Tuesday, November 21, 2023

What do you do?

 It never takes long for visiting friends to ask a worried question - “This place is gorgeous, but what do you do for entertainment around here?” They’ve arrived from the real world where there is a convenience store on every corner, 24 hour grocery stores, restaurants that cater to the clients whims, and miles and miles of suburbia. Visitors are startled by the quiet that goes on forever here. They can’t imagine what unexpected and quirky events are out there just waiting to be experienced.

The most obvious ‘event’ is the simple activity of living in the midst of history.  Everyday we go about our everyday life in a movie set: castles, shopping at village markets and boutiques hidden along Renaissance streets, wine tastings, hikes along ancient pathways, warm baguettes on the corner.

There are annual events noted on the calendar. Garden fairs in spectacular village settings, antiques fairs in city squares, Christmas markets in medieval halls, and spring open house days to visit private gardens, mid-summer open house days to visit private castles.

But the extra spice added to our quiet life are the unexpected and often quirky local events. Here’s a few highlights from 2023:

In early spring we took a chance and attended a “local” opera production. We got a little bit dress up (opera is opera) and headed out with low expectations. We weren’t the only ones dressed up!  Entering the concrete foyer we noted velvet coats and suit jackets, lipstick and silk scarves. Outside the weather was grey and wet, but inside there was a warm, happy buzz in the air. Once the lights went down and spotlights hit the stage we were lost in the land of Traviata. Turns out there is a treasure trove of hidden talent in the area and enough enthusiasm to attract professionals to raise the bar. An unexpected night at the opera that was not at all quirky - except for being in a concrete basketball arena.

In July THE Tour de France came whizzing right smack dab up the center of our small village! This had given us something to talk about for months and now the BIG day was here. We staked out the best viewing place, grabbed memorabilia from free swag tables and hung around for hours in anticipation of the riders. Then things started to happen. Swag trucks whipped through the village throwing out silly toys and snacks. Followed by zooming, honking security. The riders are coming! When the TV helicopters swooped and hovered overhead we knew the peloton was really close. Swish, the riders were sweeping past in a powerful gust of wind —and they were gone. Hours of waiting for seconds of thrill. A good time was had by all  (even those cynics that thought it was pointless to sit around waiting and visiting for all those hours) were caught up by the unexpected and quirky energy surrounding 176 absolutely crazy professional bikers.

Then on a very hot August night there was another opera. This one was in the courtyard of our very own chateau. We reserved tickets (shockingly it was selling out), got a little bit dressed up and walked up through the village. The scene was set up under one of the tallest castle towers in France, swallows swooped over the stage and the audience sat nestled under the sun-kissed walls of the Renaissance chateau. There were four singers and one narrator. The singers were quite good. The narrator kept falling asleep. The magic of the evening was unexpected and the production just as quirky as expected.

As the season changed along with our wardrobes I headed into Perigueux for a fashion show. I’m not kidding. It was an honest to goodness beautifully presented fashion show. Three models sashayed to spunky music, an MC gave details of each outfit and dressed up women in the audience took notes on items that caught their eye. Who knew there were so many chic women hiding in our middle of nowhere. The evening was hot and the boutique doors were open. Light from the shop spilled out onto the sidewalk along with the hip swinging, sashaying music. A little girl drawn in by curiosity appeared in the rays of light, eventually she crept directly in the doorway, then she relaxed and sat down. She was entranced by the scene. I was entranced by this vignette of curiosity leading to bravery. It was a beautiful evening with unexpected glamor and a sweetly quirky childish, twist. (The little girl’s parents were just next door at an outdoor café.)

We were up bright and early the next morning and off to a World Cup Rugby match in Bordeaux - Fiji vs Georgia. We joined forty thousand large, t-shirted rugby fans streaming into the cathedral-like stadium. The stadium was a bonus architectural adventure, but there was more to come - there was the rugby - a first for us. The almost genteel ambiance of the eloquently designed stadium was quite unexpected and the game of rugby is insanely quirky.

The year is wrapping up in a blur of too much fun. I haven’t even mentioned the day trips to Paris to see art and soak up city noise and energy and day trips to Bordeaux for antique fairs, window shopping and wine tastings.

There are still a few weeks left in the year - I’m curious to see what unexpected, quirky events drop into our laps.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Hall of Giants

One summer afternoon we were walking from the studio to the back of the garden with some friends. Tom was describing this and that about the yard and then he stopped and declared, “This is my Hall of Giants.”

I raised my eyes and realized I haven’t been paying attention to changes in the scenery.

When we bought this property thirteen years ago this part of the property, about two-thirds the size of a football field, was an abandoned vegetable garden held in by tumbling down walls. The edges of the field were curved up, creating a bowl. At the end of the bowl was a mess of tumbled down sheds and years of emptied wine bottles and oyster shells. Tom couldn’t have been happier with all that mess. Before him was a dream project, a blank canvas. Here was an excuse to ride around on his tractor for hours on end, moving out trailer loads of debris, and scraping and leveling out what would become a flat lawn. On Sundays when you can’t make noise (especially repetitive tractor noise) in France we’d head off to garden fairs. While other shoppers focused on gaudy roses and brightly colored annuals Tom scooped up tiny, weird conifers and every weedy columnar tree available. For quite a bit of time there were a lot of potted trees accumulating out by the studio waiting to be planted.

There were afternoons when Tom got off the tractor seat to go collect hornbeam seedlings from a friend’s forest. Hornbeam seedlings root quickly and as a hedge they are easy to trim and shape. Stepping off the spacing for his envisioned design he planted out these dozens of puny little trees. The first layer on a well prepared canvas. Seemingly overnight a hornbeam wall with a little doorway separated the lawn from the end of the garden.

With the first layers of the canvas brushed on Tom could start to add structure and texture. All those large potted trees started to find their permanent homes. Each tree added its own particular personality and presence to the composition.

The composition was good, it was sweet.

Then somewhere over the last ten years those trees really took off.

It was good that Tom slowed us down on that summer afternoon and said we’d be entering the Hall of Giants. We paid attention, looked up, and realized he wasn’t kidding. Walking through those columnar trees you feel the weight of them, the elegance of them. You feel small under them. They are powerful yet welcoming. Imposing yet graceful, stately and grand. Giants.

Walk through the gateway into the next room and everything changes. In here it is the small that have a large and powerful presence. You have entered the bonsai garden. Visitors go quiet. Friends who have been here before say, “I told you.” Tom glows with the satisfaction that he has created an emotional tableau.

Thank goodness for that blank slate, ten years of vision and hard work, and now the time to enjoy his friends, the welcoming Giants guarding over the magical bonsai garden.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Opera in the Middle of Nowhere


I have to admit I was a bit skeptical of the cultural outing I had organized for us. Way back in January I noticed that an opera was coming to the nearby “big” city of Perigueux. What I saw was not a fancy add for a professional traveling show, but an article for a collaboration of local talent and internationally recognized performers. An association called Labopéra Périgord -Dordogne was going to present Verdi’s Traviata. What the heck, I bought two tickets in the hopes that if nothing else we were supporting a good thing for the local community. And if it was truly terrible we could sneak out at intermission. Now that I was committed I learned more about the organization.

At first glance this seemed like an impossible undertaking here in our middle of no where part of France. Some international “ringers” were to be brought in for a few roles but the bulk of the opera is produced and put on by local students and amateurs. Local students and amateurs?  Where were they going to climb out of the woodwork? Schools in France do not offer extra curricular activities like music, chorus, football, chess, etc., so there are not a lot of young classical musicians or singers. The few amateur choruses are spread out all over the region.  However it turns out that there are a lot of talented folks with the courage, the time, and the drive to pull off a major opera production. They just need the opportunity presented to them.

Cholé Meyzie, a music teacher and conductor in nearby Thiviers, is both the instigator of this project and the conductor of the orchestra. Through her national contacts she is able to bring together professionals and advanced amateurs, both on the stage and in the orchestra. 

There is a mix of fifty local musicians. Some are students in the regional Conservatoire. The youngest is 11 years old. His ambition is to play music for fun and to become a doctor. Then there is Nicolas, a clarinetist that is a plumber during the week. His dog Ulk is the mascot dog along with another dog, Gustave, hiding under the chair of a trumpeter.

The seventy member choir directed by Gersende Michel is composed of several vocal ensembles. There are teachers, surgeons (including a former chorist in Paris), and computer geeks. Learning to sing while dancing was hard for this ensemble, but learning the text in Italian was an even bigger challenge. The nine professionals arrived in early March. One of which, 29 year old Mathys, actually lives in the area. He was thrilled to be able to practice and perform and then go home to his own bed.

For this grand production the need didn’t stop at singers and musicians. The costumes were produced at the high school Léonard-de-Vinci in Périgueux. The sets were constructed by apprentice students from Thiviers and Chardeuil. 

All this pulled off with everyone coming together on weekends and school holidays so they could maximize time and decrease travel. The schedule was especially helpful to students that were preparing for their final exams.

Finally the big day arrived. We drove the 40 minutes to the other side of Perigueux where the concert hall The Palio is located. Not at all your beautiful opera house The Palio looks like a modern concrete bunker. You enter in to more concrete and imposing metal staircases. My hopes of an elegant outing were sinking. We entered the “concert” hall (mainly a place for pop music concerts for young wild things), more concrete, stadium style seating and erector set lighting looming overhead. Maybe we would leave at intermission after all….

The lights went out, the orchestra tuned up, the conductor took her place and they were off. Immediately we fell into the magnificence of the music, followed by the energy of the chorus and the strength of the principal singers voices. We really were at the opera! 

The Labopéra Périgord -Dordogne completely succeeded. We spent a magical time in the drama of Italian opera in our middle of nowhere part of France. Here we discovered that there are oh so many people that can come out of the woodwork. We are already looking forward to the next collaborative effort.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

What Century are we in?

Thursday mornings I meet up with a group of women that walk. We walk the hills and dales, forest and river banks of our small corner of the Perigord Vert. Each week Sara, our clever leader, plots out a circuit and off we go like spunky puppies. We jabber away, getting ahead, getting behind, stopping every now and then to be sure we are heading in the right direction. Public pathways spiderweb all of France and have done so forever. You could walk from here to any corner of France if you wanted to by following yellow-topped sign posts. Sara doesn’t stick to just the sign posted trails. She has a talent for connecting pathways and country lanes to create her own circuits. Every week is a different walk and yet every now and then we may be crossing where we have been before. Our territory is small, but there’s something new to see, or maybe be seen differently, on every walk.

One day I stopped jabbering enough to notice a bright green badge, the Chemin Harrison Barker, just under one of the yellow markers.

The pilgrimage path of Saint-Jacques-de Compostelle passes through this area, but who is this Harrison Barker and why is there a pathway named for him?

Like so many of my questions about life in the Dordogne the answer soon appeared in the local newspaper, the SudOuest. I found an article about a recently republished book by an Englishman named Edward Harrison Barker. Harrison was accomplished in geography, geology, botany and had a penchant for writing and wandering in south-western France. 

Turns out H. Barker walked right past my house here in Bourdeilles — in 1893.  

His travel journal, titled Two Summers in Guyenne - Journal of a Voyage Along the Dordogne, was originally published in London in 1894.  Long out of print, it was recently rediscovered and republished by local history buffs. What I love about this narrative is that his experiences from 1893 are so similar to the sights and emotions that I experience walking in our amazing Perigord Vert now in 2023. 

Here is a sketch of what Barker has to say in the chapter Perigueux to Riberac. (we are only joining him as far as Bourdeilles)

Leaving behind the city of Perigueux I head up dusty farm roads towards the nearby tiny city of Brantôme. The first views of Brantôme are from above and I am struck by the verdant green river valley where it seems springtime is eternal. It’s as if the little village is charmed by the grace and elegance of its poetic and romantic setting. Following a gentle descent I arrive on the edges of this small city. The road passes along the banks of the Dronne River gurgling under the ancient Abbey and through the medieval village. I take a moment to admire the abbey from the dog-leg bridge, a thing of fantasy with a fanciful turreted Renaissance pavilion at its entry. It feels like Shakespearean characters could appear dressed of old and telling tales of love. Time here has stopped in the 1500’s. Where I am standing has nothing to do with the 19th century. At dinner today I met an eccentric man that showed me his farm of pheasants. Except it is not a proper farm. The pheasants are nesting and wandering in every room of his old and grand house. As the moon rises we go down the road to see the largest and best preserved dolmen I’ve seen in southern France. It’s with a bit of reluctance that the next morning I left the charms of Brantome to head downstream along the valley of the Dronne River. The road passes under the shadows of impressive rock cliffs carved out by the river. Suddenly there in the distance appears a massive, dark tower. Here is the village of Bourdeilles. One of the best examples of feudalism in the Perigord as well as one of the most picturesque because of the strong contrast of the somber tower to the cool, peaceful beauty of the green valley below. There is an elegant promenade lined with shade trees where villagers can walk and visit. The formalness seems a bit strange as the village has clearly seen better days and they are down to about 1000 inhabitants and houses are shuttered and empty. I continued down through the village passing past the miller’s houses and over the charming, heavy gothic bridge. I love how many of the bridges in the region have one angular side to decrease resistance during a flood. Continuing down river I can see the defensive towers of the grand house Étourneau. The view on the valley opens up and the fields are filled with the joy and the light of summer. 

This is a dolman.

sunrise on the tower

Harrison Barker headed on up the same lanes and paths that we will cross on our Thursday walks. Literally the only visible difference will be a sprinkling of new houses and maybe a paved road instead of a mud path leading through a farm yard. Another big difference is that instead of meeting up with local folks along the way like H Barker often did, now a days the hamlets will be silent and the few farmers we see will be encased in noisy, unapproachable tractors. I’d like to have met some of those colorful characters and to have heard their stories about life around here. Thank goodness for Harrison Barker and his gift of observation and the journal stories he left behind to give us a snapshot of times gone by.

le manoir d'Étourneau

Now it’s time to head off and take a walk through the beauty of spring being offered up today.

Edward Harrison Barker. Deux étés en Guyenne  Journal de voyage au fil de la Dordogne 1892- 1893.  published by FANLAC

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Slippers and Small Villages

What could Grandpa’s slippers and a small village in France possibly have in common? Hand in hand and sole to soul, they share a history of struggle, adaptation through innovation, and sometimes a magical rebirth.

A unique local style of slipper, the pantoufle Charentaises was created in our region in the 1600’s. At the time the local economy was predominately agricultural. Farms were small and folks scraped out a simple living. Hamlets were close together so resources could be shared. Nothing was ever allowed to go to waste. The idea for making slippers took off when someone came up with the idea to use off-cuts from military uniforms, the waste from local paper mills, and a locally made felt used as liners for wooden clogs. Everyone wore clogs and these thick fabric inserts were a godsend. Small attic workshops grew into a thriving industry. By the early 1800’s around 20,000 people were employed in making slippers that were shipped out all across France.  With a steady income from dependable jobs, folks had money to build homes and support local businesses. Store keepers built apartments above their thriving shops, factory workers built new housing at the entrances to the villages and the nearby farmers improved their properties. Bourdeilles is a good example of this population and housing boom - the population of Bourdeilles was around 4,000 by the mid-1800’s. Village streets were lively with grocers, butchers, bakeries, bicycle shops, barrel makers, etc. Everyone clomped around in their wooden clogs and everyone had at least two pairs of pantoufle Charatiases, one for for the work day and one for evenings in front of the fireplace.  At the end of those busy days villagers swept up the front stoop and closed up freshly painted shutters.

But time and styles moved on and the lumpy, brown, plaid design of the Charentaises didn’t change a bit. Desperate when folks stopped wearing wooden clogs, creative thinkers added a rubber sole to the felted slippers. For now, the industry held on. The footwear that was so comforting in front of the fireplace was now— thanks to the rubber soles—sturdy enough go outside to collect wood, feed the chickens or pop into the grocery. And more! The iconic slippers were favored in stately homes to reduce the sound of servants’ footsteps. They were reputed to be the preferred shoes of jewelers at their bench, the coarse fabric collecting any gold or gem fragments. 

But stately homes came on hard times and the younger generation didn’t want to be caught dead in Grandpa’s ugly pantoufle Charentaises. Slipper sales dropped to nearly nothing. One by one local factories closed. Young folks moved away, houses were left empty when the grandparents moved out. The shutters along main street stayed closed and unpainted. The street sweeper drank a wee bit too much and disappeared. The population of Bourdeilles dropped to around 500 tired souls. 

However there has always been a few die hard supporters of the homely Charentaises. These stubborn businesses struggled to get away from the image of frumpy and plaid and yet keep the classic style of the slipper —“they are not sad our slippers! They can be happy!” 

In 2005 the governor of the region organized a design competition at the top Paris design schools. One hundred and seventy six snappy pairs of slippers were presented during Paris fashion week followed by a runway show at the Eiffel Tower.  Fashionistas started to take notice. Folks wanted in on the campy, nostalgic, made-in-France heritage. Nowadays brightly colored slippers are lined up right next to the traditional plaid (because Grandpa still wants his low-key, wear all day footwear). In 2006 the local slipper was granted regional protection from the National Industrial Property Institute. It is just the eighth time this prestigious French protection has been awarded. Two other items from the Nouvelle Aquitaine that have been awarded the same regional protection are Limoges porcelain and Aubusson tapestries. Being on the list guarantees that only the slippers made in a fixed geographic area, and to certain standards, can use the name pantoufle Charentaise. The industry is climbing back with about 200 people fabricating slippers in the region. And like Grandpa’s slippers that cling to the essential basics of their heritage, our small villages are coming back into style with younger families. Shutters are once again opening and closing with the rhythm of the day. Struggles with the vagaries of history continue for a small village, but for now there is a lively independent soul trying to take hold.