Thursday, February 1, 2018

Rain, Rain and More Rain

Rain, rain, and more rain - to our water logged spirits it felt like it had rained for forty days or forty nights. Thank goodness not days and nights. With the ‘and’ the river would have spilled over it’s banks and into the valley plane. 

Our small village is particularly beautiful because it is divided in two by the River Dronne. On the left bank the houses are all situated well up above the river. Houses on the right bank sit seemingly at river level. It’s the right bank where things can get exciting when the river waters start to creep out of their bed. 
Last summer the Dronne was only ankle deep. We were all moaning about the lack of water and worried that the water table was disappearing. Our tunes have changed after the rains we have had all through December and January, the 3rd wettest period since 1904. You can see water standing between the furrows in fields high up on the ridge, there are unexpected ponds in the fields at the bottom of the valley, and rivulets of running water in the roadside ditches. Ducks are paddling about in new places and we are tired of changing our shoes and socks every time we venture outside.
Sunday morning found a bunch of us standing on the old bridge watching the water roiling angrily around the ancient stone abutments. Was she or wasn’t she going to keep coming up? The rain had stopped for the moment, but there was the question of wether the waters would continue to mount throughout the day. Would this be the year that our gentle Dronne showed us her malevolent side?

The swirling current of the river seemed to wind up the spirits on the bridge. There were animated guesses about whether the up-river dam was opened yet or not? - if not, oh my! You could tell that folks were kind of hoping for a spectacle.

None of the folks on the bridge had homes that were within reach of the rising waters. But, that had not always been true. Before the damn was constructed up stream the Dronne had been much more capricious. If it rained all winter there was no controlling the spreading waters that raced down the valley, bumped into the chateau’s cliff and spread through the wisely empty fields. 

Out on the bridge old timers started competing to tell the best flood story.

“My mother remembers a day when the flood waters were coming up and up. At the time they kept their animals on the ground floor. There were rabbits in cages and a pig in her pen. The rabbit cages were high enough that they would be fine even if the water entered the house.  That pig was a different story. They had a choice to stay awake all night watching for water entering or to bring the pig upstairs - and so they brought the pig upstairs.”
“One year the water got so high that the bakery’s ovens were under water.”

“The year I bought my house there were swans in the parking lot and I had to buy wellingtons to close the deal at the bank up in Brantome. To this day I can’t figure out how the bank stayed open surrounded by water. When asked if I lived in a flood plane I had to tell them that an hour ago the water was 4 inches away from the front door stoop. Thank goodness for the 3 inch threshold as it actually was just enough to keep the waters out. I discovered a funny thing about our right bank that day -the water goes straight down the street to the bakery. Who knew that there was a slant to the street and a better chance of water entering the back of the house than the front that faces the river?”
“I’ve heard tell of a morning when the students came down the hills of the right bank and there was no way to get across for school. To their great disappointment there no such luck as a ‘flood day’ because a neighbor was there with a little fishing boat to ferry them across the flooded fields.”
Everyone on the bridge agreed that as long as the water hadn’t gotten to the end of the little grass ramp there would be no flooding around the buildings. We all headed off to finish our Sunday morning errands. We knew we’d see each other again towards the end of the day when we came back to check on the water’s level.

The rains have stopped being a daily event since then and the River Dronne is back in her banks. There is still no place to walk that isn’t wet and slippery. The skies remain grey, but along the river bank there are now daffodils and the waters gurgle along with less anger and urgency on their way down to Bordeaux.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Chateau Bike Ride

Here are some of the  castles and manor houses that would tempt your imagination if you were to join me on a bike ride around my neighborhood.
 Chateau de la Cote
The roads swoop and climb over hill and dale.
 Chateau de Mareuil
Some of the properties are loosing the battle.
 Chateau de St Crepin de Richemont
 This 'home' is still lived in by the 7th generation of owners.

St Crepin de Richemont
A farmhouse on the hill.
Another farmhouse on a hill. 
Clearly you would rather join me on this ride on a sunny day. If we are lucky and the weather is mild, winter is great with no leaves to hide these magnificent places.
No need to hop on a bike to see this wonderful chateau. If you stay in the little hotel with the blue shutters you wake up in a dream world. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Cinderella's Castle

As a tiny tot I was well and truly indoctrinated by the Cinderella story. I still live with the influences of the millions of times that I asked to hear that fantastical story over and over again. Those magical notions were compounded by the hundreds of times I read any version that I could get my hands on. The more elaborate the book’s illustrations the deeper I feel under the story’s unrealistic grip. My imagination has no problem conjuring a miserable three legged stool set in the ashes of an enormous fireplace, tiny green tendrils climbing over a pumpkin carriage, beautiful lace ribbons and silk bows adorning ball gowns, the glint of magic shinning in the glass slippers, the chiseled good looks of Prince Charming, and best of all, a castle magically hovering over The Realm. Because once you’ve meet Prince Charming you will soon be moving into your own Cinderella Castle.

How I thrilled to the last illustration at the end of the story when Cinderella passed through elegant gates thrown wide open for her triumphant entry. She had arrived. She was now the mistress of the castle and everyone would live happily ever after.

And so to this day I dream of entering the grand gate leading into my very own castle realm. Just ahead there will be a turreted castle floating a bit above the mundane earthling world. Passing through the enormous front doors there will be room after room to waltz in and out of, tiny wood paneled boudoirs followed by silk draped bedrooms, into an enormous
mirrored ballroom followed by a silver laden dinning room with seating for a hundred.

My mind runs run through this imaginative dream each time I drive past a castle. And here’s the problem, here in France the dream of owning a castle could actually come true. Well it could if one had enough money, enough energy, and If one was really and truly crazy. I’m pretty dang crazy, but some serious reality has kept me from falling off the cliff. But, like I said that reality doesn’t keep me from dreaming about all of the folly I could get myself into.
Like the other day as I turned the pages of the local paper and found a beautiful “home” for sale. Well not a home, a castle. Not being very discriminating I wasn’t bothered that it’s not all that old or that it’s architecture is all wrong for this region of stone and more stone. Three photos of Cinderella’s castle leapt off the page and I could picture myself right there opening the front door to welcome you in.
I immediately went to the real-estate web-site. Oh my it was beautiful. Gates entering onto a long treelined driveway, passing manicured gardens. The graveled courtyard stopping at the sweeping steps leading to the grand front door. So good so far, but maybe it was ugly inside….. but it continued to be the perfect dream. Just the right scale, just the right details, just the right light. Oh how wonderful it would be to be the one in charge of all of this.
Just then I could hear Tom coming into the house and I was embarrassed that I was going to be caught lost in internet real-estate world - looking at a castle no less. So I clicked off the page and scurried back to what I was supposed to be doing in the first place. Painting the back hallway. See, we have always done all of our remodeling, maintenance, gardening and housekeeping. 

I grumbled along painting the bottom half of the wall dreading the moment when I had to get up on a chair to paint the top half. I’m not getting any younger and my muscles were going to be sore and  I might even loose my balance and fall. Then there were the tiny paint splashes that I was going to have to scrub on my hands and knees. I’d never get my knees unfolded after that job. On top of all this moaning It was getting late in the afternoon and a gang was meeting at the bar. But no, I had to stay here like Cinderella scrubbing the floor so I could move the furniture back to the hall, so I could find my bedroom. I was certain that everyone else was having a ball.

Oh dang my dreams of Cinderella were coming true just not the right end of the story.

In the end the hallway only took an hour to paint and clean. I got everything back in place and stood back to look at my job well done. Thank goodness for small spaces and tiny furniture. That left me with just enough time to trim up my two window boxes and pop something on the stove for dinner. It would be just the two of us at our table for four. All this before the clock struck 5:30 and I could still make it up to the bar.

What had I been thinking when I looked at that castle with 50 rooms and 40 hectares of gardens. I couldn’t even bear to count the number of windows where I might want to put window boxes or have to clean, Surely at some point most of those windows would stick and someone would have to unstick them. Wonder who that would be……? Tom…….
I guess we missed our time for being the owners of a castle. We’ve had lots of fairy godmothers, but they had the good sense to always keep us humble and living within our means. Tom’s so sweet he’ll say we already have our castle anyway. All 1200 sq ft of it. Just enough for a starving artist and his bonne vivante side kick. At least we have big gates to enter into even if they are a bit rusty and off kilter - they do lead into a most smallish, elegant, garden and there is our realm.

just in case you want a little dream time -- just don’t get caught when you should be working........

thank you to Sharon Santoni for her beautiful blog where you can find a real fairy tale castle where you can stay

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Same Latitude, Same Celebration, But........

Dropping off my hot chocolate, Julian, our usually quiet cafe owner, hesitated.


“Yes. “

“Do you always eat turkey for Christmas?”

I could tell he meant “you” as in all Americans. How could I answer for an entire nation?

My immediate thought was yes we do eat turkey, but then my brain said it’s not fair to say that everyone eats turkey. How far into family preferences or regional detail should I go? or should I just stick to the story book version of an American Christmas meal.

My quandary was solved when Julian said, “I watched a Christmas classic on TV last night. Is that what it is really like?”

Based on last nights holiday drama, and years of other shows like it, he had some very specific questions. 

Here were his questions:

Where were the oysters?

Is the turkey always so big?

What do you eat with the turkey?

I didn’t see them serve the foie gras?

How about the cognac and armagnac?

What kind of cheeses do Americans like?

Like all of us Julian’s visual and taste references are based on his childhood memories. His family is 4 or 5th generation Bourdeilles and they have never ventured from the classic french Christmas dinner. Marriages have been with other local families so the holiday meal traditions are straight out of casting for a Perigordine feast.

Julian’s questions gave me pause. How could I balance gross generalizations with explanations of why a “typical” American family does not sit down to the same meal that a French family will.

Starting with the oysters I try to explain that most Americans live far away from the sea coast and that makes fresh oysters a delicacy that few families partake in. How could I demonstrate the space between Boston and somewhere in Montana to someone for whom a trip to Pairs, 6 hours away, is like going to the moon?  Instead I said my family holiday meals got started with a good glass of whiskey and maybe some peanuts before we went in to table. Sometimes a little smoked salmon.

“But what about the oysters” Julian muttered. I could tell he loved his oysters.

Next was the question of the turkey? How could a family possibly eat a 12 kilo (25 lb) bird? I know it does not occur to him that there has to be left overs. France is a country that has yet to embrace sandwiches (outside the train station baguette with butter and ham). We laughed as I explained that my oven here would never be big enough for an American-sized turkey. His dubious smile suggests that he wonders if my kitchen is really that French.

The side dishes are what really got to him. Cranberries, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, rolls, vegetables vegetables…..  
Where are the chestnuts, baguettes, leeks, cepe mushrooms…….?

And there was a gaping hole in the courses. Where was the foie gras? When does that appear on the table? How could I tell him that the chances of there being foie gras on an American’s Christmas table are about 1 in a million? No foie gras at a holiday meal is sacrilege to him, to his clan, to his Perigordine economy!

Dessert was sort of easier to sort out. Of course there is dessert, no cultural difference there, except I know that when I say apple pie he is picturing tart and when I say pumpkin pie he’s seeing weird.  Who in your family knows the secrets of how to make the perfect traditional buche de noel?

He has worked he way through the courses, now for the hours of sitting back and relaxing…. What, it’s not automatic that you sit back from the table and have a cognac something to crown off your wonderful hours of eating? I figure most American families clock in about 2 to 3 hours around the table. Here your celebration has been a failure if you don’t spend at least 5 hours around the table.

Suddenly he realizes he hasn’t asked about the cheese course. How do I tell him that if we had cheese it would have been way back with the glass of whiskey? That course would have been some sort of cheese ball with crackers -- explain a cheeseball to a frenchman.

It was sweet how he wanted to understand what and how Americans would navigate a Christmas meal, but my explanations weren’t really sinking in. Several times he would ask his question again in a different way to see if maybe I’d give a different answer. Sometimes I’d try to rethink my answer to see if I could illustrate a point better or maybe generalize a little bit less, create a picture of my childhood traditions.

The last thing on Julian’s mind was how do Tom and I celebrate Christmas now that we are living in the heart of gastronomic eating? He was happy to know we would eat with a friend that is known for her expertise as a French cook.  We would be set in our own Perigordine movie. Mostly Julian just wanted to be sure that there would be foie gras and that we would eat it! (Me, yes; Tom, no.)

(By chance this was the year that we had a tasting comparison of duck foie gras versus goose foie gras. We were split on preferences and reasons for them.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Felibrée Festival in the Perigord, La Dordogne, France

It takes a lot of semantic wandering to arrive at where we live in France. Tumbling down this road, we live in the Nouvelle Aquitaine, the Dordogne, the Perigord, the Perigord Vert, and finally the village of Bourdeilles. It’s way too complicated to explain, but this is sort of the French version of region, state, county, city.  France now has 13 regions each with strong regional traditions. The language and cultural traditions of the Perigord are celebrated each year at the Felibrée Fair

Not too long ago most of the locals in our village did not speak French. They spoke a sort of patois that is called Occitan or langue d’oc. It actually wasn’t just our village, but all of southern France, each with their own nuances of patois. My neighbor remembers having her knuckles rapped by her teacher if she was caught speaking to her classmates the patois she spoke at home. Into the 1950s France was in the process of erasing this old language and having “French” be universal.

There were always those that wanted to preserve the old language and some of the traditions that were associated with this southern culture. Eventually they organized an annual fair and conferences. There are now courses in school for the language, language clubs sprinkled around the different villages, and folk groups that carry on the traditional dress, music and dance.

Once a year all things Occitan are celebrated at this grand Felibrée. This vivacious fair is held in a different location each year showing off the beautiful corners of the Perigord.

The Felibree is hosted by a different city or village each year.  The decorations are unlike anything you will see anywhere at any time other than in that village for the four days of the fair. Pride of place is important, but it is also the work behind that scenes that perpetuates a sense of place. It takes 500 worker bees all winter to make the 130,000 artificial flowers that will then be strung into garlands to hang above the celebrations in the streets of this years showcase community. There are usually anywhere from 5 - 10 neighboring villages or hamlets that take part in this massive work load. These communal hours spent together before the Felibrée are as important as the event itself. Winter is the time that communities gather together, folks sit for hours on end chatting while their hands work towards a common goal.

There will be dances, lectures, demonstrations of how things used to be done - children gasp to see laundry washed in buckets and wrung out by fingers turning to prunes, there will be bike decorations and mountains of food to be eaten, music and dancing and beautiful costumes, books to buy written in the old language - even a church service conducted in Occitan, t-shirts to buy and more dancing. It’s a fair!