Friday, December 31, 2010

First French Friday on the Last Day of the Year

I got an awesome Christmas gift (no, not the iPad):  Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan.  As I was looking at the book, trying to decide which yummy recipe to make first, I decided to check out Dorie's website.  Turns out there's a "cook-along" of sorts going on, one recipe a week, "French Fridays with Dorie."  Sounds good.  So now every Friday I'll share my version of our week's dish.  Unless I don't.

This week I actually made two things and they were both great.  First up were the Gougeres, a cheese pastry.  That's not a good description.  It's "choux paste" which is the pastry part of eclairs or cream puffs, but with grated cheese added to the dough before you bake it.  The dough has lots of eggs in it so it puffs up beautifully in the oven.  Unfilled, they are these puffs of chewy cheesy bread.  Here's the dough in my mixer:

And then here the gougeres while I was switching the pans in the oven:

Finally, lunch.  Frankly, I love Dorie because most of her recipes seem to start with "These are really great with Champagne," but I had mine with tomato soup.  Also pretty tasty:

Now, finally, the recipe of the week, "Spiced Butter-Glazed Carrots."  I suppose these would also be good with Champagne, but we just had them with our dinner of pork tenderloin, rice, and sliced fruit.  These are cooked with sliced fresh ginger, onion, garlic, cardamom and butter.  A little more trouble than steamed carrots, but a whole lot more flavor.  The kids really loved them, and so did the grownups.  Thanks, Dorie!

And thanks to my sweet husband who knows that I just loved eating in France and is helping me hold onto the illusion for a little while longer...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Back to Wonkiness

There are a couple of issues in the news I like to follow, and one of them is the idea of a credit-driven bubble. The best and most painful example is our current housing bubble, but I personally believe there is a higher-education bubble, too. More on that when it isn't Christmas Eve.

The Dallas Fed just published an analysis of recovery from the current housing bubble. In the very first paragraph there is this:

9.1 million homes were built between 2002 and 2006, a period when 5.6 million U.S. households were formed.
If that doesn't jump out and shake you then nothing will. This report goes on to discuss how there can't be a "soft landing" from the housing bubble. There isn't enough money in the world to muffle the bursting bubble.

Capitalism is awesome, because it allows for the most rational and highest uses of resources to create wealth. It is also, unfortunately, subject to painful corrections, but those are the times when resources are getting re-allocated so that there can be a recovery. Like ripping off a band-aid, it hurts like crazy when you do it, but it is over faster and the recovery can begin in earnest. Programs to mitigate the pain, while comforting in the short run, are really just a waste of time and money. Kindness can kill us all.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The best thing we did in Paris

What a title!  But it's true.  Ian, this is for you!

In preparing for our trip, I researched things to do with kids in Paris.  One interesting thing that popped up was to meet a photographer and have great pictures made.  Now, we haven't had pictures made of our family in about five and a half years.  My children are sadly undocumented.  We have of course had the church directory pictures made, but somehow those cameras have the Lutheran lens on them, giving us the too-much-coffee-and-Jello-Salad pallor.  They don't count.

My rental agency provided the name of a photographer who turned out to be booked while we were in Paris, but she gladly suggested Ian Holmes, a British photographer living in Paris.  I contacted Ian and he was available on our first afternoon in Paris.  This was perfect, so we arranged to meet on Monday.

You have probably seen so many family portraits where the family has reasonably matching clothes, everyone's hair is trimmed and neat, the kids look like they actually like each other and Mom looks relaxed.  If you have one of those, my hat's off to you.  I can't.  I've tried, but I somehow grow three heads, start screaming at everyone, forget items of clothing, discover two children's clothes don't fit, lose a shoe, and then forget how to put on my own makeup.  Not pleasant.  But this time would be different. (Don't laugh, Ian.)  The magic of Paris would put a gloss on all of it and we'd have one set of perfect family photographs.

Well.  Monday morning we did the first thing on the kids' to-do list:  we climbed the Eiffel Tower to the second level, 669 steps.  (I'll post pictures of that next.)  It was windy and quite cool, really a typical November day in Paris.  We had fun, looking all around the Tower, and then walked back down for a yummy lunch in a neighborhood bistro.  Our waiter was fun and our food warm and tasty.  All of a sudden I realized we had 45 minutes to meet Ian at Palais Royal, about five metro stops and a train-change away.  Yikes, time to get moving.

I got moving, but getting the others going was like pushing string.  "Mom, do I have to wear this?"  "It itches!"  "I'm cold."  "Are you sure we have to do this?" "I don't want to brush my hair."  "This doesn't fit."  He was right, there.  The new shirts I'd bought didn't fit!  Zut alors.  But if the boys didn't wear their new shirts with dress pants, they'd be in jeans, and I didn't want jeans in the pictures.  Then my husband asked if we'd be inside for pictures.  Um, no.  "But then won't we be really cold?"  Zut encore.  The kids' coats still had the ski tags from last year, and D's pink coat was starting to show the Metro grime after just one day.  And I realized that no matter what I did with my hair, or the girls', the wind would just promptly undo it.  Surrender.  "Guys, just wear what you want, but WE HAVE TO GO NOW."

We got off the Palais Royal Metro stop at 2:50 or so, late for our 2:30 appointment with Ian.  He had very helpfully emailed me a photo of the place to meet him:

The problem was that when we got off the Metro stop we couldn't find it!  I decided that if we stood there long enough looking lost that somehow a cheerful looking Englishman carrying photography equipment would speak to us.  I was right!  After two or three minutes of looking clueless Ian tracked us down and we got to work.  I was so frazzled, and convinced right from the beginning that the pictures wouldn't work out.  After all, look at my motley crew.

Only kidding.  Ian took that picture.  Ian is amazing.  He put the kids at ease right away, taking us to an art installation very close to the Louvre and letting them run around.  Bill is always photogenic, but it took me a good bit longer to relax.  I'm not a natural in front of the camera anyway.  Here are some pictures around the Louvre:

As you can see, the pictures are truly wonderful.  Then we took a long walk through the Louvre courtyard, stopping for a moment:

before moving on to the Tuileries:

In between, he raced with the kids, caught M and Bill doing a runway-model walk, and let Bill and me have a nice calm (romantic!) stroll through the Tuileries gardens.

Then it was down to the quai by the Seine for some more photographs:

We walked across the Seine on a charming pedestrian bridge.  The locks you see on the bridge are left by lovers, who write their names on the lock and throw the key in the Seine.  How romantic!  One of the many little things Ian shared with us that afternoon.

We ended the afternoon in a St. Germain cafe, a wonderful 100-year-old place where we all warmed up with chocolat chaud.  Ian traded stories about his dog Sherlock with the kids while they asked him all about life as a photographer and snowboarder.  What a wonderful, warm memory, and we have the pictures to show for it, too.

Somehow at the end of the day it didn't matter that we didn't match, that we looked like we'd just gotten caught on film while we were out enjoying Paris as a family.  And in fact, that was kind of how the afternoon unfolded.  Natural, but in the very best light.  All of our pictures are just so much better than I would have ever hoped.  Thank you, Ian, for some amazing photos and even better memories.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What we saw, Part 2: Roman Holiday

Since my kids and husband love all things Rome, we decided to spend part of our vacation in the Provence region.  France has an amazing variety of Roman ruins and, since we didn't want to spend our whole vacation in Paris this was an easy choice.  The hard part was deciding how to limit ourselves.  On the map these little towns look close together and it is very tempting to say, "Oh, we'll go here, and then hop over here and then end the day in this little town."  Somehow it takes twice as long to get everywhere as you think!

Wisely, we centered our Provencal time around Nimes because of the huge amount of Roman "stuff" there.  It turns out that was good because Nimes was all we had time for!  I said in our last post that we got a late start leaving Lyon.  Poor M--he hadn't been feeling good but shortly after we left Lyon we had to stop.  He was sick!  M gets the trooper award for the whole trip because, in spite of a stomach bug that hit him hard this first day and then came and went for the rest of the week, he hung in there and still had a great time.

Our first *planned* stop was just a quick meal, where J had his first crocque monsieur:

Then off to Pont du Gard, which we hit in the late afternoon:

This was our first Roman ruin of the trip, an amazing aquaduct that still stands proudly over the river Gard.  (I had been here on previous trips but DH had never seen it.)  The PdG was an aquaduct built to provide water to a nearby town.  There are so many cool things about it: 

It's huge! 

No mortar!  Each block cut to fit.

Three hundred year old grafitti left by stonemason apprentices!

It is even hard to defend.  Engineering advances like this couldn't be made if your soldiers were always worried about sabotage and you had to constantly worry about enemies poisoning the water.  This is an indication of the relative peace and prosperity of the area during the time of Roman rule.  If people are so worried about the next attack, or even their next meal, useful buildings like this don't get built.

Then we sped off to Nimes, about 20 miles away.  Note to self:  Do not follow Mapquest directions in France. 

After some lucky driving and about 90 more minutes in the car (!) we made it to our hotel, the already-described-and-delightful Hotel des Tuileries.  We dropped our bags and M (poor baby, still sick but just wanting to sleep) and headed across the street to La Palette Gourmande and quite possibly our best meal of the trip.  I wish I had taken pictures...Veronique was delightful and we are STILL talking about the scalloped potatoes!  All five of us had the three-course Beaujolais Nouveau meal (no beaujolais for the kids!) and I was so happy that we all had real French food, like salade saucisson (mixed green salad with a sausage baked into bread), those scalloped potatoes and lots of sliced baguettes!

After a good night's sleep we were ready to explore Nimes, an ancient city that long ago outgrew the bounds of its original walls.  First was the Arena, the best-preserved Roman coliseum in the world and still in use today!  We took the audio tour which was excellent.  As you can see all the kids paid close attention:

The top of the Arena gives some lovely views of the city, which has a real Provencal vibe with its wide tree-lined boulevards.  It was a damp, cold, windy day, but you can see the clouds threatening here, too:

We strolled down this street, stopping occasionally to confirm our status as tourists:

And then we arrived at the Maison Caree, a very well-preserved Roman building.  The amazing thing here is that all four walls are intact.  Below you can see two of the walls.

I'll note that Nimes is small enough that we never even considered getting our car and driving anywhere.  We walked everywhere.

After lunch the threatening skies followed through, and opened up.  Our very smart hotel had umbrellas, though, and so we set off to see the Tour Magne, about a 15-minute walk.  This is another structure that had no purpose but just to be built and look cool, one more thing that only a peaceful and prosperous society builds.  (I'm pointing this out because it is such a contrast to the extreme squalor and poverty of the Middle Ages.)  It rained and rained and rained, but we walked and walked and walked, and the kids laughed it off for the most part. 

The Tour Magne is on a hill over the Fontaine Gardens.  Here are some of the stairs up to the Tower--can you see the waterfall?!

So we went up those steps and many, many more to the top of the hill to find, um, the Tower.  This is what we saw:

But we couldn't figure out how to get in.  So we looked around, said "great" and started back downhill.  That's when we saw much more than we'd bargained for.  The gardens were built in the 17th century, around a series of canals that held water to supply the booming silk fabric business that was Nimes at the time.  I was standing here, thinking, "Wow, for once they didn't do something symmetrical, what's up with that?" when I saw a plaque that describes the Atheneum this garden was built around.  The Atheneum is this curved section to the right.

It's not a Roman bath but something they used more ceremonially, and they are extremely rare.  So, cool!  It also meant that I stood there and looked around and saw the best ruin of the afternoon, the Temple of Diana.  This was a really tumble-down building, but wide open and we could walk all around it to the extent that we wanted to get wet.  DH and P got really wet.  Creeping around this old building in the pouring rain is something we talk about a lot.

Up early the next morning to do a crazy drive:  Nimes to Paris via Chambord.  DH and I had never seen the heart of France, and we both thought it would be fun to at least see it at 60 miles per hour.  Turns out it was good to give M a down day, as he continued to recover and eat very carefully. 

One thing that is very cool about driving across France is how quickly the landscape changes.  What we saw:  deserts, hills, snow-covered alps, deep evergreen forests, plains with rich black dirt waiting to be tilled, volcanoes (extinct, I hope!), sheep, cows, farms farms farms, rivers, leafless forests (it IS November!), little half-timbered villages, and finally, this:

Chambord, one of the great Loire valley chateaux.  Built by Francis I, this was his hunting lodge.  It also contains a famous double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci.  It took six years to build!  The double-helix enables two people to ascend and descend without seeing each other.  The entire chateau is stone inside and out, and on a damp November day it was COLD.  The chateau was interesting, but there wasn't really much to the tour other than a bunch of empty rooms.  We would loved to have felt a more human touch, to understand how such a huge place would run, where they prepared meals, where they ate, even where the horses lived!  We made a quick stop here, only about 1 1/2 hours, and then headed north to Paris.

Driving into Paris on a Sunday evening is a slow affair, and another note to self:  Don't print out the Mapquest directions in miles when the car and road signs are in kilometres.  Also, apparently lots of Parisiens leave the city for the weekend, only to pile back in when the weekend is over.  The roads were very, very crowded.

Finally, our first glimpse of this most Parisian of sights:

More soon!  A bientot!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What we saw, Part 1

Oops, it's been a week since I posted.  Pretty soon this vacation will be stale and blogging about it will be lame.  But I think I have maybe one more week.  I will point out that it was one fantastically busy week, but I am also not a reliable blogger.  If you are reading this now, thanks for sticking with me!

Okay, I've written about where we laid our heads and how we got around.  But WHAT did we do?  Our trip started in Lyon, where DH was winding up a trade show.  (Incidentally, this was his first time at this particular trade show and we ARE GOING BACK NEXT YEAR.  Barcelona!)  We had just one night in Lyon, France's second-largest city.  I would say that if you can, put Lyon on your itinerary.   It is not touristy at all, but it is lovely and has a "real" feeling that you don't get in every city.  There are also plenty of sights to visit, from Roman ruins to modern art museums.  (It was the nearest big city to me when I worked in France, and I visited often.  I truly love this city.)

Lyon is slave to her geography, built right at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers.  The heart of the city is on the skinny peninsula (the "Presqu'ile" which is literally "almost-island"), where you can find Place Bellecouer, a huge open plaza, and many pedestrian streets, perfect for shopping and eating!  But this isn't the oldest part of the city:  just off the Rhone there is a high bluff that overlooks the rest of the town.  This is where the ruins of a Roman settlement have been found, and now it is "Vieux Lyon," a rabbit's warren of cobblestones and covered streets.

After we dropped our suitcases and changed clothes (phew!), we headed out to this part of town.  It was dark already, but our kids got their first look at a real cathedral when we got off the Metro stop: Fourviere.   Here is a Wikipedia picture--it is so pretty but I didn't get a good photo.

This is a gorgeous-but-not-very-old church, lit up and standing vigil over the city below.  They were impressed.  We also bought our first "marrons" (roasted chestnuts) in this area:  Thumbs up from D, but only lukewarm responses from my other three.  We meandered a little in this area, just soaking up the atmosphere and getting accustomed to hearing only French.  So many cute shops and restaurants!

Then we headed down the hill, crossing the river Rhone and into the heart of the city:

More wandering, looking at windows and just enjoying being free of train stations and airports.  I wish now I'd taken more pictures that night!  I will point out that wandering is easy in Lyon, with wide pedestrian streets and beautiful squares.  We settled on a brasserie to eat dinner, our first proper meal in France.  Lyon is the gastronomic heart of France, so almost anywhere you eat is going to be tasty.  We ducked into the Brasserie Victor Hugo, where J enjoyed his first plate of escargots:

Verdict: Delicieux!  He enjoyed escargots a couple of times later on this trip.  I had an amazing salad called "Chevre Chaud,"  literally "Hot Goat" but really "Hot Goat Cheese."  It was just a mixed greens salad dressed with (fresh) viniagrette, but it also had baguette slices with goat cheese, toasted so that it was a creamy/melty/crunchy yumminess that was perfect with the greens.  This is French food:  simple ingredients that are just fresh and clean, combined in a way that makes everything taste better.  And of course we had Nouveau Beaujolais* with dinner.

Everyone else had delicious, if less remarkable, dinners as well, with no french fries or chicken nuggets in sight.  Then it was back to the hotel to collapse and get ready to begin our journey to Provence.  The hotel (in my previous post) had wonderful beds...we didn't even move until after 9:30 the next morning!

Provence is next, but we are decorating/grocery-shopping/lacrosse-watching/birthday-partying today so it will wait til next time.  A bientot!

*Nouveau Beaujolais is the young red wine that comes out every fall, on the third Thursday of November.  It is a big party in France, with signs all over that say "Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!"  Yes, some of it is just marketing.  But it is fun and I like Beaujolais, so...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Bedrooms and Water Closets

Since we traveled over a pretty fair distance in France, we stayed at three different places on our vacation.  It was great to compare the places--they are very different, each one suited to a different kind of stay.

When we arrived in Lyon late in the afternoon, we were ready to drop our bags and walk around.  The whole area around the convention center was booked, so we met my husband out at the Park&Suites Hotel.  Not a central location, but close to a metro stop, close to the Lyon Part Dieu train station, and big enough for us.  Personality?  Meh.  It made me think of a Euro-Embassy Suites.  But for a single night it was quite spacious, with super-comfy beds and even a kitchenette.  It also had (like all our lodgings) separate water closet and sink/shower rooms.  The kids thought that was novel.  But it was such an exciting hotel that we neglected to take pictures!

We slept in the next morning, completely by accident.  By the time we had dragged ourselves out of bed it was 9:30, and the hotel's "petit-dejuener" (breakfast) was just about finished.  Luckily there was a little market around the corner and we were able to have the first of our numerous food-shopping adventures there.  Good Lord, I love to shop for food in France.  I'll digress if I don't stop here.

We headed south that morning, to the ancient Roman city of Nimes.  I had found Hotel des Tuileries on the internet, and it had been very highly rated on  We had emailed back and forth a little, and so we knew that we had the entire fourth floor to ourselves.  Perfect!

Our little hotel was exactly what we wanted:  a traditional French hotel with tiny elevator ("one bag/one person"); narrow street; lovely breakfast room; walking distance to the sights in town.  We loved it!  The gracious owners were a bonus; Andrew and Caryn are English and love their new town so much.  They were eager for us to love it, too, providing great recommendations for dinners and merry yellow and orange umbrellas that were desperately needed one afternoon!

This isn't to say it was luxurious, just comfortable.  Our top floor consisted of two guest rooms, one with a double bed and bathroom (yes, plus w.c.!), the second with a living room, bedroom and bath.  Both rooms had multiple balconies looking out on the neighboring rooftops.  We were pretty high up:  in Europe the ground floor is "0" or "rez de chaussee" (ground floor), so the fourth floor is what we think of as the fifth.  I'd call the decor funky; Bill says that sounds critical and it was comfortable.  But I think orange carpet = funky, so I'll stick with my description.  It was immaculately clean and warm.

J was kind enough to take multiple photos of the hotel:
The Salle de Bain
The adjoining W.C.
Roof of an adjacent building.  I mean "Toile."
Breakfast was perfect.  Yogurt and cereals in addition to the traditional croissants and bread, all accompanied by cafe au lait, tea, or hot chocolate.  The kids learned to order "chocolat chaud" pretty fast!
Dee-lish.  (That is not French.  That is 'murrican.)
The cute breakfast room.
After a lovely two nights in Nimes we left our new friends to drive north.  We had really shifted our vacation plans around to spend five nights in Paris, which allowed us to stay here:

We rented an apartment from Paris Perfect.  Let me just say the name says it all.  We've rented plenty of places (beaches, especially) over the years but I've never been as happy with an agency or a rental.  Romanee is pretty small, only 780 square feet, but perfectly laid out and wonderful.

We decided to look into apartment rentals after checking hotel prices in Paris.  OUCH!  We would need three rooms, with six people, and prices were pretty steep.  Even staying out from the city center was incredibly expensive.  We were able to rent this apartment, with kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and even a washer and dryer for less than the cost of the hotels.  (Not a lot less, just a little, but we got so much more!)  AND we got to look at this amazing view from our dinner table every evening:

One great thing about the apartment rental was that it allowed us to prepare some of our meals ourselves in our kitchen.  This meant that we could try out the markets and shops in the area and start to feel like a part of the neighborhood.   After a couple of days the lady in one of the bakeries knew us, and she never failed to greet the kids with "Bonjour mes enfants!"  That trumps a hotel stay.

Kitchens, or at least our kitchen, are masterpieces in efficiency.  We had every convenience, including dishwasher and full-size fridge, just packed into a space just small enough to be crowded with two people.

Here is a picture that P took of their bathroom.  She was impressed with the fact that you could put water in the tub four different ways.  Pretty cool!  Again, here we had w.c.s, with the disconcerting division between toilet and sink.  I'm still not sure what I think about that.

Cabinets lined every wall, even this one behind the cool decoupage:

One thing that we were very conscious of was the need to be quiet.  Our neighbors were totally silent!  Since our building was quite old, I always felt like we sounded like a herd of elephants.  We tried to creep around and be mindful of our shoes, but that might be the only downside to the apartment:  I was continually shooshing (is that a word?) the kids.  Our creaky wooden floors (1880?  I saw a date on the building that was around that.) seemed to magnify every sound.  But no one complained, so we either were quiet enough or I worried too much.  That was a tiny price to pay for feeling like a Parisian for a week.

So, we loved two of the three places we stayed and we'd gladly recommend them.  It was a great chance to feel French (in Nimes) and truly Parisian in Paris.  Next up will be what we saw with the kids...a bientot!