Sunday, November 30, 2008


It's a good train and we are prepared. We have sudoku, pretzels, Italian lemon cookies, knitting, books, conversation. People around us have companions who will not be travelling north, but for the time being they stick around. When the station master makes a preliminary announcement with 5 minutes to go, the husband in the row behind us says his goodbyes, and as I watch him leave the quay, lots of other people seem to be leaving too, almost like a train just pulled up and is letting people off.
Across the aisle are two Turkish girls. The one going to Paris isn't happy with her aisle seat being next to an occupied window seat, so she tried to snag the window seat behind, but then the occupant of that one arrived too. The difficulty of reserved seats. So she and her friend sit in different rows and chat hanging into the aisle. They're so absorbed at trying out various loud and annoying ringtones for their phones that people have to ask twice to get through to their seats farther down.
There's the second announcement, meaning our departure is imminent, but the non-traveller makes no move to wrap it up. I consider saying something, but they've both been rather Don't Bother Us!, and quickly enough the station master blows his all-clear whistle and off we go.
We slide out of the station so smoothly that it takes the Turks a moment to notice, and the look on Girl 2's face is priceless. No translation necessary for her torrent of comments!
(Oh, come now, I wasn't that mean by not saying anything. Our first stop is in Riom, barely 7 minutes away. She'll get back to Clermont without any trouble. If this were a nonstop to Paris, of course I would have said something.)
At two, long past Lunchtime (can you see my life revolves around when I might eat next) and having exhausted our snackage between Nevers and Fontainebleau, we go drop off our stuff at the hotel in Montmartre. No proper lunch: we'll enjoy our tibetan dinner that much more tonight.
First thing: Booktrading.
One of the main attractions of Paris for me is turning over my library. I love books, but I don't need to keep them. It's what's in them that counts, not having the object (unless I haven't read it yet). So I've got 11 or 12 books to get rid of, hoping to change them into a handful of new titles at my favorite used English-language bookstores. Berkeley Books and San Francisco Books are just a block from each other in the Left Bank university area, run by ex-colleagues.
I like Berkeley better, both their stock and the owner. He only wants four of my books today, while I want five of his. Settle for three, and I still have to reach for cash. Down the street I'm pleasantly surprised that the other guy will take all but two of my remaining titles. Deal! I want a couple new ones, and Darrell wants a couple, and even weeding out some I'm digging for change. I'll just ditch the other two in a likely spot for some anglophone to pick them up.
The rest of the afternoon we wander across the Latin Quarter to Notre Dame. They're advertising an organ recital tomorrow evening that sounds like an interesting experience, even for non-organ music, non-religious people like us, but we'll eventually not go. Then through part of the Marais toward the Defender of Time for its 6 pm show. Iris told me some time ago that it had been repaired, but either she was misinformed or it’s broken anew. Awww. Though it does seem to have been polished.
Back in Montmartre it’s not quite seven, the absolute earliest time you can get dinner in Paris. But we’re starving. Must Eat. In front of Gang Seng at 6:58, their staff is rather surprised to have customers on the dot of opening.
It’s a short menu, but even so I haven’t tasted all of it. For starters, I prefer the salad - a sort of cole slaw with carrot shreds and cilantro on top - to the soup. And I’ve only tried two of the main courses (and nibbled bits of others off of friends’ plates), but the coriander lamb is so delicious I can’t bring myself to take a chance on anything else. And the steamed bread is excellent. Darrell and I order the same things, though he goes for rice instead of strange bread. He remembers my recommending injera at that Ethiopian place years ago. And we’ll have a pot of butter tea.
This Tibetan butter tea is a sort of weak tea with a lot of milk, and a fair quantity of butter melted in. It’s salty. Served scalding hot, the up-front saltiness is surprising; the butteryness is unusual. It’s okay. But I’m not a fan of milk tea in the first place. I’m glad to have a small carafe of wine. Darrell quite enjoys the tea as long as it remains very hot. Cooled, we both find it undrinkable.
The coriander lamb is a big hit, and although the chunks of lamb are practically dry on the outside, covered in their paste of spices, they’re wonderfully tender.
I love our hotel room. It has its flaws, and its unfortunate color scheme, and its windows positioned to either side of the very bright on-all-night neon sign outside, but what it mostly has is heat - no cold toes!- and a bathtub. Ah, for a glorious HOT bath at the end of the day.

At breakfast there is unlimited coffee, to the very great pleasure of my companion. Bread and croissants and butter and jam and honey, but alas, no little packets of Nutella. We decide the Nutella situation must be rectified tomorrow.
Our mission today is to travel on the RER system (the suburban trains) to Ecouen and the castle there that houses the National Renaissance Museum. We pack up Maurice and the camera stuff and etc, and take the metro, and the RER, where we sit upstairs for the view of scuzzy near-Paris, and a bus into the leafy commuter towns, and we get out there. It’s a quiet Tuesday in November and, rather as anticipated, there’s nobody much around.
There is a crew working with a dumptruck and a large, interesting vehicle tearing up the road leading to the castle. The interesting machine is like a road harvester, breaking up the top four inches of the dirt road, leaving a smooth surface behind. With a belt it transfers the dirt to the dumptruck strategically placed to catch, like a flow of dark wheat. It fills the truck from back to front, beeping for it to move forward and to stop again, every several seconds.
There’s a front gate, and off to the side a ways a large panel announcing the National Renaissance Museum in several languages, followed by some small print you’d have to go over there to read.
The gates are open so we head in toward the castle. It has a moat, or an ex-moat now a concave lawn. The fourth side of the originally U-shaped building has been rather crudely filled in with a fourth wing to complete the square. This new (19th century) wing, the closest to arriving visitors, is very plain and unimpressive. Not an architectural success. Take it away.
It does have a big wooden door in the middle. A big closed door. Perhaps another 2-5 pm only thing in this off-season. There aren’t any hours posted, no signage at all except for the profusion of keep-off-the-lawn markers.
Try the right door: locked. The left door: locked. But then Darrell hears a voice asking something and the door opens, revealing a small brown frenchwoman. She tells us the Museum is Closed on Tuesdays. Open all the rest of the week, Sundays, holidays, but not Tuesdays.
Why didn’t our little what-to-see brochure mention this important detail? Open All Year it says. Except Tuesday.
Alrightthen. We’ll see the grounds.
There is a group visiting the grounds already. It seems to be some kind of youth group, and three of them have split off and are jogging around the formal garden area - now just a lawn with paths to nowhere in it - like this were their phys-ed period.
We stroll down one of the many alleys, hoping to chance across a promised fountain, but the castle park isn’t anything but a November woods crisscrossed with paths more or less covered in leaf litter. It’s damp and dull and we give it up to explore the town instead. At least there we won’t get our feet wet. On the way out we read that fine print: Closed Tuesdays.
The town is quickly done, and soon we have found the bus stop to get back to the RER. How about we stop at St Denis, at the basilica there is where most of the French kings and queens are entombed. It should be quite something, and churches are rarely closed. Plus, it’s on the way back to Paris.

After a sandwich eaten on the train we stop in a St Denis bar for tea, as much to warm up as anything else. It looked like a decent choice from the outside. Darrell, however, gets trapped in the bathroom because the door handle is wonky, then reports that the establishment is still in the 19th century as far as plumbing goes. I’ll wait.
In the main commerce square, just off the main official square with City Hall and the Basilica, we come across a market just packing up. Darn! I love poking around those markets.
Then the Basilica (actually a “cathedral” due to its being the seat of a certain level of cleric, they still call it by the lesser rank of “basilica” because they like to). Yep, very impressive. Not exceptionally large - many cathedrals are more than twice as large. But very ornate. A lot of basilicas and cathedrals have a lot of exterior decoration, but St Denis is exceptionally rich. Famous people and events all over, a storybook in sculpture if you can decipher it, down to the symbolic plants and animals you might think are just there for aesthetic reasons.
Inside, I’d really like to be allowed to walk around the gallery upstairs, where all the kings, and some queens, are lined up in a stained glass parade. Their names are too ornately written for me to read from the floor of the nave, though some may be guessed: Dagobert, Clovis...
Access to the nave is free. Today there are as many people come to pray as to gawk. A quiet day. At the limit of the choir area, though, there is a fence of iron bars. That’s where the necropole is, with the tombs of France’s royalty, some marble, some plaster replicas. To walk among them, touch them if nobody is looking, takes 6.50.
Nah. We can see them fine from here.
There’s a gift shop, as there is in most major cathedrals and religious sites, where you can get St Denis rosaries, books about the church or the life of the saint, St Denis figurines complete with head off, and, the first I’ve seen, St Denis T-shirts. Not even Notre Dame de Paris sells t-shirts.

At a supermarket we equip ourselves with Nutella, and hand cream because the hotel room is extremely dry from the glorious heat running constantly. There are three basic sizes of Nutella. The 200 g jar will get us through breakfast for the rest of the trip, but it’s awfully expensive. 400 g is more reasonably priced, but once you get up in weight (it comes in thick glass jars), why not just go for the more economical 750 g jar? And once you’re leaning toward 750 g (1150 with the jar - we went to the produce department and weighed it), there are not one, but two special-offer jars, with 780 or 825 g of hazelnut & chocolate goodness. They’re all mixed in together, as if a new pallet of 750-s just arrived and they tossed the odd 780s and 825s on the pile. 825 grams it is.
In the evening we stroll around town looking for holiday decorations. The big department stores have their famous animated window displays ready, and it’s the perfect time to browse them: no Christmas crowds out yet. I think they’re cool, often ingenious. Darrell is unimpressed. Aside from the windows, there’s not much decoration up yet. Or, it’s up, we can see the strings of wire, but it’s not lit up. We’re keeping a lookout for Christmas markets, too, hoping to score presents for everyone back home. There’s nothing in several of the usual places, except for the Champs Elysées, and even that is pretty lame.
More later, and the pictures should be ready Tuesday...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Back in Clermont

Saturday's entertainment is driving an hour to St. Etienne to buy an armoire for my bedroom. Closets are still a modern curiosity for the French. It'll be nice to be able to hand my clothes in my room at last, like a normal person.
It does in fact take the whole day. Vacation-speed getting going, the long drive, lunch among the screaming kids (Ikea is apparently a Weekend Destination for families), picking out my modular components, discovering that there is No Way they will all fit in our teeny Renault 107, arranging delivery, and getting home. The 107 is black, making it of the Bandersnatch Kind, and as we know, Bandersnatch is quite capable of amazing amounts of intake, so why not the car??
The Logistics Guy really really wants to rent me a van. But at 18€ an hour, figure 4 hours paperwork to paperwork, gas, freeway tolls, and all, and I save about 20 for my pains. Forget that. Really forget it when it comes out that I'm not having everything delivered (the baggies of hardware and the half-dozen rats we can handle), and I come out ahead.
Only, I won't be home next week. This week, ok. But they can't get it to me that fast. Next week is their week, and the delivery company guarantees delivery in 2 weeks or less. I'd be making them break their promise.
But I want week 3. Week 3 is golden.
Non, non, week 2 is a promesse.
You know week 2 doesn't work for me. But wait, the delivery people are going to call me to set up a date, aren't they? They don't just show up at random in the 2-week window, do they? So if it's in the first week, great, if it's in the second I'll just not be answering the phone. They'll have no choice but to go for week 3. They can't just keep the stuff.
Finally somebody with a little more authority steps in, and we all agree that I will be called on Dec 1st to arrange delivery. Sheesh! an hour for that!
It would have been so cool to spend the evening putting it together. And then moving my stuff in. Hanging my shirts. Sweaters on the shelves. Sigh. Some day soon.

Sunday: Murol castle
Another dark grey, cold day. There's snow above 500 meters, though not a lot. That's just the way it is in November this year. On a few hillsides the birch trees still have golden leaves, making glowing bright spots among the dark pines and brown oaks if ever the sun comes out.
Taking the small roads we arrive just at noon. Murol is open all year round; I checked before leaving, but now that November 12 is passed, only after 2pm.
Hey look - an open restaurant. How convenient.
Good country food, too, and cider. Our bottle of cider looks like it has spent a good long time in a cellar, but it's good stuff.
Murol was your classic medieval wreck when I moved to Clermont 12 years ago. Today it's most of the way through the planned restoration. Most of the structural work is done; now they're on to some of the interior and part of the roof. Without much yet in the way of decoration, they too concentrate on the combative aspects of the time. There are a few other touches: spinning and knitting in a bedroom, pots and implements in the kitchen, skins on the floor. It's a nice visit.

I have to work during the week, which actually works out pretty well. Darrell gets lots of rest while I stay busy. He gets his fill of cat petting and lounging around; I'm not driven crazy with idleness.

We eat in (bread of the day, salad, shredded duck, cheese) or out (my favorite Indian and Italian), and once we decide to make rabbit. I leave Darrell a note for the butcher: 1/2 lapin, coupé. At the first butcher shop, the guy reads the note, says no followed by a long string of French. No is enough, so D takes his note back and goes on. The second guy just takes the note, takes a dressed rabbit over to the butcher's bandsaw, and cuts it lengthwise before chopping 8 parts with a cleaver. 1/2 lapin, coupé. Bone splinters everywhere.

At home we decide the head and giblets are catfood, and marinate the rest in herbs and red wine. Excellent rabbit for all, to be eaten cautiously.

It's a quiet week enjoying each other's company and watching season 2 of "24" on dvd. Jack Bauer is God. Obviously.

For extra entertainment, we pose the collection of rats and decorate the ficus with them. Christmas ornaments and tinsel are so ordinary. Another evening we visit the hardware store and their collection of locks and fun keys. Darrell emptied my box of 46 house keys and could not find locks for them all. However, he lusts after one old padlock on the door to the under-the-house. Would I trade him for a new one?


So I come home the next day and my short screwdriver is all bent and sad. That lock had been there for some years undisturbed, but he got the better of it.

Preparing our return to Paris I arrange with Marc to feed the cats daily. Usually I set up the anticatescape device just as I'm leaving, but it seems like a good idea to set it up early, the night before, while the cats are not yet desperate to get out or aware that there is any kind of imminent departure. That way, when Natalie insists on a 6 am sortie I can open the door and she'll rush out into the vestibule, but her escape route from there will be blocked by the cardboard. Ha ha! She might paw at the door, but the bedroom is far enough away not to notice. Then I'll let her in at 8.

Sure enough, at 6 Natalie really really really wants out. And at 8 here she comes in again - wriggling her way through the gap where she bent the sturdy cardboard out of her way.


Well, I'll not tell Marc about this little flaw in the anticatescape device. I'll just reinforce it here with these bricks and rely on the presence of a bulky stranger to intimidate Natalie long enough to shoo her back indoors.

Cats all in, fed, watered, litter sifted. Luggage in the car, umbrella out. Tank filled, car returned, and to the station with 40 minutes for croissants and more coffee. We are capable of endless coffee. Next stop Paris.

Medieval castles

Hurrying back to Castelnaud to not miss a minute of opening hours, we pass under Beynac castle, squaring off with Castelnaud across the valley like fighters in their corners. Ooohhh, this one looks even cooler.
No stopping. We're on a mission. If there's daylight left for it, we'll come back.
There's a gift shop just below the castle keeping the same hours, and we stop there first. So as not to find ourselves exiting the castle after a well-savored visit to find them closing up and putting that toy ballista in the window forever out of reach, you understand. Darrell scores a put-together trebuchet and a url to order the other models.
Restored in the 20th century from a sad wreck, Castelnaud today is an excellent visit, concentrating on the warrior side of the medieval period. That's the part that Darrell likes best.
Inside, there's a video on trebuchets subtitled in english, apparently taken right here on the grounds or nearby. The engines are out in the yard, the very ones!
Then arms, and armor, guard rooms, towers with very short doors and narrow stairways, a few historical presentations. In role-playing games characters are always swinging their broadswords and maces in stairway fights, backing each other up two abreast. Yeah right! You couldn't swing your fist here without scraping your knuckles on the far wall and/or losing your balance on the steps 16 inches wide and just five deep, knocking all your buddies behind you down to the landing.
Of course, nobody ever really fought inside the corridors of these castles in armor and big weapons. They did that in the keep and on the battlements and eventually the major rooms. If the enemy got inside at all, it was because the battle was done.
Like here, when the English held Castelnaud in the 100 Years War, the French set up camp outside, set up their trebuchets, and laid siege. When eventually the defenders gave out, the takeover didn't involve swordplay indoors. It's all right there in the diorama.
We visit the ramparts, and the wooden hourds sticking out from the tower walls with their slots for pouring nasty things on attackers, and the collection of war machines in the yard. It's a shame you're not allowed to try them out, though I'll bet there are demonstrations in the summer.
There is some light left as we make our way back to Beynac. Castelnaud is small, and you only visit part of it. With no time spent on other aspects of medieval life, it's not more than a 2-hour visit.
To Castelnaud's pale ochre sandstone, Beynac is grey and somber. Again perched on a summit, its feet in its village, it too has been restored from near ruin. For centuries nobody really cared to preserve the medival fortresses that nobody lived in or used any more. These aren't late-Renaissance castles - which are often more manor house than defensive structure - and as people moved away from feudalism they used the old castles as quarries. Big pile of ready-cut stone, right there.
This time we just poke around the outside. They're closed, and the sun is setting and the temperature is dropping, so it's time to hit the road for home.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

random notes

At right is Beynac castle, barely more than a good trebuchet's throw from Castelnaud.

After 7 days, for the first time Bandersnatch did not run away when Darrell stood up. He is also allowed to pet her while he was not lying down.
This is not the real Bandersnatch, but one of The Bandersnatch Kind cruising for petting near Castelnaud.

Tuesday evening entertainment: hanging out in the lock department of the local home improvement store.

My colleagues say "hat" to my brother for eating good french cheese, moldy crust and all.
And for Stéphanie: yes! we found dovecotes!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pictures from the Perigord

Keeping Sarlat-le-Canéda clean and pretty.
A picture of a woman who took a picture of us taking a picture of Maurice.
The private castle in La Roque Gageac. No entry! Tired of you tourists in our yard.

Castelnaud in the late morning fog.
Here's the castle at Milandes. Closed for the season. The good thing about the off season is there aren't many other tourists running from sight to sight on the teeny little roads. The bad thing is that without enough tourists it isn't worth it for places to be open.

Darrell inspects the lock. I keep expecting Maurice to fall out of his pocket.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Vacation with Darrell, part 1

photos later - my computer is having problems with Blogspot
The inadequacy of writing implements
Darn. I’ve lost my fountain pen. Misplaced it. It can’t be lost. I just haven’t looked for it in the right place yet.
The usual places I’ve looked. Like the pocket of my shoulder bag and the fountainpenbox next to the dining table. (There are times I wished I spoke German for real. They have so much fun with their words, the way they just run all the adjectives together into gigantic nouns.) Even the pockets of my backpack, and the other backpack. Not there. I must have put it somewhere strange. Or left it out and the cats have put it under the couch with all their other toys.
So I bought this replacement pen, a rollerball that is supposed to have an extra-fine point. For the unctuous flow of liquid ink plus the superfine control of a ballpoint for lots of characters per inch.
Yeah right.
Trust me, the handwritten version is much less pretty than Times New Roman.
It’s a good thing there’s a bic in my purse always for working diabolic sudokus while waiting for the bus. Not so beautiful, but I can’t stand having to write in huge loopy gestures. Makes my handwriting degenerate, and we don’t want that.
On board the 17:25 to Paris I’m all set: journal, choice of pens, water, snackage, knitting. Extra yarn.
Heading up to Paris tonight may not be strictly necessary, but when it comes to meeting my brother at the airport relatively early in the day, I’d rather be safe than sorry. The train people have been having too many problems lately and with me not having a cell phone I’d rather just buy peace of mind with my hotel room.
After all, I haven’t forgotten the summer of ’95.
That’s the year I was in New Haven and decided to take a road trip summer vacation swinging through upstate New York to see Marie, through Boston dropping her off with friends, then up to Maine for a few days B&B on the coast. Darrell was in school in Indianapolis at the time and was to meet me in Boston for the Maine part of the trip.
I get to Marie’s and we mess around on most every small highway we cross, stopping at myriad yarn shops and antique malls. It’s a wonder we make it from Ithaca to Boston in less than a week, let alone in just 2 days.
After spending the night with friends, I go to Logan airport in time to meet the flight from Indianapolis. No Darrell. Next flight, no Darrell. Other airlines, no Darrell. He’s not on anybody’s list. He’s nowhere.
So I call him, and his colleagues say ‘oh yeah, he’s on vacation with his sister’.
I go round and round in circles at the airport. I have him paged. Many times. No response.
It starts to get late, and the reservation in Maine is not refundable. I call up there, but they have no messages for me. It’ll take hours to drive there. Eventually, I decide to leave messages everywhere - with Marie, the airline, the b&b, his lab, everybody, and start to head north, checking in with people every hour or so.
Finally, I catch someone in Indy who knows Darrell better.
“He left a couple of days ago.”
A couple of days ago??
Suddenly I turn pale and get all lightheaded. I had in fact said he could meet me today, just in time to head for Maine, or he could join us in Boston on Monday, if he could stand Marie and her crowd that long, and see the city with us. Only, I could have sworn he took the Wednesday option. Really.
When I get to Bar Harbor, Darrell himself is on the line.
Yeah, he thought we’d arranged to meet on Monday. He waited for me at the airport for hours. He called Marie’s but we had gone. He called me, but I don’t even remember the code to pick up my messages from afar. Not that I thought I had reason to. So he got a room in a hostel, saw a bit of Boston on his own, and caught a bus home.
Shit. I stood him up. Invited my brother on vacation and then didn’t show.
I bet he hasn’t forgotten either.

It is a awful lot of messing around. From pulling into Gare de Lyon on time just before 9, it takes me until 10 to get to the airport with barely a car on the highway. So I figure, if I had taken the 6am train, arriving at the station at just the same time D’s plane was touching down, by the time I actually got to the terminal in daytime traffic he’d be panicking. Or I would. His plane would be taken off the arrivals board and I’d never find him.
Such are the useless calculations that go round and round in my brain.
Other examples:
What if the hotel has lost my reservation, which has happened to me more than once, and they’re full? That would just be annoying. It’s not as if there’s an off-season shortage of hotel space at CDG airport.
But - what about Natalie? She got out this morning and now she’ll be out until tomorrow night. Another red herring. Natalie is a great hunter, and barring a mouse or bird she can live off her fat for one day.
But - what about the other cats? I forgot to sift the catlitter this morning. Sigh. They’ll live. Sienne and Bandersnatch are fairly tolerant and I promise to do it First Thing on getting home.
But - what if we’re delayed getting home and the cats have to go the whole week...?
Stop cogitating and go to sleep.

In the morning: Hooray! I have no email from Darrell. No news is good news.
Miscellaneous meanwhile: Marie has reached the critical mass of people inviting her to join Facebook. She’s in.

Darrell’s flight is early and the airport is right there. Very convenient. There’s not even any traffic getting back to Paris and the Gare de Lyon. Near the station we sit in a café for coffee while D catches me up on the news from the States.
Number one, Dad had bypass surgery about a month ago.
Nobody told me anything!
Well, telling you now. He’s been home for a couple of weeks. Doing fine, though it isn’t an easy recovery. At first he was admonished not to lift more than 10 pounds. And he really didn’t want to. Only, the cat weighs 13.
And there’s stuff happening with our brother. Events going on all over the place, and nobody says anything. Various topics certainly give us something to go around and around on over lunch and on the train.

Clermont and south of there
We spend Wednesday picking up the rental car and stocking up on catmaintenanceitems and in general just messing around, getting over the jetlag. Out in the garden we hack at the fruit trees since it’s that season, and then we visit with Jerome to pick up Maurice and Laars. Relations are established with the cats: Natalie comes right over for petting, Sienne meows and is wary but eventually submits to a few caresses, Bandersnatch hides in the bedroom.
Thursday morning it’s time to hit the road. We’re headed for the Perigord region, to see the cliff dwellings above the Dordogne river and to eat the regional specialties of duck and truffles.
Sticking to the smaller highways we get to Ussel at midday, so we stop for crepes (potato and bacon, followed by chocolate) and cider (one hard, one soft) and a walk around. Then through Tulle and Brive-le-Gaillard and on to Montignac for the tour of Lascaux II. It’s good to tour the cave at this time of year: instead of 40 people crammed into the reproduced cave, there are only 12 in our group, so we’re not tripping over people all the time, or trying to get so somebody’s head isn’t blocking your view only to have some other one fill the gap. And at 56°F it isn’t any colder down there than outside (something to plan ahead for for a summer visit!).
Unfortunately, our tour guide doesn’t know how to be quiet. She just repeats herself when she’s gone through her speech, never letting us admire to our own thoughts, filling every minute with remarks on the obvious. She tries to repeat herself in faux-English for the few non-French guests, but forgets herself and lapses into French. That’s ok. Seeing the cave paintings is the main point of being here, and we can do that regardless of the soundtrack.
An hour distant we stop at Sarlat-le-Canéda for the night. Sarlat has a beautifully restored mideval center, a grand tourist destination (grand? I’d never heard of it before) with a vast number of touristy restaurants and little shops selling foie gras and truffles and walnut oil and poultry-themed knicknacks, and art galleries, and antique shops.
It’s practically deserted as we wander about after a refreshing shower and change of clothes, looking for a likely dining spot on this chilly November evening. We come across several good photo-ops we vow to come back to in daylight. The old city, though artfully lit, is too dark for night photography without a tripod. Darrell has been ready for dinner since the event was mentioned, but for me it’s early still. So I make us wander around until 7:30.
We settle on a touristy restaurant that seems to have all the right choices on the menu without being too expensive. For really extraordinary dining here in foie gras & truffle territory you can quickly get beyond my budget, and we’d need to be better dressed anyway. It’s good food where we land. We’re not disappointed.
In the morning we take a walk around, seeing the sights and taking pictures. The covered market is advertised to open at 8:30, but an hour later they’re barely getting ready. Not that there’s much of anyone to get ready for; they’re not exactly selling to the locals. All they seem to have is the same stuff that’s in the gourmet shop windows - 1001 forms of duck and goose, truffle this and that, walnuts in various incarnations. No point in us going in.
Then it’s off to follow the Dordogne. We arrive at La Roque-Gageac. Time to walk around, and it soon becomes obvious that this is where a lot of the cliff-dwelling pictures advertising the region are taken. Just fell right on it. There’s a stairway attached to the cliff-face leading to some of the really old caves, which seems promising. Alas, to get there you have to go through somebody’s house, and it’s closed, possibly for the season. So we just take a good look from below and then wander up and down the elongated village.
There’s a pretty little castle where a stream comes to join the Dordogne, making a narrow valley heading north. This too is somebody’s house now, closed to visitors. In fact, everything is pretty much closed in La Roque. The antique shop, the hotel, the restaurant, the bar, the tourist office. Most of the boats that cruise this part of the river are out of the water, even.
Up the road, Castelnaud is a very impressive castle built up on the top of the cliff where a major tributary joins the Dordogne. Beautifully restored and accessible (in low gear), it’s open from 2 to 5 pm. Ah. Well. It looks like an excellent visit, with the castle yard full of siege engines and all. It’s 11 now. We’ll come back after lunch.
We head for a neighboring castle marked on our tourist map, Milandes. It’s closed too, but until April. Forget it.
Let’s go to Saint Cyprien; there seems to be stuff to see around there. Yes, only we get turned around and drive at random in territory south of the river when we should be north of it. In these hills you can’t see very far at all, or you can see a great distance but the road doesn’t take you there.At long last we get to St. Cyprien, another very nice little town, this one built around a large, strikingly plain church. After a good walk around to get our circulation going again, we score a wonderful lunch. Truffles, we want to have truffles of some kind before leaving the area, and of the three restaurants open one has truffles. Darrell has duck with truffle-madiera sauce, while I have a nice rare steak with truffle-butter. Garlic fried potatos on the side, and a few leaves of lettuce. Mmmmm.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Saint Germain des Fossés

There’s nothing quite like taking a day off just for the pleasure of it. It’s not like a Saturday, filled with chores and the weekly shopping, or Sunday, which is a lazy day because all the shops are closed. And anyway, most other people have those days off too.
On a Friday it’s more savory, more like cutting class. What’s the fun in a day if idleness is enforced ?
I sleep deliciously late. Later even than I’d wanted to. When I see 8 :40 on my clock I think- no ! my day is running away from me and I’m not even up to enjoy it. Then a leisurely breakfast of thick coffee with cream and french pastry at my favorite bakery and it’s off to see what trains are leaving for Saint Germain des Fossés.
The train to Paris is at the quay, leaving in five minutes. Will I be able to get my ticket before it leaves ? I fight the machine – the line at the ticket window is six people deep - and get a reservation. But there are endless questions and pauses and it takes its sweet time considering my ATM card and printing the tickets. Finally it spits everything out and I rush to leap onto the train as the stationmaster is readying to blow his whistle.
We head out over the Plaine de Limagne towards Vichy. The sky is mostly cloudy, but not dark or terribly serious. It’s a jumble of heavy clouds and smaller white ones and slanting rain in patches, sun in others. Crows hop and pick in the empty fields. Stands of january trees show their nests and their balls of mistletoe.
The train pauses in Vichy to take on passengers and let some go. Just as we’re pulling out of the station, at less than walking speed still, a young man bursts out of the station and looks at the train in bewilderment. He has missed it. His knee-length coat flaps as he raises his arms and lets them fall, not yet thinking of what to do, just of seeing his ride leave, sliding along its smooth rails without any thought for him.
And here we are, forty minutes from Clermont, at St. Germain. It’s a small town on the Allier river, which has been partially diverted to a sinuous canal that wends its way through the older part of town. The canal skirts a small hill, dominated by a large, plain church that surveys the small shops and rows of houses like a master.
If there’s a focal point to St Germain, it’s the church, though I’ve been attracted here mostly by the sight of the canal cut through the medieval construction. The church has been completely redone in the mid-20th century, and as I come up to it I can see the horror of the shell-pink scallop of the main entrance. Oh my. Not only is it a poor choice of paint, but it’s badly applied as well. The façade is austere, with none of the saintly statuary typical of older churches. It’s quite ugly.
Inside, I am very pleasantly surprised. The windows are a true work of art. Done in a style reminiscent of Art Deco, they are mostly in blues and greens, with red and yellow for effective emphasis. Each three-part window has a central story full of characters, flanked by colorful geometric panels.
Road noise filters in from outside, joining the intermittent sounds of a saw and a drill, and occassional hammering. One of the secret rooms behind the chapel of the Virgin is being worked on. Another room is bare but for a chair piled with tools and materials. From the sounds, I take it there is but a single carpenter.
Outside again I wander down the road a bit and discover that I’m just in time to see the market pack up. It isn’t yet noon, but I guess in a small town when people have done their shopping for the day, they’ve done it. So the handful of vendors are occupied with loading up their trucks and vans with unsold lettuce and beets and onions and going home. Empty cartons and flats are strewn about, and random greenery – outside leaves of cabbages and lettuce, carrot tops, stuff they cut off for you.
Pretty soon the road I’ve chosen comes to a dead end at a sort of factory building. Lampshades a Specialty. It’s unclear if the place is still in use. There doesn’t seem to be anyone much around, but there’s a light visible through the frosted glass panels of the fancy doors, and lots of fresh tire tracks make their way around to the back. There’s a sense of near-abandonment about the place, though, in the peeling paint and chipped plaster, the empty car-park, the dark windows of the wings. Curious.
I backtrack and take a road that quickly leaves the town and goes through just a few short suburb streets where the houses are larger and the yards taken up with lawns in front and gardens and children’s toys around the sides. Soon there are fields of corn stubble or sheep.
The field of sheep seems to have two. It’s a good-sized field, maybe five acres of grass going down the slope to be lost among the brambles along the Allier. It has barbed wire here along the road and separating it from the old corn, and a shed and a water trough in a downhill corner. The shed, an affair about twenty feet long with a corrugated tin roof and three weathered plank sides, is filled with stuff. Actually, it’s filled with sheep. It’s crammed with sheep. Sheep look piled up on each other ; they’re spilling out onto the ground around the water trough.
So. The two sheep in the field are splitters ? What are they doing off on their own ? They’ve seen me now, and they’re coming over. This one wants a headscratch. I scratch its hairy white head, and now the other wants some too.
I take their picture. Strange sheep.
Bells are ringing in the distance, compelling me to think of lunch. Those people at the market this morning bought all they needed to make lunch at home. I think back on the town and can’t remember a single restaurant. There was one advertised near the train station, but I didn’t actually see it. Hmm. It seems short-sighted of me now to not have tucked an orange and a bar of chocolate into my bag before leaving. Or I could have bought a snack at one of the small groceries that will all be closed now. I hadn’t thought that St Germain was so small as to not have a restaurant. There was a bar. There might be sandwiches there.
Looping back toward the center of town by a different route I have no better luck at spotting lunch, but then it occurs to me that I didn’t see the entire high street on my first pass. I detoured to see the canal. Perhaps on those two skipped blocks there is some small brassierie, a pizzeria.
There are two eateries on the main street. One appears to be a bar that serves a one-item menu for lunch and dinner. Today they’ve got blanquette de lotte, take it or leave it. This is a species of white fish served up in chunks under a thick, bland white sauce. Bleh. With a side of cauliflower gratiné (echh !) and a green salad.
The other place is a bar as well, and I hope there is a dining room in the back because the front is small and filled with smoke from a dozen cigarettes. At least there are people here. I consider - better to eat with smoke, or not at all ?
The menu is unusual, including alongside the usual pizzas, salads and cuts of steak, the choice of bangers and mash, or oriental chicken, and a steak might be served with cajun sauce. Inside there is indeed a dining room, around the back, reserved for non smokers. I am the only one there, for the moment. It’s nice. The sounds from the bar filter their way back, but not the smoke. A large window gives onto the front yard of a house and a garage.
My hostess is English. She’s happy to speak her native language for a change, but, like me, keeps lapsing into french for typical phrases. Her husband runs the kitchen and his name is Dean. Product of the 60’s she says – James Dean, Dean Martin.
She’s sad when I ask if they have any dark beer. Alas, no. The french won’t drink it. She’d like to stock something but there’s really not enough of a market here in a 11/2- restaurant town. So I have ordinary french beer and an excellent salad and a plate of fries and chocolate pastry dessert.
When I take my leave of Frederique and Dean it’s not quite raining out. It’s wet air, but not real rain. I’d like to get around to a good view of the north side of the church, where there seem to be some ruins along the steep part of the ridge. Shops around here are named Bar of the Ramparts and such, so there is hope for a hidden medieval secret St Germain. I do find a tower that’s been incorporated into a house, and the air has got a bit drier, but aside from a crumbling pile of stones in the churchyard, there’s not much visible of ancient St Germain. You’d have to go into the houses and the cellars to find it.
In the plain to the north of the town there are farms toward the river and suburban-like residences closer to the railway. The few orchards look too old and untended to still be active, but that might just be the effect of winter.
In one grove of apples, with a dozen or so trees, the largest tree, the one centered in front as if representing his orchard, marshalling his minions behind, is still covered in apples. Well, not really covered, but not more than half-picked. All the other trees are bare.
The apples on this tree are small and red, and a few look inviting enough to pick and eat. Most have seen better days and have rot splotches. Some are just limp skins, their flesh eaten by birds, or wrinkled balloons eaten out by insects. The ground around the tree is littered with windfalls – they look bright and shiny among the wet grass and accumulated leaves. Some are firm underfoot, others squish like mud.
I come to where the Allier has been released from its concrete channel. Here it’s just a ditch lined with half-dead trees and garbage. Farther down where the stream joins the main river there will be wide sandy banks and pebbly shoals and willow thickets full of birds, but that’s too far to walk today.
Turning upstream I follow the canal through town. None of the mills that were the raison d’être for the canal still exist, but it does make for a nice, different, path to follow. Halfway along it leaves the road and becomes the boundary for two rows of backyards. It’s surprisingly short. In fact, you can see all of it from the train.
Swinging back toward the station I come upon an SNCF (train company) training ground. They’ve got engines and cars of various types parked, and a freight engine is going pointlessly back and forth, but that’s all usual for a train yard. The extra is a yard full of bits of track, switching mechanisms, wire-strewn towers and level-crossing signals. Just bits that don’t go anywhere. I mess around there for a while but there’s also a series of official SNCF buildings with their lights on, and train guys messing around on the real tracks, and I don’t want to get yelled at.
It’s three-twenty and I’ve seen about everything. I’d like to pick up a postcard or two if I can, so I head back to the main street. At the newsagents, among the many that postcards that deal in puppies, or flowers, or puppies and flowers there are three that are actually of St Germain. Two aerial views and a poorly-chosen picture of the smaller church. I take the less ugly of the landscapes (who is their photographer – get a new one !) and sit in a bar with a miniscule glass of kir to write to friends. It’s raining in earnest now, so I decide to take an early train home.
The lightness of the sky has gone. A somber grey blanket has moved in, as predicted, to give us rain, and later snow in the lower mountains. That might mean tomorrow I can hike up the hill a ways and play in the snow. Today it means that the time for exploring is over.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Now we'll see

It's hard to discern what impact this or that president has on the practical facts of an individual person's life; so much more depends on yourself and those immediately around you. Certainly these Bush years have cast a certain uneasiness and embarrassment over me. I find myself too ready to apologize for or distance myself from my country's leader.
So it is with a refreshing sense of lightness that I come to work today, to continue the work of yesterday as I would have regardless of who will inhabit the White House in January. But there's a bit of happiness in the air, and it isn't just me. There's an anticipation that things can come around now; that being an American is a good thing, for me and for everyone. Maybe now we can change for the better, stop making enemies, get people moving toward getting along.
There's a lot of hope with Obama.
Nobody knows how that hope will be transformed into facts on the ground, but I think there's a willingness to try, and to experiment, that bodes well. So don't just sit back with your arms crossed over your chest, thinking, 'alright, now prove it'. Pitch in. Be part of the answer.

The world sees America as many things, but the most positive is as an ideal. Many have been wondering where that ideal had gone. All over the radio this morning, it seems that ideal is back. The French, at least, are thrilled.

That should be it for the political posts. The older ones I already deleted, and we'll get back to travel very soon. I've been working on a thing about trains - perhaps I'll complete it once my Oncogenetics class is finished at the end of the week.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Take this quiz

Hmmm.... what to watch, what to watch...
It's a knitting night as I try to make progress on my latest project, and that means: there must be something on tv.

So what is there...

Channel 1: American election coverage extravaganza!
Channel 2: Coverage of those crazy Americans and their election!
Channel 3: Gonzo Comic American election coverage!
Channel 4: American election coverage featuring People You're Really Tired Of!
Channel 5: American election coverage as Seen from the Perspective of a German Broadcaster!
Channel 6: Two new episodes of Desperate Housewives, no commercial breaks.
Channel 7: The Electoral College for Dummies!

Guess which program will be airing at my house tonight, and you could win a jar of my very own homemade blackberry jam. Or equivalent if it has to be sent to the States. Take your pick now! I don't have that much jam, so one winner will be chosen at random from the correct answers.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Justice? Right?

One of the other blogs I follow is written by Ruth, a young American woman living in Syria studying Arabic. Her post concerning the American bombing of an agricultural area near Damascus last week is something I hope you will read: http://inthemiddleoftheeast.blogspot.com/
Did any of you even hear of this incident?