25 February 2018

De la vraie pho soupe

I've lost track of how many days I've been suffering with this lousy cold and cough. Too many. I'm taking everybody's advice and continuing to eat as much hot soup as I can.

The title of this post is a play on words using a cute French expression I hear often. Somebody describing the material covering the seats in your car or the armchairs in your study might say it's « du vrai faux cuir » — "genuine imitation leather" we might say in America. "Real fake leather."


Pho is a Vietnamese soup that's usually made with beef broth. The broth is flavored with onions and spices, and the soup is served with thinly sliced beef, rice noodles, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs including coriander, basil, mint, etc. Here's a list of ingredients from a recipe I found on the web:

2 large onions
1 "hand" of ginger
4 liters of beef bouillon
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 tablespoons of fish sauce (nuoc mâm)
3 star anise "seed pods"
1 stick of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
3 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
2 cloves

The idea is to boil or simmer the broth, whether freshly made, frozen, or store-bought, with all those spices and aromatics for an hour or two (or longer) until it's highly flavored. Optionally, you could put a couple of dried cayenne or other peppers in the pot to "hot up" the broth a little bit. Also, you can cut the onions in half and grill or broil them until they are slightly charred to add that smoky, caramel flavor to the pho.


To serve the pho, first have the hot broth boiling and ready to go. Scoop out all the spices using a slotted spoon or a strainer. Then, separately, cook some Asian rice or other noodles (wheat, soybean, buckwheat) in water according to the directions on the package. Slice some tender, fresh, lean raw beef into very thin strips. Put a serving of hot noodles in a pre-heated bowl and lay some strips of beef over them. Immediately ladle enough steaming hot pho broth over the noodles and beef to cover.

The beef will cook slightly, as you can see in the photos above, and stay nice and tender. Top the soup with some bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Stir and eat, adding fresh-squeezed lime juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, more fish sauce, and, optionally, some thinly sliced fresh red chili peppers.

As with most "classic" dishes, there are probably as many recipes for pho as there are cooks who make it. Here's one that looks good. There's a recipe for a quick chicken pho on Simply Recipes.

24 February 2018

Couleurs hivernales

Winter colors. Muted, but striking. I took these photos on my walk three mornings ago. I think I was just realizing then that I had caught a cold.



Oaks, like these saplings, don't lose their leaves in winter. Instead the foliage turns bright orange and hangs on until spring, when new growth pushes off the old.


Walt posted a photo of this maison de vigneron — vine workers' shed — a couple of days ago. As he said, we've never seen the doors open a single time since we moved here in 2003. They're padlocked. There must not be anything usable or of any kind of value inside.


Willows grow around the vineyard. Usually, somebody trims off all the yellow "whips" so that new ones will grow on the stumps. The whips can be used to make baskets. Old Monsieur Denis used to trim them, but he never makes vineyard appearances any more. He's in his 80s now and can't walk much.

I walked the dog yesterday morning. The weather was dry, but not the ground. The temperature was below freezing, but just barely, and the ground was not frozen solid. I'm glad I don't have to go out there this morning. Last night, I went to bed at seven and I got at my usual time these days, five a.m. I slept for 10 hours, then. The cold is no better.

23 February 2018

Bon anniversaire

Yesterday was Callie's birthday. She would have turned 11 if she had made it this far. Today, meanwhile, is Natasha's birthday — her first. Here are three photos of one-year-old Tasha taken during recent walks in the vineyard. They weren't intentionally posed, and are blurrier than I might like.

Stance

Glance

Trance

Tasha's health is good. Mine is crummy right now. The cold is in my nose and in my chest. The soup we had for lunch yesterday didn't cure me.

22 February 2018

Water views



I seem to have come down with a cold. Great. I guess it's not surprising. My body is fundamentally tired after all it's been through over the past four or five weeks. And now the weather is turning much colder, with snow in the forecast for next week. This week, the rain has stopped but the landscape is water, water everywhere.


We expected to see our part-time neighbor this week, but her house has remained empty and shuttered. In fact, two other houses we can see from our windows stand empty right now. This neighbor is a retired teacher but still active in education projects and volunteer work. She lives in the Paris suburbs and travels a lot. Since the winter vacation for French schools has now started, we thought she might come spend time in what was her late husband's family home. Maybe she's in India or Africa... or somewhere else exotic... instead.

The soil in the vineyard and in our yard is made up mostly of clay and limestone. It's fairly impermeable, so water runs off as much as it soaks in. Anyway, the ground is completely saturated right now, after several months of frequent rain. Puddles like the one to the right are all around. You have to be careful where you step. You might end up ankle deep in muck. And expect your pants legs to be spattered with mud.


Even where there are no puddles, the ground is slippery the way clay is when it's water-saturated. Slippin' and a-slidin' is how we make our way up and down rows of vines. I took these photos at sunrise yesterday morning. The sky was foggy and the sun was an orange ball coming up behind a stand of trees.


There are five or six water holes of various sizes around the vineyard, and all of them are pretty full right now. This coming week, they will be frozen over, and maybe snow-covered. In spite of the cold and my cold, we have to go out today to take the car to our mechanic for some brake work. I hope bad weather doesn't end up scuttling our planned road trip to the Allier river valley.

21 February 2018

Projets et explications

Something I haven't done since my mother passed away nearly three weeks ago is thank all of you who left sympathy and condolence messages in comments on this blog at the time. Thank you. I thought for a while I would try to answer your comments individually, but I can tell that is not going to happen right away. Know that I appreciate all the comments you left.

We are now gearing up for a short road trip in March. That means getting the Citroën car serviced and planning the food and belongings we'll take to the gîte rural that we've reserved. The trip has been planned for a while. We'll leave Saint-Aignan on my birthday and drive to the Allier area, north of Vichy, for four or five days.


As you can see in these photos, we've been having a lot of rain (alert the media!) around here. I went out yesterday and was surprised to see that the river is again overflowing. There don't seem to be any houses under water, but the garden allotments and the fields along the river are really flooded. All the little ponds and water holes out in the vineyard are full to overflowing. The ground is sloppy wet, and the jeans I wear for walks with Natasha are splattered with mud.


A lot of bulbs in the yard and vineyard have sent up leaves, and some are even starting to flower. I noticed a few primroses flowering out in the yard yesterday, and ones that haven't yet sent up flowers are like little bushes of leaves (above) already. Unfortunately, it's supposed to turn cold next week, with low temperatures down around –6ºC (as low as 20ºF). I'm sure a lot of the new growth around the area will be killed.
We'll be able to cover some of the beds where bulbs have come up, and we can wrap our little fig tree to try to protect it from frost. But my plum tree, which Walt says is covered in buds, will probably once again fall victim to cold weather. Oh well... I'd like warmer weather for our road trip, but a thaw might mean the rains will return. If it's cold, it'll be clear and we'll be able to do more sightseeing and take more photos. Let's hope the last month of winter won't be too brutal.

20 February 2018

Unfocused

Tasha is sleeping quietly on the rug right next to my chair as I type this. What a difference in her behavior now that she is nearly a year old. Six months ago, she would have been running round the room, chewing on whatever she could find to chew on, and barking her shrill little bark. I like today's dog better than yesterday's, I think. Natasha est sage comme une image maintenant.


Here are a few more photos that I took a couple of days ago around the yard. I was using the Canon camera that I hardly ever think to take out and use. I think I've done that camera a kind of injustice by not using it more often. Now I want to give it to a friend. I've often thought about selling it on, for example, the French Au Bon Coin web commerce site, but I've never gotten around to uploading the ad.


I don't think that bricks like the one pictured above, with a Saint-Aignan logo stamped onto it, were used in the construction of our house back in the 1960s. And I don't know why there were half a dozen or more of them scattered around the property when we bought it 15 years ago. Such bricks date back to the days when every little town had its own brick works for local construction projects. It wasn't easy to haul bricks over long distances in those days.


The vineyard scene above shows one of my favorite views here close to the house. As one local vigneron told me years ago, around Saint-Aignan we have de vrais coteaux — actual hills and slopes — on which grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Malbec/Côt, and Chenin Blanc, among others, do well. In other areas not far away, you see grapes planted on flat land. Apparently, the topography makes a difference in the nature of the wines produced from the grapes. That's what terroir is all about.


Finally, our house doesn't have a roof made with these old terra cotta tiles, but several older houses in the hamlet do. People keep stacks of roof tiles to use as spares in case strong winds blow them off the roof, requiring patching. The tiles on our roof are made of concrete, and we also have a stack of them in reserve. Eight or nine years ago a strong storm ripped a dozen or so tiles off our roof, so the extras we saved when we had skylight windows installed upstairs came in handy. Oh, I took this last photo using one of my Panasonic Lumix cameras. Can you see a difference?

19 February 2018

Wintertime flowers and a Canon camera

Because I couldn't call MA yesterday — well, not only for that reason — I called an old friend in California. Her name is Sue, and I've known her since 1975. We met in Paris through another longtime friend of mine, who happened to be Sue's cousin Cheryl. Sue, Cheryl, Walt, and I got to be really good friends when we all lived in northern California between 1986 and 2003. Unfortunately, Cheryl passed away a couple of years ago. Her husband, John, had left us in 1998. We haven't seen Sue in nearly 12 years (time flies).

The real reason for my call to Sue was that she had phoned me while I was in North Carolina and I'd had to cut the call short because I had some appointment or another that I needed to keep. Sue had been traveling and when she returned home she saw on this blog that my mother had passed away. She knew my mother for many years, and MA always described Sue as "such a pretty girl." MA loved Sue's house and yard in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

Another reason for my call was that Sue will be coming to spend a couple of weeks with us in June. We are coordinating our schedules and making plans. One definite stop during her visit will be a trip to the Château de Villandry to walk around in the gardens. Sue has come to the Loire Valley three times since the year 2000, but one sight she's never seen, she told me yesterday, is Villandry, which is only about an hour west of Saint-Aignan. Sue will also be traveling to Croatia while she's in Europe for most of May and June.

Sue and I also talked about cameras. She said her Panasonic had developed a splotch (a hazy dark spot) on its image sensor and she was thinking of buying a new camera. I told her how I had opened up and cleaned the innards of two of my Panasonic cameras recently. She's going to bring her camera to France in June and let me try to clean it. Meanwhile, I want to send her one of my digital cameras so she'll have time to use it before her trip and see if it meets her needs. It's a Canon model (SX700 HS), and I took the pictures here with it yesterday.


18 February 2018

Telephone memories of MA

Today, February 18, would have been my mother's 88th birthday. She left this world 15 days ago, felled by cancer. Mary Allen, as we knew her, always believed she would die young, because both her parents did. That turned out to be a wrong-headed notion. Eighty-eight is certainly a respectable age.

A "burn pile" of tree limbs, branches, and other yard trimmings on a neighbor's property

It will seem strange not to pick up the telephone and talk to MA this afternoon. She had come to Saint-Aignan a couple of times and met several of our neighbors. I had been traveling back to North Carolina to see her once or twice a year for the past 15 years, so I got to know many of her friends and neighbors. We had a lot of people we enjoyed talking about — not to mention all the members of our extended family. RIP, MA.

17 February 2018

Ground and trunks

It's wintertime, of course, and it's raining again this morning. Yesterday, however, was a pretty day, and I enjoyed taking some photos during my afternoon stumble around the vineyard with Natasha. It's slippery wet out there, and branches and limbs litter the ground.


Cyclamens are blooming in the yard, mostly under the big Himalayan cedar on the north side of the house. I've also been seeing a lot of primrose leaves, but there are no flowers so far. Our weekend is supposed to be dry, so I'll be able to get back into the routine of walking mornings and afternoons.

16 February 2018

Squelettique

I took this photo on a dock in the Crab Point area of Morehead City, on the Newport River. Friends of a friend live there.This is the spot from which I took the photo of the new Beaufort high-rise bridge that I posted a few days ago.


The people living there said they just found the dead fish on the dock some time ago. It had been brought up onto the dock and consumed by a bird or mammal of some kind — maybe an otter, they said, though I'm not sure there are otters in the rivers around Morehead.

P.S. I read this information on this site: In North Carolina, "...otters are found primarily in the Coastal Plain, where they can be fairly common to locally common around estuaries, lower portions of rivers, large creeks, and canals — in the Tidewater area and eastern Coastal Plain. Farther inland, they are uncommon to fairly common in the remainder of the Coastal Plain, generally uncommon in the eastern Piedmont, and rare to locally uncommon farther westward. During historical times, it was more widespread, but it has declined greatly in the 20th and 21st Centuries, though it is making a comeback in some places." My doubts were groundless.

15 February 2018

One thing at a time

Le vol. The flight. The plane was only about half full. I don't think the non-stop Paris-to-Raleigh-Durham run will last much longer at this rate. I should have said that the other way around: RDU-to-CDG. The flight over to RDU was pretty much full on February 2. The flight back from RDU to Paris was under-booked yesterday, as it was last October when I came back from N.C.

But a very pleasant flight it was. The plane lifted off at about 6 p.m. EST and the pilot came on the intercom to announce that total flight time would be only 6 hours and 50 minutes — much shorter than the scheduled 8 hours and 10 minutes. We must have had one hell of a tailwind. I'm sorry that the non-stop flight is not very popular, but then my trips back to N.C. will probably be fewer and farther between in future compared to the number of times I've flown over there since 2015. Only in a very abstract way have I yet realized that my mother really did give up the ghost on February 3.


Nearly unlimited leg room on a Boeing 757

Before we even took off, I heard a flight attendant tell other passengers that as soon as the doors were closed, they could go and pick out more comfortable seats for themselves if they wanted to. I was in an aisle seat, close to the back end of the plane, and I considered staying there. Then I realized that four bulkhead seats (is that what they're called?), seats with no other seats in front of them and with all the legroom you could ask for. I went and occupied one of them. Nobody sat on my left or on my right. My comfort was assured.

We landed early, then, at Paris CDG airport and pulled up to the gate at about 6:45 a.m. It was an "external gate" so we had to ride on a bus for 10 minutes to get into the terminal. Before landing, I realized I had a major allergy attack coming on. I had to wait at the airport until 11:19 for my TGV (the "bullet train") down to Tours and then the little local train to Saint-Aignan, with arrival at 2:01 p.m. Between landing at seven and getting home at two, I spent a miserable seven hours sneezing and wiping my nose and eyes.

It turns out that a big warm front was coming into France from the south, bringing a load of nasty pollen. This morning the temperature is nearly 50ºF (about 9ºC) outside, which is balmy by mid-February standards here. My trains yesterday were comfortable (not crowded) and fast, but I was under the weather. This morning I'm much better. That's the story here with my allergy attacks. Though intense, they seldom last more than 24 hours. I didn't wake up this morning until 5:20! Jet lag will surely set in today.

14 February 2018

Home

When you see this post, I'll either be getting ready to land at Paris CDG airport, or, if you're in the Eastern U.S., I may well already be in Saint-Aignan. Wish me good connections to the TGV at the airport and a good trip by train all the way back to Saint-Aignan, with a 30-minute layover at Tours.

Chez nous, depuis 2003

13 February 2018

Rejected again

Packing, driving, and flying today. I'll be back in Saint-Aignan at about 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Feb. 14) — about 8:30 a.m. U.S. Eastern time. I just tried once more to check in for my flight on line, but my session hangs on the computer because I don't have a return ticket or even a return date. I'll have to straighten all that out at the airport by showing the Delta ground staff my French resident's card. I'm not at all sure when I will return to North Carolina, actually, but the airline isn't worried about that. As I've said before, today I'm leaving home to fly home. And I'm ready.

12 February 2018

Le nouveau pont...

...de Beaufort en Caroline du Nord.

11 February 2018

100+

More than 100 people signed the guest register for the open house event yesterday to celebrate my mother's life. I took my camera, but I was far too busy to take any photos. I saw and talked to people there that I hadn't seen in 40 or 50 years — many of them of my generation, many of my mother's. It was much too exciting, moving, and rewarding for me to be able to write about it so soon. I have two days left here to get ready to go back to France on Tuesday.

10 February 2018

A whirlwind

I didn't have time to choose and edit photos and then write a blog post yesterday. The level of activity around here rose to a crescendo. My sister and I had a 9:00 a.m. appointment at the county courthouse in Beaufort to sign some papers there having to do with one of my dearly departed mother's bank accounts and the title to her car.

We ran into a cousin I hadn't seen in years. She was at the courthouse doing much the same things we were doing because her sister, Judy, passed away just two or three weeks before our mother did. It was like a family reunion during this period of mourning. We all grew up together and then went our separate ways.

 It's raining here at the retirement complex this morning. Let's hope it doesn't rain all day.

Other administrative chores took us to two banks over the course of the morning. Documents delivered to us by the estates office required notarized signatures, and there were complications. They finally found resolution. We sat in another bank for more than an hour while my mother's accounts there were closed out. Everything seemed to be moving at a snail's pace.

In the afternoon, another cousin I hadn't seen in 50 years came to my mother's apartment to get reacquainted with my sister and me and to reminisce about MA. He stayed until after five o'clock. At that point, my sister, yet another cousin, and a good friend informed me that we were going to a restaurant for supper. I ended up not getting back to MA's apartment before 10:30 p.m.

Today we will be hosting an open house/visitation here at the retirement complex. We don't know how many people to expect — 50, 100, maybe 200. The woman who lives across the hall, somebody I've known all my life, arranged for the Baptist church's benevolence committee to bring in food for the crowd. More cousins and old friends I haven't seen in decades have said they'll be there. And then we'll go out to dinner with some of them again tonight. I feel like I've been caught up in whirlwind.

09 February 2018

Versailles and Fontainebleau with MA

I've been scanning a lot of photos that my mother had put aside in a box with my name on it. I don't want to carry a lot of paper back to France, so I'm scanning the prints and saving them on a USB flash drive. These go back to 1982.


It was my mother's first trip to France. We saw Paris, Versailles, Fontainebleau, and Rouen. The photo above shows my mother admiring the Grand Canal at Versailles. She was 52 years old that year. I had already spent a total of five years living in France.


Here's another one, again at Versailles. It was the same day, of course. It was July, I think, and we had beautiful weather for all our touring around. I was to return to the U.S. in August of that year, so my mother wanted to come see a little bit of France before it was too late to do so with her son. Little did we know...


Finally, we also went to Fontainebleau. I knew somebody who lived near the château grounds there and who could put us up. That's me in the photo with MA, in my plaid shirt, jeans, and loafers. By the way, my mother passed away last weekend at the age of 87.

08 February 2018

Childhood




This is a photo of my mother, Mary Allen, when she was about five years old. She was born in Rock Hill, S.C., which was her father's home town, in 1930. He, my grandmother, Mary Allen, and her little sister moved to Morehead City, N.C., my grandmother's home town, when Mary Allen was six years old. The photo must date back to 1935 or 1936.




And here's a photo of my grandfather, Joseph Allen Miller, who was born in 1899, and his sister Annie Ray. I knew Aunt Ray, as we called her, but I never knew Joe Miller. He died in 1939. Aunt Ray passed away in the 1990s at the age of about 95. She lived in Rock Hill (near Charlotte, N.C.) and we drove down there to visit many times while I was growing up in the 1960s. It was like another world compared to coastal North Carolina. People in each place had a distinctive accent, for example, and the two ways of talking  were completely different from each other. We actually had trouble understanding each other. And in S.C. they lived on a farm, while in N.C. we lived in town.

07 February 2018

Ancêtres

These two ancestors of mine were Ida Lawrence Willis (1865-1935) and her husband Benjamin Willis (1853-1924), my great-great-grandparents. They were married in 1878 and had 10 children. Benjamin was killed when the horse pulling his cart along the street in downtown Morehead City bucked and threw him to the ground. He hit his head on a stone and didn't survive. Ida and Benjamin's first-born was Howard Closs Willis (1879-1935), who was my mother's grandfather. My mother said she remembered him. To her, he appeared to be a very elderly gentleman sitting in a straight-backed chair with a blanket on his knees, though he was only about 55 years old at the time of his death. My mother was only 5 years old in 1935. Howard's wife Millie had succumbed to influenza in the great 1918 epidemic.


The other children born to Ida and Benjamin were Ada, Prudence, Maude, Eva, Allena, Eugene, Early, George, and Harold. I personally knew three of them and a fourth lived in Morehead City through the 1950s — I must have met her at some point, but I have no memory of it.. The last of Ida's children to die was my Aunt Eva (Eva Agnes Willis), who had married a man named Emmitt Willis. They had one son, Gordon, whom I remember as well but he died before his mother did. Aunt Eva was 83 years old when she passed away. They say she was a notorious skinflint, enjoyed a good tipple, and scared the neighborhood children because she was so stern.

06 February 2018

Paris still

What a busy day I had yesterday. I'm going to stick to my Paris theme for this blog post. I haven't had time to think of anything else.


Above is a wider view of the photo I published yesterday.


And here is the one I was thinking of that shows both the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse in the same frame. It's busy here, as you might imagine. I'll try to keep blogging but it's hard to find the time and the inspiration right now.

05 February 2018

Fuzzy but fun

When the plane I was on took off last Friday from Paris CDG airport,
I had an unexpected view of one of France's best-known lankmarks.


The tower was quite a distance away and I had to zoom the lens fully
to get this kind of photo. It's not very clear but does it matter?

04 February 2018

Maman a quitté ce bas monde

My mother, née Mary Allen Miller in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in February 1930, passed away at 7:10 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2018 here in Morehead City, N.C., where she had lived since 1936. She was 15 days shy of her 88th birthday. She was at home when she passed, and my sister and I, along with our closest cousin and one of our closest friends, were here in MA's apartment with her when she drew her last breath on Earth. She had had a string of visitors over the course of the day.

Actually, we "young people" were preparing to eat dinner, and we were probably making a good amount of noise. My sister was the one who noticed that MA's labored breathing had suddenly changed. MA had been breathing that way for at least 24 hours and seemed to be unconscious. MA's labored breathing simply stopped. It was very peaceful. I'll never know if she was aware of the fact that I had arrived to see her off, but I hope she was. If so, it took her about 24 hours to let go and leave ce bas monde behind after I got here Friday evening. My sister and I both had been telling her the evening and night before that she should let go if she could. We were both here so MA didn't need to wait any more.

When she stopped breathing yesterday, for me it was a relief. The suffering was over. My grief is just starting. The medical consensus was that she would not recover from the cancer that had metastasized into her lungs and bones after a mammogram in 2015 revealed that she had breast cancer. I happened to be here and with her at the doctor's office when that diagnosis was made. We were both in shock that day.

Now the cancer had spread to her bones and lungs, and she had been experiencing severe pain sporadically since at least last October, the last time I was here in North Carolina. In January, the pain became constant, and it seems she knew well before the doctors or her children and friends knew that her time had come. MA's death mask reminded me of carved stone statues I often see in the old churches of the Loire Valley — tortured but serene à la fois.

So there's the news. What else can I say? Just that I loved her and will miss her more than words can express.

03 February 2018

Samedi

The Renaudière vineyard outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in the Loire Valley, late January 2018

The vines in winter

P.S. — If all has gone well, I'm in North Carolina right now.

Jet lag: I'm up and in the kitchen at 2:30 a.m. cooking a batch of Italian-style green beans with ham, onion, tomatoes, and haricots verts that I found in my mother's refrigerator. She's sleeping peacefully. I hope my sister is sleeping peacefully at her house too, after spending a week of 18- to 24-hour days keeping watch over our mother.


02 February 2018

Vendredi

The Renaudière vineyard outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in the Loire Valley, late January 2018

January flowers in the back yard in the Loire Valley, France

P.S. — If all is going as planned, I'm flying across the Atlantic Ocean toward America today.

P.P.S — I'm thru passport control, thru security, and getting ready to board. Oh, BTW, it's the same old Delta flight after all. Comprend qui peut.

01 February 2018

Jeudi

Natasha the sheltie in the Renaudière vineyard outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in the Loire Valley, late January 2018

A recent lunch of gratin de chou-fleur et « grosses saucisses » — that's how the butcher shop labels these pork sausages.

P.S. — I'm on my way to CDG airport by train today.