Toulon the Beautiful?

Place de la Liberté

From Chez Lofficier

Well, at least more beautiful than it used to be!

JM and I haven’t been back there for about six-year and we’ve noticed a major improvement in the way it looks downtown.

Of course, there are still places I would hesitate to walk at night, but that is true in any city. But, apart from that, the whole downtown area now is full of shops and restaurants where one wants to go. And, you can see ongoing upgrading of many of the remaining places.

The photo above is the Place de la Liberté in the center of town and the view is from my in-laws’ balcony, so you can see that they are right in the middle of the action. The whole plaza is surrounded by cafés with terraces and only a few minutes walk away are many more.

JM and I were thrilled to find an outstanding Indian restaurant halfway between the apartment and our hotel where we enjoyed a delicious lunch for less than twenty euros for the two of us. We would have gone back if we could have found time, but unfortunately most of the friends and relatives we had meals with were a bit too afraid to eat something so “foreign!”

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Toulon Harbor and big boat!

The harbor has always been spectacular. It is the largest natural harbor in Europe, I believe, and we always try to take one of the harbor tours while we’re there. We found it amazing to be shown all the military ships with a full rundown of their armaments. We thought that in the States these days, we would be arrested for taking the kinds of photos we were encouraged to take in Toulon.

So, while the parent situation is stressful and we were worried about the dogs, we did wind up having time for a few fun activities. Next report on our trip to Bandol.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Radio Silence

 

 

 

 

 

All Aboard!

 

I was quiet last week, because we were going to Toulon on Monday, and I didn’t want to announce to the world that Chateau Shmoo was going to be empty for several days. I know I share pretty much my whole life here, but I’m also not stupid and realize that some things are better not announced in advance.

We had invited some friends for lunch on Saturday, and I woke up with a  bit of a sore throat, which didn’t seem too bad. However, by the time we came back from walking the dogs, the side of my face has swelled up. making me resemble a dysfunctional chipmunk! Why is it that these things always happen on weekends or holidays? Going to the ER was out, as the people who were coming live near Toulouse and were already en route.

I decided to run to the pharmacy to see if they could give me something. To the best of what we could determine, I seemed to have an infected salivary gland. Luckily, our pharmacist is a sweetie, and gave me six days worth of antibiotics without a prescription.

Unfortunately, this meant that I was not the greatest company at lunch, and, I couldn’t actually eat. I think I’ve hosted better meals from a social point of view.

Sunday there were no disasters, so we left to take the dogs to the kennel we had found on Monday morning, hoping for the best. The place we had chosen, near Cepie, seemed fine when we checked it out. We had more reservations once we were actually there with the dogs. First, the lady who runs it had a cat in her house. My dogs love to chase cats, so that seemed like a shaky thing to start with. Second, Peaches was terrified of all the other dogs, and spent most of the time standing in front of me with the patented Dracula Face; daring anyone to approach either of us!

Shmoo took off running, thinking this looked pretty cool. To keep the dogs from following us, we put them in the house and left, hoping it would be all right.

We got to Carcassonne 20 minutes later and got a phone call from the kennel. Shmoo had jumped the electrified fence around the swimming pool in an effort to escape. We had told her about Steve McShmoo, but I guess people never believe you until they see it for themselves. She had caught him, but now JM and I were in a panic. We couldn’t stand the thought of anything happening to the dogs, so I decided I would not go to Toulon, and would go back to pick them up. I started to unpack all my carefully packed stuff from our suitcase and put it in a tote bag.

I called the kennel to tell her, but she reassured me; told me that now that she understood the situation she wouldn’t leave Shmoo alone where he could escape. JM and I spent ten minutes or so going round in circles, and finally we decided we would chance it and leave things as they were, so I called back to say we were going to go.

By that time, we were mentally and emotionally exhausted, and the train hadn’t even arrived in the station! Still, sometimes you just have to go on blind faith that things will work out for the best.

Once we were in the train, there was no going back. I decided to put the best face I could on things and try to have fun. Or at least to not be miserable.

Our train from Carcassonne took us to Montpellier, where we changed for the train to Toulon. I love French trains. They are comfortable and clean. It was a little over four hours from here to Toulon, and it cost us less than taking the car would have if you factored in the cost of gasoline, tolls and parking in Toulon. Parking in Carcassonne was 6€ a day, half or less than parking downtown Toulon. And, there is the added factor that it is way more relaxing. I could read, eat, go to the toilets without stopping at a service station, or even sleep if the desire took me.

And, once in Toulon, our hotel was directly across from the station and a three-minute walk to JM’s parents place. So it would have been hard to get simpler than that. The train station is also the  hub for all the buses that go anywhere in the Toulon region, so even to go outside of town was not a problem for us, and was also ridiculously cheap. It cost us 2€ to go to Bandol, several towns away along the coast.

That part was really a no-brainer, at least. Okay. Time for a break. More to come a bit later.

 

Ciao for now.

Randy

 

 

Possum Kingdom Soars

West Chalabre

Montgolfier Brothers invade the Possum Kingdom

 

I know I’ve mentioned, ad nauseum, how much I love the fall. This is one of the reasons why.

Suddenly, at the end of summer, there are all sorts of regional events that are way more fun to attend with smaller crowds and cooler temperatures. A case in point, this hot air balloon that was set up on the Champ LeGrand, also known as the school playing field, yesterday and this morning.

It went up last night in the dark, and was all lit up, then, this morning, it went up in daylight. Unfortunately, it was only for tethered flights, not very high off the ground. I didn’t want to go up in the dark, because I thought if I did it, I would like to see the town in daylight. Unfortunately, it was set up very early, and by the time we got there, it was just being deflated. But I still got that wonderful photo, so all was not lost.

Also this weekend was the Fete de la Noisette, where one of the highlights was the world championship of hazelnut spitting. You don’t see that everyday (and probably don’t want to, if I’m honest).

Mid-October will bring the Apple Festival in Mirepoix and the week after, the County Agricultural fair in Espezel. Both of these are just an invitation to overeat and spend money, and I look forward to them with delight each year.

Also, with the more comfortable temperatures, all of our neighbors spend lots of time outside, so we are all always visiting with each other, joking, chatting and generally enjoying life. And, since our friend, R, sits outside to smoke, he brings one more friendly face into the mix, as well as his wonderful dog, Vickie the Border Collie. We are now thinking of making it a rule that the only dog you can have if you live in our neighborhood is a Border Collie, although I don’t think that will be universally acceptable…

This, to me, is what it means to live in a village; frankly, you can’t beat it with a stick.

Ciao for now.

Randy

A Busy Start To Fall

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Somehow, the last week has just sped by.

We are letting a couple of friends stay in Mom’s old apartment, and one of them is going through some health issues. He is a general contractor by trade, but can’t really work at the moment because he needs a total hip replacement and until that is done, he’s in a lot of pain and really needs to stay in a place without a lot of stairs.

It works for us, because we found looking at Mom’s empty apartment incredibly sad, and I know she would like the idea of someone getting use out of it. Eventually, our friends will help us to fix up the apartment on the first floor so that that is livable as well. That’s not something we could afford to do on our own, so it’s a good deal for us all.

One of the problems that our friend, R, has, is that although he does speak enough French for conversation and work, medical and administrative French is a different kettle of fish. So we’ve also taken him under our wing to help with getting him situated with those things.

Thus, my week was taken up with medical visits. It’s interesting to see how the system works, especially when you are not the patient!

As with the U.S. And the UK, if you were self-employed and can’t work, you are pretty much screwed for collecting unemployment unless you had a special, private, disability insurance. Unfortunately, because the economic crisis in 2009 hit the construction industry hard, R had to declare bankruptcy in 2010 and, of course, cancelled his private insurance at the same time.

But, unlike in the U.S., this doesn’t mean no health care. In fact, all of his medical bills are being covered 100% by Social Security. He does not have to worry about dying in pain in the street or becoming homeless. Also, he is eligible for a small (and it is small) aid from the State that pays for food, and, if he wasn’t staying with us rent-free, he would also be able to get assistance to pay his rent. And, since there is always risk that results of a major operation won’t be what one hoped for, we were able to file forms for disability, which will take four to six months to be reviewed. Dawg willing, he will be fully recovered by then and won’t need more aid, but better to foresee all eventualities.

Not having to worry about things like that makes a difficult situation far more bearable. Sure, he has to go through the surgery and recovery, but at least he does it knowing that there will be no bills to pay afterward, and that once he is better, he can go back to working and creating a better life for himself, rather than spending the rest of his days burdened by a debt he will never be able to pay.

He has a surgery date for the beginning of December, to give him time to get various things taken care of, like all dental work. Hip replacements are VERY sensitive to bacterial infection, and active gum disease is a no-no. Poor R is terrified of dentists and hasn’t been to see one for ten years. This is very, very bad,and I think his upcoming dental care scares him way more than the hip surgery. Again, that will be covered by Social Security, so the only worry is pain, not bills.

Once the surgery is over, he’ll be able to come back to the apartment and, if he needs health aides, home health care workers will come to him, also covered by Social Security.

So, while nothing is ever perfect, this is certainly a far more humane system, and everyone, rich or poor, is entitled to health care when they need it. What a concept.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Baking Memories

Mini Corn Rye Rolls

People often ask me if there isn’t anything that I miss about the U.S. In the main, my answer is no. However, the few things that sometimes I DO get a hankering for are all food related.

Now, most things one can find through the various import stores. You may have to pay for them, but you can get them. Still, there are fresh things that just can’t be found.

A doctor once told me that his theory was that the foods you ate as a child had a resonance for you that new, “learned” foods would never have. And I think that for me there are several of those mostly things that come from the East Coast, where I grew up.

For example, I sometimes can almost taste a Taylor’s Pork Roll sandwich in my mind. The smell and taste of that will always be linked with childhood visits to the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Just writing about it I can taste it, smell it’s  odor mixed with that of fresh roasting peanuts from the Planter’s peanut store and the salt of the ocean. I can see my parents, the push chairs, the crowds, and once again I’m just a child.

I DO have a recipe for knock-off Pork Roll that I  plan to try later in the year, just to see if I can do it. But I have the strong feeling that it will never be the same.

But there are things that I CAN re-create successfully, and one of them is Jewish Deli Corn Rye. I have tried the recipe from “Secrets of a Jewish Baker,” and while that is successful, it’s also time consuming and needs to be planned out, as just making the sour takes several days. So, I wanted to create a recipe that was easy and above all, quick. I think I have succeeded.

Waiting for some lox

I suppose it seems silly to crave these things when I live practically next door to a bakery. But a French bakery, no matter how wonderful, will never be a Jewish Deli, and when that craving comes over you, the heart wants what the heart wants. So, here is what I do:

JEWISH DELI MINI-CORN RYE ROLLS

1 C rye flour

2 C white flour (I’ve used bread flour, all-purpose, a special pizza flour I get from Italy and a mixture of bread flour and something called semi-whole wheat. All have given good results)

1 1/4 C warm water (clearly, you may have to adjust this depending on the flour you use and weather conditions)

2T Olive Oil

2 tsp Sea Salt

1T sugar

2T Caraway seeds (if you hate caraway, leave them out, but I do think they are what “make” rye bread!)

1T lemon juice (this helps the yeast to work, but also I think it adds a small hint of sour without any taste of lemon in the final product)

1 pkg yeast

1 C leftover dough from last batch (this is optional, but over time, it builds the flavor and texture and eventually you have what is basically a sourdough starter and can leave out the yeast).

Cornmeal for sprinkling baking pan and top of bread

I mix this in my stand mixer. Because I’m lazy, I don’t proof the yeast. I put the rye flour in first, then sprinkle on the yeast, then add the rest of the flour. This lets me use water that is a bit hotter (from the tap, not microwaved) without killing the yeast. But if you want to proof the yeast the traditional way, go for it!

I toss in the rest of the dry ingredients and the leftover bread dough, including the caraway seeds, then pour in the oil, lemon juice and the water and start the mixer on slow. Once the majority of the flour is incorporated, I turn the speed up for kneading. I do keep an eye on it because the flour/liquid balance really needs adjusting as you work. Its amazing how a humid day or the batch of flour you use can affect the way the dough comes together.

Now, because of the rye flour, this is a sticky dough. I let the machine knead it until it mostly pulls away from the sides of the bowl and there is very little flour residue left. However, it never completely forms a tight ball the way a white bread will do. I always finish the kneading off by hand, and even once it is a ball, it remains a bit tacky. That’s okay.

I oil a bowl or a plastic container with a lid and throw the dough in there. One of the things I like about this recipe is that it’s very versatile. If I want to make the rolls quickly, I put the bowl (as long as it’s not metal!) into the microwave, set it at 350 watts and microwave for a minute, let the dough rest for about 5 minutes, than microwave at the same power for another minute. I leave the bowl in the microwave with the door closed, and let it rest for 20 minutes, and it has by then doubled and is ready for shaping and baking.

If, on the other hand, I don’t have time to bake it right away, I put the covered bowl in the fridge and leave it for several hours. This slows down the rising, and I have plenty of time to do other things without worrying about it.

Once it has risen, I take a chunk of dough that is 1/2 cup to 1 cup in size and put that in a reusable container with a lid. I chuck that into the fridge, but you can freeze it if you aren’t going to use it within the next few days.

The rest of the dough I separate into 8 pieces and form into rolls. I put them on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment that I’ve sprinkled with cornmeal. I like to roll the pieces in the cornmeal so that they have some on the top as well, because I think it gives them a nice, rustic appearance when they’ve baked.

I slice a cross into the tops then put them in 200 C (400 F) oven for 20 minutes.

You could also make this into a single, large loaf if you so desire; just adjust the baking time accordingly.

Ciao for now and Bon Appétit!

Randy

 

Moonset

Yesterday, when we went out for our morning walk, the moon was just setting above the Blau. I must say that shooting a silver moon in a pale sky while using an iPhone and walking a Shmoo was a bit of a challenge! Luckily, JM took the Shmoo, so one obstacle was out of the way!

After a little playing around, it’s not too bad.

We’re almost at that point where it will start being dark for that walk and the moon will be in a black sky. Easier to see the moon, harder to see where you put your feet.

Already, though,the quality of the light has changed. When we drove to Limoux to look at a kennel for the dogs, we noticed it even though the day was hot and sunny. It’s an intangible “something” that changes the colors. Maybe we’re more like plants than we realize; dropping our summer foliage and getting ready for the dark…

Ciao for now.

Randy

So Cool!

Did you mention food?

 

Not the weather, unfortunately, but a great new service available in the Possum Kingdom.

I have mentioned many times that there are days where I find the job of shopping for groceries outside of the village arduous, boring and time consuming. But, for the last few months, the SuperU in Mirepoix has  been advertising an online grocery service.

I’ve been tempted, but never got around to trying it. Now, they don’t deliver to us here in the Possum Kingdom, as we are too far away. But what they do offer is the equivalent of a personal shopper. You place your order with their website, pick a time when you want it to be ready and then go pick it up. The charge for this is 4 Euros, which is a bargain no matter how you look at it.

When  you get to the store, you go to the delivery bay and ring the bell. A very nice employee shows up, takes your name and brings all your groceries that have been nicely packed in boxes and then they even load them into your car! After that, it’s just a question of swiping your credit card and you’re done.

I never, ever shop on Saturdays. But I was out of almost everything, as it had been close to three weeks since I last went to do a big shopping trip. So I figured, what the heck, how awful could it be.

It wasn’t awful at all! It was brilliant! I even ordered a rosbif (that’s roast beef in French) and two kilos of figs, and they were all beautiful and perfect. The nice SuperU lady explained how she had looked for the farthest away “use by” dates on all the fresh things like milk and cheeses, and showed me that the one thing I had ordered that wasn’t in stock had been removed from the list and I wasn’t charged for it.

They threw in an insulated bag for the cold stuff and a second free, reusable shopping bag as a welcome gift, And, because it was my first order, I didn’t even get charged the 4 Euro fee. We had left the house at 2:30 and were back at the house with the groceries inside at 3:30! This has never happened before, since it takes 40 minutes just to get there and back.

Now, clearly, if there are special items that they have and which haven’t been added to the website,  you aren’t going to be aware of them. They don’t have EVERY item in the store online, although there is a place where you can ask for special things. So, I guess I will occasionally be going in to shop myself, but this has another huge benefit beyond the time saving: no impulse buying! If you don’t see it, you can’t buy it.

I have to admit that I am weak, and I am often tempted by things I see, even if I would never have considered buying them if I didn’t see them. So a system like this is ideal for me. It will undoubtedly save me money in the long run, because I will only purchase that which I know I need, not that which I merely want.

For you who live in big cities, this is nothing new, but for us out here in the Possum Kingdom, this is true progress and a service I plan to use in the future for sure.

Ciao for now.

Randy

My DINO

Don't bother me; I'm sleeping

 

I’ve taken the political term DINO and have decided it serves me well, as my furry friends are really Dogs In Name Only.

This has been brought home to me as I have been searching for a kennel where I can leave them for several days when JM and I head off to visit his parents in Toulon. Not having Mom around does now make it possible for me to go away, but only if we have a good solution for the dogs. I know that French hotels are more accommodating than American ones when it comes to pets, but asking any hotel to take two dogs the size of ours is really not possible.

We have a decent place in Roquefixade where we have left them in the past, but the problem is that Roquefixade is really not near anything. We are taking the train from Carcassonne, and in order to leave the dogs there, we would have to leave them two days ahead of time on Saturday, because the kennel is closed on Sunday and we wouldn’t have time to both go there AND make our train on Monday.

So, we decided to search closer to Limoux or Carcassonne. I discovered that there were actually several possibilities, but I didn’t have any personal recommendations and wasn’t about to make a reservation without checking into the facilities myself.

We visited the first one on Tuesday. If Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme had a “love child,” then this guy would be it. I swear that I have never met anyone less verbal or more scary in my life. Both JM and I were quaking when we left. It’s silly, because I’m sure that he’s a perfectly decent person, but he clearly is lacking in people skills.

Besides that, we clearly had a philosophical difference about how dogs are fed, raised and treated. To him, it was obvious they are animals, to us, they are little people with furry suits. He feeds all the dogs there Royal Canin kibble, I feed mine either home prepared or a very high quality canned brand that is almost all meat, with some vegetables and no grains. He looked at me like there was something wrong with me mentally for doing that, and although he said he would feed them what I brought, I could tell he didn’t like it one bit.

That was clearly NOT going to work out.

I next called a place that just from its name struck me as being more in tune with my philosophy: Les Animaux en Vacance. Yep, clearly not someone who thinks of dogs as farm animals.

We went to check it out yesterday, and I have to say both JM and I felt comfortable right away. The place is basically a large house on several, fenced, hectares of land right in the middle of grape vines. The fence is high enough to keep Shmoo in and has an electric wire running around the base to keep the dogs away from it for digging purposes.

Except for a place we used in L.A. that was more expensive per day than the hotels we stayed in, I haven’t found another facility like this; certainly not since we’ve moved. The dogs are outside, free to run around and play all day, and have the entire basement of the house, filled with beds and cushions for sleeping at night. And, when the weather is cooler so the heat doesn’t get inside, the house is left open all day so the dogs can go inside and hang out there too if they want to.

There were about eight dogs there yesterday when we visited. All of them were happy and friendly. They all got along and there was no growling or fighting. On top of that, leaving both dogs will cost us less per day than just leaving Maggie at the place we used in L.A. And, not only was there no problem about our bringing their food, it is expected.

For the first time since we moved here, I feel that we have an excellent solution for the dogs even if we only want to go away for a day trip. It’s between Limoux and Cepie, so not a problem  to get to, and the young woman who runs it is clearly of the same mindset as us.

Let’s hear it for the DINO lovers!

Ciao for now.

Randy

Another Summer Gone

Weren't we the height of pool fashion?

 

I know that there are still three weeks to go until Fall is officially here, but honestly, doesn’t the first weekend in September ALWAYS feel like summer is over. Even in places like the Possum Kingdom, where it’s not Labor Day, it IS the beginning of school. That’s it for “fun,” Kids, time to get back to the grind.

One of the things about living in an area that has a lot of tourism, is that you know immediately that the season is over, because you just stop seeing strangers in the village. Sure, there are the occasional hangers on who don’t have children to worry about, but mostly, the tourists are gone. You can go into the grocery store and park with no trouble, the aisles are no longer chock full of confused looking foreigners, there are no whining kids (except on Wednesday) and there is just a feeling of life returning to normal.

I know that I’m odd, because I always look forward to Fall. And it’s not just now, as an adult. I liked it as a kid too, because I actually enjoyed going to school; it gave me a sense of purpose for my day I suppose. Now, I enjoy it because I like the cooler weather a lot. Come on, admit it; you really want to try on that new sweater you found on sale this summer, don’t you? Aren’t you looking forward to that first cool, fresh day when you can put it on and know that soon it will be Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas? And, for those of us who LOVE television, it’s the beginning of the Fall TV season, when we get to see what’s new with our favorite characters from years past and maybe find a new have series too.

So, let’s celebrate the Fall and not mourn the long lost days of  Summer.

Ciao for now,

Randy

Now that I’m back

There is a lot of catching up to do!

 

Did we miss anything?

 

For any of you who didn’t spend the summer in the area, it was a very strange year. In June, it was horribly hot. Everything started to bloom and get ripe all at the same time. We were under draught restrictions for water use from the river.  The day the restrictions were to go into effect, the weather changed drastically. July was cold, wet and felt more like October than July!

There were days in July where the river was as high as it can get in the spring when the mountain snow is melting. The water restrictions just disappeared. Everyone started to complain the the produce in their gardens was mildewing.  When we went to our local fruit and veg shop, Jean-Paul told us that all the produce was coming in at the wrong time. Apricots were available in July, when normally we don’t get them until almost August. Same thing for plums.

When August hit, the weather again made a 90 degree turn; or maybe I should say a 100 degree turn, as the weather became very hot without any real rain for several weeks. This past week was about as miserable as I can remember. We had days where it was 39 (about 100 degrees or so), which is very, very unusual for here. I know that we had plenty of days like that in L.A., but there, it was desert dry, so even if it seemed to suck the juice out of you when you went outside, you didn’t feel it in the same way as here, where the humidity was also high. Those of you in places that get weather like that all the time have my utmost sympathy. I was miserable.

Even our house, which normally remains cool when it’s hot, finally gave up and got hot too. It’s a bit like living in a stone oven after a week or more of temperatures that high. We definitely felt baked.

Now, the weather has suddenly broken, and it dropped from 22 degrees this morning to 17 degrees this afternoon (Celsius, not Fahrenheit) and it’s raining. I need to go to the bank in Limoux, but I think I’ll put it off for another day.

If you’re here in the area trying to enjoy your last few days of summer holidays, I’m sorry. I, on the other hand, am actually enjoying the weather. I know I’ll feel all soggy and miserable when I walk the dogs, but it’s sure a lot more comfortable than last week.

 

Ciao for now.

Randy