La fin

IMG_3724With summer’s breath still warm on our necks, the first fumes of wood smoke tickle my nose. As the leaves on the trees begin to change, I realize with regret that it’s time to put away my sandals until next year.

Fall has always felt like a fresh start to me, with its back-to-school rush and the energy of cooler days. Other than November, that dreaded dark month, autumn is the season I love best. Only three months until Christmas! Time to get on that to-do list!

But this year we have had such a glorious summer, it is hard to see it pack its bags. The first true hot summer weather in years, du début jusqu’à la fin. It got nice early in the spring and stayed that way throughout July and August. We were able to enjoy long evenings on the deck, drink and eat outside all the time. I complained, of course, that it was too hot. After all, who feels like working when the pool beckons?

But it’s time to let go. This past weekend I packed up all my summer clothes and sorted through the fall and winter ones before making the semi-annual switch. This something I do twice a year. Partly because I don’t have enough closet space to keep everything in circulation but also because it’s good to sort through what you haven’t worn lately and make a cull. Sometimes it’s an excuse to go shopping. “Out with the old, in with the new!” The charity shops enjoy it too.

I am not a huge fan of endings. I find most things start out better than they end. When deeply enthralled with a book, I often skip ahead and read the ending so that I can relax and enjoy it without the suspense. Sometimes I get two-thirds through a film and can’t be bothered to watch the rest. But I love the bittersweet time of transitions – endings and beginnings. Summer’s end means the beginning of fall, and a new year just around the corner.

I guess that change is in the air. My yoga teacher announced that today would be our last class. She is a very good instructor and an inspired soul who puts a lot of herself into teaching, but she’s having too hard a time making a living at it. She told us today that the fall season is deeply associated with change, that it is a time for letting go. I guess that means it’s time for me to accept that all good things must come to an end.

C’est la fin de l’été.

IMG_2569How do you feel about endings and beginnings? Do you embrace change or go out kicking and screaming?

Mes oignons

My onionsI am here today to tell you all about onions. Mes oignons that is – mine, not yours.

Yours would not be at all appropriate. According to French wisdom, I must mind my own onions, which is to say my own business.

So here are my onions. Rather cheeky, no? There they were, all tressed up so prettily, until I started using them up and – voilà! Was inspired to take a photo that set them off in all their glory.

Ah, the onion. Such a wonderful member of the Allium family. So humble, yet so strong. Along with leeks, garlic, chives…this family is one like my own. Outspoken, atypical, memorable – if at times rather overpowering. The French favour the shallot, l’échalote, for its gentler, more subtle flavour. At least it doesn’t make me cry.

I love how the onion has all those intricately packed layers, hard yet soft, and a papery outer skin. I love its bulbousness. I love how it melts, how it browns and most of all, how it caramelizes. I love the onion in so many ways: pissaladière, onion tart, with tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, fish and, most memorably of all, cheese.

My favourite onions are red. Most often enjoyed raw, they’re also lovely on the barbeque, in a stir fry or combined with other kinds of onion. Here they are featured in one of my favourite winter dips – when it gets cold, I am a still a North American at heart.

I also love the French expression for minding your own business: Occupe-toi de tes oignons. Why onions? I looked it up and, lo and behold, there is a reason. It would seem that the French woman was first given a small measure of independence in being allowed to cultivate a portion of the garden as an onion patch, which she could then take to market and sell to make a bit of money. You can read all about it here (in French).

And let’s not forget that sometimes onions produce beautiful flowers.

Do you have a favourite onion? Or it that any of my business?


Uncorked in Portugal

Cork oakIt is surely the world’s most reassuring sound. Whether eased from its niche with a gentle sigh or resoundingly and explosively popped, there is no other sound so associated with happiness than the uncorking of a wine bottle.

I speak from a certain, ahem, experience. No neophyte with the corkscrew, I am rather familiar with le bouchon as it’s called in French. It wasn’t always so. It’s taken years of nightly uncorking with my trusty tire-bouchon to master this skill. Now, I pop like a pro: 30 seconds max, zero to glass.

Imagine my surprise and delight in discovering that I was holidaying in the world capital of cork. Portugal. Who knew?

Let me explain that neither husband nor I are history buffs. Sure, he knows his world politics and has a much more precise mental geography of what happened when than I. But when we travel, we do not visit historical sites with anything more than a passing interest. I enjoy some of the stories but retain none of the details. Dates, names….I can always google it. More than once we’ve been shamed to admit that we visited a place without seeing (nay, noticing!) its world famous castle with the UNESCO heritage moat.

Instead, we like to wander around like free spirits and get a sense of a place, a feeling. This time in Sintra, near Lisbon, we decided to explore the area with the aid of e-bikes, and a guide to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’d never felt the need for such aids before, but heck, there were a lot of hills. And for once, I thought we could enjoy a holiday without arguing over which way to go. It was a brilliant plan.

Our guide showed us around the park and surroundings, stopping at key points to give us snippets of information about its various castles but without forcing us to take into too much detail. When he saw how interested we were in the subject, he told us all about the cork tree.

Cork treeThe cork oak is a wonderful thing. In Portugal, the bark is harvested every nine years. It is literally peeled away from the tree trunk, upon which the cork farmer paints the last number of the year in which it was harvested. Then, it regenerates before being harvested again. It is native to Portugal and a few other places but not that many. Oh well, if you want more detail you can always Wiki it.

Cork is used for many things. I love how light and airy it is, yet so strong. It makes a great coaster and is also used for flooring. I even bought a pair of cork sandals. Extremely comfortable and only a little nerdy looking. Mostly, though, it is used as a stopper for wine.

Wine producers have been using synthetic corks increasingly of late, so I had thought cork was an endangered species. But apparently it is a matter of cost. Now I make it a policy to prefer wines with the real thing and although it is hard to know before you open it, those that are ‘mise en bouteille à la propriété’ or bottled by the wine grower are more likely to use real cork.

For years, I have been troubled by one question: what to do with all the leftover corks? It seemed a shame to throw them away but there is no recycling program for cork. Last year, however, I discovered they make a wonderful natural fire starter, Soak them in rubbing alcohol* for a day or two then put a couple in with your kindling and voilà! Une belle flambée!

*Do be careful, though, that stuff is highly inflammable.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Any thoughts on the wonders of cork?




Trouver le courage

SUP‘Je ne suis pas très courageuse,’ as they say in French. I am no brave heart. I’ve shared before my challenges in coping with fear – in life and on the ski slopes. Rather than trying new things and going outside my comfort zone, holidays most often find me navigating between the bar and my beach chair, where I happily get lost in a good book between dips in and out of the water.

I do love the sea though, and was determined to try something new on this beach holiday. The resort program said ‘Introduction to Stand Up Paddle’. How hard could that be?

So I wandered down to the beach the other morning and joined a small group of people curious to find out what all this SUP fuss was about. It was a perfect day: blue sky, sunny and warm but not too hot, a light breeze.

Our bronzed surf instructor, a laid-back type of the beach-bum variety, coolly rhymed off a few instructions while showing us how to position ourselves in the middle of board, first on our knees, then in standing position. The paddling itself was old hat – any self-respecting Canadian knows their way around a canoe. Paddle left to go right; paddle right to go left. Back paddle to turn.

Then it was time to get into the water. We fastened our life jackets and secured the ankle straps to make sure we stayed with our boards. I stood at the water’s edge and looked out at the vast expanse of ocean, stretching to the horizon.

For a moment I pondered the unknown depths and breadth of that expanse. And then I felt it: a nudge of fear. Barely a ripple. Just the familiar fear of trying something new, a touch of agoraphobia at the unknown waters with vague shadows of fishes moving about near the bottom.

And I thought for an instant of what it must take for someone to take that giant leap into the unknown. To risk life and loved ones for a chance to make the great escape. Someone who may not be able to swim, who doesn’t even have a life jacket. Someone who risks it all on a rickety boat ride to foreign shores.

That is courage. Courage born of desperation. The kind of courage I will likely never know. There I was, on my stand-up paddle board, a privileged tourist just steps from safety, comfort – even luxury. And I dared to feel afraid?

Propelled by irony, in a sort of guilt-edged dream, I pushed out from the shore and took my first shaky steps on the stand up paddle. It wasn’t very hard. In fact, I barely even got wet.

Guilt is a fairly useless emotion, unless it spurs us on to do something good, to be better people. The refugee crisis is all around us in Europe, yet we blithely go on holiday and, when confronted with the all-too-human drama taking place on our shores, feel powerless to do anything about it. Increasingly, there is a disconnect between the way we as citizens feel about the refugees and our government’s response. I don’t have the answer, but I am thinking about the question. That’s a step forward. How about you?

L’instant présent

IMG_4038One of the wonderful things about learning another language is the chance to see things differently. Thinking about the present in French leads me to appreciate fully the dual nature of this expression. The present moment – l’instant présent – is indeed a gift.

In case you think I’m going all philosophical on you, rest assured. I’m on holiday at the moment; hence my current fascination with the now. The stopping of clocks, the forgetting of what day it is. A momentary meditation on tree branches dancing in the wind, the clink of my coffee cup in the saucer, the sensation of sand between my toes. Suddenly there is no time like the present.

Daily I struggle with the demon of time. If I ignore it, the silly bugger has a way of sneaking up on me. “What? It’s ten o’clock already? Where did the time go?” If I obsess about it, time is a monkey on my back. Cracking his whip, urging me to go faster, to hurry up and move on to the next thing. Get it done. Then what?

The solution, as ever, lies somewhere in between. Set goals for the important stuff, stick to a schedule some of the time, forget about it for the rest. I’m not sure time can be managed in any real sense. What I do know is that it is our only currency. It can’t be saved but it can be spent wisely. A moment can be stretched almost to eternity if we allow ourselves to wander there.

So excuse me while I slip into l’instant présent. The weather is nice and I may decide to stay awhile.

Et toi?