Monday, May 30, 2011

Bientôt La Fin

Dan, John and the amazing invisible Christine
Gabby and I Saturday

Something extraordinary happened today! As I was perusing my blog last night I saw a comment on my post about how I lost my wallet…someone here found it and turned it in!!!!! I went to the police where I had filed the incident report and where the person said they turned it in this morning and they said they didn’t have any record that someone turned it in, but that anyway found objects are picked up by another department of the police and brought to another office and they gave me the number. Before leaving they had the audacity to tell me that if the other office does in fact have it, that I must come back to them to change the police report I filed a month ago letting them know it was found. Are you kidding me? Anywho, I went this afternoon and IT WAS THERE!!! I don’t know who it was that found it and took the trouble to bring it back but I can’t believe it. It saves me from getting a new student ID, licence, etc. etc. And to think, I could have left France without ever knowing that it had been turned in. 

Thank you so much whoever you are for taking the time to find me and let me know!!

So, how do I spend my last few weeks in Toulouse? Tranquille. I've been going to all my favorite markets in the mornings and taking long bike rides around the city in the afternoon. I'm spending a lot of time at home with my roommates, often eating dinner or lunch together. 

Gisele and I before our night on the town
Bonnie helping set the table
John came for a few days last week, then his brother Dan came up from where he was studying in Grenada and stayed with me for a few days after. I threw a garden party where about 10 of us who are still in Toulouse, along with Gisele, Gabby, John and Dan ate at a long table outside. Bonnie, who happened to be in Toulouse for one night between Germany and Italy even came!
The problem with knitting in May... 

Yesterday I finished my scarf and a matching bonnet at Queen Mother and Christine’s. In keeping with my New Years resolution I’ve been going to their fabulous Toulousain apartment in the center of town a few afternoons to sit and knit with them as they work on things for their store or things people have ordered. It’s been a great way to practice my French and just spend quiet afternoons in a lovely space. I usually bake something for us to snack on, and this time I attempted cocoa brownies from scratch with peanut butter swirl and I have to say, they turned out pretty good. 

American brownie concoction
Saturday I did 40km of cycling with Gabby and a group of university students who go out every week, it was such amazing weather. That night Gisele took me out on the town as part of my “au revoir” (but not “adieu”): we started at a café in our neigborhood of St. Cyprien for an aperitif, and she showed me the apartment she lived in before she bought the house we live in now. Then we strolled over the bridge to the other side of the river and sat outside right next to a gorgeous cathedral I’d never visited before just as the sun was setting on it’s façade. To top it all off we walked to our favorite ice cream place in Toulouse for a cone, and then walked back home across the river. It was a really special night. When I got home I grabbed my bike then went to one of my favorite bars to wait fro my friends who were meeting me. I got to talking with the bartender and once my friends got there and had a few drinks he closed the bar and let us stay and hang out and put our music on. We ended up going dancing after that until the am. A long but perfect day.

Sunday was Mother’s Day here and I was invited to a colleague’s house about 30 minutes outside the city. She has a gorgeous ranch with a pool and I hung out there the whole day.

C’est pas beau la vie?

WWOOFing, It Bites Back: Days 5 & 6

 Day 5

100% organic peas
Market day. Up at 5:15am and took breakfast with Domi who was having a bowl of coffee with an egg yolk tempered in it with sugar. Interesting. I tasted it and it wasn’t bad at all. She explained that it sticks more to the ribs than just bread and coffee. At 5:45 we clambered up into the truck, 3 wide in the front seat, and we were off. We got to Muret in about an hour and pulled the truck up to Domi’s usual spot. After unloading all the rates she went to park. While she was gone, another, smaller white truck backed up in the street we were on an stopped. The front door popped open and out steps a small, portly, easily 80 year old woman who, as Lauren aptly observed, resembled an old hen. She walked around to the back of the parked truck, swung open the doors, and began unloading her wares without ceremony. I stared incredulously for a moment before quickly going over to see if she wanted help. We encountered a stiff southern France accent barrier but go the thing unloaded in the end. Later on she passed by our stand with 3 croissants, one for each of us!

Setting up shop
At the market I was on cloud 9. Lauren and I took turns behind the register with Domi, as she only brings only 1 WWOOFer to the market with her at  a time. We were in charge of the vegetable section: weighing out and bagging the quantities the customers demanded, while Domi counseled the customers over what plants to buy and how to take care of them. Unfortunately it ended up raining around 11 but the customers kept coming and we didn’t leave until 1:30.
Domi, Lauren and I after the a morning of selling

When we got home we had possibly one of my favorite meals here yet: duck breast brought from the market cooked in the cast iron skillet with sautéed potatoes and a simple salad. Dark chocolate for dessert. Amazing. We all took a nice long siesta and kind of lazed around the rest of the day before having the genius idea to make our own pasta for dinner. Tagiatelli, accompanied by a fresh basil and sun dried tomato pesto topped with goat cheese from the market. Ice cream for dessert. I’m so gaining weight.

Sizzling duck breast

Day 6

Sunday. No work today, so Domi recommended we take about a 2-hour hike that starts from the village of Aurinac where she was headed anyway for her weekly tango lesson. Perfect. Maybe I’ll work off some of the 6000 calories I ingested yesterday. We ate lunch together at noon (sheep sausage cooked with their own peas that we all shelled together that morning).
Cyril and I shelling peas

About an hour into the hike, which went through woods, along roads, and past a really cook prehistoric cave (which is eponymous with the Aurinacian period), we came upon a farm, which Domi had marked on our map as a landmark. She had said they had 2 dogs, who, while barked a lot, were not mean. So, as we walked on through 2 dogs came out, one younger pit bull who came up and started licking out knees, an an older one who resembled Loute. As we stopped to pet the slobbering pup, the other dog kept her distance and started to growl, so we decided to keep on going. As we were walking away, with Lauren in front of me and our backs to the dogs, wouldn’t you know the older one ran up behind me and sunk her 4 canines into the back of my exposed thigh. We were kind of in shock and kept walking at the same pace. We continued through a gate bfore re realized that in the confusion we had missed the turn for the trail, and were actually heading deeper into the farm. We didn’t see anyone around, and kept moving. 
Lauren and Domi achieving the right consistency
Though surprisingly not freaking out, despite the blood, I focused on putting as much distance between the dog and myself as possible. We crossed a small river getting torn up by nettles and found ourselves in one of their fields. We started to cross to cut back into the woods and rejoin the trail and realized that the puppy was following us still. Then I got pretty scared because I kept thinking what if the other dog comes too and I have nothing to defend myself with. We yelled at the dog to go back and it did. Shortly after we came upon another river and a fisherman who offered to bring us back to the farm. At first I said no, and just wanted directions back to the trail, but when he pointed out that it might be infected I started to think he might be right and we accepted.

Chopping basil for pesto
Back at our farm I explained to Cyril what happened and he called a doctor. As it was Sunday I would need to go to an on call doctor. Now, Cyril is thus far one of my favorite French characters I’ve met. He’s incredibly playful, quirky and funny. He’s a wonderful teacher and patient at explaining things, however, he doesn’t handle stress well, and I could tell. It's not that he freaks out, but I could just tell that he was nervous, and outside his quiet country life comfort zone. On the phone the operator asked him where I was bitten, and Cryil responded “halfway between Aurignac and Cassagnabere.” The operator repeated the question, and Cyril repeated his response, before chuckling and realizing that the man was asking where on my body I was bitten. Oh boy.

We then hopped in the truck (as Domi had taken the car to tango) to drive 3 towns over to the doctor. I mentioned that it might make more sense to pass by the farm to see if there was an owner home so that we could ask if the dog was vaccinated and have that information ready for the doctor. Cyril conceded that I was right, and I navigated us back to the farm. I had seen Cyril smoke a few cigarettes after meals since I had been there, bur during the car ride he rolled about 7, so I knew something was up, even if he continued to joke and chat as usual, because he didn’t want me to be nervous either. When we got to the farm a man came out to talk to us. He seemed surprised that the dog had bitten someone, but then launched into a story about how the mother had bitten someone once, how they had been trying for 20 years to have the trail moved so that it didn’t pass through their farm, how there’s all kinds of people that come through and scare the dogs, blah blah blah. Not until the very end of his speil did he say “sorry.” Oh, and of course the dog isn’t vaccinated against rabies, but he had a rendez-vous with the vet to do so. Ok buddy.
Domi with our pasta ready for the water

We got to the doctor who cleaned me up and prescribed me antibiotics (goodbye 60 euroes because after 8 months I still don’t have my social security card). She also explained that the people, by law, have one week to bring the dog to the vet, if not, get this: the police will come seize it, kill it, send the head to Lyon for examinations, where I will also have to go to be quarantined for 40 days.
Aftermath of our pasta atelier

Now, I want to come back to France, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Once back home and all the excitement was over, Cyril seemed consoled and started in with the rabies jokes, citing all kinds of bogus first signs, and telling Lauren to be careful, as tonight is a full moon.

We celebrated with crepes. 

Paid Like Serfs but Eat Like Kings: Days 3 & 4

Day 3

Up at 8am. Same deal for breakfast and we were back out in the fields, so to speak, this time planting corn and green beans. Either Cyril or Dominique will explain the task to us, very patiently and then go off to continue whatever it was they were working on. When we’re finished we come find them and they give us the next task. By the end of 2 rows and 150+ green beans my knees and back were feeling the burn a bit. Domi had told me they eat meat every day at lunch and today I was not disappointed: merguez sausages (lamb) with velvety chickpeas. Rabbit was one thing, as it kind of resembles chicked, being white meat and all, but meat pieces in a casing, that was upping the ante. I loved merguez when I ate them 2 years ago in Rennes, and lo and behold, I still did. The chickpeas, that were soaked the night before, were so creamy and flavorful in their simple tomato and onion chutney. For dessert we had a mousse au chocolat that Cyril had whipped up (pun intended). Delish.

Apparently this mid-day siesta thing is habitual, even if the sun wasn’t beating down, which I was fine with. That afternoon we worked in the greenhouse planting tiny dirt clots of salad, repotting, and generally shuffling around various squash and seedlings with Domi. It was a nice change of pace and scenery after a day and a half of planting. We finished around 7pm and hung out knitting and reading a bit. That evening Lauren and I took a ride with Domi to pick up a sculpture she’d had fired in a kiln about 40 minutes away. The 3 of us chatted the whole way there and back and she is just so cool. We talked men, sex, and life in general. 

She explained how she and Cyril met at a fair, get this, on the bumper cars, when they were in their early 20's, and have been together ever since. Before farming they owned a pizzeria for 13 years that they bought on money borrowed from friends. When they sold the business they went to Nepal and spent a month there together, then used the money to buy the piece of land they're on today. When they first started out, Domi explained, though they had done a ton of reading on maraichage, when it came to actually getting their hands dirty (soo punny today!), they had no idea what they were doing. Apparently the first year the only thing they succeeded un growing were zucchinis. They didn't have the tractor they have today but a single horse. 

When we got back at 9pm Cyril had made an amazing seafood spinach curry with rice noodles that we finished with the mousse. This working for food/shelter thing suits me just fine. When and why did life ever get more complicated than this again?? The dinner conversation turned toward food, as it often does here in the country of gastronomy, and Dominique made the profound observation about how farmers are paid like serfs but eat like kings. So true.

Day 4

Woke up a little later today, at 8:30, as tomorrow we’ll be getting up at 5:30 to go to market with Domi. Standard breakfast of coffee, bread and jam. We were up in the greenhouse again all morning until lunch preparing lettuce seedlings for planting and also to sell at the market. To do this we trimmed the outer leaves and cut the 3” sprouts down to about 2”, and then cut away the excess dirt from their little plot. After that we all killed some time before lunch as Cyril hadn’t put lunch in the pressure cooker early enough. This gave me some time to contemplate what I was potentially about to ingest: beef. Now, given that the past 3 days I’ve conquered both rabbit and lamb, it might seep a little silly that I was stressing about a little slow-cooked beef, but I was. Cows are just so…BIG, and somehow in my mind beef was the point of no return, after this my status of vegetarian would be null and void. As I was pondering this milestone time passed and I was also growing hunguer, so by the time the food was on the table, I was more of less ready to dig in, whether I was mentally prepared or not. It was a kind of goulash with steamed potatoes. As everything else I had eaten there thus far, it was really yummy, however not my favorite meal. We finished with cherries that I had picked from a tree along the drive and some grapefruit. After the siesta Lauren and I finished with the lettuce in the greenhouse for the rest of the afternoon. That evening I retried the elusive loop with Tita and succeeded. After I showered at around 8:30 we began loading the truck for the market the next morning, which turned out to be a much larger job than I had anticipated.  It’s like a giant game of Jenga. We stacked upwards of 100 crates of lettuce peas, artichokes, apple juice, and, the majority of the cargo which was tomato, squash plants which require a lot more care and precision to load without causing damage. Plus there’s the tables, umbrella, signs, baskets, tablecloths, scale, etc, etc.

The hours ticked by and soon it was 11pm before we were finally sitting around the dinner table for a meal of leftovers that were no less delicious than the first time around: chick peas, pate, sausage, and 5 different kinds of goat cheeses of varying ages. Plus salad and fried duck eggs that were the most rich and flavorful yolks I’d ever tasted. We finished with strawberries that were left on their vines. They were tiny and tasted like no other strawberry I had ever had, literally like candied berries.

Domi and Cyril’s energy is astounding, they just don’t stop. Crate after crate they loaded, bending down, stooping to sling it up on to the truck. Long days that’s for sure.

Friday, May 27, 2011

My First WWOOFing Experience/My Fall (or Jump) From Vegetarianism: Days 1 & 2

 Day 1
View from one of their fields

Lauren and I arrive at the train station in Boussens, about an hour southeast of Toulouse and are met by a small wiry man in his late 40s named Cyril. He’s wearing old Levi’s, dirt encrusted trainers, and a sun-bleached T-shirt. He’s got short salt and pepper hair, dark tanned neck and face, worn hands with dirt caked in every crevace and crack. We exchanged pleasantries (read: bisous) and got into his old dusty Citroen. On the way to their farm we drove through Aurinac, the closest town, to buy some baguettes and make a stop at the hardware store, where he buys on credit. I’m definitely not in Toulouse anymore.
Tita (left) and Loutte

When we get to the large 200+ year old stone farmhouse we meet the rest of the lineup, including Cyril’s sunny, equally tanned wife Dominque whose wearing a faded threadbare romper printed with melons, trainers and no socks. I love her immediately. The rest of the family consists of:
-       2 dogs: Tita and Loutte, the former of which is younger and more mischievous
-       A roost of hens and a coq
-       3 ducks and a dozen of goslings
-       2 pigs; a pregnant Peggy and Edmund
-       Sheep, including a newborn lamb
-       Rabbits
-       An especially quirky hen named Ben, after a memorable former WWOOFer who apparently was never the same after a very special mushroom omelet
-       A slue of tabby cats

Their farm is 100% organic, or as the French say, “bio,” meaning that the use zero chemicals or products whatsoever on their crops, soil, seed, animals, food for their animals, zip. The practice a kind of farming called maraichage, or large-scale gardening. They grow corn, spinach, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, squash, melon, strawberries, artichokes, potatoes, carrots, beans, beets, tons of varieties of tomatoes and more. When they go to market, which is Saturdays in Muret, along with the harvested produce they also sell homemade & fermented apple cider and organic seedlings of all the crops they grow themselves. They raise the animals for their own meat but don’t sell any of it.

After getting a tour of the grounds we saw the inside of the house, which is a large, rather unfinished but cozy, and gives you the impression you’re still outside when you’re in. They have a tiny kitchen but a large living room with am enormous, fabulously worn wooden table. There’s also a small sitting room/library with floor to ceiling bookshelves mostly filled with books about agriculture, wildlife and minerals and mismatched antique chairs. They don’t have a television, but a huge alphabetized eclectic collection of music on shelves in the living room and a stereo. Upstairs is where they sleep and there’s an extra bedroom where WWOOFers have the option to stay. They also have an old 60’s era camper permanently parked in the yard where WWOOFers can choose to sleep.

That night they were having some kind of agricultural meeting at their place, so we ate pretty early with some of the participants, mostly neighboring farmers, around 8pm. Cyril prepared a pasta salad with soft-boiled duck eggs and cured sardines. One woman brought a rice pudding. One couple brought a WWOOFer from Washington they had staying with them and the 3 of us went for an after dinner stroll while they had their meeting. The countryside is beautiful, like a painting: hilly with varying shades of green for miles and miles.
I already love C & D, they’re extremely laid back and funny. It feels more like host-family than a working exchange. They told us to get up when we wanted tomorrow and find them in the fields to begin work.

Day 2

First day of work. What to wear?? I opted fro some old cargo shorts (yikes!) I bought in High School, never did I think that one day I would be wearing them to farm in the south of France. Lauren and I came downstairs around 8 to find bread, butter and several open pots of homemade jam strewn on the wooden table and 2 bowls set out for our coffee.

We spend the morning planting cucumber, zucchini and tomato seedlings in holes in tarp that was already laid with a really nice woman named Ingrid who was there helping out for the day. For lunch Domi had been cooking something in a large earthen pot suspended over a giant bowl-shaped solar panel. It turned out to be rabbit (one of their own), some of the first zucchinis and rice, which we ate outside in the shade of a large flowering tree. This was my first run in with meat since being a veg. I knew they ate meat here every day, as it was described in their blurb about their farm, and eating meat was something I wanted to get back into under the right circumstances…and what better circumstances than 100% organic, free-range meat killed just days before? None. So, I dug in.

Table set for lunch on our second day
I was forcibly reminded of my first (and only other) rabbit run-in that happened to also be in France 2 years ago on the farm of my host father’s mother. It was really good, very tender with lots of juices from the vegetables. For dessert we had fromage frais with homemade blueberry jam. We followed lunch with a 2 hour siesta through the hottest part of the day. I could get used to this farming business.
View of the Pyrenees from the top of their driveway

That afternoon Lauren and I weeded out nettles around the back of the house while Domi blasted some cool jazz out the window for us. That evening I went for a run though the surrounding woods with the 2 dogs. What was explained to me as a simple, 30 minute loop turned into me getting lost for an hour and a half and returning at 9:30 just as it was getting good and dark and Cyril was about to come looking for me. Oops. It was a little Blair Witch for a about 20 minutes when I took a wrong turn that took me deeper and deeper into the woods but very zen when I finally emerged, Omaha by the Counting Crows came on my iPod and saw the fiery streaks of the remnants of the sunset over the surrounding fields. Duck egg omelet, goat cheese and salad for dinner. Farm life is good so far.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Viva L'Espana

Los Mallos de Riglos

My trip to Spain was incredibly special as I went with Alberto and Ana, my 2 Spanish friends from Toulouse, to visit their hometowns, and was really able to see a different side of Spain than I had yet known. The trip was also really neat because I traveled wish some assistants that I had known in our group setting, but didn’t have the chance to spend a lot of one-on-one time with, it was a cool way to end my time here in Toulouse by getting some more individual time in with people.

View from El Castille de Loarre
Cristella and Senor Juanco

The first stop was my friend Alberto’s town of Lledia in Catalonia. I traveled with Cristella, and we started by taking a bus from Toulouse to Barcelona and then from Barcelona to Lledia where we met Alberto who had already gone home for Easter. We spent 4 days there at his parent’s place. His father took us on this incredible hike about an hour away to these rock formations called Los Mallos de Riglos. The rocks reminded me of something you would find out west in the US, though I’ve never been, it was a gorgeous day and once we got to the top we picnicked on tortilla de patatas bocadillos his mother had packed for us. On the way home we stopped at a caste on a cliff called El Castillo de Loarre where apparently a B-list movie with Orlando Bloom called Kingdom of Heaven was filmed. The view of the countryside from the ramparts was amazing, you saw all shades of green in the neatly divided plots of land, like a patchwork quilt. The Sunday before we left his parents also took us out to a really nice long lunch at a Spanish restaurant and we tried this regional dish of roasted spring onions. You pull the heart out of the charred outer layers and dip it into this savory almond paste. Mmmm.

Graffiti under a bridge in Lledia
Outside the restaurant with Alberto's parents
Then Alberto, Cristella and I flew south to Sevilla where we met our friends Ana and Bonnie. Ana was coming in from her hometown of Murcia and Bonnie was coming off of a weeks worth of traveling around France with her friend. We stayed at our friend Jose’s, another Spanish assistant, apartment. I had already been to Sevilla two times before, but the city during the festival called “feria” was completely different than anything I had ever seen before. The celebration lasts, from what I understand, several weeks in April, and it’s straight 24-hours of partying. I think it’s fair to interject the question here: Do people in Spain work??? We flew in the night that the festival officially started, and gathered in the street to watch them illuminate the massive gate that marks the entrance to the fair grounds.

Las chicas at feria
Selecting our flowers to be more festive
Illuminated gate at the entrance to feria  
The area is made up of a grid of “cassetas” or tents; some are public and some are private, and all have areas for dancing the traditional Sevillana dance and areas for eating. We stayed in the public tents but walked by some of the private ones to people watch. Apparently families erect a tent that’s probably 40 square meters or more, and invite family and friends to come eat, drink and dance, as I said, 24/7. There is also a part of the compound that has rides and attractions like a fair we would have here. Throughout this celebration all the Sevilliana women and girls wear brightly colored flamenco dresses and the men dress more or less formally. It was such a multi-colored spectacle to see these women done up to the nines all over town, because they don’t just put these dresses on to go to a casseta, they wear them from sun up to sun down throughout the whole celebration, to go to the bank, to go to the store, it’s wild. Ana, Bonnie, Cristella and I amused ourselves by imagining our flamenco dresses, but we were so overwhelmed by the choices, as I would say about 80% are custom made, we never saw 2 of the same.

Spanish families also used horse drawn carriages to go to and from the fair grounds, so the streets were packed with impeccably groomed horses and fairy tale style carriages carting around families sipping wine and noshing tapas. I love Spain. I felt like I was on the travel channel, but as cool as it was it was also a little frustrating, because it was like everyone was invited to this party but you couldn’t go, we kind of felt like Cinderella, we didn’t have the right to go to the ball. What a beautiful tradition though.

As it fell the Spainards were more tourists than the Americans, Alberto and Ana had never visited Sevilla but Bonnie, Cristella and I had!
After Sevilla Ana, Bonnie and I flew up to Murcia to stay at Ana’s for 4 more days and to attend an annual music festival they have there called SOS. I really enjoyed Ana’s city, Northeast of Sevilla on the Mediterranean side. I found it to have a really cool, young, artsy atmosphere, no doubt enhanced by the fact that we were there during a festival. For 2 nights we went, bought Spanish savory pastries called empanadillas for dinner and pregamed in a grocery store parking lot before entering the outdoor festival. I saw The Kooks, MGMT, and The Editors plus some Spanish groups I really liked like Arizona Baby, Lori Meyers, Triangulo De Amor Bizarro, and more. As part of the festival about 30 tapas restaurants in the city do a sort of restaurant-week special: 2.50 euros for a tapa and a drink of your choice. Ana and her friends took us around to all of the swanky places that they couldn’t afford otherwise. Needless to say w were drunk 5 places, and 5 drinks later. Have I mentioned that I love Spain?
On Monday Bonnie left us to continue on her crazy European adventure that includes Italy, Germany, Spain again, and I can’t remember what else, and Ana and I boarded a 13 hour train ride up to Toulouse. After several hours the conductor came around to take our tickets, and upon seeing our final destination told us that we would have to get off the train earlier than expected because the train wasn’t allowed to cross the border due to a “savage strike” by the train system. Oh France, how I missed you. So at Figueres we took a bus over the border to Narbonne, not knowing if there would be a train to take us the rest of the way to Toulouse. Luckily, there was.
Soooo happy 
Oh, and I think it goes without saying but my, already pretty solid, Spanish really improved by leaps and bounds this trip. I definitely increased my vocabulary, if only in the domain of gastronomy.

I came back to Toulouse for one night and then was off to WWOOF the next day with Lauren in Cassagnabere, France.

Some more photos...
Cristella and I outside a cafe in Sevilla

Alberto, Bonnie and I in Sevilla

Alberto and Ana, Sevilla

Cristella, Ana and I, Sevilla

Cristella and Alberto

Bonnie, Ana and I at the hipster music festival in Murcia

Bonnie and I eating "tigres,"  or stuffed mussels, for the first time in Murcia