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.