Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Heat Wave

The neighborhood knew it was going to be hot hot hot because even the Americans were finally closing their shutters. Shutters that had not been pulled shut since we moved in nine years ago. I was a little bit afraid of what I might find when I pulled them closed. Did the backsides need painting? Would bats and cobwebs fall all over me? The situation had come to a point that it didn’t matter, I had to be sure that I had done everything I could to keep out the heatwave that was lurking in the hours ahead.
For the rest of the neighborhood (all of France for that matter) the opening and closing of shutters is an important part of the daily schedule. 

Shutters are closed every night at bed time and opened as soon as one gets up. I know the hours of my neighbors by the squeaking of their shutter’s hinges. Across the street the hours are 7:30AM to 10:00PM. Up the hill its 8:00AM - 8:30PM. This routine is followed all year long. In winter they open their windows quickly to keep out the cold air and in summer the windows might be left open behind the shutters, but I’m not sure. I do know on these crazy hot days all windows are closed tight.
If you’re leaving the house for more than a few hours the shutters “legally” have to be closed. Well it’s just actually the insurance companies who won’t pay after a break in if you have not shuttered up every opening to your house - windows and doors.
Visitors often ask me where everyone is. Why is the village abandoned? In the winter folks keep the shutters closed all day to keep in the heat. In the summer shutters are closed all day to keep out the heat. French villages look like ghost towns. However, life does go on. The few times I have closed the shutters against the elements I feel like I am living in a cave. We have come to the conclusion that our windows are good enough that closing the shutters just doesn’t make that big of a difference in the temperature of the house. It helps that our home faces south with a low sun in the winter to warm us up and a high summer sun that beats on our roof, but not into the windows in the summer. Thick stone walls and tile floors also help.

But, when the weather forecast was heading into the high 90’s even 100 degrees it was time to become French and live closed up behind the shutters. 
Living with the the shutters open on the backside of the house I now understand how northern light is quite bright enough, diffused and cool. I love the sense of defense, hunkered behind the heavy shutters. The heat becomes a physical presence lurking, menacing out there. The need for a sweater in my cool home makes me feel smug, like I am winning in some kind of bizarre battle.
The lucky thing is that it almost always cools way down at night. Into the 60’s! So about three or so in the morning I wander through the house opening wide all the doors, windows and shutters to let in the night air. Hopefully I’m not waking up my neighbors with my strange hours and squeaking hinges. It is ever so un-French to have the house gaping open like this, but I want all the air in here that I can get. I’ll be up at 7 o’clock to close things up tight. (Ed.’s Note: should read 8:00)

I try to explain to my French neighbors that the shutters on our homes in the States are just for decoration. Maybe a few southern communities with a French heritage use their shutters to keep out the sun. With all the air-conditioning no one really needs to think about defending themselves from the elements.

For now the temperatures are back to normal. Mid 80’s during the day and 60’s at night. The shutters are locked back in the open position. It is still a good idea to open the windows at night and close them during the day - the tricks I learned growing up in an un-air-conditioned home in hot, humid Virginia. 

I appreciate the cool comfort of living in a cave, but I find myself humming a part of an old tune from the musical Hair— “Let the sunshine, let the sun shine in…”

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Old World New World Roads

There was a week back in April where we drove back and forth between two houses in Baltimore, Maryland. The starting point was on the edge of town set in fence-lined fields of the Hunt Country. The arrival point was in a tree-lined turn of the century neighborhood in Baltimore proper. Both locations being quintessential examples of quiet mid-Atlantic America neighborhoods. 
It only took a couple of back and forths to learn the route by heart. Pretty much a straight shot with a few exits and a couple of turns to remember. They were wide, get up and go roads, well marked, and busy at all hours. An everyday sort of commute for most American drivers.
After the second trip into the city house I commented on how on making our final turn we were quietly settled in a family neighborhood, but just up the street we had turned the corner from a four lane road. Strange to us because from our home in France it takes 50 minutes to get to the closest four lane road —and it’s a major interstate.

Now I know this is a funny thing to write about -an every day activity you don’t notice until you are thrown into a different situation. We all just hop in our cars and go. Roads are just there. You don’t think about them. Heck, most of them were established and paved well before you were old enough to drive.

It had been a year since we had been brain-jostled by driving on the American scale. Scale in the Old World is determined by how much room there is between the castle tower and the shops tucked under its base. Navigating through a village is determined by where the cart paths used to go—800 years ago! Even some of Europe’s largest cities have ancient narrow passages winding through the old quarters. If you are driving on a boulevard, you’ll know that they’ve taken down entire neighborhoods to make this modern road. Having four lanes and parking in a city was an early 20th century idea. Village “streets” were established well before the turn of the century. Here in Bourdeilles there is an impressive passage between a home and the bakery. The passage is one way, your mirrors scrape the walls if you drift a little to the left or right, and you can’t see if someone is entering the passage until you are in it. You just hope a logging truck isn’t headed towards you!

After Baltimore I flew down the east coast and into Richmond, Virginia. The sky was clear and the flight stayed low so I had a birds-eye view of suburban houses laid out just so along wide roads winding through organized neighborhoods. I was impressed by how many four lane roads connected the neighborhoods and headed into the city. Richmond has a grid of streets often with four lanes of traffic and parking on each side. I haven’t flown over cities in France, but I have climbed a tall tower or two and the streetscape beneath always meanders around, never following a rigid grid.
When we first moved to the Dordogne there were country roads between villages that were so narrow that I refused to ride my bike on them more or less drive down them in a car. Lanes so narrow I thought they must be private. My driveway in Vermont had been twice as wide as some of the local roads. These are lanes where you have to pull onto the shoulder if another car comes along. They have to pull over too because even with half a car off the road the other car wont fit.
We do indeed have wider two lane roads to get from here to there. However, there is seldom a center line, there is very little shoulder, there is a deep drainage ditch right along the edge, and the engineers made the roads just as wide as they had to be, not an extra centimeter more. You have to stay focused driving these roads. Forget coffee to go or sipping from water bottles. Forget passing the slow cars or pulling over to let the car on your bumper go around you.

On the plus side for the Old World there are round-a-bouts. It’s amazing how much time is spent at stop lights in the good ole U.S. of A. So inefficient. I guess that’s how Americans feel about the tiny, curvy roads here.

Don’t get me wrong the interstate system here is amazing, but  as Vermonters say “you can’t get there from here”. Visitors think they can get from Paris to here lickety split - growing up on New World road you just can’t envision the slowness of Old World travel.  Fortunately, the view is very nice.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Crossing the Atlantic

It’s quite a process getting artwork out of Tom’s studio in our small village to his art shows in the grand United States.
All starts with a blank canvas, tubes of paint and the inspirations of the surrounding countryside and daily French life.
As each painting comes closer to being completed he starts construction of a frame. He builds his own frames starting with a plank, milled into frame stock, nailed together into a frame. Each frame is then gilded with gold. I used to help with the framing, but I am far too busy eating bonbons and drinking wine to be of any use now-a-days.
The last step in getting the paintings across the Atlantic is to build the shipping crates. Yep – Tom is in charge of packing and shipping department as well. No leaving his precious works to the care of someone else. He’s in charge of efficiency and economy.

The crates are a work of art in themselves. Tom cleverly sizes his canvases so that when it comes time to crate up the works each one nestles inside another.  The gold leaf is protected by narrow dividers. Each bundle is wrapped in what Tom considers an invention of the 21stcentury  greater than smart phones—stretch wrap. (Boxes of stretch wrap we have; a cell phone is something he won’t have.)

Finally, there is the wooden crate itself.  The crates are heavy and awkward, but each year Tom has refined the weight and size. His aging back dictates that no crate can weigh more than 25 kilograms (about 50 lbs.) and each crate has handles at each end so that two people can move them around. Getting older doesn’t make these shows any easier.
Check out the latest works that are winging their way to America as you read this.
The upcoming art shows are in Baltimore, March 30th and New Canaan, April 6th if you or someone you know would like to see the works in person let me know.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

February Discoveries in the Perigord Vert

The month of February was warm and sunny here in the Dordogne. There was nothing to do but seize the day(s) and get out and discover some new places. The outings were varied. There was the day out to the countryside, another to a chateau, an afternoon in the city of Perigueux, even a visit to a research place that is raising river mussels. All this and we haven't even scratched the surface of all the adventures just around our small village of Bourdeilles.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Never Vegetarians

I have a very set routine for my Sunday morning marketing. It’s a straightforward itinerary that is easy to stick to since there are only four vendors on the market square in Bourdeilles.
The first stop is at bread stall because Madam Bread bakes limited amounts of each style of bread. The early bird gets the olive bread and the late bird will get the crumbs. 

Next is Madame Bread’s son, Monsieur Honey. If I need a jar of honey it will be heavy and so it needs to be on the bottom of my basket nestled next to his mother’s bread. If I don’t need honey I just give hello kisses to him and his young family.

Paola is my third stop, but I’ll get right back to her….

My fourth and last stop is with Cheese Louise as I will linger here for a few minutes chatting. I’ll also pick up a chunk or two of goat’s cheese. Three or four times a year I order pork for what is our main source of meat. Her pigs eat the by-products of the cheese making process keeping some “bad stuff” out of the waste stream. Tom and I will never be vegetarians and it feels like this is a small gesture to living a little more lightly on the earth. 

Now back to my third stop at Paola’s. I buy my week’s worth of fresh organic vegetables here. The change of the season’s vegetables is the only thing that shakes up my routine. One week my meals are full of summer vegetables and then suddenly there will be a heavy frost and I’m looking at rustic, resistant fall produce. A couple of weeks ago after buying my veggies Paola asked me if I would like to place an order for some veal. I was brought to a stammering stop. I wanted to say, “We don’t eat veal.” But this was Paola asking me. I know of her dedication to all good farming practices. I  wanted to say, “I don’t want to buy the meat of an animal that I think of as too cute to eat.” (I can’t imagine trying to say this in French.) She’s watched me buy pork from Louise so she knows we eat meat. I was getting ready to mumble some sort of lame explanation for my reluctance, but her look told me I was not the first person to respond with this conflicted stammering. “Let me explain.” she said with her usual patience. “The few calves we raise for veal are allowed to stay with their mother. They roam about free and are allowed to suckle at will. When they are old enough they eat organic grains that are raised on our farm. (Their farm is renown as growers of old grains) The calves are not deprived of irons and minerals in order to keep their meat white. They are allowed to frolic and graze in the fields with our small herd. Between the age of seven and ten months they are taken to slaughter. When a veal calf is raised like this it’s meat is called Rose Veal because with a normal diet the meat is rose to red in color. It is indeed a short, but well lived life.” 

I’m glad that Paola shook me out of my routine long enough to explain something important to her and her families’ way of farming. Sometimes one has to stop in mid routine in order to listen and learn. In the end I place an order for a few meals worth of veal. 

The next week the routine was back to bread, honey, veg, and cheese. I had simple conversations about the weather and what the kids will be up to for vacation. No stammering about how to live gently and kindly on the earth. Actually, that’s what this little market is about every single week. 

Thank you Bourdeilles Sunday market!