Monday, November 25, 2013

The Heathcare Mess, Part 1

I've been thinking a lot about this health care mess we have gotten ourselves into. I had huge hopes for universal healthcare, but it all just looks worse and worse as time passes. Many people in the US are quick to blame President Obama, but he didn't cause the problem. It has developed over many years, and it is going to take some serious changes from everyone to fix it. Maybe the Obamacare problems will be the kick in the butt that the US needs to straighten it all out.

I have some ideas that might help; you may have some of your own. No one is going to get anything done unless a real conversation gets going and we all accept that we have to make some changes in the way we live our lives. Everyone is to blame: insurance companies, hospitals, drug companies, doctors, and the rest of us who use their services.

The first thing we have to do is to recognize and accept some unavoidable truths:
  1. We are all going to die sooner or later.
  2. We have a lot of control over our health.
  3. We make a choice every single time we put a bite of food in our mouths, lift a drink to our lips, and plop down on our butts in front of the TV or computer.
Death is an inevitable part of life. We are all going to die whether we like it or not. There is no way out of this one.

A few days ago I read an article about the number of people who expect doctors to do everything possible to delay the end, even though that "everything" is outrageously expensive. Even though it often does no good. Even though it drags out the miserable painful illness of a person who is beyond being able to make that decision. That is crazy! Who wants to live longer if that time is spent in pain or without consciousness? And who is going to pay for that expensive treatment?

We all have a lot of control over our health. Very few of us can use the excuse that we don't have the knowledge required to stay healthy. There a thousands of books and internet sites with all the information anyone needs. There are libraries for those who can't afford books or the internet. Who can say they don't have the time or the interest to find out what they need to know? What can possibly be more important than maintaining good health? How many times do we need to be told that the majority of our health problems are brought on by our lifestyle choices?

We make choices every day that affect our health. Food is the fuel that powers our bodies. Some fuel is good, high octane stuff that is good for us; some fuel tastes good but offers almost nothing to nourish our bodies. What do you choose to eat? Is it healthy fuel or is it junk food? And what are you doing to keep your body strong? Are you getting enough exercise? Or are you sitting around in front of the TV or computer every chance you get? Little by little, we have slipped into such an unhealthy lifestyle. We don't get outside and move enough. We don't know anymore what to eat or when to stop eating.

I would like to see everyone able to afford the healthcare they need. However, I believe that we have to take some very harsh actions to make people take responsibility for their own healthcare. I hear people complaining that they don't like the changes that are coming about with their insurance. As hard as it may be to accept, the only fair way to do it is to make people pay according to their lifestyle choices:
  1. If you smoke, you should pay more for insurance.
  2. If you drink or use drugs, you should pay more for insurance.
  3. If you are overweight, you should pay more for your insurance, based on your weight.
  4. If you expect doctors to do everything possible to extend your life, you should pay for it.
  5. If you choose to have children, you should pay for maternity coverage.
Does this seem unfair? Look at it this way: Why should non-smokers pay extra to cover smokers? Why should people who eat right, exercise, and do whatever possible to stay healthy pay for those who don't? Why should everyone have to pay when someone chooses to have a baby?

Insurance should cover us for the things over which we have no control. Even those who try very hard to stay healthy will still get sick now and then, and some of us will have major medical problems, but why not do what we can to stay healthy and save the doctors for when we really need them?

So what do you think? Do you have anything constructive to add? Any ideas that might help? I'd love to get a real conversation going here.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Kindred Quilters Fabric Arts Group Exhibition

I have been very busy this week getting ready for and then participating in my art quilt group's show and sale yesterday. We held it in the beautiful garden of one of our members.

Although the small group has been together for about 2 1/2 years, I just joined this summer. We share ideas, try out new techniques together, and generally inspire each other at our weekly meetings.

The eight of us have very different interests, ideas, styles, and methods, but we enjoy getting together, throwing many possibilities into the mix, and seeing what we come up with.

Although there had been rumors about the existence of our group, this was our "coming out" party to let the expat community know who we are and what we do. We had a great turnout and a very positive response from those who came to see our work.

They will be hearing much more from us!

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Artist Inside All of Us

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."                                  - Pablo Picasso

Throughout my childhood and into my teen years, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to paint and draw, to take photographs, to work in clay, to play a guitar and to dance ballet. In my spare time, I wanted to try just about every crafty fad that came along. A high school counselor suggested that I focus on something reasonable like teacher, nurse, or mommy.

Teaching and nursing didn't appeal to me much, and then my parents told me there was no money to send me to college. I got married, had three kids, stayed home and took care of them and the house, and in my spare time I dabbled in just about every crafty fad that came along.

Many years later, I was 40, divorced, the kids were all in school and beyond, and I paid my own way to college. Staying home and taking care of the house and kids didn't pay very well, so I figured I'd better get serious and prepare myself for a career.

I loved every class I took, but I didn't allow myself to take a single art class; I had to be reasonable and serious. Fortunately, just as I was about to graduate, I came up with the idea of opening a quilt shop. I finally found a job that let me make a living in an art-related job.

I loved it! My customers and I became a quilting community. We shared ideas. I taught classes, but they taught me things, too. We all inspired each other to take on greater challenges all the time. When the problems of running a business took away the joy of the art, I sold out and moved away.

Near my new home in Washington, I joined a co-operative art gallery. Although I was the only quilter of the group, we all shared ideas and inspiration. The painters and the photographer and the stained glass guy and I were really all doing the same thing; we just used different materials to do it. That was when I realized the value of belonging to an artist community.

Of course, there are artists' communities all over the world. They offer creative environments that support the work of artists. Some are informal groups, some are organizations that provide short term residencies in small communities, and others are whole towns, like Sante Fe or Taos, New Mexico, that are full of galleries and art museums.

My uncle once took me to see some apartments in Long Beach, California, that had been built specifically for artists. Each apartment was a studio with a generous work space as the focus, but also included a kitchen, a bathroom, and a sleeping area. I would have loved that, and I was seriously tempted, but I was literally on my way to my retirement in Mexico when this happened.

I hadn't done any quilting for a few years, but I recently became involved with a fiber arts group. All of a sudden, it is as if I have come alive again after a few years of drifting along. Most days, I am in my studio for five or six hours. Inspiration is coming to me much faster than I can complete projects. I can't figure out what I was doing with my time before this.

Actually, this whole Lake Chapala area is one big artist community. It seems like almost everyone finds the artist inside of them once they retire here. We have theater groups, musical groups, writers, painters, potters, photographers, weavers, jewelry-makers, quilters (of course) and people creating all over the place. It turns out that once we retire, that artist inside of us has another opportunity to come out and express itself. Maybe this is what they mean by second childhood.

PS - It has been almost 20 years since I graduated from college and barely a day goes by that I do not regret that I didn't allow myself to major in art or at least take some art classes.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Demise of Lonely Planet As We Have Known and Loved It

In 2007, I took a wonderful trip to the Andalucia area of Spain. During an earlier trip to the US, I had purchased a Lonely Planet book for that area, but I later decided to add a week in Portugal since I was going to be right next door, anyway. I had an ancient LP for Europe on a Shoestring, so I figured that would do for my short time in Portugal. In some ways, it was fine; in others, it was useless. I vowed to never again travel without an up-to-date Lonely Planet book. 
I'm a budget traveler and always will be. I don't believe in wasting my hard-earned money on expensive hotels and meals. Besides, I travel to meet people and try to understand how and where they live. I want to stay where they would stay. I believe that luxury accommodations separate travelers from the locals. Besides, traveling on a budget allows me to stay twice as long or travel twice as often.
Lonely Planet was founded in 1972 by an Australian couple and was aimed toward backpackers and budget travelers. The books told all about a place (and still do.) It helped us figure out which budget lodgings were comfortable and which were ratholes. It helped us find a decent meal at a reasonable price.
When I went to Italy with girlfriends a couple of years ago, I taught them how to use a Lonely Planet book. First, I read through and decide where I want to go. I mark all those pages with tabs. Then I read some more and figure out what it is I want to do in those places. I highlight the good stuff. Next, I consult the maps and hotel information. I decide where I might want to stay, carefully considering the hotel's location in relationship to my mode of travel and to what I want to see while there.
If you are a planner, you can make a reservation. If you're more laid back, mark the four or five hotels that seem to suit you best and take your chances when you get there. Generally, I don't make reservations; I never know when I'll run into a fellow traveler who will tell me about some wonderful place I didn't know about. If I'm tied to reservations, I might miss out.
By the time I've done all my research, I have bunches of tabs sticking out in all directions, some marking where I want to go, others marking where I hope to stay or what I want to see. The book is also marked up with lots of highlighters in different colors.
The best part happens when I get to my destination. Those big books can be very heavy, so I (gasp!) cut the book apart as I travel and carry only the section relevant to where I am that day. If done carefully, the binding holds each section together so I'm not leaving a trail of pages behind me. After three weeks of traveling all over Italy, this is what my book looked like:
After Italy, we planned to cross over to Croatia because my friend really wanted to go there. As a birthday present, I had purchased a Lonely Planet Croatia for her Kindle. I was excited to see how it would work in an electronic version. I kept thinking of how nice it would be to not have that weight to carry in my luggage.
It worked just fine if all you wanted to do was to sit down and read the book cover to cover. The all-important village maps were so small that they were useless. And forget the colorful highlighting and tabs on the pages. The electronic process was horrible! OK, so her Kindle was a really old one - one of the very first. We figured that was the reason for the problem.
Now we jump forward two years to my trip to Provence. Now I have an iPod Touch. It is smaller than the Kindle but I know how to enlarge photos and type, so I thought an electronic version would work fine. Once I arrived in France, though, I realized that I had the same problem finding a particular village I wanted to visit. I thought they'd all be listed in a table of contents. Nope. I could enlarge the maps, but once I did, I could only see a tiny area. After struggling for a couple of weeks, I broke down and bought a real book as soon as I found one in English.
I was staying in an apartment the entire time and eating at home, so I hadn't even paid much attention to the dining and lodging sections. Once I had the book, I began paying attention. Gone are the budget hotel listings. Room prices seem to average between 100 and 300 Euros per night. Restaurant meals tend to cost as much as three or four nights stay at a typical hostel.
Of course Europe is expensive, especially to someone who lives in Mexico, but there are many budget options that are not listed in the book. Hostels have almost disppeared from its pages. No more picnic suggestions.
So what happened? It seems that Lonely Planet was bought out six years ago by BBC Worldwide. The founders kept 25% of the company, and presumably some control, for awhile. But they finally sold the rest to BBC a few years ago. Then, this year, BBC sold to Kentucky millionaire Brad Kelley's NC2 Media. Apparently, BBC pledged to keep things the same, but the changes are obvious, and I have also heard that many employees were laid off. BBC took a huge loss when they sold. Personally, I think that's what they deserve for ruining a good thing.
They claim that their target audience has changed from budget travelers to the mainstream and affluent audience. The problem with that is affluent travelers use travel agents. They are too busy working to spend hours pouring over a book to decide were they want to stay. And dining? That's why they have a concierge in those fancy hotels. 
I say Lonely Planet made their luxury bed, so let them lie in it. They won't get any more of my money.
Sorry about the rant, but thanks for reading, anyway.
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Sunday, October 20, 2013


I read somewhere that the happiest people are those who can adapt to the changes in circumstances that life throws at them. Apparently, it is the ability to adapt to those changes without stress that counts. It makes sense to me. The Buddha said that one of our sources of suffering is trying to hold on to things as they are and refusing to accept that everything changes, whether we want it to or not.

Of course, things are changing around us all the time, and there is little we can do to stop them. Our kids grow up and move out. We get married and then, often, divorced. Our parents grow old and die. We change jobs, change homes, and change friends. Getting through life is much easier if we are able to accept these changes and move on. I think the secret may be to file the fond memories away in our hearts, and then jump right in to find out what other adventures life has in store for us.

Twelve years ago, when I first retired, my plan was to spend a year traveling all over Asia. It was an ambitious plan - Japan, Korea, Shanghai, Taiwan, the Philippines, Bali, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong - but I had been looking forward to it for a long time. A few weeks after I arrived in Japan, the bombs went off in the nightclub in Bali. Then the US State Department began issuing warnings to Americans traveling in Islamic areas of Asia. To put it bluntly, I chickened out.

I had, by then, realized that I really liked Japan, so I just decided to stay there, maybe even get a job teaching English for a year or two. After traveling around for the first three months, I rented an apartment in Osaka and settled in and had met quite a few friends. I was ready to go to work when I realized out that something was wrong with my mother. So after six months in Japan, I said goodbye to my new friends and flew home to Portland, Oregon.

Mom had diabetes and couldn't seem to figure out what she was supposed to be doing to manage it. But there was more to it. My mom was only 70 and had always been very intelligent and independent. Why did she need me there? I leased an apartment in Portland while she stayed at her house in a tiny coastal town a few hours away. Then she got a pancreatic cyst. We decided that maybe we needed to live together, so we bought a house outside Portland. Two weeks after moving in, we found out the cyst was really cancer. She died at home two months later.

As you can see, life threw a lot at me during that first year and a half after retirement. If I had focused my mind on all the things that were going wrong, I could have been pretty miserable. I didn't get to see all of Asia that I wanted to see, but Japan was lovely. Then I missed the spring cherry blossoms in Japan, but Portland was just full of pink and white cherry blossoms when I got there. My apartment was delightful, but our house was even better. Mom truely believed that she was going to be with my father and her parents, so she almost looked forward to her death. I was able to resell the Portland house at my full asking price in one week, and I was soon on my way to Mexico, which was what I had planned for after the Asian trip.

Fortunately, the past nine years have been much calmer, but not without unwanted and unplanned for changes. While I was in France last spring, I found out that the best girlfriend I have ever had in my life was leaving Mexico and moving back to Florida. Then I learned that Mexico had changed their immigration laws and I would never be able to nationalize my car. I liked that Honda and thought I'd drive it the rest of my driving life. But even these changes haven't turned out to be that bad.

Patty ended up renting a house in Leesburg, only 30 miles east of Terry's brother's house, so we will be able to visit now and then, and last Sunday, she and I talked on the phone for an hour and a half, just like the old days. And thanks to Skype and Vonage, there is no reason we can't continue that quite regularly. I hired someone to take my car north of the border for me and sell it, quite easy and painless. When I couldn't decide what Mexican-made car I wanted to replace it with, I realized that I really did not want a car. The buses run about every 10 minutes and cost me only about 30 cents. I figure I'm saving a ton of money on gas, insurance, maintenance, registration, and depreciation. That will easily cover the cost of an ocassional taxi or rental car. I'm really enjoying walking around the villages rather than driving on cobblestones and trying to find a place to park. And I've always had a bike, but now I have more excuse to ride it. Also, my former carport is now a new patio right inside my front gate!

One more huge change... before she left, Patty got me involved with an art quilting group that she had joined. Quilt guild politics and lack of selling opportunities had led me to just kind of give up on my old quilting passion. My new quilting friends have re-inspired me, and I'm now look forward to spending five or six hours in my studio every day. And that, essentially, is my excuse for not posting to this blog for the past five months. I will try to improve -- I promise!

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Many Fountains of Aix-en-Provence

Take just a minute to think about the importance of a fountain to a neighborhood in a medieval village. There was no convenient plumbing to bring fresh water into the house nor sewer lines to carry away the waste water. Every home, rich or poor, depended on that neighborhood fountain.
Much of coastal Provence was inhabited by the Greeks until the Romans moved in an took over. The Romans  liked their baths and considered a good source of water essential. They put a lot of time and money into building canals and aqueducts to get the water from its source to where it was wanted.
By the Middle Ages, fountains had developed into some pretty ingenious water supplies. Whether the water came from a spring or was carried by an aqueduct, it finally arrived at the neighborhood fountain via lead pipes.
The water came from either a wall or a central feature of the fountain via tubes called 'cannons.' The water that came directly from the cannons was theoretically clean. It was collected in jars or jugs and carried back to the house for use as drinking or cooking water. Many of the fountains in Aix still have metal bars under the cannons where the jugs can be rested while they are filling.
(This would be my neighborhood fountain, but I can't imagine going down four flights of stairs, walking a block and a half, filling a jug, walking back home, and carrying it up four flights of stairs.)
Once the water falls into the large basin, it is not quite as clean, but it is available for other needs such as drinking water for livestock.
The overflow from the basin ran into another basin, called a lavoir in French, that could be used for washing clothes and, very occasionally, bodies. I have often seen these washing basins in towns in Latin America.
The overflow from these basins were carried away to be used to water gardens. Once the water had been used for washing clothes, it had a residue in it from the home-made soap that worked as fertilizer for plants. I suppose it might also have been used to flush waste from the gutters than ran down the center of the streets.
Of course, none of these fountains are used for all that anymore. They do, however, offer just about the only free seating in town (as opposed to a sidewalk café.)
This is just a sampling of the fountains in the medieval village center. I believe there are over forty of them. I hope you have enjoyed seeing them.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

From the Knights Hospitaller to Bach and Beyond

OK, so I know this is a very weird title, but it gives you an idea of how my brain works. Last Monday, Pentecost Monday, I attended a "Spiritual Hour" at the Iglise Saint Jean de Malte (Church of St. John of Malta,) which was built in the early 13th century.

How did this come about? I love the architecture of the church, which I can barely see from the windows of my apartment, so I looked it up online. Along with the history of the church, I found out that they had a free concert of Bach music scheduled for Pentecost Monday (which I also had to look up since I had never heard of it.)

The first time I had visited the church, I had wandered in during the tail end of a mass that had less than ten people attending. It seemed kind of sad - like this beautiful church was not loved by the people any more. As the church filled to standing room only for the concert, I was happy to see that my first impression was wrong. I don't know how to explain my feelings on this. I am not a religious person, but as I look at this building, it is as if I can feel the hope and faith and love of all the people who worked so hard to build it and those who have worshipped here over the past 700 years. It would be a shame if that faith faded away.

*** A note for my non-American readers: We Americans pretty much consider anything over 100 years old to be really old. It is hard for us to really comprehend a building that was built before the Aztecs or the Incas ruled their empires. That far back in history, almost all of us were Asians or Europeans, or Africans. More recent immigrants still retain some of their cultural history, but most of us lost that when we got mixed into the "Cultural Melting Pot" that our country became.

The concert was quite interesting! It turns out that Bach wrote music specifically to be performed for Pentecost in 1724. BWV 173 and BWV 184 were first performed on Pentecost Monday and Tuesday of that year. Singers from the Bach Academy of Aix performed the pieces, accompanied by musicians playing violins, a cello, a bassoon, and flutes, plus the huge pipe organ. The pipe organ was also played during the half hour before the concert began; it reminded me of the  Phantom of the Opera - kind of spooky.  The singing was all in the original German, but the program provided a translation to French and English. I do have to say, though, that the chairs became less and less comfortable as time went by.

Now, back to the Knights Hospitaller. They were founded in Jerusalem in 1023 and ran a hospital that cared for the pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the first Crusade, in 1099, they became a religious and military order which protected the pilgrims as they traveled to the Holy Land.

During the 12th century, they built a hospice and chapel just outside the walls of Aix. An ancient Roman road ran right through Aix, so this was a natural route to the Holy Land.

The order had grown, and during the 13th century, they built the current church and priory on the same grounds as the original hospice. It became the burial place for the Counts of Provence.

In the meantime, Islamic forces had retaken the Holy Land and the Knights Hospitaller moved their base, first to Rhodes and then to Malta. Their name became the Knights Hospitaller of Malta. After Pope Clement V turned against the Knights Templar in 1312 and dissolved the order, much of their property was given to the Hospitallers.

Now we jump forward a few hundred years to 1629, a really bad year for the plague. After it was all over, they seem to have decided it had something to do with a small pastry that is traditionally made here - the Calisson. Or maybe the Calisson bakers started that rumor to encourage people to eat more of their treats.

Calissons are small (and expensive) little goodies made of almond paste, glazed melon, and fruit syrup and covered with a white icing.

As the story goes, on January 20, 1630, a mass at the church was dedicated to the Virgin of Seds, the patron saint of the city, to thank her for keeping them safe from the plague. The Archbishop blessed a bunch of Calissons and they were given out to the people.

Every since that time, on the first Sunday in September, they hold La Benedicion des Calissons. The celebration includes parades, people in traditional clothing and doing traditional folk dances, a may pole. The photos here are fun (click on the tiny British flag to see it in English.)

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Je ne parle pas francais...

No, I don't speak French! It took a week before I could even get over my panic and get that phrase out of my mouth. Generally, when someone unexpectedly turned to me and spoke French, my brain just went into panic mode and shut down. Although I knew perfectly well how to say that I couldn't speak French, I just could not seem to get it out of my mouth. The same thing happened to me when I first moved to Mexico, even though I had studied four years of college Spanish only ten years earlier. I've been studying French fairly regularly since I decided to take this trip, but studying and actually speaking it are two completely different things.

The first time I came to Provence was in 1999. My father had died a couple of years earlier, and my mother wanted to go to France. Some friends of hers had talked her into it, and she wanted me to come along. The trip they were planning was a walking tour of Provence organized by a company in Oregon.

I had never had any real desire to go to France, and I am not a 'tour' kind of person. I'm independent, I can be impatient, and I'm a loner. However, since I knew nothing about France and couldn't speak any French, I couldn't see any way of going without being part of a tour with an organizer who could speak the language. Also, my mother hadn't done anything alone since she'd married at the ripe old age of 17, and she really wanted to go, so I agreed to join her.

By the time we left on that trip, I had done some reading, mostly history, and I was excited to go. I couldn't wait to be in the midst of this land of ancient hilltop villages and vineyards. I was right about not being a 'tour' kind of person, but I fell in love with Provence. By the time we went home, I was determined to learn some French and return on my own.

I did take a French class, and I bought up all kinds of books and cassettes to continue learning. Then I moved to Japan. As you can imagine, my concentration shifted to learning Japanese. I didn't get very far with that before circumstances forced me to return to the US. And not too much later, I moved to Mexico. Studying French and then Japanese, combined with no opportunity to speak Spanish for ten years, meant that I practically had to start over. The same thing happened when someone spoke Spanish to me - my brain went into panic mode and shut down. But I was determined to remember what I'd learned in school, and it did come back pretty quickly.

OK, back to French... One day I walked into the tourist office, and, totally on it's own with no input from my brain, my mouth said, "Parle vous anglais?" I was so surprised at myself that I almost couldn't think of the question I intended to ask! Obviously, all that stuff I had been studying was in my head somewhere, I just had to get brave enough to let it out. I went back home determined to resume my studies.

So, now that I have been here for three weeks, I have figure some stuff out about this language learning problem. There are different levels of language learning.

For me, it is by far the easiest to read in the new language. I find that I don't get stuck on understanding every single word. I just concentrate on picking out the words that I do understand. In most instances, it does not matter about the verb tense, the direct and indirect objects, whether the word is feminine or masculine. Because it is important that I avoid gluten in my food, I check ingredients lists on any packaged foods. I know that "ble" means wheat, but I seem to understand what most of the other ingredients are, too. The cooking directions seems pretty simple, too. I can understand enough of the French in the signs in front of historical sites that I do take the time to read them. I can also understand everything on the bus pass that I bought. Unfortunately, that didn't help me figure out how to tell the driver where I wanted to get off during my first trip. I've got it figured out now.

The next step is to understand spoken French. I find that I can understand quite a bit if it is not spoken directly to me. It seems like I panic and my brain shuts down when there is pressure to understand. Of course, part of that problem is that people tend to speak fast when they assume you understand. When I first met my neighbor downstairs, we were both panting from climbing, so she spoke slower than usual. I was able to understand her and put in a breathless "oui" or "non" in the appropriate places, so I'm not sure that she even realized at first that I don't speak French. Later, I cheated and used a translation program to help me write her a note introducing myself and explaining my poor French. When we met again, she again spoke slowly and we got by just fine.

The final step to learning a language is the speaking part. There is always (for me, at least) a fear of sounding foolish that is a real handicap. I've learned to get over that in Spanish, especially after my neighbor told me that my Spanish is better than most of the people in the neighborhood. A Mexican guy I dated a few times when I first arrived told me that my book-Spanish is great but my street-Spanish isn't so good. By the time I got off my first French bus trip, the one when I couldn't figure out how to tell the driver to stop, I was able to tell him that, while I may have been lost for a while, it was a beautiful trip.

So now three weeks have past. I am trying to be sure that I sit down and study for an hour or so each day. I find myself forming sentences in my mind all the time, although it may be 30 minutes or so after I would have liked to have said it. I am usually surprised to realize that I can do this. I have five more weeks to pick up as much as I can. I am determined to let go of this perfectionism that holds me back.

There are some things that I'll never figure out, though. For example, why is it that my microwave and dishwasher "depart" (leave) but my washer and dryer "marche" (walk) when I want them to start?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Windows of Aix-en-Provence

I try to pay attention to windows and doors when I walk around old towns like Aix. If you think about it, the doors and windows in villages like this are much like the front yards of houses in the US. They are the face that the occupant presents to the outside world. Many are just plain, one more in a row of many others just like it. But some people go out of their way to make sure there is something special that sets their window or windows apart from the others nearby. It is like these special ones have a personality all their own.
This first one, for example, is a fairly simple window set into a very plain building. But, to make it special, the owners painted a white rectangle around the area where the window is located. Add those blue shutters, and it was like no other window in the area.
This one is in a very interesting rounded building of very old stone blocks hidden back on a little side street. Under that window is a very ugly garage door that ruins the whole effect. But I like that this photo shows how the tiles are built up under the edge of the roof.
This is just one of a long row of matching windows, probably all belonging to the same apartment. Every window has its own matching gray shutters and red geraniums.
This next one is above the entrance to a restaurant. The owners probably live in an apartment above. As I stood across the street taking this photo, I realized that the owners were standing in the doorway of the restaurant below and that they were talking to me.  We were able to communicate a little, but it sure would have been more fun to have a real conversation with them. I would have liked to tell them that I, too, would have my window full of plants if I had a window like this.
This last one reminds me of a woman who is passed her prime but hasn't quite figured it out yet. You know the type: hair dyed to cover the gray but always just a little bit messy, make-up that is a bit too much and never quite straight, and wearing clothes that were probably stylish when they were purchased 20 years ago. It may need some work to get it back into shape, but I would love to have long windows like this that could open to let the world inside but with shutters to preserve my privacy.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Le Tholonet

I had an adventure today. After carefully pouring over all my bus schedule brochures, I decided to take the shortest trip first; Le Tholonet is only 5 kilometers east of Aix. It is a place where Paul Cezanne used to like to hang out and paint pictures of Sainte-Victoire mountain.
I walked to the bus station and bought a carnet worth 10 voyages for 7 euros - just about $10. That worked out great. I even said it in French; I was so proud of myself!. I had already noticed the spot where the bus would arrive, so I was ready when it got there. I got a window seat close to the front so I could see everything as we traveled.

After a few stops as we made our way through Aix, we went along a very narrow country road with trees on both sides of the road. It looked like I wouldn't mind camping anywhere along the way. After only about 15 minutes, we pulled into the village of Le Tholonet - and kept right on going out the other side of the tiny town. I had assumed that there would be an automatic stop. I had assumed wrong.

I had the schedule with me so I knew that the bus would go to four other places and then turn around and go back the other way. And I knew that my fare paid for any of the stops, so I wasn't too worried about it. When we got to the village at the end of the line, the last few passengers asked to be dropped off at various places. As the last person stepped off the bus, I approached the driver. He asked (I'm sure) where it was that I wanted to be dropped off. When I told him Le Tholonet, he said (I'm sure) "Well, why didn't you say something?" Then he said that we would just turn around and I could get off when we got there again. I thought he might make me pay again, but he didn't.

As we rode along, I was now on the mountain side of the road so I got a lot of photos with my iPod Touch, which works faster than my camera. This time, when we got to Le Tholonet, he made sure that I knew where we were and that I got off the bus. By that time, it was mid-afternoon and I was hungry. I had hoped to find a small market to buy some fruit and something to drink, but the only open business in town seemed to be a restaurant - Relais Cezanne - a place where  Paul used to hang out. I figured it would be expensive, but what choice did I have?

It had very nice outdoor tables across the street from the restaurant. As I watched the waitresses go back and forth with trays of food and dirty dishes, I wondered if there had ever been an accident. The menu had lots of pizzas for under 10 euros, but of course I couldn't eat them because of the gluten. I felt like I wanted something more substantial than a salad (which started at 16 euros), so I ordered something with salmon from the entree menu. Gluten-free and vegetarian did not seem to be an option, but it rarely is except in Portland.

When the waitress brought my 16 euro salmon entree, it was a handful of mixed salad greens, half a tomato, and four very thin slices of raw salmon. This is why I prefer to eat at home! It was actually very good, but I was looking for something a little more substantial to energize me for walking around mountain-y roads.

There really isn't much in Le Tholonet: a old windmill without the arms, a chateau from the 1640s that now belongs to the canal company, an old church and cemetery, and pretty scenery. I couldn't visit the church or cemetery because there just happened to be a funeral going on. I feel bad for the people who lost a loved one, but really, what are the chances in a town of 2,200 people?

I walked down the road and considered walking to the dam that Emile Zola's father built, but it turned out to be another 35 minutes away. I don't like hiking like that by myself, so I ended up hanging out at a park where people were playing petanque - or maybe it was boules. I don't know. I thought boules was Italian and petanque was French, but the petanque balls that I have are much smaller than the Italian boules balls, and these people were playing with large (maybe 4" diameter) stainless steel balls.

Because I do have a set that Terry and I used to play on the beach (and the salt and sand caused them to rust) I kind of underestand how to play. I found out a lot, though. We used to throw the target ball about 30-40 feet from where we were standing. No wonder it was always so darned hard to ger near it; sometimes I could even see the danged thing! These people threw the little target ball only about 12-15' - much easier to aim for. And of course, our beach sand was softer than this hard-packed sand that they were playing on. But I'm sure that they had played there for so long rhat they knew every single slope and hole in that ground. They must have been playing in teams, becuase there were about six of them.

Using very interesting deliveries, everyone would get as close as they could to the target ball, and then the oldest guy, who must have also been the best, would take his turn and I swear he never failed to knock the closest balls way out of the playing field.

A few of the players tried to talk to me, but none of them spoke any English. We communicated enough that I was able to say that I had played, but that was about it.

Actually, I find that I can understand people pretty well. I just can't seem to call the French words to mind when I need them. I can't begin to count the number of times I have said "si" instead of "oui".

The adventure of my day continued when I got on a different bus to come home. This time, I made sure that I asked if he went to Aix and then to the old center of town. Everything confirmed, I got on the bus. However, this one did not go back to the place where I had orignially boarded this morning. The bus drove all the way around the outside of the old town and then turned away. I thought (hoped) that he would turn back and go to the bus station, but when he cought sight of me in the rearview mirror, he said, "Didn't you want the village center?" when I said yes, he answered (I think), "Well, it was back there" and pointed behind us. Fortunatedly, we were still close enough that I knew where we were and I hurried off the bus and walked the few blocks to my apartment.

I had a bottle of rose in the fridge calling to me.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Grocery Shopping, French Style

You know how all the health articles tell us to shop around the outside edges of the grocery store and skip all that processed sugar and flour in the center? That is so easy in France! Just buy your food at the street markets!

Everything is so wonderful and fresh. Of course, it is spring, so that is how it should be!

Much of this stuff must come from Africa - just across the Mediterranean Sea to the south - because it is too early for it here.

Honey in every flavor that you can imagine! I love the lavender honey.

These tomatoes must be some kind of heirloom variety. They come in yellow, orange and red.

Eggs are sold by the half-dozen. The hens must be healthy because I have a hard time cracking the shells. They are really strong. Of course, they also cost $2 - $2.50 per half dozen, so they'd better be good. In Mexico, eggs are sold by the kilo or half-kilo and cost about half that price.

This is the booth that makes me drool! I try to hurry by as quickly as possible. Since my Celiac diagnosis, I haven't missed plain old white bread at all. What I miss is wonderful crusty rustic breads. Some day I will find a recipe that I can eat.

Fortunately, I have found a gluten-free multi-grain bread  that tastes fantastic with my lavender honey, but it's not quite like these.

Although I'm not tempted to eat these dried sausages, I think they are interesting to look at. I imagine that each type uses a different meat and different spices.

Since it's spring, it is asparagus season! Each market has whole long tables with these asparagus all neatly lined up like this. I guess they prefer these that haven't had sun exposure to turn them green. I bought some green ones last week, but I'll try these this week.

And, finally, if all this wonderful fresh stuff needs more flavor to suit your taste buds, there are also booths that sell spices. I like to just stand in front of the table and breathe in all these different aromas. Somehow it seems more special to buy it like this rather than in a little closed-up jar.

I can't believe I don't have a photo of the cheese booths! It is my very favorite type. Most of the cheeses seem to be made from goat milk, but they are soft and fresh rather than the dry and crumbly types more often available in the US and Mexico. Because I like strong-flavored cheeses, I prefer the kind I'm used to. But there are other cheeses to choose from, too. Quite a few are made from sheep cheese, including my all-time-favorite, pecorino. And, of course, there are also cheeses made from cow's milk. Many of them are flavored with different herbs and spices that give them very interesting flavors.