Thursday, January 26, 2023

California. Be Here, Now.


Our end of the long valley with volcanic peaks... and green!

Well, we made it back! Back to our cozy pied-à-terre in Los Osos. And we’re glad to be here! The flight over was long and boring; nothing happened, just the way we like it. It was also disconcerting and disorienting. We fly Business Class, but even with the extra room, the personalized (slightly) service, the wide, lie-flat seats, it’s still spending 12 hours in a narrow metal tube seven miles above the earth’s surface. (In addition to getting up at 4AM to make the connecting flight, plus all the usual interminable waiting in lines at the airports…) Disconcerting, indeed! 

But we survived, and landed in San Francisco during a lull in the widely-publicized series of storms that have been hitting California. We rented a car and drove south through the slow Bay Area traffic. We stopped in Gilroy for the night, a good thing as we were both wiped out.

Up early the next day (as if we had a choice through our jet lag!), we were on the road before dawn, driving past gorgeous green hills. All down the Salinas valley, and from King City to San Luis Obispo, the countryside was impossibly green. In most years it’s spring before these hills green up, where they have but a month or two before the hot, dry summer. But on this trip, all the way south we passed gorgeous, green pastoral-looking countryside!

Pastoral countryside, what much of California looks like.

The flooding was long past, but there were ample signs of it: mud and sand on the road, small lakes in the middle of fields. The Salinas River was well behaved by the time we arrived, but the wide river bed was a jumble of mud and bedraggled trees and bushes.

Ah, California! Dead-looking oaks against the green green hills.

We managed to miss the rain, mostly—we arrived at the bottom of the Cuesta Pass, just minutes from the city of San Luis Obispo, when the first drops fell. And then, how they fell! Heavy, heavy rain. But we were in familiar territory now. We made our slow way to the airport to drop off the rental car, where we were met by our friends from Oregon, Sue and Alan.

Driving through San Luis to our house in Los Osos, Sue gave us a running commentary on what had been happening over the last few days of the storm. As we drove along our once-customary streets, past familiar houses and yard, both Paula and I had this strange sensation of never having left: it was like we were gone on an overnight, and it had rained. A strange sense of odd familiarity, a bizarre case of déjà-vu. 

We’re sure glad to be back, though! It has actually been 18 months since we were last here. The house and property are fine; we live on what is essentially a sand dune. It’s well elevated, and the drainage is great, so no water issues at all. Actually, while there was some flooding and damage in our small town, it was very localized and had been cleaned up by the time we arrived.

But enough of me! Paula has some observations as well:


Well we’ve been back 2 weeks—it went by fast: lots of rain, flooding and mudslides (not at our house), adjusting to CA time, seeing friends, getting used to a new iPhone (me) and camera (Paul). France seems far away. Thankfully, Be Here Now is a real thing. And soon we’ll be back in France, and it is California that will seem far away.

So I thought it was a good moment to send a few photos and thoughts of life here – both our little pied-à-terre and the area.

First some general impressions:

  • Kale is out, chickpeas are in. California is the land of healthy fad food. Last time we were here 1-½ years ago it was kale EVERYTHING. It’s now been replaced by chickpeas. I love garbanzo beans so I’m happy. Oh yes KETO is the rage too. Thankfully I love carbs.
  • Trader Joe’s still kicks butt with new food recipes to try. Many are delicious – like stuffed gnocchi with mozzarella and tomato sauce. Or sweet cannoli dip. Or an old favorite, chicken sausage. And I’ve been having a great time making fish tacos with the BEST corn tortillas. And enjoying great Mexican and Thai food. There is a new bakery here that makes delicious croissants and pain au chocolat - heaven.
  • This is the season of green – in CA it only rains until April and we live at the end of a long valley of volcanic peaks and GREEN in every shade. They are even called the Irish hills – but only until May. Then it’s all brown. We live 5 minutes walk from a huge estuary and ocean and land that will never be built on. It is glorious.
The back bay at low tide, with the famous Morro Rock in the distance.
Five minutes from our house!

  • Our downstairs apartment is very familiar and cozy. And has lots of kitchen stuff and sharp knives. And “our own bed”. Wow. Decorated with mementos of France and Spain, of course. If you are ever in Central Coast California - let us know. It's usually vacant.
Our living area.

Our own bed!

  • After not driving for 1-½ years I am happy to report it is like I never stopped driving.  Even with manual 5 speed. But the cars and trucks seem bigger than ever. Scary.
  • Because we don’t have street lights in our little town—heck, some streets are still dirt—we see the stars – bright and shiny – I had forgotten how glorious that is!
View of the fairy land that is our night time garden. Yes, there is a star up there!

  • And lastly I thought it was quite serendipitous that one of my favorite watercolor painters was offering a 4 week class right in the middle of my time here.  Can't get better than that.

It might seem like I am falling in love with my old home again. I am, but I think it’s a passing affair. We are flirting. I’ll be ready to head back to France and Europe—it’s still my first love.

Daytime view of the garden.
Miss you all and hope you are enjoying life wherever you may be or traveling to.


And, facing away from the bay, we have this view!

We’ll be here in California until late February. Then it’s back to Montpellier! And hopefully, winter’s end. Until then, we’ll see what we can get up to here in Los Osos.



Bishop's Peak (right), the most prominent of the seven volcanic peaks;
 at the opposite end of "our" valley.


Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Seville, 2022

                      11 December 2022
A distant view of the cathedral and La Giralda, with the 
Inglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador (Collegiate Church of the Divine Savior) off to the left.

Well. We finally arrived! We made our first foray into the city at night, checking out the Christmas lights, spotting the well-lit Giralda and Cathedral; and stopping, finally, for our first caña (small draft beer) in Seville. I feel like we are finally really here!

Christmas lights with La Giralda .

And, it’s warm! When we left the temperatures in Montpelier, in the sunny south of France, were in the low 40s; here in Seville it’s in the high 60s. Wonderful! We’re so pleased.

 On the other hand, it is raining. And raining. And raining. But it’s warm! Apparently it’s been raining a lot. As the plane landed we saw flooded fields surrounding the airport. Walking to our new-to-us apartment we crossed streets that were partially flooded. But it’s warm!

Every time we come to Seville—and I think this is our fifth time—we stay in the same place, a cozy little apartment located in the old Jewish area called Barrio Santa Cruz. But this time we chose to stay somewhere else, just for a change. Just for central heating! We want to get away from those individual room heaters. Now we’re in a modern 7-story brick building, surrounded by other modern brick buildings. Not visually inspiring but we’ve got a spacious apartment, lots of light, and a view of the sky. And central heating!

Two things we always seem to do while here in Seville is buy footwear (see this earlier blog about Spanish boots), and visit the dentist. Our first year here we had our teeth cleaned by a young woman from Peru just getting her dental practice started, and we’ve been going back ever since.

And, it just so happens that the new place where we’re staying is near the dentist. Like, a half-block near. With reservations made well in advance, we strolled over on the morning after our arrival and re-acquainted ourselves with Dr. Laura.

Our apartment building and.. a shoe repair shop!

After our cleanings Paula was musing about our other habit. Did she need new boots? Or maybe just get the old ones re-heeled… Then we turned the corner and there, right on the ground floor of our apartment building, was a shoe repair place! (And just in case I wasn't sure what reparacion de calzaos meant, there was a picture of a shoe--and a key, because also available was duplicados de llaves).

We stepped into the shop, crowded with other customers. There was a large fellow in a white smock standing in front of a complex looking machine with grinding wheels and buffers. Paula asked, using pantomime and her best pidgin Spanish, How much to get these heels fixed? Next thing we knew Paula was offered a chair and the cobbler was slicing, cutting, grinding, gluing, and trimming. Ten minutes later her boots were good as new! 

The large fellow slicing, cutting, grinding, gluing, and trimming.

As we were paying (€10! about $11USD) I noticed a woman—the cobbler‘s wife?—at an industrial sewing machine fixing a strap on a ladies purse. It was big smiles all around, and we really wished we had more broken things to get fixed.

Twenty-five steps later we were standing in front of our sixth floor apartment door, marveling at what had just happened. Fastest case of “you want it, you got it” I’ve ever seen!

Well, after that first week the rain stopped, and we’ve been enjoying the magnificent weather. Our new lodgings are a bit further from the center, but make it easier to get to some areas we’ve rarely visited (too far then, plenty close now, from our new location!)


                 Christmas Lights

Every year we rush to the Plaza de San Francisco, one of the major squares downtown, to see what’s installed. One year it was an ice skating rink, one year three giant angels in lights, one year huge crowns. And this year…



Animated light displays! Colors and images flowing across the surface of these giant hemispheres.


Colors! Note the figures on top...

The girouette (weather vane) on top of La Giralda; copies are mounted on the light domes.

Plus all the usual lights strung across the boulevards. 

Crowns along Calle Sierpes

Lights and the exquisite buildings along Av. de la Constitución.

The ever-popular Plaza del Salvador.

Oh my, but how time flies! This was written just when we arrived, and now we’re all packed up and ready to go back to the States—tomorrow it’s up early and on the plane. Once we’re in California maybe we can catch up on what we’ve missed…

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Annecy, and Christmas Markets

Annecy, seen from the castle on the hill.

Ah, it’s been a while since our last post. We’ve been settled in at home, enjoying the warm fall weather and preparing—mentally, at least—for our upcoming trip back to the States. Lately the temperatures have been dropping in Montpellier; we’ve been cranking up the heat even as we worry about the energy consumption. We figured we needed to get out of town, to someplace even colder: the delightful town of Annecy, at the foot of the Alps.

It’s north of us, almost to the Swiss border. Three of us went on this little jaunt, including our good friend and travel companion, Debra. Rather than flying or driving, we took the TGV (Très Grande Vitesse), France’s high-speed train, which was a fun experience all by itself.


Debra and Paula, at the new, huge, deserted Sud de France station.

The train left from the new station in Montpellier, a bit outside the city near the airport. It’s a huge station and mostly deserted, having been completed just in time for the pandemic lockdown. (While we would have preferred to leave from the station just a short walk from our apartment, the intercity trains tend leave from the new station; eventually only the locals will come into town.)

Paula aboard our first class car; those are our seats in the lower right.

The train itself was fantastic! First class tickets were only very slightly more expensive, and came with  wider seats and fewer people. The three of us sat together across a little table, and we had the bonus of a nearly-empty car. It was a quick and very pleasurable ride up to the city of Lyon, where we changed trains for a smaller and slower local. But again, it was nearly empty and we enjoyed winding our way through the foothills. And, the station in Annecy is in the middle of town. Along the short walk to our lodgings we marveled at the shops (Le Libraire Imaginaire, The Imaginary Bookstore… Really?), the setting (canals; a lake; mountains!), and the season (Christmas decorations!).


Classic view of a canal in the old city.

Canals running past the colorful old buildings were endlessly attractive.

Annecy’s location at the head of a long quiet lake at the foot of the Alps, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, gives it a strong mountain vibe. It’s too low (about 1000 feet elevation) to be a ski town, but it’s on the road to the mountains!


Our first day, on the bridge over the gray, placid lake.

The town is incredibly picturesque, with its canals and lake. In the evenings, though, what got our attention were the Christmas markets. Every city in France—heck, every city in Europe—has a Christmas market, including Montpellier, where we live. Somehow, though, the ones in Annecy seemed more lively than the one in Montpellier. More interesting. Brighter and fresher!


A Christmas market in Annecy.

Raclette, being served at the Christmas market.

Annecy has three or four small Christmas markets, all fit within a few blocks. It was quite a joy to discover each one and its distinct flavor. We took particular interest in the vin chaud (warm wine). Each of the markets had a vendor or two with huge copper kettles set over small burners, with red and white wine, cider (alcoholic), and spiced apple juice. And that became the start of our evening promenades, sampling the vin chaud.

This was our dinner one night: pasta served out of a bowl carved from a wheel of parmigiana!


This repurposed gondola car is a link to the ski trails. More importantly, it's a cute place to rest, or enjoy a vin chaud from the nearby market!

Our first night we went to a restaurant offering the local specialty, raclette. We’d heard of this very special dish and were anxious to try it out. 

Us, in the raclette restaurant. The cheese and the heater are to the right.

A half-wheel of cheese is placed in a special holder with an electric heating element. The surface of the cheese melts, and when it’s good and runny the surface is scraped, oozing melted cheese onto a plate. Normally it’s eaten over boiled potatoes, but other vegetables, or charcuterie (prepared meats like ham or sausage) can also be used. (And what kind of cheese is used? Why, it’s called Raclette d´Annecy. Hope that helps!) 

Scraping the melted cheese...

I can easily imagine people in times past pulling a cheese and potatoes from the cellar, in the middle of winter with the snows all around. It’s a real comfort, this kind of food! 

At that same meal we also tried a true fondue (from the past participle of the French verb fondre, to melt), stirring bits of hearty bread around in pots of melted cheese with long-handled forks. It was all very good—and completely satisfied our desires for cheese for the next few days!.


This door opened on a tunnel that lead to the elevator to our upstairs apartment. The owner told us the residence had been in his family for three generations.

The days may have been dark and overcast, but the nights were full of color!

THE classic photo of Annecy! This medieval castle sits in the middle of the canal, in the middle of town.

One of several boulangeries in the old town.

Every day we found new cutesy nooks.

We devoted one day to walking along the lake shoreline. We didn’t get very far, actually. All the travel photos show flowers, and grass, and sunny skies. This time of year, though, it was cold with a heavy overcast. We did enjoy our walk, though, and the views down the lake with the snowy mountains in the near distance. But it was chilly and we were glad to get back and settled into our favorite café for—yup, a warming glass of vin chaud.


There were a few flowers left this late in the year!

Debra and Paula admire the view down the lake on a Chilly December afternoon.

Our trip was short, but we were very pleased with our stay in this endlessly charming town. (Causing Paula to wonder, Is it possible to die of cuteness?)


Colorful during the day, even under the heavy overcast...

...but Christmas lights made nighttime in the city very special!

Debra and Paula have fun with fall(ing) leaves.

We had a bit of a glitch on the trip home: a train strike! No trains for the return trip, but fortunately there was a bus, direct to Montpellier. It took longer, and we saw far more of urban back streets than we cared to, but it was warm and comfortable. We’d payed a bit extra for front-row seats, so we sat right behind that giant picture window with a fine view of the road ahead. 

Shortly after dark we were back in the relative warmth of Montpellier, pleased with our trip and glad to be home.


Our panoramic view from the bus as we head south from Annecy.


In a few days we will be leaving the chill of Montpellier for our winter quarters in Seville, Spain, as we do every December. We’ll be connecting up there with friends, and our daughter, Nina, and her husband Riki. Stay tuned!


Looking down the length of the lake, snow-covered mountains and all.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Montpellier in the Fall, and Sommières


The rooftops of Sommières.

It’s fall in Montpellier again. The leaves are turning, and falling off the trees. It’s not as spectacular as New England, but, unlike California, it’s clear something’s happening. After that nasty hot humid summer we’ve finally gotten relief in the form of weeks of glorious weather. Now it’s still warm, but we’ve lost the sun and gained plenty of atmospheric moisture. Overcast, and feeling of rain… but all we get is humidity. We’ve been waiting for winter like the drop of the other shoe, but it’s still not cold. Hooray!

The Saturday market under Les Arceaux

Another sign of fall: we went to one of our favorite markets, the Saturday market under the old aqueduct (called Les Arceaux—the Arches). This is a true farmers’ market, with producers bringing their fruits and vegetables, fish and cheeses, roast suckling pigs and poor naked little skinned rabbits. (Other weekly markets sell clothes, bedding, housewares… but not this one.)

These mushrooms are called cèpes--they're big!

Sliced up cèpes and some unidentified tiny champignons.

And it's not just the mushrooms that are gorgeous.

And we saw something we hadn’t seen before: mushrooms! Champignons. Funghi. Setas. Big ones, that I’d never seen before. I don’t like to eat mushrooms, but they sure are interesting!

It's a popular place!

Oh, and those arches… the aqueduct was built in 1765 to supply water to the growing city of Montpellier. If it bears a resemblance to the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct from 16 centuries (!) earlier, it’s because the builder, Henri Pitot, built the roadway at the base of the Pont du Gard. And he, apparently, was quite taken with the original design. (Read about our visit here.)

Le Pont du Gard in the winter sunshine; inspiration for Les Arceaux.

Henri Pitot was a local, born—and died—in a small town near Montpellier. Tasked with measuring the flow of the river Seine through Paris, he essentially developed hydrodynamics, the study of moving fluids. Today every modern aircraft has a Pitot tube, a—yes—tube that uses Pitot’s principles to measure air speed.


Ran into our neighbors on the street the other day. Nothing makes you feel settled like running into people you know! He pointed out that their building hasn’t had to turn the heat on yet. That’s a particularly good thing, given the run-up in natural gas prices due to the war.

Speaking of gas, France has a different battle going on: nationwide refinery strikes. (Something about windfall oil company profits leading to significant raises for company executives, but nothing for the workers… same old story!) Many stations haven’t had fuel, so we’ve been keeping a low car profile. But after three weeks of not starting the engine we decided that enough was enough, and five of us went on a little day trip.

The bridge into Sommieres.

Our goal was the town of Sommières and its most excellent Saturday morning flea market.

The tree-shaded market place near the river.

We were there about a year ago, and were happy to return. The town is built along a river, quite a lovely site. The market specializes in brocante, stuff that fits in that wide gap between genuine antiques and junk. Kitchen stuff like glasses (both matched sets and bizarre one-offs) and grandma’s china set. Lamps from the 50s and 60s. Odd decorative items in colors long out of fashion. And my personal favorite, tools. Old tools. Mostly cleaned and polished and oiled and ready to go to work. Most with functions that are obvious, but also quite a few purpose-designed for a particular special task in a field that no longer exists. Horse shoeing pillars. Hammers and wedges used in barrel making. One table had an exquisite collection of weights for use in pan balances, fitted boxes holding a dozen or more brass weights ranging from 10 grams to one kilogram.

Pruning tools, used in the vineyard.

Stuff, important to someone, some time. The busts on top are Tintin, a character in the incredibly popular comic
 of the same name, and the Captain (I think), also in the same comic. As for the rest...

More tools! I particularly like those wooden-handled pipe wrenches.
(Wait... are those levels? I need a level! Why didn't I see those before...?) 

Wandering among the tables piled with goods, puzzling over their use, I got the feeling that I would have liked to want something. A tiny hope that something would show up that really spoke to me that I would bring home with great satisfaction and admire every day, feeling so pleased that I had found it.

We take a break for some refreshment, coffee and hot chocolate: Mark, Mary, Debra, Paul, Paula

But no. I’ve never been a collector, and our travels have trained us not to want things, however desirable, that would burden us. Someday we’re going to leave here, and the less we need to carry away the better! Nothing made the cut. 

Heading back to lunch from Sommieres.--our restaurant is at the end of the bridge on the far right.

We eventually reached our limit of admiring other people’s junk/fine collectables—lunch time! We’d booked at table at a crêperie on the river, just across the bridge from the town gate. It was endlessly pleasant, watching the water and studying the ancient bridge and the people crossing it. After (yet another!) fine lunch we re-crossed the bridge and entered the small but well-preserved town center.


Paula at lunch.

We go through the arch and into the town...

...for another of long-armed Mark's selfis.

We prowled through the stone streets, eventually finding the path to the former castle overlooking the town. After admiring the views out over the town and the countryside we headed back down. Passing a friendly café, we stopped for another round of coffee and hot chocolate.

A rather plain church with a rather plain name, "Eglise Catholique de Sommières". But vibrant. It's purple!

Really purple!

Mark got this photo of me taking a Sommières panorama.

It had been a good day. None of us had found anything that we really couldn’t do without. But it was a fine outing. We made our way back across the bridge to our car, and the drive home.

Nothing to do with Sommières, but a classic view of Montpellier in the fall sunlight.

And finally, from our terrace, a spectacular end-of-September double rainbow over the construction cranes.