Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Taking directions one line at a time

I suppose it's the 'fault' of the person who wrote the exam, but only one student in four years so far has ever done this. The exam subject is an article that the students have to explain and interpret. There is a list of questions that follows the structure of the paper, there both to guide them through the points to discuss and to help us grade the results. Before the first question, there's a guideline: take the time to describe the experiments, their results and the conclusions one can make from each.
So I have on hand 20 exams starting with Question 1: blah blah blah
And one where Question 1 appears on the fifth page, after each experiment has been described...
**Hand smacking forehead**

Monday, January 26, 2009


On the trees or off, last seasons apples are not so delicious in January. At least to me: smaller animals and microorganisms are having a field day. There may be a cure for tuberculosis in there. Some scientist should go find out.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The New Toy

My new toy has arrived at last, just as I was about to give up on a weekend delivery. Literally walking out the front gate, I noticed the yellow Poste truck approaching.

So here are my very first efforts. I'll take better ones later, but I thought I would share first.

All three girls looking out the bedroom window this morning. Soon I will figure out how to turn the flash off even when the camera thinks it needs it.

Sienne watches Natalie wander around the back yard.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A cursed miserable piece of apparatus

Sandrine is going to scream.
She's going to come in to work tomorrow all happy and eager to look at her fabulous data from her first really successful run on the machine we call Felix. She's going to move the mouse to wake up the screen.
And it's going to tell her: "Disconnected. Please log in."
And then we'll hear it.
This thing is supposed to work. It's supposed to be robust enough that even if you get a third of the data possible that's still way more than you need.
Uh-huh. We've been dealing with it for a year. We've had this problem and that problem, problems at the beginning, problems at the end, problems of human error, problems of bad reagents, and, mostly, problems nobody ever figured out. But for the most part, as we've gained experience and the gestures have become familiar, the experiments have been getting better, and this time we were there. Everything was coming together.
It takes two weeks of bench work to put together one run for Felix, and about $10,000 in reagents alone. The run takes about 7 hours, and after the first half hour there was enough data to confirm that, yes, we had more data than ever before. Good, shining, clean data. The techs went home happy, dreaming of publishing at last.
After 90 minutes I moved the mouse to wake up the screen and look at the beautiful data streaming by, twinkling in millions of microscopic points of light. A flash of the datascreen, and then "System disconnected. Please log in."
Munich, we have a problem.
The machine is still turning, going through the motions. It's just not collecting the data as it goes by. All our beautiful sequence data, read aloud into the night with nobody to listen.

Happiness of the day

Today's good things (and it's barely after lunch):

Repeal of several Bush secrecy directives: GO-bama!

New fellow adventurer aboard: Welcome Marc!

A350 with extra toys: On its way!

Family 0002: Mutation found at last!

coffee: READY !

I hope your day is as good.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The power of positivity

Sometimes things just go well. Believing they will go well does in fact help things along, so I think it's alright that people are putting a lot of faith in our new President to turn things around: in doing so they themselves are more likely to do the little things that make it all come true. Let's get that snowball rolling.
Some small things around here that make it feel like the world is happier:
- When my new student went over to my esteemed colleague's lab to introduce himself and announce that he'd be needing to do some of his work over there, he was welcomed with open arms. Trust me, I'm not being excessively cynical in thinking things might have gone differently. There's been a lot of tension that over the years we've never been able to work through. I am very happy at this new attitude, and will do my part to make our collaboration smooth sailing.
- Random people at the cafeteria were smiling today. Our table smiled back. :)
- The cold snap is over. Even the weather is with us.
- On Saturday I found this great deal on a digital camera with two lenses, but since it was used, from a first-time vendor, I decided to be cautious and contact him before buying. Monday, no response and the offer was no longer visible on Amazon, so I went with the next-best deal. Those guys took their time. Now here's a response from the first guy, yes, the camera is new, under warranty, everything seems fine. So I'm thinking "Zut!!! Could have had it!" And on Amazon, there it is. Quick quick to the other website: cancel! never mind! And now I feel like Sienne with a mouse, and I get a 300mm zoom bonus. I'm dancing a little jig here in my office. Soon the blog will be full of pictures.
Just my little pile of positive things. They come in waves, and it's important to remember that they will come in those times when only negative ones are knocking on the door.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Coming soon!

Yeah, I know, I've made Coming Soon!!! announcements before that never happened. Earlier this month there was going to be advertising on the page: I am actually quite pleased at being saved from my bad idea by the impossibility of following through with that. Google needs access that my host is not willing to give up, and I do agree, the hospital computing system needs more safeguarding that a purely personal computer. I may have a computer of my own by the end of the year, and we'll see then if I add ads, but I doubt it. (no, the computer is not 'coming soon')
The new Coming Soon !!! to announce really is going to happen. I've already set the wheels in motion. I'm just waiting for delivery. Honest. Marie can tell you what a trial this has been. Trust me: I'm getting a digital camera.
I know, too, it's pointless to tell you that this or that is coming soon to a blog near you. You'll see it when it gets here. Who cares if it's going to get here in two weeks? Here-and-now, girl, here-and-now!
But I'm just so excited! I need to share. And that's what blogging is about, isn't it?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Closet space

Somehow, it feels more like home now.
It’s interesting how an item of furniture can change things. This particular one is an armoire about 6 feet wide, 18 inches deep, and more than six feet tall, with one mirrored door and three wood ones. Hangers on the left, shelves on the right. There are no doorknobs or handles yet because I haven’t been down to the flea market to pick up a couple of funky ones. It takes up the short wall of my 9x12 bedroom, facing the door to the hall. In it are most all my clothes.
So ordinary. A freestanding closet.
Just go live without closets and you’ll see what a joy it is to install one all of a sudden. It’s magic.
Used to be, I hung what things absolutely required hanging in the tiny coat closet in the living room, and kept all my off-season things in boxes or in the armoire in the guest room. (it’s complicated - the guestroom armoire is an over-large, six ton affaire that took four people 40 minutes to wrestle through the window. It does not fit through the doors of the house. And while I could just move myself into the other bedroom I prefer the one with the eastern view of the garden and less road-noise.) So to dress I had to make the rounds of the house, which I usually didn’t and ended up wearing the same few things over and over.
Now... guess what?!
All of my wearables are in my room.
(Okay, except for miscellaneous coats and scarves.)

Like dominos falling over, the coat closet is a coat closet and if I have too many people over and some have to sleep on the couch, I don’t have to come through in my jammies to get a dress.
And the guest room, relieved of my clothes in the armoire, suddenly has storage space. Those random boxes and items that were taking up half the room are gone. One domino’s worth is in the armoire; another domino’s worth went for recycling, a third for regifting and another straight to the trash. The meer fact of dealing with the junk, the leftovers of moving in that I had no immediate use for, items you don’t need underfoot every day like the vacuum and the toolbox; just getting it straightened up made the room into a real room. It’s not an overflow room any more, but a place where it’s nice to lounge on the daybed and read a book.
Because of this transformation of a whole room, not even the room where the fabulous piece of furniture is installed, it feels like I have fully moved in.
The unpacking is at last complete.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gorges de l'Allier

It's been so terribly cold out and I've been such a hibernating bear lately that I decided that a summer trek from the archives was in order.

Another summer weekend, another train to parts unknown. I’ve got a bunch of Mondays off, so I’ve been working Saturdays at the bench and taking Sunday-Monday as my weekend. I’ve been getting a load of work done, but the train schedules aren’t always convenient. Some day: a car.
On the last trip to Langeac, which I’ll transcribe for you later, I was right at the bottom of the Gorge of the Allier, a long, spectacular canyon carved by our own tame little Allier. I vowed to hike upstream from the same town, and finally I’m going.
I’m living dangerously this time, without reservations or even information on any place to spend the night. Last time there was not a room to be had in Langeac, and the next town down the rail with a station, Monistrol d’Allier, is even smaller. Solution: go only as far as Brioude today and see the old town. Brioude is big enough to be certain of lodgings and some kind of meal tonight. Then the early train to Monistrol. That same train leaves Clermont at 6:30, but better to start after lunch and spend an extra evening out than get up annoyingly early on my day off. Then I’ve got all day to hike to Prades (13 km) and take an alternate route back for a total of nearly 30 km. Train back to Clermont at 6 pm.
Well, nearly; if I take the loop and don’t get back by 6 I’ll be stranded.

Brioude is starting to worry me. The hotel across from the station is closed. Wandering about town I see plenty of signs for restaurants, but few for hotels. Here’s one in the historic old town. Closed at the moment, the sign says the hotel will be open from 7 to 8 pm. They’ve got 10 rooms, all well within my budget. I just can’t find out if any of them are available tonight until after 7. great. It’s not quite 4 now.
And it’s starting to rain. Lightly, but still rain.
After a stroll around in fits and starts, from awning to doorway all around the center of Brioude, I locate just two more hotel signs. The first one looks decent, and open. It is open, and they’ve got a room. Score! I don’t bother with the second.
I hadn’t though a town this size would be so short on lodging. It’s quiet as a ghost-town, too. Understandable for a summer Sunday afternoon, but this area is a least a little something of a local tourist destination, isn’t it? Yeah, but apparently more for camping than for hotel-staying. Definitely camping territory.
I’ll see how rolled-up things really are later this evening when it’s time for some dinner. I only need one open restaurant. Just one! Nothing too fancy; I’ll be dressed in hiking shorts and sandals, and the spare shirt hanging up to de-wrinkle.
As I’ve been writing this, the rain has stopped. Time to explore!

Brioude is a nice place. A town of about 30,000 all told, it has an extensive heart of cobbled streets forbidden to cars. In the middle is a magnificent old brick basilica, mostly red and ochre tones with some black that could be stone imported from Volvic or sandstone gone bad in polluted air. I would very seriously regret not having my camera if only the whole thing were not swathed in scaffolding.
I’ll come back in five years when they’ve finished. Spots of intricate designs are beginning to peep out already.
The medieval heart is surrounded be the usual sort of late-20th century town, with car-friendly roads and bigger houses, shoddy apartment blocks and shops without interest. Following along the Allier leads out of town fairly quickly, into a series of camping areas and vacation centers. The view of an arching, red brick railroad bridge is quite nice, but in an hour of walking I don’t get away from the crowds. I’ll get my nature walk in tomorrow. Today the filled campground is a good sign that there may be more interesting fare than takeout pizza and bar food available for dinner.
And there is. There’s a very nice, simple, family-run place just down an alley from the basilica. François Marquet it’s called, and Madame is greeting customers. She sees me writing and says I have to say Hi from Claire.
Hi from Claire!
The food is wonderful.

There’s nobody at reception when I get back to the hotel. There don’t seem to be many guests, either. Earlier the guy said something about setting up a wake-up call. Dial 8 (or was it 9?) and the four numbers of the time you want.
I do that, but nothing obvious happens and I’m not confident of a call at 7. In the lobby, a card at the desk says “dial 9 for assistance”. Maybe it’s busy, maybe it just doesn’t work; hard to tell what the odd noise means. It’s “busy” for hours. Some assistance.
Eventually I just go to bed, thinking to get up whenever it’s light out so I don’t miss my 7:40 train on to Monistrol for a real hike. It’s the only way to get there, and missing it is missing it for good.
I do get up right on time - not too early, not too late, and without the wake-up call ringing. It’s a quarter to seven by the lobby clock when I come in to settle the bill. Monsieur is on his way out and is a little peeved to have to stay five minutes while I pay for my room.
Hey guy, this is a hotel. People have trains to catch. I’ll be perfectly happy to leave without paying if you’d rather not be disturbed.
The elderly man in charge of the breakfast buffet is more genial, opening the dining room a few minutes early for me. He serves me a pitcher of coffee sufficient for a table of four, then putters around behind the bar. A friend of his stops by for a normal-sized coffee, but no other customers appear before it’s time for me to go.

It’s a cloudy, cool morning. For a while I regret not wearing jeans, but I know I’d be changing back to shorts by mid-morning, and then I’d have a useless pair of heavy jeans to haul around all day. One pound can become 10 by the end of 20k.
It’s a beautiful ride up the river valley. Quiet and sleepy. The valley narrows to a gorge at Langeac, and it’s only the train that follows the river from here nearly to the headwaters. No road - no cars making noise and pollution and bringing too many people.
Most prominent in Monestrol are the riverside beach and campground complex, the hydroelectric plant, and the backpackers hostel. Bed and a meal, 20 €, if you dare. 20 years ago, or even 10, I would have.
This village is a crossroads for hiking trails. Because of the steep terrain, trails going opposite directions take the same detour into town, but that isn’t clear on my map. It takes me a good twenty minutes and two false starts to get on the right one to take me back downstream to Prades, but finally I’m on my way.

It’s a highway out here. A steady stream of St Jacques de Compostellers is heading in the opposite direction. I really need to make a stop and relieve myself of some of this coffee, but there’s somebody coming along every two minutes and not much of anywhere to hide.
Up out of the gorge and onto the plateau of woods and farmland. The trail winds between fields of cows or corn or newly mown hay, usually lined with blackberry brambles, the fruit still unripe, to keep hikers and livestock properly segregated. Sometimes we walk along roads, but not often. Then up through a forest of twisted pines and huge granite boulders spilling down the slope.
Suddenly I come to the top, to the ancient village of Rochegude. The village is composed of a dozen farmhouses crowded up against a point of rock overlooking the river.on the rock is a miniscule chapel, still in use though cobwebbed and musty in the shadows. Higher up, on the highest point for miles around, is an old ruined tower.
It’s a magnificent spot, with the grey stones covered with lichens in orange and yellow, the grass and bushes emerald green with dew in the overcast morning, the village of stone and wood, flowers in every window and garden.
There’s no modern-looking construction anywhere in the Gorge, either. There’s a house being built in Rochegude, but on the outside it’s just like the houses of hundreds of years ago, though with bigger windows. How wonderful that they’ve fobidden a cinderblock-and-siding invasion. This constraint on construction serves in two ways to keep the gorge looking so nice - the houses have to be of traditional stone and wood so they fit in aesthetically, - and this makes them so expensive to build that their numbers are naturally limited.
Again it takes me several tries to find the right way out of town, in spite of the town being tiny. The pilgrimage trail goes off to the east, but I’m supposed to head north, toward Conac. Finally, I ask directions from a farmer loading a trailer with hay. Ah, yes, the tractor is blocking the way. It looked to me like his driveway.
As it is, but that’s how trails are in the countryside. They do cut through people’s farms and fields and sometimes it’s hard to see the difference between private property you should go around and private property your path cuts across.
From this high vantage point it’s down through Conac, down to the river. The water is low, and lively where it spills over rocks. Inviting swimming pools abound, filled with trout. Signs are posted everywhere there is access to the water: Danger. No swimming or wading. Even in good weather there may be sudden changes in flow. It’s the hydroelectric plant upstream. You never know when they’re going to release a bolus of water: better not venture out into the river, no matter how inviting it looks.
The river here is fairly flat, but the trail goes up and down, up and down between the water’s edge and the plateau above, wherever there is room for the trail and right-of-way.

Prades. My turnaround point. To the right: spectacular basalt formations, towering crystals of black rock that jut straight up, then twist. Pieces have broken off quite recently, leaving unweathered tracks on the textured cliff-face. Stunning. I could look at it all day.
Those who do look at it all day are to the left. A whole beach & campground as big as the village itself is spread out on a bight of river. There’s a road that comes in from the west, meaning a traffic jam, even on a Monday, and children yelling and teenagers riding motorbikes pointlessly up and down the single street.
It’s 12:30. The village of Prades is blessed with a 12th centure church, twenty or so old stone houses, and one bar/bakery/convenience store. A ham & cheese baguette and a beer, please. I eat out on the terrace. Luckily, the umbrella is enough against the light rain that begins, because inside the bar is a dark, smoky cave.
Even luckier, the rain stops while I’m inside paying.

Back in Monistrol by 4:30, I have time to relax before my train home. First thing, a nice cold Perrier with mint syrup on the terrace of the big bar overlooking the vacation complex. Not much is happening there, in spite of it being the height of tourist season.
Then a turn around town, where I discover that the real town where most of the houses are, is down the road and across the river. And like the rest of the villages along the gorge, this one has strictly preserved its ancient stone character, its cobbled streets, and its medieval church. It’s all spotlessly clean, bright with flowers, and nearly deserted of people.
Eventually my feet get tired of wandering around on the stone paving and I settle down to read at the station. And I read, and keep reading. Watch cars go by, and trucks with hay, and people walking their dogs, and dogs just hanging around. The train is late. Some passerby seems to be informed that it’s running 40 minutes late, which is a shame - I was hoping to have time for a snack during my hour wait in Alleyras for my connection. My sandwich & beer in Prades are long gone.

Getting off the train eventually in Alleyras, a tiny bourg with no central town to speak of, the conductor points out the station call box, for use in case of problems.
Problems? Like what, if the train fails to stop?
Well, yes.
Ah, so the train has been known to fail to stop here. That would be bad. Alleyras is even smaller than Monistrol. Much smaller. It does appear to have a bar and hostel. I don’t walk the two blocks to this ratty-looking establishment, not wanting to miss my train, especially if I have to flag it down. But the wait becomes long. The other person waiting tries the call box, and to her astonishment it works right away. It looks like they’re used to ‘problems’ here.Eventually, the train does arrive, and it does stop for us. By then I’m again regretting not packing a pair of jeans and some more significant snackage. It’s not so warm in the evenings around here. But it has been a wonderful day and I’m exhausted and it’s time to go home and feed the cats.

July 30, 2006

Friday, January 9, 2009

Number 1

New thing here at Have Genes Will Travel:

The Cat of the Month.

I do solemnly swear, that, as a Cat Person and a Blogger, I shall blog about the cats. Each cat will have its time. Its very own post. Not to be upstaged by any other cat or random marauding dog or hamster.

Our cast of several includes:
Brand X
Errnestine (yes, two r's)
Shadow (aka Boots)
Tigger (aka Iron Guts)
Man-O-War (previously Bing)
Orange Bunny Baskerville
Yersinia Pestis
Lexington (now Hector)
The Frumious Bandersnatch

I know, I know it's not travel. The blog is not "Have genes will stay home". But, honestly, I do a lot more staying home than traveling, and I don't have anything on my calendar until the end of March. So while stuff happens more slowly staying home, it still accumulates to a bigger pile of blogfodder than the traveling.

As our first Cat of the Month, the very first cat: Mitten.
Mitten arrived with her littermate, Brand X, in the summer after second grade. I had the dog, so my brothers got to have cats. Spread that animal-keeping responsibility around. Not that the cats were ever associated with a particular kid (unlike Blackie, who was definitely mine to feed and walk).
Mitten was a black & white shorthair kitten, with, you guessed it, white mitten paws. That’s about all there is to say about Mitten, because she was also the first cat to disappear. One day, just gone. Possibly lost, possibly coyote lunch. No pictures, no exploits, no endlessly retold anecdotes.

So here’s to Mitten, my very first cat.

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”

Sunday, January 4, 2009

After the Party: New Year's Day

Here we are, New Year's morning, in Clermont-Ferrand. The party is Over. The streets are Empty. It's Freezing out, and nothing is moving in the breeze but odd bits of confetti and a couple of crows. It's peaceful, but a little creepy.

In the afternoon people start to stir, taking the kids out for a stroll and a ride around the park on the mini-train. The Frumious Bandersnatch has the best idea, I think, Stay home where it's cozy warm and get your fur in order.