Toward Year’s End …

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It is customary to reflect on the past, sometimes with regret or even remorse as a year comes to its designated end and a new one commences while we either sleep or drink champagne. Thus we either ignore the arrival of the new year in our timezone, or we celebrate it as if we achieved a goal. And maybe we have, simply by surviving yet another one! As the new year approaches, some people attempt to catalog their wishes and dreams for themselves, only to discarded these aspirations within the next few weeks. I am, however, neither a philosopher nor a dreamer, just a realist who has never written a list of resolutions. I gladly leave such endeavors to proper thinkers.

I am simply happy that I feel better after a rather unpleasant upper respiratory infection which restricted the lighting of our Hanukkah candles this year to a grand total of twice. We lit the first candle, but then I wasn’t upright again till the last night of Hanukkah.

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Above all, I am happy that my husband and I are both in a reasonably healthy condition, that we enjoy our life together despite our creaky joints and all those physical nuisances which assume hallmark status on our way toward Really Old Age. Come to think of it, it’s not only the physical issues, the mental lapses clearly, or rather foggily, become unpleasantly numerous as well. That dastardly word that’s on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite spit it out. Yet, for the time being, we can still help each other out with a choice of vocabulary options.

That said, we are anticipating major lifestyle changes for the year 2018. We shall attempt to domesticate ourselves. We have tried that once before when we moved to our ranch in Central Texas and it didn’t work out. We loved traveling far, wide and beyond too much to remain home. Nevertheless, we shall once more endeavor to settle down and, glorious novelty, stay put at home.

We are serious about outfitting our new home in Cognac, Charente, France, to include guest space for visiting family and friends. We are serious about adding two dogs to the family and we are committed to undertaking only short-range train or car travel. We are already anticipating the visit of dear friends in June and in July, crossing fingers, our kids will bring Izzy, the apple of our grand-parental eyes, over from Austin, Texas, for a nice, long European vacation. It will be new and different and exciting for us.

Meanwhile, still in Saintes, we’ve pulled out our 30-plus-years old Marimekko Christmas placemats, enjoying a Christmas Eve dinner and getting started on that year-end Champagne. We wish you all a wonderful and warm Christmas Season and the Best for the New Year. As a little year-end puzzle, I hope you will tell me the reason why I wrote the year 2018 upside down into Julie’s wreath in the picture above? Looking forward to your guesses!!

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Barry had to purchase a Bûche de Noël for us this year because I wasn’t up to baking my usual bûche. Next year, we’ll have my version again!

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Before we bid goodbye to this year, I want to tell you a little anecdote about my dad. In the Fall of 1977, Barry and I drove across Germany to Kiel, to introduce my brand-new fiancé to my parents. They hosted a family dinner in our honor culminating in a Schnaps-drinking lesson for the son-in-law-in-spe. My father’s favorite Schnaps was Aalborg Akvavit, a caraway-flavored liquor. In northern Germany, it is customary to drink combinations of beer and liquor, which differ regionally. In my father’s hometown of Hannover, something called Lüttje Lage is the way guys drink their brandy with the local beer. Later in his life, our father’s liquor preference moved a little further North, all the way to Denmark where Akvavit is distilled. After our dinner, he initiated Barry into the secrets of this viscous, sharp-flavored Northern spirit. For my father’s seaburial in May of 1994, I brought aboard a bottle of the most exquisite Akvavit I could find in Hamburg and we all got completely smashed in his honor. It was a true Viking Burial! Ever since Barry and I drink an Akvavit toast to my father’s memory on his birthday, the 25th of December.

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[Since neither of us actually likes the taste of Akvavit, the bottle stays safely stored in the freezer for the rest of the year!]

Xanten & Saintes

Ihr Lieben, mal etwas ganz anderes, ein blog post auf deutsch!

Der Anlass ist der Besuch unserer Zwillinge aus Xanten, Kreis Wesel, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland, hier in Saintes, Charente-Maritime, Nouvelle Aquitaine, France. Die “Zwillinge” in diesem Fall sind Städtepartner, un jumelage wie wir hier sagen. Die Parnerschaft zwischen Xanten und Saintes began in 2002 und der deutsche Partnerschaftsverein und das französische Comité de Jumelage sind seither durch diverse kulturelle Aktivitäten eng miteinander verbunden.

Nach einer nächtlichen Busreise kamen unsere müden Xantener Zwillinge dann am Donnerstagmorgen in Saintes an, wonach viele der deutschen Gäste erst einmal von ihren Gastfamilien eingesammelt wurden um sich etwas auszuruhen. Und am Abend hat sich eine gemütliche Runde zum Stammtisch im Hof des La Musadière Restaurants zusammengefunden.

Planmäßig ging es am Donnerstag Vormittag auf Stadtbesichtigung. Der Vorsitzende unseres Comité de Jumelage, Monsieur Francis Jungbluth hat uns mit großer Expertise und bei schönstem Sonnenschein durch einige Höhepunkte unserer Stadt geführt. Seine Führung began im gallo-römischen amphithéâtre, les Arènes.

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Mit bisweilen galanter Unterstützung, kletterte die Belegschaft nach und nach in das große Oval, welches in der Antike um 1.80 m tiefer lag.

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Bevor wir das Amphitheater durch das “Tor der Lebenden” verliesen, wagten wir noch schnell einen erleichten Blick zurück auf das “Tor der Toten”.

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Mit einem letzten Souvenirphoto ging es weiter zur St. Eutrope Basilika.

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Die Basilique Saint-Eutrope de Saintes hat eine lange und bewegte Geschichte hinter sich, letztendlich als ewige Ruhestätte des hl. Eutropius von Saintes, erster Bishof von Aquitanien. In 1886 wurde die Kirche von Papst Leo XIII zur Basilica minor, einer kleineren Basilika erhoben.

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Unsere nächste Station, die Cathédrale Saint-Pierre ist ein bedeutendes nationales Denkmal. Eng gesehen ist die Kirche eine ex-Kathedrale, da Napoléon, der mehrmals in Saintes war, den Bishofssitz in 1801 nach La Rochelle verlegte. Auf dem Weg von Basilika zur Kathedrale wurde Francis’ Vortrag mit einer ad hoc Vesperpause kombiniert.

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Leider mußte ich mich zu diesem Zeitpunkt von der Führung verabschieden. Es war ein schöner und lehrreicher Ausflug und ich möchte mich herzlich bei Francis bedanken!

Mit diesem kleinen Bildergruß verabschiede ich mich von unseren deutschen Zwillingen. Es war schön einige von Euch kennen zu lernen und ich hoffe, wir sehen uns eines Tages in Xanten wieder. Gute Heimfahrt! Claudia

Distinctly Different Vistas

We left France recently for our first trip back to Costa Rica in 20 Months, más o menos. The contrast between small town Saintes, Charente-Maritime, and small town Atenas, Alajuela, couldn’t be more pronounced if you tried! With a few of the pictures I took during this last week, I can illustrate the dichotomy between the tranquil life along the Charente river and the dramatic natural forces on the slopes of the Cordillera Central.

On our last day in Saintes, I discovered “our” swans on an outing with this year’s crop of cygnets. Framed against the backdrop of 2000-year-old l’Arc de Germanicus, they are the perfect symbol for life in rural southwest France.

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While I was watching, the parental units brought their swanlings a little closer to the left bank to teach them the swan-ly skill of underwater grazing.

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Mute swans, Cygnus olor, Anatidae

 

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Close supervision of the fuzzballs brought quick success. 

Finally, even sleepy number seven joined its siblings.

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That’s easy, dad!

In contrast to the gentle breezes and mild temperatures of southwest France, we arrived in Costa Rica to an atmosphere of nearly saturated humidity, so moist and oppressive that even the cashier at the supermarket had to wipe her face repeatedly with the collar of her polo shirt while she was checking us out. If the locals can’t stand it, how am I supposed to cope? Our customarily crisp and brilliant sunrises were also a bit on the murky side.

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Fortunately, the weather has since reverted to normal, with pleasant mostly sunny mornings and thundering afternoons, befitting the early rainy season.

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The hillside across the canyon hasn’t fully greened yet,  but it’s early days – the rainy season has barely started. However, when it does rain one can’t easily ignore it!

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My circadian rhythm has reset itself, adjusting to the near equatorial day with daylight from 5h00 to 18h00 and brief dawn and dusk periods. In Costa Rica, pretty much the whole country rises and retires with the proverbial chickens, except the party crowd in posh Escazu, of course. In addition to the properties of lux influx, I postulate that an adaptation to the local alimentation greatly influences my Tica-style sleep-wake cycle. After all, one can not possibly start the day in Costa Rica without a serving of Gallo Pinto, can one now?

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Speaking of food, Costa Rican ants like their protein, too. It took a steady stream of tiny Formicidae roughly 36 hours to completely strip this beetle of all nourishing organic matter. A contiguous ant-highway extended along my bathroom tile grout for several meters between the supine victim and the outdoors, moving along with single-minded determination. Amazing!

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The statuesque lady below, sunning herself on our cement pool surround is a member of one of our resident Black iguana families, Ctenosaura similis, Iguanidae. They live on the hillside below and above us and their extensive escape tunnels incorporate our rainwater drainage system. Iguanas are pretty shy and tend to disappear rather quickly when they detect you.

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The spikes on the iguana’s tail give them their other name, Spiny-tailed iguana. 

 

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Another iguana family lives in the steep mountainside opposite our back door. One of the cave entrances is five or six meters above our carport. They do enjoy sunbathing, so in Costa Rica, I have a much greater opportunity to observe iguana than swans!

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Both locations, Saintes and Atenas, are gorgeous in their own way, don’t you think?

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05h29, May 31, 2017

 

Rue des Jacobins

Rue des Jacobins in the town of Saintes is just a narrow, elderly street, leading north from the central pedestrian zone, terminating in a set of stone steps ascending to Capitole Hill, where once the Roman Forum formed the administrative center of Mediolanum Santonum the first capital of the imperial Roman province of Gallia Aquitania. At least, it is assumed that the forum stood on this easily defensible calcareous cliff overlooking the town and river. Recent excavation unearthed more artifacts in support of this hypothesis, but the many layers of detritus and rubble of human habitation over the last two thousand years, not to mention the current population of Capitole Hill make it a very costly proposition to dig any further. For now anyway.

I had an appointment at our bank located up on the hill. Stepping back outside in the brilliant sunshine of an autumnal afternoon in southwest France after my consultation, I couldn’t help but snap a few photos on my way home to show you how prettily our little town presents itself.

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Turning from the Esplanade du Capitole toward the Rue des Jacobins stairs

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You can either take the stairs into the Ruelle du Bastion or turn right for the staircase down to Rue des Jacobins. Saintes is full of these secret alleyways connecting actual streets for pedestrians.

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And there are the ancient roofs of le quartier Saint-Pierre, our district, dominated by la cathédrale Saint-Pierre, the St. Peter Cathedral.

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Looking back uphill, you can see how impossible an archeological exploration in this part of Capitole Hill would be. The modern city is much too densely build. In our narrow view only are a chapel, a convent, a school, and a senior home!

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Stone

Continuing along Rue des Jacobins, named after a 12th century Dominican monastery located where we find the Bibliothèque Martineau now, I made my usual detour into the courtyard of Monsieur Martineau’s former l’Hôtel Particulier.

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The tranquil garden changed a little since I first discovered it in March of 2014. The majestic beech tree, formerly in the now newly seeded area, above, had died and the vines covering the library and chapel on the right were also removed. It looks a little naked and barren without their rustic charm.

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At least the painted flowers still delight!

Rue des Jacobins is not very long, we can already see its end at the intersection with Rue Alsace-Lorraine, the pedestrian zone’s main drag.

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But before we walk on, let’s have a peek through the blue gate of the kindergarten on the left, shall we?

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Fall colors and sharp shadows highlight the old belfry of the ancient bishop’s residence, currently the Musée de L’Échevinage for Fine Art.

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And here we are, the intersection where the Middle Ages meet modern commerce.

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Now let’s hurry home for a fragrant cup of tea!

Swans versus Cormorants

Hell, it’s a dangerous world out there, or so I witnessed this morning while leaning half asleep against a window frame, waiting for the coffee machine to finish drip-drip-dripping. As I glanced cross-eyed across the river, I noticed several birds flying in from the Palu Wetlands just downriver from us.

A flock, clutch, brotherhood, brace … no, a Gulp of Cormorants* settled on the Charente river and commenced fishing for their breakfast.

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Now you see them – now you don’t.

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*The term ‘A gulp of cormorants’ was taken from the utterly delightfully nerdy post “A Dissimulation of Birds” by Burly Birds [** My own invention]

While fishing, the cormorants inadvertently got closer and closer to a Swagger of Swans** feeding close to the bank below our house.

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The cormorants paid no heed to their large cousins, being focused exclusively on spearing small river fish. I saw the shiny silver tidbits disappear in their gullets again and again. The hunt was quite successful this morning!

The swans, however, being so much more slow-grazing and placidly-drifting felt crowded by the hectic divers and moved to defend their realm against the hook-beaked dark-feathered cormorants.

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Dive, brothers, dive!!Swans vs Cormorants

Just as quickly as tempers flared, they calmed again and peace resumed on the Charente.

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Time to fly home to La Palu for a post-breakfast snooze.

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And my coffee was ready as well!

Breakfast of Champions …

… river style.

This year’s cygnets are growing up fast, in part no doubt because the La Palu Prairie Wetlands extending off our lovely river Charente provide such excellent nourishment for them. From our bedroom window, I got this Sunday morning view of happy birds feeding.

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The Charente flowing past our house offers beauty and entertainment. A gentle sunset view, perhaps,

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or a more dramatic moon rising.

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People watching is also offered at no extra cost, either from our enclosed veranda while sipping apéro or passing by a window and snatching a quick shot of

“L’heure Bleue with Bride”

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Or was it a fashion shoot under the Arc of Germanicus?

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Enjoy your Sunday, my friends!

Salmon in Parsley Cream under a Full Moon

In our town of Saintes, Charente-Maritime, we have a produce market in different locations every morning, except Mondays. On Saturdays, my wheeled shopping trolley with matching umbrella

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and I like to hike the exhausting distance of about one hundred meters [300 feet] to the market snuggling against the rugged ancient walls of the cathédrale Saint-Pierre.

This Saturday was special because we had traveled so much these past months that it was my first marketing adventure since May, our glorious asparagus season.

The stalls are lined up in a long, slightly crooked triple row in the shadow of the cathedral, their awnings forming a colorful canopy for the mingling crowd of shoppers. Interspersed with the fruit and vegetable vendors offering mostly locally grown produce, you find tables, booths and even caravans selling baked goods, fresh pasta, honey, eggs, Pineau [a local cognac product], oysters, pantoufles [warm fabric slippers for winter evenings], spices, kitchen gadgets, prepared dishes and roasted chickens and couscous, cut flowers and potted plants, and sometimes even rugs. There is also a heavenly table from which flavored salts and olives are sold. You can choose from a dozen or so different types of marinated olives for apéro, other savories like capers, or salt-cured lemons. Meanwhile, the indoor market hall houses the fishmongers, the beef, pork and horse butchers, the charcuterie, the cheesemongers and poultry vendors, several more bakeries, as well as merchants offering pastries, chocolates, and other sweets.

Aside from shopping, I was also looking forward to socializing, because that’s what you do on Saturdays. You buy provisions for the weekend, then you hang out with friends. Behind the market hall stretches a terrace overlooking the river. A local bar offers drinks and tidbits and one of the fishmongers supplies chucked oysters. You sit under umbrellas, drink rosé, slurp bivalves and gossip. Lovely!

Back home I unpacked my goodies. Potatoes, leeks, fennel, onions, flat parsley, butter lettuce, tomatoes, lemons, croissants, cervelat, salami, Emmental cheese and salmon steaks. The potatoes, aromatic vegetables, and the fish were to become a one-dish oven-roasted concoction, while the cervelat was destined to mix and mingle with the Emmental de Savoie, an unpasteurized semi-hard cow’s milk cheese with quite a bit more character than your average pre-packed “Swiss Cheese”! Those two were going to form the basis for my hearty Wurstsalat, whereby the translation ‘sausage salad’ simply sounds silly.

If you have chronic ‘mal au dos’, backache, like I have, any prolonged posture or activity causes trouble. By necessity, I switch back and forth between activities as much as possible. That’s a great excuse for buying croissants because one has to sit down with a snack to recuperate from dragging the heavy cart home, naturally. Cooking is also better broken up into activity sections, getting the preps out of the way before the actual cooking begins with a couple of rest periods in between. After some slicing and dicing, I took pictures of several bowls lined up for the eventual cooking orgy.

One bowl contained potato pieces in cold water, another one fennel, leek, garlic, yellow onion, red pepper, and parsley marinating in lemon juice, white pepper, coriander powder and olive oil. The smallest of the bowls contained very, very finely diced fennel heart and fennel greens mixed with a lot of very finely chopped parsley, coarse sea salt, white pepper, some powdered ginger, olive oil, a few drops of lemon juice, sheep milk yogurt/cottage cheese [Fromage blanc au lait de brebis], and a dollop of heavy cream.

I took pictures of the assembly of ingredients and seasonings so I would remember what I used for my salmon casserole.

And why am I not showing you these or other pictures I took of the finished product? Or, for that matter pictures of that brilliantly gorgeous full moon which rose over the Charente river that evening?

Because I inadvertently deleted all of them. Every single picture. Dammit!

All I have left is a picture of the leftovers. How appropriate  😦

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But the recipe is straight forward and slight variations surely won’t matter.

  • Wipe an oven proof dish with olive oil. Add the dried potato pieces. Season with black pepper, salt and rubbed dry thyme, sprinkle with olive oil. Roast the potatoes in the oven at 180ºC/350ºF for 15 mins.
  • Add the marinated vegetable mix, combine with potatoes and bake a further 15 mins.
  • Take dish from oven. Increase temperature to 200ºC/400ºF
  • Remove skin from salmon and add salmon chunks to the casserole. Snuggle the fish against the roasted vegetable mix and douse with the parsley cream, covering the fish quite thickly.
  • Shove the dish back in the oven and roast till the fish is done. The timeframe depends entirely on the thickness of the salmon steaks. We had very thick chunks and they were packed a little too closely together. Ultimately they took almost 15 minutes to be heated through. Salmon is a very fatty and dense fish, which takes a little more time than let’s say whitefish. Just don’t let the fish dry out!

Juicy fish over aromatic veggies – what could be better!!

On Sunday we had the Wurstsalat, composed of the French “Swiss” cheese, cervelat [akin to bologna], red onion, cornichons and tomatoes, dressed in an emulsion of Chardonnay vinegar, a splash of pickle juice, sweet Dijon mustard, a pinch of sugar & salt, white pepper and cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. Served over the sweet and crunchy leaves of a butter lettuce – ever so tartly delicious!

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Since my no doubt, fabulous moon pictures are gone, I’ll say goodbye with a zoom shot of an egret, whom we observed stalking his prey during our Sunday afternoon walk through La Palu, our local wetland preserve.

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