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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Petit Suisse

I've been craving the dessert cheese called Petit Suisse ever since I came back from France. Not anymore. This past weekend, a person who is quite aware of my passion for cheese spooned a dollop of this Trader Joes's product into my mouth. Et Voila! If you'd like to try this as a dessert, Petit Suisse is served with a sprinkle of sugar on the top. Maybe a couple of raspberries or a sliced strawberry on the side. Or a square of chocolate. And think small. We're talking rich. The real Petit Suisse comes in containers the size of a shot glass. After you finish one, you're drunk on cheese.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I Wish I Knew This Woman

Dinner conversation is pretty amazing when one is at a writer's residency. Tonight, dining in the Ragdale dining room, I learned of a French artist named Sophie Calle. I just read about her on Wikepedia.
Here's an excerpt which describes some of her work. The italics are mine.
I love that she referred to her boyfriend as "X."
I hope I can see her work someday.  To see it in France would be even better

"Douleur Exquise" (exquisite pain) 2003. She was supposed to go to Japan but didn’t want to, so she took the train through Moscow and through Siberia, then through Beijing, then to Hong Kong. She was supposed to meet her lover in New Delhi, but he made up some sort of story about a car accident, which she realized was a lie. She took a photograph every day until the day they were supposed to meet in New Delhi, and wrote about how much she looked forward to meeting him. The second half of the book was all about the pain of the heartbreak. She would write about the horrible memory of the conversation where she realized he was breaking up with her on one page, and ask people to tell her their worst memory, which was placed on the right. Over the days, her story became shorter and shorter as her pain dissipated over the time. The juxtaposition of everyone’s terrible memories also played down the pain of a simple breakup.
At the 2007 Venice Biennale, Sophie Calle showed her piece Take Care of Yourself, named after the last line of the message her ex had left her. Calle had asked dozens of women—including a parrot and a hand puppet—to interpret the break-up e-mail and presented the results in the French pavilion. [5]
At her gallery shows, Calle frequently supplies suggestion forms on which visitors are encouraged to furnish ideas for her art, while she sits beside them with a disinterested expression.
In November 2008, she will participate in an exhibition "Système C, un festival de coincidence" proposed by the Stéréotypes Associés inMains d'Oeuvres, Paris.[citation needed]
Sophie Calle was recently awarded the frieze Writers Prize 2009 for Take Care of Yourself. Take Care of Yourself is a break-up letter her then-boyfriend (dubbed ‘X’) sent her via e-mail. Calle took the e-mail, and the paralyzing confusion that accompanies the mind’s failure to comprehend heartbreak, and distributed it to 107 women of various professions, skills and talents to help her understand it – to interpret, analyze, examine and perform it. The result of this seemingly obsessive, schoolyard exercise is paradoxically one of the most expansive and telling pieces of art on women and contemporary feminism to pass through New York in recent years.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Got Cheese?

I miss the cheese.
During my last week or so in France Clos Chevrel, Ossau, & Étorki were added to my previous list. Before I arrived back in the States, I asked my daughter to be sure there was Brie in the house for my homecoming. A day later I went to the store and bought a wedge of the delicious American blue cheese, Maytag. Today, I've been paging through a book titled, French Cheese. The photos are beautiful.
Luckily, the grocery store just down the street has a fabulous cheese selection. But according to my calculations, there are about 230 French cheeses that they don't have.


I bought a yummy chocolate concoction at the Maxims at Charles DeGaulle Airport before I left France. I could have just crammed it in my overstuffed carry-on and hopped on the plane--but just to remind myself how much I enjoyed the company of writer Jamie Cat Callan during our month together as Auvillar Fellows, I asked the guy who sold me the chocolate to take this photo.
Jamie is a super-enthusiastic traveler & a tad bit more extroverted than I am. She pulled out her camera often and chatted with everyone we met. So here I am with Mr. Cardboard having one last French encounter inspired by Jamie's joyful fervor.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bigger Is Not Better

Okay. I realize the title of this post may seem weird given that, ultimately, I'm going to write about lingerie, but bear with me.
Shopping in France is a pleasure. I haven't shopped much, given the state of the dollar, but I have bought two things that require a certain amount of effort--shoes and lingerie. Shoes and lingerie must be tried on. Let's suppose for a minute, you are lingerie shopping at Target. Place yourself in this cavernous environment and takes a very long time to run back and forth between the dressing room and the lingerie department (putting your clothes back on each time you do so.) And even if you were willing to spend quite a bit more money--at Nordstrom, let's say, it would still take the sales lady a very long time to run back and forth between the dressing room and the immense inventory of lingerie she must peruse to bring you what you need.
Nordstrom has a fabulous yearly shoe sale. It's a vrai fête de chaussures, but when those handsome sales guys run off to get you a different size or a different color, they have to take the bus somewhere, I think. And then they must climb three-story ladders and inch slowly back down, their arms laden with boxes....
The stores here are small. Very small. Think of the size of your bedroom, perhaps. Think of an average, efficient sales lady (that's right, one saleslady) and voila, you have the French shopping experience.
I bought lingerie in 20 minutes. Gorgeous lingerie. After we determined that I was---sit down for a moment my American girlfriends--a size 90 C, the saleswoman laid out 5 bras in my size that had the potential for co-ordinating culottes that were neither bikinis or thongs. So even with this particular style restriction, I had a very good selection AND all the bras fit perfectly.
All the bras never fit perfectly at home. Why? I have no idea.
Once in the dressing room, the saleswoman was an arms length away (while still at her cash register) which allowed her to hand me les culottes (which were on a shelf behind her) and things proceeded apace.
Done with the shopping.
Now for the wearing.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Wine lovers know about terroir. Primarily it's the soil of the particular region that contributes to the characteristics of the grapes grown there, but it's also the general topography and the weather conditions that create the unique qualities of the crops--so says Wikipedia.
I was familiar with the concept of terroir in relation to wine, but I heard the word over and over yesterday at the maison de chasseurs. The wine was local, the armagnac was local. The prunes, the deer that was in the sausage, the succulent pieces of boar that were on our plates all were local. "Terroir," said the man across the table from me every time he put something on my plate or filled my glass.
So I looked it up. "It can be loosely translated as a 'sense of place'," Wikepedia says.
Writers know about sense of place. Every story happens in a particular place at a particular time, and we take pains to evoke that time and place, searching for the exact words that will bring the setting and the story to life.
And so it is. The stories that come out of my time here in Auvillar were born in this place. Terroir.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


It was another foie gras sort of day.
Enough meat for awhile, I told myself after the walk down the hill from the restaurant to our house. But les chasseurs were having a party.
This past month in Auvillar, my housemate and I have had the opportunity for a few brief conversations with the hunters who have a lodge next door.
"Good luck with your hunting," we told them if they were still gathered out front when we unlocked our studio in the mornings and climbed up the stairs for a day of writing. And if we crossed paths in the afternoon, we politely asked if they'd gotten anything.
Things began to get interesting a couple of weeks ago when they returned from the hunt with five wild boar. We'd didn't see the carcasses unloaded ourselves, but we heard the clinking of glasses and dishes and conversation after they made themselves dinner.
Today they got deer and the carcasses were strung up just inside their door. Their meal was pretty much over, but the men and a couple of their young sons and even a girlfriend were still gathered around the table when we walked by this afternoon.
"Sit," they said. "Try some boar." So we did. And deer sausage. And homemade prunes in Armagnac. And 2 kinds of homemade wine, and finally, coffee. The food was delicious. The hunters were very nice. In fact, marriage was proposed.
I declined.
I did, however, get the instructions for making prunes in Armagnac.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Beauty Underfoot

There are many houses in this region of France that are hundreds of years old. They're very similar to one another--walls constructed out of red brick and river rock plastered together with mud. There are tile roofs and windows with painted wooded shutters. Floors are often simple clay tiles, but sometimes things get wild.

When one rehabs one of these old houses, it's often standard procedure to pick out the centuries-old mud and recoat the wall with stucco leaving the old rock and brick still slightly exposed. It must be a lot of work, but it probably lasts a few hundred years and you never need to paint the walls--though the windows and doors and the woodwork are usually painted.

One of my favorite interior paint combinations is red and yellow.

Old rough-hewn wooden beams are usually left exposed.

People often add extra windows when they re-do an old house because the original version tends to be dark. I'm picturing a perfect French house with wild floors and lots of extra windows. And a pigeonier.

It would be in a beautiful village---remote, yet with a train station and a TGV to Paris. Alas, ce n'existe pas.

Duck, Duck, Goose

Duck is a big thing in this region of France. I ate duck gizzards twice today.
We VCCA folks had lunch at the home of a French sculptor. She served us a delicious salade landoise which is a lightly dressed plate of greens with duck gizzards and dried duck breast.
Tonight, I ate a salade Gascogne at my favorite restaurant in Auvillar, Sadoul de la Tour. Salade Gascogne is toped with the aforementioned bits of duck plus a roasted duck leg and a nice slice of foie gras on toast. It smells like Thanksgiving. The waiter at Sadoul de la Tour looks like a cross between Tony Curtis and Emilio Estevez and always speaks French with me very patiently. After my salad and my dessert of glace liegois, I needed a digestif so I ordered an Armagnac and he brought it with 3 sugar cubes and explained to me that one can ease the firepower of the Armagnac by eating a couple of sugar cubes dipped in Armagnac first. Sort of a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
Which made me remember that today at lunch the sculptor explained how the French like to partake of an eau de vie (which means literally water of life) after they have coffee following a meal. The eau de vie is poured directly into the empty but still warm coffee cup which enhances the aroma and the taste of the eau de vie. We had two to chose from--a locally made plum eau de vie that she had added vanilla bean pods to or a mirabelle (a tiny yellow plum the size of a cherry) eau de vie from the Alsace region. I chose the mirabelle.
Oh--and then there was the apple tart.
The concept of joie de vivre requires absolutely no explanation after a day like today.

Friday, October 9, 2009


In the beautiful village of Auvillar, there is an economical use of color. Shutters do not exist in every hue of the rainbow. Doors or windows either. The world of color in the paint department is finite. Go wild with your flowers, mais faites attention! with the paint. Some of us have theorized that paint colors may be regulated by the village--or perhaps the larger entity that chooses the 1oo plus beaux villages de France. It could be that these colors are traditional and have existed for centuries. I do know that if you rebuild a historic house here, you must find old roof tiles to re-do your roof. In any event, they've made some good color choices. These colors seem drawn from nature--flowers, the stripe of color on a bird's wing or the shell of a beetle.

I live in a condo complex in the L.A. area. We have rules, too. We have a color. One.
Je regrette.

Shopping for Sexy Lingerie

I went shopping for lingerie today in nearby Moissac. No luck in the lingerie department, but I bought a pair of shoes and a very nice top. French clothing is very lovely. There is quite a bit more detail and workmanship and a stunning sense of style in the displays.
In the very first dressing room I went into, there was this sign next to a scarf.

"A scarf is here for your use with the things your are trying on." Scarves are integral here. How can you decide if you like what you are trying on without seeing it with a scarf?!
The whole afternoon was sweet. We went for "tea" which actually turned out to be hot chocolate and it was the best hot chocolate I've ever had. If I had to imagine the recipe, it would go like this: Melt the best chocolate in the universe and pour it into a cup. Add chantilly.
As sexy as lingerie. To me anyway.
But I am going to look for lingerie in Valence d'Agen on Tuesday. Wish me luck.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Le Vendange

When I was a student in France, I loved being here so much that I quit college so I could stay here. Yesterday while we were helping to harvest grapes at Domaine de Thermes, I joked that I might quit writing and just do farm work in France. There is an organization that could make this little dream come true. Something to think about, but I'm already imagining the stories that might arise out of that experience so I probably won't give up writing forever.
Our afternoon of harvesting (which is always done by hand because the land is so hilly) was just one postcard after another.

It's a surprisingly low tech operation at Domaine de Thermes. When the augur or maybe the stemmer wasn't doing what it was supposed to do, Thierry just banged on it with a big hammer. Voila--juice began flowing through the hose into a tank.

When we got back to Moulin a Nef, there was a lovely dinner. A poet and her husband, a sculptor, la directrice (who could give up painting if she wanted and just cook--she's that good,) her husband and my fellow resident writer, Jamie Cat Callan, and me--future farm worker.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Merci Monsieur!

I found a French book in the bottom of a box of second-hand stuff that someone gave my mother. I taught myself how to say, "Bonjour," "Bonsoir," "Comment allez-vous?" and "Merci." I was in 2nd or 3rd grade and Sister Mary Whoever was not impressed. "You'll study Latin in high school," she told me. I studied French in high school--maybe just to spite her. But as a high-schooler, I staggered through my classes under the influence of after-shave and Beatles' songs and boys wearing letter-jackets.
College is when it got to me. It wasn't exactly like a ride on the TGV. Things started slowly. Freshman year I was in a class that was too difficult and had to have a tutor. He was very cute, but that actually hindered my efforts at verb conjugation.
Sophomore year my professor frequently used poetry in the classroom and I think I remember a line passionate enough to keep me awake at 8 a.m.--something like "C'est mon coeur qui bat pour toi.
Junior year I went to France with a small group of Americans from my Catholic women's college. We brought our own professor--Monsieur Villette--and that was my personal point of no return. Monsieur V. opened the door on a lot of things I had no idea about. Paris was the very first big city I had ever been to, and the first time I dipped my feet into the sea, it was le grand bleu. I drank my first glass of pastis with him, learned my way around the cheese course, and saw my first Picasso. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to amount to much at that point in my life, but my semester in France with Monsieur V. changed that. And I actually learned to speak French. Merci Monsieur Villette!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Drink Local

Eating local has become a big thing where I live in Southern California. Conscientious shoppers peruse their local farmer's markets and eschew bags of Trader Joe's frozen veggies that have been flown in from China. They read the labels in Vons and Safeway to see if the produce is from California or Chile. Luckily, we have great wine in California. I've visited the famous wine regions of Napa and Sonoma, and not too long ago, I filled up my trunk in the somewhat lesser known area of Paso Robles. UPS brings me regular shipments of wine from 2 of my favorite vineyards there--Justin & Tables Creek-- but that's an embarrassingly big carbon footprint for a good glass of red.
Here in Auvillar, you could ride your bike over the hill and fill up your bike basket. Or pile 5 wine lovers into the VCCA van--which is what we did on Saturday.
The folks at Domaine de Thermes gave us a private tour and tasting. "Ça pique," we were warned when the winemaker used the hose right from the barrel and shot it into our glasses so we could taste some wine that was nowhere near finished.
Then we sipped sweet grape juice that hadn't yet begun to transform itself into wine and asked a lot of questions as we walked from barrel to barrel and then to the tasting room all the while breathing in air that should be captured and used for scented candles or air freshener.
My favorite wine bears the name of one of the owners.
Voila, c'est Monsieur Dolthi, le vin, & moi!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

My Cheese Census

The list so far: comté, cantal, morbier, luberac, manchego, petit suisse, petit billy, p'tit Basque, roquefort--and the mystery cheese I bought from the guy in Valence d'Agen.
The fantasy: a delivery service that shows up at my door with a serving of a different kind of cheese every day.

Au Marché

This is what I bought at the local market this morning.
I wasn't so sure about doing my own cooking during a writer's residency. I thought I'd probably live on bread and cheese and maybe buy a quiche from the local bakery if I felt like living it up. But going to the market is a way to soak up the atmosphere. The stories I'm working on are set it France so who knows--a couple of my characters might sit down at a table and tear into a delicious fougasse (that's the pizza-like thing) topped with bacon and goat cheese. It might be useful to know that one usually buys beets already cooked in France or that paté can be purchased in une petite boule.
Going to the open air market here in Auvillar means walking and that's good for thinking which is good for writing.
Everything here seems to be good for writing. Last night after a dinner that lasted pretty close to five hours my brain felt full too--
and as layered as this artichoke (which I think was big as my head.)

Friday, October 2, 2009


Ça roule ma poule.
Literal translation: That rolls my chicken.
Meaning: That floats my boat.
Everyone appreciates a good rhyme.
Maybe even this authentic Auvillar chicken.

Food for the Palate; Food for the Soul

The word for breakfast in French is petit déjuner, which translates literally as "little lunch." And logically, the word for lunch is déjuner. The word for dinner is dinner. Last evening, inspired by a wonderful dessert cheese called Petit Suisse, we had a petit dinner. Small glasses of Pastis as an aperitif accompanied by skewers of little pieces of pork served with cornichons and pearl onions.
A cup of vegetable soup, ramekins of "mac and cheese"--the cheese was a combo of Roquefort and Luberac and there were cherry tomatoes on top. The next two courses were salads. (The French do not eat the salad first.) Salad #1 was tiny new potatoes in creamy dressing. Salad #2 was lettuce and petis pois topped off with a baby carrot in a mustard vinaigrette. Then came the Petit Suisse served with a miniature plum drizzled with Armagnac and a single square of dark chocolate on the side.
Finally, a real dessert--canelé. A pastry we'd complain about in the U.S. because it's so small. Then Armagnac served in lovely hand painted glasses--tiny glasses, of course, with lilies of the valley painted on them.
The obsession with food in France is anything but petit. When I first visited France as a 19-year-old, all the fuss over food struck me as enjoyable, but a bit over the top.
But now, I see that relationships are nourished at the table. That love and friendship as well as food can be served up on a pretty plate. Three or four hours lingering in the candlelight with family or friends is a feast for the palate and for the soul.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

French Words I love

French for apple is pomme. French for potato is pomme de terre--which makes a potato an apple of the earth.
French for butterfly is papillon. French for moth is papillon de nuit--butterfly of the night.
And sometimes the French just see things differently. A wing back chair is described in French as a chair with ears.
But I'm told the poetry can devolve into the absurd. An acquaintance at dinner the other night told me that her package of disposable earplugs bore a label that, translated into English, read "earplugs for a single use that can then be thrown away."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cheese Please

"How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 kinds of cheese?" DeGaulle once asked. This says as much about French cheese as it does about France.
The cheese man at the open air market in Valence d'Agen yesterday was quite generous with samples. He had only a small selection--maybe 6 or 7 varieties of cheese produced in the Pyrenees which is about a 2-hour drive from here. I selected a hard cheese--a little sharp, good for an omelette or grated onto a salad. But after he told me he liked my hat and that I was beautiful and that he'd like my phone number, I got a little discombobulated and forgot to ask him the name of the cheese.
I told him I had only a USA number for my Blackberry, and then he asked me to stop back and see him when I finished my shopping.
I didn't.
But for the next couple of hours as I strolled past the fish, and the couscous, and the bread, the dishes, the clothes, and jewelry and yes, even the lingerie, I noticed that all of the couples I saw seemed to be well-matched in age. Maybe the French appreciate une femme d'un certain age.
Maybe cheese merchants, who know that the aging process enhances the cheese, are especially appreciative of older women.

Monday, September 28, 2009

For the Birds

I can't afford to do any real shopping on this trip to France, but yesterday I did some window shopping--or what the French call lecher les vitrines (the literal translation is licking the windows.) That's a pretty good description of how much I liked this bedding I saw. Mind you, I have a fabulous hand sewn quilt made for me by my mother and I've had it on my bed for about 15 years and still love it. But. There's just something about those birds. I have a thing for birds right now. I'm enjoying a book ( written in English) called The Poets Guide to the Birds and there are lots of birds here where I'm living here in France--pigeons and ravens and magpies and little songbirds who I don't quite recognize. Not to mention the chickens and roosters. I live between two roosters--handsome fellows who crow whenever they seem to feel like it. And at night, if I sit out on the patio after everyone has gone to bed, I hear owls calling to one another. But they sound a little different from the owls I've heard in the USA. There's a sort of vibrato in their calls--as if they are rolling their vowels the way French speakers roll their "Rs."
If I bought that comforter I saw in the window, I'd have to hang it out on the clothesline on laundry day.We have no clothes dryer here at Moulin a Nef.
I thought I would only pretend to like this process, but I love the way my sheets smell after a day in the sun. It would be fun to see that gorgeous comforter dancing in the breeze. Maybe all the real birds would soar in for a closer look.

Sunday in the Country

We drove into the province called Le Lot yesterday and saw another of France's most beautiful villages--St. Cirq Lapopie.
But it was the apple orchards in the countryside that captured my imagination. The rows of trees have a framework of wooden poles over them from which are hung vast sheets of white netting that can be used to cover the trees. But when the netting is pulled back, it's gathered and anchored to the poles at the ends of the rows. It looks like grand draperies made of white tulle--like the apple trees are having a wedding.


cheese (6) France's 100 Most Beautiful Villages (3) French food (3) Paris (3) Shopping (3) writing (3) Domaine de Thermes (2) French language (2) French words (2) Sophie Calle (2) figures of speech (2) foie gras (2) friendship (2) les plus beaux villages de France (2) lingerie (2) living in France (2) open air market (2) wine (2) " our illusions (1) "Bonjour Happiness" (1) "The Illusionist (1) 2009 (1) Athens (1) Bakken Trio (1) Brassai (1) Carcasonne (1) Cartier-Bresson (1) Christopher Hampton (1) Edward Beckett (1) French fashion (1) French slang (1) French style (1) French woman writer (1) French writer (1) Jamie Cat Callan (1) Julie Mueller (1) Mark Robson (1) Mary Wigman (1) Monsieur Vilette (1) Mr. Ex (1) Olivier Messiaen (1) Pasadena Conservatory of Music (1) The God of Carnage (1) The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (1) The Man Who Loves Women (1) The Walker Art Center (1) Tony Award for best play (1) Truffaut (1) VCCA (1) Valence d'Agen (1) Valentine's Day (1) Valentine's menu (1) Willing Workers on Organic Farms (1) Yazmin Reza (1) birds (1) brussels sprouts (1) café (1) cats (1) chickens (1) dessert (1) divorce (1) duck gizzards (1) eau de vie (1) ekphrasis (1) expressions (1) hats (1) hot chocolate (1) joie de vivre (1) laundry (1) magic (1) memoir (1) old French houses (1) older women (1) paint colors in Auvillar (1) photograhy (1) picking grapes (1) self-publishing (1) sense of place (1) shopping in France (1) studying in France (1) surveillance (1) terms of endearment (1) terroir (1) whipped cream (1) writing in France (1)
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