Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reason #432 that I'm grateful for my expat life

Since having kids, I haven’t had a chance to enjoy the main thing I loved about being an expat in Europe: the travel opportunities. Most of our vacations are spent shuttling back and forth between our families in Germany and the U.S. – and as most expat parents know, much as one loves seeing family and friends, visits home are hardly vacations at all.

Anyway, last week a good friend did me the solid of marrying her boyfriend down in Basque Country, an absolutely gorgeous, green, hilly part of southwest France that shares a culture with northeast Spain. Driving down south with my kids sleeping (or vomiting or crying or whatever) in the backseat, I felt flooded with the excitement that road trips brings – and especially road trips in Europe bring.

When traveling by car in Europe, there’s no need to stay at some skanky hotel/motel off the highway. Why should you, when for almost the same price you can stay in a castle!


I admit, I’m kind of a castle-whore. If there’s ever an opportunity for me to bed down in one, I will. There’s just something about those turrets…

The Chateau de Cherveux is a 15th century castle mid-way between Paris and Biarritz, near Niort. It was built by Robert de Cunningham, a Scot who had been a captain of an artillery squad for France during the Hundred Years war. Over the years the castle was besieged many times, and it is clear that it was not merely the kind of decorative chateau you find in the Loire Valley: this chateau was a fortress, complete with a moat, drawbridge, battlements, and arrow loop (those narrow windows from which arrows could be fired). The drawbridge is gone, but you can see the rest on a tour of the castle.

Like most people visiting a castle, I try my best to travel back in time while there. I place my hand on a stone wall or an original wooden door, trying to imagine the hand of some 15th century person resting on that exact spot. Climbing the staircases, my mind catches a glimpse of the dirty hem of some servant’s robe as she carries a tray up to her master. I won’t say that I force these images – it’s easy to summon the past in such an old place. But my experience at the Chateau was somewhat different. Staying there was a bit like having the past recreated. It was as if we were travelers of yore, arriving at an inn mid-journey. We were hot, tired and dusty from the road, seeking only a filling meal and comfortable bed (and some water for the horses) so that we might continue our travels the next day.

Upon arriving, the Chateau owner greeted us warmly and showed us to our room, which was a large sage-green chamber with views of the castle’s courtyard and grass-filled moat. I fell in love with the appointments of the room, including the two massive oak armoires, the wrought-iron canopy bed (sans canopy) and old-fashioned candle holder that would be perfect for wandering the castle’s halls at night. Even the bathroom was charming – the tub was built under a high stone arch.

Like many B&B-type establishments in France, the Chateau offered a table d’hôte, which means that they serve their guests a homemade dinner at a communal table. Rather than trying to find a restaurant after a long drive with two small kids, we opted to eat at the Chateau. We were the only guests at the castle that night, so the four of us ate a deceptively simple dinner of goat-cheese quiche, roast chicken and boiled potatoes in a cozy high-ceilinged dining room. We poured our wine and water from pitchers into heavy glass goblets. For dessert, the Chateau owner brought us a bowl heaped with fresh strawberries. When we praised the excellence of her cooking (I saw her in the kitchen messing about with copper pots on an Aga), she told us that all the products were organic and from the Chateau’s farm, except for the chicken which came from the neighboring farm. She also said when there were ten or more guests, her brother-in-law prepares medieval dinners with recipes from Jeanne Bourin's cookbook "Cuisine Medievale."

After dinner, we took our wine glasses into the small courtyard and watched the kids chase after a soccer ball as the setting sun turned the castle’s walls to gold. And then, we went upstairs to bed. And even that bed was everything that it should have been. It was as if the Chateau owners had given up their own bed for us. It was that comfortable.

The next morning, the magic of the castle persisted and we had a lovely breakfast of crusty baguettes, sesame bread, croissants, fresh butter and homemade apricot-ginger jam. It was hard to leave. We made noises about moving in. The Chateau owner laughed as she peeled our fingers off of the castle’s gate.

I have had the good fortune to stay in many wonderful hotels, B&Bs and even a few castles in my life, but thanks to the warmth, discretion and incomparable taste of the Chateau owners, this place will always stand out in my memory.

If you can, go there.



Saturday, May 8, 2010

Manners, Shmanners

A few days ago, I read this blog post by Adrian Leeds about the “murder” of the American Hamburger in France and nearly killed myself laughing. If you don’t have time to click on the link, let me sum it up: the French don’t pick up hamburgers with their hands to eat them – they don’t even put the top part of the bun on the rest of the burger – they eat them very daintily with a knife and fork. Leed’s description is spot-on and is something I’ve observed many times with a sort of awed incredulity.

The French are trained at a very young age to eat just about everything with a knife and fork. While I believe that this is generally a good thing (do people even use knives in the U.S. anymore?), sometimes when I watch them struggling to eat some down-home finger-lickin' food with a knife and fork, I feel sorry for them.

Last New Year’s Eve, I got a hankering for some crab legs (I grew up near a wharf) and so my husband and I bought some King Crab legs to ring in the New Year. The way I grew up eating them, you steam them hot, douse ‘em with Old Bay seasoning, then crack them with either your hands or - if you're a lightweight – a nutcracker. Next, you swirl the crab meat around in some melted butter, pop it in your mouth and go: mmmmmm. It’s not fancy eating. Butter dribbles down your chin. Your hands get sticky with crab juice and seasoning. The table is littered with shells. But who cares? As far as I'm concerned, the process of eating crab legs is just as soul-satisfying as the taste.

Anyway, we invited a French couple over to share in these goodies. When I plopped the platter of legs on the table, they looked slightly alarmed -- they had never eaten crab legs before -- but then tucked in bravely. While Dawg and I messily eschewed the nutcracker in favor of our hands, our friends quickly figured out how to use the nutcracker to crack the legs, used their knives to extract the meat, used their forks to dip the meat in the butter and then ate the meat tidily with their forks and knives. I kept having to repress a smile at this glaring cultural difference. But I had no urge to be French about it.

Didn’t look like as much fun.