We have moved Dawn's mom up to an assisted living place near Boston after her release from the rehab place in Connecticut where she had been for three months after breaking her hip. We have been urged by our friends in France to take a break and visit them, and we have been assured by the people at Sunrise Assisted Living that we can go. So we grabbed a last minute flight on British Airways and took off for a short respite.
Flying in the morning means getting up early, and the added security on the airlines means getting up even earlier. The alarm went off at 4:10 AM and we staggered up to get dressed, have our coffee, and finish the last of our packing. The cab came at 5 AM sharp, not the old beat up Chevy we took the last time we called Jeff's taxi, but now a Lincoln town car. Roslindale has been upscaling itself over the past few ears with its new residents and Jeff has followed suit.
We arrived at the airport at 5:30 AM as requested by the airline and were fairly whisked to our gate, taking a scant half hour to get through all the rigmarole. We now had an hour and a half to wait before the plane began to board. We filled the time with a little orange juice, buying books, deciding to wait on finishing last Sunday's New York Times Magazine crossword puzzle, which Dawn had been saving.
This was to be my first time flying on British airways and it turned out to be very pleasant. Both flights took off on time and landed either early or on the nose. Food was OK, the little private entertainment screen worked, the children on the flight were well enough behaved. In London, our layover time was an hour which was enough because the gates were fairly close and the security line short. To board our plane we had to walk out onto the tarmac and climb the stairs, an increasingly rare occurrence in this day of jetways. It always seems romantic, bringing up images of Bogart and Bergman.
After arriving in Paris we got a little lost on the way to the baggage claim and got a some assistance from Carol Drago and her family who were over to see Paris and visit some friends. We got to the claim area, got our bag (we are traveling light this time) and reached the Avis counter at 11:30 PM, again right on schedule. They speak a little English, I understand a little French and of course, Dawn does both, so arranging the car was relatively easy. Afterwards, we found a cash machine, got some Euros, found our car, turned on the engine and the clock lit up and said that it was midnight and we were now officially on the second day of our trip.
Thursday, June 27
What was ahead of us was a 2 to 3 hour trip to the Hotel de la Loire in St. Thibault, a commune of St. Satur which is only a mile from Sancerre, the home of our favorite white wine. One phone conversation and a number of e-mail backups had established that they would leave the front door key in the flower pot to the left of the front door with instructions on how to reach our room and that they would see us in the morning. The trip was easy, a series of long linked turns from one AutoRoute to another down through the center of France. We arrived in two and a half hours which would have been earlier, but inexplicably, both of us decided that the exit named Sancerre could not possibly be the right one. This decision led to a dark twisty ride through the vineyards of Pouilly on unmarked roads which eventually led us to our hotel.
So at about 2:45 a.m. we arrived in the "Louis XV Room," an over-the-top kitsch affair decorated with massive carved armoire and an ornate headboard topped with a brass crown with yards of filmy, gold material draping down from the crown. The "window treatments" were equally ornate. The windows were filled with petunias and geraniums in window boxes, and they overlooked a little riverside bar-restaurant and the great Loire herself..."the most majestic in France." However, as we are finding out in our third trip together to France, and my umpteenth, " rien n'est parfait!" The trucks and motorbikes were so noisy on that little street that we reminded of Cummins Highway.
The next day was lovely, and we took a delightful three-hour hike to Sancerre and back, stopping for a little tasting and buying along the way. Walking up a hill with rocky, calcium-filled soil, planted with acres of vines, overlooking hills dotted with stone houses, I said to Stephen, "I feel so at home here," and we are both trying to figure out why that is.
We noticed that the growing conditions here are quite different from those at 17 Eldridge Place in Westwood, and wondered if my son Adam might not prefer to move his vineyard and family over here, and we could get my daughter Amber out of San Francisco and all live happily ever after on our little domaine in France!! ALL the businesses here seem to be family operations, whether farms, vineyards, hotels or restaurants.
In the afternoon, we took the car to Chavignol, famous for it "crottins" baked goat cheese. We bought some cheese of the region and wandered around yet another charming little town before heading back to Louis XVth for a nice hot shower.
Gradually we are adjusting to the time change, and trying to re-adjust to the French custom of closing all the stores and attractions between 12:30 - 2:30 and opening all the restaurants for lunch. Today, we had gotten up late for a late breakfast so we weren't ready for lunch. We embarrassed ourselves by going into a store during lunch time and doing some tasting while the poor woman was having her lunch. We really appreciate the French way of "Everything in its time and place" rather than the manic multi-tasking that we do in the United States so we were sorry to be importing our ways into this community.
Chavignol is the town where we spent a wonderful hour at the vineyards of Henri Bourgeois. They make wonderful Sancerres and Pouilly Fumes and after a long discussion about their wines here and also their new vineyards in New Zealand. Both wines are made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape which we like better than the more famous (or infamous) Chardonnay grape. We spoke at first with Henri's son or nephew, we weren't sure which, and then in English with a young woman that had married into the family. It was fun to drink a whole series of wines of different ages.
The restaurant that our patroness had recommended was closed, so we went to the P'tit Berry. After the first few minutes we were the only customers. We sat outside under a circular roof that reminded us of Costa Rica! We drank the aperitif de la region and then had duck and chicken with the local wine. A long meal. Dawn passes up her cheese plate and I my dessert so that we could get out by 11:30 PM, but as in many situations with hand shakes to the chef and the waitress and a promise to return for morning coffee (eyeing their espresso machine - the morning coffee at the hotel had not been that good). Finally, a short walk home and this day is done.
Friday June 28
Travel days are funny. I have a need to cross great distances in a single bound and at the same time I also feel the need to sit and have a glass of wine with everyone I see. That may be exaggerating, but as we zoom through some beautiful village I know there are many wonderful faces and wonderful stories that I am missing. We do the best we can .
We started out in Pouilly, of the Pouilly-Fume wine. The same grape and the same river as Sancerre, but the vineyards closer to it and on the other side with different soil. Ah yes, the terroir. The regions don't seem to compete, some vintners make both kinds; they just acknowledge "la difference". Sort of like apples and oranges. No one would try to tell you one was better. Sometimes you want an apple, and sometimes you want an orange.
We just walked about in the town, didn't even taste because of the long drive ahead, and didn't even take the local hike. We moved on, to Charite sur Loire. This was the first of a series of recommendations that were made by Jean Maheu, our eventual host in Cezac upon learning that our first stop was to be in Sancerre. It contained a 12th century abbey church ruin, or half ruin. Here was a church that had been partially destroyed by fire but never rebuilt, so private houses (in fact the tourist office was in one of them) now stood where part of the church used to be and the courtyard where we stood, trying to take all this in, had been part of the nave. It had been the second longest church in Europe when it was built, and upon entering we found half of it still to be a large and powerful space. As always with me, the first impression is the most telling.
The later details can be interesting, but the impression of light and dark, the volume of space captured, the battle between the sky and the catacombs determines if I like it or not. Even though the darkness of the Romanesque church has been explained to me as a function of the structural demands of the Roman arch, it has always seemed to me that the early Christians took a long time to get used to being out of the crypts and catacombs where they practiced their religion in secret. A combination of the Roman Pagan temple and the basements where they had been celebrating their Mass. For me this Church was a "keeper".
When we came out, there was still time for lunch, and we found a table outdoors at a brasserie and had huge salads and watched the waitresses cross a busy street back to the restaurant without seemingly ever looking. (The waitress is saved by the first rule of city driving which is that you always let pretty women walk in front of the car rather than looking at them receding in the rear view mirror.)
On to the Abbey of Noirlac, a restored abbey in a Cistercian community, South of Chateauroux. All I want to talk about here is the refectory, the community's mess hall. Here they had gotten over the crypts and the cellars. The room celebrated the lofty possibilities of the human spirit worshipping a celestial God under a vow of silence. The beige toned stone reflected the abundant light that the two large windows let in with abandon. Here men who had been raised in dark farm houses with low ceilings were released from earthly concerns as they sought their God in their silent meditations even as they ate.
What impressed me most about Noirlac was its incredibly beautiful, rural setting and the simplicity of the architecture and decor which permeated all areas of the abbey. From what I read about the Cistercian order, these monks were very Buddhist in their attitude towards their own spirituality, via silence and meditation, and towards the notion of religion as compassion for all beings. There was none of that opulent excess that one finds in so many churches throughout Europe.
We came out of Noirlac at about 6 PM, and were faced with the task of finding a room for the night. We had canceled our reservation in the town of Brantome because it seemed too off line from our trip from Paris to Cezac. We were assured by the Maheus that we could easily find a room, which we did by stopping at a nearby "Logis de France" which is a chain of individually owned interesting hotels in France. We didn't want to stay there, but were looking for information about other hotels farther South. They gave us a map and guidebook to all the hotels and we headed out, hoping to get in a couple hours driving before calling it a day.
But, as the sky darkened we started following sign to Gites, which are rural B&B's. The first two were full and the proprietors of the second said that they were in their busy season, so we gave up the Gite idea and headed for a nearby hotel in Rochefort la Montagne that they recommended. After we arrived at the town square by exiting the highway and dipping
Le patron de L'Hotel d'Arvernes came out the door, seemingly to prevent our entering. A bunch of his buddies were drinking beers and pastis at the small bar behind him. He said the hotel was closed. I asked why, and he said it wasn't really the season yet. When I asked him when the season started he said, "around the first of July." Well, it was already June 28th, and also the last day of school throughout most of France, so I would have thought the season might have begun! I guess I looked pretty disappointed, thinking that it was getting late and dark, and I really didn't want to drive several more hours to arrive in Cezac in the middle of the night and have to find the key, etc. Then he said, "Well, actually I can give you a room, but the restaurant is closed." I told him that we were not looking for dinner anyway because we had had such a large, late lunch. A room and a couple of beers would be just fine. So we got it, a very small, modern, clean room with private bath, which seemed odd to me in such a small, old mountain town. At $35, the price was right too. The next morning we had breakfast alongside a couple of young French families who seemed to be starting their vacations. As they were asking about the local sights to visit, I assumed they were not locals but tourists who had spent the night there. So who knows what that little interaction the night before had really been about.
In the morning we took a short but steep hike up the hillside and got
a great view of the town's rooftops and the surrounding farms, hills,
and grazing sheep. We are continually mystified by the fact that we see
so few goats in the countryside, but we eat so much incredibly delicious
An easy drive day to finish our trip to Cezac. On the AutoRoute we see
a brown tourist billboard for Beaulieu sur Dordogne and decided to take
a shunpike to see the abbey there because we think it may be one of the
places that Jean mentioned that we had missed on our previous trip. I
don't remember much of the church, but lunch was lovely but long at a
restaurant overlooking a millstream. These French are professional mealtakers.
Tables of one, two, groups, families, all seriously involved in eating,
talking, gesticulating. For some reason our waitress intimidated Dawn,
but her young helper/daughter was charming, especially after I saw her
wandering around with our pitcher of wine looking lost, and waved her
over to our table. At the end, we adding insult to insult by not having
coffee. We needed to get on the road. The AutoRoute now goes all the way
to Cahors North, so the trip goes fast and soon we were pulling out of
the Carrefour, the giant supermarket, with our supplies and doing the
last 10 miles to Cezac.
Sunday June 30
Sunday is market day at Montcuq, a small town about 8 miles west of Cezac. We go to pick up the supplies we have forgotten to get the day before and to enjoy its entertainment value. The main street down the middle of town is closed off; from house to house the street is probably 18-20' wide. So it is a narrow corridor with vendors of fruits and vegetables, wine, market baskets, pastries of the fruit in season. Where the street widens into the town square, the large self propelled vans selling fish and meat and cheese place themselves. As the street narrows down again, clothes and notions take over. The first year we were here we saw two guys with a load of canned goods in the back of a pickup truck with a sign that said "British Food".
Montcuq is a center of a British invasion. Brits come for the Summer and many have stayed year round. Some are responsible for the growth of Montcuq's "suburbs" where they build small houses along the roads leading into town and others buy the old stone farmhouses or chateaux for now a sizable amount of money, and then pour a lot more into the renovation. The local contractors, I assume, are becoming wealthy. In the place we are staying, a renovated stable, Jean and Isabelle used-hand made Italian tiles, but new. For the living room in the main house they went to a place in Moissac and got authentic 18th century tiles salvaged from buildings in the area. The standards are high.
Back to the market. I got sandals. The supermarket in Cahors wanted seven dollars for some cheesy looking sandals. Here I found some not so cheesy ones for $4.50. I got waited on, tried them on, had a discussion over the merits of blue or black. I also bought some wine. Picked the prettiest vendor. Not the Robert Parker method, but it definitely adds value to the wine. Talking about wine in French is pretty easy. No sentences are really necessary and the vocabulary is about twenty words. The wine was made from vines planted ten years ago and there was a photo album of the new vineyard's progress, the planting, the snow on the vines in '92 which I guess is a rare occurrence down here, the family harvesting the grapes, but no pictures of any tromping around on them. So I buy a bottle and it is $5.40.
Dawn in the meantime has been buying the food and we pick up our last supplies as the market closes down around 12:30, just in time for lunch. We pass on lunch and substitute a couple of cafe noirs at the bar. At home, we make a little lunch, hang out by the pool, organize our stuff a little, and pretty soon it is 9 PM and time for dinner. By midnight, we are asleep.
Monday July 1
We took a hike, or a walk in the country - part abandoned farm road, part Grande Randonnee 46. The GR's are part of a system of national trails that crisscross the whole country. We look on our hiking map to find loops, and a place to park the car. Their major quality is that you never know what century you are in. We got a little confused and ended up driving down a road into town and then realizing that we needed to go back up to the top of the hill to park the car. It was one of those "cliff side, narrowing into one lane as it rounded the turn" kind of road so steep and narrow Dawn having done the down trip let me do the up so she could close her eyes on the way back.
We found a local cutoff hiking trail that took us up hill through abandoned farm land and then through pastures filled with cows. The down part of the trail followed the top of the cliffs over the Lot river, but the trees had grown up so we only had occasional views.
On the way back, we tried to get a Ricard at a nice riverside cafe and although we found one, we could not find a place to park, so we continued on home stopping at the supermarket for a bottle of our own. We also took a side trip to a "vigneron" where we stopped to taste and then buy a bottle of his wine.
With a swim and a Ricard we washed the dust of our hike off our bodies.
Later that day, Jean and Isabelle arrived in a flurry from Paris. Much talk and kisses and unloading his books. Jean is addicted to books. As his Parisian apartment on the fifth floor and the small one on the sixth fill up with books, he offloads them to his place here. It has become a tradition when we greet them from Paris to unload a couple of very heavy suitcases filled with them.
We have dinner together. (Note from Dawn- She has brought some eggplant
ratatouille and pasta, cherries and dessert, and we supply some sliced
smoked duck breast, olives, salad, bread, cheese, and wine. She has a
dishwasher in the main house; our "ecurie" has only a very low pressure
faucet and a sink... so I didn't feel too bad about letting them
finish up the dishes.)
Tuesday July 2
We decided not to get in the car at all because we had done about 4 hours of driving and only 2 hours of hiking the day before. The weather was iffy, lots of clouds, so we grabbed clothes for all temperatures, a couple of peaches, some water and the hiking map and set off on the trail that goes right from the Maheu's property up the hill to the GR 65. Most of the grande randonnees can be used by hikers, mountain bikers, and horses. This particular one is also used (probably illegally) by a bunch of local teenagers on their very loud motorbikes. They have created racetracks and hills for jumps and "borrowed" a bunch of old tires from the nearby farmers who use them to hold down the tarps over their bales of hay. It looks like the kids use the tires to bank some wild turns or to create some kind of cushioned landing for their Evel Knievel stunts. To tell ya the truth, it looks like it's probably a helluva lot of fun, but it's very noisy when one is hanging out peacefully by the Maheu's pool.
Anyhow, this day's hike ended up being about 4 or 5 hours long. Stephen surprised me by getting us to Le Mazut, a tiny collection of houses distinguished by the Domaine de la Garde, a vineyard we had visited on our last trip here, and Stephen remembered how much I enjoyed our chat with la patronne. She came out to greet us, and when we reminded her that we were the Americans who had come by bicycle three years ago, she acted as if she remembered us (we'll never know if she really did...). She was the one who had never heard of Boston!
In her distinctly regional accent, Madame kept asking me something about "la viande" which means "meat" in French, and I couldn't imagine what meat had to do with anything, but eventually I realized she was asking if we had gotten here (to France) in an "avion," an airplane. "Ah, oui!"...duh, finally I got it.
After much tasting and toasting and showing us all her domaine's awards that were hung on the walls, I mentioned how much my son liked wine and that he had planted some grapes himself. "Ah, il est vigneron...combien d'hectares est-ce qu'il a?" ("Oh, he's a winemaker, how many acres does he have?") After we recovered from choking on our wine from laughing so hard, we explained that he had only planted 12 vines altogether, around his house near Boston, hardly acres and hardly the ideal "terroir" for growing wine grapes...but, of course, we explained that they are a totally different kind of grape from the ones grown here in Quercy and Cahors.
As we left her place on foot, and she and her friend gave us directions to return by a different route (directions which we totally messed up), she said "La prochaine fois l'avion va vous deposer ici!", pointing to a little flat spot on her property. I thought, "Oh yeah, next time the meat is going to land us right here on her property...:-))
As we walked along the chalky paths bordering her acres and acres of vines, a man working on a vine stood up to give us the inevitable "Bonjour! Bon promenade?" I told him that we had just bought two bottles of good wine from the Domaine de la Garde so how could it NOT be a "bon promenade?" Well, this man flashed us one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen...oooh, weee, zee power of zee handsome Frenchman leeves encore!
These guys must be born with silver mirrors in their hands in order to practice these devilish smiles. They seem to promise a lifetime of themselves when the best you might get is a single night. Later, Dawn and I had a nice candlelit dinner.
Wednesday July 3
Dawn and I are a team and we are recognizing more and more the differences in our minds that allow me to do the visual problems effortlessly whereas problems in time are a snap for her. Dawn shines in the rhythm of dance where I, as a professional dancer, counted the beats to create a rhythm. Dawn luxuriates in the sounds of language and I can't distinguish one sound from another, nor remember it, nor reproduce it with my mouth if by a miracle I do remember it. But I can read a map upside down and its squiggling lines give obvious answers to the question, "Which way to go". But I must report that we are rubbing off on each other. We find it pleasant and reassuring that occasionally I hear something in French that Dawn misses or Dawn solves the actually more important question, " Where are we?". Sharing the responsibilities of our separate skills even a little eases the tension that traveling in a foreign country still brings.
We have solved the mystery of the goats and their cheese. We spent part of our time at the market trying to find the "local cabecou", the little patties of always aging goat cheese. There was a lot of it from Rocamadour, but somehow as this village is the second biggest tourist attraction in France, after Mont St. Michel, it did not feel local even through it was an hour away. (These statistics may be pre-EuroDisney). As we searched unsuccessfully we began to realize that the Rocamador was the local cheese, some just did not have the little labels on them. So we had just gotten a little carried away with the idea that everything we ate from the market was produced a short walk away.
In the afternoon, we were planning a trip that was postponed to the next
day because of the gray rainy weather. Instead we went over to tea in
front of the Maheus' fireplace, a welcome treat given the raw day. We
worked on pitting four kilos of English cherries. Even with a two person
production line that Dawn and I set up, it looked like the job would take
four rather than the one hour the lady at the market said it would. All
the work will produce a tasty confiture.
We met three extraordinary pairs of people on this trip. Together their lives seem to represent a lot of what is going on in France today, and from our point of view, they were all living lives of pure fantasy.
The first were Naceira and Xavier. We met them on a trip to the real Beaulieu, this one being Beaulieu en Rouergue. This was the place that had been recommended by Jean, not the one in Dordogne. Another abbey, but this one had been restored as an art center and we were headed there with Jean and Isabelle both to see the abbey and also see works by international artists of the '50's and '60's, all of whom had lived in France. Our plan was to visit the art center and then stop by to have drinks with Xavier, an artist friend of theirs whom we had met before.
We started off the trip by going in what seemed to me to be the wrong direction. We had been in this direction before and I thought I knew the way and I was sure that Jean and Isabelle did, but there was much navigational negotiating going on between them in the front seat as we wound through a couple of towns and ended parking in the square of a beautiful town named Monpazat. This mystery was solved when they led us down a small lane and knocked on a door. A striking woman in her 40's answered the door and let us in and another mystery was begun. She was Naceira.
My French works best when, ahead of time, I know what the topic is, and it even works better when I know the story that someone is telling me. That happens sometimes with Jean when we are talking about religion or French monuments because, thanks to my Catholic school upbringing, I have studied a lot of Bible and I read a lot of guide books when I go to a foreign country. This allows me to concentrate on what he is feeling about the subject. Here I was lost. When we first walked in I didn't know anything about anything and everything had to be stitched together from the words I was picking up and some whispers from Dawn who was as clueless as I to start but was getting filled in as we went along. Naceira is a fiber artist and the romantic partner of Xavier. She chooses not to live with him all the time, so she rents this apartment, perhaps a 45 minute drive from his house.
The house spoke to me of light and age. The kitchen had windows into the hall that hint that it and its stairs were once outside. The stairs are new. The walls have weight, they have body. They are old. In our house in Boston, a wood framed building, plaster walls hang off the studs. They are designed to hold out the weather and to support the paint. Here, the walls sit on the earth and can be felt through the paint. I don't know why this seems so important, but the structure of this building gives a significance to the life of the artist and a permanence to her work in fabric.
In fact, she lives in a gallery and studio. Her work is displayed in what would be the living room. The work of other artists lives in the kitchen, which in itself is a work of art with its rocking chair, table and reading lamp situated inside the large fireplace. The upstairs room houses her three looms and from there you reach her garden by opening a trapdoor and going down a spiral staircase to her terrace. She complained that the colors were a distraction, her work consists mainly of the colors of the soil and she said that the house itself was a distraction, too bourgeois for the house of the artist, the view too beautiful for words.
I don't think she complained that the colors were a distraction. She was in her little garden, filled with lobelia, petunias, lush roses, herbs, and colors of all kinds. What she said was that she "rediscovered" color by having this garden. While her work has always reflected the tones of earth and stone where she lived, maybe this more raucous color of her new garden will gradually weave itself in to her artistic creations. Living in this perfect little house, part medieval, part Bastide town, and dressed in a simple long cotton dress with a long white apron, and with her beautiful, intense Berber features, Naceira could have stepped right out of a Tavernier film.
Dawn and I rent a lot of French films. In almost everyone of them, at some time the cast retires to some villa in the country. It is always an old building in golden light with views of the surrounding countryside. It always has old plumbing with tall open windows with a table outside to drink wine in the late afternoon. Xavier's place was pretty close. We drank a concoction of grenadine and beer instead of wine, and we climbed narrow rock stairs to a terrace up behind the house instead of drinking on a patio and he had views of corn fields rather than vineyards. It was just like living on a movie set and when I turned to Dawn to tell her that, I found her turning to me to tell me exactly the same thing. What Xavier has in addition are two beautiful studios. The first that we saw was the one Naciera used when she was there. Xavier took a decrepit farm building, straightened out the roof and put walls of glass in. Inside were a couple more looms and more of her work.
The variety of work that Naceira achieves within the same medium is amazing to me. There are delicate little wispy pieces that include dried grasses or seedpods; then there are monumental tapestry-like pieces that have a three-dimensionality and flow to them. There are pieces that hang, and pieces that are pressed under glass. I always have a little wistful envy of visual artists because they have an "object" when they are done making a work...something to hang, or to install, or to sell. When I am done making/performing a dance, I have nothing but the memory of it.
I agree, but one must remember that once a work is sold it is gone.
Well, yes and no. The Maheus buy lots of local artists' work...and then often invite the artists over to le Baralou . I imagine it's a bit like giving up a child for adoption but getting to visit the child over the years. At least you know the "child" is well cared for and loved. Plus, the artists' work always looks beautiful inside the stone walls of the Maheus' old farmhouse.
Friday July 5
Today was a work day interlaced with a cooling swim and lunch at the pool connected to stretch and work out time for Dawn. Jean went off in the morning to buy a new table for dining al fresco. It was delivered in the afternoon and turned out to be an assemble-it-yourself Borneo Teak affair. Jean and I each set to work in our own language. It only needed 8 bolts in two different sizes and 4 screws and should have been short work, but I managed to make it long work to get the base assembled. But I did save us a lot of heavy lifting, by moving the base to the spot it would live before we attached the top to it..
That evening we met the second pair, Ben and Deena. Before they bought the house across the valley, he had been in publishing in England. We were not quite ready when they arrived for drinks at 6 PM. Jean came out of the house laughing and yelling that he didn't need any potatoes. I saw why when I came out. They had pulled up in a restored 1932 pickup truck, looking as if it had just come from the set of "Grapes of Wrath". The metal sunshield over the windshield really set it in a period. Before I came out, I peered out to see if we were overdressed compared to what they were wearing and saw a tall large man with a cap and a woman with long black hair almost to her waist. She was wearing a long dress.
She was wearing tight pants. Isabelle was wearing the long dress!!
That has to be a win for me. Not the tight pants, but the fact that I didn't remember it properly.
Soon we were set and proceeded across the slightly drizzly lawn to meet them. We sat in front of the fire and drank Ricard's and ate olives. Deena is half Palestinian and half Austrian and Isabelle told me that although she is very dark skinned, amazingly, her sister is very blonde. I imagine that they were quite a pair growing up if her sister is anywhere near as beautiful as Deena. She is about my height and slim and she glides quietly when she walks. Ben is English and is complementary to her. Taller, wider, a large athletic man. Not necessarily graceful, but I imagine he would be good at any game he chose to play. Both of them charming. Open and thoughtful as we talked about politics, religion, America and the local gossip. Obviously, Palestine came up and when it did I was nervous about what kind opinions I might hear. An immense amount of emotion has been generated around the world by this region and most of it has not been of the most generous kind. Here, in this room, the feelings were more sadness for opportunities lost and the sense that peace was a long way off. Most of this was going on in French, so it is possible that I am not representing people's feeling quite correctly, but I am pretty sure that no one in the room was advocating hatred and revenge as a solution to the problem.
We talked about movies. It seemed that they had seen a lot more American movies than we had. The topic went from one good movie to another, and we hadn't seen or even heard of most of them. We've got to get out more.
We found out one amazing thing. Ben had decided to retire and they were planning to buy a farmhouse in Southern France and renovate it, but they hadn't decided exactly where. They were renting a place on the Lot river and scouting out various areas when they discovered our first travelogue which was posted on the Internet. We seemed to love the place so much that they came down and had a look and Voila! Here they are. I hope they like it.
We ended the evening by wangling an invitation to see how things have progressed at their new digs the next morning before they head for the
Saturday July 6
Moving day today. But after an early rise to pack and straighten, we headed across the valley to Le Theron to see what Ben and Deena had accomplished with their renovation. We looked at this house three years ago when it was being auctioned off to pay the owner's back taxes. A swimming pool, a guest house, a small barn and a small chateau whose earliest part was begun in the middle ages, all surrounded by about 10 acres. But all in the Super Handy Man's Special category. At that time, we had to fight our way in through the undergrowth to get into the barn and peer in the windows of the two houses which were locked. Everything looked a shambles. I think it went for $160,000.
Things have changed. As Ben said, when he bought the pool, he bought a hole in the ground. It took a new liner and new pump to bring it back to life. The small building next to it was also brought to life, now as a small guest house in which they are living as they finish the main house. We see a delightful house with a two story foyer and a small European style kitchen to the right. They describe it differently. First, telling what was there before they changed it and then how they made the changes. They had a very intimate relationship with this place, remembering the aching muscles, the frustrations and surely the successes that they had as they created it. Their pleasure in the place is doubled because they see it in a double exposure over the image of the run down building that they started with.
We got to see the process more clearly when we went to the main house. I have never before in my life seen a mail order stone arch doorway. It was lying in 75 pound pieces around a room and we were informed calmly that it was the wrong size and it would have to be returned and the correct size sent. I can not imagine what Ben's feelings were as he was muscling these stones into place and realizing that it is not going to work.
I can imagine his feelings when as they were "taking ownership" of the building, going around and throwing open all the windows and shutters open to let in the light and air he discovered a large bee's nest in the space between the two. Speed would have been of the utmost importance.
I think we are talking about devoting one's entire "retirement," both resources and labor, to the task of renovation. They "ripped" six inch thick poured concrete off the interior of the stone walls (a previous owner's idea of "updating"), moved huge stones from here to there, cut through overgrown bamboo and weeds with machetes, installed plumbing, power, modern luxury appliances and created beautiful gardens. When they pointed out where the main house's new kitchen and dining area will be, we were looking at some stone foundation with a view...that's it; no existing structure there at all! I am personally totally flabbergasted by such grand ambition and hard labor. We've been living in our house in Boston for eleven years now, and I can't seem to manage to get an interior room repainted, or to get a new kitchen floor down (the first thing I thought the house needed when we moved in in 1991.) Why, changing a pair of curtains is major renovation in my book!
We had to be on our way and they had things to do, so we didn't stay long. We look forward to our next visit an expect to be totally astonished by what we see. Ben and Deena - TAKE PICTURES! - otherwise no one will believe you. Isabelle and Jean were up when we returned and after we helped them load their motorbike into the trunk of their car so it could be fixed we said our sad goodbyes and took off for Paris.
We saw an interesting thing on the AutoRoute as we drove up to Paris. In certain sections, rather than build rest areas with restaurants every 40 kilometers as they do on most of the AutoRoutes, they designate certain towns near the highway as tourists stops. They offer meals at anytime and all the services that one might need as one travels through the country. We didn't try it, as we wanted to get to Paris before it got dark.
Of course we were dreading the prospect of parking in Paris. Jean had kindly lent us his resident parking card, prepaid at a lower rate than visitors, but it was the prospect of finding a space that daunted us. Jean and Isabelle live in the fifth arrondissement, a chic and wonderful address but definitely a summer student and tourist destination, with its Pantheon, Sorbonne, Place St. Michel, Notre Dame, etc. But lady luck was with us, and we landed a spot near the Pantheon with only a short walk to their building. The only hitch to staying in that charming little sixth floor apartment was that there is no longer a phone there. The woman who lives there during the school year teaches at the Sorbonne and uses her cell phone only, so there was no reason to maintain a phone in the apartment itself. Since we had no cell phone, it was hard for people to return our calls. However, after a couple of messages, my friend Malek and I managed to connect and establish a rendezvous later that evening at a bar in Place St. Sulpice.
Like many Parisians, Malek almost lives in certain bars. Particularly after I first met him at the artists' colony at La Napoule in 1989, he was having a hard time finding a place to live back in Paris so spent a good deal of time sort of running his life and work from another bar in Place St. Sulpice. Sometimes I'd call him there around a certain time in the evening and if I wasn't able to find him in person, le patron was always willing to take a message.
Some time ago, Malek moved his operation from one bar in Place St. Sulpice to another. There is a good story here, but if you want to know it, you are going to have to ask Malek himself.
So Stephen and I had a few rounds with Malek that evening. It was great to see him looking so well, as he's had to deal with a lot of stress and tragedy in his life. I don't get it; he's sixty-four, continues to smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish, and he looks great! He informed us that the city of Paris is actually going to sponsor a "year of Algeria" starting next March to honor the many cultural contributions the Algerians have made. Malek is excited because several of his late brothers' plays will be produced both in French and in Arabic in Paris during that time. (His brother, an Algerian and a Muslim, was assassinated in Oran in 1995 by Algerian Muslim fundamentalists during that grotesque "purge" of intellectuals.)
Sunday, July 7
Our Boston friend Olivier was in Paris giving a series of movement improvisation workshops at a studio in the 20th. He had invited us to stop by, so we did. Being half French and half Japanese, Olivier is very comfortable in French. The group was mixed, both in terms of dance improvisation experience and nationality. Whenever I am in a dance context in another country, I am always struck by the universality of the experience. As Martha Graham said, "Movement never lies," so it hardly matters what one's verbal language is.
When I visited Dawn during her stay at la Napoule, she met me in Paris and we stayed a few days in a small borrowed apartment in Place Gambetta near the Pere La Chaise cemetery. I had no recollection of ever having visited the cemetery so we decided to take a leisurely stroll through it on our way from Olivier's class to Malek's apartment.
Karl Marx, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison were the famous people that we tracked down. At least it is good exercise. The wall where all those people were shot was emotional.
Malek now has a small apartment in the 11th, which is actually pretty close to the 20th. After a couple of very strong expressos and a conversation about the origins of Islam and how it has been distorted by the fundamentalists and how Muslims do not see Christianity as a truly monotheistic religion because of the Trinity, we walked over to his friend Francoise's apartment. She and her friend Denise are both involved in publishing, writing, and teaching of literature. In fact Francoise has commissioned several writers to address the idea of food as a trigger to memory of childhood and culture. Malek gave me a copy of his book in the series, Les Festins d'Exil, which is a delightful read. The French is not too difficult, and it gave me alot more insight into the nature of his childhood in Algeria.
The five of us went up to Francoise's little roof deck and started the evening with a couple of rounds of champagne, a few olives, nuts and fruit. Then we opened a bottle of red that we had brought. Denise, Francoise, and Malek shared a wonderful sense of humor, one's cleverness building right on the others'. The evening continued at a leisurely pace when Denise decided to go back to her place to retrieve some frozen pizza that we could heat up. It was probably the first time I had champagne and pizza in the same evening, a testament to the easy conviviality among the five of us, only one of whom, Malek, actually knew the other four prior to that moment. This time the conversation was a mixture of French and English (instead of all in French when we are with Malek alone) because Denise was soon to head off to Florida for a semester of guest teaching, so her English was fine.
Dawn and I told stories from our family histories. Dawn's grandfather, Walter Wellman, was an explorer who tried both to reach the north pole and cross the Atlantic Ocean in a dirigible around 1910. My forebearer was a sea captain who brought his family from Alsace Lorraine. They seemed fascinated by the stories, saying that there families,have just lived in the same place for many generations. They seemed to think that Americans have better stories. Maybe they were just being polite. We got an invitation from Denise to house sit for her during part of her trip to Florida. It didn't work out.
Monday, July 8
We went to see the Daniel Buren Exhibit and hung out in the Place des Vosges and ate at Ma Cuisine, but neglected to write about any of those experiences.
Tuesday, July 9
We planned our escape from the underground parking garage carefully. We found the elevators; figured out our route of getting the bags to the car four floors beneath Boulevard St. Michel and then coming back upstairs in another stairway to pay for it. We were ready.
We were feeling pretty good now. Even though our credit card wasn't accepted by the machine again, we managed not to get charged twice. The route to Charles DeGaulle Airport suggested by our morning coffee server worked pretty well (even though we went one exit the wrong way before turning ourselves around) and we remembered to fill the gas tank before returning the car. So we got the car back to the Hertz parking area where it was checked out by some Hertz guy who took the keys and sent us downstairs.
When we got to the counter and handed them our contract, they asked us, "Where are the keys?"
We said, "With the guy upstairs."
"What guy upstairs?"
That was the beginning of a long conversation surrounded by telephone calls and running upstairs to locate the car and since I don't really understand French we are going to ask Dawn if she can fill us in on the details. I assume they found the car, but to this day, am not really sure.
I'm not really sure either. The man behind the desk seemed close to hysterical about the whole episode, asking me to describe the man who took the car. I said he was "older, thin, tall, gray hair." "Was he wearing a veste rouge?" he asked. "Well, yes, I believe he was wearing the red Avis jacket." The fact is, the guy upstairs had talked so damned fast and made the whole transaction seem so normal, I never thought there was anything unusual about it. After all, he looked at the mileage and gave us our copy of the contract to take to the desk. After a lot of running around and phone calls by the desk people, and a lot of confused waiting by us, the desk guy said, "Never mind; it's not your fault," which, of course, made me feel like it was more our fault than ever. So we got out of there without paying any more than the already expensive contract demanded but also not ever really knowing what happened to the car and certainly not knowing if the upstairs guy had been legit or not.
We had another breakfast, and still have the ceramic jar that the yogurt came in. After that we flew home, landed safely and, mission completed, we end this travelogue