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.

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Wilds of Paris

 I've started to dream of going on a safari, but for now I've settled for an overnight in the wilds of Paris--

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Dreaming of July

 The year 2023 has started off foggy and damp and yet already our small village is a buzz with news of something coming our way on a hot, hopefully sunny, July day.

Our narrow, potholed, grungy main street is going to be swept through by Le Tour de France. 

The Tour!

It’s hard to explain my wild enthusiasm for this event normally experienced from my armchair. I am bubbling over with excitement that for an afternoon our elegant and history filled region is going to be the focus of attention of the entire world. I’ve even discovered the count down clock on the official Tour site. Today the start is 173 days 14hours 8 minutes and 10 seconds away.

For years I’ve spent July afternoons watching the Tour on television in the cool comfort of home. I’ve wasted hours cheering for those crazy young men beating themselves up, holding my breath as they scream down insane mountain lanes and hoping they keep their legs pumping as they struggle up even steeper mountain peeks. I dream of visiting the incredibly diverse countryside artistically revealed by the television crews. 

This July 8th I’ll be live in person cheering and partying along the route of stage 8 Libourne - Limoges  201 KM.

I’ll brave whatever weather nature throws at us, pull up a beach chair, gather up a bunch of friends, and sit for hours waiting for some crazy athletes in brightly colored jerseys to come whizzing by in the flash of an eye. I’ve already started to scrutinize where I can maximize this fleeting experience. Do I want to watch them gliding past long sweeps of sunflowers? Do I want to try to get a birds eye view from a house along the main street? Or do I want to anxiously stand on the very narrow very tight right hand turn that starts the climb up main street? They’ll be coming flying into that nasty turn from a long straightaway. There will certainly be entanglements.

It has been thirty three years since the peloton raced up the main street of Bourdeilles. Friends tell me of sitting at their grandmother’s tables impatiently getting through lunch hoping not to miss the big event. These old timers remember hearing cheers, jumping up from the lunch table and running out the front door. The cheering swept up the street, a flash of colors zipped by within arms reach, and swoosh the riders were gone. Folks turned to look at each other on the narrow sidewalk wondering if they had really seen anything  - there was nothing but dust settling. One friend say she thinks she spotted the yellow jersey, maybe.

No one has started to plan yet, but with warmer weather we’ll start to plot how to create some roadside eye-catching thing to draw an extra nanosecond of attention to our impressive medieval chateau and its 40-meter tower perched over the Dronne River. The helicopter and the history announcer will appreciate our help in showing off France.

Our small village anticipation will last for months, but the helicopters and the riders will pass in the blink of an eye. You can be sure that most, well lots, of Bourdeilles 500-some citizens will be looking for the swag and letting go of some big small town cheers.