30 July 2008

Puivert, France

THE VIEW FROM atop Chateau de Puivert. This is where we are living this summer -- and the kids won't want you to miss the lake because we spend a lot of time there.

A little closer look:

The village is small, charming, beautiful, and great for the kids. Wish it had a few more cafes and boulangeries, but I really can't complain too much.

28 July 2008

Chateau de Puivert

WE HAVE BEEN in this part of France for nearly three weeks now and it wasn't until this past weekend that we ventured just up the road to the Chateau de Puivert. To be perfectly honest, I think part of the reason for our delay has to do with the fact that the castle is not as impressive from the outside as some of the others in the region (like Cheateau Montsegur, Foix [please click on the Foix link just to see the stunning castle!], or Peyrepertuse) so we weren't sure it was going to be that great. Boy were we wrong. The Chateau de Puivert is a hidden secret among the Cathar castles.

Although the first mention of the Chateau dates back to 1170, the construction of the current ruins is from the 13th century when it belonged to the Congost family at the time of the Albigensian Crusade. These lords at the time practised Catharism and were accused as heretics and in November 1210, the castle was subjected for three days to a siege by the army of Thomas Pons de Bruyère, lieutenant of Simon de Montfort. [Note: yes, I basically ripped off the last paragraph from Wikipedia]. What Wikipedia won't tell you is that the castle is now privately owned and owners live on site for parts of the year. Now that's a nice vacation house.

We had a great day hiking up to the castle, exploring the grounds, visiting the gorgeous rooms, and enjoying the stunning views from the top of the Chateau. More photos can be seen here.

[Bonus points available for anyone who can identify what Patrick is wearing on his hands in the above photo. You might have to click the photo for an enlarged version. That's our boy.]


26 July 2008

TDF Video

HERE'S THE VIDEO evidence of our experience with the Tour de France. My considerable editing skills have produced a top-quality video montage of the stages we went to see. We went to four stages and have video from three. The first minute or so is just preliminary stuff -- but it does show a bit of the caravan that rolls through before each stage. Youl'll also see some video evidence of the luck we had in Narbonne when Patrick, Julia, and I were given passes into the team/press area.

The little video shows the last 250 meters or so in Foix (stage 11); the cyclists rolling Puivert (km 27 of stage 12); and some pre-race moments from stage 13 in Narbonne.


24 July 2008

Extreme Disappointment!


I was sitting in the car at grocery store when I spotted the Pepsi vending machine you see at the left. If that doesn't seem unusual to you then you don't live in France. France (Europe, really) is dominated by Coke and that's not good news for an unapologetic 'Pepsi guy' like me. So when I saw the opportunity to buy a cold can of Pepsi (another rarety in France) I almost couldn't contain my excitement. As I drove toward the vending machine I could almost taste the dark, sweet, heavily caffeinated cola on my lips.

That's when the disappointment hit, because when I looked at the choices the vending machine offered, this is what I saw (look carefully):

Can you believe that? A Pepsi machine selling only Coke and Coke products. I'm writing a letter to Pepsi Co. and Coca Cola, Inc. right now -- this injustice must be rectified. I can't face that kind of disappointment again.


It's Nice To See the In-Laws, But...

KERRI'S PARENTS ARRIVED earlier this week and we are all very happy to see them. The kids, in particular, are thrilled to have Pop Pop and Gi Gi around. But as nice as it was to see my in-laws, it was even nicer to see the two boxes they hand-carried with them from DC:

10 months without a Dunkin Donut. How is that possible?


A Medieval Mystery

A NEIGHBOR LET me borrow a book I have just started reading called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a controversial book that was first published in 1982. I'm familiar with the general theme of the book (so are you if you read or saw 'The Da Vinci Code') and I don't subscribe to the main theories put forth by the authors. However, I am particularly interested in the book now because a good deal of it centers around a claim that a priest in the medieval castle village of Rennes-le-Chateau, Father Bérenger Saunière, had found proof of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion.

Again, I don't buy into most of the theories the authors put forth, but I'm quite interested in the story because it just so happens that Rennes-le-Chateau is about 12 km from where we are living this summer. We're planning a trip to the village soon and I'm sure it will be an interesting experience. The village is still considered by tourists to be packed with clues to an alternate view of religious history which has long existed in the area.

The story is very interesting and you can click here for a quick synopsis. It's especially fun if you love history and/or religion.

23 July 2008

Fireworks! Good Even if a bit Late

14 JUILLET IS the big national holiday in France but tonight was when it was celebrated in our town. The local villages in many parts of France stagger their fireworks celebrations so as not to compete with each other. And in the region where we are now almost no villages shoots-off fireworks on te 14th of July because no one wants to (or can) compete with the brilliant show in Carcassonne.

So tonight was the night in Puivert. The lake was packed for the Wednesday night market and at about 10:30 the show began. I think it was Henry's first fireworks show and he thought it was fantastic. Of course, so did all the adults -- there's something about watching fireworks that makes even adults look and act like little kids (oooooohhhh! aaaaaahhhh!). Maybe that's what makes them so fun.

18 July 2008

Sometimes You Just Get Lucky

TODAY WAS ONE of those days when we just got lucky. We went to the start of stage 13 of the Tour (yes, this is our last one -- it's always Kerri's idea...really!) with hopes of seeing some of the cycling teams up close and getting an autograph or two for Patrick and Julia. We thought it might be fun to see the teams when they aren't flying past us at 45km/hr. We were behind the fences with the other onlookers watching some of the teams tune their bikes and give press interviews when a staff member from the Garmin-Chipotle team walked toward us and said, "Who wants to come inside the fences?" As luck would have it, she walked right up to Julia and gave her a coveted yellow armband that allows full access to the team areas. She them gave one to Patrick and one to me as well. A policeman helped us over the fence and were able to walk around the warm-up area with complete freedom. Patrick and Julia got quite a few autographs they even got some of the riders to pose with them for photographs. Here are some quick photo highlights:

P & J with Mark Cavendish, winner of 4 stages so far...including today.
Getting hats and jerseys signed by King of the Mountains leader Sebastian Lang.
The very friendly (and cute, says Kerri) Nicolas Portal of Caisse d'Epargne.
P, J, and I with Julian Dean -- Garmin-Chipotle rider and New Zealand champ.
Just after getting the autograph of CSC rider Jens Voigt.

Henry looks a bit nervous standing in front of Christian Vandevelde's bike (can you find Kerri in the background?)

Even I get in a photo: with CSC Manager and 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis.

Some days you just get a little lucky.


16 July 2008

Tour de France in Our Town Today

OK, ALMOST DONE with the Tour de France posts -- I know I've been going a bit overboard. But it is exciting when the Tour come within about 50 meters of the house where you are living. Today's stage will roll through our small village of Puivert in the l'Aude region of the Languedoc. Here' the profile (Puivert can be seen at km 27)

I've ridden the first 70 or so km of the stage (up to about the first green S on the chart above) and it's not particularly difficult [Note: I mean for professional cyclists. For me everything was fine until the category 4 climb (the red 4), which made me want to cut my legs off. You should also know, by the way, the a category 4 climb is considered the easiest of all the categoried climbs in the Tour.] But based on the profile this should to be one of the easiest and fastest stages of the Tour with lots of downhill and very few tricky parts. The only thing that could cause problems would be a strong head or cross wind, which is actually quite likely in this part of the Pyrenees foothills.

We'll be standing out on the D117 watching the festivities -- including, of course, the grand caravan that will roll through before the riders arrive. The kids love that!


Tour Finish in Foix

WE WENT TO another TDF stage finish today, this time in Foix, a medieval city about 45 minutes away. We arrived quite early and found a spot just after the final turn, about 250 meters from the finish. Then we sat a waited. But the waiting wasn't exactly dull since the whole area was in a festive spirit and people we constantly passing out free stuff like hats, pens, drinks, and key chains...

...then the real fun started: the Tour de France Caravan rolled through. Many people don't realize that during every stage of the Tour, a grand caravan (like a rolling parade) covers the entire route about 2 hours before the cyclists. The caravan consists of cars and floats (for lack of a better word) from some of the major Tour sponsors. Along the way that throw free stuff out to the crowds. To give you an idea how much they throw out, we collected 28 hats today -- and gave almost as many away to some of the people who arrived later in the day. They just kept giving us hats: hats from LCL Bank (the yellow jersey sponsor), Champion (the polka dot jersey sponsor), Skoda (the white jersey competition), Bougyes Telecom, and PMU (the green jersey sponsor). [Note: if you are related to us and have kids, guess what they're getting for their next birthday?]

The stage itself was quite fun to watch because the peleton was broken up in to several parts so we got to watch cyclists go by three or four times. After the stage was over I dragged Kerri and the kids around to visit some of the team buses; we even got a quick picture of Patrick and Julia just in front of Alejandro Valverde -- a great Spanish rider for Caisse d'Epargne.
Tomorrow the Tour rolls right through our village so we won't have to go far to see the fun. And (sarcasm alert!) if we're lucky we'll get another 28 or so hats.

15 July 2008

Our Little Daily Gets the Big Story First

BY NOW YOU'VE almost certainly heard the news that Brad Pitt and Angelina Joile have new twins in the house. The twins -- a boy and girl -- were delivered in Lenval Hospital in Nice, France. But that's not the reason I bring it up. I bring it up because word of the birth did not come from the usual sources like People, US Weekly, In Touch, Hollywood Reporter, or some other gossip rag.

No, this news -- certainly the biggest celeb story of the year -- was broken by a relatively small French daily based in Nice: Nice Matin. Oh sure, you probably got the news from your local newspaper, the radio or E!, but it was the Nice Matin that had the story first. In fact, 'the scoop' became quite a big story in and of itself:

NICE, France — The world's entertainment press tripped over themselves, making embarrassing errors along the way, as they fought to be first to report the biggest celebrity story of the year: the birth of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's twins.

In the end, the scoop went to a provincial French newspaper.

"It was Brad Pitt who chose to give the scoop to Nice-Matin," said assistant editor-in-chief Olivier Biscaye. "He said to the doctor that the local media should be the first informed about the birth."

Nice-Matin put one of its most experienced reporters on the story, Jean-Francois Roubaud, who was given access that the rest of the media pack camped outside the Lenval hospital could only dream about. While security kept out other reporters, Roubaud was allowed inside and given access to Jolie's obstetrician, Dr. Michel Sussmann.
-- from Huffington Post

Take that L.A.!

We're living away from Nice for the summer so we had to hear the news like everyone else who didn't read it in the Nice Matin: second hand.

1 Euro = $1.60

AROUND THESE PARTS, people are starting to realize (finally) that a weak dollar hurts Europe as much as (if not more than) it hurts the US. It's words like 'strong' and 'weak' that cause some people to think otherwise.

Tha Haul from Sunday's Market

THE MARKET: ESPERAZA. Nectarines: 2 kilos for €5. Everything else on the plate: €5.10 -- total. Not bad.

14 July 2008

National Holiday

IT IS ALWAYS a fun experience to be in a country when they celebrate a big national holiday. Today is 14 Juillet -- the biggest holiday of the year.

We won't be in Paris (pictured), but we'll celebrate in our part of the country. We're tempted to head to Carcassonne (where they claim to have the largest fireworks display outside Paris), but we're a bit worried about traffic. Carcassonne is a city of about 40,000 people, but on 14 Juillet they have nearly 750,000 in town for the celebration. Getting out of town after the fireworks can take hours. And of course, since we are at the far western edge of a time zone (CMT), the sun doesn't go down until about 10:00 so the show won't even get started until about 10:30.

One thing we'll do for sure is watch the big parade in Paris on television. Kids always like a good parade.

A Little Cycling on 14 Juillet

TO CELEBRATE THE big holiday in France today we went on a little family bike ride. This was the first 'long' ride Patrick and Julia have even taken. We ended up going about 12 km, including two little climbs that took us up above our village. For the last 3 km we were on the same road where the Tour de France will pass through in 3 days (kids thought that was cool).

We even have video documentation of the ride, and as you will see, we were moving pretty fast -- sometimes even reaching 10 km/hr!!


12 July 2008

What to Do on a Rainy Day

KERRI CAME UP with the idea at about 10:00 this morning: 'where does the Tour de France end up today?' she asked. When I said Toulouse she wanted to know how far away Toulouse was from our house. When I told her it was about a hour-and-a-half she just blurted it out: 'Let's go!' The weather forcast for the day wasn't great so it seemed like a pretty good idea. What else were we going to do?

An hour later we were in the car on our way to Toulouse (2 1/2 hours later we were eating lunch at the Toulouse IKEA, but that's for another post...visiting IKEA for the first time in nearly a year deserves more thought and analysis). We found our place about 700 meters from the finish and watched the end of the rain-soaked stage. We were right on the fence and had a great view of the pack as they sprinted to the finish. There is a 1 minute clip on versus.com and if you pause the video at about the 26 or 27 second mark, I think you can see the 'thundersticks' that Patrick and Julia were holding. Actually, I'm not at all sure it's them, but that is about where we were standing.

If you look carefully at the photo you can see Patrick (yellow hat), Henry, Kerri (just her hair), and a bit of Julia. And, if I'm not mistaken, the green jersey of Oscar Friere.

11 July 2008

Big Album Release Today

IT'S NOT OFTEN (ever?) that the first-lady of a major western country releases a pop album. But that all changes today as French first lady Carla Bruni releases her third album. Bruni, who has been married to French President Nicholas Sarkozy for about six months, is a former supermodel who has been featured as a cover girl on all the big name fashion mags (here are a couple of Elle covers from the mid 1990s).
The new album is called Comme si de rien n’était (As if Nothing Had Happened). Actually, that's only the name of the album during the free 'online preview' period -- the name of the album when it hits stores will be Simply. I won't do into any sort of album review, but if you are really dying to read a review you can read one here. You might be more interested in hearing a clip from the album. OK, probably not, but you could listen to it here if you wanted to.

I must admit that the Sarkosy/Bruni courtship is fun to watch if only because it could never happen in the States. Sarkosy has been president of France for 13 months, and in that time he has divorced his wife and married a supermodel/singer that he takes (flaunts?) on official State visits where she often gets more press attention than he does. And Bruni seems to be helping Sarkosy in terms of his domestic and foreign press coverage. Can you image a similar story in the United States? [Note: on a personal note, the fact that Bruni is 3 or 4 inches taller than Sarkosy only makes watching them more fun].

So that's a quick update on Mrs. President of France. I can assure you that I'm not going to buy her album. But I may try to get my hands on one of those old issues of Elle.

09 July 2008

Wednesday Night Market

WE WENT TO our first Wednesday Night Market this evening in our village. To be fair, it's more than a market. In addition to the standard stands (clothes, jewelry, crafts, etc.) there are also a variety of food merchants who come to town. But what makes the market different from others we have been to is that the locals eat dinner there as well. They buy food from one of the merchants, buy a bottle of wine from one of the local producers, and sit at one of the many tables that are set up for the occasion. We ate with the locals (including a 90 year old woman who sang to us) and some of the other vacations who are in town.

This evening Kerri and I had fajitas (yes, you read that correctly -- we have a hard time finding mexican food in Nice/Cannes, but we come to the puny village of Puivert and it's right there in the village square; and it was delicious) and kids had pizza, chinese, and ice cream for dessert.

On the way home we bought bottle of jus de raisin and a bottle of wine from a vinyard only about 10 km from our house. The jus de raisin was gone about 10 minutes after we got home. The wine is still unopened.

Simple Luxuries

FOR THE FIRST time in nearly a year, we have a clothes dryer. No more haning out the clothes. I can't wait to get fabric softener (never imagined a scenario where I would say that)

08 July 2008

Overrated Tourist Spots

THE WASHINGTON POST just ran a piece listing the top 10 overrated tourist spots. Here's the list they generated. There are a couple more I might add if given the chance.

10. Any Madame Tussauds wax museum
9. New York City’s Times Square
8. Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse
7. Hollywood’s Walk of Fame
6. Niagara Falls
5. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre
4. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
3. Leaning Tower of Pisa
2. Munich’s Oktoberfest
1. Pamplona’s running of the bulls


07 July 2008

Small Has It's Advantages

I REALLY CONSIDER myself a city boy. I love being around the hustle and bustle of big cities. Kerri and I often comment on how we like to hear 'city noice' when we are going to bed. But the few days we have been in the village of Puivert (see photo -- that's where we are) has reminded us that small towns really do have some advantages, especially if you have kids. (I should know this since I grew up in a small town in southeastern Washington state). Today after we returned home from shopping for food (see previous post), I told Patrick and Julia that I had a chore for them. I wanted them to ride their bikes down to the lake and scout out the playing fields that are there -- a basketball area, tennis courts, and some soccer goals. I also wanted them to find out the temperature of the lake to see if it was worth heading down for a quick dip. They took off -- on their own.

This is the part that is bit new for Kerri and I. Patrick and Julia have lived most of their lives in suburban Washington, DC -- not exactly a place where they have been able to roam around on their own. And in our house in the southeast part of France there isn't a lot for them to do in the 'neighborhood' so they spend most of the time in the yard or in the pool. But here they are able to explore the village on their own. So when I asked them to scout out the lake and playground area they were very excited, mostly because they were thrilled that we were allowing them to go on their own.

So what did they find at the lake? I never really found out because about 10 mintes after they left they stormed back into the house, rushed upstairs, put on their bathing suits, said 'bye, we're going into the lake', and rushed out of the house. Kerri and Henry ended up joining them while I stayed home and watched the Tour de France.

Now that's a good afternoon.

Stocking Up on Food (Again)

ONE OF THE downsides of moving from house to house is that you have to start over almost every time in terms of ... food. Now that we are in our house -- the one we'll be in for the rest of the summer -- we made a trip to Ed and Leclerc to stock up of food, including the basics like olive oil, vinegar, herbs, pasta, veggies, yogourt. 2 hours and 200 Euros later we returned home. That should keep us fed for a while. Because the nearest large supermarkets are about 20 minutes away, we figured we might as well make the most of the trip.

06 July 2008

Phil and Paul

WE HAVE ARRIVED at the home where we will spend the next two months. The village of Puivert, in the Southwest part of France, is wonderful. It is a small village that sits in the shadow of a 13th century Chateau that was used as a meeting place for medieval troubadors and in 1170...

...oh, enough about the village. What I'm really excited about has to do with the television in the house. For the first time we have some English (as in England, not just the language) channels. That alone is not a big deal because we try to stay away from English-language channels when we can. But during July I now be able to watch the Tour de France (one of my favorite sporting events) with commentary by...Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin.

Now I realize this only makes sense to about 10 of you out there who might read this. But for you 10, you know what I mean. Living in France is great if you love cycling: constant coverage, long replays, deep analysis. But the one thing France lacks is Phil and Paul. But this year I'll be able to switch back and forth between the French broadcast and the Phil/Paul broadcast. Wonderful.

04 July 2008

The French Connection to the 4th of July

THIS WILL BE my fourth 4th of July outside the United States. Kerri's fourth too. It's a fun holiday and we'll certainly miss it. Not so much for the fireworks in DC (which are fantastic) but because we usually hang out with family and friends and eat a lot. In honor of Independence Day I'm sharing a clip from today's IHT about the Statue of Liberty. Many of you probably know it was a gift from France over 100 years ago. But there is more to the story...(yes, it's history, keep reading)

...it was conceived nearly 150 years ago almost as much for France as for the United States. The idea for the monument stemmed from a French struggle for freedom that began in 1852, when Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, having overthrown France's democratic republic, declared himself emperor. In the summer of 1865, after enduring 13 years of Napoleon III's near-dictatorial rule, Édouard de Laboulaye, a historian, acted as the host of a dinner for a small group of French liberals to celebrate the North's victory in the American Civil War. To Laboulaye, the restoration of orderly liberty in the United States put his own government to shame.

Over brandy and cigars, he and his guests, who included Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the prominent sculptor, decided to organize a public campaign to commemorate American liberty with a grand gift to the United States. But the gift would double as an implicit critique of Napoleon III.

Bartholdi later envisioned a mammoth statue of the kind of ancient Roman goddess that since 1789 had symbolized liberty and the Republic. The French revolutionary tradition actually produced two goddesses: One sported the "liberty cap" and appeared in ardent motion, her breasts often bared, a fierce expression on her face. Her counterpart stood erect and still, her body modestly draped, her expression calm and serene. Bartholdi chose the second, unthreatening icon to have his "Liberty Enlightening the World" depict the stability that French liberals saw in the United States and wanted for their own turbulent land.

By the time construction began in the mid-1870s, Napoleon III had been removed from power and his opponents had created a moderate republican regime. France had escaped the twin perils of revolution and reaction that had characterized its political life for nearly a century. Now, Bartholdi's statue could stand for both the French and the American republics.

The statue took shape over the next 10 years in a huge workshop near the western edge of Paris. Gustave Eiffel, Bartholdi's chief engineer, created its iron skeleton, allowing him to test certain techniques he would use for his great tower in 1889. Fully assembled, the 151-foot "Liberty" loomed high over the Paris rooftops. When it was dismantled for shipment, in 1885, Parisians would miss it. Several smaller versions were built, and two of them still stand in Paris.

Americans would come to regard the statue as a beacon for immigrants. The French have always related it to their complex struggle for liberty.

03 July 2008

What is Waterboarding?


This is going to be a strange post because I'm going to direct you to a Vanity Fair website where writer Christopher Hitchens voluntarily submitted to a waterboarding session to help him understand what it's all about. It really is worth watching.

Quick background: waterboarding is a technique that has been used to try to get information from suspects being held by the United States at a military base in Cuba. The technique is very controversial and some question whether or not it counts as 'torture' -- as defined in the Geneva Conventions. I don't want to make this a political statement of any kind, I just want you to watch the video and leave your comment. Here's mine: Wow, they barely had to use any water!

Hitchens is a writer for Vanity Fair and he is interviewed after the experience. I think his full article on the experience can be seen in the current issue of the magazine. The clip is in Flash Media format so I can't embed it here (if I can I don't know how!). Here's the site where you can find the clip.

We're Moving!

JUST FOR THE summer, though.

We live in a house that is rented out during the summer for vacationers (aka British folks). We knew this when we made the arrangements about a year ago, but it's hard to believe that the time is actually here to move away from Le Rouret. We have rented another house in the southwest part of France in a village called Puivert. Puivert is about 45 minutes south of the medieval town of Carcassonne. We have bikes, books, and DVDs -- and there are lakes, castles, and medieval villages (not to mention Spain close by) to keep us occupied for a few months.

We'll leave here on Saturday and we will return to the Cote d'Azur at the end of August.

Blatantly Political. Blatantly Satirical. Quite Funny.

THIS FROM The Onion. See if you like it.

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency


Bentancourt est Libre!

AS AN ADMITTED media junkie, I am fascinated by how big news stories become really big news stories. The biggest news story in France since we have been here broke last yesterday when word came that Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Columbian journalist who has been held hostage by the FARC since 2002, had been released.

I don't know how much play this story will get in the States (by I would imagine it might get a little), but in France this story will dominate the newspapers for days. Betancourt's photos are everywhere in France (includeing in every high school) and national rally's were held several times per year to bring publicity to her situation. And now she is free. You can read about the coverage over at France24.com or on a number of other national media sites.

Update: I should have said 'rescued' instead of 'released'. The resuce effort by the Columbian government appears to have been quite impressive.

01 July 2008

France is King of Europe

NOT EUROPE AS in Euro 2008; Europe as in the European Union. And I think the correct term is actually 'President'. Today (1 July) Nicolas Sarkozy became the President of the European Union.

I have a graduate degree in politics and I can honestly tell you I have no idea what that actually means.