Monday, July 6, 2020

Andiamo in Italia!

             Firenze


As expected, Florence was not very crowded. Hardly deserted, but certainly not jammed with the crowds that had us running for cover after only a few hours when we were here three years ago. (Read about that trip here.) We’d left the car in Lucca and took the train to the big city, where Paula had, as always, found us an excellent place to stay. In this case it was a former convent a few blocks from the main train station.

 

The apartment had 20 foot ceilings with a loft bedroom and bath, and the long tall walls were covered with original art. The owner, who met us at the apartment, explained who had done the paintings; some he had done himself, some by his father. He also warned us about the antique furniture—it really wasn’t to be used (there were dressers and closets in the loft bedroom). Oh, and don’t sit in this one special chair, the couch and other chairs were ok, though. He left us to unwind after our hour-and-a-half train ride, and we had a chance to admire the place, and pretend it was ours. 


Our convent cell. Portrait in the center of the far left wall is of our host, done by his father.

Our Big Event, that first day, was a visit to the Uffizi Gallery, home to… well, an impressive number of masterpieces. It is, in a certain way, home base for the Renaissance, that opening of art and science that occurred in the 15th century, centered in Florence. Uffizi means “office,” and the building that now houses one of the world’s most famous museums was originally built as offices for the Medici family, the rulers of Florence for several generations. (Why do things sound so much better in Italian?  Uffizi is so much more satisfying than “offices;” and Giuseppe Verdi… why, who wouldn’t prefer that to the pedestrian Joe Green?)

Courtyard of the Uffizi

Anyway, the top floor of this office building was a showcase for the art that the Medici family had accumulated over its very long time in power; and, it still is.

 

Upper gallery of the Uffizi, the museum

 What added enormously to our experience on this trip was our guide, Rick Steves. Well, no, of course he did not accompany us! But we had downloaded his (free) walking tour and played it, earbuds clogging our ear canals, as we made our way through the museums, and even in the streets of Florence. (We used his audio guides to Rome and the Vatican when we were there a few years ago, which also added greatly to our trip.) On our first trip to Europe together—our honeymoon two decades earlier—we’d found his book, Europe Through the Back Door, a revelation, and invaluable. And even though the mode and goals of our travels today are quite different from his, we still value the information he provides. 

Statues from antiquity, part of the Uffizi collection.

Rick speaks knowledgeably about art. In the Uffizi he—or his disembodied voice—guided us to several paintings showing the evolution of style. We started with the flat, perspective-less iconography of the late Middle Ages, intended to decorate a church and inform and remind the illiterate faithful. 

Simone Martini, Annunciation with St Margaret and St Ansanus, 1333: everything is flat; it's very iconographic. These aren't real people! (image from Wikipedia)

We moved through a collection of paintings showing increasing awareness of perspective and depth, culminating with The Annunciation, by 23-year old Leonardo Da Vinci, with its geometric lines and fixed vanishing point. Quite a change in a few years!

The Annunciation, by Leonardo DaVinci when he was about 20. Far more realistic!


Birth of Venus, by Botticelli (aka Venus on the Half Shell), a big hit with the crowd.

Before he turned to painting, Botticelli was a goldsmith, and reportedly used gold dust in his paints. Like here, in the hair of Venus.

Of course, the big draw for paintings was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Lots of cell phones out, snapping pics of that one! Less popular but no less significant is In the Spring by the same artist. Both of these magnificent paintings illustrate the move away from religious themes, with women being depicted as angels or the Virgin Mary, to more humanistic themes, and the emergence (or re-emergence) of the goddess.

 

Springtime, also by Botticelli; another big hit. Rather than religious figures, it depicts classic gods and goddesses, and just plain folks, out enjoying the fine weather.

This shift in thinking from religious to humanistic was at the core of the Renaissance (which literally means re-birth), and Florence, the epicenter of it all, is saturated with its signs. The streets are full of statues from many eras, and the architecture itself is witness to the huge changes wrought during that expressive period.

 

Andrea dei Verracchio did most of this painting, but his student, Leonardo da Vinci, painted the angel on the far left. Let's have a closer look...

A sweet little kid! The angel on the right seems to recognize--and resent--that Leonardo's angel is better. Reportedly, Verracchio was so shamed by da Vinci's better understanding of color and form that he never painted again (it's ok, he was an accomplished metalworker and sculptor.)


View from the end of the gallery at the Uffizi, and the scene that every Renaissance artist aspired to recreate: the distance dimmer and smaller, the foreground clear and robust. Oh, and note the tiled roof starting at the lower right and extending across the Ponte Vecchio: it enclosed a walkway clear across the river to the Piti Palace, residence of the Medicis. It was for the daily commute to their uffizi.


Another roof-top view of Florence, with Giotto's Bell Tower and Brunelleschi's Dome

After the magnificent views of the Duomo and Baptistery, my favorite part of the city is Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Here is where Michelangelo’s David was originally placed (there’s a copy there now), along with a collection of other statues. More impressive to my mind was the realization that it was in this square, this plaza, that the daily lives of the Renaissance-era citizens occurred—including those whose novel ideas in art, finance, business, architecture, and governance still influence us today.

 

Palazzo Vecchio, built in the 14th C, just pre-dating the Renaissance.


The Loggia dei Lanzi and it's famous statues, part of the Piazza della Signoria. 

Entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio; note (the copy of) the statue of David on the far left, in it's original location.

It was also here, near the end of the 15th Century, that Girolamo Savonarola started his “bonfire of the vanities,” encouraging the citizens of Florence to give up their sinful ways, and support a purer, more religious life by surrendering their earthly possessions and literally burning them in a huge fire. Mirrors, fine clothes, furniture, books, even paintings were tossed in and consumed. But Savonarola’s influence was short lived; a few years later he himself succumbed to the flames in this same square, burned by the Church as a heretic.    

The 14th C. splendor inside the Piazza della Signoria

 After  a tough day at the uffizi we were very glad to escape to our former convent cell, take a quick shower, relax, and give our little ufeetizis a rest (not my joke; I just had the bad taste to repeat it!) And I learned how delicious it is to half-doze on the couch with the piano music of Dominico Scarlatti playing softly in the background…

 

The next day we had tickets to the Galleria dell'Accademia, known for its sculptures by Michelangelo, including the incomparable David. I’m not a big fan of statuary myself, but the works here are extraordinary, even to a duffer like me. While the Accademia is small, especially compared to the Uffizi, we did spend some time there studying the statues and trying to understand how such magnificent forms could be created out of an ungainly block of rock. Now, that’s genius! 

 

Well presented, David is the big draw at the Accademia--but there is more. Note the sculptures along the walls, on the right and left...



David studies Goliath, focused, confident: "I can take this guy..."

These tortured figures, called the Slaves, were carved by Michelangelo. They are unfinished. Or are they? What's the sculptor trying to convey with these men struggling to emerge?


Quite a contrast: the rough-hewn Slaves (aka Prisoners) and the finely-polished David

Also in the Accademia: these are apparently the "senior projects" of students who have studied sculpture here.

I think I'd love to strike up a conversation with this lady!

One thing we noted about the streets of Florence: while they were nowhere near as crowded as they had been on our previous visit three years ago, the people we did see all had masks. No, not the highly-decorated ones used at Carnival in Venice, just the ordinary cloth ones we’ve all gotten so sick of. Not everyone wore them in the streets—about ¼ to 1/3 pulled them down around their chin, or carried them on their wrist or arm. But everyone had one. And the museums, and certain larger stores, had doormen (guards!) ensuring the masks were properly worn inside, and that everyone had their temperature checked before entering. This is, after all, Northern Italy, and they haven’t forgotten the very hard lessons from the record number of infections a few months ago.

 

What a difference a pandemic makes! May 2017 on the left; June three years later (2020) on the right.

Most places were open, although business was not always booming. We had dinner one night at a nice restaurant. They had no outdoor area, but we sat in front of large double doors that gave onto the street and the soft evening air… and we were the only ones in the place! It was empty when we arrived, and empty when we left. They may or may not have had more customers that night, but things are not easy for businesses in Italy now!


View along the Arno.

 

Us, also along the Arno,with Ponte Vecchio behind.


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The Drive


Seven hours to Lucca, Italy. That’s how long the drive was. I remember, back in the day, when we could do that before noon, and finish another seven before stopping for the night. But this is now, not then, and now those seven hours would be long. Still, in these COVID-ridden days, a private car seemed a better choice than public transport, especially flying! So we rented a car for a week, and drove.

 

We equipped ourselves with wipes, and rubber gloves ($0.12USD for a pair at the local pharmacy, now that the panic is over), and spent time with our newly-rented car wiping down door handles, steering wheel, shift lever, and, of course, the touch screen.

 

The drive was long, and expensive—the high-speed turnpikes here in Europe are not free—but we made it. I had plenty of time to mull over the difference between roads here and in the US during our drive. France has a very extensive, and very well maintained, road network that has been in place for decades—indeed, since well before the advent of the automobile.

 

The route--750 km one way. All those little yellow circles on the right show road work (i.e., closed tunnels)!


While we have very often enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of the French departemental roads, this time it was to be autoroute all the way, with frequent stops to pay the tolls. Still, these roads avoid the traffic mess that always accompanies large cities (here in Europe and elsewhere in the world!), so we were glad to exchange money for the time saved.

 

The road along the coast near the French-Italian boarder is really a wonder, passing through a very mountainous area. I remember being amazed by this road the first time I passed over it in the early 70s, as it went from bridge to tunnel to bridge to tunnel. Quite an engineering feat!

 

It still is, but words that come to mind describing the experience of driving it now are pénible, annoying, pain in the exhaust pipe. Particularly now when it seemed half the road was closed for roadwork. Road work? We saw miles of road with one lane blocked by traffic cones with nary a sign of workers nor equipment. And our thoughts were like, With this COVID thing, couldn’t they have finished this by now?


The tunnels, each with two lanes, come in pairs, one east-bound and one west-bound. At least half of these tunnels were closed, with all the traffic diverted into the remaining one, one lane in each direction, and the speed limit set down to 60KPH (35 MPH). At one point Paula joked that since we were only using half the road and going half the speed, we should only pay half the toll.

 

Come to think of it, she was only half joking!

 

Tunnels... 
(these photos are from Google Street View--I was NOT taking pictures while driving!)


The road still goes from bridge to tunnel, but I have a different perspective on that as a driver! Coming out of a dark tunnel, I would quickly drop my sunglasses in place to protect against the bright sun and catch a brief glimpse of steep green hills dotted with picturesque houses before plunging back into the next dark tunnel (flipping up the sunglasses!). And since many of these tunnels are very long and now many carry two-way traffic, it was like driving at night on a busy two-lane road with a constant onslaught of headlights.

 

But that was the easy part. Then we got to Genoa. Oh my!

 

Apparently the major traffic bridge collapsed here a year or so ago. Cars were crushed, people killed. That part is all gone now, but there is no replacement for the bridge yet. So the route goes through town, along the sea front and back up into the hills. There was little traffic, fortunately, because the roads were narrow, winding, and steep with hair-pin turns and many huge trucks. Finally, once out of the city, there were more tunnels. Oi vey! Not a drive I want to repeat.

 

Except, of course, we did, on the way back. Well, I figured, at least we’d get through Genoa while still fresh, instead of after 4 or 5 hours of driving. Yes, but… the road was still a mess. Somewhere past Genoa we were deep in a very long tunnel, at least a kilometre from daylight in each direction, moving in heavy two-way traffic, when we just… stopped. And sat. In the lugubrious darkness lit only by the weird yellow ceiling lights and the head and tail lights of the cars around us. After a very long time—ten or 15 minutes, perhaps—I began to have thoughts of how our desiccated bodies would be found, slumped in the seats, by rescuers coming along three or four weeks hence. Suddenly the van in front of us began to move! We drove in a stately (i.e., slow) but satisfying fashion for another while until, finally, there was a light up above, and we emerged into daylight! And then, plunged into another tunnel.

 

And soon after that, all signs of congestion were gone, and we were flying along at the usual 110 KPH. Go figure…

 

By the numbers:  We spent $160USD on tolls for the 960-mile round trip, and $103USD on fuel. (Diesel, gazole, is about $5.50 per gallon, but the car got 52MPG; we paid just short of 11 cents US per mile). Renting the car for a week cost $200USD, for a total cost of $460USD and two days of driving…

                 Lodging was a very reasonable $400 for the week, in these discounted times (not a lot of people traveling these days!)

 

 

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What’s coming up in the next blog? Lucca! We spent a couple of nights in this slow-paced but very Italian town. And then, we head back to France to see what's happening in the lavender fields.





Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Europe is Opening Up

I never tire of this view of La Place de la Comedie, the main square in town. It always makes us think of Jules Verne...


We're going to Italy! It's so exciting! We'll be driving; I expect it will take about seven hours. Certainly longer than flying, but we really don't want to spend an hour or more in that long metal tube. And don't even get me started on the crowds at the airports! Having our own (well, a rental) car seems safer.

There’s this saying, It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I read that somewhere once. Perhaps in a Scrooge McDuck comic book (I always liked Scrooge; perhaps because he was so up front about his greed). It seems to mean that even in the worst of circumstances, some good may be found.

The good we’re hoping to find during the very ill wind of this pandemic is a lack of other travelers. I expect the roads may be a bit emptier, but the real payoff (if that’s the word) will be that Florence, that jewel of Italy and ongoing artistic and architectural inspiration, will be much emptier than last time we visited.

And that was in 2017; you can read about that trip here. On this trip (much like the one in 2017) we will be driving to Lucca, ancestral home of the Menconi's (really! In fact, both my paternal grandparents were born near Lucca), where we’ll stay for a few days. We’ll take the train into Florence (it's about an hour and a half), where we’ll stay for a couple of nights. The last time we did this it only took two hours to convince us that not even the magnificence of the Florentine renaissance could offset the tourist morass we encountered. But since Italy has only just opened its borders only this month to visitors—and then, only to European residents—we expect crowds to be thin.

         Stay tuned to find out!!


Florence in May of 2017--what we don't want!

 

             Social Distancing in Montpellier

 Life is slowly returning to normal here in Montpellier. The sounds of the city have returned, the streets are full of cars, the sidewalks… well, still fewer people there, I think. Some of those walking down the street are wearing masks, but most aren’t. We don’t, while walking down the street. Inside it’s a different thing, of course. Some larger stores have people checking to ensure customers are masked up, others just post signs. But I think we’re all getting tired of it, and we all SO want this pandemic and its consequences to end. Mask compliance is flagging; many shops don’t seem to care anymore.


A pleasant shop in the old town of Montpellier


Public transport, the trams and buses, are strict on their mask requirements. At some tram stops a slightly comedic voice comes on as the tram approaches, saying “You! Yes, you! Be sure to put your masks on before boarding the tram!” Overall, compliance on the trams seems to be around 90%. Some riders just don’t seem to care. (On a recent tram ride we saw several young women in animated conversation with no masks; at one stop a police officer leaned into the car and gave them a no-nonsense order to mask up, which they quickly did. Of course, as soon as the door closed the masks came down and conversation resumed…)

It’s easy to criticize, but vigilance is hard to maintain. We celebrated the birthday of a friend recently with a picnic by the river (not so bucolic where it runs through the city, but still, it’s open space with grass!). It was outside and there was a lot of room around our group. Still, the 15 of us exceeded the suggested limit of 10, and we were all pretty close together. Someone passed around a bag of chips (not so common here in France, but all the more desirable because of it!). I certainly wasn’t going to stick my hand in the bag, and so poured some out on a plate. Then, as I enjoyed my second bite, I realized that everyone else had been sticking their hands in the bag. Oops…

 

Not that time at the river, but a time at the river!

 Meanwhile, we are slowly learning to get out in public more. We had our first dinner out recently. Outdoors, of course. The nights here are soft, and so long and mellow that we’d have been outside in any event. There weren’t many other diners, so we were well spaced; the servers wore masks, and did not linger at the table. It went well; we thoroughly enjoyed the friends we were with, the food, and the long slow twilight (we’re almost as far north as Salem, Oregon, here, so this time of year the sun is up early and sets late).

Panorama of the city from a rooftop apartment




It seems that art is everywhere in this city!

It was a joy, too, to sit in a café at mid-day and enjoy a coffee with friends, on the once-empty Place Jaurès (named for Jean Jaurès, a French politician from the beginning of the last century who must be highly regarded, since every town in France has a street, a place, a school, or all three named after him; in our apartment there is even a mug that says “What would Jaurès do ?”). The place wasn’t as full as it was… before, but there were still plenty of people out enjoying the early summer weather. We sat upwind, as we always do, to avoid the ever-present smokers—and I thought of how the wind was also carrying whatever viral load there might be away from us. We felt pretty safe even in the crowd! 

Place Jean Jaures, today, and during the confinement

Paula was noticing the other day how the loops on her mask tended to push her ears forward, something we see on everyone who wears that style face covering. It caused her to wonder, will we all have more prominent ears by the time the pandemic is over??

 

We return to the beach, this time to stay for a while! It was pretty unpopulated this day.

Paula, Mark, and Debra on a lazy, cloud-strewn day.

A common site on the beach each summer: carts come by often selling ice cream (of course!) and coffee

We got a package in the mail today. It was a couple of cloth masks. The City of Montpellier sent out two to every household. This, in addition to the two masks we each received last month from the city. It’s a good feeling, thinking that someone (the government) really is concerned about our health and welfare!

 

Yet more street art.  As we were admiring it, the artist, who had just finished, came by, guarding against graffiti (an on-going problem!). 

(To see a short news segment on this installation, click here.  The words are in French but a picture is a picture!)



And, finally, pétanque! Also known as boules (balls), this is the quintessential, almost legendary, game of the south of France (although it’s played all over the country, these days). The name derives from the Provençal dialect of Occitane, the traditional language of this region. It has some similarities to the Italian game of bocci, although pétanque uses smaller, heavier metal balls which can be tossed or rolled. Pétanque courts, or boulodromes, are found in every neighborhood here.



Playing on our "home court" with Xavier, our French friend

We have, of course, bought some pétanque sets, and make it a point to get to the boulodrome near us at least once a week. A short bike ride away is another court, this one heavily shaded by plane trees, were we meet with another group for a few rounds with lunch afterwards. It feels good to connect in to the local traditions!


Another day on another court, a short distance away.





I've learned that this rounded corner, to match the odd angles of the streets, is a hallmark of architecture in Montpellier. That, and the wrought-iron railings, are common in the South of France.
Who lives in the little window at the top?


Up next: sooner or later we'll report on our trip to Italy!



Sunday, May 24, 2020

We've Moved!

The setting sun lights up a nearby apartment building, seen from the balcony of our new apartment.


Yes in the middle of this pandemic (well actually, it's the very start, sadly), we have moved. Changed house. Déménagé. Oh, not far in terms of distance, but it’s a very different living experience now.

We made plans for this move back at the end of February,  before the idea of a world-altering virus entered the public consciousness. As things progressed, and the lockdown was announced, we began to think moving was a not very good idea. But we’d made the commitment, and we moved ahead (so to speak).

Moving day! Paula's loading the van.
The first of May came, moving day. Also, it must be noted, our wedding anniversary! (21 years, thanks for asking).  But celebratory feelings got swept up in the lockdown, and altered by the move and our arrival at our new home.

(All was not lost, though. We found a ton of candles in our new place, and lit them all that night in celebration!)

Our first night in our new home.
For being just a short walk away, the living experience is very different. Before, we were in the heart of a city, in a luxury apartment high above the street—and the surrounding buildings—with great views of the sky and the buildings spread out all round. This is more of a suburban experience, surrounded by trees and even a lawn. We’re on the second floor (up two flights of stairs; here the ground floor is number zero), with views of the streets--and the rooftops of the houses--immediately around us. And, in the near distance, the high-rise apartment buildings that seem to have become Montpellier’s trademark as the fastest-growing city in France.

Limoncello and other sights from our balcony.

And the sounds have changed, as well. Instead of cars and skateboards and people yelling in the street, we hear babies crying and dogs barking, the one neighbor practicing his tuba, and the other sawing and grinding on his new steel gate. Suburban sounds...

Paula checks out the tomato plants.
Overall we’re very pleased. We haven’t been here very long, and what with the COVID confinement and the recent rain we’ve spent most of our time indoors. But the neighbors we pass coming and going are very friendly, and were happy to show us the tiny garden plot they’ve started. Access to our building is via a long straight road with bushes on one side and a lawn and trees on the other. We expect summertime to be quite pleasant here, with the residents out enjoying the warm air under the shade—at a respectable social distance, of course.

They're stored out of the rain for now, but we'll get those chairs out for some socially distanced socializing!
In some respects the location is not so convenient. There’s only one way in and out, down that long road with an electric gate half way (we’re living in a gated community, arrrgh!). The choice of shops and stores is greatly reduced; in fact, the closest boulangerie is still our favorite, back in the old neighborhood, only now it’s a 15 minute walk! But what I find surprising is the change in  living experience, even though we haven’t gone very far.


Le Deconfinement—The End of the Confinement!

We finally took the tram, after two months. Pretty empty!

Another nearly empty tram passing in the night.

Yes, it finally happened! May 11 France officially loosened the lockdown orders! We no longer need our permission slip (known as the attestation) to leave the house! We can go out as often and as far as we want! Well, we are still limited to 100 km (62 miles) from home, and are asked to stay within our Department (an administrative district similar to a county in the US). Cafes, restaurants, and all large events are still shut down, and stores must monitor the number of people inside. But still! On Monday, the first day out, we expected huge crowds everywhere, but ironically enough, it rained all day, which effectively damped the desire to get out.

The Mall, once very crowded, seen here just before the lifting of the lockdown.
Normally these are ads at the tram stop, for perfume or the latest movie or a cell phone plan. Here the one in yellow says "This poster has nothing to sell. We're just very happy to see you again!" The other, in red: "The beautiful days have never been so beautiful." Nice!

And, across the street from the tram stop at the employee parking lot for SNCF (the French Railways), some wag has written on the gate "Always on strike until retirement," perhaps a comment on the frequent strikes in France!

The city has come alive, awakened from its slumber, with results that are, predictably, both good and bad. It’s a relief to be out with no limits or time frame, and it’s good to see others doing the same. But the cars! It was so nice, for those two months, to have almost NO cars on the streets! Traffic may not have yet reached its full, post-confinement roar, but it makes for a much less pleasant walk.

The opera house in Place de la Comedie. Not crowded like before, but at least occupied!

Paula and our friend Stefan walk through town, post confinement. Getting pretty busy!
Seen in a pharmacy window: the classic "bird's head mask" from the plague days. Perhaps it's a bit of overkill, but effective today, too!

Ever since the confinement we have been meeting once a week (mostly) with our ex-pat friends, Debra, and Mark and Mary, via FaceTime. Now, at last, we are able to actually, really, get together! We meet in a place, a square, where five or six streets come together, in the French style. It's just a short walk from where we live. Benches are located, conveniently enough, at the proper distance apart, and we bring our coffee and croissant and talk about our week. At last, real socialization!

The building facing the place is one of the half-dozen painted trompe-l'œil found in Montpellier that are so mind bending (a flat wall turns into a building facade, or even a whole complex of buildings). 


Mark takes the selfie while we all carefully socially distance. That's Mary on the left and Debra on the right. we're somewhat in the middle.

In that same square is this cute neighborhood library box. The signs explain that, regrettably, it can't be used during the health crisis.

Another Friday, another Koffee Klatch, this time with two new friends Xavier and Sylvie and a view of one of the trompe-l'œil buildings that help make Montpellier such a fabulous place.
                                      (So, what's real and what's just paint??  Hint - the trees are real.)

The beaches opened this weekend. The rules were no sitting or sunbathing, just keep walking or swimming, and keep your distance! From the photos we’ve seen it looks like people were behaving themselves. No word yet on whether the authorities will keep the beaches open, or close ‘em up again.

And, finally, bicycles! We’re going to be buying some! I’m excited about having a bike! We’ll be able to get around more, maybe all the way to the beach. Actually, we already did that last December, with the very heavy, awkward city bikes. Should be a piece of cake with the new, much lighter bikes! Yeah, someone pointed out, but we spent three weeks in physical therapy recovering from that trip (true!). OK, so we’ll start out with something less ambitious, and work up to it.

But still, we have not been in an acquiring mode for a long time. I have doubts about taking on such an encumbering thing. We’ll have to keep track of them, store them somewhere (there is a room in the building, although it’s already mostly full), worry about the bike being stolen, or the paint getting scratched. Oh, the burdens of ownership!


             Cooking

And yes, the cafes and restaurants are still closed. Gone are the days of crowding into a tiny restaurant to sit elbow to elbow with your fellow diners exploring the well-reputed cuisine of la belle France. While there are a few take-out places open, so far we have been on our own. Paula is starting a sort of exploration alimentaire, trying out some new foods. Yesterday she made a fabulous apricot tart. The big draw for us these days, though, is Mexican food. (Interestingly enough, the one thing I really missed during my first, year-long, trip to Europe in the 1970s was Mexican food!) The stumbling block right now is to get the right spices. Oh, and, of course, proper tortillas. The cuisine of Mexico is starting to develop a following in France, but it is still very much a specialty thing. Even run-of-the-mill chili powder is tough to find! We may have to request a Care package from home…

Strawberries in luscious flaky little pastry pockets, and a tarte aux abricots