Thursday, January 19, 2017

Au Contraire

If asked what our favorite season is here in Bourdeilles Tom and I both immediately reply “winter”. It would seem that the late arrival of the sun and the early arrival of night fall would make this a morose time of year but, au contraire, it is starkly beautiful and surprisingly enlivening.

Our winter mornings are so dark that we might as well sleep behind closed shutters like the French do. There’s a hint of light at 8:00 as the sun struggles to push past the horizon. Some mornings it’s even harder for the poor soul to breakthrough the thick, silencing blanket of fog.
After turning the thermostat up and putting the kettle on, it’s a quick glimpse at the thermometer to confirm just how hard last night’s frost was.  A frosty morning means sunshine. The rosy glow of ice crystals covering everything is like waking up in a jewelry box with the lid cracked open to let the light in. What a glorious way to start the day.

On winter days there is no need to rush around to get to anything. There are no crowds to get ahead of. The schedules of those of us that live here year round do not often overlap. I am accompanied on my errands by the clop, clop of my own footsteps. Mourning doves sing, coo coo hoot coo coo hoot. If I walk across the bridge I can clearly hear the gentle gurgle of the river. The gaggle of ducks might stir a little and if I am lucky the great heron will startle up and silently circle overhead to quieter waters. Bourdeilles’ church bells ring crisply in the cold air or are muffled by thick low fog. The village is like a stage set waiting for action, waiting for the players and the audience to arrive. Yet in winter none will.

Winter shopping takes a bit longer as it would be impolite to scamper in and out of the two shops without a bit of chit chat, not just the quick scraps we banter over strangers heads in season. Our conversations are calm, we take time to catch up on how the family and the business made it through the crazy season.  What are you making for dinner, have you heard how Monsieur X is, why did the town do this or that?

Later in the day Tom and I will head out on our daily walk. The dogs and I love the fine, fresh winter air. Tom likes that we won’t see another soul. Our peaceful souls wander into the big sky, out over the fields stretching away. There is silent, powerful drama in the setting. Oak trees with their limbs etched against the sky.  The animated skeletons of walnut tree’s dance in the fields. We note the pacing of the new growth of winter crops. We comment on the day’s light. Rock against sky. Cold against cold. Grey against blue or grey against grey.

We’ll see farms, hamlets and chateau that are exposed only in winter. Human places that are silent of human voices. Silence that adds a bit of mystery, of pathos to the air. Silence that allows ones mind to work on that mystery, build it up, tear it down.

Silence again - can you tell that for us it is an important part of this season. Silence that allows calm, allows slowness, sloth, dreaminess, and undistracted reflection. 

As the sun sets there is a brief moment of glory as the angled rays warm the scene. Stone flames up golden or pink. Fields are greener than green. The cutout shapes of black birds stand out in the fields or circle above in the fading light heading to their roost. All the days events are wrapping up as the sun drops over the horizon at 5:00. It’s dark, it’s time to be tucked in like the rest of the silent village.
Winter evenings we have a quiet dinner, a roaring fire, and a good book. It isn’t just a cliche.  It truly is a good way to end the day. One by one the animals move off the radiator to someone’s lap. By the end of the evening there is barley room for everyone on the sofa. The silence is only broken by the turning of a page or the rustle of a blanket being pulled up. Winter boredom and regeneration are a lovely thing.

“Oh, I’m sleepy.”

“Me, too.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Neat or Not at All

Seldom a month goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I was raised proper - well actually raised to be proper. Between my grandparents, that I would listen to, and my parents that I tried not to listen to, I learned to say please and thank you, look adults in the eye when greeting them, and a long list of other niceties that, with a lot of prompting, became ingrained, automatic behaviors.  Credit should also be given to my great uncles who taught me how to shake hands with just the right amount of pressure, to be on time or get left behind, and how to drink whiskey neat or not at all. 

Now here in France every social event makes me feel like that youngster learning how to comport herself all over again.

Here on “the other side” of the ocean there is a very different set of rules on how to act proper in the world of French adults. Here I thank my lucky stars that I have an adoptive family that is willing to answer questions and gently teach this old dog new tricks - even though one of these French rules says that it is impolite to correct another adult. 

An evening out will start by being careful to calculate our time of departure so that we will arrive at the home of our hosts no earlier than 15 minutes late. My childish brain says I have to be ready at the appointed hour, so I am.  But I don’t want to start off my special evening in the dog house, so I sit all dolled up in my house, tapping my toes until the clock has struck the “official” hour and then sit there for another 15 minutes listening to the voices of the great uncles saying, “What the heck are you waiting for?”

Upon arriving I no longer get to show off my just-right American handshake as I introduce myself to a new acquaintance or say a quick hi to old friends. Here it’s a round of kisses to all. Then the doorbell rings and it will start all over again. I guess the best thing about being late is you get all this hello-ing over in one fell swoop. 

At some point we are all seated at the dinner table.  Now is my big chance to put to use a whole bunch of my new tricks. I hear my grandmother’s words “keep your hands in your lap” over and over.  But at the same time my mind is working overtime to remember that in France, it’s, “Keep my hands on the table”. 

Dinner served I am thrilled that my unbreakable childhood habit of eating “continental” style is now de rigueur. Here there is no need to: cut my food, put down my knife (right hand) and fork (left hand) and then pick up the fork in my right hand. Something that has raised eyebrows my entire life will go unnoticed here.

I’ll drink my wine as slowly as I can and wait until I am served more instead of having the audacity to ask for more - even if my glass has been empty for 3 or 4 minutes! 

I hold my breath that I will not be the first person that has to cut into the cheese plate and I count on the person before me knowing cheese cutting etiquette that I can copy cat. 

I put my bread directly on the table. 

I stay seated while my hostess does everything. Like a child I watch everyone to see what they are doing and try to mimic or change whatever American mannerism that is trying to sneak back to the table.

I have made great progress in my French comportment but, until last week there was one rule I had heard about, but was doing my darndest to ignore. Then some new Americans moved to town and they really wanted confirmation of what I was convinced could only be rumor. We decided that we could ask this crazy, slightly embarrassing question here in the confidence of a family from whom we knew we would get an honest response. 

We had all heard that one is never to use the bathroom when you are a guest in a French home. So sometime in the middle of Christmas dinner I screwed up the courage and asked my French hostess the question, well actually I stated it as a fact. “I have heard that when one is a guests in someone’s home they cannot use the bathroom”. The immediate response was “absolument” - this pretty much translates to of course you can not! There was an audible gasp from the Americans. Not go to the bathroom when one might be a guest for 4 - 6 hours. Now that is a rule of etiquette gone too far! I thought of the times one of us had used the bathroom here in this very home - not to mention others- and how no one had ever corrected us. (This particular friend has been a great guide to living in France and has gently guided me in other niceties. How could she have neglected this bit of info? It probably never occurred to her that we didn’t know this rule.) This great prudish problem in a country where men can pretty much pee in public pretty much anywhere they like!

I have to confess that I have taken this new trick under advisement, but as of yet there are not enough years of voices telling me that I cannot make myself comfortable if things are becoming urgent - plus my curiosity of what the rest of the house looks like often gets the better of me. I guess someone forgot to drill into me that curiosity killed the cat and that for old dogs some habits are just going to get worse not better. At least when it comes to drinking with proper French adults I never get left behind when it comes to a quick nip of 100-proof eau-de-vie and that’s a good southern way to show you have right proper manners!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Strasbourg Christmas Market

Streets lined with bright sparkling garlands of lights, windows filled with Santa and his Elves, reindeer and polar bears, snow covered cabins filed with Christmas decorations, and cauldrons full of sauerkraut and sausages, mulled wine and salty pretzels, these are a few of the delights that awaited us on our recent trip to the splendid city of Strasbourg and it’s annual Christmas Market.

Strasbourg and it’s market are just a small part of the concept of Christmas, but the light, and wonder, the joy that was there are a big part of what keeps us connected to each other and the Christian message of love.  Love that is the message of all religions. Let us all continue to search for ways to share our light, joy and love.

Wishing you Peace, Joy and Love from our small village in France.

Monday, December 12, 2016


Cinderella knew she had to hit the road just before midnight or else..... Here in our small village we have until 12:30 to scurry back to our homes. It’s not that at 12:30 we’ll turn into pumpkins or mice. It’s that at 12:30 the street lights go off and you might find yourself in a black hole. The street lights go off and the village turns country dark and oh boy that’s when you know what dark is! Some nights at that moment you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Woe be to the late night reveler that has forgotten to carry along a flashlight for the now daunting walk home. Baby, it’s dark outside, black as pitch, inky back, dark as a dungeon. One feels buried in darkness.
There is a flip side to the dark darkness of Bourdeilles. It is when your eyes have adjusted to the loss of the street light, and if there isn’t any cloud cover, the sparkling, enveloping light from the night sky magically illuminates your way. 

Even the slightest sliver of a moon will be a bright guide. With no lights, not even household light, because no light can escape from the tightly closed shutters in a small village in France, the streets and alleyways will be awash with a soft, lunar glow.

If the moon is on the wane and a thick fog floats up from the river Bourdeilles’ nights can be awfully scary. The ancient screech of the great grey heron sends a shiver up one’s spine and the gurgle of the river under the low edges of the bridge makes one imagine trolls are lurking in the dark edges of the night. The owl’s hoot hoot is twisted into a word of warning - hurry hurry home.

 On full moon nights it’s great fun to head into the village as the moon rises regally beside the massive tower of the chateau. The return walk home with that great moon, and whatever unearthly else is drawn out by her presence is one where each next footstep becomes a little brisker than the last
There is so little light pollution in Bourdeilles that going out with the dogs for their last walk of the night feels like stepping onto the sky’s stage. Stars twinkle, planets glow their strange colored glow, and every now and then the far off lights of a transatlantic airplane go blinkingly by the fixed constellations. Constellations that are fixed in the universe but not in our seasonally changing skies. The Milky Way, so rarely seen in the big cities, is almost always in Bourdeilles’ night sky.  Some nights it seems like all one has to do is reach out a hand and pluck one of those twinkling jewels. The darker the night the better the chance that I can lie in bed and watch a sprinkling of tiny white gems shimmering behind the window’s lace curtain.

I heard the other day that something like one third of the world’s population will never see a night sky. They live awash in acidic light. They can’t know that stars wrap around the earth and seem to touch the ground on a cold winter night. They haven’t seen stars that twinkle or that little star that tags along below a crescent moon. They wont know the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper or Orion. I hope that once in a blue moon the moon gets big enough, and the skies clear enough, that if some late night city walker were to look up they will experience the wonderment of our amazing moon, maybe even see the man in the moon. 

Like Cinderella we might find it easier to be mindful of the hours passing on the clock and arrive home at a reasonable hour, to hear the chiming of midnight tightly tucked into bed. Or we might live life in our small town version of the fast lane-- stay out late, and gamble on the light of the heavens to get us home.