Tag Archives: Hwee Hwee Laurence

MOMENTS – A Time for Everything

Here’s something for Hwee Hwee’s long-lost friends who have found her through my blog. It makes me feel not so bad about being such a slob and not posting anything for the last few months.

 

Over on sunny Singapore, all we have to watch for is the super dry season which has thankfully just ended, and the Monsoons, so it’s hard to imagine changing seasons. I have still not figured out how to get basil and mint to survive, and the pests have ravaged my limau perut (kaffir lime) plant yet again. How nice to think of Hwee Hwee gazing at a poplar forest and at majestic eagles flying wild and free.

 

In late winter, I see vineyards dotted with small faraway figures – workers trimming the vines, cutting back the long shoots of the previous year to allow new shoots to grow and bud.  Long ago, when visiting another part of France, I have observed farmers pushing along a wheelbarrow in which they burn the vines as they are cut.  The lonely figures and wisps of smoke arising from the neat row of vines make a melancholic landscape.  I think burning the cut vines might be the way done for vines grown on land where it is too steep for tractors to pass and where grape is harvested by hand.

 

In the vineyard beside our house, it is usually the old farmer Mons Grialou who does the cutting, single-handedly and at his own steady pace.  After the branches are cut, the wife and daughter, and sometimes neighbours and friends, depending on who are available, arrive to pull the cut branches from their supporting wires and leave them between the rows of vine plants.  Then Mons Grialou comes again with a tractor to grind the cut branches into compost for the vineyard.  An easier and greener way of disposing of the cut branches than burning, I think.

 

Since we use woodstoves for heating in winter, we always ask the Grialous to leave us a row or two of cut vines.  Once dried, they make excellent starter-sticks for the next winter’s stoves.  Many people also use them for barbecue fires – they are supposed to impart a special flavour to the grilled food.

 

I have lived in the midst of the vineyards for so long now that I sometimes take them for granted – I hardly make a special effort to go for walks in the vineyards – something I would have found so romantic to do 10 years ago.  But what I love is the job of picking vine sticks.  It is one job that I never grumble about.  On bright, sunny winter afternoons, I would dress myself warmly and trudge down towards the vines armed with a pair of strong pruning shears.  I work slowly down the row, cutting off the crooked awkward parts of the pulled-out vines.  The peacefulness of the vineyard never fails to amaze me.  Sometimes I pause and shade my eyes to look at the poplar forest in the distance; sometimes I admire how the evening light changes the colours of the hills around.  Often I hear cries of eagles and when I look up – there they would be, circling above me.

 

When all the awkward corners are trimmed, it is time to gather the sticks.  In this, my boys like to help.  We gather them and lay them straight then their father comes and ties each bunch up tightly.  He has this habit of saying – put your finger on the knot and don’t move, whatever happens!  After the nineteenth time, the boys roll their eyes and sigh with exasperation.  Depending on how much we have gathered, we either truck the bunches back with wheelbarrows or the father will bring out his old-fashioned sputtering farm trailer.  The latter is always more fun because the boys get to ride in it.  Finally, the vine sticks are cut into good lengths that will fit properly into the woodstoves, and stored in the woodshed for winter.  The sight of cut wood and vine sticks gives me a great sense of fulfilment – like I have made proper provision for something important.

 

You might say – so much work just to get some starter sticks.  Yes, you are right, but all this is the natural progression of things.  Winter is for pruning, turning and preparing the soil of the vegetable patch, repairing things around the house; spring is for sowing, weeding and tending the new plants; summer is for harvesting; autumn for raking fallen leaves and storing the harvest properly to last through winter.  Each season brings its own activity – you cannot push or rush it, and I have to learnt not to grouse or grumble against it.  What you can do is to make full use of each season and most importantly, to enjoy each fully.

 

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:

 

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,Gathering vine sticks

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

 

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REFLECTIONS – Older and Wiser

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Ageing is nothing to look forward to. The best part of it is a gradual release of responsibilities as you no longer have to prove anything beyond being able to walk and eat independently. In fact, ageing can be downright depressing as all the hormones that kept you racing and mating with the other rats slide to a low and you worry more about losing your mind and mobility than losing your hair.

Would it be better to die in early middle-age like many humans did a few centuries ago? Of course not, because we’re discovering more ways to stay fit and enjoy the extra years. With longer life expectancies though come problems for caregivers ie family, so we should be thinking of how to make it easy on them – considerations most of us shove aside because they’re so unpleasant to discuss.

Hwee Hwee Laurence ponders the topic –

Spring is here.  The daffodils, peach and plum trees are in bloom and we have spotted geese and cranes flying north.

Every year, during March, my elder son and I celebrate our birthdays and despite the fact that I am getting older each time, the arrival of spring always makes me feel young and I look forward to the newness of this part of the seasonal cycle.  This spring, however, I feel somewhat older.  Older because my husband and I have a new responsibility.  We are at a point where we have to take care of both our still-young children as well as our aging parents.

My father-in-law has recently been diagnosed with having a blocked vessel in the brain as well as the beginnings of Alzheimer’s.  Because he is quite a character (I shall not go into that), it took us some time before we realized that something was really wrong.  And because of his character, it has been difficult coming up with an appropriate solution that is best for his well-being.

I, being the ever-efficient and practical type, have been angry and frustrated by his stubbornness and seeming ungratefulness for what we are doing for him.  And then a good friend taught me this lesson.  She said that first, it is never pleasant or easy for a person to get old and come to a stage where he has to ask for help, and second, different people ask for help in different ways.

And it is true.  Our parents have not only brought us up, many of them (in Singapore) have also helped bring our children up.  It must be difficult for them for them to metamorphose from being care-givers to having to be cared for.  And just like children, aged people express themselves and do different things to get attention and help.

For young people, we must remember that when we look at an elderly person, we should see beyond the shell that he is and recognize that he has lived a (probably more) colourful and challenging life than us.  We should not to be dismissive of his needs, disdainful of his abilities or indifferent to his contributions.  And we should respect his wisdom and his rights.

For older people who are still autonomous and clear-minded (the ‘silver generation’) Marie Murray, a clinical psychologist and columnist of The Irish Times has this advice –  it is during this time that plans should be made to cater for future decline in physical and mental abilities.  These include learning email or internet skills so that there will be no deprivation of communication or information, planning maintenance-free homes or discussing with children about living arrangements, getting good legal advice about wills and decisions about whom to trust with power of attorney etc.

Planning for the future liberates the present, and this is most true for the silver generation who now has the time, financial, physical and mental abilities to live life up to the fullest.

TRADITION – The King and I

 I have been remiss, obviously. It is now the night of the 8th, and not only have I not posted anything since last year, my friend Hwee Hwee in France sent me a note meant for 6 Jan, and here I am leisurely putting it up late today.

I blame it all on being newly retired and enjoying (too much) not rushing to catch the bus and train, and especially not working to deadlines. Instead, I have been spring-cleaning although no one can tell because I haven’t been brutal enough.

But enough about me. Here is Hwee Hwee’s royal lesson about being a good sport, or it’s off with your head !

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Around the period of 6 January, to celebrate Epiphany and the visit of the three kings bearing gifts for Baby Jesus, a traditional cake called galette des Rois (Kings’ cake) is usually eaten in France.

In the north of France, the galette des Rois is a puff pastry pie with frangipane (almond paste) filling.  In the south, it is a  brioche bread with fruit confit, usually in the shape of a ring or crown, and flavoured with orange-flower.  My family and I prefer the northern style galette.

The galette comes with a paper crown and a trinket (fève, its original form being a bean) hidden inside.  Nowadays, fèves are usually porcelain figurines in the form of little animals, Mother Mary, Baby Jesus or the Simpsons.  The person who gets the feve is the king and gets to wear the crown.

Isn’t it funny how some things are so important to children and so incomprehensible from an adult’s point of view?  My younger son Yves takes this fève business very seriously indeed.  Each time we buy a galette des Rois, he will spend hours carefully observing it to see where there might be a small bump to show where the fève is hiding.   I do not think he needs to do this – he is an extremely lucky boy.  He often finds money on the streets or in supermarkets; he gets good prizes when drawing lots, and once, during a night trek in the forest of Sabah, he even found 2 Malaysian Ringgit on the forest floor !  That is how lucky he is.  Needless to say, he has often gotten the fève and been the King each time the galette des Rois is served, either at home or in the school canteen.  So much so that he probably thinks it is his right to be the king.

Last year, when we had our galette, it was my husband who got the fève.  Yves was so frustrated that he started crying and throwing a (small) tantrum.  I was mad.  Taking into all consideration that children are children, I still hate it when what is meant to be a nice treat turns into something otherwise because of comparing and contrasting, little jealousies, and the failure to be contented with what is given.

This year, Yves asked if I we could buy a galette des Rois.  I did, and when I brought it home, I put it in front of the boys and said – If… IF(!) I see somebody crying or being angry again because he does not get to be king, I am going to rip the crown to bits, stomp the galette into a mash, and give three good smacks with my wooden spoon to that somebody.  Is.  That.  Clear ?

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            It was.  And today, the cutting and eating of the galette passed without much drama.  But guess who got to be the king ? Again.

REFLECTIONS – All I Want For Christmas Is A New Right Breast

Hwee Hwee Laurence has a wish –

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On 10 December 2013, Jean-Claude Mas, the founder of the company Poly Implant Prothèses (PIP) that made defective breast implants not conforming to medical standards, was judged in court in Marseille.  He was condemned to four years’ imprisonment, fined 75 000 Euros and not allowed to work anymore in medical-related fields.

I suspect I was one of the last people implanted with a PIP because just two months after having the mastectomy operation, I received a letter from the hospital informing me of this.  The ‘re-shock’ was almost too much to bear.  And of course, over the following months, the hullabaloo over this scandal was reported almost daily in the news and it certainly was not good for the morale especially when one was undergoing chemotherapy.

You might ask – why did I have an implant in the first place?  Am I so vain about keeping my breasts?  Or did my husband want me to have an implant?  The answers are ‘No’.  I never wanted an implant or any breast reconstruction.  My husband’s only aim was that I get well, and if he ever mentioned the possibility of an implant, it was because he was concerned that I might be psychologically ‘disturbed’ by my asymmetry.

I had an implant because every one of the doctors I met related to my cancer strongly advised that I should.  At that time, I had the impression that feminity is an important aspect for French women since at first,  nobody could believe that I really did not want an implant.  ‘You are still young!’ they said.

So why did I give in?  I did so because I did not know otherwise.  I had never had cancer or a mastectomy, never knew what it would be like to be flat on one side nor what it would feel like to have an implant.  In the end, shouldn’t doctors know best?  Which is why I wished that, because they knew better than me, they had fought harder to stop using PIP implants once problems started, not continued to do so until the last few months before ‘higher authorities’ decided against it.

I have been advised to remove, no – to change – the implant.  So far, I have not plucked up the resolve to go for another operation.  Also, I have been considering not having a new implant.  But then, I am now so used to having it that I am scared to have to readjust to being asymmetrical.

The one thing I have learnt from all this is – let’s not cry over spilt milk (or silicone – ha ha!).  I could have regretted listening to the doctors, but then without an implant I could have hated my lopsided body, too.  I can continue to rave and rant at Monsieur Mas but what good would that do to my health?  Better to just let go and get on with life.

My annual check-up is coming up soon and I will have to make a decision by then.  So maybe – a new right breast would be what I will be getting this Christmas.

FOOD – Cooking the Rustic Way

In the 300-year-old Laurence house in south-west France, it’s time to put the woodstoves to work. Hwee Hwee is ready for the delights of country living where frugality = cosiness.

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When I tell my friends in Singapore that we use woodstoves to heat our house in winter, their jaws drop in amazement.  They simply cannot imagine what it is like, or else they imagine us living like in the Little House on the Prairie.   I tell them that wood is the best heating source.  It warms you up three times – first when you cut it, then when you carry it, and lastly when you burn it.

We use woodstoves simply because it is the cheapest source of heating and also because we constantly have to clear our land and that provides a good supply of wood for burning.  Besides, flames flickering in woodstoves give a lovely ambience.  The downside is that I have to empty the ashes and clean the stoves once in a while and that makes me feel rather like a Cinderella who, despite having found her prince, still has to do housework.

My husband tells me that in olden France, there would be a cauldron always burning on the stove or in the fireplace.  Vegetables and meat were constantly added to simmer and stew, and the main evening meal of country folk consisted of a hearty soup and crusty bread.  So much so that nowadays when you call the family to dinner, you would still say à la soupe or ‘to the soup!’

I, too, revert to cooking the rustic way in winter.  Winter is the season of stews and hotpots and the best way to cook meat until it is meltingly tender is to stew it slowly over the woodstove.  It fills the house with a rich aroma and when the children come home from school, upon opening the front door, they always take a deep breath and try to guess what is for dinner.

Another lesser-known way of cooking on the woodstove is to use what my husband calls a potato cloche.  It is rare antique thing nowadays.  I have one that has been in my husband’s mother’s family for many generations.  It is an earthen cloche with three half-rings that act either as handles or legs.  It is extremely useful for cooking root vegetables.

 I fill the cloche with scrubbed potatoes, turnip, celery root or beetroot.  Then I put an old heavy frying pan on top and invert the whole thing so that the cloche acts as a cover for the vegetables.  This assemblage goes on top of the woodstove to be roasted slowly and the result is slightly-browned root vegetables, rather crispy on the outside and soft in the insides.  I love the thought that so many women of the family before me had stood in their kitchens and roasted potatoes in this cloche and it always made me feel somehow connected to a mother-in-law I have never met (she died of breast cancer years before my husband and I were married).

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Autumn and winter are also seasons for pruning trees and making bonfires.  On the weekends, the kids have to help wheelbarrow the cut branches and heap them on the bonfires, a job they do not really mind because they know that as a reward, they will be allowed to roast marshmallows over the hot ashes.  But bonfires are not just for marshmallows.  Believe it or not, I have cooked the following dish in a bonfire although a normal oven will serve just as well.

 

Bonfire Baked Apples

4 large apples

1 packet (230 g) ready-to-use puff pastry

Brown sugar

Grated cinnamon

Butter, cut in pieces

Remove the core and seeds of the apples, taking care not to cut through all the way to the bottom.

Into each apple, put some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a small piece of butter (all according to your taste).

Cut the puff pastry into four, and use it to wrap each apple well, pinching the tops of the pastry to close it.

For the bonfire method, wrap each apple securely with aluminum foil and gently put them into the hot ashes.  Cook for about 20 minutes until pastry is brown and puffed and apple is soft.

For the oven method, preheat oven at 200 °C.  Line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper and arrange the pastry-covered apples on it.

To have a nice golden-brown colour, brush pastry all over with beaten egg (optional).

Bake for about 30 minutes until pastry is golden and puffed and apples are soft.

I decorated mine with sprigs of apple leaves.

FOOD – Nuts Over Chestnuts

In Singapore where we sweat while singing, “Chestnuts roasting over an open fire” it’s hard to imagine Jack Frost nipping at our nose, but over in temperate zones, Autumn is making way for Winter and Hwee Hwee Laurence has her chestnut supply all ready for both Asian and Western delights through the year.

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When I was small, once in a while, my father would come home with a small paper bag of hot freshly-roasted chestnuts bought from the street vendor in our housing estate.  It was a treat we always looked forward to.  At that time, I never imagined that my life would one day take such a turn that I would have the chance to see an actual chestnut tree, to pick and roast chestnuts myself.

Autumn is chestnut-picking time in France.  While we have a walnut tree in our garden, we never bothered to plant chestnut because we are practically surrounded by chestnut forests.  Every year, when chestnuts start to fall, we take a hike in the forests to collect them before the animals, especially wild boar, eat them all.  In the 1800-1900’s in France, chestnut-pickers wore a type of boots with fierce-looking spikes on the soles.  These chestnut crushing clogs were used to crush the very prickly fruit and to extract the nuts.  Today we are more discreet.  We use gloves – nevertheless, thick garden gloves.

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We usually pick a few baskets of chestnuts, air-dry and deep-freeze them for use throughout the year.  They keep very well and thawed chestnuts, when roasted, taste as good as the fresh ones.  In winter, our house is heated with wood-burning stoves and in the evenings, roasting chestnuts in a heavy cast iron frying pan on top of the stove creates a cozy and fragrant ambience.

In France, chestnuts are divided into two types.  If there are a few seeds in the pod, they are called châtaignes; if there is only one (big) seed, they are called marrons.  At Christmas time, marrons glacés or candied chestnuts are a traditional offering.

I personally do not like marrons glacés – I find them too sweet and starchy.  But I like using châtaignes in cooking, eg in Chinese black stewed belly pork or roast duck with chestnuts.  I also like to use chestnut purée in baking.  Since we do not celebrate Christmas in a big way in France (because we get invited to friends’ homes), we tend to cook a normal meal for Christmas Eve but have at least a special seasonal dessert.  Here is one that is a great favourite with the kids.  It is adapted from Delicious Magazine, UK, whose recipes are supposed to be tried and tested (www.deliciousmagazine.co.uk).  I make my own chestnut purée, but in Singapore they should be available in specialty shops.

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CHESTNUT ROULADE

Ingredients

175g plain chocolate, broken up

6 large eggs, separated

175g caster sugar

Icing sugar to dust

For the filling:

200ml double cream

4 tablespoons sweetened chestnut purée

Method

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line the base and sides of a Swiss roll tin (about 22 x 32cm) with baking paper.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl in a microwave on medium power for 2-3 minutes.

Put the egg yolks and sugar into a large bowl. Using an electric hand whisk, whisk for about 3-4 minutes, until pale, thick and creamy. Whisk in the melted chocolate.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Stir a little into the chocolate mixture to loosen, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites using a large metal spoon, until just combined.

Pour into the lined tin and smooth out to the edges to fill. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until spongy to the touch. Leave to cool for 10 min.

Place a sheet of baking paper on the work surface.  Turn the roulade out onto the paper. Peel off the baking paper backing from the roulade, then cover with a clean sheet of baking paper and a damp tea towel.  Leave to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the filling.  Whip the cream until it just holds its shape.  Fold in the chestnut purée and whisk again until thick.

Cut the edges off the roulade, spread with the chestnut cream, then roll up the sponge tightly, using the paper to help you.  Do not worry if the crust sticks to the paper a little or if there are cracks – the icing sugar will cover this.

Transfer to a flat serving plate.  Dust thickly with sieved icing sugar and decorate with Christmas cake ornaments.

FOOD – Mistakes Made Good… and Sweet

From Hwee Hwee Laurence in France:

Have you ever been afraid to try cooking or baking because you think you are not good at it?  That if you make a mistake and the dish or cake turns out a flop, nobody will eat it?  That it will be a waste of time and money?

But do you know that some of the most famous foods arose from mistakes? In the early 1900’s, the Kellogg brothers were working at the Battle Creek (Mich.) Sanitarium.  They cooked some wheat, left it out and forgot about it. The dough went stale, but they rolled it out anyway.  It became flakes, which was toasted and made crispy.  The crispy cereal was a hit amongst the patients of the sanitarium.  The Kellogg brothers then experimented with other cereals and their most famous product – Kellogg’s Corn Flakes – was born.

In France, one of the most well-known sweets is the Carambar.  In 1954, a sweet factory tried out a new recipe, unaware that one of the machines was malfunctioning.  What resulted was the long chewy caramel bar that still exists today.  Carambar is now produced in more than 15 flavours and is as popular as ever amongst children.

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So what do you do if you make a cooking or baking mistake?  Don’t just throw out the dish, unless of course, it is really inedible.  Use some imagination and think of what you can turn it into.

Last week, I baked a chocolate cake that turned out to be too dry and the taste too flat.  The kids ate some, then lost interest.  So what did I do?  I broke it into crumbs, added some strong coffee and a dash of rum and mashed it into a doughy consistency.  Pinched off pieces, rolled them into balls, then coated them with sugar.  And voila!  I hereby present to you – Rum balls. 

They were all snapped up for dessert at the next meal.

REFLECTIONS – One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

As someone who loves to rummage through bins of stuff at Cash Converters and community fairs, I can relate to the thrill of finding something precious for a pittance, never mind if I don’t really need it. It just might come in useful! So, I totally relate to Hwee Hwee Laurence’s love of vide greniers.

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Vide greniers in French literally means ‘empty (your) attics’ and is the English equivalent of car-boot sales and the American equivalent of yard sales.

Vide greniers are held all over towns and villages of France during the late-spring and summer months.  To sell your stuff, you simply pay a small fee for a stall and then lug whatever you want to get rid of there and hope that someone will find your discards the most useful and beautiful things in the world.  Do not be ashamed of that pair of shoes that has gone through three owners or that spare toilet seat cover that has been sitting in your garage for years.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  You’ll be surprised what is bought and sold at vide greniers.

I love vide greniers.  I think it is one of the most enjoyable ways of recycling.  I live with two growing kids and four changing seasons, which means that lots of clothes get quickly outgrown but barely worn.  I have no time, disposition or money to trail around shops (and there aren’t many around here, anyway) to find new clothes for my children.  So, the solution is to sell their old clothes at vide greniers to mothers whose children are younger than mine and buy from mothers whose children are older. 

One year, when my kids have outgrown all their baby stuff, I cleared the whole attic and sold their pram, playpen, car-seat, baby bathtub, security gate, toys and clothes.  It was such a pleasure to see pregnant mothers buying them eagerly at prices they could afford and knowing that the little ones in the tummies will be well-equipped when they are born.  And of course, it felt good when I came home to a clean and clear attic.

Having a stall at vide greniers, especially one organized by your own village, is more than just selling things.  It is a whole day-at-the-park with your friends and neighbours.  We go around admiring (or buying) one another’s things; we share biscuits, sandwiches and coffee flavoured with a generous dose of gossip.  And we pitch the wonderful qualities of one other’s stuff to potential clients.  Children also help man the stalls, selling their old books and toys, then rushing off with their money to buy new-old toys.  Being the practical type, I usually don’t have many unwanted things to sell, but my old batik or summery dresses and skirts from Singapore are always a best-seller.

In return, I buy practically everything that I (and the family) need at vide greniers.  I buy all our clothes there, and although you cannot try them on, once you know the brands and their sizings, you can’t really go wrong.  At first it feels a bit embarrassing to see people seeing you buying old clothes, but then everyone is so natural about it that you lose your shyness in no time, and after all, there are some very nice clothes to be found.  Just be sure to check that the zippers work and that there are no tears or stains.  And even if you do come back with something you cannot wear or does not totally suit your figure or colouring, there’s really very little regret when it’s only 1 or 2 Euros.  And of course, you can always try to sell them at the next vide grenier!

My husband and I think that old things are better made and last longer than new things of today.  He looks out for old gardening and building tools and I buy antique lamps and fixtures for the house.  I have also stocked my whole kitchen and the dining buffet with things from vide greniers.  Sets of cookware (my favourite are cast iron pots eg. Le Creuset), plates, cutlery, cups, glasses, teapots, serving ware – mainly branded fine porcelain but at ridiculous prices.  And I love looking out for special cake-stands and dishes with pedestals.

Once, I bought a set of six green Italian drinking glasses from a vide grenier, and a few weeks later at another vide grenier, found their ‘mother’ – a serving jug in the same style and colour.  That’s how exciting it can be.  And I think those long-dead old ladies would be glad that someone is still cooking and serving lovingly with their crockery.

Our kids, too, buy and sell their toys and books at vide greniers.  We teach them how to set a reasonable price for their things, how to give and take a little at sales, and most of all, how to consider what is worth or not worth buying and to bargain with other sellers.  I think it’s a good way of teaching them how to handle money responsibly.

Have I ever bought any useless trinket that I have never used?  Well, only once.  It is a metal sculpture of a flower whose petals can be individually removed.  Other than a table decoration, I really don’t know what it is for.  My kids suggested that the petals, turned upside down, can be used as little sauce dishes.  But it looked so beautiful and unusual, so what the heck – at 2 Euros, I gave in to temptation.

Each time I have visitors from overseas, if it is summer, I make sure that they spend at least one Sunday here.  I search out the vide greniers in the surrounding areas, and we always spend a most exciting and satisfying time there.  It easily becomes one of their most authentic French experiences as well as a highlight of their trip.

So, the next time you are in France, check out this useful website http://vide-greniers.org/ , plan your itinerary and you will surely take home some souvenirs and good memories of your French holiday.

TRAVEL – Bacchanalian break

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Hwee Hwee Laurence reports from south-west France:

October is the time for les vendanges or grape harvest.  The wine of this southwest region of France is classified under the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) Cahors and is a dark- red, almost black wine.  The vineyards of AOC Cahors are found around the city of Cahors and along the banks of the River Lot. Grape harvest is always an important and festive time and when we hear, in the distance, the familiar whrr-whrr-whrring of the grape-harvest machine, we always pray for good weather for the farmers to complete their harvest.

The vineyard behind our house belongs to the family Grialou of the Domaine du Buis.  This is a totally family-owned and -worked farm which also rears cows.  When the Grialou family is here trimming or inspecting the vines, I always make it a point to bake a cake and invite them for a cup of tea.

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Domaine du Buis harvests its grapes by machine.  Of course, it is not as romantic as harvesting by hand, but nevertheless very impressive.   Usually, the vines are trimmed for one last time before the harvest to get rid of excess leaves and to leave the bunches of grapes hanging clear.  At harvest-time, the machine passes over each row of vines and literally sucks up the grapes.   The grapes (juice and all) are then emptied into a truck and brought back to the domaine to be processed.  After the harvest, our garden and the land around always smells strongly of wine due to the crushed grapes and spilt grape juice.

There are many other domaines within walking distance of our house but the one I like best is Château la Gineste.  The owners, Ghislaine and Gérard Dega, are very friendly people who allow me complete freedom to bring my Singapore or overseas visitors to oohh and aaahh over their beautifully-kept château and vineyards, and of course, to indulge in a session of wine-tasting. Their vineyards are pesticide-free and grapes for their best wine (Grand Secret) are hand-harvested.  The majority of their wines are aged for about sixteen months in oak barrels.  Hand-harvesting is a family affair – sometimes relatives come from far and wide to help.  Workers laugh and chat while harvesting, and look forward to the truck (to collect the grapes) bringing them some sustenance of dried sausage and baguettes.

After the harvest, October continues to be a busy month for the wine-producers, with grapes to be pressed and juice stored for fermentation.  After things have quietened down, the  domaines often host a feast for family and friends, rather like Thanksgiving in America.

As I look out of my window, the now-silent vineyards are slowing turning gold.  Soon the leaves will drop, making a nice rustling sound as they are blown by the wind, and the bare but sturdy vines will remind me that, before long, winter will be upon us.

LIFE – No Medicine Cures What Happiness Cannot

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month in case anyone’s not aware. Hwee Hwee Laurence just went for her annual gynae check last week because she’s been on tamoxifen for 5 years after chemo.

Gleefully, she writes, ‘Found uterus not normal, so now have been scheduled to go for D&C and hysterocopy – hah hah whoopie!  I feel like just taking the whole bloody thing out and get it over with.’

Atta girl ! That’s the spirit ! Cancer is not something to trivialise but it does force us to pull up and look at our life as Hwee Hwee did. I feel very blessed having friends like her, and I wish my friend mentioned in my earlier post could meet her but with the latter in Singapore and Hwee Hwee in France, we’ll have to wait for the twain to meet.

Hwee Hwee recalls :

What did I do when I discovered that I had breast cancer?  I cried.  Then I cried some more.  People will tell you – Don’t cry; it’ll do you no good.  But it will do you good.  It is only after a long crying that you will be able to blow your nose, look around you appraisingly, then ask – Now what?!  And that’s when you’ll get up and go deal with cancer in whatever way it has to be dealt with.

In a way, if cancer was to happen to anyone, I was glad it was me and not others in my family.  I help my husband in our own business and therefore have a flexible work schedule; the social security that my husband contributes to (something like the Singapore CPF except that it goes into a common pool) covers me even though I am not a French citizen.  It makes a world of a difference to be able to concentrate on getting treatment without worrying about bankrupting my family.  Each time I went for my chemotherapy session, I reminded myself that it cost a lot of money and I psyched myself up positively so that it would be half the battle won.  I am thankful for this adopted country of mine and I pray that the French people will be united and not abuse such medical privileges that they are lucky enough to have.  And I hope that, in any small way, I may be able to bring a little kindness and happiness to the people I am now living amongst.

One thing I learnt early during this period was that cancer does not exempt you from other problems of life.  After the initial diagnosis and shock, I was determined to concentrate on going through chemotherapy and getting well.  But it is naïve to think that the world waits for you while you get well.  Around you, life goes on – your husband, children or even yourself might get ill, have problems at work, school or in relationships;  there will be family members or things around the home that need your attention.  Once, in the midst of such ‘additional’ problems, I complained – this is so unfair, isn’t it enough that I have cancer? – before understanding that all this is simply life carrying on its normal way.  The opposite is true, too, that having cancer and undergoing treatment do not mean you should exempt yourself from enjoying life’s little pleasures – my children and I read and laughed together, I seduced my husband whenever I felt well enough, I went out with friends or invited them over.  Life, in its normal way, was a great reassurance during this time, not just to me, but also those close to me.

If you were to ask me what is one thing that has made this illness all worth it, I would answer without hesitation – my mother.  My mother used to worry a lot.  She had an unhappy marriage, and in a way, it made her always worry about her children’s marriages. Any small (or big) quarrel she got to know about was enough to make her worry.  She used to lament that life was better when we were kids, that even though her friends consider her lucky that her children are all grown up, married and settled down, she now has to worry for us, our husbands and our children.  It used to drive me crazy to hear such lamentations, and to wonder when she would ever learn to live life as it is and be joyful about it.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the biggest stresses I had was how to tell my mother without facing another flood of lamentations which I neither have the energy nor patience to listen to.  In the end, it was my younger sister who told her and to our surprise, she took the news in good stride.  Throughout this time, my mother slowly learnt to give up her burdens and worries.  She learnt not to worry when there is nothing she can do, and what she can do, she does dedicatedly and cheerfully.  During her visit here when I was undergoing chemotherapy, she cooked up a storm, enjoyed being with the grandsons and we all had a great reunion.  There was not a single lamentation of Why so unlucky? or Why did this happen?  The only thing she said to me concerning my illness was, “Mummy is praying for you and a mother’s prayer is very powerful.”  I keep that always in my heart and it is a lesson for me to do the same for my own children.

Some months after I finished chemo and radiation therapies and having started on long-term medication, I suffered from depression, something that I had never experienced (or had much patience for, in others) before.  I saw everything in a negative light, I thought the worst of everyone and almost everything that my husband said or did irritated me.  During one brief ‘good’ moment, I thought how ironical it was that I went through so much trouble to get well only to arrive at this point where I did not care whether I live or die.  But even in the terrible depths of such feelings, I was blessed with two things.  First, my husband, despite being at the receiving end of my misplaced anger, never once retaliated but instead continued to show me kindness.  And it was this kindness that finally broke through and brought me back to normality.  And second, having been there and experienced it, I now understand better and have compassion for others who suffer from depression.

I do not know whether I will live past the next 5 or 10 years, but I do know that these last few years, strange as it might sound, have been one of the happiest periods of my life.

Dear readers, in a book by Nobel Prize Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there is a phrase that says, “No medicine cures what happiness cannot.”  I have that, and that is what I wish for you, too – happiness, and an abundance of it.

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