Wednesday, July 26, 2017

THE TOP OF QUARANTE

I often tell people that I live at the top of the village of Quarante. During my (almost daily) walk the other day, I realized that's an exact description. The church steeple is to the right. City hall is to the left partially covered by a tree. And that's us in the red circle in the middle. Always a bit of a breeze. The swifts keep the bugs under control. Nice view from my office window that directly faces the camera. Definitely at the top.


You can follow my walk as shown in a post from last spring HERE.


Monday, July 17, 2017

WINE PAIRINGS: OLD RULES - NEW RULES

Let me be clear from the beginning, I am not a connoisseur. Of anything. I have opinions. I provide them to you for free. You'll have to decide their worth.

We live in the south of France, once Languedoc-Roussillon, now Occitanie. A friend calls our region the largest vineyard in the world. It is precisely that, the largest single wine-producing region in the known universe.  Seven times Napa Valley. Three times Bordeaux. More wine produced than in the entire USofA. So even if you are a friend of Bill, it's hard not to absorb a modicum of knowledge concerning the ancient art of vinification, if only through osmosis.

(For those not familiar with the term, being a friend of Bill means that you have forsworn alcoholic beverage in the manner of Bill W., a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Anyone can drink wine, of course. The trick would seem to be to pair wine appropriately with the food being served. Articles and websites and books that discuss the rules for pairing wine with food abound. In the end, I have discovered that there are really only two overarching rules.

RULE #1 Conventional Wisdom. Proper pairings have been determined by general consensus over many years. Check out the chart below courtesy of Food & Wine through Wine Folly.


And you thought that the rule was simply Red = Meat, White = Fish. No, my friend. Life is too short and the wine trade is too lucrative. There are rules. You must follow the rules.

RULE #2 There Are No Rules. What sharp eyes you have. Yes, Rule #2 directly contradicts Rule #1. If a vintner can age rosé in oak to give it the kick of a light red, rules no longer apply. Drink what you like with foods that you like. Wear stripes with plaid. It's a new world.

Speaking of New Worlds, have you been to California recently? If you like charts like the one above, check out this one compliments of Leafly:



OK. Pick your jaw up off the floor. Yes, recreational marijuana is now legal in California. In a state known for both its wine and its pot (even before legalization), should we be surprised that Wine/Weed tastings are now a thing in the Golden State? How about starting the day at a pot dispensary stocking up on smoke (at your own expense), then taking a bus to two different wineries to try out wine/weed combinations, then finishing up back at the dispensary just in case you didn't choose wisely the first time? All for under $200...plus the pot.

I am old. Acapulco Gold is not on the pairings list. Too retro even for California.

Should this be archived on my FOOD AND RESTAURANT REVIEW PAGE or my FRANCE PAGE? I'll decide later.




Thursday, July 13, 2017

PRIVACY OR SECURITY: MUST WE CHOOSE?

I try not to get caught up in the hurly-burly of the 24 hour news cycle. I don't subscribe to the English-language television and radio options that are available to me here in France. Instead, I depend on the written word - on paper and online - giving me the ability to step back a bit and see if I can detect a bigger picture. So I skip over the latest Trump silliness. (No, we didn't meet with the Russians. Wait a minute. We did meet with the Russians but not about Clinton. Wait a minute. The Russians said that the meeting would be about Clinton, but it really wasn't.) I skip over the latest missteps by Theresa May and her gang of Brexiteers. (If you're an English-speaking expat in Europe, you know what I'm talking about.) And I only take passing notice of the latest Tour de France updates. (Is it me or are there more disabling crashes involving favorites this year than previous?)

If I don't worry about the latest political dustup that has everybody else on tenterhooks, what is it that causes me to pause and wonder about the fate of mankind? Trophy hunting? GMOs? Rogue ice shelves in the South Atlantic?

No. I'm worried about cyber security.

I'm not concerned about my bank account. It's simply too small to be noticed. And I've done what I can to prevent viruses and hijacking. I worry that the predictions of the sci-fi authors are coming true. If it is online, it's hackable. Therefore, it's public. And since everything is online, everything can be hacked. And everything is therefore public. Period. Our government has discovered that it can't keep secrets. WikiLeaks has become a fashionable social media hero. Folks applaud. Shine a light, they said.


That's when I began to worry. Not because my nude photos might be published. (Because there aren't any.) I began to worry because documents aren't the only things that are online. Ask Iran's nuclear scientists about Stuxnet. Better yet, ask the folks who run our own nuclear power plants. In case you missed it, they've been hacked. They're safe, we're told. Special technology. You can hack the company headquarters but you can't effect operations. Yeah, the Russians hacked us. But they couldn't get anywhere.

Yet...

And it's not just nuclear power. It's the entire power grid that I worry about. And the financial markets. And traffic lights. And flight controllers. And the machines that pack my toothpaste tubes. Once hacking became acceptable, even noble in certain circumstances, all bets were off.

That's why I am not a fan of WikiLeaks. And that's why I think Snowden is no role model. And that's why I want my NSA back. That's right. I want a well-funded, high-tech, black as a black hole government agency at my cyber back, protecting me against well-funded and well-fed North Korean hackers. Against Putin's former KGB buddies and their cyber-fluent successors. Against the neighbor's kid in his onesie in the basement. I want Tommy Lee Jones or Helen Mirren taking charge. I want the equivalent of a Sean Connery or Jason Bourne cyber-agent unleashed.

We are always fighting the last war. We had to build a modern armed forces from scratch to face the Japanese and the Germans 75 years ago because we thought that two oceans protected us. And now, we are spending $400 billion to build jet fighters that we won't be able to deploy if our Command and Control is hacked and useless.

I don't demand accountability. I demand safety. That means stepping on some Constitutional toes. And you know what? If it saves the world from planes falling out of the sky or lye getting injected into my toothpaste tube or the whole world getting a look at my naked selfies, I'm all for it.

For more of my political opinions, I keep a dedicated page HERE.





Sunday, July 9, 2017

THREE YEARS IN FRANCE - AN AMERICAN EXPAT'S REFLECTIONS

Have you wondered what it might be like to pick up and move to another country? Americans are lured to retirement havens in Mexico, Costa Rica, or Panama. They say that Eastern Europe is beautiful, safer than the evening news might suggest, and relatively inexpensive. Southeast Asia is hot, but it's cheap. Remember, though. I'm not talking about investigating a vacation home, time share, or other form of shared ownership. I'm talking about a permanent, sell out and ship the furniture sort of  move. For most Americans, the thought has never crossed their minds.

Think about it. Think about moving from one state to another, from one town to another, even from one neighborhood across town. Add the need to learn a new language - if you aren't multilingual already. Add the need to deal in a new currency and the need to learn the ins and outs of currency exchange. Add metric measurements. And a new healthcare system. And a new bureaucracy to navigate.

Daunting? You betcha!

Rewards? You betcha!

We  have moved to the Languedoc in the  south of France, the largest vineyard in the world, producing one-third of all French wine and more wine than is produced in all of the United States. Drive down any road and signs for local wineries abound. In three years, we have not visited one-tenth of the tasting rooms within an hour's drive. Our new favorite rosé comes from a domain just down the road. Sweet and fresh and four euros (about $4.50) a bottle!

Along with the wine comes the food. We eat seasonally, veggies and fruits from local farms as much as possible. Grown for taste, not for the ability to be shipped across a continent. Do you remember the kids licking the wallpaper in Wilder's Willie Wonka? "The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!" I say that a lot. And you haven't really tasted a strawberry until you've had one fresh from Fanny's farm. (Fanny has a stand in our market square every Wednesday and only sells her own produce. When strawberries are in season, best stop by early or you'll miss out.)

OK. French beef sucks. Range fed, not from from a feedlot. So almost game meat. But the lamb and the duck and the pork, the poultry...magnifique.

The Impressionists painted here for a reason. The light here seems to emanate from the landscape, not reflect off it. The scenery can be breathtaking. On our ride to the nearest supermarket, on a clear day you can see the Pyrenees over 100 kilometers away. Nearly every geography known to man is at hand...except desert. And North Africa is just a ferry ride away.

It's not all sunshine and lemonade, though. French bureaucracy can be frustrating in the extreme. They've had centuries to refine it. Although the winding, two-lane blacktops between villages are generally well-maintained, they also carry slow-moving tractors, wide-bodied recreational vehicles, and bicyclists in packs. Passing can be a hair-raising experience. And whether you like it or not, you still have to vacuum and do laundry.

But the rewards exceed the inconveniences. Perhaps the greatest reward involves being insulated from what's going on in the United States at this very moment - the seemingly intractable discussion on how to deliver quality healthcare to the greatest number of Americans possible. Viewed from the outside, it is a painful discussion to witness. Viewed from France, the discussion is incomprehensible. What could possibly be the problem with providing universal healthcare? Let's look at the objections that I've heard from my friends in the US.

Americans have the right to decline healthcare coverage. Not if the cost of their care when they do get sick is added to my healthcare bill, they don't. Not if the cost of their absentee days at work is added to the cost of the products that I buy or the services that I need, they don't. It's true that Americans have the right to be stupid. Just not at my expense. I'd rather participate in paying for the health of stupid people than paying for the costs of their illnesses.

Doctors will leave if you control their fees. We live in a rural village of about 1,500 people. We  have a fine GP and there are several GPs practicing in the next village over just a few kilometers away. We have had no trouble making appointments with all sorts of specialists - rheumatologist, ophthalmologist, podiatrist, surgeon. If there's a shortage, we don't see it. And because our GP's fees are controlled, she doesn't employ a receptionist or nurse. She answers the phone and schedules her appointments. Herself. Walks into the waiting room and invites us back to the examination room. Herself. Takes our blood pressure. Herself. Apparently, it's not a big deal.

Healthcare will be rationed. A good friend has been treated for two cancers, her husband has just had two stents placed and is scheduled for coronary valve repair/replacement. Their combined age is over 150 years. We've never had to wait unduly for treatment, never been denied treatment, and we don't know anyone who has been. Insurance companies ration healthcare, not the French. (I know. You've read about Trump and the Pope and the baby on life support. You may disagree with the European Court's decision that keeping an infant of life support when his rare genetic disease offers no hope of a recovery and amounts to cruelty, but the issue was never cost of care.)

Pharmaceutical companies will stop doing R&D if you control prices. Take away their marketing budgets and their lobbying budgets and there's your research money. Nine of the ten top US pharmas spend more annually on marketing than on developing new drugs.

The system is unsustainable financially. Healthcare in France is not free. We pay a percentage of our worldwide income for coverage in the French single-payer system, a fair percentage in my opinion. Each year, our tax returns are used to calculate our payment for the following year. (We pay income taxes to the US and the French get a copy that is submitted along with our French return. By treaty, because we pay the US income tax, we don't pay income tax France. But we do pay the 'social charge' that gets us our healthcare.)

Insurance companies will go out of business. Some of the largest insurers in the world are based in Europe. The French single-payer system takes care of from 60% to 75% of the average cost of care. You can pay the rest out of pocket. But must folks buy supplemental insurance. We have purchased insurance that covers the costs of a hospitalization only and we had many insurers to choose from.

So I guess that the Constitution really IS a suicide pact. Because the only reason not to go to Medicare For All is to preserve the 'free market' in health care that leads to lower life expectancy, greater infant mortality, and greater child mortality. God forbid that we should value the lives of babies and children over the for-profit healthcare system that costs us twice as much per capita as the French system, shortens our lives, and kills our children.

Let me be clear. We love America. We were fortunate to have been born in such a place and at such a time when plain folks like us could make the decision to live anywhere in the world that suited us. So we chose a place where the weather is kind to our aging bones, where there are new places to explore, new people to meet. Why shouldn't we? Proud Americans can and should live where they choose.

But being proud Americans doesn't mean that our vision isn't clear, that we don't want the best for our country and its people. That's what America does, creates the best way to do things or adopts a better way if shown. That's what has made America strong and that's what can keep America strong.

As a post that falls into a couple of different categories, you can read more about my political views HERE and more about my thoughts about life in France HERE.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

COTE SUD, SAINT-PIERRE LA MER: QUICK TAKE

Cancer Support France is a network of affiliated agencies that provide translation and other services and supports to English speakers in France whose lives are touched by cancer, those with the disease as well as their friends and families. Our friend Annette organized a four-stage bicycle ride, from the medieval city of Carcassonne to Sete on the shores of the Med, in support of CSF. At noon on the third day, friend Nicola and I joined the riders to shoot some video to be used in upcoming promotions.

And we had lunch.

Cote Sud is one of those seaside joints right on the strand that's surrounded by all of the commercial claptrap that one would expect to find in a Mediterranean beach town that invites tourists. Expectations were low. We were pleasantly surprised.

A long row of tables had been set up to accommodate our party of forty or so. The menu was limited - two types of salad, four mains, two desserts. Our little party of four all opted for the salad with tomatoes and mozzarella, two of us chose moules/frites, one the tuna steak, and I had the steak/frites. (Hope springs eternal!) We all passed on the tagliatelle with choice of sauces. Truth be told, each was very satisfactory. The salads were a plate full of fresh, crisp greens, in-season cherry tomatoes, and satisfactory bits of cheese. Not just an afterthought. Full portions characterized the mains. The mussels were plump and juicy. The tuna and beef were generous cuts well prepared. So what if the beef was French beef and the frites were reconstituted? What did you expect? And the little chocolate-pistachio confection at the end was a proper finish.

With a glass of wine, 15 euros. Well done. My thanks to the folks at Cote Sud for making provisions for a big, charity-focused crowd and for feeding us better than they needed to at a fair price.

Check out the restaurant's website HERE.
Check out my other restaurant reviews HERE.





Tuesday, July 4, 2017

THE PRIVILEGED FEW: AMERICAN POLITICIANS

Gov. Christie's family avoided the crowds...
To my European friends, this is a true story. Not fake news. True. You really couldn't make this stuff up. No one would believe you.

Republican Governor Christie is in a budget battle with his Democrat-controlled state legislature. They are at an impasse. Without a budget, government services not considered vital are shut down and the staffs are furloughed. Among those services/staffs affected are those associated with New Jersey state parks. Yes, it appears as though state parks in New Jersey will be closed for the 4th of July holiday. And that includes state beaches like my particular favorite, Island Beach State Park. How out of touch can New Jersey politicians be, closing beaches during one of the most awaited summer vacation weekends of the year.

Out of touch? You ain't heard nothin' yet. How about this? Governor Christie, not about to have HIS family's vacation ruined, piled his clan into a state helicopter and spent Sunday afternoon on one of the closed beaches. Yes. Island Beach State Park.

Because he can. It's good to be King. Or at least, it's good to be a politician to whom the rules for the rest of us do not apply.

UPDATE: Christie has signed a budget deal and the parks may indeed be open, if not for the whole weekend at least for the holiday day. Christie says that it was not because of the hoopla caused by his little jaunt. (Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.) 

Monday, June 26, 2017

ENSEMBLE SCANDICUS: CONCERT REVIEW

Every summer, the Chapelle Saint-Germain de Cesseras holds a concert series, usually featuring early music from Bach on back. We've attended a few and found them thoroughly enjoyable. This Sunday's concert was no exception.

The chapel is located a kilometer off the road between Cesseras and Siran on a narrow track that winds through woods and vines. No reservations. Parking in a field. Tickets are 13 euros and include a tasting after the concert provided by a neighboring domain. The chapel, built in the 11th and 12th Centuries as the parish church of a village that has since disappeared, is quite simple with a dirt floor and a barely raised altar area. Folding chairs provide seating for about 100.

Ensemble Scandicus led off this year's series. Based in Toulouse, Scandicus features all male voices - two counter-tenors, two tenors, and a bass in Sunday's configuration. One tenor played flute and oud, a second tenor assisted occasionally on percussion, and an instrumentalist provided percussion and played a particularly delicate santour (a Persian form of hammered dulcimer). The program was a new one for the ensemble, sephardic music of Spain and across the Med from the 14th through the 17th Century.

I'm no vocal critic but I found the voices perfectly suited to each other and to the chapel. Those old stone spaces are made for this sort of music, requiring no amplification and ringing clear throughout the space. At points, a very few points, a bit of hesitation might have indicated that this new program required a bit more rehearsal. But that's a quibble. This was a truly enjoyable concert. The audience applauded long and loud at the finish. And even though the wine at the end was not exactly distinguished, at least it was cold and wet.

The next concert in the series should be interesting - Japanese shakuachi flute. In a thousand year-old chapel in France. A half hour from where I live. What a life!

Check out the Ensemble Scandicus website HERE.
Check out the concert schedule at the Chapelle Saint-Germain HERE.







Thursday, June 22, 2017

LE GRENIER DE PEPE, TOULOUSE: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Walking into the little space that Le Grenier de Pepe occupies just outside of the old town in Toulouse, you can believe that the dodads and gimcracks that make up the decor came down from someone's attic. Old tools, advertising plaques or plaques with humorous sayings, rusty lamps and broken clocks, all make for the type of atmosphere that some roadside restaurant chains in the US aim for but fail to pull off. In Pepe's Attic, it's genuine and it works.


We arrived at about 7:30 on a weekday evening without a reservation. Naughty children. And since we were a party of three, small two-person tables would have to be pushed together, leaving an empty place in a small room that probably needed to be filled in order to make the single sitting pay. After some thought, we were allowed in. We were fortunate. Within fifteen minutes, at least three other parties without reservations were turned away. 

 Le Grenier de Pepe advertises as a galette and fondue restaurant and those are your choices - an assortment of those fine savory French buckwheat galettes to choose from with crepes for dessert or fondues featuring either cheese or meats. Cathey chose the cheese fondue Normandy - a full pot combining livarot, camembert, Pont l'Eveque, and cider. Hot and tangy and cheesy good. Both Connie and I went for the meat, Connie the duck and beef for me. Connie's hotpot combined herbed cider, mine was white wine based. Connie's full duck breast was sliced quite thin and only required a few moments in the hot broth to cook through. Sweet, sweet duck. My beef was a bit chunky, requiring a bit longer to cook sufficiently, but well worth the wait. We shared from each other and we all agreed that the experience was unique, a fun and rewarding culinary find.

Fun? We were warned by our server that the cheese pot required constant stirring and that I, as the man at the table, was charged with the task. She would keep an eye on me, she said. And she did, pointing to her eye and back at me each time she bustled past our table. She also told us that if we didn't finish our entire meal, we would be required to do go back in the kitchen and do the dishes. Some might have found that sort of server interaction on the familiar side. We didn't and I think that she understood that.

Our dinners came with a choice of a salad or a charcuterie plate. Either made a satisfying start. The mains came with roasted potatoes. I finished with a couple of scoops of ice cream to ease my heated mouth. No other dessert. No coffees or digestifs. Rose en pichet for the girls and a beer for me. 80,50 euros total.

Well worth the price. Recommended.








Monday, June 12, 2017

MUSEE DES AUGUSTINS, TOULOUSE: A FEW PICS

Toulouse is a wonderfully pedestrian-friendly city. We parked the car on Monday afternoon and didn't fire it up again until Thursday morning. In between, we walked everywhere. One easy walk from our hotel in the center of town led us to the Musee des Augustins. Well, actually, two walks led us there. The first time, we discovered that the museum closed on Tuesdays. In any event, we finally made it through the door and spent several thoroughly enjoyable hours. I didn't take many pics. I'm particularly sorry that I didn't document the lovely central courtyard. But here is a sampling of what's in store should you visit. See if you can spot Mitch McConnell...