Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Box-O-Juicy Words

The countdown is on, and in just five short days my upbeat children will enter again the hallowed halls of elementary and middle schools.  Summer swept us into her sunny whirlpool, leaving us giddy, light-headed, and incredulous that it could possibly be over, already.

And the promise of a quiet house, paramount for writers like me, is tucked in a box on the next page of my week-at-a-glance calendar, waiting like a gift to be opened on the 2nd.

My muse is having a hard time waiting.

To soothe her unsettled soul, I pulled out my Word Box this morning.

This is one of my favorite possessions.  The box itself was made by my mother in her small, basement stained glass studio.  The glass is clear with what looks like embedded scraps in various tints of rose-colored tissue paper and threadlike ribbons of black ink.  The hinged top is inlaid with opaque glass and beveled mirrored.  Mom did a great job soldering the pieces together.  I was heartbroken when one of the kids accidentally knocked it off the coffee table last year, but now I think the crack you see along the front facing side, and the fact that the lid now closes off-centered, adds to the box's life story and charm. 

Inside this box are juicy words.

Last year, I cut narrow strips of colored card stock, and over the course of several weeks I wrote upon them delicious-sounding, descriptive words.  The box stays in a prominent place (but no longer on the dangerous coffee table) where I add to it whenever I hear a vivid or picturesque word.

When Sidney and I cook together, we take turns swishing around the words and pulling two scraps of paper out.  Those words become our names for the evening.  Once I was Pristine Flabbergast, and Sidney was Polite Lovely-Green.

Since Muse is chomping at the bit to write, but I have a three-boy sleepover party ready to awaken at any moment and demand breakfast -- (...did I just hear a toilet flush downstairs?...) -- I decided to share with you my little early morning exercise.

I stirred up the words, infusing the papers with my creative energy, and pulled my hand away.  I wrote a list of all the words I could read without moving the papers:

Maple rose

And from the words, I gave myself five minutes to compose a poem.  My rules for this game are it's okay to add short connector words (the, its, than, etc.), and if a word is better used as a different part of speech (silliness [noun] becomes silly [adjective]), change away!  With only five minutes, you really have to muzzle your inner editor and embrace the whimsical results.  Here were mine:

Filter not the silliness you write
Better to let its vibrant aura breathe
Than extinguish the treasure torch.
...always wear your wander shoes.

I wasn't able to use disturb, frantic, or loneliness.  I guess my energy rejected them.  And Maple Rose missed the creative cut, too.

Feel inspired?  What funky word combinations can you come up with from this list?  (Ex. Frantic Torch)  Can you write a line of poetry using some of these words?  Please share your inspired results in the comments!

Monday, July 26, 2010

I've Gone Green -- Come Along!

Things that Smell Like the Color GREEN

Cut grass
Chopped parsley
Paper money
The living room the first day you bring in the fresh cut Christmas tree
Spearmint chewing gum
Last summer’s canvas camping tent, this summer
Sprite soda
Tomato vines growing in a garden
An indoor swimming pool
Hot tea
New clothes from the mall
Crayola Crayons
A rainstorm on a hot, muggy day
The first day you open the windows and know Spring is here
Fingernail polish remover
Granny Smith apple peels
Cooking cabbage
Sliced watermelon....

And you awesome commenters added:

"Because I live in Mexico, salsa smells the most green (Yes, it's made from small green tomatoes so it's green.) and I love it!"  -- Clarissa Draper from Listen to the Voices

"Fresh veggies whether they're green or not. Dirt smells green to me...or the promise of green." -- Palindrome from Musings of a Palindrome

"Our hut. The walk to it and the bush round it. Just thinking bout it makes me feel homesick." -- Nicole MacDonald of Damsel in a Dirty Dress

"...dirt smells green to me too. So do apples and apple pie." -- Holly (Southpaw) at Holly Ruggiero

mango skin
green bananas
marsh grass
tree leaves
fresh cut grass
fried green tomatos..." -- Lenny from Lenny's World

"Chorta! A kind of bitter spinach, silver beet veggie, eaten here in Greece, boiled, and smothered in olive oil and lemon juice. But be careful of the furry roots, they can sometimes catch you off guard! In Australia, the Greeks go searching the edges of public football fields for it :o) And they find it too!" -- Jessica from The Alliterative Allomorph

"Limes, but not just limes, limes in an ice cold corona, in a hammock, lying on the wonderful white sandy beach listening to the waves crash as I remain in heaven. Who wouldn't love the smell of green?" -- Jen at Unedited

"...I'd have to say a summer breeze coming through an open window." -- Karen Gowen from Coming Down the Mountain

"The smell of the ocean during an east wind..." -- Liza from Middle Passages

"Brussel sprouts and broccoli - 2 of my favourite veggies! Really :)" -- Jemi Frazer at Just Jemi

"Freshly laundered money and the saps who don't take the time to notice." -- Elaine Smith at WordSmithing

"did anybody say a really fresh salad? My husband is the salad master, and he makes the freshedst salads with celery and bell pepper... There are other colors, but celery and bell pepper are major green smells... :D" -- Leigh at That's Write

"Lettuce and spinach smell of green to me. :)" -- Lindsay (a.k.a. Isabella) of Adventures In Writing

"To me, green is freshly cut grass." -- Talli Roland.

"Green to me is the tall pines on a mountain." -- Patti Nielson

"I'd have to add the ocean, at least where I live. There's a subtle algae, marine life, humid scent that smells more green to me than blue (which is fresh laundry...for some reason, that's blue)." -- Wendy Ramer from On 'n On 'n On

"The smell of the Aussie bush after rain." -- Al from Publish or Perish

"Guacamole, Burning Sage although not exactly technically green, Green Apples, Clover, Anything that says it has a Rainforest scent, Pine, Fresh sprigs of spearmint or wintergreen, Parsley, Green Tea Leaves." -- Indigo at Shattered Prose

"Citrus groves. They smell intoxicatingly sweet in spring and fall, which is actually early winter in Florida. We have no fall. But the rest of the year they smell green." -- Terry Stonecrop of Gardner West, Private Eye

"Fresh basil and cilantro." -- Susan Fields

"For me, green apple gummies and summer :)" -- WritingNut from Writing in a Nutshell

"I guess I'd have to say, chardonnay, peppermints, and pine needles all smell green to me." -- Dominique of En Violet

"Mmmm...did somebody say fried green tomatoes...I loves them. :)  Spring smells green to me; new grass, tender plant shoots, damp earth." -- Lola from Sharp Pen/Dull Sword

"My faves from the list are cut grass and unripe bananas." -- Kelly Polark

"There are so many great things that smell green, but I think most of herbs and nature." -- Cherie at Surrounded by Books

"The smell of Fenway Park on a summer night watching a Sox game." -- Gardner West, Private Eye at The Hanky-Panky Season (I love this one! ~ Nicole)

"Turtle shells, empty, that you find on the shore of the lake...

Envy. I thought you all were WRITERS! ;) Envy smells green, the green-eyed monster, come on!

...Green pine cones. I'm not talking about the brown dried cones you find in wreaths, I'm talking about the tight-packed green suckers that are the WMDs of an East Texas Pine Cone War...

You get stung with a green pine cone, you know you've been hit...

...Moss, the kind you find in the lake up near the shore, that snags your hooks and covers your legs and your dogs when you go swimming, the kind you put on your head just for fun, and throw at your friend Amos who beaned you earlier with a green pine cone." -- Eric W. Trent from Digging With Worms (AWESOME answers, Eric! ~ Nicole)

"I especially agree with: rain and cilantro. Herbs smell green to me too. I've got a large green spearmint by my side door that's so bright right now." -- Michelle Teacress

"Green is my daughter's favorite color. Nature knew what she was doing, says Jen, when she made so much green!" -- Ann Best of Long Journey Home

"Green smells like an apple taken right off the tree." -- Amanda Sablan from All That Good Jazz

What smells like the color green to you?  Leave it in a comment and I'll add it to my list!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Our Visit to Le Pont du Gard

This magnificent structure is the Pont du Gard, part of an aqueduct constructed by the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. to carry water 50 kms through the south of France, from Uzès to Nîmes.  Le Pont du Gard was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1985, and is today one of France's top five tourist attractions.

The Pont du Gard, literally the Bridge of the Gard, spans the river Gard, or Gardon.  Its three levels reach a height of 49 meters and is 275 meters long.  The lower level carries a road, which is now only open to pedestrian traffic.  The third level is the water conduit, which was in use until the 9th century.

This bridge, built in just fifteen years, was constructed entirely without the use of mortar.  Each of its massive stones, many weighing up to six tons, was cut with precision to fit perfectly, eliminating the need for mortar.

A scaffolding system was employed to aid the workers and support the bridge during construction, and remnants of the scaffolding protrude from the bridge's face to this day.  As the bridge rose, workers hoisted the heavy stones using a rudimentary block and tackle system:  
(To give you an idea...)

Me and the kids, on the first level of the Pont du Gard

View of the Gard below, from the bridge.

Sidney, Cody and me next to the gnarled trunk of an enormous olive tree, near the Pont du Gard. 

Cody, in his typical "I'm okay!"gesture, after taking a spill.  Ah, the grace of adolescence!

Sidney, me and my beautiful belle-mere (mother-in-law), Yvonne

To read more about Le Pont du Gard, visit the official website HERE.

Have a wonderful day!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Muse is not a Method Actress

I took an acting class in college.  I don't know what possessed me, or why I thought I'd enjoy it.  I didn't.  The idea of being an actress was a glimmering pool of water enticing me, and I was the cat that plunged in, only to realize milliseconds later, with claws splayed and ears flat against my head, that it wasn't in my nature to be wet.  Life experiences teach us about ourselves.  That semester I learned I have too many inhibitions to stand on a stage and howl at an imaginary moon at the top of my voice, or hop around pretending I'm a rabbit and then morphing into a human who embodies the physical and emotional characteristics of the rabbit.  Method acting, improv, vocalization -- just not in my nature to explore.

Maybe that's why writing is so appealing to me.  I conjure the character in my mind, and explore her through written words.  I read once on a writer's blog that she liked to get up in her writing studio and physically act out the scene she was crafting, capturing a realistic account of her characters' movements and gestures.  Somehow, I can't even picture myself doing that.  Not from fear of being seen or looking ridiculous.  It just wouldn't feel natural to me.

I prefer to observe people in everyday life.  Always having a notebook handy helps me record what I later use in my writing, but when it isn't polite to spontaneously scribble in public, I store slice-of-life moments in mental files, to be journaled later.

Last week, we adopted a baby kitten -- and yet another opportunity for characterization ideas presented itself.  Getting to know a new pet is surprisingly similar to getting to know a new character.  At first glance, the physical characteristics are noted.  (This kitten looks black, but upon closer examination you see much of her fur is gray with black tips.)  As she becomes more comfortable here and we gain her trust, her true personality begins to shine through.  And, as she is confronted with new challenges (locating her litter box; processing noise from the vacuum cleaner; figuring out what lies beyond the hallway entrance), we see her inner conflicts come into play (she was only a couple weeks old when she was abandoned by her owner, and was later rescued from a drain pipe -- her first instinct when frightened is to hide).

Characters are everywhere, around us and inside us.  To truly capture them is to be a writer.

Here are some pics of Lily-poo, newest princess of our castle:

Too cute for words!

Ooh, scary claws!

Take me to your leader.

Have you ever been inspired for a character by a pet?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Almost eleven...that's five pm in France...

I can't seem to get back into the swing of non-vacation life.  Is jet lag supposed to last a week??  Hindering my return to day-to-day life is the arrival of our newest family member, Lily-poo.  She's a shy, rescued 10-week old kitten who's needed lots of love as she adjusts to our lively home.  Wait until you see her.  She's a real beauty!  (Pics to come...)

Also, my friend and next door neighbor went into premature labor at 34 weeks, and gave birth by c-section to sweet baby boy.  I'm helping her out, watching her two older girls and anything else I can do, while baby and mama are gaining their strength.

But the real problem is my head and heart are still in France. *sigh*  Here are a couple pics of the Eiffel Tower, taken the night before our flight home.  It was the Sunday of the World Cup Finals between Spain and The Netherlands. (Bravo l'España!!)  

These pics were shot at about 9:30 at night.  It doesn't begin to get dark in France in the summertime until well after 10 pm.  

Each of the four anchor towers house an elevator to this first level, as well as staircases for those brave enough to climb, or too reluctant to stand in the long lines for the lifts.  Other elevators can be taken from this first level to the second observation deck, and a single elevator from there takes you to the very top.  In the early years, the top of the tower was the location of Mr. Gustave Eiffel's personal office.  Today it is a restaurant.

We didn't go up, and the growing crowds of World Cup enthusiasts awaiting the match on the giant screens erected on the lawns around the Tower shortened our stay.

Cody, me, and Sidney, beneath the Eiffel Tower

I've only made it to a couple blogs, but I'm looking forward to visiting yours SOON!!!  Have a fab day!

Friday, July 16, 2010

And the Winner of Vive la France! is...

You left 320 comments for me while I was away on vacation!

That's a LOT of blog love!

You guys are awesome cyber friends, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for making me feel so appreciated!!  I wish I could send each and every one of you a gift from France.

But, this time there is only one prize package up for grabs, and after scribbling every comment-leaver's name on paper and putting all the scraps in a bowl, I enlisted the help of my daughter, Sidney:

With eyes closed, and after a ridiculously long time stirring up the papers, until I finally said, "All right, already!  Pull one out," she did as told....

....and the paper she pulled....

....had one name on it....

....and that name was....

Yay!!!!  Congrats, Jessica!!!!!!  All the prizes described in detail HERE are coming your way, sista!

Jessica, please email me your address over there in Greece, and I think we'll have to work something out about the movie because American and European DVDs aren't compatible... but we'll figure all that out via email.  Sound good?

Everyone, thanks again for playing along, and for being your truly awesome selves!  I look forward to getting around to your blogs in the coming days.  I've missed you!

Have a wonderful day!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Prize Package Revealed

Tomorrow I'll announce the winner of the Vive la France! Contest.  Here's what one lucky entrant will win:

...First, let me tell you that one of my favorite movies of late is A Good Year, starring Russel Crowe (who I'm not a huge fan of, except in this movie) and the gorgeous French actress, Marion Cotillard.  The movie is based on Peter Mayle's best-selling book of the same title.

Except for the introduction of Crowe's character in an early scene in London, the movie is almost exclusively shot in the south of France.  Although the name of the village is never mentioned, hubby and I recognized it as Gordes.  The film offers an exceptional view of Provence (as this area of southern France is called).  Since the film is also a favorite of hubby and the kids, and since we were traveling through that region on our vacation, we put Gordes on our itinerary.

The photographer in you really comes out when you visit Gordes.  Every turn of the head reveals another breathtaking image you can't bear to leave undocumented.

The picturesque shops and boutiques in the center of town are no exception.  I chose this village to buy the prizes for the contest, and I photographed the shop I bought them in.  I'll include the photo with the prize package!  Here are the souvenirs the contest winner will receive:

From left to right:  A spoon rest, hand painted in typical Provençal colors and picturing an olive-laden branch. (Olive trees thrive in the rocky soil and sea balmy air of Provence, and olives and their oil are important regional products.)  Next is a matching rap ail (garlic grater).  Drag a garlic clove across this plate's rough central section to shred its surface and release its flavorful juices before rubbing the garlic on toasted bread or raw meats going into the pot.  And finally, a server set of salad fork and spoon, carved from local olive wood.  The distinctive, natural grain of olive wood gives these utensils their exotic look.  

While we were in Gordes, we hunted out several key settings in the movie A Good Year and took pictures of them.  It will be fun for the contest winner to match the actual photos with scenes from the movie, both of which I'm including in this prize package!

You will fall in love with France after watching this movie!  As I mentioned, this movie was based on a book by Peter Mayle.  Mayle is one of my favorite authors.  His style is comical and insightful.  For yet another peek into the wonderful world of Provençal France, I am also including with this prize package a different Peter Mayle book -- one of my favorites -- called A Year in Provence.


So, there you have it!  One lucky follower who left at least one comment on my France posts while I was away will win this prize package that includes the spoon rest, rap ail, salad fork and spoon, copy of the movie A Good Year, copy of the book A Year in Provence, and several photographs I took of Gordes.  I hope it's you! 

Best of luck to everyone!!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I'm B-A-C-K-!-!-!

It's great to back online!  Taking a break from all things computer has its definite advantages, and it was nice to spend three weeks tooling around France, completely unplugged.  But I missed all my cyber buddies SO much!

Yesterday, during breaks from unpacking, I read through all your wonderful comments on the posts during my absence.  You are all so warm, funny, and truly awesome!  Thanks for your kind words and friendly messages.  You rock!!

As you can imagine, I'm in the process of getting caught up.  I have mountains of laundry to wash, gifts to distribute, phone calls to make, 469 unread emails to sift through -- and jet lag to deal with.  I'm also uploading a full memory card of photos -- some of which are important to the Vive la France contest which ended yesterday.

It turns out I'll need a couple extra days to determine the winner of the contest.  Tomorrow, I'll explain the prize package -- it's a good one!!  And on Friday, I will announce the winner.  Remember, each post you commented on between 6/17 and 7/12 earns you one entry.  Thanks to all of you who entered, and extra thanks to you who commented on multiple posts.  You really helped me feel connected, even when I was far away!

I hope you are having a fantastic day!  I'm looking forward to reading your blogs in the coming days!!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Le Tour de France

It took me a while to understand bicycle racing.  At first glance, it looks like a massive swarm of bikes (the peloton) moving at uniform speed in a pack, with a few stronger riders way out in front who will clearly win the race.  I wondered why those in the peloton seemed okay with letting the break-away riders win so easily.  Shouldn't they challenge them, chase them down, at least try to win?  When I first voiced these criticisms to my husband, a longtime bicycle racing fan, he began the long process of explaining the strategies of the sport to me.

Now I understand the racers are actually on teams.  The strongest riders are supported by their team members, and each team member is called upon to do the hardest work on the days the course requires his personal strengths.

Some racers are sprinters; they excel on the flat courses and can attain high speeds for long distances.  Other racers are climbers; they have the power to race at fast speeds up steep mountain grades.  And some, the elite in the sport, are masters of both terrains.  They are the racers who win the Tour de France.  Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest of all time from that elite group.

The first time I saw Lance Armstrong race was the Tour de France 1999.  Hubby was excited a race stage was passing so close to our house that year.  He told me we had to find a place to watch early, because the police close the road at least two hours before the racers are due to pass.  We brought a picnic basket and found a quiet stretch of country road, and settled in for the afternoon.  Eventually, people lined the road to watch, but this pic was taken early, when we'd first arrived.

Before the racers come through, they are preceded by an hour long parade convoy of "floats," each decorated for a different sponsor of the race.  They blare rocking dance music and throw product samples and candy to onlookers.  The ambiance becomes very festive as the floats pass, getting everyone excited for the racers to come.  It helps lengthen the event, too.  Once the racers arrive, they pass in a blur, racing at 50 kph and out of view in a flash.  (How much fun would it be to man one of those floats?  Spending a month traveling around France, ending each leg of the race in a different village where parties invariably pop up for all the non-athletes on the Tour.  If I were younger...)

Interestingly, 1999 was the first Tour de France Lance Armstrong had raced in since beating testicular cancer (and he would eventually win), and this day he was wearing the yellow jersey, signifying that he had the highest accumulated racing points.  In other words, he was winning.  It was easy to pick him out of the peloton, since he was dressed in yellow.  Making it easier still to spot him, he was sitting up in the saddle, drinking from an official Tour water bottle.  As he passed, he finished off the drink and tossed it to the side of the road.  I kid you not: it landed in the middle of our blanket!  

This is a page from our vacation scrapbook 2003.

Lance Armstrong won an unprecedented seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005.  He retired from bicycle racing in July of 2005, but couldn't stay away from the sport.  He came out of retirement and competed in the 2009 Tour de France, finishing third -- an amazing feat for a man his age who hadn't been training during retirement.  And he's racing again this year.

I'd love to see him in the yellow jersey at the end of Tour de France 2010!

Me, (waiting for the 2000 Tour de France to pass) -- cheering on Lance!

Do you follow bicycle racing?  If you're interested in this year's 97th Tour de France, it begins on July 3rd and finishes on July 25th.  Information and routes of each stage are found HERE.  The best television station to watch the Tour is Versus.  Check them out HERE.

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Testing, testing!

In 1997, after I'd been a French resident for one year, I was no longer eligible for auto insurance with my international driver's license.  If I wanted to maintain my covereage, I had to get my French driver's licence.

And I was nervous.

 Everyone had a story.  Failed attempts, outrageous amounts of money spent, conspiracy theories. From what I could understand, given my fledgling language proficiency, I was screwed.

There are two tests to pass in order to obtain your French driver's licence.  The first is a written test, called Le Code de la Route.  The second is the driving test, called Le Permis de Conduire.  To take both tests, you must be a student of l'auto école, or driving school.

The problems began when I enrolled.  The school's administrator wanted me to surrender my New York State driver's licence.  I politely refused.  So she said we'd have to consider me a new driver, in that case, and I wouldn't be able to drive for the next two years without being accompanied by a licensed driver.  Grrrr.  My husband took over the conversation at that point, much of which I couldn't follow, and in the end he convinced her that my fifteen years driving experience -- documented by the date on my NY licence -- should exempt me from the status of jeune conductrice.

I was required to attend twenty hours of classroom instruction at l'auto école.  During our sessions, the instructor taught us the rules of the road by projecting a series of images on a screen.  Each image was a photograph, shot out a windshield, from the vantage point of the driver.  Based on what we observed in the photo, we had to answer the question.  Incidentally, the actual written test was in this same format:  75 multiple choice questions, each based on photographs projected in the test gallery.  Test takers had thirty seconds to respond by pressing the button corresponding to their answer choice on a handheld voting device, before the next photograph/question was shown.

Here's an example.  Based on this photo, we can tell the driver is merging onto an auto-route (the car is doing 80 kph and accelerating, since the rpm needle is reaching 2.5).  There is a bifurcation (junction where two auto-routes [41 and 1] cross) coming up, as indicated by the large blue sign.  The engine is cool (gauge on the right) and the gas tank is three-quarters full (gauge on the left).  It isn't raining, so the maximum speed limit for this road is 130 kmp.  (If it were raining, the max speed would be 110.)

The test question could have been anything, but in just thirty seconds you would have to appraise all the clues in this photo and choose the correct answer, before the image changed.  If you missed more than 6 out of 75 questions, you failed.

Somehow, I was one of less that half that passed the day I took le code de la route.  I don't have any French friends, including my husband, who passed the first time they took it.

Next hurdle: the driving test.  The number of hours you must practice driving with an instructor before you're eligible to take the test depends on your level of expertise.  Since I'd been driving for a long time, I was only obligated to practice maneuvers with an instructor for a total of 8 hours.  Thank goodness, because they charged a lot per hour.  Of course, I was still nervous because although I'd been a licensed driver since I was sixteen, I'd only driven automatic cars.  The stick shift was a challenge, especially when attempting three point turns, parallel parking, and stopping and starting on hills.  (I love the message on this bumper:  Calages Fréquents -- Frequent Stalls.)

Nonetheless, I nailed the test and now have my French driver's licence for life.  That's right.  No expiration date, no need to renew or update (unless I change my name, etc.).  But guess how much it cost?

.......hold on to your hat......

When all was said and done, and I'd paid for driving school, driving lessons with the instructors, fees to take the tests, and photo for the licence, the cost was right around $500 USD.

Thank goodness I'll have it for life!

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Time off, a la francaise

France is a modern country with bustling cities and market-cornering industries.  But, most of the country looks like this.  The beauty of aged architecture and cobblestoned roads, imbued with the sun's warmth and accented with sprays of kaleidoscopic flowers, surrounds you in France. It's no wonder the French scorn the hindrance of daily travail.

In the United States, we're a bit like worker ants.  In the name of achieving our professional goals, thriving in competitive industry climates, and supporting indulgent lifestyles, we've become slaves to our employment.  The French, as a society, refuse such madness.  For them, the abundance of life's pleasures should be celebrated and enjoyed in the company of friends and family.

When my husband and I moved to the US together in 2000, he was appalled to learn his new employer only provided five days of paid vacation.  In France, everyone gets one month off in the summer for vacation.  From the apprentice in the boulangerie to the gas station attendant to the editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, every employee has one month paid vacation in France.  (After eleven years with the same company, my husband now earns the maximum amount of vacation pay: three weeks per year.)

The French don't split up their vacation time.  In other words, you won't hear someone say, "I'll take two weeks off for Christmas, and then spend two weeks at the beach this summer."  The whole month is enjoyed at once, either in July or in August.  This means a couple things:

Whole towns empty out in the summer months.  Businesses close up shop and hang signs on their doors that read, "Be Back in August."  Life slows w-a-y down.  For this reason, all pressing matters should be resolved by mid-June or tabled until after September.

Local businesses like bread makers and pharmacies have to organize themselves.  If there are two pharmacies in a village, one will be closed for July and the other will be closed for August.

Three weekends out of the summer are consider "Black Driving Days."  The first weekend of July (which could be the last weekend of June, depending on how the dates fall) finds all those taking their vacations in July on the road.  And, the last weekend of August (or the first weekend of September) finds those on the road going home after their August vacations.  But the busiest weekend out on France's highways is the one when July ends and August begins.

Le Grand Croisement Annul, or the great yearly crossroads, happens as the July vacationers make their way home at the same time the August vacationers are heading out.  I have only traveled on the highways once during that weekend, and I was shocked at the masses of people.  I'm a city girl, used to traffic jams.  I'd never seen anything like that.  It took us twenty-four hours to make a five-hour trip.  The line of cars and campers crawled at no faster than fifteen miles per hour the whole time.  Eventually we needed to rest, but every rest stop parking lot was so full of parked vehicles and people stretched out on blankets and in pup-tents that only a narrow ribbon of asphalt was visible to drive from entrance to exit.  We had no option but to merge back into the creeping circulation, stomachs still empty and bladders still full.

There is actually a law in France making it illegal to work more than 35 hours per week.  Another law has been in legislation for years and may never pass, but its advocates hope to reduce the retirement age from 55 years to 50 years.

Like here in the States, the French celebrate one-day holidays throughout the year.  Their Labor Day, for example, corresponds with our Memorial Day, and their Memorial Day is observed on May 8th, the day they celebrate the end of World War II.  They also observe all the lesser known Catholic holidays like The Ascension, Good Friday, and All Soul's Day.  And like here in the States, most one-day holidays are observed on a Monday or Friday.

The French have a saying: faire le pont.  Literally translated, it means "make the bridge."  When the French say they're going to faire le pont, they mean they will add a day off, either before the one-day holiday or after, so that they bridge the days off with the weekend, thus enjoying four days off of work.  This practice is so much the norm that if someone says they aren't "making the bridge," people raise their eyebrows and ask why not.

I'm looking forward to the slow pace of French life.  It will be a welcomed change for me!

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Where's the Beef--er, I mean, Chicken?

Culture shock rushes at you from unexpected angles when you live in a foreign country.  You may think living in France, for example, would be challenging due to the language barrier or the fact that people sit at the lunch table for two hours.  But one of the greatest differences between American life and French life I had to adjust to was the hours of operation of the grocery stores.

In the States, most larger towns have at least one twenty-four-hour-a-day grocery store.  If not, the local grocery store will most likely open before dawn's first light and close well after eleven in the evening.  Have a hankering for Ben and Jerry's before bedtime?  Don't worry, American grocery stores are happy to accommodate.

In France, however, grocery stores close at 8 p.m, Monday through Saturday.  And they remain closed all day Sunday.  If you are unaccustomed to this schedule or plan poorly, you may find yourself eating whatever you have in a can at the back of the cupboard, or dry cereal, until Monday morning.

One Saturday back in 1997 when two of my sisters were visiting me in Auch, we took a bus and spent the day sightseeing in Toulouse.  The last bus back would have us arriving at 8:30 in the evening, and I realized we'd need to hit the grocery store in Toulouse before boarding.

We rushed through a small store near the terminal, grabbing the ingredients for Poulet á la Crème.  With just minutes to spare, we clambered onto the bus with bulging bags of mushrooms, fresh thyme, crème fraiche, baguettes, and (I kid you not) a whole, raw chicken.

The forty-five minute ride home was jovial, and as luck would have it, the three of us were the last of the passengers to disembark in Auch.  Weary from a day in the sun and lots of unbridled laughter, we trudged down the last cobblestoned road to my apartment.

I pulled pots and pans from the cupboard as my sisters unloaded the bags.  

Natasha said, "Nick, where's the chicken?"

"Natalie has it," I answered, blowing a wisp of hair out of my eyes.

We both looked over at Natalie, whose eyebrows arched slightly higher than normal.  "Um, I thought one of you had it."

Apparently, we'd all made it off the bus except the chicken.  Hopefully, the bus driver found it before his next morning run.

My sisters didn't understand my dismay, until they brightly suggested we could just order take out.

"This is France," I groaned.  "The gastronomical epicenter of the world.  There is no take out."  I anticipated the next question and said, "No, not even pizza."

It was their last night in France, before taking the train to Paris the next morning to catch a flight out.  And we ate cold cereal and milk.  But I lit candles.  And it was France, for pete's sake!

Nicole, Natasha, and Natalie (1997)

Bonne Journée!

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