Back in the USA

Our recent trip to the US  got off to an ominous start.  Our flight from Marseille to Munich for the first leg of the journey was more than an hour late in departing.  We missed the connection to the transatlantic flight, and all Lufthansa flights to the US that afternoon.  We had to spend the night in Munich which wouldn't have been bad had we been in the city, but we were in the boonies at an airport hotel far from excitement.  At least Lufthansa paid for the hotel and dinner, although the latter was pathetic.

Fortunately all was on the upswing after our Munich misadventure.  We had wonderful family reunions, ate some very tasty food, did major damage to the credit card with power shopping, admired the exquisite fall colors, watched some interesting and informative television, and celebrated Halloween.

The trip began in Winchester, Va., where  Bicycle Bob's son Rob, wife Buffie and two grandsons, Samuel (6)and Lang (4) live with their gorgeous, three-legged cat, Shitake, (9). We visited an apple orchard where the boys delighted in picking apples.  We feasted on delicious apple cider and apple cider donuts. Blog4

Bob's daughter Kellie, a highly successful NYC graphic artist,  and boyfriend Michael joined us for the weekend and a visit to the Marterella winery, owned by Rob's boss, where we sampled excellent wines.  We learned that many former Virginia tobacco fields have been planted with grapevines, and wineries now abound in the area.

We joined a stream of cars on Skyline Drive which is the northern part of the Blue Ridge Parkway offering superb views of the Blue Ridge mountains, especially picturesque bathed in the orange, gold and red tones of autumn. 

Food was also a highlight of this part of the trip.  Rob grilled fish, beef filet and lamb. You can't beat American beef. We ate at a Mexican restaurant, a Thai restaurant featuring sushi, and an incredible supermarket, Wegman's, with counters offering a wide variety of hot food to eat in the restaurant section. 

Supermarkets are indeed super in the US. So huge and clean and offering such amazing selections.  Bob went overboard in the cereal section, bringing four boxes of healthy kinds not available here back in his suitcase.  (In addition to being a bicycle addict, he's a bit of a health fanatic.)

The department stores are another delight.  I had a field day in Macy's in Louisville which was the next stop on our trip.  It's such a joy to shop where the prices are in dollars, not euros. Compared to France, US stores offer bargains in clothes, shoes, linens.  We had to buy an extra suitcase to get our purchases back to France.

Blog16 My mother has been a resident of an assisted living home in Louisville, Kentucky.  She's 91, and sadly in her last days with a variety of medical problems.  But, we had a great reunion.   Joining us in Louisville were my brother Tom from San Francisco; brother Steve, wife Yoshie and son Tai (13) from Boulder, Colorado, and nephew David and his girlfriend Sabrina from northern Kentucky.

We had a dinner together at the home where Mother lives, complete with a chocolate Halloween cake.  My mother is a chocoholic.  We took her to Graeter's, famous for homemade ice cream where she  savored her favorite flavor. 

As a dedicated foodie, I did some Internet research on Louisville restaurants before our departure. We followed the recommendations to Ramsi's Cafe on the World, a funky and fun place with an extensive menuI was knocked out by "coconut scallops served with horseradish Mandarin sauce, fried plantains and spinach Alfredo"  Bob was equally pleased with "Pastafari," a tangy concoction of  blackened grouper over Kentucky spinach with roasted potatoes, tomatoes and gemelli pasta. We liked it so much we made a return trip with the group on Halloween, that unique American holiday.

No one does Halloween like Hillcrest Avenue in Louisville.  Every house on this long street decorates for the occasion: ghosts, goblins, skeletons, witches, graves with moving corpses, pumpkins and orange lights.  Some even featured live entertainment on the porch — costumed dancers. Blog25 Two had bands in the front yard. Crowds come to take it all in on foot on Halloween.  We joined the masses for the macabre, crazy, fun experience.

In Louisville we stayed at a motel  where every evening we enjoyed informative TV — political news commentary by Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.  Much better than CNN International which we watch in France.

Before returning to France, we spent two more days in Winchester.  I headed into nearby Washington, D.C., to meet Jolene Carpenter, the Stars and Stripes travel editor based in the city who has been handling the articles I write for the paper with TLC for 10 years.  It was great to put a face behind all those years of emails, and to enjoy a truly  gourmet lunch:  autumn squash risotto with baby scallops and pomegranate oil at Chef Geoff's.

While in the city I also met Gene Kramer, an old friend from the Journalists' International Ski Club.  Gene, who has served as an Associated Press bureau chief in many parts of the world, gave me a tour of the National Press Club after we had coffee in the prestigious surroundings.

Indeed, it was a "bon voyage," but it's also good to be back home in Provence. 

(For more photos click on the cat in the middle column.)

We Should Have Stayed Home

Well, it wasn't quite that bad.  But more seemed to go wrong than right during our recent mini-trip to the Cote d'Azur and hinterlands.

We booked a hotel in Villeneuve-Loubet-Plage, near Antibes and Nice as we wanted to visit both.  I also wanted to swim in the Med, and this reasonably-priced hotel offered both a private beach and pool.  It  
rated a plus.  Minus went to Marineland in Antibes, noted for shows with dolphins and seals.  It's also a Coast23
big amusement park.  I was interested in the sea creatures, not the rides.  I had a VIP visitor's pass from Nice which was supposed to include entry to Marineland, but it was refused.   I intended to write about Marineland for an article on the Riviera.  Journalists usually get free admission if they are to give a place free publicity.  Not so at Marineland where admission was 35 euros per person. For both Bob and me the equivalent of $103 to see some dolphins and seals.  We passed.

Off to downtown Antibes to visit the renowned Picasso museum. We arrived in the city at lunchtime.  The tourist office told us the museum would be closed until 2 p .m.  We had lunch, walked around the port admiring mega yachts, then ventured to the museum a few minutes before 2 p.m. We weren't the only ones.  The long line waiting for admission was a shock.  And, it barely moved.  It would take at least an hour before we'd view a Picasso canvas.

We departed sans Picasso and went back to the hotel where I had a wonderful swim, although the waves were gigantic for the Med.  Getting in and out of the sea was a challenge, and I was knocked over by the powerful surges of water more than once.

Next day was reserved for Nice. We wanted to ride the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus to see some of the attractions we had missed on a previous visit.  It was a lovely ride with fascinating commentary via a headset.  Our first stop was the Chagall museum. A plus, plus for this impressive collection of the artist's massive works depicting Biblical scenes.Coast7

The city's famous Russian church was to be our next stop.  As we were about to disembark from the bus, the driver announced that the church would not reopen until 2:30 p.m.  It was only 12:30, and there didn't  seem to be too much exciting in the neighborhood.  So much for the Russian church.  We stayed on the bus, completed the tour, then enjoyed walking around Nice's marvelous old town.  We went back to Oliviera, a shop specializing in olive oil.  They sell 18 different kinds.  We had a tasting and purchased three different kinds — our trip souvenir.

Day # three was a planned excursion into the hinterlands above the coast. We stopped first at Eze, hiked up to the chateau ruins and exotic garden, took photos — great  views of the Med below — and meandered in the cobbled streets which climb the hill and are lined with trendy, pricey boutiques.  We drove on, stopping at another quaint tourist hill town, Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Maybe I've lived in Europe Coast18 too long and have become jaded.  To me, all these towns begin to seem alike.  

Our stay that night was to be at a bed-and-breakfast home I found via the Internet.  We arrived at Bar-le-Loup where it was located, inquired at the tourist  office about its location, and were given a map with instructions. It was way below the perched town and the route to get there seemed tricky.  We wanted to quench our thirst with a beer and admire the setting before  searching for our abode. Alas, the town had no cafes, no bars.  

Off we went, down the mountain, with several arguments en route as to where we should turn.  We back tracked several times, returned to the tourist office which was of course closed, finally called the home and were given more precise instructions. At last we spotted a tiny sign to the bed-and-breakfast and made the correct turn.  The road – single lane, bumpy — descended deep into a forest.  No houses.  Strangely, there were lots of cars coming in the opposite direction.  We had to pull over and let them pass.  Down, down, down we went.  Where was this place?  Finally another sign — another two kilometers. It was getting dark.  We knew we'd have to repeat the journey to go find a restaurant for dinner.  Too much, and not a good road for our Honda S2000 sports car.  We bailed out.

Let's just drive on to Gourdon, I suggested, a town way up the mountain where we had been on a previous trip.  It has an incredible restaurant, Le Nid d'Aigle, (Eagle's Nest) on the edge of a cliff, a spectacular setting with incredible  views.  We had hoped to have lunch there the next day.  So, we drove  up and up, curve after curve.  At the edge of the town, I inquired about a hotel.  There are no hotels, I learned.  The nearest hotels were back down the mountain in Grasse.

Coast4
Would we ever find a place to sleep that night?  We reversed course and drove down, luckily finding a hotel on the edge of Grasse.  I had tried to make reservations at the Nid d'Aigle that day, but there was never any answer, so the first thing on the morning of day # four, I called to make a reservation.  "Sorry, but we're full."

Now what?  No reason to drive back up the mountain if we couldn't eat at this fabulous place.  I relayed our plight to our hotel owner who recommended a restaurant on the coast.  Fine, I'd had enough of the hills and was ready to head back to the sea.

The restaurant near Cannes in la Napoule was lovely, but expensive.  I ordered a mixed fish/seafood brochette which was tasty but came with little else.  Bob had the dish of the day, fish, and dessert.  We each had two glasses of wine.  Cost:  70 euros (about $100), and I was starving two hours later. Unfortunately most of our meals on the trip were in this category: disappointing.

Enough.  We had planned a five-day get-away, but as our luck had been so lousy, we decided to quit before another mishap.

That being said, the Cote d'Azur is gorgeous — and we will go back. See my photos.  Click on the photo in the middle column.

Pedaling with Bicycle Bob

When we first met many years ago I soon realized that bicycling would no doubt be an important part of the relationship.  Skiing was my sport, but I liked to ride bicycles, too.  My idea of a ride was a leisurely hour-long jaunt on flat terrain.  That was sissy stuff to Bicycle Bob (BB).  The higher the hill, the happier he was.

Vaucluse18 Soon after we met he suggested we ride from his apartment near Stuttgart to the company Fourth of July picnic near the city airport.  It seemed like a nice adventure, so off we went.  The first few hills were a struggle, but I was determined not to wimp out –until we came to the killer.  It was long, never-ending, and very steep.  He was far ahead as I huffed and swore. This was not my idea of fun.  How could he do this do me?  I had to get off and push.  It was hot.  I was miserable, torn between anger and tears.

We made it to the picnic, but I was wiped out, drained, ragged.  I refused to speak to him until a beer calmed my spirits. I couldn't comprehend his dedication to this torture. Give me a ski slope. Fortunately the ride home  was mostly downhill, and fun.  Maybe it's because of skiing, but I love soaring downhill at top speed. 

I had a choice — tell him to ride by himself, or learn to climb hills on two wheels.  I've never understood those relationships where the guy goes off and does his thing on the golf course or at the bowling alley, leaving the little woman behind.  I wanted a together rapport.  I would have to conquer those hills.

Since those early days we've ridden thousands of miles throughout Europe, in Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, England. (I still hate hills and lag far behind on the tough ascents).  We especially like to set out on lengthy journeys of several days with our gear loaded into panniers.

 Our very favorite biking country is Switzerland where I mastered mountains — not just hills. The Alpine country is criss-crossed with nine national bike routes.  We've ridden six, all a joy.  With true Swiss precision, the routes are well marked with signs so you rarely need to get off and consult a map.  BikeGrisons-4 There are books accompanying each route with strip maps and symbols indicating when the going  gets rough (extra steep, heavy traffic, etc)  with alternate means of transportation suggested — train, bus, boat, even ski lifts.  We've used all.  Personnel were always very helpful with loading the bikes.  

BB even rode to the top of the Goddard Pass (elevation 2,108 meters) on the north-south route from Basel to Chiasso. There I did wimp out and took the easy way to the summit, a bus with my bike and gear and BB's gear.  The Lake Route, from Montreux on Lake Geneva to Rorschach on Lake Constance (500 km) was my favorite with incredible scenery.  BB liked the Jura Route, from Basel to Nyon (275 km).  We're hoping to find time next summer to add another Swiss challenge to our list.

Since we lived in Germany for many years, we pedaled lots in Deutschland.  The country's extensive network of Radwege (bike routes) is impressive, marked routes mostly off road on trails and lanes, through fields and forests, around towns and villages.  We enjoyed riding the Danube route to Passau, but never made it as far as Vienna.  In Austria, however, we did ride the Salzkammergut route around hills and lakes near Salzburg which was another winner.

It's thanks to  bicycling that we live in this part of France.  Years ago I joined a press trip to introduce a new velo (bike) route, 236 km around the Luberon in Provence. We only rode a small section, but I was impressed. I knew BB would like it.  He was nearing retirement and we had hopes of moving to France.  This might be the perfect area.

Mozart-8 Several months later we returned to ride the entire route.  Along the way we stopped at real estate offices and inquired about an unfurnished house to rent on a long term basis.  Most of the representatives we spoke with were discouraging. People rent for the season here, we were told.  Our luck changed in Forcalquier where an agent said she had not one but two houses to rent.  One was in the town of Cereste on our bike route.  We pedaled off and met her at the house.  It was perfect.  We immediately agreed to rent it and moved the following spring.

We've since bought a house and moved again.  Now that we are homeowners, somehow we don't seem to find as much time to ride as we had planned.  And, in the summer, it's often too hot as the terrain here is challenging.  BB gets his dose of hills. 

Now fall is in the air.  We're gearing up for more rides, but probably not up to the top of Mount Ventoux, the famous Tour de France peak.  BB once said he wanted to take on this mountain, but after driving to the summit, he changed his mind. The last six km are straight up.  He's happy to leave that to Lance Armstrong and crowd and cycle with me – even though I'm still far behind on the hills.  But, I get my revenge on the ski slopes where he brings up the rear.

VIVA FRENCH HEALTH CARE

It's a scandal, an abomination.  How can the United States, the world's fourth wealthiest nation according to the World Bank, continue to deny health insurance to every citizen?  Some 47 million Americans have no health insurance.  Will Congressmen and Senators continue to do battle over this vital issue while some 14,000 more Americans lose their health insurance everyday and another 2,500 file for bankruptcy due to medical costs?

One of the reasons my husband and I chose to retire to France five years ago was the excellent health care system.  Here's what a Business Week article had to say about French health care:

"In a recent World Health Organization health-care ranking, France came in first, while the U.S. scored 37th, slightly better than Cuba and one notch above Slovenia.  France's infant death rate is 3.9 per 1.000 live births, compared with 7 in the U. S., and the average life expectancy is 79.4 years, two years more than in the U.S.  The country has far more hospital beds and doctors per capita than America, and far lower rates of death from diabetes and heart disease."

As foreigners living here we are obliged to have private health insurance or join the national health insurance.  All French citizens have the state insurance, which we chose for cost reasons.  Our premiums are based on income, but are less than those for private insurance.  Our yearly premium varies with the exchange rate, but is currently about $2,300.

Both French workers and employers make obligatory contributions (deductions from salary for workers) to the national health insurance.  The system is also funded by tax on alcohol and tobacco.  Children up until 18 years of age are covered by their parents insurance.  If they pursue studies after the age of 18, they benefit from student health insurance.  If workers lose their jobs, they are still covered by the state health insurance.

Most medical costs are reimbursed at a rate of 70 percent.  To cover the additional 30 percent, most buy a supplemental insurance which, depending on the premiums paid, will reimburse all or a portion of the additional charges.  Our supplemental insurance costs 151 euros ($217) per month.

When you are accepted in the national insurance program, you receive a "carte vitale," a green plastic card akin to a credit card.  You present it when you visit a doctor, hospital, laboratory or pharmacy.  We were accepted into the system with no questions asked about pre-existing conditions.

You are obliged to have a "medecin traitant," a local generalist whom you visit first for any illness.  He or she will refer you to a specialist if needed.  Doctor visits to the medecin traitant cost 22 euros(about $31.50).  With our two insurances, state and supplemental, all is refunded. There are no deductibles. Reimbursements are paid directly into our bank account.

Specialist charges vary depending on the doctor.  I have been to many and in most cases have been fully reimbursed.  Prescription medications are almost always fully covered, and at the pharmacy, you just need to present your "green" card — no cash payment.

I've been hospitalized twice, once for a mysterious  infection, and once for hermia surgery.  Almost all surgery is covered at 100 percent, but I paid nothing for either hospital visit. I've  had numerious sessions of physical therapy for back and neck problems.  All were completely covered by the insurance.  I've had a colonoscopy, all sorts of blood tests, countless X-rays.  All completely covered.

Another bonus to French medical care: house calls.  Doctors make them.  After my hernia surgery, a visiting nurse came to the house to change my bandages several times a week.  A nurse came to our home twice to give us shots for a trip to Southeast Asia. (We purchased the serum at the pharmacy. It was not reimbursed.)

Even without supplemental insurance, those with a serious illness — 30 different diseases come under this category and include cancer, heart disease and insulin-dependent diabetes — are entitled to 100 percent reimbursement for all related expenses.  I have two British friends with MS.  Both get 100 percent reimbursement.  I have a French friend with cancer.  Not only are all his chemotherapy treatments completely reimbursed, the insurance also pays his taxi expenses to and from a hospital in a nearby town for the treatments.

Pregnant women are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, usually six weeks prior to the birth and then a following 10 weeks.  Fathers receive 11 consecutive days of paid paternity leave.  Both are funded by the French social security system.

I was recently prescribed a three-week "cure" for arthritis.  I am entitled to daily three hour-long treatments during this time at a medical spa — all completely covered.  In my case, I will have to pay for lodging and meals at the facility, but as it's only an hour away by car, I will probably opt to make the daily trip by car.

We're more than satisfied with French medical care.  Don't all Americans deserve similar benefits?  Not just some Americans — all Americans. 

For more about the fabulous French system, see the Business Week article, pointed out by my friend Lynne Cryster: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_28/b4042070.htm

FRANCE EN FETE

Festivals abound in Provence in the summer months. I've been to many, community celebrations in honor of lavender, cheese, pumpkins, hunting dogs, truffle dogs, melons, lemons, gardens…plus many focusing on music and meals.

On Bastille Day, July 14, I head to a neighboring village, Vacheres, for their celebration  which commemorates the storming of the Bastille fortress-prison on July 14, 1789, and the beginning of the French Revolution.

The Vacheres fete is mainly about food, an obsession with the French.  A school yard is transformed Festival 6 into a huge picnic grounds with long tables under an open-sided tent.  There's music, camaraderie, and lots of kissing as everyone seems to know most everyone and air kisses on each side of the cheek are the de rigueur greeting.  But the reason for the gathering is to eat.  This year it was an aioli festival.

Aioli, garlic mayonnaise, is a favorite in Provence, but also refers to a Provencal dish: boiled vegetables (green beans, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower), hard-boiled eggs and boiled fish (usually  desalted salt cod) — all accompanied with the garlic-mayo.  It's not my favorite, but at Vacheres it was preceded by an aperitif, a type of cherry punch served with lots of tasty snacks, then followed by cheese and melon, plus all the wine (red or rose) you cared to drink.   You could have seconds, even thirds, of the aioli. Not bad for 15 euros ($21).

Marie Terese and  her companion on the keyboard provided the entertainment.  She does a passable Festival 2 imitation of Piaf and sings other old French favorites.  The crowd loved it — lots of clapping and cheering.  After her performance, locals took to the stage, an Italian singing opera, a young girl, a group of teens.  It was all quite jolly. 

Past Bastille Day meals in Vacheres have included paella and a Sardinade (grilled sardines) — my favorite. Another Provencal dish, soupe au pistou, was the focus of a festival in the village of Viens  several years ago. Pistou is the Provence version of pesto, but made without pine nuts.  The hearty green soup is rich in vegetables — heavy on green beans — and all flavored with pistou.

At that festival  you were expected to bring your own dishes and silverware. I showed up without, but was quickly supplied. It seemed strange to be feasting on soup on a hot summer's night, but it was delicious, although after waiting for more than two hours, maybe anything would have been delicious.  The fete was supposed to begin at 8 p.m. Hundreds of people, a melange of children, newborn babies, their parents, senior citizens and teens,  sat at long, long tables in a park.  At 10 p.m. they started banging on the tables.  Where's the food?  At 10:15 huge cauldrons of the soup, each carried by two men, arrived. I had three bowls, my husband had four, plus lots of wine, a cheese course and ice cream with apple cake.  Worth the wait.

The Frenchman next to me explained that each bowl of soup would taste differently depending on who IMG_0157 made it (all had been prepared by locals) and how long it cooked.  In addition to eating, the French love to talk about food. "It's one of their favorite topics," a French chef once told me.

A meal based on truffles was the star attraction of a festival in honor of truffle dogs.  This was a winter festival in a tiny village where there were stands selling truffles, sausages, cheese etc., and truffle dogs who were led to a field where the prized fungi had been buried.  They went crazy digging the dirt which covered the truffles.  The pricey meal (35 euros/$49), each course enhanced by truffles, was a disappointment.  I couldn't detect any special, fantastic tastes.

The only food to be had at the Festival of St. Jean in nearby Mane was grilled sausage.  The festival, however, was a winner. The feast of St. Jean the Baptist on June 24 is traditionally celebrated with huge fires. The Mane fete was a pyromaniac's dream.

It began with music, more precisely, the pounding and banging of large drums by a "band" of mainly teenage girls.  Their dynamic male leader directed them in different rhythms.  The crowd — all ages, all sizes– followed the band up a path of cobblestones, then dirt, to the castle atop a hill.  Darkness was aproaching.  Lights below began to twinkle.  The views of the surrounding Luberon hills were spectacular.

The pounding never stopped.  It was hypnotic. Then the torch-distributors arrived.  Everyone was given a torch — a type of candle on a long stick.  Even small children got torches. The fires were passed from torch to torch so that everyone's torch was burning  for the parade back down to the village.  The crowd was dense.  There were precarious, stony steps to navigate.  The path was narrow. Some torches blazed out of control. It was exciting, but scary.   No way U.S. fire regulations would have permitted this flaming scenario.

Back at the market place, a gigantic tower of wooden crates had been erected.  More drum pounding. Some started dancing.  Then the signal was given and the torches were thrown onto the crates.  Soon it was a roaring blaze with flames dancing high into the night sky.  The crowd moved back to escape the heat. Not a fire truck in sight, but a man stood by holding a hose.

The drums took a rest and a rock band took over.  Everyone — well almost everyone — started dancing. First there was a chain dance, with revelers linking hands and dancing around the  flames. Then random dancing. Parents with children, children with children, young lovers, teenage girls, old folks. This was a party.  And, there was nary an accident.

 The Oriental fete in Reillanne, my town, several years ago featured a belly dancer and a mid-Eastern meal of tagine.  A regular dance followed the meal, although there were some Oriental sounds which prompted many of the female festival goers to try belly dancing. Very amusing.

I sat with Kenneth and Marjorie, a British couple who were vacationing at the nudist camp outside of town and entertained me with stories of life without clothes.  "You never have to worry about what to wear," Marjorie said.

Last year I went to Avignon for the theatre festival which takes place in the town every July, an entire month of theatrical and musical performances at venues throughout the city. Festival 7 I did not attend an actual theatrical event, but enjoyed the pre-festivities in the streets.  Costumed thespians, musicians and dancers wander through the narrow streets of the old city, passing out flyers with the hopes of  enticing members of the crowd to attend their particular performance.  Some actually stop in squares and stage mini-performances. They interact with the crowd. It's wonderful entertainment.  I'll go back again soon.

Just a few weeks ago I ventured to Cruis for its annual music festival.  A different band plays at each of the small city's squares.  There are also strolling bands and a church concert.  It's crowded, lively and fun and goes on until the wee hours.  But, unfortunately there was little food.

There's no reason to be bored in Provence in summer.   For more photos of fetes, click on the photo in the center column.