School Break Time

Ping pong is our regular daily game for break time. The ping pong table fits into a covered area with 3 walls next to the barn/storage room (In the pool pic, it is the rough stone wall area on the right). The boys have improved dramatically since the beginning of October. Jordan regularly crushes me now, and Justin can sustain long rallies. The boys also are working on cleaning up the pool this week, even though it is much too cold for swimming.

Sunday December 16th: Ice Skating outdoors in St. Tropez; Beef Stew

Life is very quiet around here these days entertainment-wise, so anything offering a diversion is a big attraction. Thus, the outdoor ice skating rink at the Place des Lices in St. Tropez draws quite a crowd. We went today with our friends Frank ad Anita and their kids. We arrived right after 2PM when the rink opened. France is so clockwork this way – nothing, other than bars and restaurants and those modern hyper marches, seems to be open between 12:30 and 2:00 because that is lunch time. Public life begins again at 2 PM. When we arrived there were very few people on the ice, but by the time we left around 4:00, it was very crowded with teenagers, most of the girls paired off holding hands as they skated. The smaller kiddy ice rink was jam packed. The boys and I got out on the ice and got our fill of skating. I think Jordan and Justin both had the most fun pushing Roc, our friend’s two year old boy, around the kiddy rink in a sled-like chair. The boys got cotton candy, or ‘Barbe a Papa’ (Papa’s beard – I can see how this description works) as a treat. We have had two great days of weather after the storm, and the boys ended skating just in their t-shirts.

Our friends came back to our house and we had beef stew that I made for dinner. I must say, it came out really well. Gigi and I have tried on two previous occasions to make beef stew, with mixed results. The main problem has been the beef cut we purchased, ‘poitrine de boeuf.’ It looks like stew meat, but turns out to be incredibly chewy and not good at all. Trying to figure out the names of beef cuts turns out to be quite challenging, and we don’t use the local butcher stores because their meat prices are so high, so we have not gotten expert advice. I got on the internet to research this problem, and found that stew meats are either the shoulder or rump of the steer. When I next visited the hypermarche (hyper-super-market) I found ‘pave of rumsteak.’ Hey, ‘rumsteak’ is pretty close to ‘rumpsteak’, so I bought it, and it turned out to be a very nice cut of meat for stew. I also used our oven like a crock pot and cooked the meat at around 80 degrees Celsius for 4 hours. That, too, helped the stew. We accompanied the stew with a very hearty red wine, a Marselan from Mas de Valeriole near Arles I bought when we stayed there. I never heard of Marselan grapes, and neither had my French friend Frank, but the wine tasted very similar to a California wine, very robust and slightly tongue-numbing.

Friday December 15th: Sunshine after the Deluge

We woke up this morning to sunshine and blue skies and very mild temperatures. I opened all the doors and windows of the flooded rooms to let the sunshine and air in to

This was my breakfast spot in the sun this morning. No jackets needed even with all windows and doors open

help with the drying process. The kitchen floor was again wet with a few puddles and water snaking along the grout lines of the stone floor. The hallway is still a pond to be traversed on the board. The property manager came by to check on the house and told us this was not an uncommon state for the house after such a storm. The boys and I got out for some air and exercise. We walked up to the boulangerie to get a baguette for lunch, made a haircut appointment for Jordan this afternoon, then continued up to the castle ruin. The boys were back in T-shirts at the top with the warm sun and absence of the chilling Mistral wind. Today is a beautiful day for drying out after a storm’s drenching.


Jordan on the castle battlements relishing the day



Justin being cool on one of the castle ruin walls. This castle once belonged to the Grimauldi family, the family that rules Monaco today

Friday December 14th: Homebound due to Rain

I have written earlier about the rainstorms with thunder and lightning here in Provence. Last night was a doozy. The thunder rolled onto the house, through the house causing the doorknobs to rattle and the walls to shake, and then continued on. I was completely unable to sleep for quite a while and read A Year in Provence as the rain pummeled the house and the bright flashes gave the briefest warnings of the jarring thunder. The linked newspaper report said it rained 180 mm, which is 7 inches, the usual amount of rain over a 2-month period. ( )I woke up to half the farmhouse flooded, spent over an hour squeegeeing (great word to spell!) water in the morning and feeling rather futile as I could see water entering the rooms through cracks in the floor mortar. I cooked lunch with rubber boots on in the puddles of the kitchen. This evening the kitchen is pretty much dry, but the hallway and laundry/service room is still flooded with running water. It has rained all day and the water will continue to come in until it stops, which is supposed to be tomorrow afternoon. We are holed up in the study/den, which has the cast iron fireplace; we were warm and cozy with a fire all day. The boys love this room because it has the best Wi-Fi reception. The bedrooms are upstairs, so they were spared.

Toulon: Visa appointment and Maxi Croissant

Today we drove an hour west to the town of Toulon. I had appointments to finalize my temporary (1 year) resident visa for France. With the Tom Tom it is always easy to find a pay parking structure, but once in the town, I was having a little trouble getting my bearings with only the limited Google map printout I had with me. We found ourselves in a busy pedestrian area right outside the parking structure. I was deciding on whom to ask for directions…and chose poorly. My first person was a girl standing by a staircase. She looked friendly. She had no idea where I wanted to go, and then started asking passersby if they could help her. Two people immediately blew her off, and then I realized this poor girl who was sucking on a lemon was not really ‘all there.’ Then I asked and older woman who had no idea. C’mon, I was pointing to a street next to the Opera House. Do these people have no culture? Third times a charm, I tried the opposite sex, and well, my French must really not be that good, because this guy said ‘follow me I will show you,’ and walked me two blocks to the soccer stadium. Luckily, this all wasted only about 15 minutes of my time, and the tourist information office was only a block away from the soccer stadium. The lady there gave me a map and clear directions.

We were walking up what was probably the main pedestrian street and the weekly market had just ended. The vendors were all about finished packing up their stalls. There was bagged trash and trash from the market on the street. We saw one garbage truck, then behind it two trucks with water tanks and men using high pressure hoses to scrub down the street. Behind them were two sweeper/vacuum trucks sucking everything up. It was like the Disneyland clean up crew after the Main Street parade. We were impressed how municipal authorities can put such manpower into cleaning up after a street market.

First stop was a medical clinic for a physical exam and x-ray. French authorities want to make sure I am not bringing tuberculosis into the country. One interesting thing is that only Gigi and I are required to do the medical exams, the boys never received any kind of paperwork requiring them to submit to a medical exam. Their little lungs are just a capable of carrying tuberculosis as my aged, asthmatic lungs. We sat in a waiting room with North Africans/Africans/Chinese for a short time; the doctor was Bang Bang Bang with the interviews and his assistant with the physicals and x-rays. The nurse listened to my lungs and told me to start taking my asthma medicine again. The doctor gave me my health clearance and prescriptions for asthma medicine (I have a 3 month supply with me, but neglected to communicate that). Then it was off to my visa interview 5 blocks away from the clinic.

At the OFII office we only waited 5 minutes for an interview. Two people from the clinic were also there, seems we were on the same bureaucratic treadmill. The lady interviewer was very welcoming and really this went as smooth as could be. Hey, I had paid the 349 Euro tax for this interview already and had my proof of payment. Easy peasy, I now have my clear Temporary Resident Visa for France.

For a treat we stopped at a corner café that had the largest pastries we had ever set eyes on. Jordan is especially fond of croissants, and this baby (see pic) was just something you would expect to see in a comic book, it just could not be real, but it was. The three of us ate about half of it; we took the other half home and ate it with our dinner. One croissant, 6 servings, all for 3 Euros.

Thursday December 6th – Afternoon in Cannes

Today we drove to Nice Airport in the morning to drop Gigi off for her flight back to California. Before we left, we had decided that about mid-way through our trip she would return home to visit her mom. The cold Mistral wind has been blowing 6 of the last 7 days, but today when we arrived at the airport, the air was calm and the sky blue. Off to the north behind Nice, we could see snow covered mountain peaks. Justin asked, “Is that the Alps?” The answer is no, but I hear that there is skiing off in those mountains, maybe 30 minutes from Nice. Gigi was relieved for the calm weather, the plane would not be bobbing and weaving from a buffeting wind.

Gigi was encouraging us to go exploring the coast, not just take the freeway straight back home. I decided to drop into Cannes and see what was there. Cannes is only about 30 minutes from Nice on the way back to Grimaud. It took quite a lot of weaving through the streets from the freeway to actually get down to the town center/harbor area, Cannes is part of the densely populated Cote d’Azur, much different from the St. Tropez area, which is downright rural in comparison. Once at the harbor, we parked in an empty parking lot right at the harbor. The sun was shining, the car thermometer showed 13 degrees Celsius. From the car, we saw people wearing fairly heavy jackets, but we ventured from the car only in our long sleeved shirts, and soon took those off and just had on our T-shirts. This felt sooooo good! For the past week we have been bundled in our heavy jackets, gloves and hats whenever we went out. I feared that winter had hit, and it was going to be long and cold. Today broke that pattern. After taking a picture in front of the Hotel de Ville, we doubled back and went down to the beach. Maybe 20 people were on the beach, all of them sitting up against the rocks or concrete wall and sunning. Only Jordan and Justin were close to the water. They took off their shoes, hiked up their pants and went looking for polished glass and pebbles in the sand. They also rock-hopped on the small jetties that are spaced every 100 meters or so to prevent beach erosion. Justin was very excited to find geode-like crystal deposits in the large rocks.

Afterward, we crossed the street to a café and had ice cream at an outdoor table.

Such a beautiful day. I just read a book called ‘The Olive Farm’ that is set in the hills just behind Cannes. Very much in the same vein as Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence.’ The author comments about the crazy crowds each summer. I can’t imagine what that would really feel like as we enjoy an empty beach for as far as we can see, and walk-up sidewalk café tables. I am willing to forgo the warm summer Mediterranean waters and sun worshipper people watching for this opportunity to have the beach at Cannes almost to ourselves, and in T-shirts.

Monday December 3rd – Flamingos in the Camargue

Viewing wildlife has not been much of a focus for us this trip. It is not like Europe can offer any kind of a safari experience. Domesticated animals are what have caught our interest. Sheep in the Cotswolds. The Percheron draft horse in Perche. Geese in the Dordogne. Catching sight of moose in Sweden and Norway and cradling a hedgehog found rolled up in the middle of a road outside Stockholm has pretty much summed up our interesting wildlife encounters…until now.

In reading up on Provence, I discovered that the Camargue region had flamingos that stay year around. The Camargue is the Rhone delta area west of Marseille and south of Arles. There is a bird sanctuary called Park Ornithologique de Pont de Gau on the road to Saintes Maries de la Mer, only a 30 minute drive from Arles. Further research on the web said that 10,000 flamingo pairs breed in January and February here. And, every day at sunset they lift in a mass and fly off. How exotic! I had to see this. When I told the family about this, only Justin was firmly in favor. Anything to do with animals has Justin’s attention. Apparently when we get home we will be getting chickens, bunnies, and a few more dogs.

First, we drove past the Parc Ornithologique to the town of Stes Maries and found it quite dead. It has a bullring and a boat harbor. The Camargue is famous for black bulls, and the type of bull ‘fighting’ here is not a blood sport, the man has to grab a ribbon tied between a bull’s horns. Stes Maries is the legendary place where Jesus’ mother, aunt and ‘girlfriend’ – if you like the Da Vinci Code – (all named Mary) sailed to after Jesus was crucified. We took a ride around town and left. On the way out, I spotted a group of flamingos in the water. Score! Flamingo sighting…I was not going to be skunked. I say this because I really wasn’t sure if we were going to find flamingos at the Parc. I avoid talking on the phone in French, and therefore had not checked with the Parc people about the flamingos.

We got to the Parc about 3:00, a good 2 hours before sunset. There were maybe 10 other people in this 50 hectare park besides us. The Parc is like any wetlands area you would find in the Bay Area, very scenic in its own way with paths winding through waterways, the tall rushes were all dried and brown. We were initially met with the sight of about 50 flamingos in the water right next to a picnic area with a wooden deck. There were also snowy egrets in the tree branches, blue heron, and several types of duck. This was cool and almost looked staged there was such a concentration of birds right next to the entrance of the Parc, but the real show was a short walk away. Two separate lagoons each held hundreds and hundreds of flamingos. We spent the next two and a half hours wandering and watching these birds. It was sunny and the Mistral wind was not blowing this day, so we were not wearing our heavy jackets and gloves for the first time in 4 days.

We found one knot of particularly entertaining flamingos. They held their heads high up in the air, and some of them looked to be taller than 6 feet. They kept going through a cycle of whipping their heads back and forth, getting really noisy with geese-like calls, then snapping their wings open wide to reveal deep red and black feathers on their wings, then get quiet again, only to repeat this in about 3 to 5 minutes. We were wondering if these were the randiest of the birds getting into the mating rituals early.

There were a few photographers waiting around, and one of them confirmed that the birds would fly off at nightfall. Where? ‘They disperse.’

We waited past sunset and were treated to pink hues in the sky and water to compliment the flamingos. Finally, about half the flamingos in the lagoon we had staked out lifted and flew right past us and banked away towards the more open water. It only lasted a minute, but it was a beautiful and exciting display of nature.

Then on the road home, we caught this sunset with all its deep purples, blues, reds and pinks. The Camargue has captured our hearts.