Saturday, April 12, 2014

Is There Such a Thing as a "Last Dog"?

When I was a child I’d lie awake each night listening for the burglar to come up the hall and into my room to get me. He was a very sneaky burglar. I’d hear the floorboards creak and then silence. Of course, he knew I was awake and so he was just waiting until I fell asleep to take that second step. Then … creak … and I’d then be awake until early morning hours. Other nights I knew there was a witch in the closet. She, too, was waiting until I was dead asleep to creep out of the closet and snatch me away.

That all stopped, however, one Sunday when we got home from church and my dad was waiting on the back porch with the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. Our allergy doctor had said “no dogs.” I think my mom had said to Dad, “Small, with short hair.” And there he was with a dog the size of a collie and the long flowing hair of a collie and the markings of a Brittany or English Springer Spaniel. For reasons I was too young to know, our grandma told us to name her Pandora. Such a special name for such a special dog, I thought. We called her “Pandy” for short.

And from that day forward I was a dog person. And nobody ever tried to snatch me away in my sleep ever again.

Over the years all the dogs I’ve brought into my home have given me more joy than I’m sure I have given them. They soaked up my tears and made me laugh. They frustrated me but also took me out of any moments of self-absorption. They made even the most bare apartment or house a home. They were usually satisfied with anything I gave them, and they were even content when I had little to give them.

It’s pretty hard to find any research that identifies negatives about dog ownership. It improves both physical and mental health because a dog gets you out into the world to exercise and because most dogs are social the owner meets more people. Research is even showing that having dogs in the family when children are young reduces allergies and asthma. Because dogs carry so many mites, tiny bugs, and dirt in their fur, the people they live with develop more immunity and have fewer colds. And I can happily report that my sisters and I never showed any allergic reactions despite our doctor’s dire warnings. Over 35% of households own dogs, and I believe that at least ten million of those dogs live in my neighborhood. In fact, I think it’s in the HOA bylaws that you can’t move into a house here unless you have at least two dogs or one dog over 50 lbs.

But now I’m dogless.

My last dog, my goofy girl Skyler, went to chase tennis balls in heaven this week. She was originally my kids’ dog. After a previous dog had passed on, in true dog person fashion we went out to find another. Brad and I had chosen the smart and calm Millie (who died too soon), but my children feared she would not be fun enough. We took a deep breath and let them choose a second one. And play Skyler did. Incessantly. The tennis ball was her thing. But she also was champion at marathon sessions of squeaking dog toys when we were trying to watch television. She got me out every single day, no matter the weather, to run across the golf course at the end of the street. And everyone who walked past our gate stopped to give her love (and sometimes dog treats).
Skyler in her prime

When the children grew and moved on, she stayed with Brad and me. And eventually even walking around the block was too much for her. The care and time I wanted to give to her was one of the reasons this blog has been dark for so long. So this week she found peace and a life free from pain while surrounded by people who loved her.

I’m dogless. It’s a strange feeling because I’m actually contemplating the possibilities of a life without dogs. My dogs have averaged lifespans of 16-17 years. In that amount of time in the future I might be looking for someone to take care of me instead of me carrying a dog up and down stairs to go out like I did with Skyler for months. I’m a true emptynester with the freedom to take off and travel without having to make dog arrangements. I have free space in my life to support family and friends who might need it. If I don’t ever bring another dog into my home am I taking five years off of my life? Will I become more social because I have the time to do more? Or will I meet fewer people because no one is stopping to pet my dog?

If Skyler was my last dog ever, I was lucky. But can I really make it without one?

And what will protect me from things that go bump in the night?

Tell me about your favorite animal family member in the comments box. If you were a dog person who chose to go dog-less, tell me how you did it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Time-Traveling in Tunisia -- Pt. 1

 Just one of many jarring encounters. I read the menu outside and didn't see a single taco or burrito mentioned.

When a flight starts with stairs being rolled up to the back exit of a plane so the police can board and remove a man arguing loudly in a language you don’t understand and ends with the plane bouncing down the runway as someone sounding suspiciously like a flight attendant exclaims “Hamdoulah!” (Thanks to God), well then, you know that you’re about to experience something new. You’ve left the straight up and down world of American/European culture and entered a world as different and mesmerizing as the narrow streets of the medinas that define North Africa.

In December, my husband Brad had a math conference in Tunisia. This would be the first time I joined him because, among other stupid reasons, I was a bit afraid I couldn’t survive on my own in such a foreign country while Brad was doing his math thing. Traveling in Europe, even if I don’t speak the language, is no problem. I see much of my world in theirs. North Africa, though? Language, food, habits, everything would be different, I thought. What if I accidentally offended someone? I wouldn’t be up to it. So I had to conquer my silly fears and head to Tunisia finally.

While the trip only lasted five days, I have more to talk about than can be contained in a single blog post. Since this country is probably not on the radar for most of you, let me bring you up to speed.

Tunisia is a small (tiny) piece of land along the Mediterranean Sea wedged between Algeria and Libya. Population is a little over 10 million, most of the people living in the capital of Tunis or along the east coast. It has verdant farmland as rich as Missouri’s bottomland, rocky mountains providing building materials for Roman ruins, and the Sahara. An educated country, even your porter at the hotel can speak Arabic, French, and one other language. While 98% of the people are Muslims, the modern government has been secular, perhaps because of its position as a French colony until they gained their independence in the 1950s.  And if the word “Tunisia” rings a bell, it might be because this country was the site of the Jasmine Revolution that began what we now call the “Arab Spring.” The people we met, however, didn’t want to be connected to the Arab Spring because their revolution is more or less over and done with. They’ve had a change in government, they voted on a new constitution, they work hard to convince the tourists to return to their resorts along their gleaming beaches -- Inshallah (Allah willing).

Our driver sped down the highway toward our resort community of Yasmine-Hammamet with the full moon blinding us through one window and billboards of Cameron Diaz selling watches, Jennifer Lopez selling shampoo, and George Clooney selling coffee makers whizzing past the other. And Coca-Cola. Always Coca-Cola. It has to be the most universal brand, the taste around which feuding nations rally. Is there a country that doesn’t sell those red cans?

As we left the lights of the historic city of Tunis (ancient Carthage) behind and my eyes adjusted to the dark, I squinted and tried to get a sense of this country. About all I was sure of was that the lines in the highway were mere suggestions for where cars could drive. Things I saw along the highway were so unfamiliar at times that I was suspected they were mirages.

A short list of what I think I saw in the dark:
-- a lot of cars and trucks pulled over by police (that many lawbreakers? that vigilant a speed trap? or something else?)
-- huge convoys of trucks just sitting on the side of the highway; I think our driver said that’s just where they stop and sleep for the night
-- grapes-of-wrath style flatbed trucks with hay or vegetables piled as high as a 2-story house, held by a single rope
-- a man pushing a bicycle along the shoulder with belongings stacked higher than his head. Was that a goat walking beside him?
-- on second thought, that was a donkey, not a bicycle
-- French road signs and French toll booths; Tunisia may have thrown off the shackles of colonialism, but why fix what ain’t broke
-- me, in a car, under the brightest moon of my life, driving through North Africa

Come back soon for more stories of my time in Tunisia. Meanwhile, tell us in the comments box where have you visited that you felt the most out of place. Or, what was the most exotic place you’ve visited and why did you go?

Camels were absolutely everywhere. Unfortunately on this trip I didn't have the chance to get close to one.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Is It Too Late For New Year’s Resolutions? Or Am I Doomed?

 In cleaning out my basement (more about that later) I discovered this clock,
covered in dust, that my mom had lovingly cross-stitched for her sister.
I don't know where I'll hang it, but I'll make time to do that.

It’s not too late to make a New Year’s Resolution is it? Isn’t the statute of limitations the end of January? So quick, before the year gets too far gone let’s talk about what will make this year better. And how can I get it to stick because, let’s be honest, “lose weight” is not exactly original or successful.

I wish I were one of those people who didn’t eat when I’m stressed or unhappy because then I’d be back to my 6th grade weight over all the depression that begins each November when I’m staring down the Mt. Everest of unmet resolutions. Weight, unfinished and unsubmitted manuscripts, a basement that could qualify me for an episode of hoarders, the third copy of that Jane Austin novel dug out of the bookshelf because I never made an inventory of my books.

This year will be different, though. (Cue the Rocky theme music!) Even in mid-life it's good to keep trying.

The problem isn’t which resolutions to make. It’s – ta-dah! are you ready for it? – my mindset on my life. In December I read about defining THEMES for the year, rather than making resolutions. If I said, “Lose Weight” that’s an outcome that I achieve or don’t rather than a way to guide me each day. It’s so much easier to fail. However, if I were thinking in terms of themes I might say “This year I’m going to NOURISH MYSELF.” With that theme, every day you’d make food choices that are healthier. You could also extend the theme to other nourishing directions. How can you nourish your mind? What about taking that beginner’s knitting class or learning French? You could nourish your soul and body at the same time by taking a gentle hatha yoga class each week. The ways to follow this theme are only limited by your imagination. To follow any of these directions would make your year better.

What would be my theme this year? Since the new year was already speeding by and – yikes! – it’s the last week of January, I didn’t have a lot of time to contemplate this to find the perfect one. I went online. No there’s no Wikipedia entry for themes. I did find find a couple of websites that followed this same principle and had some suggestions. But none of them felt right. Time was moving quickly when I remembered that author Gretchen Rubin had divided the chapters of her book Happier At Home into themes for each month. “Pay attention” or “boost energy” were good concepts, but I didn’t see how they would work for me for an entire year.

As this month rushed on I just didn’t even have time to think of that one word that would shape my year. I got sick. Our furnace broke during the week of the national snowpocalypse. My dear, sweet dog Skyler is quickly reaching the end of her days, so I’m running a doggy hospice in my living room. She’s clearly not ready to go, so I have to give time and energy (carrying her up and down stairs) to her care and end up saying “why bother?” about so many other things in my life. And we won’t even talk about that weight thing. Time sucks were taking over my life.

But isn’t that craziness when I need a guiding theme the most in order to get back on track when life throws me off?

And that’s when my theme hit me. TIME. I need to be mindful of my time. While I can’t control my life train jumping off the tracks, I can control how long I let it stay down. I can control how long I sit like a zombie watching “Love It or List It” marathons as a distraction. How long I read home improvement magazines instead of improving my own because I’m too tired today. How long I stay away from the computer because “I don’t have time to write” because life is crazy this week and I can't concentrate.

This year I’m going to be more mindful of how I use my time. To help me in that process I’ve found this great calendar that will give me an incentive. I’ll choose three or four areas where I want to be mindful of time every day. The idea is to fill this calendar solid with checkmarks. While it’s not a sin to Facebook each day, I have to first make sure that I’ve used my time well in other areas of my life. And so I need to know that each week, for example, I’ve spent more time communicating with you on my blog than I have searching for or “liking” cat videos. I’ll post this calendar in an obvious place.

I’ve already given some time to that basement. You can see that I’m back to writing as well. I’ll let you know how I’m doing. And for the sake of full disclosure, you can see other stabs at self-improvement here and here. None of them were unworthy. They just didn’t stick.

So Happy New Year. And tell me in the comments box how you’re faring with the horrible winter weather and if you are a resolutions kind of person. And I promise I’ll see you soon in another blog post. Because now I will make time for it.

Time doesn't move very fast here or change much. More about this in the future.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année

I wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I’ve been absent from this space this fall for a variety of reasons, but a big one was because I had been traveling. When I was on the ground, I frequently had bad internet. In between the bad internet I was taking care of the business of new situations. But now it’s Christmas and I’m back in Dijon. Europe is know for its Christmas markets and Christmas celebrations. One day I’ll get to Strasbourg, France - the self-proclaimed Capitale de Noël. For now, though, I’m happy with the local festivities.

The explosion of Christmas lights, the vin chaud (hot wine) stands, the carrousels, and the crowds strolling down the streets window shopping make you so much more eager to head out on a cold December night than does the traditional American last-minute trip to the malls or Walmart. Dijon makes it a public affair by lowering the price of its public transportation. It sells a special pass for 3€, that lets 2-5 people ride the trams and buses for a day in order to shop everywhere then come back later for the evening events. Luckily for me, it was all just a short walk from my apartment.

Have a safe and relaxing holiday. To start it off, here’s a look at the one here in Dijon, France.

The area of Place Wilson

The Christmas Market at Place Republique

Hot wine, hot orange juice with honey and cinnamon, pralines and marshmallow dipped in rich dark chocolate all keep you warm as you browse the little booths of both schtick and crafts.

Activities at Place de Libération

A temporary skating ring and Christmas animations projected on the walls of the Dukes’ Palace makes this a lively place.

For next year

Here are a couple of teasers for what I’ll be sharing after the new year. You’ll have to wait to see where in the world they are.

Please share in the comments box your favorite Christmas activities. Or your favorite activities of the most important holiday for your family. See you in 2014.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Thanksgiving For Those Who Fought On The Beaches of Normandy

Crosses reaching out to sea over Omaha Beach. Almost 10,000 men rest here. More died. The thin,
mishapend trees give you an idea of the harsh weather along Normandy beaches.

This Thanksgiving, while I’m still thankful for family, friends, enough food to eat, the ability to see a doctor when sick, and all the other things that make life good I am grateful for something new. Unexpectedly, I found it in France.

Part of our river cruise was to see the D-day beaches in Normandy. Their images were imprinted on my brain, especially with the marathon war documentaries and movies on The History Channel every Memorial Day. I thought it would be like when you finally get into the room with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and say, “That’s it? That little thing? What’s all the fuss?” I was eager to get to the American Cemetery because I have loved the beauty and serenity of National Cemeteries ever since, as a Girl Scout, we hiked the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee and at the end had the land open up into V’s of white crosses that stretched to eternity. For my own father and grandfather at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, I love to go just before closing as the deer come out at dusk to feed amid the headstones.

But as we drove down country roads that hadn’t changed much except for the paving, the tour guide pointed out that there weren’t many old buildings. The Germans forced the townspeople out and demolished the towns so Allied troops would have no place to hide. What used to be centuries-old villages now were little pink weekend vacation cottages risen from the ashes of war. We saw farm fields instead of Norman cows grazing because so many had been killed by battles or eaten for survival that they no longer filled the neatly, walled parcels of land.

Brad next to the remains of war at Arromanches

The full impact of the invasion swept over me when we hit the beaches at Arromanches. While all the mines the Germans had planted have been removed, the hulking, barnacle-covered pontoons of landing forces and the temporary harbor that had been constructed immediately after the invasion remain to give some perspective of what it took to get those soldiers and tanks across the English Channel and to shore. The beaches were so wide that they seemed to stretch all the way to England. The Germans thought that the Allies would come at high tide to avoid the open space, so they had planted and wrapped with explosives large, sharp obstacles of wood, cement, and steel to tear out the bottom of landing ships. As a result, for the invasion the soldiers had to hit land at low tide and make their way across this minefield in the early hours of dawn. I can’t even imagine what physical and emotional strength it took for the young men to run onto the beaches and keep moving forward as the Germans sat on the high ground, picking them off like the proverbial shooting gallery. There really was no way but forward.

Windsurfers next to decaying landing pontoons

As I strolled calmly along the beaches among the windsurfers, joggers, and parents playing with dogs and children, I knew something of the distance, and the wind, and the rain that made this attack even more dangerous, for bad weather is constant in Normandy. They say it rains twice a week in Normandy, first for three days then for four. And the rain was coming down as I tried to keep my camera dry, whipping it out for a quick picture with one hand while holding my hat with the other before sticking it back under my scarf. 

 Aerial shot of bocages that men and tanks had to penetrate to fight

The hedgerows - or bocage in French - that still line many of the roads in Normandy were for centuries a utilitarian feature in daily life. For the stone and thatch homes they served as windbreaks from the incessant ocean wind of Northern France. Or they provided privacy for the courtyards of village farmhouses. They marked fields for the small crop acreage or to keep the iconic Norman cows contained. During the war, however, they turned sinister and deadly. Planted atop raised mounds of earth, the tightly woven thickets provided perfect cover for the Germans to hide and pepper the Allied troops who had just landed on the beaches as they moved down the dirt roads closely hemmed in by the village buildings. It was impossible to escape. And still they stand, silent witnesses to the man-made chaos and horror of war.

Our guide was from the Norman area. Her family had lived there for generations. When she spoke of the Vichy government during that era she almost spit in her disgust. She had tales from older relatives of lives turned upside down when all they wanted was to fish and tend farms. They evacuated their Norman villages and kept on the move, hoping to find safety. Her grandfather, she said, rarely spoke of the battles that now make that region a tourist mecca. While I had no family member who had fought that battle, many on the bus had the same story to tell. They were there for their soldier fathers and grandfathers, trying to understand what they had experienced because they had said very little about that battle once they came home.

From outside and inside the bunkers overlooking the beaches of Normandy

Only by standing on the beaches, driving through the claustrophobic hedgerows, or visiting the cemetery and listening to the stories told in the words of the soldiers in visitor center movies did they begin to understand why their fathers and grandfathers said little about one of the most significant days in world history.

“The Greatest Generation” has been thrown around so much that its meaning had become a bit diluted. But standing on the beaches of Normandy I comprehended the all-or-nothing risk that the Allied troops took on to capture those concrete bunkers hurling fire and death down on them. I understood that “The Greatest Generation” was not an exaggeration. The level of cooperation among nations, the boldness of thinking, and the degree of sacrifice to literally save the world is something we see today primarily in movies with Will Smith or Bruce Willis single-handedly fighting aliens in space.

I stood on the beaches realizing that there was not one speck of cover. When the ramps of the landing craft lowered the soldiers had no option but to race forward across the wide beaches of Normandy -- beaches that now hold thousands of holiday revelers on a summer weekend. They pushed forward, often dragging their injured comrades with them as they sought cover. They climbed the cliffs to the bunkers and kept fighting against all odds.

For that I’m truly thankful.

What are you thankful for this year? Tell us in the comments box and then get to baking those pies for your family. Happy Thanksgiving.

If you’ve never seen the opening to Steven Speilberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan, you need to watch it to understand what it took for the soldiers to cross the distance from sea to land and up to the concrete bunkers of the Germans.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Taxonomy of Life On A River Cruise. Or Who Do You Think You Are?

When Brad and I walked into the dining room for the first time on our first-ever cruise, we both had the same thought: why does this seem so familiar? Yes, it was just like we were starting high school and trying to figure out where to sit in the cafeteria. If we sat at a table for two, would that mean we’d never meet anybody? But what if we sat at a table for four and nobody ever joined us? Wouldn’t we look like a couple of losers? Would we wander the dining room seeking a spot to land, isolated outsiders and clearly newbies in the cruise world while everyone else started on their first course?

Happily, none of those worst case scenarios happened during our week on the Seine River.  The thing about a ship with only 150 travelers, though, is you quickly encounter everyone and figure out who to avoid and who could tell a good story, especially for those daily dinners, which were always open, rather than assigned, seating.

The first evening taught me about a special genus called competitive cruisers ad nauseum. Even from across the main lounge you can hear them name-checking the places they’ve visited and which ships they took. If someone asks a question, they’re the first to answer because they know everything even though they’ve never been on this ship or this tour. Don’t bother sitting with them at dinner unless you’re somebody who likes to listen while someone else talks.


In a small space like a river boat you can’t avoid the second group of people, i.e., cruiser queribundus. The complainers, they’re the same people on dry land who always find fault with the smallest thing. They’ve perfected their grumble. The cruise director isn’t as animated as their last cruise director. This gourmet food selection and unlimited wine at every meal wasn’t as exciting as back home in their town with four Michelin star restaurants. Nobody told them in advance where the most famous paintings were in the museum we visited. Meanwhile, the entire country of the Philippines has practically been wiped off the planet by the largest storm in recorded history AND you have chocolate on your pillow each night and a 24-hour espresso bar. PERSPECTIVE, people!!

Sigh, we find the indecoris Americanus still exists. This group and the cockroach will continue to exist after the zombie apocalypse. While no country produces perfect tourists, I still feel like I need to run up and apologize when I see the performance of an Ugly American in the flesh. A woman from the cruise walked up to a guard in a museum and said, in English (in her outside voice), “Where’s the bathroom? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.” Yes, in English. As if she assumed the guard should speak English just for her. No bonjour or s’il vous plais, or merci. No attempt to use the most basic travel word, toilette. On my first trip to France I clutched my phrasebook like a lifeline. The best part of owning a smartphone is the dictionary/translation app. But people still assume the world bends to their comfort zone.

In true high school fashion, this cruise offered an example of the genus cool kids. They didn’t take Latin, hence the modern title. They travel in a herd. The whole lot of them booked the cruise together and have no use for the rest of us. They eat together, they tour together, they sit together on the tour bus. My close encounter with this high school royalty occurred early in the trip when after dinner I took my computer aft to the “quiet” lounge to complete my MFA homework. The cool kids had set up camp with bottles and bottles of wine and a laptop playing party music at top volume. Never mind that music, dancing, and drinking were happening in the main lounge. “Do you hear that sound? That’s not how the engine on our last cruise sounded. That doesn’t sound right. This boat needs an overhaul. Those glasses on the table shouldn’t have moved like that. That engine needs an overhaul, I tell you.” Repeat a dozen times, each iteration louder and louder to sound over the music and successively slurred as bottles empty. They never even acknowledged my presence. I wasn’t part of the cool club.

Gaudium est - life is a joy. And we found plenty of this type throughout the week. There was the couple where the husband surprised his wife with the trip just a couple of weeks before they were supposed to leave. “Thank heavens my sister and I had just made a shopping trip to New York,” surprised wife laughed. Or the couple whose suitcases never arrived until just before dinner on the last night. The ship kept moving and the luggage was always one day behind. They appreciated the crew doing their laundry each day and joked about the situation because, well, what else could they do. The joyous set said c’est la vie when the flooding Seine meant some of our cruise was cruisin’ down the highway in a bus, and the cold and rain of Normandy made us feel like we were going to grow mold. There was the group united by knitting on rainy afternoons and others, like me, who thought the espresso machine that also delivered steaming, foamy milk for hot chocolate was worth the price of the cruise.

If you’ve done group travel, what categories have you encountered that I’ve overlooked? Share with us in the comments box your own close encounters with any of these kinds of creatures on your own travels or your own taxonomies.

The photos are the colors of Honfleur, the French port town that played an important part in the Hundred Year’s War and that I remember being mentioned of in Shakespeare’s history plays. This was one of two days of the trip we had some sun. It was also a favorite subject of Impressionist painters.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On French Terroir - Or Something Close To It

 My own impressionist version of life along the Seine 
(I promised my nephew I'd try Lightroom for my photos)

I’m an old vine. And that’s not a bad thing. At least that’s what I heard last week when I was rolling down the Seine River, drinking wine beginning at 9:30 in the morning.

Brad and I have been on a wine cruise down the Seine from Paris to Honfleur and back. At least some of the week was cruising. You see, the rain they’ve been having in northern France raised the level of the Seine so much that no boats could fit under the famous Paris bridges. We were lucky that our ship got stuck outside of Paris. The first part of our cruise consisted of getting on a tour bus and driving for a long time in rush-hour traffic to meet up with the ship in Conflans-Ste.-Honorine. Thank heavens the the bridges from here on out were new and tall enough to handle ocean-going vessels. At the end of the cruise it was back to Conflans where all kinds of river boats were tied up four across at the dock, waiting out the water.

  The high Seine in Paris

But back to my viney old self. Or rather, wines and old vines.

Vigneron Jean-Marc Espinasse (here and here), who came up from his warm Provencal vineyard to cold and rainy Normandy to teach us, was asked “When is a vine considered an old vine?” He said many might say 40 years, but he felt it was closer to 60. And with the older vines the roots are sunk deeper, so they can endure more. After hearing that, I didn’t feel so bad about this old body getting creakier by the month. Because I fell -- again -- and am feeling as ancient as the vines that produce the wines we’re drinking.

Jean-Marc Espinasse

I keep trying to tell myself that being an old vine is the best thing, that I’ve still got some grand cru life left in me. Jean-Marc told a story about how when he ran over one of his old vines, his babies, with his tractor he cried. Nobody cried when this old vine went down on the bus steps, though the bus driver was very solicitous the rest of the day like I was an old grandma who wears orthopedic shoes and reindeer sweatshirts.

Whatever Jean-Marc talks about, he always gets back to the French concept of terroir, or the influence soil, geography, climate, and other natural elements have on the wine or food from a certain place. Since he’s an organic winemaker, terroir defines everything he does. On a previous trip to France, another winemaker did an experiment and showed us how different wines that came from grapes grown just on opposite sides of a road could taste so different. Perhaps this plot had a little more sun, or that plot was a little closer to some lavender. “Without good terroir,” Jean-Marc told us, “you can’t have a good wine.”
While sometimes in France I just want to go the the Picard store and buy a week’s worth of frozen dinners (salmon on a bed of puréed broccoli - yum!), I love shopping at the weekly market and see where my food is from. Every merchant has labels on everything telling you if the dates come from Tunisia or Algeria. I prefer the clementines from Spain over the ones from Provence. Most of my vegetables come from within an hour of Dijon, my chickens come from Bresse-en-Bourg and my beef is Burgundy Charolais cows.

During this time when we can’t even get the U.S. government regulations to label if our food has been genetically modified, I like to come to a country where the origin of food is so essential (although not universal, I admit). On the bus tour to Honfleur the tour guide pointed out some stunted corn in the field. She said that the corn plants don’t produce ears of corn because it’s too cold and wet; however after the buds fade they mow it down and save it to feed the Normandy cows in winter, along with the peas, beans, and other crops they grow for the cattle. France escaped the mad cow problem, she said, because they don’t feed them much commercial food.

Even the houses in Normandy are about "terroir" with thatch roofs and irises growing on top

France can be maddening sometimes, like when you want to go to eat dinner before 7:30 p.m., or  if you have to deal with paperwork. But I do love the idea that nourishing our body begins with all the centuries of plants and minerals that have inhabited a small plot of land. The circle of life and all that.

Unfortunately, I also like French fries, French ice cream, and French chocolate. Sigh.

More stories from Normandy will be coming. Have any of you been to Normandy? What is your favorite part? Wherever you live how much do you know about the origin of your food? If you buy organic or local, what particular food do you try to always buy organic or local? Share your Normandy and food thoughts in the comments box.

We sailed on the Amallegro with Amawaterways and all of our arrangements were made by the über efficient Susan Boehnstedt of Critics Choice Vacations. Thanks to everyone who made our first cruise so relaxing and interesting. More stories to come.

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