Sunday, May 22, 2016

Au Revoir Nice

We missed a symposium at our church last month titled, "Where do you call home?"  A fitting title for this blended community.  The panel included newspaper reporters and long stay residents from along the coast - some of whom have lived here over 20 years.  Are they still British? or Spanish? or Iranian? or Australian?  Since the 1700s, the Côte d'Azur has drawn visitors that turn into residents from all over the world.

By the 1750s, the British began visiting Nice in the winters. The Promenade des Anglais, the 6 mile stretch of sidewalk from the airport to the Port, was built in the late 1800s with British money to spur a depressed Niçoise economy.  Our church, Holy Trinity Nice, has been a hub of the British community here for over a century.

The Russian nobility began to visit Nice during the mid 1900s following the English upper class in order to take advantage of the mild winter climate.  You can see evidence of their continual presence with domed buildings dotting the skyline, a Russian orthodox cathedral, and cyrillic lettered signs.

The Côte d'Azur boasts museums celebrating Russian(Chagall) and Spanish(Picasso and Miró) artists. Great art patrons like Aime Maeght and Beatrice Eprussi Rothschild nurtured artists here and celebrated their gifts.  Antibes was where Picasso could begin to recover from World War II and create again.  Matisse healed from cancer surgery and found a new way to create, moving from paint to paper cut outs. There can be no doubt that this small piece of the world inspires.

From St. Jean Cap Ferrat and Monaco to St Tropez, villas and small palaces dot the landscape.  But the community stretches beyond just the rich and famous.  We have been part of one of the most blended communities on Earth.  Within 10 blocks of our apartment there are Indian, Afghani, Tunisian, Greek, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, French and Niçoise restaurants.  Menus are in several languages.  The park is filled with women in headdresses and saris alongside French parents in the latest fashions.  Children play kicking balls, swinging on swing sets and running through the splash pad.   And you hear French, Spanish, Italian, and English all being spoken.

 We have learned to walk...and walk...and walk.. and check out the blue Velo city bikes...and ride buses...and walk.  I love walking out of the apartment at any time of day or night and there are people in the park, on the street, out to dinner.  The Niçoise live a communal life in their shared public spaces.  A day doesn't go by that we don't see babies in strollers, French bulldogs pulling at their leashes, elderly women visiting on park benches, and children running in various states of undress through the fountains.  The suburban house with a big yard and car is so nice- but very lonely compared to this group experience.


Hopefully, we have learned lots from our time here, but we will also appreciate certain aspects of our American life when we get back.  We have made a few friends- the guys at the bakery downstairs, Clement who sells me flowers in the Marche aux Fleurs, Father Peter, the Dexters, and lots of familiar faces at church, Max, Julian and Christine our new German sailing friends, Arianne at Univela Sailing Hostel, Jean Michel the landlord(who Pete says is the French Bernie Sanders), Nicolas and Alice at Club Nautique, even the teenager upstairs with the hookah pipe.

My family has had the biggest gift of all---Time to talk, discuss, eat, learn, sleep, and grow-both physically(Pete has grown 4 inches this spring) and mentally.

Our world has gotten bigger and just like we were homesick when we first got to France, I think we will be France-sick when we get home.  That is the problem with expanding your world- and the great part about it.  You will always miss somewhere because you have grown to love more of this world God gave us.

So- no- we do not call this home but the time we shared here was precious.

Friday, May 20, 2016

To Stop and Smell the Roses

Menton is a small village on the eastern end of the French Riviera with a reputation for its gardens.  
Kelly and Pete met a man at church last month who told them he lived in Menton and could walk down the hill from his house and have espresso in Italy. 
 While in Paris, we visited the temporary exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe that introduced us to Les Jardin Essaiye, the experimental gardens of the Côte d'Azur where succulents, cacti and other exotic plants were originally imported to determine their uses in French botanical gardens.  
So, with a free week ahead of us and school behind us, Camille researched the gardens of Menton and we planned a day trip.  

There are several private gardens, some public, all open to the public only on certain days at certain times.  Monday is a good day to visit with two of the most popular gardens open, Fontana Rosa in the morning and Val Rahmeh in the afternoon.  A little more research told us that of the two train stations in Menton, Menton-Garavan on the eastern side is closest to the "Garden District".

Fontana Rosa, built by Blasco Ibanez, a spanish author and filmmaker, in 1928 had fallen into disrepair until it was restored over the last twenty years.  We walked through the gate into a group already formed around the guide who looked directly at me and spoke in French.  I understood him and quickly paid the entry fee for me, I was able to tell him in French that the children were 14 and 16 year old students(=free).  He then looked at me and continued in French asking me if I had any questions.  From the rest of the group....crickets.  I quickly formulated my sentence and explained(again in French) that I spoke a little French(petite peu) was it possible for him to speak a little english or no? And the rest of the group jumped to the rescue!  It turned out that in the group of 8- there was an English teacher, Spanish teacher and an Italian teacher.  They all said they would help translate and off we went.

How much more of a Riviera experience could we have asked for?

 So we toured the crumbling gardens of Ibanez that were built to celebrate famous authors:  Cervantes, Dickens and Balzac.  He used majolica tiles reminiscent of his spanish heritage and the micro climate in Menton from the mountains and the sea, enable tropical plants to grow and flourish. He also built garden rooms to create comfortable seats and solitude where a visitor could relax and read.   There were citrus and nenuphars(water lilies) and banyan trees and iris.  We recognized parts that echoed the Alcazar and the Alhambra and even benches that reminded us of Gaudi's Parc Guell.  Rose bushes were scattered throughout and each smelled different, and wonderful, and their blooms are huge.

The final stop on the tour was the little temple like structure with a bust of Cervantes in the middle of the small pond.  We were delighted to see that the majolica behind the bust told the story "de la Mancha" and, with the Spanish teacher, we picked out Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and she talked about Dulcinea...I couldn't find any moulins(windmills) and she quickly pointed..." la.."
Majolica tiles that told the story of Don Quixote.
The black was only introduced into the tiles during
the Art Nouveau period(early 1900s).
The gardens were a gift, but to share them with that particular group was an experience.

I liked how the tile columns mimic tree trunks
adding color and whimsy to the natural space.

A view of Menton from the beach.

After lunch at the beach and the best gelato we have had since Italy, I had mojito-lime sorbet with fresh mint in it!-We headed back out to find the Val Rahmeh Gardens.  After a little misdirection through the Jardin des Oliviers, from what I am going to tell myself were a well meaning french couple, we walked down a stairwell into a valley filled with tropical plants.  The yellow stucco and rod iron gate directed us down a driveway lined with palms whose branches were even with the mountains on either side of the gardens.

yellow bamboo
Val Rahmeh was built and nurtured by Lord Radcliffe in the early 1900s and named for his second wife's name was Rahmeh which means tranquility in Persian arabic.  He purchased the grove of palms leading up to the home and set about landscaping and cultivating plant species.  The small valley provided the perfect protection for over 700 species of plants and the canopy of the trees makes you feel like you have entered another world.  The paths wind you up and down the side of the valley and stairs lead you to a high garden with a grassy space and pond filled with waterlilies and a view of the Mediterranean while looking at the tops of citrus trees.

The time and energy spent to create this garden are impressive.  These gardens are a celebration of nature and its creations while also using man's creativity to build garden rooms and inspiring spaces.
I was inspired.  Most of these plants will grow in the Southern Alabama heat just not sure about the humidity.  Camille, Pete and I have hatched plans on this trip to get a birdcage with birds (we still debate parrot vs. several small songbirds), a boule court for Kelly and Mr. Holder, and now we have plans to plant and terrace the back of our yard. #leisuregoals

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Cuisiner, Manger, et Deguster- To Cook, To Eat, and To Savor

This draft has been in my list for three months--it is an overwhelming project to talk about food in this country--but I can definitely say the experience has been an evolution for the inhabitants of this apartment.  

Produce - fresh, local produce- is abundant.  We arrived in Nice at the height of citrus season.  The Cours Saleya marché was full of beautiful lemons, huge oranges from Italy, and tiny clementines from Spain.  The French apples are yellow to light green, best for apple tartes or in recipes, but we have found the Chanticleer are great for eating.  Throughout our stay, strawberries have ripened; asparagus, artichokes, and tomatoes have come into season.  There have always been gorgeous ruffled heads of lettuce and purple garlic.  It is hard to shop the market without wanting to take pictures.  

Then, combine the produce with an amazing assortment of cheeses, less expensive than in the US and tasty.  Emmental and Comte have become go-to's for quiche and crepes.  Big, salty chunks of Parmesan are everywhere and we shave them for pastas and salads.  We love Tomme, which we never see in the US, on sandwiches.  We have all developed a taste for chèvre (goat cheese): the pepper encrusted version, toasted on toast points and drizzled with honey on a salad, or in wraps with arugula and pine nuts.

The BREAD- no one in France should ever be gluten free.  The croissants are 1 euro and heavenly, you can buy a pain au chocolat for .90 euro at most boulangeries or the grocery.  The baguettes have become a staple:  crust that will cut the roof of your mouth, big open bubbles in the soft inside.  No one in American can bake like this--for this price.  Our bakery downstairs has decent baguettes, but Blanc bakery on the Rue de Alexandre has the best (.10 euro more).  Both of my children are always happy to run out before dinner to grab a fresh baguette.  Many times, they hand it to you in the paper sleeve still warm from the oven.  It is truly hard to resist just biting into it.  

And the meat...the butcher is still frightening.  The cheval/boeuf grinder still freaks me out and my fear of ordering some kind of organ... but the Porc Rôtis already tied and sprinkled with herbs de Provence or the beef daube never disappoints.  I did have a fiasco the first trip to the butcher.  In my angst to do the transaction in French, my brain was preoccupied translating languages so I went the wrong way with pounds to kilograms.  In my head, I thought I needed to double the amount of beef needed for us and the Bullingtons.  The butcher's eyes got really big when I said "Douze kilo" (equivalent to 24 pounds)--I think he thought I was a new caterer.  He talked me down to 4 kg which fed both families- two nights.  

Those first weeks, we enjoyed the walk to the market and the experimental cooking in the tiny apartment kitchen.  I had a
french cookbook and we bought a crêpe pan and spreader, made Beef Daube, roasted pork with apples, fresh tarts, Salade Lyonnaise, (think really yummy lettuce, vinaigrette, bacon and fried egg..) and Pissaladiere (pizza with caramelized onions).  Even the shopping was an adventure, translating labels and reading the origins of all the produce at the Cours Saleya.  We also have plenty of time here, without driving to after school activities, to cook and enjoy meals together.

Sandwiches have become a major food group for us.  Most boulangeries sell sandwiches on fresh baguettes for under 5 euro(3euro average).  These are 12 inch baguettes filled with mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil drizzled with olive oil, salami with pickles and butter(yes, it is a condiment), ham and butter, tuna, you name it.  Even though the bread can sometimes be a jaw workout, you can barely finish the sandwich.  And they travel well.  Picnics account for at least a third of our meals.  Even if we just take a sandwich to the Promenade des Arts or Promenade des Anglais to watch the people.  And we never board a train without a Savoreux sandwich from our favorite train station bakery, Paul.  

The Deguster (to savor) portion of this trip hit a high point in Lyon.  A beautiful, centuries old city, Lyon celebrates the local cuisine.  They had the Méres Lyonnaises, the Lyon Mothers, that were the first women to make the small family style restaurants famous.  They have their set of celebrity chefs like Joseph Viola and Paul Bocuse.  And a great many new fresh restaurants- one where we took our cooking class with Guillaume.  Guillaume by the way, holds a degree in chemical engineering but had his pastry exam within the last few weeks to be certified as a French Pastry Chef.

As much as we enjoyed all this at the beginning, I can tell you that slogging bottled water in my rolling cart from the Monoprix has gotten old.  I bailed the kids out of trips to the grocery so they could work on school.  Sometimes, the French cheese stinks up the refrigerator.  The tourists have begun to crowd the market, and more lavender and soaps kiosks have popped up.  There are nights when my kids don't want the subtle French flavors and crave Mexican or stir fry.  And that is okay.  We have all learned new things and learned to appreciate new flavors.  Pete ate Foie Gras in Lyon-"it is the world champion, how can I not try it"- and Camille continues to order canard, veau, and lapin in restaurants.  But we have tried lots of new things and broadened another horizon.