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.


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:


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.



To Market, To Market

Markets are the essence of Provence.  Most towns have a market  at least one day each week — morning events where you can find the luscious products and produce of Provence. Plump green and black olives, cheese, sausage, clothes, ceramics, baskets, products made from olive wood, tools and gadgets, jewelry, Provencal souvenirs and colorful fabrics, plus fruits and vegetables and more.  All outdoors in the glorious sunshine. Shopping has never been so much fun.

Market17   Our town, Reillanne, has a wonderful Sunday market that is especially bustling in the summer when tourists join local shoppers.  I go almost every week, year round, and have my favorite vendors.

Reynard Bouchard specializes in "products of Provence that are grown with lots of love." He stands behind his picture-perfect display  of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, nectarines, raspberries .. and offers customers an "apricot for breakfast,"  then proceeds to recommend making a sauce for duck with the succulent fruit. (I did — excellent)  One of his patrons offers another suggestion– an apricot tart with lavender.

"I adore coming here," he says.  "I can speak with everyone, give advice, explain my products… I speak of love."  His truffle dog, Cerise, sleeps under the stand, ignoring other dogs who come by. (Many shoppers bring their dogs to the market, and many dogs belonging to locals wander among the stands in Reillanne. ) 

For cheese, I visit Daniel Nigro who sells between 200 –250 kinds of cheese from his large truck with a side-panel that opens up to a display.  Nigro has a regular clientele, many of whom he knows by first name and greets with the obligatory air kiss on both sides of the cheek.  He chats, he jokes, he recommends, he offers tastes.  That's how I discovered my favorites — aged Beaufort and Brie de Meaux.

Like most market merchants, Nigro follows a circuit, traveling to a different town every morning to sell his products.  He's in Manosque on Saturday, Forcalquier on Monday….but Reillanne on Sunday is his favorite.  "The people here are very nice.  It's Sunday.  People are relaxed," he says.

Nigro sells goat cheese (chevre), but for that I visit Pierre Maulet, a young farmer who has 45 goats.  His cremeux chevre is exquisite. Maulet, 27, said working the markets, especially Reillanne on Sunday, can be demanding.  "I only had 1 1/2 hour of sleep last night," he says, explaining that he was out late at a festival.

"People think it's not trying to work the market, but it's difficult," explained a pretty woman who sells jewelry from India.  She preferred to remain anonymous, but did say that she has to get up at 6 a.m. to get to the market and set up her stand.  She travels to India where she spends a month every year to buy her products  — silver jewelry, some with stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise and onyx.

Clothes from India are the specialty of Sylvie and her daughter.  Like the jewelry seller, she spends  a month in India every year where she has the clothes made following her designs.  I always admire her fashions, very trendy and chic, but out of my price range.

I like the bargains offered by Carmen Soustre, a jolly woman with a range of moderately priced tops, pants, skirts and dresses hanging from racks under a tarp.  Like most market vendors, Soustre likes "meeting people."

"This is what we want to do.  We meet lots of people," Market5 says Martine Caron, who, with her husband, Didier, sells products from their farm — "four hectares with lots of animals" — plus some 20 different kinds of confiture that she makes.  The flavors are innovative:  poires au caramel (pears with caramel), bananes a la vanille, and my favorite, tomates au romarin et vinagre balsamique  (tomatoes with rosemary and balsamic vinegar).  She suggested I serve the latter with cheese.  She's right.  It's very tasty. 

Sylvaine Contour also sells confiture, 15 sweet varieties, plus 15 "salty."  In the latter category are vegetable pates.  She gave me a taste of  Delices de Carottes au Carvi  (Carrots with caraway). Delicious –I had to buy a jar, plus a jar of Aubergine au Curry (curried eggplant).

Olives — the taste of Provence — are always on my list.  Jasmine Lubineau sells 13 different kinds, mostly Provencal olives, but some from Spain, plus the jumbo Kalamata olives from Greece.  I usually buy some of the Kalamata, plus her Provencal melange, a mixture of different kinds of both black and green olives, with bits of onion and other tasty tidbits.

For bread, it's Pascal Boffa with 17 different kinds of bread all baked in ovens fired by wood and made without yeast.  "These are products of the region made with local flours," he says. His most popular bread is demi-complet made with three different grains and rich in fiber.   I prefer his nut and olive breads.

Market10 For flowers, it's Francois Bonnet, although in summer I don't buy flowers as we have an ample supply in our yard. But it's a treat to buy from Bonnet who touts the merits of special blooms, gives specific instructions on care, and painstakingly arranges gorgeous bouquets.  He often adds an extra stem at no extra cost.

"He's delightful," says one of his regulars. "The quality of his flowers is the best… his bouquets last for 15 days. He's passionate about flowers."

As for Bonnet, "It's always a pleasure to sell flowers," he says. He enjoys working at the market which he calls "a happy event."

Nazmi Uzunca, A Turk and vendor of Turkish jewelry, most of which he makes, also likes the joyous ambience of the markets.  For some 30 years he's been selling at between five and six markets each week. "I'm very happy in France," he says. "Turkey is beautiful, but it's changing a lot, becoming too religious.  I hate religion.  I believe in God, but not religion."

Viviane Angelvin is the placiere regisseuse (traveling agent) at the Reillanne market.  It's her job to collect fees from the vendors who pay 1,10 euros per linear meter for their space.  In summer there are about 53 stands in Reillanne, although in winter the number drops to 20.  "The market has really grown in the past 20 years.  It's very varied with all kinds of products for all tastes," she says  "Reillanne is noted for its Sunday market. People know we have it and they come."

After shoppinig I often meet friends on the terrace of the Cafe du Cour overlooking the market.  It's a delightful ritual. We sip pink wine and catch up on news.

GERMANY: A few of my favorite things

Bicycle Bob and I recently returned from our annual trek to Germany, a country where we had both lived for many, many years. We chose to move to southern France several years ago when Bob retired.  We don't regret our decision.  We love the climate here.  The food and wine aren't bad either. Yet it's always a delight to trek back over the Alps to Deutschland and savor our favorite things.

BayWald-4 Beer.  Yes, the French make beer, but it's a poor substitute for a frothy Pils vom Fass or an Export served in a large glass mug. One of life's delightful pleasures is getting off your bicycle at a German beer garden on a warm summer's day to sit under an umbrella of green branches and quench your thirst with a cold beer.  Speaking of bicycles — Germany is one of the best countries in Europe for pedaling pleasure.  Civilized trails abound, through fields, woods and villages. 

The beer is even better accompanied with a Brezel. I crave those giant, doughy, salty German pretzels.  They are to die for if they are warm and smeared with butter — the way they are sold at many street snack stands or Imbisses.

Another Imbiss favorite not to be found in France is the curry wurst, chunks of succulent wurst smothered in a tangy ketchup curry sauce.  With a plate of frites, it's no doubt a sinful indulgence, but soo good.  Of course, Germany is the mother land of the wurst. Thueringer.  Nuernberger. Weisswurst — three of my favorites that I search out on our return trips.

Move on to the bakery or Baeckerei. Berliners and Broetchen (breakfast rolls).  I can't knock French bread, but those crusty, crunchy breakfast rolls are the best way to start a day.  Yes, I even like them better than croissants.  And Berliners, the ultimate jelly donut.  The French have a go at them, but I've learned they're not worth wasting calories on.

Then the pastry shop or Konditorei.  Those with an adjoining cafe are the best.Odenwald-valentine 1   Check out the gorgeous cakes, multi-layered creations that beg for a taste.  Select one and sit down to savor it with a Kaennchen Kaffee — not a single cup, but a whole pot of the rich brew.  This is a uniquely German experience.  There are plenty of cafes in France, and tempting pastry shops — but rarely under one roof.

Germans love ice cream, especially Italian Eis.  It seems almost every town, even tiny burgs, has an Italian Eiscafe offering a multitude of flavors.  Not so in France. French ice cream is OK, but in our parts you don't find that many shops or street stands where you can buy a cone.

You won't find many Italian restaurants either. When we lived in Germany, we had several favorite Italian restaurants near our home — great for an inexpensive pasta meal.  Here we usually eat our pasta at home.  Other ethnic restaurants also abound in Gemany:  Greek, Turkish, Spanish, Thai, Indian.  In the Luberon where we live, it's French restaurants and more French restaurants.  Good, but we miss the variety we found in Germany.

In the sping I miss Spargel.  In Germany, stalks of white asparagus are exquisite, inspiring a cult-like adoration with fans standing in line to purchase the seasonal speciality at outdoor stands. You can find white asparagus in France, but it bears little resemblance to those fat, tender spears grown in German fields.  In the summer and fall, I miss all those fabulous German festivals — wine fests, beer fests, church fairs, community celebrations, onion fests, flower fests, street fests — you name it and they have a fest for it.  The food, the gemuetlichkeit, the oom-pah music — only in Germany.  And in December, I miss the Christmas markets.  Yes, the French now have their versions.  But if you have been to a genuine German holiday market with Gluehwein (mulled wine), grilled wurst, spice cookies, marzipan, Christmas carols and nativity scenes, you won't settle for poor imitations.

Fat down comforters, autobahns without toll booths, hotels that include breakfast in the room price — just a few more of my favorite German things.

In praise of France I must add that the acceptance of credit cards almost everywhere here is a wonderful thing.  Not so in Germany.  If you don't have a German bank card, too often you must pay cash.

France is fabulous. The sun in the south is splendid.  If only the French beer were better, the festivals more frequent and more fun, the restaurants more diversified….