Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving dinner this year, was somewhat lesser than in years past. For one thing, we missed good friends in Chicago, who we usually celebrate with. Besides that, James had to go to Paris for a meeting with the Paris lab. However, we celebrated the night before with a traditional Hungarian-Provençal Thanksgiving dish called goulash avec sa garniture de panisse. Didn't know about the Hungary - Provence connection? Well, when I say "traditional" I really mean that the tradition started on Wednesday night.

Panisse is a mixture of chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt. You cook it, whisking constantly, until it has the consistency of a thick batter, or polenta, and then you pour it into a mold or onto a cookie sheet with sides. Around here, it usually seems to have been poured into a mold that's about the shape of a 14oz. canned-vegetable can. (Sometimes it actually has the rings like the cranberry sauce in a can.) After it cools and solidifies, you unmold it and slice it into rounds (or if you've put it on the cookie sheet, you slice it into french-fry size strips) and fry it in some olive oil until it gets golden brown and crisp on the outside, still creamy on the inside. (Incidentally, there's a similar recipe in the Thanksgiving issue of a cooking magazine from a few years ago that involved cooking the chickpea flour in milk, with a clove of garlic, minced. Milk's not used around here, but it was good like that and the garlic gave it had a really nice flavor.)

As far as tradition is concerned, I can say that the panisse was prepared in the traditional style because I have asked both the lady with the fresh pasta cart at the market and the butcher-charcutier who sell panisse how it's usually prepared. On the other hand, I can't claim that the goulash was a traditional Hungarian goulash that I learned to make when I was in Tab because, in fact, all the gulyás I had in Hungary (and there are many variations) were gulyásleves (gulyas soup), not the thicker stew variety that I made. What I made was more like a bogrács gulyás (kettle gulyas), but I think probably still thicker than any real bogrács gulyás. At least it had real beef shin in it and not ground beef, that would be heresy.

Since we we have no oven, there would be no baking of pies at the Mas de Bonheur. Pie would have to be purchased. But what? A fruit tarte didn't seem exactly right, because I didn't see any that were made from apples or pears -- all berries and tropical fruits. A "pecan pie" or the closest thing, a tarte aux mendiants (dried fruits and mixed nuts), was too risky. Pumpkin pie was nowhere to be seen in the pâtisseries of Aix. In the end, I didn't buy any for our Wednesday night Thanksgiving. We had chocolate.

Still, no Thanksgiving is complete without a slice (or several) of pie, so I bought one for my own Thanksgiving on Thursday (and I ate it the right way: crust to tip). I got a slice of a Corsican tarte called fiadone from the little café around the corner. I really want to work there because it's the kind of café I would want to own with a certain pie-making friend. It's owned and operated by this older lady who makes a lot of savory and a couple of sweet tartes and just a few other dishes. She's open for lunch and through the early evening Monday through Saturday. And she's nice. But back to the fiadone.

I don't have a picture because James had the camera in Paris, but this fiadone was sort of like a cheesecake and a tarte in one. The filling is traditionally made with brocciu (a fresh ewe's milk cheese from Corsica that's kind of like ricotta in texture) or brousse (the Provençal equivalent of brocciu, which can be made from cow, ewe or goat milk), but as the tarte-lady told me, it's too expensive to use on a café scale, so she "does what she can", which means she probably uses ricotta. The filling also has citrus zest (this one had some citron, and that's not French intruding on my English, I mean cédrat) and eau de vie. However she does it, and whether or not it's like a traditional fiadone, it was delicious: the ricotta was sweet and creamy, the bits of citrus and eau de vie gave it depth, and there was the lightest touch of salt from the crust.

Goulash with panisse and fiadone may be my new favorite Thanksgiving traditions. Better when shared with friends, of course.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Apartment search, the finale

I know you've all been on the edge of your seats wondering where we've been living since the end of September. Taking a page out of Aleppo's old playbook and living on the road? Camping? Squatting in an abandoned apartment? None of these!

When I called Madame P. the morning after our day in Aix, I got a surprise: she had rented the apartment for the first week of October. It seems that she thought that since we hadn't called back the night before, we didn't want it. I guess that telling her we'd call that night or the next day really meant that we'd call that night and when we didn't, and she got a request through one of the websites she's on, she rented it to someone else.

In hindsight, it's unlikely that the hotel had already rented out all the rooms for the next few nights, so it's probably the case that I could have gone back downstairs and told them that we needed to stay. Or, we could have taxied our 200 pounds of luggage to another hotel in Marseille. But at that moment, I really didn't know what we were going to do.

Lucky for us, Madame P., as opportunistic as she was about renting that apartment, was also extremely kind. She offered to furnish the downstairs apartment (the one that would be remodeled) enough that we could stay there for the first week of October, because, as she said, she would eventually have to buy things anyway. Then, after the first week we could move upstairs for the rest of the month. We could move in on Monday.

We said yes.

On Monday we checked out of the hotel, went to Aix and moved in on Rue Matheron. The apartment was kind of cold, dark and damp, which wasn't going to help James' cold but Madame P. had bought a bed, sheets, pillows, a duvet and even hangers. She had brought in an oven with two electric burners on its top, a small refrigerator, a table, chairs, pots, pans, glasses, etc. It was more than fine for a week. And because Madame P. knew we were having so much trouble finding a place, she had even asked one of her friends if she had or knew of any available apartments (she didn't). This was much better than being in the hotel and we could cook a warm meal at home -- our first home-cooked meal in France! I had imagined that that first meal would involve fresh things from the market, but instead it involved a trip to the Petit-Casino grocery-store-ified mini-mart for store-bought ravioli and a jar of tomato sauce, salad with olive oil (no salt or pepper) and a local rosé. Still, it was much better than a sandwich with cured meat and cheese that had been sitting out for a day. And besides, the meal was at least a little celebratory ... or wasn't, but turns out that it could have been.

As soon as we had moved in, James went into the lab and I went to the tourist office to get their weekly posting of apartments for rent and then back to Agence ComeIn!. The agency had a couple of apartments that were north of the city and would have required a bus trip in everyday for James. I said no to these. And then, the agent (a different one, not S.) found one right in the Vieille Ville (within the "loop" on the map). I'm going to give agent S. the benefit of the doubt on this and assume that she chose the three completely inappropriate apartments that she had sent us to over this one because this one was close to our upper limit rent-wise, but this apartment was nice.

It was on the third, and top floor of a well cared for historic building. When you walk into the apartment you're in a little entry way. There's a closet on the left (the door you see on the far left of this picture is the door to the apartment) and opposite the closet is the kitchen, which is enclosed with this bar here in the picture on the left in the collage. The bar/countertop is a really pretty piece of wood that, unfortunately, a previous tenant used as a cutting board. Anyway, you can see that the countertop runs along the wall too. Under that part, there are the shelves that you see next. Then, there's a full-size refrigerator with a freezer and a microwave oven with a "grill" setting that sort of browns things. And opposite that is the sink and four-burner gas stove. There's no oven, but as we had learned from our search up to this point, the oven proves to be rather elusive in rented apartments in Aix/Marseille. And besides, when I studied abroad in Paris, I only had a camping stove, so this was already a major improvement.

If you're standing between the closet and the kitchen, you can look into the main room and see this view. That's the single-bed/couch on the left and that's a working fireplace on the right.
You can see the night table in the right front of the picture. Here's a view of the bed (next to the night table) and back toward the entry way. The white panels on the wall are where the hot water heater is. (The bathroom is on the other side of that wall and that first door on the left goes to the bathroom.) The white doors above the doorway are our storage.

From looking at these pictures, you may wonder if the ceiling is slanted or if this is an optical illusion due to my handiwork with the camera. It actually is slanted though. Where the ceiling meets the windows it's less than 6ft. tall. On the other side, above the bed, it's like 12ft. and there are two rough-hewn beams that run across the length of the room (you can see one in the picture here below.

As you look back toward the entry, you can see the kitchen bar on the left and a spiral staircase on the right. A spiral staircase, huh? That leads up to the terrace.
So this seemed like a pretty great apartment. But of course, there was a hitch. Madame S. wanted to rent the apartment as soon as possible (i.e. October 1st) and we had just committed ourselves to the month of October at Madame P.'s. We hadn't signed anything or given Madame P. any money, but we'd told her we wanted it and she had gone out and bought stuff to accommodate us for the first week of October.

Over that gourmet dinner, we decided that we did want the apartment if Madame P. would let us get out of our verbal commitment. As it turned out, she had no problem with it. She said she had been getting lots of calls and that for some reason this year seemed like a tougher year to find an apartment, and then she didn't even charge us for the night we spent in her apartment.

The next day, we moved into the Mas de Bonheur!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Apartment search, act 2

If we were having so much trouble finding a place in Marseille, you might ask, why not live in Aix? James' job is in Aix, no commute, beautiful historic city, the stomping grounds of Cezanne and Zola -- who wouldn't want to live here? Well, we really liked Marseille, as you can probably tell from the previous posts, and we had also heard that it was a lot less expensive than Aix. However, we came to the conclusion that we should consider it and decided to give Aix a try.

After a lunch with James' colleagues during which they all sang the praises of Aix and Marseille equally (though were quick to point out how different the two cities are), we went for a walk to get a feel for the city. And the feeling we got was that we did not like it. It was like walking around in an outdoor shopping mall for really rich people.The collage photo doesn't exactly do justice to my last comment, but I can tell you that the Dolce & Gabbana shirts in the upper left are a relative bargain at 180€ compared to the jeans on the mannequin in the Hermès window, which go for 565€. The winner of the "wow, that's fancy" award (but only because the employees were lingering around the window when I walked by Escada and I couldn't take a close-up of the 3060€ coat) is the 1690€, white bag you can see in the Lancel window (on the left side, just below the Christmas tree decoration). It is made from Orylag, which is the "technically ideal and ethically acceptable" trademarked fur from a crossed, selected and perfected breed of rabbit. It still requires killing the rabbits as far as I can tell -- it's just ethically better because it doesn't kill wild animals? (But who am I to judge? I eat meat, wear leather and I have worn one of Grandma's fur coats.) Now, it's fun to window-shop and it's fun to see the luxury items that I will never buy, but in the day-to-day, Aix really didn't seem like a good fit.

So back to Marseille.

Living in the hotel was really starting to wear on us. We were living out of our suitcases (literally, because the room was so small there was no room for a bureau). We couldn't cook and since we didn't have a refrigerator, we were limited to things that we could eat in one sitting or that wouldn't go bad overnight on the window ledge. The wi-fi still was only sort of working, which made the revisions hard, it also made getting in touch with people in the States -- family and dissertation committee members -- really hard because Skype calls would just cut out or wouldn't connect at all. Normally, not a single one of these things would have been a big deal, but all of them together were getting pretty difficult. There were no furnished apartments to be rented, or they were only slightly larger than our hotel room, which was too small for two people to dwell in.

Then, we finally had a bit of luck. Two things, actually. First, the owners of an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in the Vieux Port area called me back. It turned out that this unfurnished apartment at least had a sink, two electric burners and a large toaster oven (which some of the furnished apartments we'd seen didn't even have -- and you should forget about getting a full-size oven unless you plan to buy one yourself). There was no fridge, but the owners said there was a place in the kitchenette to put a small one. The couple lives in Aix so they wanted us to check out the building and see if we liked the exact location. If we did they'd come show it to us.

Well, the building was this one, which I had already noticed and thought was pretty cool. The apartment was one on the first floor, facing the Vieux Port. Obviously, we liked it, and it's about a 7-minute walk to the shuttle to Aix, so it was convenient too.

There were other people in the running, both people who had looked at the apartment already and some people who had made an appointment for the following week, but I had a pretty lengthy conversation with the wife, Madame V., and she really seemed to want to help us out. Her daughter lives in the States now and had a lot of trouble finding a place when she and her husband moved there. Not only that, but Madame and Monsieur V. had lived in Chicago when he went to grad school and after for a year or two when he worked there.

So we went to see the apartment. Madame and Monsieur V. were very nice and the apartment was great. There was a living room that opened onto a post-card view of the Vieux Port, then in the middle of the apartment were the kitchenette and bathroom and then the bedroom was on the back side of the building.

We loved the apartment and wanted it, but there was the issue of furnishing it and the expense that commuting to Aix effectively added to our monthly rent. Besides, we realized we might have been a little unfair in our original assessment of Aix because there were definite advantages to Aix over Marseille: James would be able to walk to work, it would be easier to run/bike (if we had brought our bikes with us)/hike and most importantly because there are tons of students (including study-abroad students) the renter's market is different and finding a furnished apartment was almost guaranteed to be easier.

The second piece of good luck, which happened about the time I made the appointment to see the Vieux Port apartment, was that we found a couple of furnished apartments that were listed in Aix with Agence Come In! (yes, it has that exclamation point as part of its name, it's in English, but the name really doesn't sound like English or French when they say it on the phone), which advertised being a different kind of agency. Ok, we'll bite. How different are you, Agence Come In!?

So we called Come In! and it is indeed a slightly different kind of agency. They charge you a non-refundable fee up front and they charge you if they place you, but what they charge (total) ends up being less than 1/2 of a month of rent and they show you apartments or make appointments for you to meet the owner. We made an appointment at the agency for Friday, the day after we would see the apartment in the Vieux Port. When we got there, S. (the agent) got us five appointments to see apartments for that day.

This time, Aix was different. On our way to where we'd be seeing our first apartment, we happened to walk down Rue d'Italie, a street filled with food stores -- pastry shops, butchers, a natural foods store, wine stores, a health-food store, an Italian market that makes its own fresh pasta and gnocchi, some cafés. There were a couple of hardware stores and even a few clothing stores, but they weren't so fancy. It got better still. By chance, we chose a path toward the first apartment on streets that were not completely filled with luxury shops. Instead, we got to see the charming centuries-old buildings, cafés situated on picturesque squares and cobblestone streets that, on a sunny day when you're already feeling pretty optimistic because you know that you're actually going to see five apartments (all on one day!), can actually put Aix in competition with an unfurnished apartment on the Vieux Port.

And then we entered the Place Richelme.

Shaded by sycamore trees, the Place Richelme is a very scenic spot. One side of the square is occupied by the back of the 18th century grain market that is now the post office and on the other three sides there are cafés that spread out into the square in the afternoon and evenings, as well as some shops. But on this Friday morning, it was the center of the square where the magic was happening -- a market, which I now know happens every day of the week. There were two fishmongers (and these seem to be fishmongers, not the fishermen themselves like in the Vieux Port) selling fish and seafood (even sea urchins) from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.

There were tons of vegetables from the region, like these romanesco broccoli. The sign says "from our garden", but usually it says the town or region if it's from France (country if it's from Spain, Italy or Corsica).

And there were eggs, chickens, rotisserie trucks, tapenades and spreads, cookies, honeys, bread, cured meats and cheese. Delicious cheese. Right in front of us as we walked into the square were some Corsican cheese vendors selling Tomme de Brébis (Tomme made from ewe's milk) ranging in age from a few months (creamy, bright) to almost two years (sharp, drier, zesty). Of course they had samples. Of course I had some.

We wanted to stay at the market and buy some of the beautiful eggplants, tomatoes and zucchini and make a gratin to eat with crusty bread, cheese and a nice, dry rosé. Sitting outside, of course, with a beautiful view. But we didn't have an oven, or an apartment, so we had to move on. We ended up getting to our appointment a little early so we went and had a coffee at La Fournée de Joseph, which is a local bakery (two locations in Aix, one in Marseille), and looked across the street at a pretty fountain and Le Chado Café (say it like "Shadow"), a swanky club popular with young Aixois, that were our landmarks for the first appointment.

Well, the apartments were mixed. They were all furnished, and all potentially had potential. However, in their current states, three of them were appropriate only for students and of those three, two of them had places in the living space that were too short for James. One of the other apartments was fine, but not great. One apartment was perfect, as in we probably would have taken it on the spot, except that it was only sort of available.

Apparently, the night before we went to see the apartment, Madame P. had rented it out from the beginning of November through the end of January (on a vacation rentals website). She does a lot of short-term rentals so when the agency said "October 1st or as soon as possible," she didn't necessarily think we'd be looking for long-term. Another issue with this apartment was that Madame P. likes to rent it out for the month-long opera festival that takes place in Aix every summer because she can charge a lot more, so we would have had to leave for July. This apartment was so great, though, that we were considering unconventional rental arrangements. It was on the third floor, the living space included a bed, plenty of closet space, a futon couch, TV and wi-fi. The kitchen had four induction burners, a washing machine, a dishwasher, the large toaster-oven, microwave, was fully stocked with pots, pans, china, etc.

Madame P. also had an apartment on the first floor that she was going to renovate and there was a chance that that could be done for November, but it wasn't available right away and besides it was dark and kind of gross. We really liked the third-floor apartment so we proposed that we rent it for Oct., move downstairs (or elsewhere) in Nov. and then back upstairs at the end of January. Since we still had three more places to see, we told her we'd call her later that night or the next day. She couldn't commit to November - January in the downstairs apartment, but she said that the plan to let her know sounded good.

James and I talked about our options throughout the day. In fact, during the hour and a half before our final appointment, in which we watched the rain pour down and hoped that it would let up before we had to go out into it ... without an umbrella, we made a list of expenses and pros and cons, both monetary and lifestyle-related, of Aix and Madame P.'s temporary apartment and Marseille and the unfurnished Vieux Port apartment. It was really hard to decide. In one resepct we were happy to have to make this decision, because it meant we were getting out of the hotel, but there were significant advantages and significant disadvantages to each option.

After the last (and disappointing) apartment, made worse by getting caught in the cold rainstorm and getting soaked by a car that drove through a pothole, we waited in line for 45 minutes for the bus back to Marseille. We were tired and needed warm food to help us make our decision. So instead of eating sandwiches in the hotel room, we splurged and went to the Cours Julien for Provençal food: Daube and a delicious slice of fig tarte (with fresh and dried figs). As we ate our dinners and watched the 18-top across the restaurant -- 18 normal-looking people in their late-20s to mid-40s, who looked like people we'd know -- we decided that it was probably smarter to take the apartment in Aix, even if it was just for a month.


So we told the hotel we'd be leaving, but since it was kind of late at this point, we decided to call Madame P. in the morning.

Huge mistake.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

It's Beaujolais Nouveau Day!

Every third Thursday of November, the Beaujolais Nouveau is rolled out. Overnight, all the wine stores (or at least the two that are right by the outdoor markets I go to) have been transformed into celebrations of gamay. Really. I went to the markets yesterday morning too, and there wasn't even a hint of today's official release in the wine stores. The cafés were advertising too.
Why the third Thursday of November? Well, it's interesting. And I'll tell you what I learned from the helpful woman at the wine store on the corner, La Cave d'Yves, and a little internet search on the history of Beaujolais Nouveau. In November of 1951, a law appeared in the Journal Officiel (a published list of recently passed legislative items), decreeing that any wine from an official appelation could not be sold until December 15th of its year of vintage. This was a big problem for Beaujolais Nouveau because it had always been released just a few weeks after the harvest and it's not crafted to be kept around for a long time. So the winemakers' unions got together and lobbied for the vins de primeurs, or early wines, to be exceptions to this law. They were successful and Beaujolais vintners (along with the vintners of a number of other appelations that aren't so famous world-wide for their early releases) were allowed to release their nouveaux prior to December 15th.

Until 1967, the actual date of release apparently varied between the very end of October and mid-November. That year, November 15th was decreed the official day, effectively Beaujolais Nouveau Day (although it was the same date for the other vins de primeur). However, this date too, was relatively short-lived, at least in terms of French winemaking tradition, because it fell too close to Armistice Day (Veteran's Day in the US) and because as the volume of product increased, it was harder to get it all out by early November. In 1985, the third Thursday in November was chosen.

So that's today!

It doesn't seem like there any parties in the street, at least not here, 3 hours south of the AOC. It may be more of a marketing holiday in many respects. All the same, I can tell you that by 11:40am the wine made for popular small talk at the markets, where I overheard several sellers asking customers if they had tasted it yet, and wine stores had already started their tastings of the vins de primeur. In fact, judging from the empty bottles and the used tasting glasses at La Cave d'Yves, they had done a lot of tastings since their 10am opening.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the Beaujolais Nouveau. In fact, I actually don't like it. It always smells like a banana-flavored headache-in-a-bottle ... to me. (Sorry to any devotees out there.) However, in the spirit of the day, I figured I would participate in the tasting at La Cave d'Yves, and two of the three I tasted were good: Pierre Dupond unfiltered and Joseph Drouhin Primeur, which comes from the same Drouhin family that also has a vineyard in the Wilamette Valley (they were in Burgundy first). They tasted good enough, in fact, that James and I decided to go out for an apéro after work. French style. Outside under the space heaters. We thought we had chosen a café that was featuring the Drouhin, but the sign was deceptively placed between two cafés and we picked the wrong one. It was still very fun, even if we ended up quite chilly and had to hurry home for warm soup.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bright spots in Marseille -- Le Panier

Despite the difficulties of the apartment search, trying to finish dissertation revisions in the hotel room, and the frustrations of getting misinformation about our cartes de séjour from people who should have known better, there were bright spots. In fact, there were actually a lot of them because Marseille was just so great.

I spent a lot of time walking around the city while James was working on his revisions, so I got to see a lot of cool things. One area that's really great to walk around in, and where we had found a couple of promising apartments before we came to France, was Le Panier. It's just north of the Vieux Port, so depending on where you are, you might catch a glimpse of the water through a couple of cool arched stairways that go under buildings on Rue Casserie down toward the port.

Le Panier is where the Greeks settled in 600 BC, calling it Massalia, but there don't seem to be any remnants of the Greek settlement now. It is, however, very picturesque all the same. It's full of tiny, winding streets, some of which are barely wide enough for a person and a motorcycle and lots of little stairways leading to and from different squares. Really, it's a bit like a warren, which is probably why, as we would learn from Madame V., it provided cover for La Résistance in World War II and why part of it was subsequently blown up and many of its inhabitants of that time were sent to concentration camps.

There are several new buildings right on the water that were built after the war. One was built by a famous French architect, Fernand Pouillon, and is a registered historical building and the others are knock-offs. This picture really doesn't do it justice, but it's a very striking apartment building (and there are beautiful views from the inside, but that's for another post). That's the real sky by the way. No filters. Just a palm-sized Canon Powershot.

Le Panier sort of has a bad rep. Our guidebook said that it's the kind of place that locals will tell you to avoid living because for a while things got pretty seedy before the more recent renovations (which people seem to call "renewal" rather than "gentrification"). And the guidebook was pretty much right about that. Most of the locals we talked to said that it's kind of a marginal neighborhood to live in. A lot of the things that make it charming, like the quiet, almost deserted little streets make it less safe at night. This is too bad, because there are still some inexpensive housing options there.

There are also a lot of galleries and pottery shops and as a tourist, it's really fun to walk along the streets and look at the brightly painted houses and cool doorways, like these two on Rue des Cordelles. Note that at #17 the box for letters is not the slot in the middle of the door, but above the door and to the right upper right hand side.

One other really great thing about Le Panier is Pizzeria Étienne. This is just about the worst picture I could have of it, but it's closed on Sundays. We've eaten there twice and I think we will have trouble not eating there again the next time we're in Marseille, although I have no pictures to prove it. It's a real neighborhood institution. The walls are covered with photos of Étienne with his family and customers, including (in one shot) someone who looks a whole lot like 1970s Michael Caine. It seems like most of the customers are neighborhood regulars and the regulars get better service than the tourists, but everybody gets good food.

The menu is really limited -- pizza (anchovy or cheese), a grilled meat dish, eggplant gratin, soupions en persillade (little squids in garlic and parsley), and maybe two other things? That's it. The grilled meats smell really good and seeing the people next to you order a plate of the squid is enough to make you want to order some yourself, even though you've already eaten too much. Both times, we've had the pizza, which they'll do half-and-half anchovy and cheese (the anchovy has no cheese, just tomato sauce and a few whole dry-cured olives) and the eggplant gratin. The pizza has a really thin crust that's chewy at the edges. You could fold the slice in half, but everybody eats it with a fork and knife in the restaurant. And the eggplant gratin is tangy, garlicky, slightly charred and good enough to get rid of whatever ails you -- really. Mmmmm!

After you've eaten your fill, there are still some worthwhile historic things to see in Le Panier. For instance, there's the Maison Diamantée, named for the diamond-shaped bricks on its exterior (close-up on the right). It was built in the 16th century and now houses the Museum of Old Marseille.

You can also see the Hotel Dieu from the outside. According to a couple of 70-something Marseillaises that I met while I was walking around, a hospital has been there, in some form, since the 1600s. It's where they sent plague victims when the plague came to Marseille and then some 40 years ago, the sister of one of the women had surgery there. Sometime in the past several years it was closed down and is to be made into a 5-star hotel. At least that's what the ladies told me.

And there's also Notre Dame de la Major, the cathedral of Marseille. It's in the same Roman-Byzantine style as Notre Dame de la Garde and it's really striking. Again, that's the real sky in Marseille.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Joyeux anniversaire, James -- la fête

As I'm typing this, I realize that this is now the third year in a row, we celebrated James' birthday with French food. You'd think he'd want a little variety, but we've only eaten out twice in Aix so French cuisine still seems new. Besides, we've never celebrated his birthday with Provençal food, so it is new.

James' birthday also coincided with World Happy Hour Day, according to the birthday card my mom found. So, since we had missed celebrating that while James was recovering, on Friday when we celebrated his birthday, we decided to celebrate that too.

As it turns out, France is a particularly great place to celebrate that holiday because happy hour, or apéro, is huge here. Every evening between about 6pm and 8:30pm, the outside terraces of all the cafés are packed with people having their apéro. Yes, even though it's November, people still like to sit outside. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not as cold here as it is in, say, Chicago this time of year, but in Aix it's not warm anymore. (It is noticeably warmer in Marseille ... another reason to miss it.) I understand wanting to eat outside. I like to eat outside too; in fact, I eat my lunch outside on our terrace whenever I can because I can sit out of the wind and in the warm sun. But there's no sun at 6:00pm, and it's cold enough that after nine winters in Chicago, it seems too cold to us to sit outside and have a drink at apéro. A lot of the cafés and restaurants put out space heaters (which, as James and I were talking about, has always seemed a little weird because isn't the point of eating outside that you get to enjoy the nice weather?) but many don't, and people and people still sit there.

Apéro is not a crazy raucous party filled with drunk people. The drinks aren't half-price, and it seems like a lot of people get just one drink and sit for a long time with their friends. In fact, not everyone drinks something alcoholic -- juice seems to be a popular alternative. The cafés also serve complementary snacks to go along with the drinks. The most popular snacks around here seem to be toasts with brandade de morue or some other delicious olive-oil based (i.e., non-mayonaise) spread like tapenade or anchoïade, olives, bite-size pieces of pizza or quiche. It's great. And for James' birthday, it was a nice little amuse-bouche before dinner (above pic).

For the main event, we went to La Chimère Café, which was recommended by some of James' colleagues as an Aixois favorite. In French, a chimère is either a chimera or a pipe-dream and both are equally suitable names for a restaurant. Given this statue at the entrance, I think the former is what they were going for. Either way, though, the food was outstanding.

As a first course, James had the assiette mareyeur (the fish-wholesaler's plate), which included langoustines, prawns oysters and smoked salmon on a salad and I had foie gras de canard with a delicious onion relish. For the main course, James had daube de taureau, which is a provençal stew made, in this case, from bull's meat. It was cooked with delicious chanterelles and some little onions and potatoes and even included a certain delicacy from the nether-parts of the bull. I had (filet) mignon de porc wrapped in bacon with a white wine cream sauce and garnished with a thai black rice risotto. For dessert, James had a poached pear with custardy, delicious vanilla ice cream and I had canelés, a specialty from Bordeaux, with crème anglaise. To drink, we had a wine from the appelation that surrounds Aix-en-Provence, Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence. The vineyard is just up the road.

Here's a picture of James after dinner. Did I mention that the meal was delicious?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Apartment search, act 1

Finding an apartment in Marseille was extremely difficult. So difficult, in fact, that we ended up living in Aix. But I'll get to that.

By the way, this is not one of the happier posts. At the end of it, you'll say to yourself, "let's get to the good stuff!" I have to admit, I hesitate to post this now because, obviously, everything worked out and we're not still living at the hotel. However, I'm putting it in here because it happened, and any of you (i.e. parents) who talked to us in the first two weeks might want to know the details that we didn't tell you over our semi-functioning Skype connection.

Scene 1
James' supervisor in the lab and a friend of a friend, both of whom happens to live in Marseille, had recommended a couple of websites where we might find housing -- either through agencies or through individuals. They're just what you'd imagine: you put in your criteria and get back a list of properties that may or may not still be available. I had spent a considerable amount of time looking around on these sites and on Craigslist while we were still in the States and there were a few promising leads, but it seemed like it would be easier to look for a place once we were here. This was especially true since almost no on provided email addresses with their listings and I didn't want to make a bunch of international calls.

Once we got here, it became immediately apparent that this was not Chicago, where finding a place had always been relatively easy (so what if we looked at about 15 places before we found the Casa del Berwyn ... we found plenty of nice places before that, they just didn't take dogs).

We started off looking for a furnished apartment. There were several that were posted online on our first Friday in Marseille, but by the time I called about them on Saturday, they were already gone. To be fair, there were other furnished apartments in our price range, but they were all in parts of Marseille that are public-transportation challenged (i.e. there is no public transportation). That wasn't an option for us given that James's lab is in Aix and he would need to go there on weekdays.

So I set up email alerts to find out when new apartments were posted on the websites and checked email way too often, when the wi-fi was working.

Scene 2
We tried a few apartment locater services in Marseille, which come in a couple of different sizes and flavors. One thing that's common to all of them is that unlike agencies we've been to in Chicago, the tenant-to-be is the one who pays, not the landlord. Some agencies sell you a list of contact numbers for apartments, which all sound really great on the website/list and which the agents at the agencies guarantee are still available, but which, according to the hotel staff and everyone we've talked to, are often already rented. Then you're out the 200 Euros you've paid for the list. Other agencies actually take you to apartments, and don't charge you unless the place you. When they place you, though, you owe them a month's rent plus other administrative fees for their services. This means that you've got to come up with three months rent at the beginning (agency fees, security deposit, first month). However, when you're living in a hotel...

In addition to the expense of using an agency, there's a law in France that you're not allowed to pay more than 1/3 of your salary in rent unless you have a guarantor, who has been employed in France in the previous three years, who will co-sign with you. So agencies won't even show you apartments that are above the 1/3 mark. It's not so clear that individuals renting out their apartment have to follow the 1/3 rule, but they ask a lot of questions (smart) and definitely want proof of your salary (also smart). At least they would show their apartments before they got proof that we'd have a salary.

This last issue could be solved as soon as James could sign his contract because not only would that guarantee that he actually had an income, but since he would be employed by CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), a government-funded entity, agencies could up the rent cap slightly before requiring a guarantor. Besides that, James' supervisor thought the lab would be willing to act as guarantor. However, since the contract wasn't ready and James hadn't signed it, no dice. That severely limited the apartments the agencies had to offer -- in several cases to no furnished apartments. The financial crisis in the US wasn't really helping us look legit, either. I think some people thought that all Americans had just lost all their money. Little did they know, they were dealing with two people who had no investments and were not at all affected by the financial crisis that was unfolding in the US. That's not exactly something that will instill confidence in your ability to pay rent though, so we didn't mention that.

Things were looking bleak.

Scene 3
We widened our search to include unfurnished apartments. However, it turns out that in Marseille, most unfurnished apartments are completely unfurnished -- there's a space in the kitchen for a sink and an oven or stove and a fridge, but you have to supply them. So, while we could afford basic furniture thanks to Ikea (which you can even get to on public transportation!), we couldn't afford furniture and appliances.


Back to the hotel.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Joyeux anniversaire, James!

Yesterday was James' 33rd birthday. To celebrate, James got to drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of bread and some potatoes with herbes de provence. Not the most exotic or celebratory of meals but James is recovering from a bout with the stomach flu so we have postponed his birthday celebration. Dr. Ng at NU Health Services would say to wait at least three days from the last symptoms, but I think we may throw caution to the wind and celebrate tomorrow. After all, a certain other doctor at NU Health Services would tell him to take some naproxen and come back in a week, so who are we going to listen to?

James did get two new books (one in English and one in French) and he got to open these presents in the picture. No, that one on the right isn't a briefcase, it's a very clever box. It's also, however, a very small box. It's funny because the clerk who rang me up obviously saw what I was buying and these were what she gave me. When I got home, I discovered that they didn't magically unfold into something larger than they looked like they would in the store and were really the right size for a shirt or thin sweater (the one on the right) and maybe a pair of underwear and an undershirt (the one on the left, which is actually more like an envelope than a box). It made me wonder where the clerk thought I was going to put the actual items she rang up, but it turned out she was sort of right: gifts were stuffed into each container (and they didn't tear -- neither the gifts, nor the boxes!) and another was "wrapped" in the plastic shopping bag from the store. I don't know where you buy boxes and wrapping paper around here yet.

The good thing is that once James is totally recovered, he can celebrate in style!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cartes de séjour

Long-stay visas, which you get if you're going to be in France for more than three months, are only valid for three months. When you get your visa, stapled into your passport is a little note that says you have to present yourself at the préfecture to apply for your residence permit (carte de séjour) within a week of arriving in France.

James checked this out with the lab administrator and she said to take all our documents and go down to the préfecture.

James: "Do we need an appointment?"
Administrator: "No, you can just go."

So, on the first Monday after our arrival in France, we did.

When we got to the préfecture, the world was there. Although, apparently there were not as many people as are sometimes there because the line wasn't out the door snaking around the corrals that are right outside the building. There weren't really any signs telling you where to go so I asked at an information desk and they told us to go to the really crowded room, where we got in a really long line behind someone else who said he was there for his carte de séjour. Actually, we got in line behind someone who was saving a place for a pregnant woman who had gone to sit down, who was there with her elderly mother, who was also sitting down. Apparently saving places in line is a totally normal thing to do because a woman who got there right after we did asked us to save a place for her while she went to sit down with her toddler. And eventually the guy (in front of the pregnant woman) in front of us went out for a smoke and we saved both of their places. I think it's a pretty good system.

So we waited.

We got some necessary photos in the photo booth while we waited. And we waited some more.

After about two hours, we were getting pretty close to the front. The pregnant woman had come back a couple of times to make it known that she was still there, so when we saw her approaching, we figured she was just coming back to stand in line for a while. Then, all of a sudden she was starting a fist fight with some other guy who was there. There was shoving, clawing, racial epithets, general yelling, and then the pregnant woman's husband came out of nowhere and punched the other guy. A mêlée had ensued!

However, through the ruckus, everyone managed to maintain their places in line and after the fight ended, the pregnant woman came back to her place in line. Apparently she and the other guy had had a run-in earlier on and he had accused her of cutting in line and kept trying to prevent her from getting back in line. (So maybe that system of saving places only sort of works.) She told her story a few more times with a few more details each time, but each time she loudly told everyone that "that's how it is in his country -- the men hit their women". Perhaps the most surprising part of it all -- even more surprising than a fist fight started by a pregnant woman -- was that she was telling the story in front of people who may well have been from this guy's country. I'm amazed that another fight didn't break out.

Finally, after over three hours of standing in line, we made it up to the window and presented our documents, and got our cartes de séjour.

No, actually, that's not what happened at all. That's what I wish would have happened.

Instead, were told that we were in the wrong place. We were told that for visas scientifiques (the kind that foreign researchers get) we needed to present ourselves at CROUS (Centre Régional des Œuvres Universitaires et Scolaires), which is basically an administrative entity that makes student life better at French universities. The irony of that was that although the CROUS was across the city from the préfecture, it was just up the street from our hotel.

Before our trek back across the city, we stopped for lunch at this really nice little sandwich café. I think it's called "101" at 101, Rue de Rome, but it's a little hard to tell because it has a creative sign: the first "1" is a fork, the "0" as a plate and the second "1" as a knife. Actually, you can see it in street view if you go to the Google map of Marseille and enter the address (except, as you can see from the link, Google thinks it's at 92, which it's not). The woman who we think is the owner is really nice and she happily and patiently described to us the many options for the lunch formules (set menus) like the one we shared: delicious buttery crusted quiche lorraine + salade niçoise + tarte frangipane aux poires for only 5€! We wanted to go back there repeatedly because the owner was so nice, but alas we didn't.

After lunch we went to CROUS and found Madame B., who could help us. She was going on vacation for three weeks starting the next day, so she'd have to help us later on, but she was very nice, very helpful and very pleasant to work with.We were much happier after that. Here's a view toward La Canebière (a famous street in Marseille, that goes down to the Vieux Port ... think The French Connection).

We still don't have our cartes de séjour. But that's for another post.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Marseille is (was) cool!

Marseille is a great city. All the guidebooks tell you it's a little (or more than a little) gritty and rough around the edges, and maybe that's true, but in a good way. It's just that you might call it "international" rather than "cosmopolitan". It feels like a city where real people live, rather than a tourist destination (even though there are plenty of tourists there), and it has a really laid-back and welcoming feel. It's lively, diverse and full of interesting neighborhoods to explore. And it's right on the water. We loved it immediately.

Things seem to radiate out from the Vieux Port, which is impossible to miss -- and you wouldn't want to. Every morning there are fishmongers (actually, most seem to be the fishermen themselves, but I just wanted to say "fishmonger") along the Quai des Belges at the eastern side of the harbor selling freshly caught seafood. However, staying in a small hotel room doesn't lend itself to the purchase of fish so we didn't get to take advantage of that. The port is also really beautiful to look at. Now only small boats can moor there so there are lots of sailboats and little pleasure cruisers, and the ferries that go to the Îles de Frioul and Les Calenques (no, unfortunately, we haven't been to either yet). It's a post card that could greet you every day if you lived in Marseille and it would look more beautiful than any of the pictures I took.

The Vieux Port opens to the west into the Mediterranean so this picture on the left is taken looking north. On the far left side (with the round tower) is Fort Saint-Jean, one of the two forts that are situated at the entrance to the port. Actually, you can also see the corner of the other fort, Fort Saint-Nicholas, peeking into the picture right by the big white tent. What's funny is that you'd think that these forts would have been built to protect the port and the city but, in fact, they were built by Louis XIV after an uprising in Marseille to keep everyone in line and remind them who was boss. He actually had cannons on the forts that pointed toward the city.

This photo on the right, also looking north, was taken from Notre Dame de la Garde, which stands on a cliff over the harbor. Beyond the two forts, you can see where all the shipping now happens and the large cruise ships dock.

Finally, this picture was taken (from Le Pharo) looking into the Vieux Port. This time you can actually see part of Fort Saint-Nicholas on the right side of the photo.
There's obviously a lot more to Marseille than just the Vieux Port, but I have a lot more pictures of it than I do of other things, and this is enough for one entry. And besides, thinking about it makes me miss it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Arrival in Marseille -- Wednesday, September 17th

This is the view from our first room at the Hotel Lutétia in Marseille, where we stayed for the first part of our trip. It's really a pretty nice place. It's very tidy, well-situated, very reasonably priced (when the dollar isn't as weak as it was in the second half of September) and the staff are extremely nice. So stay there. Unless you really need wi-fi in your room so you can finish your dissertation.

Our first room was on the fifth floor and even had a little balcony type thing (from which these pictures were taken). It wasn't big enough that you could really sit on it, but it was big enough juice and or cheese overnight because you were trying to be thrifty and eat in your room rather than going to restaurants. Here's a slightly different view from the balcony.

After the manager tried everything he could think of to get the wi-fi to work, he finally let us move into a room on the first floor (premier étage, not ground floor) where the wi-fi did work. Mostly. Although still only sort of.

That room was on the opposite side of the hotel so it faced the backs of other apartment buildings. I would have taken a picture, but it would have been a little like spying on people so I decided against it.

It's 54 - 41 day!

We've been in France for 54 days and we've officially spent 41 days in our apartment in Aix. So, to commemorate these two important milestones, it's time to start our blog! That's actually quite a lot of time and a lot has happened, but it's probably better that you're not going to read about our two weeks in the tiny, tiny hotel room in Marseille while we were in the midst of it.

As a November 9th resolution, James and I promise to keep posting interesting things as they happen and we'll try not to be too annoying. If we are, look at the pictures and skip the text! Speaking of which, the next few posts are about what's been going on in the last 54 days. You may already know about it, but I'm adding the pictures I've been promising everyone.

As for the name of the blog, a mas is a provençal farmhouse and bonheur means happiness or luck. So there you go.