Monday, December 28, 2015

Noisiness of Church Bells

The bells started ringing as we crossed the bridge. We could just see the church spires outlined by the rare Christmas full moon. Sound carried strongly on the heavy night air. The sounds we met were not the steady bong bong of a clocking marking time. They were the bong, bong, clang, clang, bong, clang, clang noisiness of church bells out of control in inviting everyone to come join together-- “Noel, Noel, Noel!”

The air filled with bells was eerily contrasted by streets that were empty and calm. Light shown through the cracks in shutters closed tight against the night.  A cat or two skittled across the road as we walked up the hill. We were early for the service. Families were still trying to bundle up the children and lace up shoes before heading out into the winter evening.

The bells ended as we approached Bourdeilles’ little church. Then everything was strangely quiet for a Christmas Eve. The only hint that we were indeed here on the right evening were three rows of elegantly placed votives twinkling on the steep stone staircase. Their flickering light was most inviting and beckoned us in, but being a bit early we took a stroll around the church. River fog was swirling up the hill and the bright moonlight glowed off the spires of the village castles. Soon jolly voices could be heard arriving from the dark corners, and the bodies of folks began to take form as they passed under the street lamps. It was time to go in before the little church filled up.

We chose our seats not too close, not too far back, and watched the parade. Here was an old friend, here was a family or two that we only see at this Christmas Eve service. We too are only in this sanctuary for this once a year celebration. There were hugs and kisses, a nod of hello, and a few introductions.

Here inside the light was bright and warm. The hand cut stone walls seemed impossibly perfect. The plaster on the stones is bright white and the joints make perfect horizontal lines. Candles glow and someone had come early to set up the portable heaters. My mind wandered to what it would have been like to walk here from a home miles away and sit through the service with no heat, no down coats, and electrical contraptions. I tried to make out the stories in the stained glass windows, but kept being drawn to the statues. Jesus in Mary’s arms, Jesus in the arms of St John the Baptist, several of Jesus on the cross. There is a lot of story telling and obscure symbolism going on in here.  We are a long way away from the sensibilities of the austere New England Protestant point of view. There was also a plaque with a sadly long list of names of young men that died in WWI. This is another foreign part of this church experience and it led to reflection on the families that are still here in the village and how many families died out with the loss of male heirs during that disastrous war.

Singing broke my daydreaming and the fatherly, almost Santa like, priest made his way down the aisle with the children he had gathered up, the baby Jesus in the arms of one of the youngest children. We followed along through a story that has been told in this church for over 400 years. A story with a rhythm to it that makes the service welcomingly familiar. The universal message that we have heard over and over again and will need to hear again and again to let our love light shine and to be sure to share that same sacred love light. 
The service concluded with a resounding song of joy and peace, birth and hope. Each family bundled up and off we headed into the dark corners of the village to continue our celebrations in the warmth of home, friends and family. Each heart was filled with the clanging of the bells that had called us together as those same bells sent us back out into the world.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas from Bourdeilles

Although nowhere near the level of entertainment presented by the current American political scene, France has it's share of peppy polarizing politics. Our village is a microcosm of this multi-party wallapalooza.

Here is how this year's Christmas tree came to be.

First the Socialist persuaded the Republicans to have it paid for by the government.

The tree was, of course, selected by the Green Party.

And it was immediately and thoroughly inspected by the Front National Party to make sure that the tree was completely pure French.
Decorating fell to the Communist Party.
In the end, despite their differences, everyone had a fine time. 
Merry Christmas from Bourdeilles!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Over the River and Through the Woods

By now most of you have decorated your home for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. You are creating your best strategy for where visiting family and friends will sleep. You have given it your Herculean best in planning out the holiday’s meals. Or you will have figured out your travel plans in order to best avoid car loads of other families that are heading “over the river and through the woods…”
I’d like to tell you a story from the cold and confusing winter of 1939 when 80,000 French people headed over rivers and down through the valleys, but not to Grand Mother’s house, not to friend’s homes, not even to a known or understood destination.

That bitter Christmas of 1939, a grand and glorious Christmas tree was set up in a city center. A tree from the forest of Strasbourg decorated from top to bottom with enchanting and luminous garlands to warm the hearts of citizens. However the setting is not in the Alsatian capital of France, but 800 kilometers south-west of there in the city of Perigueux, in the Dordogne department of France.

Three months before…..

Over the centuries, this northeast border region has alternatively been French and German. The Armistice of World War I brought it back into France. On the 2nd of September 550,000 residents of Alsace were told that they had to evacuate their homes immediately. Another war against Germany was to be declared the next morning. 
The government had already set up a plan to evacuate this mass of humanity to eight departments within France. 80,000 Alsatian were transported by train from their northern roots directly to the train station in Perigueux. Here they were far from home, but thankfully sheltered from bombs and fighting. Train after train arrived in Perigueux from Strasbourg. Families poured out with a suitcase or two. These northeastern French found themselves in a France culturally different from what they knew.  But the most striking of all differences was the language. Here, French was heavily accented by it’s ancient Roman and Spanish roots, even the vocabulary was different as “patois” was spoken as a first language in the countryside. The Alsatians spoke their French with very heavy German accents. Distrustful locals thought that they were being invaded by Germans not fellow French.
The distrust of those first few days quickly gave way to sympathy. Shelter, food and jobs had been organized. Alsatian banks were opened, the city government of Strasbourg had a temporary town hall constructed for them. Shops and restaurants sprang up with special treats for the Alsatians and strange, new things to be discovered by the locals.

 Alsatian were church going folks, as opposed to the locals known for their lack of church participation. Churches that were practically abandoned for years were thrilled as their congregations swelled.
However most of these exiles could not stay in the region’s few crowded cities. Families were literally farmed out throughout the villages and valleys of the Dordogne. Their welcome had been well organized, but nothing prepared them for the shock of their new homes. Here the homes were isolated, most often there was no running water or heat, and the interior walls were held together with mud daubing. These displaced city folks even tried to wash those wall. They felt as if they had been sent to live like farm animals, until they realized that the locals were living in the same conditions. This region was what the French called “la France profonde” or the ends of the earth…This was nothing like the life they had left behind in their elegant, modern Strasbourg.


That Christmas of 1939 these exiles within their own homeland had to pull from their inner resources to find ways to celebrate the Christmas season. There would be no family silver, no champagne glasses, no children’s decorations from over the years, no familiar neighbors to take cookies to. They would have to be creative with what was on hand to recreate a semblance of their family traditions. If they were lucky they would find a ride into Perigueux to bask in the glow of the shared Christmas tree and have a meal in one of the transplanted Alsatian restaurants.

In that winter of 1939 it would be small acts of tradition that would warm the hearts of these exiled peoples. Traditions that one can carries within themselves even when far away from home. "I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
In June of 1940 an armistice was signed between France and the German occupiers. Folks could go home. Many did just that, but records show that at least 15,000 evacuees chose to stay in their new homeland. Some just until the end of the war, some for always. To this day, strong ties remain between Alsace and the Dordogne. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Decorating the Village

It’s amazing what a handful of villagers can do when they work together.  This is a tale of bringing the Christmas spirit to Bourdeilles.  In the end we will see that the cast of characters is larger than first appears. But it starts with three industrious women and one gadabout that shows up when she happens to be around.  The supporting cast members are two town maintenance men who handle all the heavy lifting and trapeze work. There will be a lot more help, but no more hands.

Before the village has even thought about the holidays the work starts as nimble fingers tie hundreds of bows and create miles of garlands. Blooming in red, green, sparkly, white, and more red, green, sparkly, white, the shinny papers are twisted and tied into festive decorations to be sprinkled around the village for the holidays.

Then a day arrives when the evergreen boughs have been cut, the small cut trees are set into place and the whimsical decorations can be hung. Six souls bundle up against the chilly December air and set about gilding the grey winter landscape.

Our bandleader gives her “opinion” on the order of things. “What do you think, start with green bows on the bottom and then red, white and sparkly all over, topped with a last bling of green?” We all just nod our heads and say, “that’s a beautiful way to decorate the trees” and get on with it. Too many opinions will just slow down the work.  And, our opinions really don’t carry much sway as our leader considers us more as elves than co-producers.

Six voices chatter and laugh as a rhythm is found in swirling the garlands around the trees and the grey town square starts to brighten with the sparkle of colors.  The whole scene becomes animated as Santa’s sleigh glides into place.
The morning warms up quickly and villagers start to run their errands. Not one person can pass by without a comment or suggestion. “Oh how cheerful! Can’t you get some bows on that tippy toppy branch? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a splash of green around the middle of that tree? Oh I just love the big, bushy tree this year! You missed a spot! Those snowmen are awfully cute. Where did all of those bows come from? Why does the reindeer have a red nose?” Some folks are teasing and some are way too serious. We all just nod our heads and keep on with our work.

Cars pass by and drivers give a thumbs up or a happy wave. A few drive by pretending not to see us - every village has a Scrooge or two. Lots of cars stop and whoever knows that driver goes over to chat. It’s not a good morning to be in a hurry in Bourdeilles as some of these conversations go on for quite awhile. You know, things like -how this year’s decorations compare to last year’s, when are the lights going to go up, what’s Aunt Edna going to have for lunch….. Cars start to line up and down the main street and no one dares to honk or holler on this decoration morning.

About midmorning one village family gives a hand by inviting us in for coffee. A warm kitchen, a hot coffee and a chocolate or two are a welcome break from the cold.

By the time the decorations are all hung a lot of villagers have contributed their moment of participation. The banter has been funny and cheerful, the brief visits appreciated. The village had gotten the six of us to the end of the job and now we can all walk about and see that yes,  “that’s a beautiful way to decorate the trees.”

Monday, December 7, 2015

Critters Everywhere

One just never knows what the theme of the days outing is going to be. I'm sure it will not take you long to figure out what I saw everywhere today at the monthly brocante.

 Wouldn't you love to have one of these in your home?!

The Love Birds I just couldn't leave behind.

and a few images that were too fun to not add in.....