Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fancy a Housesit in the Luberon?

Have you been inspired by our travels in the south of France? Want to give housesitting try? If so, you're in luck! A new ad came online today that's looking for housesitters in the Luberon.

Trustworthy couple for seven months in the Luberon

This house is in: France, Gordes
Period available: 7 months
Starts: 24 September 2012
Ends: 29 April 2013

Reliable, trustworthy couple who will treat our beautiful home as if it were their own (or better!). Our objective is to keep the house secure, clean and "lived-in" and to ensure we return to what we left. We need a couple who can stay for the whole seven months.

Remember, my fellow Americans, that you're only allowed to stay in the Schengen area for 3 months as a tourist. But maybe the homeowners would be willing to sponsor you for a work visa? Logistical details aside, it's still fun to dream about sipping rose on that terrace!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Running on Fumes to Bonnieux

Our Sunday drive to Bonnieux began as a frantic search for a gas station. Most stations are credit card-only on Sundays, as the attendants (who also act as cashiers) have the day off.

Now of course we own credit cards, but our American cards don't have the special chip needed for certain European card readers, including gas pumps:

Not having a chip can render your card useless here in Europe. From
So we topped off our tank with some spare gas from the lawnmower, said a quick prayer, and off we went! I think we only had 1/8 tank, but Jim swears it was closer to 1/4 tank. Either way, it would've been a long walk home if we ran out of gas!

After a nail-biting drive through countryside, we eventually found a gas station with an attendant about 10 miles outside of Bonnieux. Crisis averted, and 60 Euros poorer, we set out to enjoy some sightseeing.

Bonnieux is a village perché (French for "perched village") set amongst the hills and valleys of the Luberon. You may have heard of this region thanks to British author Peter Mayle, who chronicled his life as an expat in the Luberon village of Ménerbes. One of his books was the basis for the 2006 movie "A Good Year," starring Russell Crowe.

The views from the village didn't disappoint! The town looks out over vineyards, fields and orchards.

We also enjoyed wandering through Bonnieux's maze of old stone streets.

The big attraction in town is the Musée de la Boulangerie, or Bakery Museum, which is devoted to the history of breadmaking. You can even take baking classes there! Personally, I'd rather leave the breadmaking to the experts... I'm much better at eating it than baking it!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Getting Medieval in Les Baux

We've started to get out and explore Provence over the past week. There's plenty of things to do, no matter which direction we go in! Provence is a very fertile, sun-filled, and hilly area of France. It also has a long history of human habitation -- even the Romans have left their mark here!

We recently took a trip to the hilltop village of Les Baux (baou is Provençal for "rocky spur.") It's the remains of a fortified city dating from the 10th century. Jim was looking forward to seeing the medieval weaponry and Hermes couldn't wait to pee on a historic ruin. I was just happy to get out and enjoy the beautiful day!
"Are you guys coming or what?"
The hilltop village of Les Baux, from
Les Baux is located in the foothills of the Alpilles mountain range, nestled between scraggly limestone hills and endless olive groves. The fortress sits atop a 650-ft bluff, which made for a great natural defense against any invaders. There's also a spectacular view of the surrounding plains. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Mediterranean Sea (about 30 miles away.)
View of olive groves and hills south of Les Baux.
To the north, the white sandstone cliffs known as the Val d'Enfer ("Valley of Hell") were the inspiration for Dante's description of Hell in Divine Comedy.
Valley of Hell? I don't see it. Come to Phoenix in August!
A free audio guide was available with admission, but we found the descriptions to be a little long winded. Speaking of wind, it was also very difficult to hear anything atop the cliff, as the mistral wind was in full force on our visit!
Sporting our wind-blown hairdos.
Onto the part you've been waiting for: the weapons! We found a catapult, battering ram, and trebuchet (which looks like a catapult but it's not). Sadly, there weren't any mock battles during our visit, leaving Jim a bit disappointed.
Can you say trebuchet?
It was a lot of fun to wander around the ruins of the fortress. Most of the fortifications were carved directly into the rock.

It was also a great outing for Hermes, as he was able to explore the grounds with us. The French are very keen on bringing their dogs everywhere. There was even  a special "bar" for chiens et pigeons (dogs and pigeons!)
Note the Cesar Millan-style collar. Hermes is in walk training!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Underemployed and Happy

Six months ago, I quit my job. You know, the demanding, high-stress, well-paying type of job. The "professional career" requiring extensive travel, a Blackberry, and a whole lotta responsibility.

Do I miss it? Yes and no. I definitely miss the daily social interaction and all of the wonderful, talented, and fun people who I worked with. It's also nice to make enough income that you can live comfortably and have plenty left over to save.

But, at the same time, it makes me sad to reflect on how much of my time and energy was devoted to work. When you add up all of the hours spent commuting, getting ready for work in the morning, going on business trips, and attending after-hours conference calls with overseas colleagues, you start to realize that it's much more than just the hours you spend at your desk. It just doesn't seem right to only get 2 days off per week (which inevitably must contain personal chores, not just leisure time) and just 3 weeks of vacation (if I had to take my BlackBerry with me was it really a vacation?)

More than anything, I disliked not having control over my own time. Now, I have the freedom to have a picnic in the park at 2pm on a Tuesday if that's what I want to do. While my current work requires daily attention, I can complete it at whatever time I want to, as long as it gets done. I can't describe how good it feels to set my own daily schedule.

These past six months have flown by, as I've chosen to use my time to travel, reconnect with friends and family, revisit old hobbies, and learn some new ones. How much of this would I have done if I were still working my professional job? Oh, maybe 3-4 days worth, if I'm being generous.

I don't have everything figured out, but that's ok. We don't know where we'll be living in 2013, but I'm already dreaming of the possibilities. We're only making a fraction of our prior earnings, but it's enough to stay afloat without dipping into our savings. We have a lot less stuff, but it's helped us realize how little we need. Life is pretty good, and I wouldn't change my decision for the world.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Peace at Last!

The day we've been waiting for has finally arrived! The family has just left for a 2-month vacation. Bon voyage, mes amis!

The last two days have been completely insane. The homeowners were cleaning the house, packing, and showing us how to maintain the property. Meanwhile, the kids were going bonkers as their toys were slowly disappearing into boxes. All the while, Jim and I were counting the hours until the madness would end.

For a moment, the homeowners considered changing their flights to stay on for another week. Thank goodness that didn't happen, as I surely would have snapped!

Tonight we'll have a "return to sanity" celebration with cake and champagne. Tomorrow, we'll sleep in as late as we want without anyone banging on the door or screaming at our window. After that, for the next 7 days, we'll drive wherever we want whenever we want without a worry in the world except which direction should we travel in today?

We're relieved to have a full week to decompress and do some sightseeing. We need this break before the first renters arrive on July 14th.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Quest for the Best Pain du Chocolat

Lately, I've been feeling very frustrated about being trapped at homeOn Saturday night, my frustration had built up so much that I was in tears, leaving me hell-bent on doing something about it. Who needs a car? I will get out and experience France using my own two feet!

I went to bed with the resolve to get up early the next morning and walk to the local village (about 3km away). Morning time was key, as I had to plan my escape before the kiddies showed up at our door. It's also been very sunny and warm lately, with temperatures in the 90s, so I wanted to get out before it got too hot.

The next day, I shot out of bed around 7:30 am, brimming with more excitement than a kid on Christmas morning. I grabbed my hoodie and snuck out the door, with my trusty travelling companions (a camera and an iPod) in hand.

Ironically, it was one of those mornings that's perfect sleeping weather -- overcast, foggy, and a cool 60 degrees. But as I was bursting with ambition, I took it as a sign that it was a great day for taking photographs.

Wheat and trees on my walk to town.
Walking along the country road, I stopped to take pictures of the wheat fields and vineyards. Even though the countryside hasn't been my cup of tea, I can still appreciate the beauty of this area. One of these days, I'm going to look back on this trip with disbelief that I was actually living here.

I was surprised to see the village buzzing with locals, who were up early to purchase their daily baguettes at the boulangerie (bakery). Who knew that anyone worked on a Sunday in France?

I was quite pleased with myself for making an effort to walk to the village. It was so nice to see some action, as mundane as it might be, and to hear some French words tickle my ear. "Now I feel like I'm actually experiencing France," I thought to myself.

Feeling pleased as punch and wanting to take my experience a step further, I decided to give myself a new challenge: to sample a pain du chocolat from each bakery in town, and conduct a taste test to decide which one was the best! Hey, it's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

I had heard from the homeowners that there were only 3 bakeries in town. Feeling confident that I could easily handle 3 chocolate-filled croissants (clearly, this was my empty stomach talking), I headed off to the first one, Le Réveil Gourmand.

I patiently waited in the main square, hoping for a few more customers to enter the shop before me. Once I was inside, I was going to need a minute or two to look over the pastries, figure out the price list, and practice my order. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath and said, "Bonjour! Je voudrais un pain du chocolat, s'il vous plaît." (Not perfect, but hopefully good enough to get my request across.)

I handed the cashier 0.90 Euro then squealed with delight as I headed outside with my precious French treat.
Round 1! Pain du chocolat from Le Réveil Gourmand (in the background).
Thankfully, I remembered to take a picture of my pastry before it disappeared. "Hmm, a bit flat," I thought to myself, "this should really be more flaky." It seemed like the pain du chocolat was a little underdone, as it collapsed into a flat, greasy mess in its pouch. The flavor was nice, but I was a bit disappointed in the texture.

Full of butter and chocolate, I decided do a little more wandering before I hit the next bakery. About 20 minutes later, I eyed the store windows at my next stop: Mazade. I was a bit intimidated, as I didn't see anything on display for less than 30 Euros. Maybe they only serve pretty cakes here? Would they laugh at me when I asked for an unsophisticated pain du chocolat?

It seemed clear that the shop owner had noticed me oogling the window display, as she greeted me with a mixture of amusement and interest as I walked in. I sheepishly ordered my pain du chocolat, which felt a bit like walking into Tiffany's to ask for a silver-plated paper clip.

Pain du chocolat #2 from Mazade.
This pastry made up for some of the things that the first one was lacking. It was incredibly airy, with a dough-like consistency. While I liked its volume, the pastry tasted more like a chocolate-stuffed baguette than a croissant. Not very flaky. I was once again disappointed and, even worse, starting to feel very full.

I contemplated abandoning my quest as I sat in front of the Hôtel de Ville (town hall). But, I decided that I owe it to this blog to continue, so I pushed ahead!

I decided to explore the local fruit and vegetable market before I headed to my third and final bakery. Much to my horror, I discovered a surprise waiting for me across the street: another boulangerie! Apparently, there were 4, not 3, bakeries in this tiny little town.

As I cautiously approached the Festival des Pains bakery, I noticed a huge line of people inside the store. The bakery ladies were busy taking orders as a young boy loaded dozens of baguettes into the oven.

As I reached the bakery counter, I nervously scanned their picked over pastry selection. Croissants, cookies, tarts... are they out of pain du chocolat? I asked the shop lady for one and she paused for a second, then signaled to me to "hold on." She ran to the back of the bakery, poked around a series of trays,  then triumphantly reappeared with the last remaining pain du chocolat in their shop.

Pain du chocolat from Festival des Pains, a surprise late entry in my pastry taste test.
Not to discount the intentions of the lovely bakery ladies, but I have a feeling that this treat was still on a pastry cart because it was a little overdone for a refined French palette. But for me, the américaine tourist, it was probably good enough.

Actually, despite its overbrowned exterior, this pain du chocolat was clearly a winner. Perfect flakiness, melty chocolate. I enjoyed it even though I really didn't want to eat any more pastries. No wonder why this was such a popular place!

As I finished my third pain du chocolat, I started considering my options for the next round. There was still one more bakery in town (that I knew of), and for the sake of completeness, I decided that I must visit it. What can I say? I value a thorough and complete analysis and was not about to give up on my quest.

I sighed, put my head down, and headed to Maison Barli. Much to my delight, here's what I found:

Bakery #3, Maison Barli.
Finally! Some decent French people who refuse to work on Sundays! Thank you, Maison Barli!

As I headed home, 2.70 Euros poorer but at least 1500 calories richer, I decided that the next time I try a taste test, I must bring Jim along too. I am obviously not very good at counting and need some assistance scouting out all of the boulangeries in town.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

And We're Back!

Good news, all! We are very happy to announce that Jim's replacement laptop has arrived and we're up and running once again. Merci, Mademoiselle DH, you are our Angel of Technology!

We've been in France for 2 weeks and I'm finally coming around to our new life here. This was a very tough adjustment for me, as I've never lived in such a rural location. Oh, and I've never had 3 kids before, either.

We are getting better at setting boundaries with kids, but, at the same time, I find myself getting pretty attached to them, too. I've been doing all sorts of projects with the girls: making paper snowflakes, baking bread, and teaching them the chicken dance. We've also had some very posh tea parties, although they're usually interrupted by a pesky older brother. Only a week to go before the family heads out on their summer vacation. Then, it will just be two of us... that is, until the guests arrive.

Did we mention that the main house is for rent this summer? That's right friends, for the low, low price of $12,00 per week, you can stay in a luxurious 6-bedroom home in the Provençal countryside. If you're interested, you'd better act quickly, as 5 of 8 weeks are already booked.

Want to rent a house in Provence? Pool boy and maid included.
This is the first time that M & Mme R have rented out their home, so we're all winging this property management thing. I'm afraid that anyone who can afford this place will expect a certain level of service, like a personal butler, a driver, and a chef. But we aren't expected to wait on the guests hand and foot. As Mme R said, "this is a self-catering rental, not a hotel." We'll see how that goes once Jim and I are dealing with guests on the front lines...

One thing's for certain: this is going to be a memorable summer!