Mom & Dad in the Old Country

Ma maman and mon papa came for a highly anticipated visit to Southern France this spring.  To date, my domestic and abroad worlds haven’t mixed nearly as much as I would have hoped when I committed to my life abroad.  For me, it really was a gift to have my parents get a glimpse into my life here in Europe, and for them to feel the comfort and relief of knowing I’m in a really spectacular place that I adore.

Our journey began with a quick and dirty tour of Paris, followed by four days in my father’s family’s homeland of Croatia, catching up with our Croatian and Italian family members over long dinners, homemade lunches, and a hell of a lot of hugs. I can’t believe how lucky we are to still have family in the old country! These amazing people treated us like visiting royalty and nearly broke my heart with all their kindness, hospitality, and ‘love made edible’ in the form of handmade gnocchi followed by crusty apple strudel.

After our heartfelt Croatian visit, we returned to Provence to my familiar stomping grounds. In true tour-guide style, I thoroughly wore out my along-for-the-ride parents showing them all that Provence has to offer with a super jam-packed schedule—quintessential hilltops towns, weekly markets, wineries, perfect seasonal produce, aperitifs in the sunshine, and my favorite small-town eateries and preferred bakeries.

I truly love it here in Europe, and I think my parents totally get it now, even though I know they would still love to have me living in the Chicago suburbs, just down the street, but not before a real French bakery opens up in the heartland. Impossible.

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Zadar, Croatia

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Zadar, Croatia

Enjoying their first Croatian beer in Croatia!

Enjoying their first Croatian beer in Croatia!

A delicious rendition of Baccalà!!

A delicious rendition of Baccalà!!

Opatija

Opatija, Croatia

Dad's Birthday in Opatija

Dad’s Birthday in Opatija

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Family Graves in Vranja, Croatia.

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Back in France...

Back in France…

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Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence. It's one of my absolute favorite places in Provence.

Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence. It’s one of my absolute favorite places in Provence.

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Sheep’s Cheese & Lambies!

Our new cooking and walking tour in Provence starts with a visit to a quaint sheep’s cheese farm run by the ultra hard-working husband/wife team of Brigitte and Philippe Cordier just outside of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban. In July, our visit corresponded with the arrival of a handful of brand new, teeny tiny lambs! Brigitte let us hold one that was just three days old for picture ops and warm fuzzies!

[Ok, ok, I know. If you know me well, you’re going to call me out at this very moment for being a total hypocrite.]

Yes, it’s true, I can devour grilled lamb stuffed with roasted garlic cloves with all the finesse and marrow-sucking precision of a professional sumo wrestler. But hey, I also adore coddling these super soft, lanolin-smelling babies. Who wouldn’t? Just to set the record straight; I love lambs, over hot charcoal or jumping through spring meadows, just the same.

At least, I’m honest.

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Cherry Picking in July

Each year, seasonal produce and blooming flowers gently mark the passing of time for me in Provence. Persistent, crimson poppies celebrate my arrival. Plump strawberries and crème fraîche fill my market basket when the nights are still cool and the fields vibrant green from spring rains. Ripe, juicy cantaloupe appear on roadside stands around the same time the fields wash aglow with fragrant lavender under an unrelenting summer sun. Apples, crisp and perfectly paired with 12-month aged Comté, bid my farewell as fall winds hint at quiet evenings around a fireplace with red wine.

And somewhere, gracefully balanced between the poppies and apples is the cherry. There’s really something quiet magical about plucking red globes of juicy sweetness off of a tree. When they’re ripe, I find every excuse possible to get off my bike and duck into the orchard, especially along the road from Saint Didier to Venasque. Luckily, I didn’t have to sneak them on this wonderful evening in July.

Our gracious British hosts, Dan and Lucy, threw a mid-summer pool party and barbecue, complete with an impromptu cherry-picking extravaganza. I might have been the only participant who ate as many cherries as I picked, but that really didn’t matter. I was among lovely friends, and we were all taking in the perfect evening, the setting sun, the sweetness that only summer in Provence can bring.

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Pétanque & Pastis in Pernes-les-Fontaines

Recipe for a perfect Sunday afternoon:

-1 picturesque French village with gravel playing court
-6-10 boules, one cochonnet
-1 good bottle of Pastis (or two)
-Ice in the cooler
-A bounty of tasty, salty snacks
-Slowly approaching dusk
-Lovely, laughing friends

Mix all ingredients, laugh heartily and merrily bike your way home.

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Kayaking on the Sorgue

Summer temperatures arrived in full force last week with averages in the mid-30˚’s. One of the best ways to beat the heat is the spend a couple of hours kayaking down the Sorgue River. Head towards Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and look for the Kayak Vert sign on your right after passing under the aqueduct. If you’re really organized, pack a picnic lunch to enjoy along the river near a good swimming spot, or after kayaking, laze away the afternoon eating a fancy lunch and drinking rosé at one of many adorable restaurants in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.

I wish I were still on the river right now…

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‘Crillon’ le chaton (‘Crillon’ the kitten)

Yesterday, one of my big-hearted colleagues found an abandoned kitten on the side of the road and brought him home after a quick trip to the vet for some flea medicine and eye drops for an infection. We’re all delighted about our new arrival and can’t seem to get enough of the little guy. I forgot how much fun kittens can be and how nice it is to have a warm little animal sleeping in your lap. Despite the fact that we’re not actually supposed to keep pets at our communal Leader House, Crillon is now part of our international family, and he’s not going anywhere.

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Bike Touring: The Drôme, Vaucluse, & the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence

Inspired by a glorious, three-day window in my work schedule, I packed up my paniers with some camping gear, minimal clothing and some snacks and headed to the North side of Ventoux to begin a solo biking adventure in the Drôme. Solo bike touring has become my saving grace during the summer. Since I’m usually guiding large groups of cyclists and hikers, I appreciate the peace and quiet of the open road to recharge my batteries and relax, meet local characters and discover amazing new bicycling routes. This trip didn’t disappoint me in the least! Despite not being prepared enough for the cold weather at night in my trusty tent and battling a 70kph head-wind for two days, everything else was serendipitous, spontaneous and light-hearted fun! My camp wasn’t even over-run by wild boars during the night (this seemed to be my only legitimate concern), and I managed to accomplish my goal of riding 100k a day in spite of the wind and hills.

For those of you who might want to bike the route too, some of my favorites, in chronological order, were Buis-les-Baronnies (incredible tea and organic market), Séderon, the D546/D542/D592 into Gorges de la Méouge (Finally, I found some good swimming holes in Provence!) and Revest-du-Bion. I’m happy to post a more detailed route if requested!

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Cherry Trees!

Cherry Trees!

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Gorges de la Méouge

Gorges de la Méouge

Dinner :)

Dinner 🙂

The best tea stop in Buis-les-Baronnies. La Maison de Jade.

The best tea stop in Buis-les-Baronnies. La Maison de Jade.

Joucas at dusk

Yesterday afternoon, under misty and grey skies, I revisited the town of Joucas with my dear friend and colleague, Nathalie, to find some new hikes for our trips. After a couple of hours on the trails, we stopped at the only café in town for a glass of red wine, sat outside and gazed across the Luberon Valley at the distant hills of ochre in Roussillon. The locals seemed pleased to have a couple of new smiling faces in town, if only for the afternoon ‘aperitif.’

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Canola in full bloom

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No matter how small the town might be, every French village has a ‘Mairie,’ or town hall.

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Spring Irises!

Joucas is home to a unique husband and wife artist team, Mieke Heybroek and Ulysse Plaud, who have adorned the village with their striking sculptures of human-figures carved from wood (near the 18th century church of St. John the Baptist, you’ll find some sculptures made from 700 y/o olive wood from a Greek isle), and fortified with metal and stone. Check out their small ‘atelier’ as you stroll through town. You can’t miss it.