Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Food For Thought In Dijon

Just a simple salad in Dijon
The French are competitive eaters.  It’s not like the United States, though, where we stuff ourselves in a grotesque show of gluttony and speed-eating insanity at state fairs.  No, they are way more serious about food than that.  This seriousness has even caused a bit of a food crisis.  Now this may be hard to get worked up about if you come from the land of McDonald’s and Applebee’s, but – brace yourselves – French restaurants have begun to serve packaged or frozen food reheated in a microwave.

Quelle horreur!

First there were Michelin stars.  Now, as food lover and Burgundy resident Lynn McBride explains, a committee of French chefs are proposing a new label to post on restaurants announcing that all food is prepared fresh and on-site because the dirty little secret is out that French restaurants have started using packaged food.  Imagine that!  Restaurants are supposed to hire people who know how to cook.  I sure was raised wrong because in the U.S. I always thought it was about which one had the best 2-for-$20 special or which one’s servers worked the hardest at being my BFF even if they couldn’t get my order right.
Another simple salad
Imagine a world in which food is cooked fresh.  On a stove.  For people who appreciate food.  And no one starts pushing you out the door after 20 minutes of eating so they can turn over your table to the next people and make more money.  Ninety minutes for lunch, reflection, conversation with friends.  Absurd!

Since the traditional French meal and the whole philosophy surrounding the routine of it, its art, and its community-building essence have qualified it for a UNESCO list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, the idea that a restaurant dessert may have come from Picard is a scandal.

But not only do the French give restaurants seals of approval.  Apparently entire cities earn special designations as Cite de la Gastronomie.  And that’s what just happened to my city, Dijon.  The honor is not about how many Michelin star restaurants a city has (they do exist here), but how fully it represents the food culture of the country.  Dijon hosts a huge International Gastronomy Fair each autumn.  It’s mile zero on the wine route in Burgundy.  It’s surrounded by farms that produce that mustard you may have heard of.  It’s the home of Charolais cows that can make boeuf Bourguignon melt in your mouth.  You can’t walk down a street without tripping over a chalk menu board every twenty feet or so.

On Saturday my husband, Brad, and I decided to grab lunch after shopping in the marvelous outdoor market.  We picked a side street off of the main plaza, wound through the narrow passages of this ancient city and picked at random a small restaurant behind the Palais de Justice we had never tried.  At Carpe Diem, I had a simple Burgundian meal of beef cooked to perfection and vegetables, completed with a small chocolate pastry topped with two inches of fresh chantilly (whipped crème).  You could tell it was fresh not just by taste but because the menu was very small – whatever was in the market that week.  It reminded us that even lunch is a meal to be savored.

The scandal over packaged restaurant food and new labels showing cities and restaurants that retain the experience of the meal grows out of a recognition that the French are beginning to eat like the rest of us.  Fast.  On their feet or at their desk.  Sans home cooking.  On the run. With a sandwich. Cheapcheapcheap.  At a French chain restaurant or the American fast food creeping across the landscape.  Not as entertainment or to appreciate community but as a necessity to keep from fainting due to hunger.

I’m here to plead – don’t do it, people! Asseyez-vous.  Please sit yourself down and appreciate the wonder that is the French meal.  It’s just a short step between accepting that Flunch is an adequate break for dinner to welcoming American Olive Gardens and KFCs and Cracker Barrels on every corner.  Don’t let correcting strangers’ grammar and pronunciation become the last cultural tradition by which you’re known.

While at home in the U.S. I have many unique restaurants I love (“unique” meaning not a chain) and I love all the ethnic options, the basic food culture is fast-cheap-easy.  But pretty soon I’m rushing through the drive-thru on my way to somewhere else.  Our box of takeout menus is overflowing.  We slide back into eating in front of the television.  And that casual lunch in a hidden, quiet corner of a French town is a fading memory.  I vow to do better this year.

Poulet Gaston Gerard -- it's named after a popular mayor of Dijon and it's served in a miner's pail because the restaurant is at Place Emile Zola, which recognizes the writer who brought light to worker's rights in France.  Everything about their food recognizes French history and culture.

Tell me in the comments box about your favorite unique food experience anywhere in the world.  When do you sit down to savor a meal?  At home or only at restaurants?  Is it only on special occasions?  What’s your favorite food city and why?

And if you like reading the little things I say about France in my blog, you’ll love reading about life, family, food, wine, and all things French from an American perspective on French Word A Day.  Spend time with Kristin Espinasse and understand the country just a little better.  Or just revel in her fabulous photographs of the South of France.

Friday, June 21, 2013

5 Reasons I Love Dijon and France

Today I bought a chunk of hot, freshly roasted pork smothered in its juices to eat at dinner tonight with a side of cheesy heaven – gratinée.  Someone gave me a beautiful free apricot I think because I remembered to smile and say bonjour before placing my order for four bananas.  Tonight is La Fête de la musique, which means 50,000 people dancing in the streets.  Tomorrow I buy red geraniums for my window boxes.  Sunday morning we rent bikes to ride out to the canal.

Another wonderful weekend in one of my favorite places in the world – Dijon, France.

In the Atlanta airport on my way to France I met a man who said he had been in 92 countries between his family’s travels when he was young, his military service, and now his government service.  And he didn’t seem the least little bit tired of the travel.  I understand his love of having a piece of every part of the world.  As for me, though, I do like the balance of home and road.

That’s why France has become one of my favorite places.  I’ve been lucky enough to achieve a home and road balance that rivals my attachment to St. Louis, where I was born and raised, left, came back again, and where my suitcase is stored in between all my other trips.

I love the weirdness or Portland, OR.  I love the breathtaking beauty of the natural places of the United States.  For a long time I thought London and the United Kingdom would be my favorite place.  Nothing beats barbecue in The South.  There’s hardly a place I’ve been (even Des Moines) that I haven’t like it.  But let me give you five reasons why France holds that special place for me.

5)  They understand that grocery shopping is always made better with a short break for wine.

4)  Flowers, flowers, and more flowers.  I know a lot of big cities in the U.S. promote their green spaces.  I, too, proudly tell visitors that I live next to Forest Park, which is larger than Central Park in New York.  But flowers spilling out of every window is something completely different.  It’s like the city has put on a jaunty summer bonnet.

3)  The food, from a simple kebab shop on every corner to Michelin restaurants.  My favorite, however, has become Picard, a shop the size of a basic U.S. 7-Eleven store filled with frozen food and only frozen food.  However, it puts even gourmet supermarkets to shame with its offerings.  I could skip the fancy restaurants and just make all my meals from Picard.  Their selection is jaw-dropping.  And most of it is preservative free.

2)  Their strawberries.  I fell in love on my first trip to Dijon after my first trip to the market.
1)  My apartment.  It’s small, but it’s filled with the most important furnishings – light and the sound of foreign voices outside my open windows.  There’s quiet when I seek it and action when I’ve sat a little too long.  I may not understand the directions for retrieving messages from my French phone, but the bells of Saint Michel ring at seven every evening in my neighborhood and there is no translation needed for that message.  My heating system may be temperamental, but the people have been warm.  Today I got FOUR French cheek kisses this morning from my dapper friend, Mohamed, to welcome me back to one of my favorite places.

And so, I never tire of asking this question:  What is your favorite place - whether a park bench in your neighborhood, a country, or a room in your house? or, if you prefer, What is your least favorite place?  Share it with us in the comments box.  And while I’m here for a few weeks, tell me what you’d like me to show you or what you’d like to know about France or my town of Dijon.  I’ll see what I can do about it.

If you have a traveller’s love of new places, visit the websites of these other writers blogging today about places they love.

If you if you think it’s too late to learn to speak Italian or Arabic or Gaelic, check out all the fun ways to make it easier in fellow Burgundian Lynn McBride’s new e-book, How To Learn a New Language With A Used Brain.

And if you want to experience my favorite place for yourself, check out great accommodations in the heart of the city.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Great Google Reader Apocalypse, Or France Beckons Again

Today’s post was going to be filled with lovely photos in anticipation of my upcoming return to France.

But then POW! BAM! AAACK!  I realized that I was only a little over two weeks away from the Great Google Reader Apocalypse.  “What’s that?” you may ask.  Well, it’s total annihilation of my on-line life.  If you’re an obsessively regular reader of a large number of websites like I am, you’ve become quite familiar with that little RSS feed symbol.  Click on that and you immediately add another website to your long list of continuously updating feeds that you could never finish reading, even if you took a year-long vacation to, well, France.  Yeah, that’s how it is for those of us addicted to words.

But the king of feed readers will soon be no more.  For all you Google Reader addicts out there, don’t forget that it dies on July 1 and you’ll risk becoming an RSS orphan.  No amount of protests in forums or online petitions could melt the heart of “The Google” and stop its pell-mell rush in a direction away from the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it compulsion.

So I finally acted on the task, “change reader,” that had been popping up in my smartphone’s task widget every day for three months.  Having successfully migrated to my new home for my extensive list of websites, let me tell you where and how to find some alternatives to Google Reader.  That way you’ll be able to keep receiving my blog feeds just as I head off for another few weeks in France.

If you just search “google reader replacement” you’ll find hundreds of discussions about the best options.  You could expend hours reading every comment on every web page to make sure you’ve considered every possible option.  But you really don’t have to because, believe me, I have.  I’ve reduced the options for those not technically astute (me) to just two RSS feed machines.

If you still want to review the options for yourself here are two informative articles for you.  The The Moz Blog is testing a different RSS feed each week and reports on how easily they function.  In addition, it gives simple instructions on how, first and foremost, to save all of your subscriptions to your computer.  The Life Hacker website also has a helpful review of alternatives.

But let me cut to the chase.  Unless you’re an extreme techie, the consensus is to go with either NetVibes or Feedly.  Transferring your RSS subscriptions is simple.  For Feedly, it’s a one-click deal for getting it on your computer and easy integration for your other devices.  Through your Google account it can access your list and immediately open up on your Feedly page.  It also preserves your starred items under the category “saved for later.”
Netvibes transfers with only a couple of clicks.  As explained here, first you save all your subscriptions to a zip file.  Then you export them easily to your Netvibes account.  I’ve not yet found any evidence, however, that Netvibes preserves any of your starred Google Reader items.  You could do that manually by opening your “starred” list in Google and find the items in Netvibes “reader view” where you can click on the little clock for “read later.”  I do have to admit, though, that I have NOT figured out yet how to search for an individual item in Netvibes if I remember a key word but not which blog where it appears.  For that reason alone, I’ll be more likely to gravitate toward Feedly.

I’m still playing with both, so I can’t say which I’ll settle on.  Mostly I’m in early mourning for the loss of Google Reader.  If you’ve already made the change, tell me in the comments box which new reader you prefer.  And be sure to act on this before you lose your online life.  I’m off to France next week, so if you like the photos or the food or the music or the scenes of my French life, get me in a new reader stream soon.  A bientôt!

Here's hoping there's light at the end of the Google Reader Apocalypse tunnel

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wordle Asks, "What's In Your Garden?"

Click on picture to enlarge

Since we’ve finally had two rain-free days in a row, I’ve finally been able to get out into the garden and do chores I should have done back in March.  Hence, I had little time to produce the blog topic I had intended. I’m between blooms at the moment, so instead of a gorgeous photo I’ve made a wordle picture of colors you’d see blooming in my garden throughout the seasons.

I was inspired by my WANA writing group (We Are Not Alone) to make a wordle as the theme for #wanafriday.  You can find some other more literary ones at the links below.  All very interesting.  One is very heavy on words that start with W.  Curious.

 Linda Adams

Cora Ramos 

Ellen Gregory 

Kim Griffin 

Liv Rancourt 

Janice Heck 

Do go to the comments box now and tell me everything that’s growing in your garden.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why Do YOU Travel?

Rush hour on the Isle of Skye in Scotland

 Bonjour, mes amis.  I’ve missed you, but I’ve been in the throes of preparation for another summer away.  Plus, my arthritic knee is acting up again, my dog is showing more and more signs of her age, and, well, there’s the rain.  And rain.  And rain.  But an e-mail from a new reader of this blog pulled me back to the page.

A recent empty nester, he has found himself with an itch to travel to far off places.  He says he wants to see something “new, old, and different.”.  After stumbling upon my blog he wrote to ask what triggered me to do something as dramatic as building this second life in France.

Here is a more articulate version of my answer to him:

In my much younger days I never imagined I'd have the funds or the nerve to take off for parts unknown.  I did all my traveling lying on my stomach in the living room reading the encyclopedia.

As a wedding present, my husband and I received plane tickets to London and one night in a good hotel.  Since this was long before the internet, we had no idea what we were doing when we touched down in England.  After arriving, we found an affordable B&B (my first unfortunate experience with a full English breakfast) and bought a book about castles in Wales and our adventure was set.

Me and the locals in Skenfrith, Wales

Driving in the English and Welsh countryside felt like a scene straight out of a National Geographic magazine.  I bounced around in my seat as Brad navigated our rental down narrow country lanes between verdant hills.  Even going ‘round and ‘round the roundabout in Gloucester because we couldn’t figure out how to exit the dang thing was more an adventure than an irritation.  Who cared, because I was in the land of Shakespeare’s Duke of Gloucester.  I stood in a small field next to a real castle in Skenfrith, Wales in the land of King Arthur, surrounded by fluffy sheep, and I was hooked on travel.

My first sighting of an honest-to-goodness castle

Instead of spending money on nicer apartments or better cars Brad and I traveled the U.S. and Canada.  There were a lot of $9 campsites and $45 hotel rooms.  I also traveled for work and I loved the idea of touching down in a new place and feeling like I owned another piece of the world.  How great to know people in places beyond where I was born and raised and still lived.

My husband's job took him across the ocean to France.  On one extended stay I swallowed my fear of stepping outside my comfort zone to fly there with our two kids for a vacation.  He drew diagrams of the airports and signs to follow.  He gave explicit advice about taking buses.  He told me all the essential phrases, which I memorized.  Then I showed up in a foreign country and somehow managed to get myself and the kids from here to there and feed them and entertain them while my husband worked each day.  All without even knowing the language well enough to read a menu.  I felt empowered for "mastering" another part of the universe.

Since Brad kept returning to France for work, I finally gave in to the necessity of learning the language (I still suck at it).  Then last summer we decided to just act on what had been a constant dinner conversation "If we owned an apartment in France . . ."  We haven't moved there permanently because he still has his job here, but I love the idea of living elsewhere.  It's a place where I can "vacate" my regular life.  It’s not about becoming another person, but going someplace where I can bring out new parts of who I am and shake off  ruts of my primary routine in the US.  And I love the thought of leaving my mark in a foreign place.

Traveler and writer Pico Iyer, in his Salon essay “Why I Travel,” said it even better:
“For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we’d otherwise seldom have cause to visit.”

Travel clears my mind.  It exercises my brain because it has to wrestle with so many new problems/situations.  It keeps me physically young because I work to be able to climb both the mountains there and the three flights to my apartment.  And I still haven’t had that bike trip in the Netherlands or hiked the Grand Canyon.  It keeps me from going stale in many different ways.  For Iyer, “the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle.”

Travel, as I see it, is not about distance but about moving in a new direction. One old friend reached mid-life and bought herself a motorcycle just to feel the freedom of the road when her workday ended.  Another friend invested in a DSLR camera and now travels through her own part of this country photographing the places with which she has a lifelong familiarity.  She sees something new on each photo shoot.  Really, “travel” is just a term for finding a way to move outside yourself.  Or deeper in.

Unless you’re doing that, you’re just a tourist.

So tell me – what moves you?  Why do you travel?  Have you found a new passion that lets you “travel” outside of your routine?  If you have your own definition of travel or want to disagree with any part of mine, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments box.  Or simply tell me where you’re going this year and what you hope to find when you arrive.

An award-winning photo by my friend, Marsha Masters Hughes.
You can see more of her work here.

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