Category Archives: France

A Paris Shopping Experience

Le Défi  (The Challenge)

    I am happily ensconced in my rented apartment on the Left Bank.  It’s comfortable and has almost everything I need.  I’ve stayed in apartments in many parts of Paris, and it’s always fun to explore a new neighborhood.  Every one of them has been worth returning to, but each apartment has its little challenges.  In this case, it’s a toaster.  Or rather, the lack thereof.

This is my first apartment that didn’t come with a toaster and an English electric water-heating pot.  I don’t care about the quick water-heater; I can always boil some water on one of the two burners next to the sink if I want tea. But for me, a toaster is essential.  The irresistible baguette of Paris is a staple of my diet.  I need to be able to toast it for breakfast and when it’s less-than-fresh.  The key to quality is to buy and consume your baguette fresh each day, or store it in the freezer.  But sometimes I forget to use my petite freezer compartment as a breadbox.  If you store bread in plastic bags at room temperature, which to the French is a sacrilege, the crust gets soft and the lovely crispness is lost. Toasting improves the texture if you have stored it in plastic.  I must confess that I sometimes make this irreverent faux pas.

     My landlord, Michel, said that he would reimburse me for a toaster if I would shop for and purchase it.  That seemed fair, since he lives a hour’s train ride from here and probably doesn’t want to spend his weekend getting me a toaster.

   I had scoped out toasters yesterday at Monoprix, and found they are more expensive than in the U.S..  Monoprix is a department store-cum-supermarket which is similar to our Target.  Monoprix had toasters at 25, 35 and 45-euro price points.  You have to multiply that by one and a half (150%) to get the dollar equivalent. The exchange rate these days (2011) is murder on an American budget — everything is waay expensive.  I had planned to visit the huge BHV department store today, near the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), to check out small appliances.  Last night while I was looking at hair curlers on, I decided to peruse the toasters, too.  What a selection!  There were dozens, priced from a low around 20 euros to over 200.  But ordering online meant waiting for delivery, and I want a toaster NOW.  Then, Michel told me that amazon could not deliver to the building because they don’t have the front-door code to get into the vestibule where the mailboxes are.  I guess Amazon France doesn’t ship via La Poste, which is the equivalent of the U.S. Postal Service. La Poste can get in any apartment door to access the mailboxes.
   Where could I have something delivered??  I still wanted to order a hair curler which wouldn’t burn out on European electrical current as my American one had.  Aha!  Valerie would know. She was our 2006 upstairs neighbor, and now is a dear friend.  Her (“our”) building on rue Lucien Sampaix in the 10th arrondissement has a Guardienne, Madame Chavarot.  She’s the caretaker who is on the scene during the daytime.  Mail and packages come to her, and she hand-delivers them to each apartment.  But it has the same entry challenge as here in the 5th, a massive old wooden door at the street where you need to punch in a code to pass through, then an inner door requiring another code, or call-box to ask a resident buzz you in.  Valerie said it’s not a problem to have packages delivered; there’s a buzzer at the street which I never knew about.  Once, I waited out on the sidewalk for 20 minutes before I could tag along with someone who knew the code.  The secret button rings in Madame Chavarot’s tiny quarters on the ground floor.  She doesn’t live there, but she has a long, narrow room with a table and chairs, TV, a daybed, bathroom, washer-dryer, small stove and fridge.  Cupboards line one wall.  They hide, among other things like cleaning supplies, some wicked-strong port wine.  She got me tipsy on it last time I visited.  Madame doesn’t much care for chocolate, and her boyfriend works at a florist’s.  But she loves champagne, so she’s easy to buy for.  If something was sent to me at the building, Madame Chavarot would hold it for me.  Our relationship is cemented with champagne and port, and many hours of chatting — in French, since she doesn’t speak any English.
   Valerie said I could have an Amazon order sent to her, but suggested that I might first want to try the specialty chain called Darty, which carries all manner of electronic gear and also both large and small appliances.  There’s a Darty at Place de la République, a short walk from rue Lucien Sampaix, and on Métro line 5, “our” home line when we called Lucien Sampaix home for three months in 2006.  Serendipitously, the other end of line 5 is the closest Métro stop, Saint Marcel, to my current apartment across the river in the 5th arrondissement.
     I decided to forget about BHV — it would probably be too expensive anyway — and head to Darty to search for hair curlers and toasters.  I had looked up the French names,  so I would know what to ask for: fer à bouclé for curling iron, and grille-pain is a toaster.  When I exited the Métro at République, I was home again, in my old stomping grounds.  There was the giant statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, towering above the enormous square.  It being Saturday, the place was bustling even more than usual.  Tout le monde, and their children, were out shopping.  Plus half the cars in Paris.
Statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, at Place de la Réputlique.

Statue of Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, at Place de la République.

   I was soon in Darty’s basement, which was uncomfortably warm with all those people in it (no air conditioning until mid-summer, and even then it’s weak).  First I found les fers à bouclé’ and determined they didn’t have the kind I need, and even the possible substitute I had seen at Darty on-line won’t do.  On to les grilles-pain.  Michel had said be sure to get a small one, as the kitchen has a very narrow counter.  Darty had about twenty different toasters on display, nearly all of them way too big for my modest kitchen.  But they did have one which would work: the “ultra compact” SEB model I’d seen at Monoprix for 35 euros.  Here it cost 38 euros–that’s $57 folks, for a mediocre-quality toaster, made in China. (But what isn’t?)  The made-in-Europe grille-pain models– England and Germany particularly seem to love their toast — were très chèr (very expensive), albeit of higher quality.
   Being frugal, and not wanting to lug the toaster plus two bags of groceries all they way home from Place de la République, I decided to buy the SEB ultra-compact at the Monoprix across from the Saint Marcel métro station in my new neighborhood.  So it was back to line 5 and a 15 minute métro ride to my part of the 5th.
   Something I was reminded of today is how many Paris stores, even small neighborhood groceries, have very visible security people. They are invariably tall, powerfully-built, stern-looking, extremely noir Africans, dressed in coats & ties.  They watch the customers with suspicion,  those little walkie-talkie thingies in one ear.  Kind of like US Secret Service agents.  They stand near the entry doors, and strategically around in larger stores, their presence striking fear into the hearts of honest customers and shoplifters alike.
    Today I approached two of these intimidating security guys and said (very politely, bien sûr):  “Bonjour, Monsieur. Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais à quelle heure êtes-vous fermé aujourd’hui?”  “Excuse me for bothering you, sir, but what time do you close today?”  Stores are closed on Sundays in France, with few exceptions, so one had best get their urgent purchases made before Saturday night closing.  At the République Monoprix, I had asked another security guy whether ALL Monoprix stores close at 22h00 (10:00 pm) as posted in his store, and he replied that it depends on the neighborhood.  Stores in sketchy neighborhoods close earlier, at 20h00 (8:00).  I wasn’t sure whether the Saint Marcel neighborhood is considered safe or questionable.  There IS a soup kitchen set up in the evening at the Square Marie Curie a block away.  They feed quite a crowd of down-and-out men, who sit or stand around in groups socializing as they slurp their soup and munch on the main course.  Does that qualify as sketchy?  Those raggedy dudes rather intimidated ME.
   So I hustled to get back before 8:00.  Thankfully, the enormous guard at the Saint Marcel Monoprix assured me they are open until 22h00, so I guess it’s a safe neighborhood.  I bought the toaster, and a bag to carry it, and headed home to rue Poliveau.  Mission accomplished!
Sorry, there are no pictures of Darty, the selections of fers à bouclé’ and grilles-pains, Monoprix or the security guards. This was written in 2011, the first year I began taking photos, and I didn’t think to document these experiences.  Here’s a photo of the toaster, though: 
IMG_0118Voilà le grille-pain!  It’s surrounded by the staples of my Paris kitchen: bread, yogurt, paté, spinach-artichoke soup, pasta & bottled eggplant-red bell-pepper sauce, and cheese, cheese, cheese.  A few of my favorites are shown here: Chaource, Saint Agur, and a Pié d’Angloys which I’d never tried before.  Normally, there would also be Camembert and perhaps a couple of others.  In Paris, you CAN live by bread alone.  Along with cheese.  And of course some healthy greens.
Oh, and I couldn’t resist.  Here’s the yogurt aisle at a Monoprix supermarket: lots of choices!
Yogurt aisle at Monoprix




Inside Château de Balleure

Modern-day UPSTAIRS / DOWNSTAIRS — without Servants

Let’s start downstairs, with the all-important kitchen-gathering place.  It’s located in the original tenth-century square tower.  In French homes and apartments, the kitchen with its table is of such supreme importance that sometimes there is no living room as we know it.  A big table in the kitchen, or a table in what would have been the American living room is testimony to the importance of sharing meals and conversation with family and guests.  I was so busy enjoying delicious convivial meals at this table with Nicole and Pierre and their friends that I neglected to snap a photo with people gathered round.

Main kitchen and homey gathering-place.

Main kitchen and homey gathering-place.

Note the beautiful blue double-stove, with brass accents.  The left side is wood-burning, and was used most while I was there.  On the right is a gas stovetop and electric oven.  In the right corner is a small modern sink.

Nicole cooking at her amazing stove.

Nicole cooking at her amazing stove.

I like to cook, but my main motivator is a love of eating.  Nicole’s passion is cooking to nurture family and friends. She herself eats and drinks sparingly, leaving the intense enjoyment of her superb meals to gourmands (her term) like Pierre and me.  Nicole swears by fresh ingredients purchased at marchés (like our Farmers Markets) in the surrounding towns.  She avoids supermarkets except when absolutely necessary, with the exception of one with a top-quality fish market, which is like a boutique inside the supermarket.

You can see from the wineglasses in the armoire, below, that this home is no stranger to large gatherings.  The door on the left leads to the other parts of this three-room kitchen suite.  Bread is served with every meal, and is sliced on the side table at left.




Behind this thick battered door is the pantry, with appliance storage and a dishwasher.  Nicole keeps a relatively modest stock of staples and canned goods here.  I feel sheepish to admit that my own small-kitchen pantry contains more canned, bottled and packaged foods than hers, and I don’t cook daily for family and guests as she does.  Here, it’s all about fresh ingredients and not stockpiling staples.

The space which links kitchen and pantry opens to the foyer, opposite the Renaissance doorway to the staircase in the tower.  It contains a very large refrigerator, and an ancient stone sink and drainboard which fascinated me.  This shot of the sink with light streaming in the window is my favorite château photo.


I sometimes just sit and gaze at this still-life of the weathered old stone sink.   To me, it is beautiful, simple in its utility, with the light streaming in like  a blessing.  It connects me with the long history of the château and people who lived here down through the centuries.



Up the stairs we go to the main living level.  As you might imagine, a castle is an expensive proposition to heat.  Pierre told me that enormous amounts of heat are lost via the stairway, which allows cold air to permeate every level.


Twenty-some steps up, we arrive at the entrance to the main living area.  The substantial door opens to a small vestibule, with a heavy lined drapery as a second line of defense against intrusive cold air.  Push aside the drape and you are in an enormous, light-filled Great Room.  It’s impossible to show in one photo, but here’s what might be your first view.  The main grouping of chairs and sofas seen here  is ready for the group of Anglophone expats who come for the “Ecole Nicole” French conversation group each Wednesday morning.



L'École Nicole

L’École Nicole

Here’s the circle full of English-speakers.  On the right, you can see the heavy drapery which keeps out drafts from the staircase.  Gathered here at Nicole’s école (school):  a British actor, an Australian painter, Dutch neighbors, an Irish Lord, the English proprietress of a nearby B&B, an American writer and assorted other characters who live in the area and want to improve their French whilst having a good time.  Speaking French was de rigeur while class was in session. Well, except when Nicole stepped into the dining room to take an important phone call. English immediately erupted. One of the Brits acted as our lookout, to warn of Nicole’s return.  Like a bunch of naughty school-kids, we were.  🙂

The TV grouping.

The TV grouping.

There’s room for six or seven to comfortably lounge here in front of the large flat-screen TV.  It was also a comfy spot for before-dinner kir apéretifs  (white wine or champagne with a splash of crème de cassis) and nibbles.

The piano corner.

The piano corner.

Even on cloudy days, the Great Room / Grand Salon is bathed in natural light.  I love that comfort has not been sacrificed by furnishing with period antiques.  After all, this is a château where real people live.

And Victorian-era couches and chairs are just not comfortable à mon avis (in my opinion).  Oops, wrong monarchy.  But you know what I mean.  There is a place for modern comfortable furniture in a medieval living château.

Formal dining room.
Formal dining room.

There is a scene in Downton Abbey with Lady Mary and her nouveau-riche newspaperman fiancé.  They are looking at the gigantic empty country castle he has just purchased for them to live in after their marriage.  He speaks of buying acres of furniture to fill it, and wonders at her ill-concealed little grimace. Why?  What?  “In my family, we inherit our furniture,” says our upper-crust heroine.  Pierre and Nicole have inherited some of the furniture at Château de Balleure, most especially here in the formal dining room.  They in no way inherited the sort of snobbishness that Lady Mary displayed. Meals are served in this dining room interchangeably with downstairs; it seems to mainly depend upon where Nicole prepared the meal. The second, much smaller kitchen is here on the main living level.

Main level kitchen.

Voila!  A very modern, compact kitchen.  The meals prepared here were every bit as delicious as those in the lower kitchen with the blue-and-brass wood stove.

Elsewhere on this level are an office, the Master Bedroom suite and a small guest bedroom in a spare tower.  But those are private.

À la prochaine,

Home Sweet Homes: Balleure and Étrigny

From my teens, I perused home magazines.  I loved seeing all the different ways people made their homes pretty.  At first, I thought decor was all about furniture. Later, I realized decor was how people stamped living spaces with their tastes and personalities, reflecting what was meaningful and important (or unimportant) to them. During my high school years, I used babysitting income to decorate my bedroom in Monterey, the first one I didn’t have to share with one of my seven siblings.  I chose ’50s geometric-print curtains, a cute little black metal telephone stand to hold my treasured Princess phone, throw pillows for the bed and a 30″ ceramic cat named Caesar, in a ghastly shade of yellow with a crackle glaze.

College days brought brick-and-board bookcases, scrounged furniture, and a colorful cheap madras plaid bedspread from Cost Plus.  Later, we dined around a white pedestal-based table which was in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.  An Eames-chair copy was the most comfortable seat in the house.  My evolving and eclectic tastes ultimately led to a beautiful oriental carpet and ornate carved wood tables which would have horrified me in the ’60s and ’70s. Back then, it was all about clean lines and white walls. In my case, the furniture had clean lines, but there was a mischevious purple stripe starting at the purple entry wall, and meandering through two white-walled rooms before it plunged to earth in the living room.

As for the exteriors, I agonized over choosing the perfect paint colors.  Through three paint jobs over my 30 years in Hawaii, I never did get exactly the look I wanted. In Santa Rosa, I was happy at last with large swaths of lovely taupe with off-white trim and weathered blue-green accents.  It shouldn’t be  surprising to hear that I worked as a Realtor for 16 years; people and houses was a combination I greatly enjoyed.  All this is to say, houses intrigue me, inside and out.

Homes of Stone

In France and everywhere in Europe where the homes are made of rock, the stones are subtle natural backgrounds for colorful doors, shutters and gates.  Stone is my favorite building material, which is probably why the cities and villages of Europe never cease to enchant me.

An interest in architecture naturally followed from my fascination with interior spaces.  After reading my France email posts from 2011, a neighbor asked what was up with all the photos of buildings — was I an architect or something?  Nope, I replied, just fascinated by different styles of architecture.  I don’t think he got it.

While there are similarities in the look of stone villages in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Great Britain, there are definitely regional differences.  Sometimes the characteristic styles vary substantially within a single geographical area.  For example, the distinctive patterned roofs found in Dijon and Beaune are said to be typical of Burgundy,  but are nowhere to be seen here, just an hour’s drive to the south.

Typical two-story Balleure home with a veranda on the second-floor main living level.

Typical two-story Balleure home with a veranda on the second-floor main living level.

Appealing house in Étrigny cheerful with colorful flowers.

A simple but appealing house in Étrigny.

Closeup of the home pictured above.

Closeup of the home pictured above.

It was the orchids showing off in the window that stopped me in my tracks.  The potted plants in the foreground are doing a poor job of competing, with their intense, almost artificial colors.  I wanted to move them someplace where they might brighten a boring patch, and not detract from the elegant dancing orchids.

Balleure home handsomely refurbished, with newly-cleaned stone walls.

Balleure home handsomely refurbished and with spiffy cleaned stone.

The part of the roof with the dormer has what might be the original stone roof, which was built to last.  And did.

They covered the stone walls with plaster, but left the wonderful gate untouched.

They covered the stone walls with plaster, but thankfully left the wonderful gate untouched.

Clean stone Étrigny home.  Notice how they don' have many windows?  At one time, homes were taxed by the number of windows.

A clean stone Étrigny home. Notice how they don’t have many windows?  At one time, homes were taxed by the number of windows; that was something the tax collector could ascertain from the outside.

Balleure home with wisteria in bloom.

Balleure home with wisteria in bloom.

Beautifully renovated home in a nearby village.

Beautifully renovated home in a nearby village.

Château de Balleure's next-door neighbor.

Château de Balleure’s next-door neighbor.

Home of friends; you can see the bottom of one of its two towers on the right.

Étrigny home with newly-created dormers.

This house has towers flanking the typical veranda across the front at the second-floor entry to the main living space.  The white tower is visible on the right.  Its twin is on the left, not visible in the photo.

Rough finish.

Rough finish.

When I was young, my family lived in Verdun, located in Lorraine, in the eastern part of France near Germany.  I recall it as a rather gloomy and unwelcoming place.  One reason why was that many buildings and walls had a finish so rough that if you accidentally brushed against it, or rubbed your hand on it, you risked taking some skin off.  It was invariably an unpleasant cement-gray color.  I did a double-take when I saw the side of this house in Étrigny.  It was the very same nasty finish so common in Verdun in the 1950s!

An architecturally unusual home in Étrigny.

An architecturally unusual home in Étrigny.

This house stood out because it is so large, has so many windows, and the style and finish elements are so different from the typical homes in the area.  When I approached it the second time from a little alley to the right, I discovered it was the one with that unfriendly rough finish!

Cats up high.

Cats up high.

These kitties look as if they are in cruel cages, but careful scrutiny revealed that they have access to the house behind these perches.  Meanwhile, they enjoy checking out village life from about twenty feet up.  These old stone houses often show signs of previous alterations, such as windows and doors filled in.  Note the curious stone pattern below the large window ruled by cats.  I wish had the key to decipher stone clues like these.  History has a whole other dimension in places inhabited since Roman times, or “merely” seven or eight hundred years.

À la prochaine,

Balleure Birthday

I was invited to the best birthday party in Balleure!  It was for a fellow named Robert, celebrating his 68th.  Robert is a very warm, fun, outgoing and generous guy whose career has been in fashion design.  He lives near Strasbourg, as does most of his family.  He’s the youngest of 8–a good Catholic family like my own, where I am the oldest of 8.  They have been coming to the family’s vacation home here in Balleure all their lives.  It’s about 4 hours’ drive from Strasbourg on the freeway (except it’s a pay-way). Their grandfather bought the house a very long time ago, and it was he who planted the towering tree just visible in the back yard. Robert’s sister Nanette told me that including the youngest generation, her grandchildren,  five generations of Pascals have enjoyed this cozy stone home in the country.   Here it is, below:  The house is on the left.  The auxiliary building, so common here, is probably an old barn.

French farmhouse

Pascal Family Country Home In Balleure for Five Generations

We arrived promptly at 7:00.  The French have a tradition when entertaining (it falls under the Rules of Politesse) of not offering anything to drink until everyone has arrived.  We chatted while awaiting the others, in the tiny living room of the ancient stone house with a cozy fire on the unscreened hearth.  The invitées  (guests) included two of Robert’s sisters, Nanette and Jacquotte, brother-in-law Marc (their sister’s widower, who is 92 years old, smart and funny), Dutch friends Marjo and Frank from nearby Étrigny, Nicole and Pierre and me, and Joseph.  Halfway through dinner, Nicole whispered that Joseph, who was sitting on my other side, is a priest.  Thankfully, I had not yet said anything unkind about the new pope!

When the last guest arrived, Marc poured a bottle of 1982 sauterne which he had been saving for a special occasion.  It was lovely, sweet but with depth, a wine which is typically served with fois gras. Once everyone’s glass was full, they began passing around plates of little toasts spread with fois gras, plus a plate with thin slices of delicious smoked wild boar sausage.  The tray with these goodies was balanced on top of an upended wooden wine box in the middle of everything, and every time Marc got up to pass the appetizers or refill wineglasses, he almost tripped between the box and the carpet, which was rolled back to avoid being set afire by sparks.  There was maybe 8 feet between the hearth and the wall opposite.  Against the wall was a couch, and In between was a very narrow table.  One had to be exceptionally adroit to thread one’s way around the room without falling into the fire.  Or knocking something over.  When the 1982 sauterne was finished, Marc broke out a bottle from 1986.  Also exceptional.

It was probably around 8:00 when we received the command “À table“, and so we sat down at  a large oval table in the dining room.  There was a big sleigh-bed in the corner (the living room had another such bed behind a partition), testimony to the needs of une famille nombreuse–a big family.  There was an upstairs, but the French don’t give house tours so I didn’t see it.  It was awhile before Robert and Joseph and Nanette were ready in the kitchen, which was not public display either.  They came in bearing a huge covered pottery pot of sauerkraut with sausages, an open casserole with a variety of smoked meats, and a bowl of boiled potatoes. Choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with sausages and cured meats) is the traditional dish of Alsace, where Strasbourg is located.  Alsace has alternated between belonging to France and Germany over the centuries.  It was German when my grandfather Reidell was born there around 1880.  Nanette told me that in her grandmother’s lifetime, Strasbourg changed nationalities five times!

I cannot begin to describe the conviviality, jokes, warmth, laughter and generally great time that was had around that table during the next three hours.  It was wonderful!  The food was delicious, and the wine flowed.  An Alsatian dry reisling was poured first; then a red with the cheese course. I don’t remember a separate wine with dessert, but Marc insisted on schnapps being served with coffee, because it’s traditional.  Robert the birthday boy was a riot, keeping us laughing throughout.  In short, the company was the best.  What good fortune that I happened to be here, and that Robert generously invited me to come along with Nicole and Pierre.  Visiting France, or anywhere for that matter, is so much better when you get a glimpse of the lives of local people, and especially when invited into their homes.  That was true in Lyon, where I was shown a wonderful weekend by the cousin (and her husband) of a friend.  I also had a serendipitous connection with the fascinating woman in whose beautiful apartment I stayed in Lyon.  It seems to be easier to make these connections outside of Paris, which I am well noting.

A Stroll to Étrigny

Pastoral scene just outside the little town of Balleure.

Pastoral scene just outside of Balleure.

I have twice ventured out on a walk from Balleure to nearby Étrigny.  A small town in itself, it serves as the local administrative center for the commune, which includes four hameaus (hamlets) in the surrounding countryside. The total population of the commune of Étrigny is around 300.  The commune’s Mairie (City Hall) and post office, which is open parts of three days per week, are in Étrigny. The only commerce I have found there is a bakery which offers a variety excellent fresh breads each day, plus a limited selection of food and drink.   My reward for the walk despite threatening rain is a croissant.  I rarely eat croissants, but they are exceptional here, fresh and crusty, light and yeasty.

Charolais cattle

Curious cattle came to greet the Americain.

These beauties are pure Charolais cattle, a breed which originated near here.  Charolais are prized for meat all over Europe, and are also found in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand and South America, often crossed with other breeds.  In Italy, they’re hard to find, because they are sequestered in barns for safety.  Do they have cattle rustlers in Italy??

Étrigny church and lavoir

You can see the old church at Étrigny from afar.  In front is a lavoir, a restored old community laundry where the town’s women used to gather to scrub their clothes and linens by hand and catch up on the doings of their neighbors.  This one has a raised rectangular pool of water edged with slanted stone rubbing surfaces.  The one I remember from my childhood in Verdun was a bit more primitive.  Located at the edge of a flowing stream, it was made of wood instead of stone, and the women worked on their knees scrubbing against sturdy wood boards which slanted into the stream.

Lavoir Exterior

Lavoir Exterior

Lavoir Interior

Lavoir Interior

A pipe supplies water from a stream to a trough outside, below the half-sun window. Another pipe punches through the wall to fill the pool inside.

Hours of operation.

Hours of operation.

In the center of Étrigny, I reach my goal, the Boulangerie-Épicerie.  Besides bread, it carries a few other essentials, which is where the Épicerie (small grocery) part comes in.  A boulangerie sells bread.  Unfortunately, I neglected to snap a photo of the exterior, except for the posted hours (for future reference!).  What’s up with the English on the sign?  This is not exactly American or English tourist country, and I never heard English spoken there at the shop.

Bread and pastries are the main event; the canned goods and a small case of dairy items are strictly for when you don’t have time to get to a marché (Farmers’ Market) or a super-marché (large grocery store) in one of the surrounding larger towns.

Ah, the bread!

Ah, the bread!

Notice how many different kinds of bread they offer.  I always stick to my favorite, a baguette called le tradition, made the slow traditional way and costing just a bit more than regular baguettes, which to me are not worth the carbs.  Les traditions are in the basket with the black sign next to the modern computer cash-register. Notice the large basket of luscious golden croissants front and center behind the glass screen.

They're all good!
They’re all good!

To the right of the cash register is the pastry case.  You need to get there early for a full selection.  They put their energy into the more important breads here, though the pastries are of excellent quality.  Bread is a daily essential in France.  If you are a purist, you stop by a boulangerie to get it fresh every day–sometimes twice a day.  Usually the places with the best bread don’t have the best pastries, and vice versa.  Fortunately, that is not true here.

A few conveniences.

A few conveniences.

The essentials include bread, wine and bottled water and juices.  No beer.  Canned goods are pretty much for when you don’t have shelves at home full of fruit and veggies you’ve canned —  “put up” as my grandmother used to say, and no time to drive to a supermarket.  There’s also a small refrigerated case of dairy items, including a couple of cheeses.  In a country which produces over 400 kinds of cheese, how do they choose which ones to carry??

Compare this, the only store in a very small town, with an American 7-11 convenience store. I don’t patronize convenience stores in the USA, but am grateful for the French version in Étrigny, and towns like it.  To be fair, I must admit I have seen plenty of actual 7-11s and their French cousins in all the larger cities.

Au revoir.  It’s time to walk back to Balleure, munching my croissant.  

À la prochaine!


Château de Balleure

Bourgogne région shown on map of France.

Bourgogne région shown on map of France.

Burgundy (Bourgogne) is a famous for its wines: reds made from the pinot noir grape, and white chablis wines made from the chardonnay grape. But that’s not why I came here this time.   I wanted to improve my French. On Lynne McBride’s lively blog “Southern Fried French”, I found what sounded like the ideal French-immersion experience.  I signed up to spend two weeks at Château de Balleure, located in the very southern tip of Burgundy.

On May 16, I took the train from Lyon to Tournus, about an hour and a quarter ride.  From there, it was about a twenty-minute drive through scenic countryside to Balleure. From the moment I arrived, we spoke only French — all day, every day.  The best part was being welcomed into the daily lives of my wonderful hosts, Nicole and Pierre Balvay, and into the village life of tiny Balleure (population 60).

View as you approach the château.

View as you approach the château.

Je vous présente (I present to you) Pierre and Nicole, my charming and generous hosts.

Pierre and Nicole

Pierre and Nicole

Château de Balleure has been in Pierre’s family since 1791. His ancestor bought it after the French Revolution took its toll on the sort of nobility who had formerly owned estates like this. It is an authentic medieval château, austere and not overly ornamented like the architectural styles that followed.  I was told that it’s the best-preserved medieval château in Burgundy, and the amazing thing is that it’s not a museum, it’s a comfortable welcoming home. The oldest part, a square tower, was built in the tenth century by the local Seigneur (Lord).  He and his friends gathered there when they were out hunting.  In that era, Gentlemen had two main pursuits: Hunting and War. The former was a sort of practice for the latter. The tenth-century square tower is the one with one window per floor, just beyond the parked cars, below.  The  third-floor window marks my bedroom.IMG_3523

After exiting the parked car, you walk past the square-trimmed tree and through the arch into the courtyard.  In the fourteenth century, with permission from the king, the Seigneur expanded the original square tower to create a château which could harbor the townspeople in times of attack.  What you see above the arch is the outline of the drawbridge.  There was a moat around the château, and entry was via that bridge at the second level.  Châteaux of the Middle Ages were quite plain and practical–nothing like the ornate and ostentatious ones of the 18th century, which were built for leisure living, and to impress others.
Traces of Medieval Drawbridge

Traces of Medieval Drawbridge

Below is another view, from the far side. The blue car is in the courtyard. At one time, you would not have been able to see this view, as the central courtyard was entirely enclosed by the château.  The history of France is that of wars and hard times.  This château didn’t escape them and in its long history, parts of it were destroyed.
This picture was taken on one of only a couple of days during my stay which had blue skies.  The rest of the time, it was some of the worst spring weather since 1887–gray skies daily, with plenty of rain and cool-to-chilly temperatures.  After a long, cold, wet winter, everyone in France was ready to welcome le printemps (Spring).  It hadn’t arrived by the end of May.
The retaining walls in the picture below are what remains of the moat.
Evidence of the long-ago moat.

Evidence of the long-ago moat.

A digression: At the right is a nearby restored 18th century château, which has a moat-for-show.  The nobility of those days, like many of the uber-rich and under-occupied in any era,  were all about appearances and superficial concerns. One thing hadn’t changed much from medieval times: the Lords were often off to war.  The one who had this built this was killed in battle four years after the family moved in.  His private living quarters were never finished in the manner of the highly ornate rest of the castle.  The young widow, married at 16 and widowed at 22, was left with four children–and an impressive but lonely home which, like today, would have been expensive to keep up.
Current Entrance into Château de Balleure.

Current Entrance into Château de Balleure.

Back to Balleure:  Shown here is the present entrance, off the courtyard, with an arched window above double doors.  The doors open onto a stone entry chamber, which was probably not always enclosed.  I suspect that the arched wood door to the left of the present entrance was once the main entrance. It opens directly to the stone stairway.
Previous entrance.

Previous entrance.

Once you pass through the modern entrance, you find a doorway on the left which accesses the 700-year-old spiral stone staircase winding sixty steps up to access the many living spaces.
The doorway to the stairs is framed by a graceful renaissance style arch, which is identified as fifteenth century in family archives.  It was a serendipitous find when Pierre and Nicole removed layers of plaster from the walls of the entry.  Medieval?  Renaissance?  What I figure is that while the château was built in the late Middle Ages and is essentially a medieval building, it was certainly not preserved in its original state for seven hundred years.  Remnants of the drawbridge and moat are testimony to that.  We can safely assume that its various owners tweaked it here and there over the centuries.  Remodeling is nothing new, though there are special challenges when you’re dealing with thick stone walls, minimal plumbing and no electricity. Pierre and Nicole labored nearly 30 years to bring the château to its present comfortable state, doing most of the work themselves on their “vacations”.
Renaissance entry to stone staircase.

Renaissance entry to stone staircase

Below:  In the stairs-tower, there are two windows with wide sills on both interior and exterior which give a hint of the thickness of the wall.  Antique carpenters’ tools and a collection of other utilitarian items from earlier eras are displayed on the ledges.
700-year-old stone staircase.

700-year-old stone staircase.

That’s all for now!  You are in the door of Château de Balleure, out of the rain.  Interior spaces will be revealed in good time.

À la prochaine,

La France Profonde: A tiny hamlet in the Périgord

I arrived for my 6-day French-immersion home-stay on Sunday, April 28 after a four-hour train ride from Paris, with a train change in the city of Limoges.  My hostess, Monique, picked me up at the station in the small town of Thiviers.  It’s located in the Périgord Vert, the northernmost part of the Dordogne.  Guidebooks say the Dordogne is in southwest France; southwest-ish is more like it I think, as Nevada might be described as in the southwest of the US.  Périgord is the ancient provinical name for the region, and is preferred by people who live there.  It’s divided into the Périgord Vert, Blanc, Noir and Pourpre (green, white, black and purple).

IMG_2859 (1)The Noir, anchored by the picture-perfect little town of Sarlat, is south of here, and has more tourism.  In 2011, I spent a week near Sarlat with Santa Rosa chef and restauranteur Michael Hirschberg’s group at the lovely B&B run by Santa Rosans Caitlin and Albert Woodbury. The Périgord Noir is especially known for truffles and the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings.  The Purple contains the wine region of Bergerac. Monique served excellent red Bergerac wine with meals.

After a drive of about 20 kilometers, which took us through a countryside with gently rolling green hills and a couple of small villages, we reached Monique’s home in a cluster of old stone buildings at a high point called Le Pic (the peak, though it was by no means what any of us would consider a peak).  There are only four full-time-inhabited houses here, plus an English couple’s vacation home, and about six houses and several barns in varying states of disrepair.  The French speak of La France Profond, the country roots from whence came most French families’ ancestors, and it is revered in a nostalgic sort of way.  We are in La France Profonde.

IMG_2844 (2)First view of Monique’s home with its cheerful red shutters, just past the neighbor’s walnut orchard.  Downstairs windows, left to right:  Living-Dining area; open kitchen; Bathroom with large walk-in shower.  Upstairs windows: Great Room made cozy by a couch in front of a wood stove.  This level also includes a large airy guest bedroom on the right, and a half-bath.  Monique’s bedroom is in the attic. Its windows on the far end of the house face the back yard.

I could kick myself for neglecting to take pictures of the inside of the house.  It is comfortable and inviting, with an uncluttered almost Zen feel.  Furnished with almost equal portions of family antiques and modern, it is at once homey and charming.  We spent six evenings and five-plus days taking long walks in the area, and traveling to see sights further afield, speaking only in French.  It was a challenge that left me tired every night, but it went well.  We understood each other, and she gently corrected my numerous errors.

IMG_2827Here’s a not-very-good photo of Monique with her sweet dog, Flocky.  They are contemplating cooking in the kitchen of an ancient château we visited.

IMG_2838 (2)This is a typical layout for a country or small village home in a farming area: stone house facing a sort of courtyard with a stone  barn.  This courtyard and the carport area are covered in crushed walnut shells.  Beyond the carport is about half an acre of land, with lawn, fruit trees, flowers and a vegetable garden.

IMG_2846 (2)Here’s the peaceful bucolic view across the street.  The neighbors to the left of this scene have a herd of sheep which they breed, and sell the lambs in the springtime. I didn’t realize that “spring lambs” are born in winter, but of course they must be, to be ready for the table by Easter.


This is the rest of Le Pic.  No traffic here to speak of, just a very occasional passing car or small truck.  About half of the structures are in serious disrepair.  Some are worse than others, with cracks and what appears to be serious structural damage.

IMG_2793I have heard that if a house has a collapsed roof, the French government considers it uninhabitable, and the taxes are much lower. It is common for families who live in cities to have inherited homes, some in ruins, in villages where their families originated.
Above is the house voted “Least Habitable”.  Still, it looks pretty and full of character in the sunshine (of which I saw precious little), doesn’t it?

Below is the site of a serendipitous experience I had.  It is the perfectly kept home and farm of Monique’s friends, a Le Pic couple in their 80s.  I strolled down the road, taking pictures, and was accosted by a barking dog.  Madame came out to investigate, and ended up giving me a tour of her place.  She was very cordial, and we chatted for  a good 15 minutes.

IMG_2857 (1)Madame graciously agreed to pose for a photo, after taking off her blue housewife-smock.  I thought she looked exceptionally well-dressed for a country elder who was not expecting guests.  The stone part of the house is hundreds of years old.  The “new” stucco part was added only about 45 years ago.  Madame, who was raised on a small farm not far from here, moved to her husband’s family home and farm when they married in 1955. They have one child, a son who is in the grocery and beer and wine distribution business in the nearby town of Excideuil.  He comes out on weekends to help his father, but likes his own work and is not interested in taking over the farm.

IMG_2852 (2)

This is the back of the house, facing an exceptionally large courtyard, which is one of the prettiest I have ever seen.  It is paved in gravel, and accented by olive trees in pots and half-barrels.  There were wonderful smells of simmering soup wafting from the kitchen, on the right.
.IMG_2850 (2)Everything is in tip-top condition.  Behind the green door is a storeroom which has a freezer.

IMG_2855 (1)There is a newer barn where up until a year or two ago, they kept about 20 cows.

Perhaps they were dairy cows, though all the cattle I saw grazing in fields in the area were being raised for beef.  The French are major meat-eaters.

Beyond is a field where they raised hay as fodder for the animals.

IMG_2854 (2)

The large, high-roofed shed serves to store farm equipment.  As you can see, there isn’t much left.  It’s sad to see a farm without a tractor, every farmer’s pride.  I can only imagine that in earlier days, this lofty storage area was full of the tools and implements and  equipment of a bustling operation.

IMG_2856 (1)

Laundry here dries the old-fashioned way, on a clothesline.  Can you summon up that fresh smell from your memory-banks?  I can.

IMG_2853There is lawn now where the potager (kitchen vegetable and herb garden) used to be.  As they age, the couple finds that they can no longer keep up with the hard work of the life they always knew.  With no family to carry on, it looks as if the chain of generations of farmers on this land will end with Madame and Monsieur.

So dies a little hamlet, and a way of life.

À la prochaine,


Out and About in Paris

Elegant and Luxe Paris

That first day (April 19) in Paris, I realized that I had left my computer on the plane in Newark.  Madame at Reception in the hotel looked up the office of United Airlines.  It said United was located on Boulevard de l’Opera, so off I headed on the Métro (subway).  It was a bit of a walk from the Métro station Pyramides where Madame had instructed me to get off, but all the while with a view of the beautiful Opéra Garnier in the distance.  The Opéra Garnier, named after its architect, is old and elegant and well worth the cost of a guided tour in English.  The newer Opéra, at Place de la Bastille, in the style of the 1960s and is very ugly, in my opinion (and that of many others).  Below is the Opéra Garnier in all its splendor.


To the left of the Opéra Garnier, on the corner, is the café where as a little girl in 1950, I remember eating my first croissant with a cup of chocolat chaud (hot chocolate).  My father, a career Army officer, loved the Café de la Paix–the Peace Café.  His favorite rose was the variety called Peace–pale yellow with pink edges.  I think it interesting that a military man was so attracted to things named Peace.  He wasn’t in a direct combat specialty like the Infantry, but rather the Army Corps of Engineers. We were stationed in France for three and a half years, 1950 to 1954.


This Metro station, Palais Royale / Musée du Louvre, is in the famous art nouveau style of the late 1800s which I love.  It is across from one of the entrances to the Louvre Museum.  You can see a banner advertising a temporary exhibit.  If you cross the street here, and head to the right, about a block further is an entrance to a  smallish but luxe shopping center located below ground.   There is an entrance to the Louvre down there which typically has shorter museum-entry lines than those by the more well-known glass pyramid entrance up above.


I crossed the street and walked to 99, Rue de Rivoli, then took the escalator down to the Carousel du Louvre shopping center.  A glass pyramid extends downward from the ground-level courtyard, bathing the open area of the shopping center with natural light.  Note the guy “holding up the pyramid” for his friend’s photo op, and the Apple store, well-located in this high-traffic area.  The underground entrance to the Louvre is off this central space.


There are two Apple stores in Paris.  This is the first one, which opened a couple of years ago.  I went in and charged my iPod at one of the demonstration tables, as I had nothing to plug it into without my computer.  As with every Apple store I have ever been in, it was full of people — plein du monde, in French.  It has two stories, with all the products on the entry level, the Genius Bar and tutoring above. Other than being two stories, it looks like all the other Apple stores I’ve seen in the US: same tables, same guys and gals in blue T-shirts (only they speak French), same Genius Bar, etc.  The stair steps are a graceful spiral of clear glass.  See photo below for the ambiance of Apple in Paris.


Paris is divided into sections called arrondissements. of which there are 20. Many of the higher-numbered arrondissements were little villages outside of Paris in the past, which were swallowed up as the city expanded.  As a result, there are neighborhoods to this day which have a village feel.  Each arrondissement has its own Mairie, or town hall, and mayor.  The Hôtel de Ville is the City Hall (more like a palace) of all of Paris, with the Mayor of all of Paris.

The Tenth Arrondissement: Not so Luxe, but Definitely Real

I have stayed in the tenth arrondissement in the past, and it is perhaps my favorite, because it’s familiar and well-located, though slightly farther from the tourist sights than the lower-numbered arrondissements. I like it also because it is quite interesting and diverse.  It contains two train stations, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est (North Station and East Station).  In the past, many immigrants arrived at Gare de l’Est, and ended up settling in the Tenth.  It was not elegant, and is still quite shabby closer to the train stations.  But a decade or so ago, artist types and others in search of cheaper rent for studios, shops and apartments, began moving into the Tenth, and it began to become more bohemian and spruced-up.  When Tut and I stayed there in 2006, it was fairly early in that process.  It was called branché, an adjective that literally means plugged-in (to electricity, like a lamp).   Branché signifies the hip and happening culture which was beginning to transform the old working-class Tenth.  It’s still hip, mixed with the ordinary and the less savory, but now it’s much more expensive.

The Canal Saint Martin, one of the best-known sights of the Tenth, runs from the Arsenal, a boat harbor at Place de la Bastille (connected to the River Seine) in the Eleventh arrondissement to an industrial zone called La Villette to the northeast.  In the past, barges carried products and materials to and fro, and there were a lot of big brick warehouses beside the canal.  The arched iron pedestrian bridges are famous, often pictured on old postcards.  There are locks to gradually raise boats from the water level of the Seine to that of La Villette. This particular pedestrian bridge and one of the locks is just half a block from the apartment building on Rue Lucien Sampaix where we stayed, and where friends Valerie and Benôit (our upstairs neighbors in 2006) and dear little Madame Lafit, age 92, (our downstairs neighbor) still live.


Classic bridge over the Canal St Martin.

Below is the Boulevard Magenta, as seen from our Métro Station, Jacques Bonsergent.  It runs from the Gare du Nord (train station) to the huge Place de la République, which borders both Tenth and Eleventh arrondissements.  Magenta is a major street, lined with apartment buildings in the style called Haussmannian.  They were part of the major urban renewal of Paris in the mid-1800s, when the Baron Haussmann, under the rule of Napoleon III, changed the face of Paris in a very short period of time.  Whole neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for the grand boulevards, and streets lined with buildings in the new style appeared everywhere. The famed Champs Elysée was created then, in part to facilitate the ingress and egress of troups of soldiers, mounted and marching–and later, tanks.  A modern sewer system and healthier living conditions were other features of the massive travaux (works) of that era.

Haussmannian buildings are typically six or seven stories high, the rez de chausée (ground floor) being counted as zero. The formula called for continuous balconies across the second and fifth floors, which would be the third and sixth floors as we count it.  Often the top floor contains maids’ quarters, tiny chambres de bonnes, which have in some cases been converted to small apartments in modern times, since the Paris lifestyle no longer includes maids except for the very rich.

What interested me here are the trees.  One of them seems to believe that spring has arrived, and it has begun to leaf out.  The others are not so sure.  It was a long, cold, wet winter which is just now, in late April, beginning to show signs of yielding to spring.


Haussmannian building on Blvd Magenta.

Off to the Fifth Arrondissement

Hop on the Métro line 5 at Jacques Bonsergent station across the street from those buildings, and head for the 5th arrondissement, where I stayed the first week on Rue Monge. Below, you can see the living room of my apartment.  I spent way more time than I wanted to on that canapé (couch), trying to get my computer back.  The apartment is small but budget-priced, which is hard to find in the Fifth, a very desirable and expensive area.  The Fifth arrondissement is on the Left Bank of the Seine, called the Latin Quarter because hundreds of years ago, university students there spoke Latin. The Sorbonne and other colleges / universities have been located in this area since the Middle Ages.  Nearby to Rue Monge is a famous very old and narrow street  which escaped being Haussmannianized, called Rue Mouffetard.  It is lined with restaurants (many of them bon marché–inexpensive), cute boutiques and small food shops and groceries.  Lots of tourist guides mention it.  One of the closest Métro stops is Place Monge, where they have a regular Farmers’ Market (un marché) two mornings a week. Tip: there is an outlet of the Amorino gelato chain on Rue Mouffetard, selling many yummy flavors of Italian ice cream.


While walking down Rue Monge, I discovered the entrance to Les Arènes de Lutèce.  Lutèce was the name given by the Romans to what we now call Paris.  The arena dates back to Roman times, but all that remains is the round outline.  I’ve been told that the stones of the arena were taken to use in the construction of other buildings.  That is to say, later residents often used the older buildings, or arena seats in this case, as a quarry or a latter-day Home Depot — a source of building materials.  This was very common all over Europe, and I suppose the world.  Older edifices were decimated and new things built, often on top of the old.

There were kids kicking a soccer ball around in one part of the large former arena.  Across the way, these adults were playing the game of boules, or pétanque, a national pastime in France.  It’s a bit like bowling with smallish metal balls, two per player, and a bit like croquet or pool, because the balls often hit and displace each other—by accident or on purpose.  It involves a lot of standing around and discussing which ball has landed closest to the smaller one called the cochonet  (literally, “little pig”).  In the end, the player whose ball came closest is the winner.  It looks as if the guy in the middle with the dark coat and hat has just thrown his ball.

The sign at the entry says that the arena was built in the first century AD by the Romans, and used until the end of the third century when it was destroyed by invading Barbarians.  It was eventually buried under detritus and dirt, and only rediscovered centuries later, during excavations for Baron Haussmann’s redevelopment of Rue Monge.

A game of pétanque at the former Roman arena.

A game of pétanque at the former Roman arena.

Flower stores are in full bloom in Paris now, spilling out onto the wide trottoirs (sidewalks).  Found in every neighborhood, their cheerful profusion of living plants offer a breath of sweet nature.  Also found in every neighborhood are delectable Patisseries, Pastry shops–but they deserve their own posting, don’t you think?


Typical Paris neighborhood florist.

People’s Park in the Nineteenth

There are lots of beautiful parks in Paris, ranging from vast to pocket-sized.  Le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in the Nineteenth arrondissement, is the third largest, after the Bois du Boulogne on the western border of Paris, and the Bois de Vincennes to the southeast.  Not so many tourists find it, but it’s a favorite of Parisians.  It features a playground and pony rides for children, small lakes, exotic trees, acres of lawns, seasonal plantings (that would be tulips just now), ravines and miles of paths to stroll.  On a clear day, from that faux-Greek temple, you can see the famous white onion-domed Basilique du Sacre Coeur atop the hill in Montmartre.


View near entrance of Buttes-Chaumont park.

View of Sacre Coeur from Buttes-Chaumont park.

View of Sacre Coeur from Buttes-Chaumont park.

It’s time to find a café to rest my feet and quench my thirst with a panaché, a refreshing  mixture of beer and lemonade.

Á la prochaine fois. (Until next time),


ps.  This is a work in progress, the first posting I have done without the help of my mentor, Anet Dunne.  It needs some work, I know, but I was so excited that I wanted to post it right away.  Comments welcome.