Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Item one on my list of things to do on my day off is to stay in bed until the sun is up. None of this getting up in the dark to go to work.
So what is this persistent ringing of my door buzzer ? an unpleasant grating noise, it always makes me want to immediately NOT answer the door. But it keeps on and I get up and put my robe on and there’s nobody there. Hmph. I stand in the kitchen door a moment wondering at all the snow on the sidewalk when the door buzzes again. Must have seen the light on.
It’s a package from Darrell ! I’ve got rum balls at last. Well, that was worth getting up for. Now I’m going back to bed.

There really is snow out there. Snow has been teasing us all week. We haven’t had a day above freezing yet, but it’s been coming down so lightly as to not completely cover anything. And now overnight we’ve had three inches. Maybe a bit less, but enough to turn everything white and rounded and soft.
I could spend my day off just messing around in the snow around here. Who knows if it will last for the weekend. I consider that as I’m bundling up for a day outdoors and decide, no, I’ve got a ticket to Laqueuille [1] in my pocket and I’m going there. Even at the risk of not finding anything for lunch in that two-horse town.
I’ve got my notebook and a pen and extra ink and a disposable camera I’ve had since 2003 and two oranges and a book to mail to California all stuffed in my bag. I’m wearing tights under my jeans for the first time in years, and huge wool socks and hiking boots and a t-shirt and a thick wool sweater, plus a purple parka, red cashmere gloves, an enormous wool scarf, and a blue hat knitted by Marie and given to me because it didn’t fit her. Does it fit me ? Really ? I am ready to go.
Item two : breakfast out.
Ah, there was never such a luxury as breakfast out. If I were in LA today I’d go over to John O’Groat’s on the Westside, and have a bowl of their wonderful blueberry oatmeal and endless cups of coffee with cream served up in those chunky ivory-colored mugs. Oatmeal with cream and butter and cinnamon.
But I‘m not in LA, and breakfast in Clermont-Ferrand is coffee with cream, of course, and pastry. Nice flaky pastry with plenty of chocolate chips.
Strolling back to the bus stop I happen to glance at the clock. Very much time to go if I’m not to miss my train. I think of the packet for a friend weighing down my bag and regret having to carry it around all day. But the post office branch right next to my breakfast spot is open, for once. It opens so late in the morning I usually forget it exists.
I get the packet posted just in time to hop the bus to the station. I’m nearly the last person to board our supermodern train, so all the window seats are taken. I ride backwards across from a soldier on leave who uses the window to sleep against. Across the aisle four teenage girls copy each other’s schoolwork in a gaggle of conversation and MP3 playing.
The noise of the people and the several music players going at once and the loud hum of the train itself contrasts with the imagined silence outside. We might have a new, comfortable train car, but the tracks are as old and kinked as ever, so it’s a bumpy, jerky ride.
I see a line of sheep laboring up a hill, looking dirty and fat against the new snow. We’re following a stream which widens at points into small ponds. A flock of geese sits tranquilly on one of the iced-over ponds. Maybe they’re stuck in the ice.
Passing through Volvic I have a tremendous urge to get off the train and spend the day photographing the junkyards next to the tracks. Scrap iron here, wood there, cars stacked farther on. The snow has given them all such an interesting, artful look, I want to get out there and make something beautiful of the mess. Maybe tomorrow, if the snow holds.
This damned train - I’m getting ink everywhere. My fingers, the notebook, the seats.

Somebody mentions it’s a quarter to twelve. I sneak a peek at the soldier’s watch. Indeed.
Now, we’re due in Laqueuille at 11:40, and I saw on the display before leaving that we have two stops before that. All the display in the train itself says is Ussel. Ummm. Was there more than one of these mini-trains at the quay ? I got on so quick I didn’t much notice. I might be stuck on this train all the way to Ussel. It’s a bigger town, though, and I’d been hoping for a walk in the fields. But the conductor didn’t say anything when he punched my ticket. Maybe he only looked at the date.
Never mind all that. Here we are stopping in Laqueuille. Maybe the train guys are clever enough to know that if nobody’s getting off, and nobody’s getting on, there’s no point in stopping. We’re already late because of the icy tracks.
Laqueuille is a two-track station, and our train is on the far track. Across the spacious island is another train heading for Clermont. The other descending passengers head directly for the station, but I pause for a couple of pictures, one of the conductor leaning out of his tiny window to talk to his colleague. As I make my leisurely way on, it becomes clear that the stationmaster has held up the trains so that everybody can cross the tracks in safety, and he’s tired of waiting for me. He calls out for me to wait where I am as the train to Clermont gets underway, and in my fog of « cool ! » it takes me a moment to figure out he’s talking to me.

Across the street from the station, in this one-street town, there’s a hotel and restaurant that looks open, if not particularly busy. So there is lunch. It’s a bit early yet, so I decide to wander around a while before settling down to eat, maybe find a pizzeria or something similarly more casual.
I head left and after twenty meters come to the end of the street. I can go left again and cross the railway toward the cheese factory and open territory, or right into different open territory where there’s a sign saying « Laqueuille ». Aha. So the real town is over there somewhere. This is just the part that grew up to serve the train station. OK. I head off down the semi-plowed road. On either side are gentle hills marked off into fields and pastures by rows of trees or fencing. The snow is pure and unbroken and about six inches deep. It looks like the road was plowed hours ago, but not many cars have been by.
I can see about a mile ahead as I round one shoulder of hill, and there’s no town in sight. The distance wasn’t given on the road sign. It might be down in the very next vale. It might be five miles away. Wherever it is, I have no guarantee there is any form of lunch there, especially if I arrive after the magic hour of 12:30 and even the grocer’s is closed.
Back in Laqueuille Gare, as the station town is called, it’s just ringing noon. I pass the restaurant, which is lit, and just a block beyond the town ends again. I have seen it all in fifteen minutes. The plow-driver is dawdling along the street in his machine and when the clock finishes 12 I see why – we enter the restaurant together.

Full of roast chicken and potatos and good local cheese, I set off in search of the real Laqueuille. It’s three kilometers up the road, they tell me at the hotel, and they’re surprised that I find that distance just fine. Far enough to make a good walk, but not too far.
It’s snowing lightly but steadily, and soon I’m covered with a crust of ice. It occurs to me that I haven’t waterproofed these boots in years. Had no particular reason to, as I usually hike in tennis shoes. But my feet are thus far plenty warm in their thick socks, and it’ll take a while for the snow to soak though, if it does.
This is farm territory, and part of the Auvergne Cheese Route. There is good cheese. My favorite blue is bleu de Laqueuille and I had some for lunch. The farms are big, with generous fields and huge barns. And it’s all empty. Not a cow to be seen, nobody about, few cars on the road. All packed up for winter, no doubt.
After 2 km I see a small road going off to the right with a brown sign: cascade. So there’s a waterfall over there, huh ? I’m tempted, but the sign is meant for drivers so it could be far. On the other hand, as the falls aren’t named, it isn’t a very famous site, and thus likely to be truly local. I cross the road and take the turnoff. We’ll see about this point of interest and I’ll get to town later.

Pretty soon I’m in a village of a handful of houses all crowded against each other as if afraid of taking possession of the vast surrounding fields. There’s a lively stream cutting through that I’ve already photographed twice, and a parking lot just ahead. No further signs of a cascade, but there’s a trail going upstream.
After twenty minutes of snow halfway to my knees and countless pictures of the stream running between snow-covered rocks and trees (it’s just so picturesque !) I give up. It might be a mile yet, and I’ll be soaked too early in the day. I don’t see any obvious waterfall-points ahead in the geography, either.
So I turn back, and in the village I get barked at and I see the yellow bar marking an official trail. Trail : road ?
Take the trail. It’s actually a dirt road under the snow, and people have been by this way already today. Perhaps the scandinavian couple who got off the train with me and who crossed promptly without stopping for silly pictures of the train driver.
Snow-covered fields to the left of me, snow-covered fields to the right. I take far too many pictures of neat snow-covered trees. Eventually I come to the top of the ridge and can see for some considerable distance. There’s a nice-looking farm complex ahead, but when I get there it’s obvious that the road going left is just their driveway.
I could swear that Laqueuille has to be off to my left. I only had 1 km to go when I turned off on this detour and I think I’ve been roughly paralleling the main road. Maybe. In any case, it can’t be off to my right, which is where the road, and my yellow-marked trail, go.
Adventure aside, I would like to see the town, maybe stop for a coffee, and send a postcard. I do know how to get there : turn back.

The center of Laqueuille turns out to be just a bit smaller than St. Germain des Fossés, but even less lively. It’s built along the side and top of a ridge, giving it an interesting vertical character. Nothing much seems to be open just now. I’m glad I didn’t hold out for lunch, because the one restaurant I can identify is closed up tight. Or maybe that’s just because it’s almost three in the afternoon now.
I take a tour of the church, which is small and dark and musty. It’s dimensions are odd, being wide and deep, and fan-shaped, and there are strange carved wooden capitals holding up nothing. Otherwise it’s unremarkable and I leave.
There’s a post office, a bakery, and a small general store open, so I duck into the store to find a postcard. They have three. All are oddly colored, and none is of the town in winter. I choose the one that annoys me the least and go in search of a bar to sit down and write in. And a coke would be nice; I’m terribly thirsty.
There’s not much of a sidewalk, and what there is has received the slush pushed off the road, so the going is not easy on the main street. The town ends in another block anyway. Across the road I discover a square with a statue and a fountain and a parking lot which seems to be the setting-off point for a couple of yellow-marked trails. A school, two closed hotels. No place to sit with a coke.
I head for the post office to write my card, then back to the store for an Orangina. Orangina is not only good soda, it’s good at room-temperature. I haven’t been cold yet due to the exertion of slogging through the snow mostly uphill, but cooling myself off from the inside still isn’t recommended.

Wandering about town again I decide to take the yellow trail and see if it’s the same one I turned back on earlier. I’m sure I’ll recognise the lone farmhouse and it’s particular trees from the other side. The trail does seem to leave in the right direction.
Once again it’s two steps and you’re out in the countryside. St Germain last week was actually unusual in its ring of suburbs. This is more typical of nowhere France : town, country. No intermediates.
Right away there’s a magnificent pine standing alone on a crest. I walk halfway across the field of foot-deep snow for its picture. Oh, and there are some more snow-covered trees ! and look – a snow-covered farmhouse ! I resist. Though I do stop for a shed full of idle tractors and a place where a collection of tires is half-buried, and then get on up the road.
And there they are:
Cows at last. The only outdoor cows for miles, and I’ve been looking.
They’re all huddled together around their pile of hay. Some are looking toward me, but nobody comes any nearer. Darn this disposable camera – no zoom. The cows are all brown or brown with white spots, and very shaggy.
A mile on, the trail turns right at a huge farm complex complete with barking dogs. I keep going a few minutes but then get to thinking what if I don’t find familiar territory. My train’s at six so I have time still, but not endless time like I would in the summer. Eventually I decide to go back past the cows again.
The farmer is out now on his tracter with a load of something being towed. He turns into a field and starts distributing manure at the far end a hundred yards away. He’s got an attachment that flings the stuff in the air, making a fine, even carpet over the ground.
It’s been snowing all along, and I’ve gotten used to the sensation of fine stinging snow particles in my face. And then I notice it.
Oh my god.
It’s raining shit, and I’ve got nowhere to escape to. There’s just open road ahead and open road behind and barbed wire on either side. There’s nothing to do but run and get out of it as quickly as possible.
Running is not so easy. The soles of my good boots are full of packed snow, making them little better than regular shoes for getting a grip in this hard-packed snow road. I slip once before getting the hang of it, and jerk my tendons horribly staying upright on several occassions.
Finally I escape, and shake out my scarf and hat and brush myself off as well as possible before the evil stuff has a chance to melt.
Here are the cows again. They haven’t moved.
And the town. Same as ever. I take a new route through it, but to get back to the station there’s nothing but the main road.

When I get back to the station it’s just after five but there doesn’t seem to be any place open for coffee. There are two other people waiting for trains, staring at the walls like me. One poster advertises the bar I’ve passed by four times already and wondered about. It looked closed but there were cars around and this sign promises hot food and groceries and sundry until seven every day. Might as well check it out.
It is open. It’s the wide sun porch that makes it look closed. The sun porch is indeed closed; you just have to cross it to get to a cozy little bar with three tables and a counter and a ministore full of canned goods, local hams and cheese and sad winter produce.
I put my stuff down, order a beer, and head for the toilet. Heavenly ! Clean, spacious, an actual flush toilet with a seat. At the station they’ve got pit-toilets. Unheated pit toilets that would smell even worse if it was above freezing. I feel bad about tracking in slush from the street into this pristine room with its cute pictures and baby-changing table.
As I write in my journal and sip my beer, the old man at the bar keeps looking over at me. I apparently keep looking at him, but it’s really to glance at the clock just over his head. He could be 60 or 80, all shrunken and grizzled, a small person barely 5’6’’ as french country people so often are. When I come up to pay for my beer he shyly asks if he can ask me a question. How is it that I can write so quickly ?
I don’t really know. I just try to keep up with my thoughts. If I write too slowly I forget what I was going to say.
The last daylight has gone when I make my way back to the station, which has filled up a bit with a couple who’ve covered the far end of the single long bench with their baggage. At a few minutes to train time I go out to the quay to watch the train just before mine come and go. A young man follows me outside and asks for a cigarette. Earlier, before I went to the bar, he wanted to know how far it was to town. It becomes apparent that he’s been looking for a source of tobacco, and I point out the bar/store just around the corner. Oh no, certainly too expensive, he exclaims. Yeah, I think free is just about this ragged guy’s price. He goes off in search of a smoke elsewhere.

The train to Ussel doesn’t come. In a minute the station master calls out to me, to say that the train to Clermont has been replaced by a bus. OK. We are now six waiting around to get to Clermont. Time is going by and nobody knows just when this bus is coming. It’s still snowing.
At 6:20 a bus swings into the parking lot. The guy with a connection for Paris at 7:27 and I head outside but the driver waves us off. The three people getting off the bus are quite irritated: they were suppossed to be on their way to Clermont and about ten minutes ago the driver announced he’d be giving up at Laqueuille after all.
Again we are left with no solid information, just an assurance that there will be a bus for Clermont soon. The station fills with smoke as the smokers come back inside with their clothes stinking. There’s nowhere to sit but next to them. Thankfully, a minibus pulls up just a few minutes later, and there is just enough space for everyone.
It’s a long, careful drive back, and we get to the station just an hour late. Word is that the train for Paris is waiting. There’s transport to Paris, but not to Chamalières: the city buses have stopped running. Too much snow. I look around – there’s maybe two inches more since this morning. Wimps !
I trudge home, tired, my feet freezing from my unwaterproofed boots thawing and soaking through on the bus.
Rum balls and warm cats await my return.

January 28, 2005

[1] Pronounced “Lacoy”

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