lundi 28 janvier 2013

week 21 - international cooperation

We started and ended our week this past week spending time with Marco's copains de l'universite - Brazilian, Greek and Indian.
Monday night was another hosted evening, wherein two Brazilian guys, one Greek woman and one man from India made food for the entire class to share. It was interesting to see how well yellow curry chicken, Brazilian pork, rice and beans, and Greek salad plus Greek style bruschetta all go together. Also a few well placed caprihanas and a shot of ouzo might have been on the menu. Very tasty and worked well. It was also nice to have a social evening out, for both the girls and for us - though they are the only kids there, they are spoiled.
The rest of the week passed mostly uneventfully but with great anticipation as we'd booked to drive to Andorra for the weekend, with above said Brazilians, Greek and Indian companions, to try our hand at skiing in the Pyrenees. We were also excited about adding another country to our travel list, even if we'd only discovered Andorra's existence this past summer.
We got ourselves off at a decent time to pick up the rental on Saturday morning - weather was looking good - our companions had already departed - all was ticking.
Heading south east, we were ready for some mountain skiing. As we approached Andorra, the light rain was turning to slushy sleet and the roads were becoming more serious. Maybe we should have rented something more substantial than a Ford Fiesta? No matter, we're Canadians, we can drive in winter conditions.
As we began our ascent on the winding roads which would take us into Andorra, the driving became more difficult and all the fellow highway travellers began pulling over to put chains on their tires. A new concept to us however we pushed on. As we got to the last village in France before heading up more hairpin roads to Andorra, the plows began arriving and one driver pointed to my tires, indicating I wouldn't be able to get further without chains. We made a valiant attempt and as we spun starting up the hill, we took his advice and turned back to join the line at the last garage as they made a steady business.
Marco and I have now put chains on tires - rather, Marco has put chains on tires while I read the instructions. Made all the difference. Until we had to stop for the car in front of us and the restart caused a break in one of set of chains. Growing a bit frustrated, we pushed on with one chain on the passenger side tire, causing all passing cars to give us a honk, thinking we were attempting the climb with no chains.
As we got within kilometers of the border, the climb became even more hairpin and the winds began creating snow squalls and zero visibility in some spots. This drive was becoming much less charming.
Texts back and forth with our earlier departing international crew confirmed that they had arrived at the first ski resort and were not up for more such driving. So we all landed in Pas de la Casa for our first afternoon.
We determined to wait out the clouds and wind over lunch while re-arranging ski rentals to the local shop (we had planned to go on to Soldeu, on the other side of the mountains and another 10 kms further). Our pause brought a break in the clouds and sunshine but no halt in the winds. No matter. We were there to instruct our Brazilian/Greek/Indian entourage in the fine art of skiing and they were still game. Ski on.
They were all troopers as the wind was not pleasant and the beginner hill at Pas de la Casa was frankly terrible - tow rope up which is diffcult for most and barely an incline on the way down.
We all prevailed. To the point where one Brazilian protege was catching on quickly so Marco sent the girls and I up the first small chair lift to try out one run.
It was the windiest run I've ever made, with ice pellets boaring into our faces as the wind careened off the slopes above. The Brazilian was a brave, good sport - Geneva pushed on - I thought I would lose Elena. It truly looked at one point as if we might be trekking Everest - honestly a bit concerning. With El in tears, I grabbed her and hauled us both down the hill - thankfully on a short run.
This wrapped up our first day as the first time skiers all felt they'd had their fill -  though were grateful to have tried and had us there to help them. A quick snow ball fight and some snow angels and the gang was off back to Toulouse while we found our way further on to Soldeu for the night.
As we drove through the mountain tunnel and arrived on the other side, the angels began to sing and the skies opened.... we'd found our true place. Where Pas de la Casa was a busy tourist destination for shopping as much as skiing (I've described as Buffalo meets Aspen as there are low taxes so many come for the shopping), Soldeu is a proper ski destination with amazing resort facilities, hundreds of runs, many high speed chairs and a gondola to take you to the top.
We enjoyed our night in a quaint hillside stone and timber hotel - typical for the region - and were up for an early breakfast then down to the gondola. Again, I marvelled at the impressive facilities, multitude of chairs and runs, and all for about the same price as we pay to ski a day in Ontario.
It was truly a lovely day - weather, skiing and otherwise - and a very memorable first mountain ski for our girls. We skied hard with the girls working it - real and heavy mountain snow is a distant memory for us and a newfound challenge for the girls. By the afternoon, we'd skiied ourselves out and packed up for the drive home. Enough said as the girls already were plotted "for the next time..." on the drive back. Hope so.
Best to you as we head into a new month (what??!!)
A la prochaine,
p.s. I might have volunteered us to host next month's "country food" night with Marco's class - may be the last before the end of courses. Looking for votes on what represents Canada in food (that's not too difficult to prepare and serve to 30 or so). Merci!

lundi 21 janvier 2013

week 20 - clouds, rain and vacation planning

Not a big report to share as it is mid-January and I've discovered we're into a winter of clouds and rain until likely mid-March. Clearly being positioned between two big bodies of water (Atlantic to the west and Mediterranean to the east) means a bit like a Vancouver winter in store.
Recap of the previous Friday's blind date - arrived at St Cyprien Metro stop to meet Marie, mom from El's class, and discovered in her rapid fire French that we'd be meeting the group shortly. Frederique (woman) arrived with her boyfriend, adult son and daughter along with her perfect Canadian English. So here's the backstory: Frederique is actually French from Toulouse and moved to Canada in the late 60s, think to go to university, and stayed. She's lived in Ottawa since. She married, had two children and now later in life since separating from her husband, has reconnected with her first love from Toulouse. They split their time between Ottawa and Toulouse as her extended family is here too.
Frederique somehow connected with Marie when Marie's older daughter Edithe did an internship in Ottawa this last summer. So there you go - small world and Canadians unite.
She is lovely, as is her boyfriend, Marie and all their adult children, and we had a "tres sympa" (very nice) lunch all together. The next twist on this story comes when early last week, I received a cc on an email from Frederique to one of her French girlfriends Veronique, who I gather will be moving her family to Toronto shortly as her husband will be relocating for work. So Frederique offered me up for details and support. Again, will let you know where this goes. World is small.
I spent the bulk of last week tucked up in the loft on the sofa under the skylight hoping to capture any rays of sunlight which could sneak through the clouds/rain/sometimes hail and/or slush, and researched then booked a vacation for 6 to Scotland plus England in min-May. My dad and his wife will be joining us as we search out the Gordon roots in the highlands, check in on Glasgow and Edinburgh then pop over to London for a quick Harry Potter Studio tour before ending in Whitstable to celebrate my aunt's 60th plus 10th wedding anniversary. Our stays will include a period house near the Cathedral in Glasgow, a stone cottage near Kirriemuir, a tony Newtown apt in Edinburgh and finally some beach huts right at the water's edge in Whitstable. Now that all is set, I'm very much looking forward to it. Count down on.
Also spent time finding a reasonable spot to stay in for a week in early March to join Marco on one of his last two weeks of his course, which will be spent on the Army Base at the Ecole d'Air in Salon de Provence. The girls and I will spend our days trolling Provence and join Marco for evenings. Not a bad week.
Next up to sort will be the end of March weekend in Barcelona with Toronto friend Andrea and her friends visiting, then first weekend in April in Paris to cheer Dee and Tineke on in their bid for the Paris Marathon and following, what will we do for the girls' two week printemps vacance in April? Then we'll start looking forward to friends potential visits for summer.
Yes, I know, not a difficult life but what can I say? These are my activities right now.
I have been having a few moments of "ok, what am I really going to do now and shouldn't I be concerned I'm not working?!" Luckily my good friends are talking me back down to confirm that this is the plan and that whatever I choose to do is the right thing. Hard to manage that A-type bit.
That said, I do need to find some occupying something. Will get on that and get back to you.
I'm also watching the Master Court of Sommeliers' website to see when the Certified Sommelier class will be taking place in London to see if I can manage to get this sorted.
Right then, you're up to date.
Hope all is well in your early 2013.
A la prochaine,

vendredi 11 janvier 2013

week 19 - back to Toulouse and back to regular life

As the new year settles in, so do we for a more regular pace again. We enjoyed a bit more time with visiting friends and family before we had to get down to the business of back to school.
The new year came in mildy though overcast however made a good afternoon for a bike ride along the canal with Helen, Leelah and our girls.
Unfortunately, Mom had come down with a bad stomach virus so couldn't join for the traditional Mariotti New Year's Day king crab legs - a bit more expensive in France than at home - and we added a French surf and turf bit for those who weren't up for more seafood - magret de canard which I've managed to add to my repetoire. If you visit, I will definitely make it for you - it's good stuff.
Shops opened back up on the 2nd so Helen got serious about some French shopping in the morning and then we got rental cars revving to drive south to the Pyrenees again to see how much more snow capped these lovely mountains and take our visitors to our newfound thermal spa/pool escape. Was just as enjoyable as we remembered. We then stopped in Arreau enroute home to try the local cuisine. Helen and I made the beginner's error of both ordering the cassoulet de maison - a traditional white bean stew from the south with duck leg, Toulousian sausage and pork bit. We decided that cassoulet de maison in this restaurant meant the size of bowl you'd serve for the entire house. We took home the huge portions we couldn't finish, had it for another meal side and still had some left over. Hearty, for certain.
The next day brought sun and another day trip - off to Carcassone to enjoy all that this medieval hilltop village/world UNESCO heritage site one hour east of Toulouse can bring. Which one thing we've noted is blustering wind tunnels up the narrow old streets. Very much worth our return, though and the new visitors were all properly impressed. The one exception, however, was trying to find a meal - it was quite busy with tourists of all kinds with most still on holidays so our leisurely pace that day of stopping after 2 p.m. meant we struggled to find a place with room for 8 inside still serving lunch. Still learning the French pacing.
The final day for Helen and Leelah was decidedly shopping - when girls tired, we got them some canvasses and sent them home for a painting party. It was hard core and not for the faint of heart. Helen didn't benefit as much as she'd hoped - think because her style is already so cool, it's hard for French designers to top/please. I, however, am proudly sporting a sharp new Bensimon coat (merci amie!).
We managed to stay healthy through the holidays however on Sunday, we crashed - all four of us. Mild version of the stomach virus but came with fever and/or fatigue and we all just stayed down both Sunday and Monday. So girls' first day back to school became Tuesday, which was fine by them as they weren't so excited to get back. The reminder that our next 2 week vacation is a mere 6 weeks away seemed to help cushion the blow. Plus having Marco's parents here for a couple more days helped keep them moving.
We enjoyed a Wednesday afternoon together and the girls now are zooming around on their early birthday presents of new scooters (trottinettes) - all the kids here have them too.
One more French adventure to be had for Marco's parents - the taxi drivers decided to be on strike for a couple of days so we ventured by metro then navette (shuttle bus) to the airport early Thursday morning - glad I was able to help as it would have been more adventure than Marco's parents needed. Made it slowly but surely and arriving just in time to get through security and board. Whew.
My news is that I've had my proposal to the Montreal wine company accepted to be their English copy adapter for local French wineries. Now I await to see if it's a floodgate, crickets or somewhere in between. More on that when there is news.
Marco's news (if I've not shared) is that he's being offered an internship with Airbus' Airworthiness division - his meeting tonight will give him the details of the offer so we'll see how that nets out. Think it's a good thing. Also it means he will then be sorted for post March, which is coming up quickly.
We've just booked to visit Scotland with my dad and his wife in May then on to east England to celebrate my aunt/his sister's 60th plus 10th wedding anniversary. Following, Dad and Barb will return with us to Toulouse and have a week or so of French life with us. Always good to have trips to look forward to ;)
My interesting development for today is a lunch plan with Canadians (whom I've not yet met - being set up on a blind date of sorts). A mom from Elena's class has an older daughter who did an exchange/internship in Ottawa last summer. As her French is really fast, I'm not certain if these are people her daughter met through this internship or just more Canadians that are now in Toulouse, and whether they are from Ottawa or Montreal. Details to follow - will let you know how I make out.
Alright, think I've caught you up - hoping to get back to weekly updates now that we're back in the swing of things.
Wishing everyone a great weekend and if you're home today with your kids because of the work stoppage in Ontario, enjoy (?).
A la prochaine,

mardi 1 janvier 2013

week 17 and 18 - Joyeux Noel et Bonne Annee

Wow, lots of ground to cover in the last two fun filled weeks of visitors, travel, holidays and merriment.
It was amazing to have Bobbi - friends since 5 years old, and haven't seen each other in 18 (!!) years - come to stay with us and introduce us to her husband Marcello and her 7 year old son (I know, Dylan, almost 8!). They arrived on Thurs Dec 20, the day before final school day for all. While Marco and the girls finished their Friday off, Bobbi and gang visited Cite d'Espace and walked a bit of Toulouse in all its pre-Noel glory.
Saturday was meant to be an Airbus tour but this was not to be - seems a bit of a conspiracy at play as Marcello's Brazilian nationality was worrisome for the company operating the tour - as if he was some spy from Embraer - please!! We Canadians couldn't all go on without him and tried several angles to work around but for naught. So instead we had a walk about in our local Carmes market then brunch at Marco's parents' apartment.
Sunday brought prep day with a visit back to our market to gather the Christmas Eve feast supplies. Was a bit different than our usual shop at St. Lawrence but we managed. Bobbi stayed with the kids to reign supreme as patisiere chef on the Christmas cookie line - Dylan counted 80 in total at the finish, decorated and all.
Mom and I spent the afternoon prepping while the rest of the gang headed to the park in the glorious sunshine - think it was 16 that day - and then we feasted well at our apartment that night on pre-purchased roast chicken stuffed with olives and accompanying goodies. We all had our share of the delicious Lindt chocolates and other treats, including fantastic German beer, which Bobbi thoughtfully shared.
The morning of the 24th was an organized chaos as we manouvered rental car pick ups, two location packing and the highlight of picking up Helen and Leelah at the airport, our final Canadian crew joining the fun. We made it out of the city by 2:30 ish and on the road for the first leg of our Christmas adventure - our rental holiday house in the Languedoc. Same house Marco and I rented this summer.
We arrived to find everything set - except the boiler which was not working which meant no heat in the country house except for the fireplaces in the kitchen and in the living room. Thank goodness it was 17 degrees and only dropping down to 9. Thank goodness I bought everyone hot water bottles. Thank goodness everyone was up for the adventure, the chilly going to bed, the starting the fires in the morning to keep them going all day, the smelling like a campfire for 3 days. We managed - became part of the stories.
Our Irish/Spanish friends also joined as they live 5 km away so we were 15 for Christmas Eve dinner. Eimer brought along the delicious starters of home made foie gras on spice bread and Irish smoked salmon with lemon mayo on baguette, accompanied by local St Jean de Minervois Muscat.
We then continued the feast with traditional Mariotti seafood fare - first course: fresh spaghetti (thanks to our local Italian shop in Toulouse) with tomato tuna sauce - second course: shrimp, clams (3 kinds), scallops and squid both breaded and butter/garlic accompanied by green beans - third course: white fish (we can't remember which kind we got but something delicious from the north Atlantic) en papiotte and salad to finish. Our desserts were an overload of Eimer's homemade chocolate truffles along with other assorted goodies. Nous avons manger tellement bien!
Santa also found us in rural south of France - merci, Pere Noel - so all kids were happy.
Following our morning croissants and pannetone, and after the turkey made it into the oven, Bobbi, Helen and I took a long enjoyed walk which became longer as we took the "scenic route" - we definitely benefitted from the extra moving around to make room for the coming meal.
Traditional turkey, potatoes two ways, Jamie O's Empire gravy, broccoli and cauliflower and great mixed salad ended with a more local tradition - gateau de Basque avec confiture. This cake from the Basque region, south and west of Toulouse, at the Spanish border, is a vanilla almond dense cake which almost becomes a custard consistency in the middle - very yummy. I broke the Basque tradition by serving jam over top (was told by the baker that I should just have the one with the cherry jam already in the middle but I prefer the almond vanilla one).
And yes, both meals were paired with wines - of course, it's me - lots of Prosecco with seafood eve and lots of Pinot with Christmas turkey.
As we could still roll ourselves down the stairs on the 26th, we added some crepes and seafood omelets to start our day before heading for a bit of local sightseeing in the stunning town of Minerve - Dee, thought of you and our time there in the summer - which was a lovely outing and nice end to our time in the Languedoc.
Morning of the 27th had us up and packing to head for the border. Following some impressive packing prowess from the engineer types, we were enroute to Barcelona, with one stop in Perpignan, the last city before the Spanish boarder, to drop 1 of our 3 rental cars as we wouldn't need it for the drive back to France.
Drive was sunny, smooth, with beautiful sights of the Mediterranean as we skirted our way into Spain. We were all amazed at no border control to be had - drive on in and Benevenuto en Espagne. That's the EU, clearly. Through the Pyrenees we drove and were doing fine until we entered Barcelona to find our way to our rented apartments.
We were a bit later in the afternoon than planned so with the sun setting, we struggled to read the absolutely miniscule street signs and in growing darkness, couldn't find our turn. Everyone kept their cool and we gathered our resources. Bobbi's smart idea to hail a cab to lead us there prevailed and we soldiered on.
Can I say I was thrilled that we made this move and even more pleased that I would not have to drive the streets of Barcelona after parking for the night?! Not an easy city to navigate by car once you get off the main thoroughfares.
Finally arrived at our apartments and after losing Marco's car en route to find the underground parking, Dad and I were proud that we were able to track our way back to the apartment - not a simple task. Needless to say, I was relieved to turn the key off and step out.
The three hour drive plus arrival stress had us looking for local options in our Gracia neighbourhood/Verdi street for dinner. Luckily, our Irish/Spanish friends had provided loads of recommendations from their 12 years of living in the same Barcelona neighbourhood.
And though we hadn't anticipated eating Syrian food on our first night, hunger + fatigue overtook adventure - plus the food was tasty.
Our three days in Barcelona were filled with warm sun, stunning Gaudi sights and marvelling at what a fantastic, vibrant, diverse and beautiful city Barcelona is. I'd put aside the hussle and bustle of a big city for my slower French life - it was fun to be back in the action.
We walked up the hill to Park Guell on the first morning to look down on the city and got our first full faced Gaudi explosion. Amazing! Then metroed to Sagrada Familia for an outside walk around. Breathtaking, awe inspiring, stunning and a jumbled mess of beauty.
Bit of shopping thanks to Mom's keen eyes for a great local shop and good bargins gave each of the ladies something new to sport.
We topped the night off by heading down to the Barcelonetta beach at night for an Eimer and David recommended paella stop.
Morning sunshine brought more sights as we headed to Passieg de Gracia and on to La Rambla then to the Gothic Quarter and on to the Cathedral. Views from inside the Cathedral were fantastic and then up onto the rooftop to look up to the hills and down to the seaside were spectacular.
As hunger set in, we made our way on the metro to the Port and marina at the Mediterranean in search of afternoon lunch - not the right direction for food which meant a long though sightfilled walk along the seafront.
Finally crossing back to the street side, we settled on a lunch spot in the sun though it was setting so we all ordered as warmly as we could.
Helen and I had real shopping in our sights so we kindly sent the rest back to the apartments while we got down to some serious business. Through El Born and the Gothic Quarter, we met amazing winding streets with lovely shops.
Our final evening was definitely meant for tapas and after wandering the full block to come back to our starting point in Rambla Catalunya, we found Dee's recommended tapas spot where we scored a table on the patio under the heaters and ate well. And ate like Barcelonians as we started at 10:30 - bully for us!
The morning of the 30th - our last bit of Barcelona - and we aimed to see Sagrada Familia inside. Divide and conquer was the way. Was not to be. Clearly more advance planning needed for ticket purchases. As the sun shone brightly, we made the best of it and added a few more Gaudi spottings to our list as we wandered back up Passeig de Gracia towards our apartment.
A turn down a fun looking street just before our apartment lead us to the once-a-month Lindy dance party in the square outside the Saint Joan church - what a lucky moment/find! We raced back to the apartment to grab the whole gang to see however did miss the end of it. But did manage to find a lovely little Mexican restaurant which we had our last late lunch before departures - mmmm, tamales.
And on we were in our rental cars - having said goodbye to Bobbi, Marcello and Dylan who were flying back to Munich from Barcelona.
As we glided into France, we realized Sunday night would be tough to arrive back in Toulouse with no dinner in sight so decided to try stopping in Carcassone to see what we could round up for eats.
With the lit medieval village on hill in the background, we headed for the square to see if we could find a restaurant open and willing. Not so much. Though there was a very lively little party going on in the square with the wooden huts and vin chaud and market eats to be had. Not our style with a group of 8 so we soldiered on back to Toulouse and landed ourselves home, following my early exit off the highway to give us a different drive in that we were accustomed to.
Morning of New Years Eve got us back to sunshine in France and fresh chocolatines (pain au chocolats in the north) and crepes and plans for the day. When we realized that the local market would be open and the only option to prep for New Year's day meals, Helen and I hussled our slow morning butts out the door for supplies. We met up with Marco's parents at the market with the same idea. And so the Mariotti tradition will continue with crab legs for New Years day. And of course, with a French twist, we'll do surf + turf - adding magret de canard to the list.
But that's all to come.
Our afternoon wandering and seeing Toulouse lead to a late afternoon stop for drinks and sustinence. More French learning - cinq a sept really means drinks so when the "Americans" want something to eat to go with it, it kind of sets the balance of order off. Thank goodness they acquiesed.
Our New Year's eve meal at one of my local favourites - La Brasiere - was FANTASTIQUE! - champagne, oysters and smoked salmon followed by lamb or bavette in wonderful poivre vert sauce and - wait for it - potatoes cooked in duck fat (aaaiiieeee!) and a Croze-Hermitage to boot. Ahhhh. Yes dessert and coffees, all good. Then we walked it off to the Capitole with only minutes to spare to see what we could find in terms of countdown celebration. Kind of anti-climatic as no real marker other than the crowd, the cheering, some Japanese laterns released and personal fire crackers set off.
As Marco said on our wander home, I don't think we could have anticipated how we would ring in this new year. Man do we feel lucky at how it's turning out.
So, I say on this first day of a year filled again with promise - thank you to all our friends and family for sharing 2012 with us. We look forward to more time spent with you and in our lovely new adopted country for what will come of this new year.
Bonne Annee - Buon Anno - Felice Nuovo Anno - Happy New Year - Auld Lang Syne, my dears.
A la prochaine,