Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Moulins sur Allier

Where to go, where to go.
I would have spent this weekend, or Sunday at least, in Paris in the company of my friend Iris, if only she were not in the midst of her wage-making season. For a tour guide, the insane schedule of June makes up for the slack times of February.

I have to be in Paris anyway on Monday, for a meeting, so how about one of the towns on the Clermont-Paris line that I haven't yet been to? The stops are Riom and Vichy, close enough I've been there many times, sometimes Saint Germain des Fossés sometimes we blow through it (I've written about St Germain; if it isn't in the archives, I'll try to remember to transcribe it for you), Moulins sur Allier, and then Nevers. I was in Nevers with Iris and her then-husband Matt and her mother and her dog, so Moulins is elected.
Sunday trains to Moulins sur Allier (can't forget the on-the-Allier part, there are other Moulins lurking in France) leave Clermont at 8:34, 13:27, and later. Me, catch a train at 8:34 on a weekend? Are you kidding? Let me do my market shopping for fresh eggs and tomatos and white onions first. Have a croissant and some coffee. Wander around the flea market.
At 13:28, off we go. It's a beautiful day outside. Sunny, but not too hot yet. The neat fields of corn or newly golden wheat or leafy potatos are all growing as fast as they possibly can, in the bright warmth before the ground dries out. Along the ditches and berms blood-red poppies are scattered around.
Suddenly, sunflowers!
A patch of happy yellow along the rails. In a week, there will be such patches everywhere.
I've never put this to the test, but I like to play a game whenever I take the train in France: how far could I have travelled for free? This train finishes in Paris, and they usually only come around once for tickets. Could I have travelled as far as Moulins without a ticket? Vichy is more than half way, so far so good.
When we pull into Moulins at 14:28, nobody has asked for my ticket. Another free ride for the daring.
The first thing to do, as always, is find a place to stay. The hotels around the station all look pretty scuzzy, as station hotels tend to. There must be something near the center of town. It isn't a long walk.
Not long, but even so it takes me a while, because as soon as I hit the older part of town I'm looking around and gawking at the medieval and renaissance architecture and taking detours down narrow little streets. I'll come back without the heavy backpack! I tell myself. But to little avail.
Happily, unlike my last weekend adventure destination, Tarare, there are hotels worthy of the name in the center of town. The Normandie and a Kyriad are on the same block. Usually I'd go for the small business over the chain, but it looks pretty run down from the outside. And the Kyriad promises free wifi. Oooh. Free Wifi. It's so sad how small businesses are harder and harder to maintain in the face of economy-of-scale national and international chains. But against that sadness, am I willing to sleep in a saggy bed reeking of cigarettes and shower in a cubicle I'd really rather not be able to see? Even if I save 10 euros in the deal? Just ten years ago that difference in price would have cinched it. Today, alas, I'm pampered middle class and I'd like to stay that way. I'll grade up, but not down. Sorry.
Moulins is has a beautiful town center. Magnificent stonework. Half-timbered houses. Narrow, cobbled streets. Geraniums spilling over balconies. I'm not a fan of churches, but I must admit, they do have the prettiest buildings. The white cathedral on the in the center of the city is spectacular, if still partly shrouded in scaffolding. Towns like this make me appreciate how poor Clermont-Ferrand really is in terms of this kind of physical heritage. We have a small historical quarter, but quite small. Here it's the entire central part of the city.
I was hoping to find Moulins a little livlier, to get some interesting people-pictures for the next Friday Shoot Out. But France is more or less closed on Sundays. Unless you're in the touristy Cote d'Azur. Exceptionally, this being the first weekend of the Sales, many shops are open today. And still the streets are nearly empty. Something big is happening at the cathedral, which is packed to overflowing, but that can't account for the whole town. Maybe they're down at the river having a picnic.
The riverfront is less interesting than I had hoped. Islands have formed downstream of a major bridge, but as soon as the water smoothens out, a hundred yards or so downstream, it's just one wide gravelly bank and one bank with vegetation down to the water. The gravel is dirty with the leavings of picnics and detritus left from the spring rise, and in places where water has pooled in backwaters it stinks. Bathing is forbidden by a sign, but nobody is being arrested.
I wander around with my sack full of camera and notebook and stuffed rabbit until 6:30, then it's time for a shower and a rest before finding dinner. I check out the wifi. Sure, it's free, but you still have to sign up. They'll send your password to your cell phone. Only, I don't have a cell phone. Stuck. Sigh. I'll have to get one some day.
Dinner is Italian, at the first restaurant I come across. I get tired of French all the time, and my feet aren't interested in hunting out that special mom&pop place serving the heavenly local specialty. And why shouldn't I have Italian? The scallop and langoustine pasta bake is excellent.
Early train to Paris in the morning. Slightly too early to score a fresh croissant and some coffee before getting on board, so I settle for what's available at the station in Paris. Meeting until 1:30, followed by lunch with my colleagues, then finally time for a bit of birthday shopping before the train home. It's so terribly convenient to have one's birthday coincide with the first week of the summer sales! I find a summer jacket in gold silk in a tiny japanese shop tucked away in the Latin Quarter that's quite affordable. Then walking in the general direction of the train station through the Marais, with my backpack getting heavier every minute, I stop in a little cul de sac filled with restaurants and boutiques, and fall in love with a loose tunic made of grey silk with purple flowers (I'll take a picture when I get home). No way would I even walk into this store if it weren't my birthday; no way would I try it on if it weren't a third off. Is mine now.
When I was 12 and part of my girl-scout troop was very much into camping, we used to have a lot of fun mocking Anne's dad, Mister Pilgrim, for taking so many pictures with the lens cap on. I think he eventually got an SLR, where you can't help but notice that, but even most point & shoots won't let you do that now (if they have a lens cap at all). So I find it lax of the camera-building firms of today, or specifically Sony, not to save digital users from themselves in a similar way. With a camera that detects everything, there should be a warning - hey idjit, there's no memory card loaded!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Rainbow colors

Not having any time to go out for fresh pictures this week, here are some brightly colored shots from the archives. The Pyramid at the Louvre.
Market day in Tarare.
Bougainvillea in Marrakech.
Carpets in Marrakech.
Toy train in a local park.
A painting by my friend Dan, before he added all the bright red leaves to it.
Tubes for snow tubing at SuperBesse.
An abandoned car near William's place.
I hope next week I'll have a bit of time to go out and shoot something new!

Thursday, June 25, 2009


My apricots are finally getting ripe, yea!
Alas, the ones in the picture are all lying on the ground.
While I was at work, one of the major branches just fell right off the tree. There was plenty of fruit hanging off it, but not that much!
Inside the branch it's just rotten. I hope the rest of the tree can be saved.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Cat of the Month: Walter

Now we're getting to the fun ones. The cats who stuck around. The cats that legends are made of.
Walter arrived at our house as a kitten, when I was in junior high. A grey tiger with energy to burn, he was all over the place, exactly what a houseful of kids wanted. A crash in the night: Walter. A streak of grey crossing the yard: Walter. Catfoodbowl empty: Walter.
Walter was the Cat who Broke his Leg. Yep. We found him one morning in the big laundry cart in the garage. This cart was made of strong wire, a grid with holes an inch or two across. It was just the right size for a young cat to stick his leg through, and if he leapt up with a start from the dog passing by or some exciting cat dream, snap it like a stick. Must have been - however would he have gotten in there if the leg was already broken?
He didn't seem to mind much.
We brought him home from the vet in quite a costume. A plaster cast from hip to toe was firmly tied to a metal frame. It was thought best that Walter not drag this heavy thing all around the house, so we put together the dog's pen in the living room. Plenty of room for the cat, a cushion, food & water bowls, personal litterbox. A palace of a cage with a lid of chicken wire. No way for the cat to escape.
Only, one day I came home from school, and there was Walter wandering about the house.
Back in the cage; some reinforcement here and there.
Next day, there he was again, this time without his cast. That was some trick, to push against the chickenwire cover until some of the staples gave way, squeeze through the gap, and then, getting stuck with the edge of the cast against the wooden side, to pull and pull until the leg came free. Minus most of its fur, of course.
The vet said if Walter was that determined, it would be just as well to let his leg heal without traction. And so it was.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday again already?!

Sorry guys, but I'm just too pooped to blog tonight. It's hard to believe it's been an entire week since my last post! But it's been an insane week catching up from being away for so long, and there was a super-important grant due today that I've just sent off by email. The paper version is sitting here in its envelope waiting for me to log off and go mail it (post-marked today, or binned!). So I'd better do that.
Next week I get to judge the Master students' oral presentations. Two and a half days of this, and I've yet to read the reports. No, I don't procrastinate! Never!
Just by way of saying "No blogging, gardening, shopping, hiking, making jam, knitting or general goofing off this weekend for Nancy".
If only there were an extra hour in the day. Just one, and I could keep up.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Shoot Out: M

Aha! This week's Shoot Out theme is M, is it? Around here, M is for Maurice.
Yes, my friends, Maurice the fabulous travelling rabbit has come to guest-blog for us. Normally he can be found here. He is still figuring out how the Superhero cape works. Ellie here is going to help me demonstrate my SuperJumping Power.
See how high I can jump!
Oof. Landing is still a little rough.
Let's try that again. You guys catch me.
Oooh, sorry Bjorn.
I bet you I can jump all the way to the roof.
I did it! Um. Help me down somebody?

Let's all jump!

I guess we all need to work on that landing part.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Down the Buffalo

Little float down the Buffalo with family.
Here's the favorite uncle, supervising. For a guy who didn't really want to go out on the river, he seemed to have a lot of fun.

A nice rock to go around. I thought it was obvious that we should go between the rocks, so I steered us between them. Rog, however, had other ideas and poled us off of it with his paddle, so we ended up going around the long way. That's alright: toughies paddle upstream.Later, with my camera safely dry in its multiple ziplock layers, we chose the deep and fast part of the stream close to shore instead of the very shallow part. There was a large tree hanging prettily over the water and the current got surprisingly strong, taking us right under it. No big deal; we could just duck under. Unfortunately, Rog and I both ducked the same direction, and over we went. No harm done, nothing lost, and Grace thought it was all pretty fun.
Ellie's turtle, which we let go before heading home.
A wet Bjorn.
Maurice after a swim.
It's pretty crowded from Tyler Bend to Gilbert, but the river is suddenly quiet just a few yards downstream. Why does the river always look better after you get out? Too bad it's another 12 miles to the next pullout!
How many kids does it take to move a bale of hay?
Granddaddy with friend.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Friday Shoot Out: Random Things

Random Things this week, OK. How about the random birds visiting my parents' feeders.
Thank goodness for digital!

Friday, June 5, 2009

too high tech

First try.
Second try.
Third try.
Fourth try.
Giving up.
On our stop at the rail-trail outside of West Helena, I decide to get a picture of the both of us for once. The camera does have a timer, after all. But I broke the screen falling on some ice a few months ago, and now I can't get things to work just when I want them to. These are the pictures from trying to get the timer to set. Hmmm. Gotta figure that out. Or get a new screen.
Dad can be so patient!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

MO, AR, TN, MS and AR again

It's a long way from St Louis to Alabama.
I could have flown into Memphis and got a jump on a few miles, but St Louis is the easiest airport for my parents to get to. The plan was for them to join me here and we'd take a road trip to two of my five never-been-to states. Right through Mississippi on to Alabama, then turn around for their place in Mountain Home Arkansas.
The plan has been changed. Mom is getting over a mysterious illness that may or may not be Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. She's getting better, but she's not up for all the miles. So Dad's here and we have to be home by Sunday night, which means Alabama is too far. Well, we could get there if all we wanted to do was drive like maniacs. But we don't do that any more. Yes, we're going to Mississippi just to see it, and we'd like to get to know it a little, not just blow through.
Alright. I'll just come back and we'll visit Alabama some other time.
Cutting through a bit of Arkansas on US55 we stopped for a snack. Good thing Mom sends Dad off with a cooler full of apples and cheese sticks and grapes and suchlike, because there wasn't much real food at the "store" in Turrell. I just wanted some crackers to add to our picnic, but the boxes of saltines looked so old the glue at the ends had given up. So we strolled with our cooler down the access road to Lake Wapanocco. Lots of birds out, and turtles in the scummy ponds, but we never made it to the lake. There were plenty of trains going by, too. We could hear them in the distance, sometimes rumbling by for five or ten minutes.
We cut through an even shorter bit of Tennessee, where we missed the exit to the visitors' center so we didn't stop there at all. Some day. I hear Memphis is a nice enough place. Mostly.

Stopping in Holly Springs, Mississippi, for the night, we went off and explored Wall Doxy State Park in the late afternoon. That's a nice little lake. The walk around it is only a couple of miles, and the camping and picnicing areas almost empty on this last Saturday in May. Where is everyone? So much the better for us to enjoy the peace and quiet.I was fascinated by the swampy end of the lake, where the trees are all out in the water. Usually when I see trees out in a lake it means they'll be dead soon. This is the kind of lake you've got to canoe on. It's a good fishing lake. Lots of lures and floats hanging from the trees.

Holly Springs looked festive, under its flags and grand trees, but was rather sad. Most of the shops on the square were closed or on their way, unfortunately. The viable area was the strip along the freeway, all fast food chains and Wallmart and riding lawnmower dealers. And our hotel. There were lots of really nice old mansions in the town, kept up, lawns mowed, prosperous - why was the interesting, personal, town center dying if these people were still here to make it live? Where did they go instead for a slice of good pie? There was nowhere to buy food we could see except for Walmart.
The people we came across were friendly as could be, smiling and saying hello and waving to us from across the street. At the one open restaurant on the square they promised home-made ice cream for dessert. The orange sherbet was ready, but we'd have to wait for the strawberry ice cream. They were just now cutting up the berries. Sure enough, at the back table by the stairs was a white-haired woman with red fingers, cutting strawberries into a bowl. I think I'll go with the sherbet.
Before heading for dinner, Dad asked the receptionist at the hotel where we could have a beer with dinner, and she told us - Oh, no, not in this county! So while we mulled over our softdrink choices, the waitress piped up with - and of course there's a full bar, beer, wine, well drinks, whatever you want!
Oh! Well, yes, a cold one would be great.
Sunday morning early we're off to a new lake. The mist is still on the water, and five or six boats are out fishing. Dad's been to this lake and knows it's too big to walk around in the time we have. And if we go to the right, there's an earthen dam to walk along for the view.

But eventually it's time to turn west and head for home. We've got a bit of Mississippi delta to cross. Dad knows where the bridges are so we don't have to go back up to Memphis, too. Good thing! Crossing at Helena the Arkansas welcome center advertises free coffee, which naturally draws us in. There's a short hike not far. And there's a good mexican restaurant about three miles up the road. It's early for lunch, but if we hike first and follow the unwritten "No Backtracking Rule", there may not be real food on a Sunday for miles and miles and miles. Let's eat now. Good idea!
Now for the walk, along an old railbed converted to hiking-biking. They've got 7 miles of the 73 ready for us. We only do 3. It's hot out suddenly, and walking the tree-tunnel flat featureless trail, after a mile we've pretty much got the idea. We'll just get to that road crossing up ahead and turn around.
Enough messing around. Time to hit the road.
Since I live in the region of Auvergne and there is an Auvergne Arkansas more or less on our route, if we insist it go that way, we went by there. Blink and you'll miss it.
That's all for this post (and probably way too much!).