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Thanks to all of you who followed this blog, and thank you for your kind words about it, and about my writing, upon my return.

I didn’t realize how much I’d missed writing until working on this blog.

So, I have decided to continue with a new blog – this one more about the crazy, chaotic, full-to-the-brim life I lead here in Houston. I’ll include recipes and links, and I hope it will be interesting and a bit entertaining. What makes me think anybody would be remotely interested in reading about the life of a middle-aged, urban woman in one of the U.S.’s largest cities?This blog, after all, had a built-in fun factor: the journey through new and fascinating places.

At this point in the story, I could talk in platitudes about all of life being a journey, etc.

But the truth is … I just wanna write. And since I think I’ve gotten pretty positive reviews about my work as a writer, I’m going to go for it.

You all are welcome to go come along with me, to offer your own insights, to share recipes and jokes – whatever. To quote my older stepson, “It’s all good.”

Stay tuned in the next week for a link to the new site – and thanks again for following along in the journey!

Nice

The thing I remember most about Nice was the unrelenting, brilliant Mediterranean sun. And that the day and night we spent there was our wedding anniversary.

As we had most of our trip to France, we spent the day walking – walking to the new town square, lined with upscale shops  and filled with tourists. Walking to Old Town Nice, lined with street vendors , cafes, and also filled with tourists. In the center of Old Town was an enormous flower market where Len bought me a bouquet of red roses.

The architecture of Nice reminded me a lot more of Italy than France – appropriate, as Nice had been part of Italy up until 150 years ago. (The day we were there, the Nicoise were readying a giant celebration in honor of the 150th anniversary of Nice becoming part of France.) The buildings are pastels of peach and gold and green. I remember sitting in one large, open-air cafe, drinking coffee, listening to the roar of the crowd as a goal was scored in whatever World Cup game was being televised. People spoke to each other in rapid French or Italian. Men smoked and relaxed back in their chairs and enjoyed the heat of a summer day.

Just across the street and a few hundred yards away, people sun bathed on the shore of what I can only describe as a truly glorious sea shore. The water was the bright, crystalline turquoise color of the Caribbean, and further away, the water was the dark color Homer described as “the wine-dark sea.”

Nice was hot, chaotic, crowded, beautiful. In the evening, we ate sea food and couscous, and later had drinks at the open-air bar atop the Meridien Hotel. Anniversaries come and go, but this one was particularly memorable, and sweet.

The next morning, we rose very early in our little hotel room, to begin the long journey back to the U.S., to the reality of our lives, to home.

We’ll go back to France someday – someday soon, I hope. Maybe by that time, my dear French teacher will have enabled me to speak to France a bit better. France will always speak to me.

Next, Nice

We have decided to move on to Nice today -

Last night we had drinks at the Bar Americaine in the Hotel Paris. Hotel lore has it that the bar has been patronized by the likes of U.S. Grant, Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers), Aristotle Onassis, Grace Kelly, and of course, Bond – James Bond.

Hotel de Paris is an elegant hotel built at the end of the 19th century. Its lobby is replete with marble floors, crystal chandeliers, and dark wood panelling. The bar has been updated, but you can still see the rich, dark wood and marble bar of the original structure. Waitstaff are all in impeccable suits, and you can barely put down an empty glass or petite bowl of snacks before it is discreetly whisked away and refilled. Across the room, we even saw, beneath one table, a small silver bowl of water for one bar patron’s little dog. (Yes, in France it is perfectly OK to bring one’s well-behaved doggie into any restaurant or bar. Tres civilized!)

As we prepare this morning to leave Monaco, I look out from our balcony into the harbor and see two baby ocean liners docked there – they are surely private yachts. If, as the saying goes, money talks, the language is Monégasque. Everywhere we went yesterday, there is evidence of opulence here, from the extremely high-end dress shops like Prada and Channel, to the Bentleys, Rolls Royces, and Porches that travel the streets. Of course, there are the tiny motor scooters and cars that also travel the roads – I guess the wealthy do need their people to wash windows, clean bathrooms, etc. There is not much of a middle class in Monaco that I can see.

Why is all this wealth concentrated into the small principality of Monaco? Bien sur – as our Parisian friends wryly pointed out before we left to come here – there are no taxes on wealth in Monaco!

The next time I hear someone prattle on about how the U.S. has become such a money-worshipping, consumer society – I will smile, and reply, “Mm, yes, but have you ever been to Monaco?”

Today, we have gone exploring through Monaco, and up to the palace area, which is beautifully landscaped with numerous gardens and shaded areas (thankfully!).

One thing I’ve been struck by is the Monegasque definition of “jardins exotique.”

On our walk throughout town, and to the Jardins mentioned above, I have seen golden and orange lantana cascading from apartment window boxes; I saw lantana as well in the Jardins, along with desert roses, Mexican heather, begonias, white, and lavender vinca, star jasmine that perfumes the air, and streams of bright, purple bougainvillea.

The flowers are all very, very lovely. And familiar. :)

Tonight, we are headed to the town of Cap d’Ail, to a well-rated restaurant that our Parisian friend Remy recommended – La Pinede.

Morning in la Cote d’Azur.

I’m cleaning up from a breakfast of hot, crusty toast with butter (see previous post, purloined, Cafe de Paris, et al), cheese, and fresh cherries we brought with us from Provence. I also managed to make coffee using a French press – hadn’t done that for years – and it was pretty good, thick and black and rich with the cream we bought yesterday. Sitting out on our balcony, we could hear the voices of children from the street below as they waited for their school bus, and the constant drone of passing cars and motorbikes. We’ve decided our little street is one of the main arteries up and down the residential hill.

In the distance is the Mediterranean – it draws a wide swath of sapphire around the whole distance. I see a cruise ship in port. flanked by a couple of large yachts. Despite a restless night last night sans A/C, we are both making the best of all this, and enjoying the truly breathtaking views.

Before we left the Chateau Talaud in Provence, one of our fellow guests (also from America) commented that he found Monaco to be “a dirty little city” and didn’t bother to spend any time here when he’d driven up the coast with his wife earlier in the week.

I guess the Monaco I’ve seen – especially on the French side – is not as pristine as the Chateau or little towns of Provence, nor as sophisticated or upscale as St. Germaine de Pres in Paris. But there is something wonderful and earthy about it nonetheless. What if a neighborhood in France spent the week in Italy? You’d get Monaco, with its ancient apartment buildings and homes, their roofs of terra-cotta tile and clothe lines in the yard and mothers admonishing sobbing children in rapid French? Italian? and little motorbikes whizzing around tiny, winding streets at top speed.

The sun is full and high, and I’m dousing myself with sunscreen; I won’t bother with makeup. I don’t think anyone will bat an eyelash. Soon, we’ll be off to explore the French Blue Coast.

Before I was married, a friend of mine commented that you can tell a lot about what kind of marriage you have by the way you and your spouse travel together. For the most part, during this trip and others, Len and I travel pretty well together. We mostly like to do the same things – we love to go to every museum the city offers, we like to eat good food and to be with convivial company – we like to walk and to talk, about everything.

One thing that has been a bit trying was getting used to actually driving together on the open road, and in cities we’ve visited.

The other day, in Aux-au-Provence, for example, Len had to get out of the car and alternately coax, assure, and prod me to inch the four-foot-wide car into a four-foot-three-inch-wide parking space as I swore I could not do it and begged him to take me home (I meant to Texas).

Yesterday, on the way to St. Remy de Provence, I watched my mild-mannered professorial husband, who hasn’t lived full time in New York city for about 40 years now – morph into a “New Yawkuh” before my eyes – “Yeah, go fer it, buddy!” he cried as the little French cars alternately tailgated us, then whizzed by us. “Whassa ma? Where’s da fire?” “Yeah, and kiss my , pal; up yers!”

Today was yet another memorable driving experience as we came from Provence into Monaco.

As we drove up on the winding mountain highway, the sea glittering far below to our right, I frantically tried to convince our GPS system, dubbed “The Australian” because of the accent my husband and stepson chose for the voice – that we had indeed left the United States and Texas, and were now travelling through France and we really, really needed to find out how to get to our apartment in Monaco.

No luck. The Australian kept insisting that we execute a U-turn as soon as possible and head back to the route she planned for us to get back to Houston.

“I’ll give you 10 euros if you turn that off,” Len said.

I unplugged the GPS. He handed me a 10.

On we went, following the signs into the town of Beausoleil, the French side of Monaco (on the side nearer the sea was the Monégasque town of Monte Carlo).

When the signs indicated we should turn down from the mountain climb toward the sea and into the “centre ville” (city center), we both took a deep breath, and we turned the little car down. The road wound downward in hairpin turns at a 45-degree slant. Either side was lined with tiny, European cars and motorcycles, and there was always an obnoxious Frenchman riding our rear bumper, honking impatiently. Once, when I looked away from the road for a second, Len swerved and said “Oops!” and I felt the blood from my head rush to my feet.

Sidenote: The dreaded “Oops” word is usually uttered as the supreme understatement indicating that impact – is – imminent – the car had somehow crossed the median line and another car is barrelling headlong toward us, the right side of the car had hit the curb at 35 mph, etc.  After one particularly memorable “Oops,” I thought I saw the light around us flicker, and I had a vision of my long-deceased grandparents standing at a gate, beckoning to me.

But I digress.

At last, we saw a sign for a public parking lot, and drove in, and down, down, down until we found a place tp park our fine little, warrior car. At last, we were able to contact the leasing agent for the apartment – we’d previously only gotten perfunctory text messages from her – and Len explained the situation. She agreed to drive her car down to the intersection above ground where we’d stationed ourselves, and we waited until she arrived. “Aloo,” she called from inside her car as we ran up to her window. We now had to go down, retrieve the car, come up the parking lot exit near that square, and follow her to the apartment.

That’s when the real fun started.

Let’s just say that several hours later – maybe some of the longest hours of our trip so far – we were sitting in the great, open-air cafe in front of the Casino Monte Carlo, the Cafe de Paris, enjoying coffee and dessert, and watching the waiters and managers and patrons talk and eat and laugh. I will take a little time tomorrow morning to describe in more detail what Monaco is like.

Len maneuvered and plowed ahead and persevered like the really bold and intrepid traveller that he is, and I salute him.

For now – tonight – we are tired and glad to be off the road. The A/C is not working in this brand-new apartment (and the property manager neglected to try it before we came). So, we’ve pulled the sofa bed immediately in front of the big, sliding glass door that opens onto a generous balcony facing the sea. The breeze is cool, and in another hour or so, it might just be bearable enough to sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll have coffee from a French press I found, some toast and butter I discreetly purloined from the Cafe tonight, and we’ll call the property manager again. Another good day to have been on the road with the guy I am lucky enough to go to sleep beside every night.

Alors … until tomorrow in Monaco -

Yesterday, we began the day with a leisurely breakfast at the Chateau. Conny set a marvellous breakfast out for everyone, with fresh-baked, crusty breads, croissants, jams, honey, butter, several types of good cheeses, fresh cherries, melons, and apricots (local and wonderful), granola, etc. I ate too much … but I guess after the exoticism of not knowing what the heck you just ordered for dinner, or what the heck it is you are digging into, etc., it’s so nice to have melon (yep, that is melon), toast (yep, that is toast), cereal …

After breakfast, on the advice of Hein, Len and I headed a bit south to the towns of St. Remy de Provence, and then to Le Beau.

On Wednesday mornings, there is an open-air market at St. Remy, and when we arrived, the little town was full of eager shoppers. Len drove (more on that in another post), and we even found a parking spot – a four-foot-six-inch-wide space into which Len somehow maneuvered a four-foot-wide car.

At le marche, Len spent some time talking to a lady who’s an artist; she was selling small paintings she did on ceramic tiles, and then they were baked into a glossy smoothness. We bought two of her little paintings, and headed on.

Next, there was a couple selling the most wonderful Provencal-print table linens ever! Yeah, I bought some – they were a good price – I bought a tablecloth in bright crimson and gold print, with 8 napkins, and a small, accent cloth for the table center.Later, we couldn’t resist buying a kilo of fabulous, fresh cherries before having a wonderful, Provencal pizza for lunch.

A word about the pizza here: it does not come from a Hut, and they don’t deliver.

I recall reading that when Wolfgang Puck was just starting out as a chef, he apprenticed himself to cooks in the Provencal region of France. There, he learned to make, among other things, the wonderful Provencal pizzas with imaginative toppings that later (when he came to the U.S.) really established his reputation.

Provencal pizzas are thin-crust and really crispy. They don’t have a LOT of cheese – just the right balance with the tomato sauce – and they are covered generously with any number/combination of creative toppings. The menu of little restaurant at which we ate at lunch at had one entire side containing listings of different types of pizzas you could order. And one innovation I particularly like: when you get your pizza, the server always gives you a bottle of hot-pepper-infused olive oil that you can drizzle over your pizza if you want something spicy.

After we finished our lunch, which included a pizza with thinly sliced, carmelized onions, pasta with olive oil and garlic, and finished with a rich cappucino (nobody eats “light” here; get over it), we headed off in the direction of the little mountains nearby, and Le Beau.

Le Beau is a little city that dates back to the 12th century, and is still inhabited today. What is special about Le Beau is that it is entirely carved out of a mountainside. The Lords of Le Beau recognized the strategic defensability of the mountains, it seems, so in one steep mountaintop, the people carved out a little church, shops, homes, etc. Think Anasazi Indians of New Mexico/Arizona. And it stood thus for centuries.

Modern Le Beau has evolved into a little bit of a tourist trap, of course – there are little shops everywhere, selling essentially the same “stuff,” and probably mostly main in China. But the history of the place, and the feeling you get when walking into the little stone church with its stained glass windows is really amazing.

Some men were giving a demonstration of how a middle-ages catapult worked in a large plateau area nearby – of course, Len commented that he couldn’t look at the catapults without thinking about Monty Python, but the darned thing really did hurl a fair-sized ceramic ball quite a distance. I imagine attackers would’ve done some damage with those.

As we were looking around on the plateau, and taking pictures of the beautiful valley below, of olive orchards and vineyards, we endured a nearly gale-force wind coming from the south. Finally, we left to make our way back to the Chateau, and to a special meal being prepared by a chef that Conny and Hein employ to fix a dinner once a week for them and for the guests.

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