June 16, 1999
Church bells are ringing, the sun is shining, birds are chirping away and I can see Dawn sunbathing by the pool to the Angelus. I have just finished stretching my back with the same exercise that I used in my dining room in Roslindale thirty hours ago. So much the same, but so different.
We are in Argenton-sur-Creuses. We got here by renting a car and following the various right and lefts suggested to us by our rental agent that swept us by Paris, through Orleans to this wonderful inn. Two stars, a big jump for us, but we will only be here for a night. Christophe came by with two Berrichons, the local boisson, a combination of a local Crème de cassis du Berry and a local vin rouge frais. Crème de Cassis seems to be a memory drink, You first drink it someplace with another beverage and that drink becomes forever linked with the place.
The room is small but filled with sunlight. Now it is 8:30 PM and we are getting ready to go out and eat. Just wanted to say that we got here and test out the online connection.
Nous sommes bien arrives! Yet another beautiful old French town...stone walls &gardens, etc. Considering that I picked this place out of a Fodor's guide, surreptitiously writing down the fax number at the Globe Corner Bookstore in Cambridge (without buying the book!) & faxed all the info. back & forth in French, I'd say we found a true gem! More tomorrow. Hope Amber's NYC event went brilliantly & that Adam & Noelle's "lune de miel" in Mallorca is off to a fine start.
June 21, 1999
Air France to Paris was a great improvement over Northwest/KLM through Amsterdam. First of all, we didn't leave until 11:05 PM, so we didn't have to travel during rush hour in Boston and we were flying during our normal sleeping hours arriving in Paris at 5:45 AM EDT and 11:45 AM European time. We met a Dallas couple at the bar at Logan in the Legal Seafood Bar where we went to have a snack after we checked in. They were waiting for the same flight as we which was not surprising because it was about the only flight left going out of that terminal, but it was surprising that they were going to end up in a small town NE of Cahors in a renovated café while were headed for a renovated stable SW of the same city. Maybe we will see them at the Printemps de Cahors next weekend. He and I were soul mates in that our partners both spoke French while we would trail along adding the occasional phrase or two.
We were not done meeting people. When we got to our seats, we found Nadine and Dick Lindzen sitting across the aisle from us. I got a very nice Sushi dinner from Bread and Circus out of it, because they had both bought dinner before they came to the airport. (To go along with the potato skins I had at legal and then the Beef Bourguignon that was to come.) We hadn't thought they would be serving dinner after midnight. We underestimated the French.
There is only one criterion by which you judge a transatlantic flight and that is whether you sleep or not. Both of us slept and arrived fairly coherent which was good because we were about to drive two hundred miles to the Val de Loire and our first night's stay...
Much of the weekend was spent cleaning out the écurie...as Isabelle was horrified that she had confused our arrival day, and the place was moldy and dusty because of having been closed for so long in the dampness & also because of construction of a new ceiling. Actually, she wanted herself and Jean to do all the work so she sent us out to play....however, we were incapable of lolling around the pool for long while they were sweating away, so we managed to help a bit anyway. Our French "tool" vocabulary has increased by the process of Jean & Stephen working together to mount a matchstick bamboo blind on the high window in the écurie. The funny part was that they both kept "losing" things (like the "vis" screw or the "tournevis" screwdriver) in their respective pockets & kept reminding each other to look in their pockets while forgetting the other person's word for "pocket." (Maybe you had to be there...)
(Warning for James Williams---food discussion ahead)
Meanwhile we ate about three meals together throughout the weekend, and even though we contributed to them, I still felt that Isabelle did the lion's share of the cooking and work. We contributed some large shrimp, marinated in a version of our favorite North African marinade, which prompted the revelation that Isabelle never cooks with herbs or spices! They are really into the purity of the ingredients, and they cook them so perfectly that I guess they rarely need any spices to enhance the natural flavor of the foods. Anyway, Isabelle seemed to like our shrimp, but I'm not sure Jean did.
On Monday, Dominique, the pilot for Jacques Cartier stopped by and was enticed to have lunch. He has just bought the mill in the valley as a summer place. We talked about rain; he doesn't like it in that his house will flood fairly easily being surrounded by water. The other local topic of discussion is the coming of the THT, the High Tension wires that are being planned to cross the valley. There were protesters at Printemps de Cahors anyplace that the electrical company was sponsoring exhibits. The pylons will be 120 feet tall and will destroy some of the tranquility of this undeveloped valley. The worst part is that they are considering four different routes, pitting neighbor against neighbor as everyone would like it to be somewhere else.
After they left late Monday afternoon, we took a drive over to Castelnau...the nearest place we might have found a loaf of bread, but alas, most of the town's commerce is closed on Monday, and the only open boulangerie was sold out. However, the drive was wonderful. Although I hadn't really "forgotten" how beautiful the countryside is around here, I had been focused on other things all weekend. The geometry of green and gold fields, magically lit by the low, late afternoon sun, stunned me once again. There seems to be a beautiful collaboration between humans and nature here where the old stone buildings fit right into the chalky color of "les causses," and the need to feed one's family results in delicious, fresh produce as well as an environment of aesthetic grace. Oh, and yes, we had to do something in Castelnau, having driven so far, so we sat around the bastide drinking Ricards and watching the pros play boules.
The sad news of the day was getting an e-mail from Adam on his honeymoon in Ibiza saying that "Swissair screwed up bigtime" and they were going to have to fly back to Seattle the 26th of June and would NOT be able to come visit us in Cézac after all. I was SO disappointed; I was really looking forward to sharing this special part of the world with Adam & Noelle, having had the pleasure of Amber's company for a week the last time we were here. I was also looking forward to some relaxed post-wedding quiet time with the two of them as they have spent the last year or so intensely planning their wedding.
Without going into great detail, I must compliment Adam and Noelle on producing a really spectacular wedding weekend in Vermont. The ceremony itself was very thoughtful and moving without being sentimental..."contemporary" in the best sense of the word. The two of them looked so happy, and so ready, to take this important step in their lives, in spite of the inevitable strain of planning a large event long-distance and having some very complex sets of families on both sides! I believe they gave all of us -- their families and friends -- the wonderful gift of being together in a close and joyful way that many of us had not experienced in many, many years...not to mention that the weather was perfect, the Lilac Inn was delightful, and (why are we not surprised)? Noelle was a confident, beautiful bride! And, it was also a great party. We danced up a storm. Stephen even got my mother out on the dance floor, and I found out that my brother can really get down and boogie!
June 25, 1999
When we told some of you that we were going to a place lost in the country where one had to drive 20 minutes to find even a cup of coffee, you asked us, " What are you going to do ?"
Un Jour Typique
Yesterday, we got up around 7:45 and I made coffee. They do have an electric coffee maker but the it doesn't have the right carafe, so it won't fit under the water dispenser, so we boil water and pour it in like a melitta. I get three burners going. One to boil water, another as a water bath for the coffee and the third to heat the milk. Not as fast as my krups with a timer and the microwave, but it's going faster now. Breakfast is at the millstone table under the locust tree. It is a planning breakfast and we decide the day's activities.
The night before we had gotten out the Maheu's mountain bikes and were planning to take a ride when we noticed that the front tires were flattish. Their pumps fitted their English bikes so we needed to get a pump or get these pumps an adapter to work on the mountain bikes. So the agenda became that we would take a tire and the pumps and show them to the guys at the bike store in Montcuq and let them tell us what we needed to do. After that we would do a circular hike that went out from and returned to Montcuq.
After a brief period of combing, brushing, washing, straightening, making, and packing, we were off. By this time, it was 10 AM.
The bicycle guys were great and sold us the adapter to go from European valves to American ones. $2.00. Outside the store, Dawn suggested that we test it. Well, the pump that we fitted the adapter to didn't work so we had to finagle the other pump. It went quickly because every silly suggestion that Dawn made, after being properly pooh-poohed, worked just fine, and the tire was inflated, and placed back in the trunk and we headed for the Grotte de Roland.
The Cave was near the halfway point on the hiking circuit and we had decided to park near it so that we could hike back to Montcuq, have lunch at the Cafe de France, a lovely cafe with a terrace under a large Plane tree in the center of town and then hike back out to our car.
This trick also works well at cross country ski inns in New England. Once you have arrived there, paid your trail fee, gotten maps and properly waxed, you look for a place in the trail system where you can park your car and ski back the inn for lunch. Then it's a warm dining room and cloth napkins and delicious food rather then gorp and tea out of a thermos for lunch. Properly restored, you can ski back to the car. If you are lucky, you can find a route that is uphill to lunch, with the grand reward afterward.
I found the intersection between trail and road, but to Dawn it looked too isolated to park the car and she decided we should park at the cave, then I decided that we should talk to the cave owners before we hiked. Following all of these alternating decideds brought us face to face with Grotte de Roland.
It consists of an edifice that looks like a tool shed with its own carport in Florida someplace. It has a couple of picnic benches scattered around and one in the "carport" that is shaded from the sun. A woman in a house dress seemed to be in charge. I think her husband was in the field on a tractor raking his hay. A man appeared with a flashlight in his hand, but she shook her head and he went away. A mom and pop cave. We asked her if we could park the car there for our hike and they said sure. Dawn told them that after our hike we would visit their cave.
Dawn feels guilty when we go to "les dégustations," which are wine or food tastings, and after tasting, don't buy anything. Two days before, when we were in St. Cirque de Lapopie, we went into a wine store that I thought might be giving out free tastes of "Foie Gras." They were, and we both had a taste. I don't think I have ever had any before and it was very good. We learned everything thing we would ever want to know about fois gras as he worked on selling us some. I wasn't planning on buying any on my first try especially at $100/pound. I could see Dawn figuring out which one she was going to buy when I got her out of there. Later in a tourist guide to Cahors I noticed that this maker, M. Besse, was the only producer to have a full page ad. So he is the biggest and most successful, but probably the most expensive and who knows if the best. (We had already gotten the name and number of a fabriquer de fois gras from Isabelle where if we made a reservation we could go down and pick some up.) I just needed a little education.
James: Kill a goose or a duck with a really fatty liver which you take out, cook, cut in two, stick in a jar and let it age from three months to eight years with a good bottle of sauterne next to it. Eat the liver on toast points with aforementioned sauterne, nicely chilled.
So after Dawn paid for our parking space with a promise to take the tour we headed for Montcuq. The woman gave us a little brochure with the name of a hotel/restaurant where she though we would enjoy lunch, Le Hotel du Parc.
So now it is 11 AM and we head to lunch. The fields are their usual beautiful selves and just when it seems to be getting too hot the trail takes a left turn and heads downhill through the woods to Montcuq. We come upon a farm house and its outbuildings and a man standing next to our trail. We exchange pleasantries about the hike and the good weather and walk on. When we got out of earshot we both exclaimed what a beautiful face and Dawn regretted not having taken his picture. He looked anywhere from 50 to 90 years old and as if he had spent everyday of his life outside in the fields.
We have come up with a ploy. If you would like to take someone's picture, but are too polite to ask them, ask them first to take your picture. Then, it might seem more natural and reasonable to shoot his in return. We will try it next time.
Pretty soon we were out of the woods and on a road leading into Montcuq and the Hotel du Parc appeared on our left. Since it was now noon and the shady terrace overlooking the garden looked very inviting, we stopped for lunch.
Two hours later, we were on our way again. Some beer, terrine, trout, grilled pork, mousse au chocolate, crème caramel and two espressos and $30 all had a part in the very pleasant interlude. The pork chop was especially good, well marbled (might have been a friend of the duck) and done with rosemary.
James: Take a fat pig and ...
Lunch and the fact that sun was at its highest (2 PM in this part of the world) and that we were going up hill made the trip back a little slower, but we arrived at the cave by 3:30. Two hours later we were first class experts in Prehistoric cave bears. We saw umpteen examples of claw marks and many bones and artifacts from the area. The cave was nice too. When we first went in he was talking about parts of the cave being destroyed (détruites) and I thought he was talking about trout (des truites). I think I was remembering the trout at lunch.
When we got out, we headed for home, for a couple of ricards and a small nap and then dinner. Some vegetables and a nice bottle of wine, a little reading and we are off to bed.
Meanwhile, back on Tuesday, we took a wonderful hike on the eastern side of Cahors. We bought a trail booklet for one area and an incredibly detailed trail map for the area right around Cézac. They actually show every little house and barn on this map, and each of these buildings has a name. We found out that ours, which was sold to Isabelle and Jean as "Le Baralou," is actually called "le Barral," and that a place called "le Barralou" is across the street! Of course, it is possible that the map is wrong.
Anyway, back to the hike. We drove along the River Lot, in an area of deep canyon, and steep cliffs along the road. We parked in a small town called Bouzies, attainable by a bridge that I was convinced was a footbridge only until we saw a car go across it, and I let Stephen turn onto the bridge with my eyes half shut. (He "suggested" that I do the return drive, which I did...with my eyes totally shut.) The hike started along the river under big canopies of rock, along a former tow-route for barges. They apparently built short sections of canal and locks to avoid the rapids in the river. A Dutch woman who was at the end of a three-week solo hike, pointed out some tiny nests and even tinier chicks underneath the rock overhang. It was kind of eerie and majestic, yet peaceful terrain. Then the trail wandered along farmland and fields and onto a paved road for a while. Eventually we took a sharp right turn and started heading up along the rocky promontory to arrive at an extraordinarily preserved medieval village, St. Cirque Lapopie. From the ruins of a chateau at the top of the town is a commanding view of the valleys of the Lot and Cele Rivers.
As the reader undoubtedly knows by now, Stephen and I have some rather particular, if not occasionally eccentric views, one being that if at all possible, it is always more magical to arrive at a high place by foot than by car. There is something about emerging from a narrow, wooded path into a town plaza filled with activity, potted flowers, cafes and people that is much more satisfying than driving there, looking for parking place, etc. Although we had carried a baguette, some cheese and fruit, we decided to have a salad and a beer on a terrace under a wisteria arbor, with a nice view of one of the oldest houses in the village. Lunch is what makes hiking oh so civilized in this part of the world.
The trail system here in France is thorough, detailed, complex, and confusing. There are the "grandes randonées" which are the red-line routes of the trail system; then there are orange, yellow, blue, and green trails, all of which have, or lack, various attributes. Trees are marked all over the countryside with colored blazes, arrows, X's (for "do not go here"), etc. So here we have an unbelievably precise map, signage almost as good as on the autoroutes, and we STILL manage to disagree occasionally on the choice of path, and we STILL manage to get lost...from time to time. Most annoying is that we have a way of walking right past the "points of interest" that have been listed in the guidebook and not realizing it until we've gone much too far to turn back. Aw well, we're just a couple of Americans, after all; what do we know?
Well, today is the day that Adam and Noelle were supposed to have arrived here...if that Swissair agent hadn't totally screwed up their plans. In fact, they are all the way back in Seattle by now. So, I'm feeling a little bit sad. As wonderful (?) as e-mail may be, it's not the same as BEING here, and I love sharing the places I love with the people I love. (That's three "loves" in one sentence!) Plus my "rhume des foins" (hay fever) is in full gear, my right eye being itchy & swollen half shut. June is always the height of my allergy season. You know what they say about making hay while the sun shines...well, there has been a lot of sun shining around here, and aside from wheat and sunflowers, all you can see for miles on end are fields of hay! (Now my friend James is saying, "get thee to New York City where there's not a stalk of hay in sight!")
Given the absence of my son and Noelle, Stephen and I have taken up one of their favorite activities...which I have never done before: mountain-biking. Or, to be more specific, we discovered two extraordinary "vélos à tous térrains" (all-terrain bikes) in the barn. They belong to one of Isabelle & Jean's children who will be here soon, so we are using them now as she will obviously have first dibs on them when she arrives on Thursday. I have never ridden a bike on anything but roads before, and it is a delight to be able to go on trails, through woods and meadows, over rocks and sand, and to be able to cover so much more of this spectacular territory in a few hours than we could if we were hiking. I love hiking too, but these bikes have so many gears that I am actually able to pedal up all the hills that I had to walk last time we were here when I had access only to Isabelle's old three-speed.
Yesterday we had three lively, young, unsaddled horses running beside us for a moment (albeit behind their electric fence) as we came over the top of a hill with a 360-degree view of rolling farmland and tiny stone villages. Since the path we were on seemed to disappear into someone's barn, I asked two men working on a house how to find a path back down to St. Martial. After getting very detailed directions from one of them, I got a totally different set of directions from the other. There is a worldwide axiomatic truth here, I think: 2 men = 2 routes. When I asked which was the best (stupid female question), they both shrugged their shoulders and said, "C'est à vous!" ("It's up to you!"...like what did I expect, some sort of male agreement)?
We had lunch In St. Martial. Our waitress won the prize for my favorite incompetent waitperson. Her French was as bad as mine, she didn't know many of the ingredients of the food, tried to take away my dessert before I was finished and generally made a mess of things. But she was delightful, very talkative once she realized that she didn't have to speak French. She was from Holland doing her practicum for five months. The whole restaurant and three star camping establishment was run by Hollandaise. The chef, who looked like the Spanish busboy that you see in every restaurant in New York, was originally from Colombia and now lived in Holland.
The reading continues. Having polished off the Persian Empire and the city of Biblos, I am working on the prehistoric Europe, all from Jean's wonderful armoire of books.
A couple of variations on a recipe for Red Currant Jelly.
Take a large, antique copper tub
Fill it with a kilogram of washed red currants
(You can leave the stems on if you are in a hurry like Isabelle was)
cook them for five minutes or so
put them through a ricer or a vegetable masher which will remove the skins and stems
Return them to the copper tub
Add 900 grams of sugar
Stir and cook five minutes more
(Her mother's method was not to cook them at all, but after adding the sugar, stir them for half
an hour. This would cause the liquid to gel. This is the true way)
Pour into jars to set.
Eat with french bread for breakfast.
It is clearly a pleasure, a family ritual, for Isabelle and Jean to make this currant jelly. The last time we were here, we all de-stemmed the berries together. This time, because Isabelle was pressed for time, no one de-stemmed, but Jean helped with cleanup and pouring in the jars and so forth. So Isabelle is doing this very traditional, housewifelike task while I am asking her about her own photography and encouraging her to take the time to create a book of her work, for herself at least, even if no one publishes it. I adore Isabelle; she has an incredible passion for life and for art; she bore and brought up six children with enthusiasm; she now has several grandchildren, and friends all over the world; she has an impeccably furnished flat in Paris as well as this beautiful old farmhouse here, and she seems to manage everything in her life with grace....not that she doesn't seem overwhelmed from time to time with obligations, but even that emotion will trigger her saying something like "Life is short, too short, eh?" I worry that she does so much for others (myself included) that she does not nurture herself enough by allowing the time to pay attention to her own creative pursuits. Of course, as I see it, everything she does is a creative act, from making the jelly to bringing together friends that she believes will enjoy each other.
Her talent at friendships brings up a sad story.The last time we were here, Isabelle left us the phone number of two artist-friends of theirs who lived in Lauzerte, about 20k from here, he a potter, she a painter. Being a little shy, we did not call them up to get together. When we were sitting at lunch at the art opening last Sunday, I asked Isabelle how they were, and she replied, "They are dead." What a horrible story of their loss! It seems that they had a friend who had a small, private airplane, and they flew with him to Bilbao to see the new Frank Gehry museum of modern art there. There was a storm brewing when they planned to return, and they were advised not to fly at that time. However, the pilot assured them that it was no problem; he had flown in weather like this many a time. Apparently the plane went down somewhere in the Pyrenees or the Atlantic Ocean, taking all of them with it.
As you can imagine, Isabelle became teary-eyed with the retelling of this awful story. Of course it reminded me of the tragic loss of my videographer friend, Doug, and his family. Those of you who saw my piece, "Memorial Day," may remember the lesson that it taught me, to be thankful for every day, and to "carpe diem." Yet here again, I failed to seize the day to make a phone call which would have allowed me at least a little knowledge of these two special people who were so dear to Isabelle and Jean. Now all I know of them is the exquisite pottery that graces the farmhouse here, and a few tales of times Isabelle and Jean spent with them.
We went to an opening on Sunday. Abstract Expressionist work by Miklos Bokor. This exhibition contained oils and watercolors.
Dawn brought me to a painting, explaining that it might be a "Christ's Descent from the Cross". It was interesting to examine it, because we had seen so many realistic paintings of this scene throughout Italy and France on our last trip. Three figures on a steep diagonal: the lowering helper, Christ, his mother. A painting of anguish with strong dark slashes. But there is a hint of a knife in the hand of the middle figure, so it cannot be Christ. The painting rearranges itself in our minds into "Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac". Here, after God has asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the angel stays Abraham's hand as it is lifted to fulfill this awful command. But now, if we have solved the puzzle, why is the knife tinted red? The knife is red because Miklos, born in Hungary in 1927, spent his early teens in the camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Remsdorf, and at that time, God did not send angels to stay the executioners' hands. There were other oils with hints of groups, of soldiers, of skeletons, of hell. None of the works had titles next to them. Titles were only to be found in the catalogue, and even then only in a list and not next to the reproductions. The artist did not trust words.
It was stunning to me that all of the big canvasses from which emerged scenes of human cruelty, were painted from 1996 through the present, (many we gleaned later were titled "Folly") . These were the images that most evoked the concentration camps. Could it be that it took the brutal folly of Milosevic, and others like him, to push Bokor to finally release these images...some fifty years after his time in the concentration camps?
There were other paintings to be deciphered, abstract landscapes of the local area. The hues and forms of the surrounding cliffs seemingly poured directly into his watercolors. Sometimes more than one watercolor of the same scene. We spent the next half hour using our scant knowledge of art history and the bible and our appreciation for the paintings of artists like Pollack trying to understand the oils and watercolors.
Soon, I begin to feel that the whole experience was church-like. We had gotten up on a Sunday, got dressed up, drove to a building where a lot of other dressed up people were also arriving, and searched for meaning in the images that were presented us. At some point, a few men spoke passionately about the exhibition. Their non-understood French echoed the Latin of my childhood churchgoing.
One of the speakers was Yves Bonnefoy, pointed out to us by Isabelle as "the greatest living poet in France". Even though my French vocabulary is quite limited, his words rang true to me...something about how Bokor captured the essence not only of the light and terrain of this region but how he also gave us the unseen human presence in the landscape. I tried to say something to M. Bonnefoy about how his words touched me, but I think my garbled French probably frustrated him, and he just said, a beautiful exhibition, yes?" It never occurred to me to speak English with him although Isabelle had told us that he is the foremost translator of Shakespeare into French, just having finished all the tragedies; so I imagine his knowledge of English isn't bad either.
So, I haven't gotten much closer to the answer to the question, "What is Art"?, except that in case of the abstract expressionism, I have to trust the artist. In order to get all aquiver with enlightenment and appreciation over his subject matter, palette and design, I needed to believe that he was sincere. I needed to know that he spent lonely days with his canvasses and tortured nights, with techniques perfected over the decades, to create the visions that he presented. A modern day Shaman. It was church-like because it was an act of faith. I had to believe it existed before I searched for it. In fact my belief created the art. In the era of cut-throat gallery owners, quick-buck artists and twentieth century cynicism, this belief is, an extreme leap of faith.
But faith is strengthened by the congregation that had gathered here. A Poet of some fame, men of power like our host Jean Maheu, other respected artists like Xavier Krebs, who painted the beautiful painting in the Maheu's house and a museum director from Normandy all have gathered here to annoint this event. I like to believe that my opinions are formed by my exquisite taste and high intellectual powers alone, but if these works had been hanging in a tourist shop in Figeac, I don't think I would have paid any attention to them. I needed my tribe.
The day continued wonderfully, with a buffet lunch at the local hotel. We met some artists whom we may visit next week. After lunch, we returned to Cezac, where we learned the recipe for red currant jelly and spoke to Isabelle as described in an earlier message. The faith in art transforming itself quite naturally into the love of friends.
Thursday, July 1, Sophie, Delphine, and Adrian arrived to stay in the house. Sophie is Jean and Isabelle's middle daughter, almost 40, a sculptor of elegant work made in clay. Adrian is her adorable, 11-year-old son. In spite of his predilection for matches, fireworks, and slingshots, he is a great kid...and very good at explaining in French things that I don't understand. Delphine is 31, the youngest of the Maheus' six children. She has been working on developing policy and rules for France's conversion to the new European currency. She directs a team of 12 people, only two of whom are women. It is less usual in France than in the US for a young woman to be in a position of such responsibility. We are happy to have them around.
Sunday, July 4
A week ago I saw a flyer in an out-of-the-way spot in Cahors which advertised the fifth "encontre" choregraphique in a small town about an hour from here, called Cazals. When I returned to the market Saturday, I jotted down the phone number to call for information. Since I have difficulty dealing with French on the telephone, I asked Sophie if she would call and find out about the program. It turned out that the number I had noted carefully from the flyer was incorrect, and after about four phone calls to various information & tourist bureaus, and finally to the local police in Cazals, we got some information! There were three performances Sunday, and the one I really wanted to see, Maguy Marin, was sold out...oui, absolutely, completely sold out...no possibility of getting tickets...small hall out in the country, many advanced reservations. Boo hoo! After much consultation, Sophie called back on my behalf and reserved for the two later shows and told the young woman at the other end of the phone that I was an American choreographer who had never been able to see Maguy Marin's work, and that it was enormously important for me to do so..."not just for pleasure, but also for professional reasons." Therefore, could my name be on top of a priority list in case someone failed to pick up their reservations??? After she hung up, I said to Sophie, "But you did not invoke your father's name!" Jean Maheu is quite well known in the Ministry of Culture here, so Sophie called back and said that she had forgotten to leave her name with them (after much apology) and managed to mention her father's name as well.
Whether or not the long arm of the name "Maheu" actually reached way down here into la France Profonde, I do not know. However, when I arrived at the improvised box office (a folding table in a portable refreshment shed in the middle of a field/parking lot), I found that the young woman who had been at the other end of the phone had indeed "found" two places for us for Maguy Marin. We paid our 90 francs per person which gave us admission to all three performances that evening, had a drink, and then got in line for the 7:00 PM show. I was thrilled that perseverance seemed to pay off in this case. Did I mention that we had some difficulty in finding the performance venue as well? I had been driving and followed a sign to the tourist bureau which ended us up at the top of a steep hill, in front of a church, surrounded by graveyard, causing me much difficulty in turning the car around, and no doubt giving a chuckle to the two men sitting on their porch nearby.
We enter a very hot, makeshift, studio theatre space; somewhat like Green St. Studios in Cambridge, but with more depth to the seating area, a fairly low ceiling, no wings, portable chairs, general seating, marley floor in the performance area. Five men are seated around the edge of the stage. They are wearing street clothes and sneakers. There is furniture, chairs, boxes, and several electric guitars also around the periphery of the performance space; kind of messy, naturalistic. The lights are preset on the audience as well as on the stage. When the place is packed, the doors are closed to create the necessary darkness for theatrical lighting. There is not one breeze. I remember how uncomfortable Dance Collective's audience was last year at our Green Street performances. I sympathize.
The lights go down on the audience. Quiet. The five men start reading a letter in unison, seated randomly around the edge of the space. It is a letter to the choreographer, written by someone who had seen one of her performances. It is in French, of course. The whole evening was in French, but Stephen and I seemed to have no problem understanding as the performers' articulation was so clear, and all the other elements of the performance contributed to "understanding" the concept. They get up and start walking while they read. They each have their own headset mike, so as they break out of unison, we can hear their individual voices in counterpoint. The letter says, "But you don't know me. I must introduce myself." This leads into a full hour of the five men introducing themselves as individuals, as if each of them had written this letter: An Italian, a Chilean, a Spaniard, and two Frenchmen. Their simple walking becomes intricately patterned, though still simple in projection, naturalistic, as if they just happened to be walking this way. (WE know how much rehearsal this takes.) One goes over to a guitar and starts playing while the other four do a spectacular movement sequence. In fact, they all take turns playing guitar in countless ways...heavy metal, lyrical, percussive. The guitar is often used as a percussion instrument, especially in the short, violent movement sections. The sound manipulation is wonderful, though again, it feels natural, and it never gets TOO loud.
This is a form with which any contemporary choreographer is familiar: the combination of live spoken text, movement, live music, sets and props, and personal histories of the performers. This form has been used well by some choreographers and not-so-well by many more. This piece, called "Quoi qu'il en soit" (we think it translates to "Whatever it may be") is absolutely the best, most powerful example of this genre that I have ever seen. The individual stories took us to issues of nationalism, war, borders, being a foreigner, dealing with languages...but none of this ever in a heavy-handed way. The work was serious, yes, but always engaging, and not without humor as well. The movement alone was so beautiful. Again, it's not that I haven't seen (or tried to do) movement which slips from articulated, percussive isolations into some incredibly smooth, controlled floorwork, it's just that I've never seen it done so well. There was a section of alternating lifts that seemed entirely fresh. We as dancers know that the muscles need to contract to hold a shape while being lifted in the air, but their bodies just seemed to happen to take these wonderful, apparently relaxed forms in the air, as if they were made of tissue paper rather than flesh and bone.
By the end of the performance, Stephen and I were on our feet, in tears, shouting and clapping. It was such a powerful event for us, that we couldn't stay for the other two performances. We felt that this performance alone was well worth the 90 francs (about $15) each and didn't feel like we were in the mental state to appreciate the two ensuing performances. So we left to drive back to Cezac amidst lightning, thunder, and much needed rain.
July 6 Tuesday morning:
I have been thinking about this performance for a couple of days now. It astonishes me that there was absolutely no information about the participating companies in the program. Even worse, I realize in hindsight that those incredible five men who performed Maguy Marin's work so brilliantly were not even named in the program! This fact seems congruent with the poor publicity; only one flyer in all of Cahors, an incorrect phone number on the flyer, etc. So why would a company of such high international repute perform in a situation so poorly managed? Last fall they were at BAM in NY, last Sunday in a makeshift studio/theater in Cazals! Actually, I was glad to see them in a small venue because this particular work had an intimacy about it that may not have come across as well in a big house.
Rest of the trip
We were being so busy that we got away from the laptop so that the travelogues ends here. No mention of Conques, with its Romanesque church with amazing tympanum or the little hotel where Dawn and I celebrated my birthday and, some years before, Isabelle and Jean had spent some of their honeymoon.
Neither the trip through the Central Massif, following Jean's GuideNotes to Issoire and Orcival, Romanesque churches among the top five in France, nor the continuation to the great cathedrals of Bourges and Chartres are described here. In Bourges, a volunteer guide explained the windows, how they had replaced them out of order, but he never explained this majestic space, five naves without a transcept. Who could? In Chartres, Dawn walked the labryrinth on the floor and had a mystical experience communing with the souls of eight hundred years.
And then back to Paris, to a top floor small flat near the Pantheon. Le Dome restaurant in the Maurais, dancing in the Tuilleries on the eve of Bastille Day, fighting the good but losing battle with the parking ticket machine and then home. Somewhere in there we saw Malek.
Dawn and Stephen