My French Kitchen

The French are world-renowned for their culinary skills. So, it’s no wonder that most French families eat the majority of their meals at home.

Considering all that delicious home-cooking, one would think that French kitchens would be optimized for both efficiency and organization. However, I have not found that to be true. I have been in many a Provençal kitchen, but French kitchen design remains baffling to me. 

Here are a few idiosyncrasies I have found in my own kitchen:

No planning for electrical outlets.

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We have only two in our kitchen. They are directly next to each other. There is only room on the counter for one electrical appliance. My husband makes toast and popcorn in the living room. The coffee maker takes priority.

Limited counter space.

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We have an entire wall that is empty. No counters AND no electrical outlets. There is room for a counter, but the owners chose not to install a permanent one. I can see holes in the wall where at some point in time, something resembling a counter existed in this space.

No appliances.

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When you rent or buy a home in France, the previous tenant or owner takes their appliances and light fixtures with them. No refrigerator, no dishwasher, not even a washing machine. Nothing but some cabinets and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes they even take the counters (see above).

No lighting.

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I cook by the equivalent of candlelight. I could bring in a lamp, but again no counters. Maybe I’ll invest in a floor lamp. Oh wait–I don’t have enough outlets to plug one in!

Self defrosting refrigerators are not the norm.

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I didn’t realize this when I bought mine. It took me a year to figure out why my freezer had so much ice built up. I can remember my mom defrosting the fridge in the 1970s but never pictured myself doing the same. Not the mention my freezer is the size of a large shoe box. Our American visitors quickly realize there will be no ice in their beverages and our kids have gotten used to drinking room temperature water and even juice or soda if they’re at a party.

These inconveniences are minor when I consider all the wonderful things about living in Provence.  The culture and experiences we are exposed to, the wonderful friends we have made and the laid back lifestyle make it all worth while. I wouldn’t have these views back in Florida:

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15 Signs You’re an Expat

#1  Your social media feeds are filled with posts in multiple languages. You are able to figure out most of what’s happening via context; you rely on Google Translate for the rest.

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Photo by NeONBRAND

#2  It takes you a good five minutes to answer the question: “Where are you from?” Do you mean where I was born, where I was raised, or where I live now?

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Photo by Ben White

#3  You root for multiple teams in the Olympics and World Cup. But what do you do when they play each other??!

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Photo by Thomas Serer

#4  The speed at which you’re able to mentally convert different currencies is your new party trick.

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Photo by freestocks.org

#5  You own far fewer things than most people your age, but almost each item comes with its own story and memory.

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Photo by Kari Shea

#6  What would be simple errands in your home country become major accomplishments in your adopted homeland. 

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Photo by Kelsey Chance

#7  You try to hide how sad it makes you when your friends and family no longer expect you to attend weddings, holidays, reunions, and other major milestones.

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Photo by Jade Masri

#8  Your expat friends have become your surrogate family. They watch your kids for you, celebrate your birthday, invite you over for holidays, and listen to you vent over a glass of wine.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

#9  Your passport is always up-to-date and readily accessible.

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Photo by Francesca Tirico

#10  You have strong opinions about Skype vs. FaceTime vs. WhatsApp.

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Photo by William Iven

#11  Nothing embarrasses you anymore. New country, new language, new culture—being an expat is a humbling experience and little humiliations are daily occurrences. Now you laugh it all off.

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Photo by Isaiah McClean

#12  You find yourself eating food that would have turned your stomach before.

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Photo by Luke Brugger

#13  Your weather app is a travel log of all the places you’ve visited over the past year.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

#14  You watch your nieces and nephews grow up through pictures.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

#15  You know that any friend who visits you more than once is a friend for life.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

 

Header image by Luca Baggio on Unsplash

The Delivery Man…You’ve Got a Package

The weather had turned cold and so had my feet. Our things had arrived at the port in Marseille, but as we didn’t have a permanent home yet, there was nowhere for things to be delivered. As a result, we were making do with the things we brought with us on the plane.

We arrived in August, so my supplies included a light jacket or two (for brisk summer evenings), short-sleeved shirts and various summer-type shoes. But this was October—frosty-window-scraping season.

Lest you have forgotten, I am 6-foot-tall, Amazon goddess with feet sized to match. Shopping at my local department store wasn’t exactly an option…unless I wanted to look like I was wearing my children’s clothing. So, I got online and shopped in the UK where I was able to procure a pair of perfectly impeccable knee-high boots to cover my exposed toes. Delivery would take a week. So, I battened down the hatches, put on an extra pair of socks and waited for D-livery day.

French streets are less about order and more like a way to wind around existing landmarks while potentially passing through practical places. As a result, even if your street is only a little bit off the beaten path, delivery drivers (those champions of freight distribution) armed with the latest GPS technology will still need directions. It’s very common place to get a phone call asking for advice on how to navigate your village in order to get to you.

I knew this call was coming. I was prepared. After consulting Google translate and a few French-proficient friends, I had written out what I thought was a simple explanation of how to get to my house from several directions…just in case.

When the phone rang from an “Unknown caller” my heart started to pound and my palms to sweat.

Just breathe. You got this. Just tell him where you are and it will be fine.

The conversation started off normally with him explaining he was with such and such delivery company, and he would be arriving momentarily. Next came the moment I had been waiting for: “How do I get to your house?”

As I stumbled through my explanation, the conversation took an unexpected turn…

“Wait,” he demanded. “You’re not French. Where are you from?”

“I’m American,” I replied.

He reacted by launching into a quick string of words I didn’t understand. However, through the gobbledegook, I managed to get the gist of his energetic monologue…come have coffee with me and I’ll give you your package.

I was a little shocked and told him, no thank you.

He was not to be put off so easily and asked again.

Again I said, no. Honestly, I couldn’t say much more.

He continued his impractical petition. In the end, I just hung up and called a friend.

I explained the situation to her and asked if she could intervene on my behalf with this half-witted Romeo holding my boots for ransom. She agreed, took his phone number, and hung up.

I paced the floor, hoping that this boot delivery debacle could somehow be settled.

It wasn’t long until she called back, but the news was not what I expected.

She told me that the guy just wanted to meet an American, and that he thinks it’s not a big deal and that he won’t give me my package unless I do it. She suggested we call her husband and have him negotiate the release of my ransomed goods.

He agreed and, posing as my disgruntled husband, demanded Romeo meet him at the village square and hand over the cargo. Romeo agreed but never showed.

At this point, we were a little skeptical about this existence of the purloined packaged. Perhaps we had been the victim of some elaborate expat scam. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to pull a fast one on a poor sap unfamiliar with the local culture and language.

We needed backup, so we contacted the security department of the company he worked for. They did some digging and discovered the delivery company was legitimate, and that the package, although real, had been sent back as undeliverable.

I felt incredulous, shocked, stunned. Did that really just happen. And what about my shoes?

However, as there was nothing I could do about it, I put on another pair of socks. A few days later I sat, trying to come up with Plan C.

Delivery might be a problem. I mean, what if the same guy has to deliver the package on round two. Will we be back to square one?

While thus pontificating, the doorbell rang.

I cautiously opened the door. I wasn’t expecting anyone.

Standing there was a young man holding a brown box that looked like it could contain a pair of size 44, knee-high boots.

I eyed him skeptically–one eyebrow lifted as if to say, “Are you the guy?”

If he was, he did an excellent job of playing dumb. Not an anxious glance or embarrassed blush.

Whatever, I was just happy to have my shoes!

The real expat life.

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel

O Tile Floors! A Lament for Broken Things

In southern France, tile floors rule the day. Relegated to kitchens and bathrooms in the U.S., tile is the flooring of choice in my adopted homeland.

And they certainly are practical. They are easy to clean, remain cool on hot summer days, and are able to withstand an incredible level of abuseall very important qualities when you have a house full of energetic children.

But, oh, the broken things! With tile floors, nothing survives a fall.

Countless wineglasses, plates, mugs, and fragile trinkets have fallen victim to tile’s unforgiving nature. When we first moved into our current house, I was surveying our new, teeny, tiny French kitchen and exclaimed to my husband, “There’s no way all our dishes are going to fit in herewe need less stuff!”

Be careful what you wish for.

Not two hours later, one of my twins managed to knock over a set of wineglasses that was waiting to find its place in a cabinet. Seven wineglasses hit the ground, exploding in every direction as small shards of glass ricocheted off the hard, slick floors. We were finding pieces of glass for weeks afterward.

Since that fateful day, many of our other possessions have met an early demise at the hands of our tile floors. As April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., I was inspired to honor all my many, many broken things with the following lament:


Lament for Broken Things

Cups, plates and other things of glass
Tumble to the floor en masse.
Horror as I see my platter—
Used for dinners long since passed—
Hit the tile, rupture, shatter.

F**k you, tile! I curse, I weep.
O the mess I must now sweep!
Tile! Why so unforgiving??
Fragile I sow, broken I reap.
Here’s to minimalist living!


Hope you enjoyed my little bit of verse! As Oscar Wilde once said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.”

Happy National Poetry Month!

Gone with the Wind

Provence is known for its strong winds, which have been dubbed by the locals or perhaps meteorologists as le mistral.” For this Florida girl, gale force winds = hurricanes. The first night in our new home in France, I was jolted from a restless slumber by powerful gusts of winds rattling the shutters. In my foggy, jet lagged state of mind, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into by moving to such an inhospitable far-off land. Was it like this every night? There had been no severe weather warnings issued. What was going on?  I soon understood why all the houses in the south of France have wooden or metal shutters. Why didn’t we Floridians think of that?

As time wore on, I became accustomed to the crazy mistral winds and learned to ignore them or just go with the flow if I had to be outside during an occurrence. Until today….

It had been a particularly gusty day. Fortunately, it was a Wednesday so the kids were home from school and we didn’t have to venture out. Hubby happened to be home sick from work as well. He had gone upstairs to open the shutters to let the Provençal sun shine in. My normally even-tempered husband began hollering loudly for me to come look at something. I knew immediately that something was amiss.

The large metal shed in our backyard had blown completely off its foundation. All of the contents housed in the shed were left behind, exposed to the elements—our bicycles, moving boxes, sleds, and even a dresser the landlord left behind.

The shed had been picked up by the wind, blown up and over the house and smashed to the ground landing upside down. It looked like a scene from The Wizard of Oz. I was expecting to see the munchkins peek around the corner asking if it was safe to come out. I had spent my early childhood in Kansas, if fact, but had never seen anything the likes of what I was witnessing currently in my own backyard. I wanted to click my heels three times and return to a time where our shed was perfectly intact and right side up.

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Our elderly French neighbors dashed outside in a panic. The wife had the phone up to her ear and was yelling that she was calling the pompier (French firemen). I stayed safely inside with the kids until the winds calmed enough for me to secure our garden furniture, which I had been watching  travel across the yard in the direction the mistral was blowing.

Hubby was able to convince the neighbor that we didn’t require the pompier and that we had the situation under control. We unearthed some heavy scaffolding that had been abandoned after the construction of our house and were able to hoist it on top of the shed to keep it from traveling further afield. I was concerned that our errant shed would continue blowing into the olive grove adjacent to our property and land on some poor farmer’s crop down the road.

I am convinced we provide our lovely neighbors with hours of entertaining stories for their weekly geriatric apéro (French happy hour). From the time we accidentally flooded the cistern under the house, causing a small river to stream down our gravel road, to the time an industrial sized spool landed on our car. (Read about it here) We seem to find ways to shock and awe the prim and proper locals without even trying.

Bad Form!

By David Ricketts

The French are a passionate people. They’re passionate about their food. They’re passionate about their wine. They’re passionate about their sport, their fashion, their politics. They’re even passionate about passion. But there is one French passion which stands above them all—paperwork.

To a Frenchman, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth filling in a bunch of forms first.

We began our relationship with French bureaucracy before we even arrived in France. Our first task was enroling our children in school. Per child, this required twenty pages of academic enrolment forms, eight pages for registration with the school canteen, and three passport-sized photographs. Another four pages to enrol the family into the parent organisation and we were done. I noted, with relief, the clause that stated that I was required to notify the school should any of the information I had provided change. At least I knew I wasn’t going to have to repeat the process. However, toward the end of the school year, my children arrived home with the same forms so that we could start all over again.

This process has repeated itself year after year but, to be fair, the forms and the process have improved. They now arrive with much of the information pre-filled in. I am merely required to note any errors. I look forward to correcting those same errors each year.

But it’s not just ex-patriots who suffer at the hands of French bureaucracy.

A friend, a Frenchman who presumably should have known better, had been living in the United States and had moved to Germany before finally settling in his native France. With the move, he imported a car. His pride and joy—a Ford Mustang!

Now the Germans are sticklers for the law, and they have some very strict rules governing what is and is not allowed on their roads. Upon arriving in Germany, he embarked on a few months of filling in forms and performing various emissions tests before the car was finally deemed acceptable. He assumed that the process of moving the car to neighbouring France a few years later would be straightforward. He was wrong!

By crossing the border, he committed himself to a two-year journey down a serious paper trail.

He began by submitting forms in person at the village Mairie (the seat of the town mayor). Next, he submitted and resubmitted forms to the regional authority’s office – a good hour’s drive away. Then, he submitted forms by post to various national government agencies.

Finally, he travelled 500 miles to Paris where he submitted the dossier of forms, permits, and certificates which he had collected during his quest. This final step would provide him with the registration documents he craved. He waited for his number to be called and presented his bundle of paperwork to the clerk.

The clerk quietly checked page after pedantic page. Slowly, ever so slowly, the clerk became more and more animated. By the time he had checked the last document, he was hopping about with excitement. What, my friend enquired, was the matter? The clerk excitedly informed him that no one had ever gotten this far and, that by issuing this permit, he would become the first person in the office ever to have done so. This, the clerk proudly announced, would earn him a promotion!

Photo by Helloquence

An Expat’s Guide to Serving the British Cuppa

EMILY: As an American living in France, I’ve been introduced to the thriving expat community that resides here in Provence. I am lucky to have developed friendships with people from all over the world, including several lovely and wonderful folks from the UK.

Recently, a friend from Scotland came over. It was a crisp day and I had just put the kettle on for a cup of tea. I asked if she would also like a cup. Alas, as a green tea drinker, all I had stocked in my cupboard was an array of green teas and an errant bag or two of chamomile.

When I revealed this fact, Sal’s face immediately fell. “Oh yes,” she sighed, “I forgot I’m in an American house. Next time I see you, I’ll give you some tea I brought back from the UK.”

After disappointing my Scottish friend with my lack of proper tea, I surveyed my other British friends as to the best tea to have on hand and how to serve “a proper cup.”

To save anyone else from suffering the embarrassment of my faux pas when hosting a British friend for an afternoon, I’ve asked fellow expat and UK native Pippa to guide us non-Brits on how to serve a proper cup of tea.

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The authors, Pippa and Emily, enjoy a cuppa together.

PIPPAWhen I moved to France from England, I discovered that the British cuppa occupies only one corner of a massive tea field, and an invitation for a cup of tea did not guarantee a drink with which I had any familiarity.

So, for the sake and well-being of all the Brits craving their cuppa abroad, I have assembled a list of the fundamentals for serving a British friend a proper cup of tea:

THE TEA

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In the UK, the offer of a cup of tea usually means only one thing: a hot, brown, milky drink. No need to identify it, but sometimes you might be asked, “India or China?” or “Is PG okay?” The former refers to Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong; the latter to a blend (PG Tips in this case). Everyone has their favourite blend: Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, Typhoo, etc. As long as you have one of these in the cupboard, you’re safe.

THE WATER

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The water should be freshly boiled and poured over the bag or an infuser with loose tea. Do not dunk your bag in the water—dunking is for biscuits. Science says about 96°C is perfect, so there!

THE POT

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If making a pot (God bless you!), you should warm it first with boiling water. You don’t want to mess with the temperature!

THE CUP

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Seriously, tea tastes different whether it is in a china, glass, metal, plastic, or cardboard cup. Of course, needs must, but I’m sure it’s obvious which works best with the British cuppa.

THE TECHNIQUE

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Leave for a minimum of 30 seconds. I’ve found three minutes is quite nice. I’ve just finished a cuppa that stewed for eight minutes, but I have a weakness for “builders tea” (strong and sweet enough to stand the spoon up in it and put hairs on your chest—pardon the imagery).

Important Note: Do not squeeze the bag to speed up the process! It makes the tea more bitter. You can swirl it if you want. Carefully.

THE MILK

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I was always taught that best practice is milk first. A member of my family once had tea with Prince Charles (oo, get us) and confirms that even he’s a “Miffy.” This avoids staining or scalding the cup and it means you do not have to stir if you don’t take sugar.

However, this has to go by the wayside if making tea from one bag in a cup. You can’t put milk on a bag! So, it is only relevant to tea made in a pot. And no, I’m not going to bother asking whether you should add milk or not! We are talking about the British cuppa here—you only omit milk if you have an upset tummy or are a student.

THE SUGAR

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If you take sugar, like me, and ignore the dentist, boring old white sugar is the best. Sorry, but brown sugar, caster sugar (sucre en poudre), fake carcinogenic sweeteners, etc. do not taste the same as white granulated sugar (sucre crystal).

THE BISCUITS

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Biscuits are a necessity for the full experience. There are so many to choose from and every Brit has their favourite (Hobnobs, Bourbons, Custard Creams, Jammy dodgers, Digestives, etc). My favourite: Rich Teas, to dunk. Some consider dunking bad manners, but why else do such bland biscuits exist? Normally you don’t want anything too fancy disintegrating in your cup, but each to their own, I say. Just remember to provide a teaspoon.

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So, there you have it. I’m sure opinions on such a fundamental topic will vary and, of course, adapt your tea-making for your own needs and those of your guest. And please don’t stop initiating us in the wonderful, alternative global pantheon of hot beverages—new experiences are all part of living abroad after all. But I don’t think you can underestimate the magical effect of a good British cuppa on a Brit abroad: the instant relaxation and warm mushy feelings of gratitude and friendship.

Hmm, after all that, I think it’s time to put the kettle on.

Worms in the Apple in the Garden of Eden

It’s Not All Lavender Fields

Really, life in Provence is generally fabulous. Mild winters (unless you ask Dana who is from Florida and freezing here), rather amazing food and wine, lots of fresh air and sunshine. But it’s not all lavender fields, rosé, and olive trees. There is a creepy-crawly side to Provence that you may not realize until you live here. Come! Let me give you an introduction to my little friends.

Processionary Caterpillars

We are now entering the height of caterpillar season.processionary caterpillars in provence This furry train can kill your dog if he eats them or at least make your small children break out in a rash. It’s a serious problem which can be mostly avoided with awareness and prevention.

They are a kind of tent caterpillar that nests in and eats pine trees; You can spot their messy webs as you walk through the woods. This time of year, they crawl down the trunk of the tree, making a poison parade in search of who knows what.

Each year, a few dogs die from ingesting these guys. Sure, we have ticks nearly year-round (due to these generally mild winters) and use the topical tick repellent almost every month according to our vets’ recommendations. But these are more than an irritant, these caterpillars have furry barbs loaded with histamines. A dog getting these in the mouth has a chance of suffocating from a swollen throat, or stop eating due to the wounds in the mouth. No fun. Watch out.

Scorpions

These will stop you in a heartbeat, unless you are more accustomed to them than I, such as my colleagues in Phoenix Arizona. The scorpions of Provence aren’t nearly as large and toxic as the ones in the southwest or the Sahara, but they are still quite imposing and aggressive looking.

Just ask my friend Jackie, who, upon hearing a bump in the night, got out of bed to see what it was. When she turned on the light, she was greeted by an equally startled scorpion in the middle of the hall. Yikes! She had nearly stepped on it in her bare feet. Who knows how he got to the second floor landing, but that sure woke her up quickly. She completely forgot about the noise.

You could also ask our friend Marijn, who captured this lovely lady and her new babies. What a proud mama!

 

Earwigs

These are commonly inside our house. At least they were, until I started using an ultrasonic repeller.

earwigChalk the presence of these guys up to the ubiquitous damp crawl spaces that run under most houses’ foundations. Locally, the crawlspace (vide sanitaire in French) is considered to be a great architectural feature–it helps keep the house cool in the summer, boosts airflow, and is great for storing your wine at cellar temperature (and root vegetables, which aren’t nearly as fun).

Once, we looked at a new house for sale that had an unfinished basement they were calling a vide sanitaire. “Unfinished” as in, the basement floor was made of stones on top of dirt. THAT level of unfinished. In the Midwest US, there were many companies that specialized in drying out and encapsulating / insulating your crawl space. That would cut down on earwigs and our other creepy-crawlies. I have yet to find a company that does this around here. (Free business idea, anyone?)

 

So, back to these aggressive-looking bugs. They’re dark, they’re shiny, they’re quick, they’re wriggly, they’ve got big pinchers. What’s not to love? In truth, they aren’t quite as bad as they look, I’ve read that they aren’t poisonous or harmful. I was once bold and used my thumbnail to squish one–the darned thing raised up its severed end and pinched my cuticle. It was a bit swollen and sensitive for a day or two, but I live to tell about it. Won’t do that again.

Mice and Other Rodents

loire in provenceSurrounded by farmland, there are lots of field mice in Provence. We also have loire (those rodents that gave their name to the Loire River and the Loire Valley), a somewhat large-ish dormouse that makes lots of scrambly noises in your attic during the middle of the night. See right. Cute, no? Non…

During the winter, these rodents like to come inside where it’s warm and cozy. It certainly isn’t my preference to play host to these rude and messy guests. But it seems that there are many people of a different mind–I am told that it is rather normal to just let nature do what it wants. Let the mice live in the garage or house walls when it’s cold outside, the poor things.

My desire to keep them out is so unusual, that the builder who was finishing our carport into a garage couldn’t find a material to close up the gap between the corrugated roofing and the wood beam. Oh, that stuff is certainly manufactured, and it was listed by his supplier, but he just couldn’t get it delivered. No one wants to buy it around here.

Snakes, Particularly Vipers

Yes, nearly everywhere has some kind of snake. As I would rather have snakes than mice, they do not really bother me that much. I keep to myself and expect the snake to do the same. But my husband comes from a place that only has two kinds of snakes and either of them will kill you–you can choose the asp or the cobra. So we are particularly aware when there’s a snake around. (Did you hear that man shrieking like a little girl? Yeah, that was him.)snake

At right is a lovely specimen from Marijn’s garden. Did I mention she has two boys? Lots of nature and science going on at Marijn’s house.

Provence also has vipers. Yeah, that kinda freaked me out. They have that wide viper head which makes my mind scream, “Danger!” Although they are vipers, they generally aren’t so venomous and prefer to keep to themselves, so that’s just fine by me. Although the pharmacies do sell snake bite kits, so that’s in the backpack, just in case.

Wolf Spiders

I saved the best for last. These aren’t particularly dangerous, but they do give folks around here a good scare.

Have you ever had an exceptionally large spider in your shower? Have you ever had him lunge at you? These guys are fearless! And huge. And hairy–which makes them look even bigger. And they have a habit of quietly appearing very close to you when you least expect it. And then dare to be difficult to kill. You have to ask Emily to tell her wolf spider story–much panic and chaos ensued.

So there you have it. Even with all the romance and flowers and sunshine of Provence, life–in all its forms–goes on.

Playing With Fire

“For heating, there’s a proper English stove,” our new landlord proclaimed proudly. “We had to order it special from the UK.”

This ought to be interesting.

“It takes a little bit of planning, but if you figure things out right you can close the flue when you go bed and still have hot coals in the morning,” he continued.

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” my husband, Mike, observed. “I’ve done a lot of camping.”

With those words of confidence, we were on our own.

Welcome to the 1800s.

We moved in at the end of November, Thanksgiving Day to be precise. We were just grateful to have a house. As it was warm on moving day, we didn’t really think much about heating until the sun went down.

However, by that time, it would have taken too much effort to clear a path to the fireplace, so we bundled up in scarves and coats, ate a Thanksgiving Dinner of breakfast cereal and headed to bed.

The next morning was brisk, but we were hard at work so it wasn’t until that evening that we decided to try our hand at making fire. Cavemen did it. How hard could it be?

In addition to the logs in the woodpile, we had procured kindling, fire-starter cubes and a lighter with a long neck–all the tools needed to start a hearth-warming blaze. Unfortunately, instead of a blazing inferno, we started with a house full of smoke. Once the fire got going, it still took an hour to heat the house.

I had always associated a fireplace with leisure. The crackling of a fire creating an ambiance of comfort and coziness. It was the sound of the holidays, snow days, and romantic getaways. Now all I wanted was a source of continuous heat that didn’t make my hair smell like a campfire or the smoke alarm go off.

We didn’t get the hang of things until the spring. When the next fall arrived, we started regularly smoking-out the house again…until Mike discovered the right combination of flue levers and firestarter. (For those interested, he found that he had to start a small fire first to warm the chimney so the smoke would rise up instead of into the house.) Now we had a warmer house and fewer smokey evenings. During the day, I just always wore a coat.

You may wonder why we didn’t install some kind of electric-heating system. The fact of the matter is, we had two wall-mounted electric radiators near the fireplace. However, the cost of electricity is so high, we had been warned not to use them unless we wanted to pay through the nose.

Good thing Provencal winters are mild.

The real expat life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Check Please

Having lived in the U.S. my entire life before relocating to France, I am often struck by how much Americans prize efficiency and how quick we are to embrace new technologies to speed up and smooth out everyday activities. Uber, Apple Pay, Grubhub, Task Rabbit…the list goes on.

In France–especially in the more rural areas–change often comes at a slower pace. Stores and government buildings here still shut down for two hours at lunchtime. And you can forget last-minute grocery runs on a Sunday afternoon–everything is closed.

Paperwork tends to be an onerous process here as well. Even the French roll their eyes at the mountain of paperwork that accompanies any activity. For instance, registering my kids for school requires filling out 20 sheets of handwritten paperwork each and every year (for each kid). I haven’t experienced hand cramp this bad since my days at university!

But one could argue that this slower pace of life can have its charms. Who couldn’t benefit from easing off the accelerator every now and again? And once you get used to how things are done here, you’d be surprised at how quickly you adapt.

However, there is one thing that I have never quite gotten used to in my three years in France. For me, one of the most mystifying practices of the French is their penchant for writing checks. Since the mid-90s, I had only written a handful of checks. That is, until I moved to Provence. Here, it is required for nearly all day-to-day business. In fact, many people still use them in the grocery store, which takes forever. (How I wish the French would adopt the American practice of stocking the checkout line with trashy magazines to help pass the time!)

One recent day in particular summed up how prohibitive my life is when I don’t have my checkbook handy.

“Honey,” I called out to my husband as he was getting ready to leave for work. “Please leave the checkbook for me. I may need it for the fuel delivery–their credit card reader doesn’t always work.”

The fuel is what our boiler runs on and without it, we have no heat or hot water. The bank only awarded us one checkbook when we opened our French account and asking for a second one was too arduous (again with the paperwork). A few hours later I realize the checkbook is nowhere to be found. This should be interesting.

A knock at the door. It’s not the fuel delivery. It’s the mail lady. Whew! At least I don’t need my checkbook for the mail, right?

“I have two packages for you,” she explains in French. “This one you need to sign for and this one requires that you pay a customs duty and tax.”

Ok, this is a first. The post office is charging us €74 on a package teeming with Christmas gifts from a well-intentioned relative in the U.S.

I don’t have enough cash in my wallet. “Can I pay by credit card?” I ask hopefully. 

“No, but a check works.”

Of course it does. So, as my checkbook is M.I.A., there will be no package of Christmas joy for my children today.

After an hour (and a few tears) of muddling through French homework with the kids, the fuel man makes his appearance and promptly gets to work. As he wraps up the job, he hands me the paperwork. I present my credit card. He explains that his machine is defunct. Merde. What the heck do I do now? He can’t syphon the fuel out of the tank. Fortunately, he’s lovely about my predicament and tells me I can stop by office to pay the bill the following day. Phew!

I decide that will be hubby’s job. Followed, of course, by a trip to the post office to pick up our hostage Christmas package.