook them whole and crunch up their little bones that gives a good percentage of the RDV, along with massive amounts of vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids. I bought the sablaises from Les Sables-d'Olonne, on the Atlantic coast to the west-southwest of Tours, rather than the Basque variety. I gutted them and tossed them in some cornstarch, then sautéed a big yellow onion in some olive oil and a grinding of salt. When it was soft I fried the sardines in the same pan. Then I took half the onions and put them in the bottom of a dish just large enough to hold the sardines, put the sardines in a single layer over them, and deglazed the pan holding the rest of the onions with about a third of a cup of white balsamic vinegar, which I poured over the sardines. A thick blanket of fresh parsley for the top, and into the refrigerator they went for two days. Delicious.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Good Enough

I can't say I am surprised at the fairly low score (13/20 points, "assez bien") I got on my paper and presentation, because the former wasn't very exciting and the latter wasn't very coherent. I still think there are rules of how to write research papers in the French way that I didn't follow, but at this point who cares? It's over and done with. And I have my diploma.

I'll have to care, of course, if I get into the program at Pau, because the research paper or project plus presentation is part of the license requirements there as well, but that's something to worry about later. Much later. Getting over the first hurdle of actually being accepted into the program comes first.

But I have my diploma! And I passed the TCF at the C1 level, one level higher than the requirement for admission to the university, and I'm sending my Portland State diploma off to be translated tomorrow, which is - as far as I know - the last piece of official paper I need in my dossier. Still haven't heard from the program coordinator but I will e-mail her tomorrow to let her know the final documents will be arriving soon, and is there anything else? Please let me know? Hello? Is anybody home?

The French phrase for "is anybody home?" is "il y a quelqu'un?" which is hilariously illustrated in Jean-Paul Belmondo's 1979 film "Flic ou Voyou?" - the second scene in this YouTube video. I highly recommend the movie, by the way. I haven't gone to any movies lately here, though the new Star Trek one is out, and a couple of other Hollywood products plus some interesting-looking independent films. Not sure why I haven't been in the mood. Maybe next week, some afternoon when I've already worked for eight hours and it's almost 90 degrees (which it will be, according to the forecast, all week) and I want to get into the cool dark and let someone else come up with the words.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Poking My Head Out

Some time in the last week or so, since I put up the previous post, Blogger has changed its photo-input format again, apparently. The pictures are REALLY REALLY BIG now. We'll see how this sorts out when I hit the [Publish] button. [UPDATE: The pictures are huge and bleeding under the sidebar and everything. Need to fix this before the post goes live.] I've not been taking pictures of anything interesting, and in fact haven't been doing anything interesting, unless you count the fact that I'm living and working in France, something that still makes me smile when I really stop and think about it. The good news is that I have a lot of freelance work lined up for the next month, so I'll be able to bank a little bit (unless my computer gives up the ghost). The bad news is that means I don't have time for some of the personal projects I wanted to work on, because they also involve being on the computer, and after four or five or six hours of intense wordsmithing for pay, I just don't have the energy to come up with words for free. This morning I'm taking advantage of the fact that I have to leave soon to go to apply for rental assistance, being as how I'm a poor student and all, and so can't start any of my freelance jobs. Well, I suppose I could have done a little bit on something or other, but who knows when I'd next get this combination of sort-of-free time, early rising after a fairly decent night's sleep, and hot coffee? Anyway, I miss you guys. And I didn't want anyone worrying about what is or is not going on here - the last time more than a week went by without a post, my brother thought Mom and John and I had been captured by pirates on the canal or something.

News from school, local or otherwise, you ask? Test results or diplomas received? None of the above, I answer. On my to-do list for this week are telephone calls and/or e-mails to all the people I said I was going to contact before, but haven't. I hate to come across as a pushy American. But this is my last month in Tours, and I would like to at least get everything finalized with the university program here, no matter what's going on with the people in Pau.

Anyway, that's about it. Working, walking the dog down to and around the lake and back when it's not too hot, eating local cherries and Grandma's cucumber salad (though I didn't make the slices paper-thin) and cold boiled potatoes when it is too hot. I bought a ten-visit pass to the pool, so I will swim this month, and I've started going through all of the accumulated crap in my room to sort out what needs to go with me and what needs to go, period. I have added a piece of luggage in the form of a waterproof stuff sack for my bedding, and am realizing that I will have to get rid of some clothes so that I can fit in all the computer peripherals that I shipped over to myself previously because there wasn't room in my suitcases. So now I must make room, divest myself of more possessions, and travel even more lightly than I did on the way over here. Because hoisting heavy suitcases up the stairs into the train is no picnic, let me tell you.

Speaking of picnics, I'd better go get some breakfast (cold boiled potatoes) so that I have the energy to deal with the French administration this morning. I'll let you know if anything exciting happens this week. Bisous ciao!