A Few Words About Rambling

There are marked and maintained hiking (randonnee – ron-don-ay) trails all over France.  The trails cover 60, 000 kms in every region of the country.  The Grande Randonnee (rambles in the UK) trails were established as far back as 1947 by hiking enthusiasts, and has been embraced by clubs, families and serious hikers ever since.  Joey and I were lucky enough to be turned on to these trails within weeks of living here.  Our friend Andrea runs the tourist office in Lussan, a beautiful medieval town not far from our town.  Andrea gave me a hiking map at a gathering at her home in Audabiac, the absolutely charming village right outside of Lussan, and explained the basics of how the trails work.

There are markers in key locations, like crossroads or landmarks,  with signs pointing to various destinations, indicating the direction, elevation and the number of kilometres to the next marker.  Along the path you must look for slashes of various colours.  The GR (Grande Randonnee) are marked with a red and white x, the shorter local hikes with a yellow horizontal slash.  These yellow trails have become our almost daily habit.  The maps that you can buy for each region recommend hikes and tell you about the interesting sights, landmarks and history of the ground you will cover.  We often find a 5 to 15 kilometre hike that starts within a half hour drive from home, and head off with our back pack, a couple of apples, a bottle of water, the map and have an adventure.  We have also often driven to a place of interest and cruised around until we have found a hiking marker, winging it and almost never being disapointed.

The first hike we took was recommended by Andrea and took us to les concluses, a stunning gorge and series of caves carved out of limestone cliffs by the ancient sea and famous for the sighting of the last wolf in France swell as being the hiding place for outlaws during the religious wars.  It was a round trip that included some quite serious climbing out of the gorge (with no gear, but I was glad we did not have the kids with us at times as it was extremely steep with huge drop-offs), country lanes through nearby villages, lavender and sunflower fields and finally back to the trail to the caves.  We had brought sandwiches and stopped for a picnic at a hunter’s camp along the path.  The day was clear and warm, and after we were back at our car, having lost our trail only once during the 15 kilometre journey, we were hooked.

Since then, we have probably hiked over 500 kilometres and have hardly ever repeated a trail.  We have returned to a few with visiting friends, like les concluses, la vielle cite,  medieval ruins of a town up on a high ridge across the valley from Celas, Mont Bouquet, a mountain not far from home with an abandoned weather station atop it to name a few.  We have brought our kids on some wonderful hikes on weekends, and although they are rarely thrilled at the prospect of walking for several hours, we find packing cookies and making the walk an adventure makes for a great family time.

We hardly ever see other people out on the trials.  I’m sure that is due to the season.  The french are not as immune to the cold as we Canucks.  If we do see other hikers, they are inevitably more “geared up” than we.  They carry ‘randonnee poles’, like cross-country ski poles, and have special boots and pants and hats.  The french love to have the right gear!

I love these marked paths and have become a little obsessed with them.  I see the yellow markers everywhere as we are driving and try to make a mental (or actual) note about the location so that we can investigate the trails and see if it would make a good hike.  I also notice the yellow slashes everywhere.  It’s like learning a new word and suddenly hearing it constantly.  The yellow slashes can be on walls, trees, traffic signs, telephone poles, rocks and even houses.  If you wander down the wrong branch of a trail, you will be greeted by a yellow x, indicating the wrong direction.  Sometimes we need to branch out and take different routes for a few hundred meters to find the next slash.  It’s like a giant scavenger hunt, and it scratches the same itch that playing Swiss Family Robinson did when I was a kid.  It’s like being lost without being lost.

We have erred on out travails occasionally.  Once when we were hiking along a first century road that is now a forest trail beside an ancient rock wall, we thought we had time to form a circuit back to our car before we had to leave and pick Audrey up at school by 3:15.  We couldn’t find the next marker but continued forward for half an hour, sensing it would be around each corner.  Finally we decided we had to turn back.  We thought we could just make it, but the way back was uphill and we were losing time.  We did not want to be late to get Audrey, as she had been traumatized by being signed up for an after hours program the second week of school which I had forgotten to remind her about in the morning.  She has not forgiven me for that, nor does she EVER want to stay for the after school program, EVER.  If we are even a few minutes late, we are admonished and reminded about that early betrayal of trust.  The wrath of Audrey is not something we want to face.

We had to do something.  We were in the middle of nowhere, knowing we were at least an hour from the car.  We decided, almost spontaneously, that I would take all the gear (pack pack, extra jackets, water) and Joey would run back to the car, go get Audrey then come back to the spot where the car was parked and get me.  Joey took off, and I continued on at a somewhat leisurely pace.  I was doubling back through the forest along the old rock wall, feeling quite confident, but also a little uncomfortable being out there alone.  More worried about an aggressive dog than a human, I was hoofing along when I heard a deep voice behind me.  I almost jumped out of my skin, but turned and discovered the voice belonged to Joey!  He had taken a wrong turn, and was further behind than me.  Joey was sweating buckets and wearing his blundstone boots, not running shoes, but he still felt he could make it in time.  I watched him run off into he woods.

I got back to the spot where the car had been in good time.  I had time, in fact, to have a better look at the old community bread oven, built into the side of a cliff from free stones.  I walked down to the road, careful not to veer off the route that Joey would be taking back, and low and behold there he was with Audrey in the back seat, right at the bridge by the main road.  Whew, we pulled it off.

He had been right on time.  We did learn from this stressful hike, though and we always leave more time now.  We also don’t balk at turning back anymore.  Although doing a loop is much more satisfying, we find that the trail is always different on the way back and we notice different views and details this way.

I am so happy to have re-discovered hiking as a pastime, and plan to continue the practice back in Ontario.  I also would like to try geo caching and orienteering.  Maybe an adventure race?  IMG_0868

A Few Words About Shutters

Photo on 2016-02-28 at 5.19 PM #2Almost every house in our region of France and indeed in the south as a whole, is fitted with “volets” (vough-lays), or shutters, on it’s windows and doors.  It is the quintessential look of rural France:  a grey stone structure topped by the undulating earthiness of clay tiled roofs, with blue or green painted shutters, thrown open in the spring breeze, a box of brightly coloured flowers and ivy like the finishing brushstroke of a Monet painting along the bottom edge of each window.  In fact, lucky as we are, our house is one of these homes.  Our house is adorned by a set of lovely robin’s egg blue shutters, one on each of the three bedroom windows, one on the living room window and dining room window, the main washroom, where we bathe, and a tall pair on the front door.

We were thrilled to see our house when we pulled up for the first time, it looked like something off of a postcard from Provence, all vine-covered and soft colours, a bright yellow tablecloth on the cafe table on out new “terrasse”.  We were given the tour of the house by our landlords, and this included a short tutorial on the shutters.  Each pair is a little different, being kept securely closed by either a hook and eye system, a rather elaborate hinge and handle version or a twisty butterfly hook design.  We were shown how to secure the volets open as well.   With the shutters open as wide as they can go, you flip a charming little wrought iron clip up from under the bottom edge so that you don’t have your shutters blowing in the wind and banging and slamming in the Mistral (the famed northern wind that blows along the Rhone Valley to the Camargue and out to the Sea).  It was suggested that if the weather were very rainy, we could shut the volets to avoid any water getting in the house.  That was basically the information we were given about the shutters.

We went about our lives, getting the kids to and from school or the bus, heading out on long hikes (randonnees) for the day, returning home, cooking dinner, opening wine, entertaining friends, all with our shutters looking their most charming:  wide open and flanking each window and door.  There were curtain on the windows in the bedrooms, and we assumed no one could see in to any of the second floor windows, as there were no curtains on the bathroom or Audrey’s window at all.  Our house is quite a lot taller than the neighbouring ones, we reasoned.

At a social gathering at out neighbours about two months after we had arrived in France, someone casually asked:  “Don’t you close your shutters in the evenings in Canada?”  We laughed at first and said, “We don’t have shutters in Canada, if we do, they are for show only.”  The next moment we realized that this was a gentle way of saying:  ”You should close your shutters at night.”  Suddenly we pictured our entire village politely averting their eyes after dark, as we ignorantly lived our lives in plain sight.  “Oh no”, Joey remarked, “are we the strange foreigners leaving their shutters open all the time?”  Then it was our new french friends turn to laugh “Well, yes, actually.”

We implemented the “volets” system that very evening, closing them all up tight as the sun was setting.  It was certainly strange at first, as you get the sensation of being in a cocoon or below ground with no view of the outdoors at all.  And the mornings!  You could sleep all day in that pitch darkness while the sun was shining outside.

We have paid more attention to shutters over the months and we now realize that you are meant to close the main shutters of the first floor if you are going out for more than a few minutes, and shut the whole house up if you are going to be out until late or overnight.  Shutters are also used as a social signal between neighbours.  Having the shutters closed means: “You better have a darned good reason for knocking, we are closed for the night, or we are sleeping in, or we are ill, or we are away.”

We are now horrified if we discover that a volet was left open all night, or if we stay in bed reading on a Saturday morning with the front door shutter closed only to discover that Monsieur le Facteur (postman) has not brought us a package.

We also had to review our assessment of the many houses we had walked by that we assumed were shut down for the winter:  “Probably a summer rental, no one here at all most of the year,” to “I guess there are whole lives being lived just behind those wooden doors.”  It is still hard for us to distinguish between a house where the occupants are simply at work, or have moved away permanently, especially since most houses are also surrounded by tall stone walls and locked behind large gates, leaving you with no view of any vehicles or people milling about.

Now that we are used to the system, we think we should put shutters on our windows chez nous in Elphin next year, not for privacy as our closest neighbours are way down the driveway, but for keeping the house cool in the summer sun, and for looks!  Maybe dark grey…

Update

Bonjour!

I am only posting a short update, because I want you to all know that there are many, many more stories coming.  I currently have a bunch of deadlines I am working to meet for my brand new record.  This is an involved and layered process, which, it seems, occupies the same area of my creative mind as writing.

We are all very well, and welcoming the French spring here as the almond trees blossom and the daffodils come up in the garden.

I have month of catching up to do, so I will soon be unloading a ton of entries on you.  You’ve been forwarded.

Salut,

JennyIMG_1944

 

The Camargue – Part 2

Hi!  Welcome.  Start at the bottom and read in chronological order.  Enjoy!

Jenny

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When Joey and I had spent a few days in Sainte Marie de la Mer a couple of years earlier, we had stayed right in the town, a few minutes walk from the beach.  We loved it.  We rented bicycles and rode way out to the “natural” beach, among giant sand dunes and flocks of flamingos.  Our only misstep on that outing was buying steamed clams for lunch from a seafood counter, and trying to enjoy them as sand blew on to our picnic constantly in a tiny patch of available shade on a dune.  Lesson learned.

We had eaten at a terrific, no-bells-and-whistles restaurant on the boardwalk.  It was a seafood place, and featured a chalk board with all the fresh catches-of-the-day to choose from.  There were no sauces, no salads, no pasta, no meat, just plates full of super-fresh seafood, prepared simply.  We ate there twice on that trip, and kind of loved the plastic plates and even the little plastic cups for our rose wine.  During the summer, rose is served with a bowl of ice and a spoon, to add to your glass as it warms up in the blazing sun.

This is where I took the girls for lunch.  We ordered “crevettes grises” (shrimp  so small and tender-crispy you eat the whole thing, head, tail and all with a little aioli), calamari, clams and oysters.  We texted Joey to tell him we were at “our place”.  I knew that would make him happy, and it made me feel better about the hotel debacle.  So much so that I searched for a new hotel on my phone, found one 400 meters from my current location, and booked it.  For that night.  For sure.  Yay!

The lunch was fabulous.  The seafood was perhaps a little under-processed for Audrey.  She didn’t want to look in to the eyes of her meal.  She did gobble up lots of squid and baguette and orangina, however.  Lila loved it all.

Both my kids like oysters, but Lila could win an oyster eating contest.  Maybe less so now, but when she was younger, between the ages of six and ten, you had to shoo her away from the table, lest she leave none for the grownups.  Once, on a patio in Kingston, Ontario, she had wanted the oysters on the half shell for her main course.  We were there watching Joey play a jazz show and eating “on the house” so I said, sure, knowing I could always finish what she did not want.

Our food arrived, and the oysters were presented quite elaborately on a two-tiered plate rack with many side accoutrements.  The other diners were delighted to see that the recipient of this fancy dish was a six -year-old girl!  It is a favourite family story, and I did not end up with even one oyster.

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Having finished our lunch and not quite ready for swimming, it was time for that ice cream.

There are dozens of “pietons” (pee-eh-tanh) in Sainte Marie de la Mer.  Little pedestrian lanes filled with sweet shops, dress-makers, milled soap, lavender and salt, and many, many restaurants and food stalls.  The kids were delighted with the offerings on hand, especially the gleefully displayed ice creams available on every corner.  The colours and flavours were incredible.  Some were familiar, some strange and intriguing. There was light purple lavender, pale blue violet, creamy tan salted caramel.  Some were just plain horrifying, like the florescent blue “Stroumph” flavour (Smurf, in english) and some black licorice that looked like engine oil mousse.  The girls chose two “parfums” (flavours) each, and we headed down to the sea.

This town is familiar to anyone who has spent time in a sea- or lake-side town where the beach is the main attraction.  There are many places to buy bathing suits, big floaty blow-up toys, flip flops, sun hats and glasses, beach umbrellas and towels.  People were everywhere, strolling in “maillots de bains” (swim suits), colourful towels, beach coverups.  There was a festive vibe in the air.  It is a vacation destination, and people are there to have fun.

“The beach” is a actually a series of white sand beaches, defined by wharfs made up of giant boulders.  You can walk for miles on a boardwalk that separates the beaches from the town.  The girls were thrilled to be at the beach on the sea!  It was the first time for either of them swimming in “the ocean”.  The waves were pretty impressive, but it was a calm, sunny day, so they weren’t too ominous.  We selected our beach, one that was not too crowded, seemed to have good wave action, and lots of kids on it.

Full disclosure:  I am afraid of swimming in the sea/ocean.  I am sure it is a hangover from the Jaws days.  That movie really did a number on people of my generation!  I used to get scared in the bathtub sometimes.  I still don’t like to look down in dark lakes – I know it’s fresh water – but it’s that intense sense of vulnerability akin to walking through a house in the pitch dark.  You feel you are the prey in the situation, it’s not your element.  I don’t know what the truth is, but my french friends told me that there was nothing dangerous in this part of the Mediterranean, so I decided to do zero research and therefor not worry about sharks, jellyfish or… what?  Anything that I would touch or see other than humans in the water, I guess.

The girls had no fear of the sea I was glad to note.  As a parent you always worry that your fears and phobias will infect your kids.  “Don’t climb up so high, Audrey, don’t you you know I’m afraid of heights!”  They stripped off their cover-ups and headed in!  It was fabulous.   The water was warm, the sun was hot and since I had decided to leave all my valuables in the trunk of the car, I didn’t even have to think about taking pictures or guarding our belongings, so I could frolic too.

The best game ended up being sitting in the surf and waiting for huge waves to knock us over.  If the wave was big enough to knock me over that was the best, and we laughed  and laughed.  This game is also a really excellent way to get sand all the way up your bathing suit.  I couldn’t believe the mountain of sand that came out of our suits and bodies back at the hotel!  The beach was a nice as it could have been and we spent hours there.

There is a beautiful old carrousel near the boardwalk, and the girls begged to go for a spin.  (Another thing I hate, spinning!)  I said they could go for a ride while I sat and watched and tried to get a picture or two.  I have never taken a good picture of anybody on a ride.  I don’t know why I try.  I have taken many pictures of blurry faces and an waving hand, or a snap of  the ride with the kid so small it may as well be anybody.  I guess that’s why theme parks take those photos you can buy of yourself screaming on the plunging part of the roller coaster.  It’s not a job for a mere mortal.

There are carrousels in most French towns of any reasonable size.  It is a particularly charming detail, I find.  They run most days during lunch hours, and on weekends.  There is often a game or two next to the ride, and sometimes bungee trampolines or some other attraction.  As Canadians unused to this tradition, we always feel like we’ve stumbled on street fair.  I wonder if it will ever become old hat for Audrey or will she want to ride every single time?  She likes to spin around in the spinning cup on the turning ride, barf!

When we were ready to head indoors, we drove to our new hotel.

Thankfully, I had not repeated my earlier error, and we were expected. The place was right next to the hotel where I had stayed with Joey, which made me unreasonably happy.  The man who checked us in was also the owner, I discovered later when I tried to tip him.  Tipping is a whole can of worms in France, and there will be more on that later.

As I went to pay with my credit card, I realized that my card wallet (I keep cash in another wallet) was missing!  I looked again, emptied out my purse, no, it was gone.  “Think, think.  I had it at lunch, then, what did I do?  Oh no!  Someone swiped it when I was taking pictures of the girls on the merry-go-round.”

The Camargue is a tourist destination, and whenever that is the case, you will find people ready to take advantage.  I recalled my father-in-law suggesting that I needed to be more cautious and vigilant in France than at home.  Damn!  I payed in cash for the room.  We checked in.  The room had a double bed and a single and was clean and marine-themed.  It was perfect, and air conditioned.

After we washed all the sand down the drain, I left the girls watching french cartoons, and went to buy some supplies.  You can park anywhere, anytime in Sainte Marie, so I found a spot near a small super market.  When I looked for my shopping bag in the hatch back, there, under some towels was my wallet!  Yay.  Not only did I not have to deal with replacing and cancelling cards, but I had NOT been ripped off.  My faith in my fellow man was immediately restored.  Finding my card wallet catapulted me into a great mood.  There was that elation-following-discomfort thing again.

Unfortunately, there were no bull fights scheduled for that evening in the arena (les arenes [ah-wren] in french, plural always.  Arene, singular, means the bull ring itself.  I told my french neighbour once that the tunnel near our house had many arenas in it.  I had meant spiders or araignee [ah-rhen-yay]!  A few of these slip-ups continue to comically sneak into my conversations even now).

These Camarguese bull fights are entirely free of violence.  The whole thing is geared to families, and usually the goal is to get the bull (torreau) to chase the “conquistador” into a pool of water, or generally just chase the men around and almost get them so that they have to leap up onto the railings at the sides of the ring.  Joey and I had gone, and had loved the carnival-like atmosphere.

The girls and I went out to another terrace for dinner, where I ate “torreau” steak (if you can’t watch them, eat them), Lila dug in to some duck and Audrey demolished a giant plate of fettuccine.  A guitar player busked for the diners playing a tune featuring the line “mi caffe, mi caffe” and we all sang along.  We ended the day with another ice cream cone.

The Camargue Part 1

 

We arrived at La Bruguiere – a place that was starting to feel a bit like a home-away-from-home for me – and into the welcoming arms (and multiple cheek kisses, three in the south, left, right, left) of the Boudins.  Since my last visit, Brigitte had fixed up a room on the third floor (2nd floor in France), right next to the room that I consider my room.  I think after the chateau’s hundreds of years of history my three short residencies qualify it as my room, right?  The room that had been redone is primarily for the Boudins granddaughters.  It is pink and fresh with twin beds done up in stripes, old fashioned doll furniture and a writing desk.  Lila and Audrey loved it at first sight.

We were to spend five days at La Bruguiere before our house would be ready for us.  Brigitte and Philippe were, as always, warm and charming hosts.  The girls were welcomed to explore the grounds, play in the tree fort and most successfully, swim in the pool.  This they very happily did at least twice a day.  To the french, 25 degrees celsius is way too cold for swimming, but to my girls, that’s summer weather!  It was much warmer than that most days, but if I hadn’t dragged them out for dinner, they would have remained “dans l’eau” until well after dark.

As much as staying in a chateau in the south of France is an ok thing to do, I did want to take the girls on a day trip or two, to really take advantage of their last week of summer vacation.

A couple of years previous, while staying with Brigitte and Philippe, Joey and I had taken a few days to travel to the Camargue.  The Camargue is a region south of the Languedoc, and includes several beautiful cities on the Mediterranean:   Les Aigues Mortes, Sainte Marie de la Mer and le Gros du Roi.  All three towns have beautiful sand beaches and pretty boardwalks.  Joe and I had been to Ste. Marie, and had loved it.

All of these destinations are about an hour’s drive from La Bruguiere, so I thought this would be a great overnight trip for the girls and I.  They had never been swimming in any ocean, and the weather was hot.  The Boudins agreed this was a good idea, and so the three of us set off after breakfast one day for Sainte Marie de la Mer, in the Camargue.

The first thing you notice about the Camargue, are the marshes.  They are wet-lands with tall reeds and a distinctive, well…poopy smell.  The Camargue is known for its wild horses, flamingos and torreaux (small, back bulls raised for meat and non-violent bull fighting).  It is also home to Camarguese Fleur de Sel – sea salt harvested in salt marshes near the shore…mmm my favourite.

As we entered the marshy landscape, we made a game of who could be the first to spot any of the animals.  The prize was an ice cream cone.  Of course, everyone knew full well we were all getting an ice cream no matter what, but it was fun.  The girls were delighted to see flamingos!  These flying dinosaurs seem so tropical to us northerners.  Like palm trees, flamingos represent “dream vacation” to any and all lovers of the shows Full House, Modern Family, the Brady Bunch or any long-running television series.  Eventually the gang is required to film an episode or two in Hawaii or Disney Land/World.

Having successfully spotted all of our visual prey, we found our way to the Bird Sanctuary and Wildlife Preserve.  I had visited the park with Joey and thought the girls would enjoy it.  We arrived to find the park closed until after lunch.

This happened to us a lot when first settling in in France.  As Canadians we kept forgetting about the inevitable closure of almost everything, except restaurants, between the hours of noon and 2 pm.  We would start off on a new adventure, only to have our plans thwarted by the long french lunch.  We have since gotten the hang of it:  there’s no point heading out in the morning unless you do it earlier than 10 am.  If you dally too long and are still at home at that hour, you really may as well wait until after 2pm, when everyone is back at it.  You’ll have a hard time finding lunch anywhere earlier than noon, and once or twice we have found ourselves in the “in-between” time:  nothing open except bars (coffee shops) and brasseries (bars).  Butcher store closed, restaurant not yet open.  We are still getting used to the idea of plopping ourselves down for a “petit cafe” and a long gander at the passers-by on a terrace  during this transitional time.  With familiarity and confidence comes the adaptation of local customs.

We decided we would check in to our hotel.  I had booked a room on my “smartphone” poolside the evening before, through a discount, last minute website.  The hotel was actually a few kilometres from the town, but the price was right.  I had wanted to re-create my last visit somewhat and be right in the heart of the action: able to walk from the beach to the hotel, from the hotel to the “pieton” (pedestrian) centre of town, from the boardwalk to the arena, but, you know what?  This would be fine.

We drove in to the hotel parking lot and it looked really nice.  There was a fountain, and it looked like the rooms were actually individual cottages with thatched roofs.  We were kind of thrilled.  Fancy.

I walked, mildly confident, up to the reception desk.  The man behind the counter asked my name and I gave it somewhat sheepishly – Whiteley is a tough one for the french, ending up as ‘vit-lay’ most times – oh!  A look of recognition in his eyes.  He spun around and had a quick word with his colleague, opened a cabinet and grabbed a binder.  He flipped through the pages, found what he was searching for and smoothly spun the page to face me:  “the reservation was for last night, Madame.  Desole, you have spent 78 euros for nothing.”

Oh no.  Mais non!  Mais oui!

What to do?  I knew right away he was right.  I had obviously not payed attention to the date of my reservation poolside on my “smartphone”.  The fault was mine, but the fact remained we needed a place to stay.  “You have no rooms for tonight?”  “Well…we do have a room, but it is full price, of course, 180 Euros.”

Merde.

“Non, merci Monsieur.”  We left the lobby a little defeated.  The girls felt the concierge had been very rude, but I think he was just being frank.  I felt embarrassed by my error, a little concerned that it had cost us money, and conflicted about how to handle the situation.  We sat in the car for a few minutes in the parking lot, the girls aware that this was probably a good time to be quiet and wait.  I thought about Joey, off in Ireland, and decided that, really, the last thing he would want to hear was that things were not going well for me.  I decided to make lemonade out of lemons (or wine out of sour grapes!).

There are times in life where, essentially, there is nothing to be done except pretend something did not happen.  I am particularly skilled at this.  I have always identified with Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind:  “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”  I realize that line was meant to show her character as shallow and self-absorbed, but I view it quite differently.  I think that negative thoughts and regret can be absolutely paralyzing.  What we need to do most times is to keep moving forward.  Come up with a new approach, a new plan, a renewed energy.  The thing is to bring yourself into a place where you feel confident and energized, and then, you deal with that mistake.  There is nothing like a shame-over to keep you from taking action.  And regret is deeply selfish.

So, we went into town to get ice-cream.

 

 

 

The Dream Team

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Let’s face it, there was no way we could have done this alone.

I am talking about our friends and family, of course – my mom who is taking good care of our house in Ontario, my parents-in-law who had us all move in with them for a year to save up money in Toronto, all of the moral (and financial) support offered by our loving family and close friends – but mostly I am referring to the “Dream Team”.

The Dream Team is made up of Brigitte Boudin, captain, Philippe Boudin, team manager and Mithou Martinent, power forward.

You see, this whole amazing adventure really got kick-started about three years ago when Brigitte Boudin, a long-time friend of the Wrights (Bob and Ellen) travelled to Canada to see her daughter Emily who lives in Montreal, and to attend Bob Wrights’s birthday bash in Toronto.

While in Toronto, Brigitte went down to Queen Street West with a group of fellow revellers to see Joey perform a concert with his incredible band Tuxedo! at the legendary Cameron House.  She loved the show.  Afterward she was chatting with Joey:  “You should come and play a show in France!”  to which Joey replied:  “I would love to.  If you set up some shows, I’ll be there to play!”  Well, guess what.  Unlike most folks who are all jazzed up after seeing a show and want to bring the band to their very own town, Brigitte actually followed through with her threat/promise.

Two years and many emails later, Joey and I found ourselves on a plane bound for France.  We played three shows over a week:  one at La Bruguiere, the Boudin’s unbelievable chateau near Uzes, one in a town close by called Belvezet – it was Bastille Day and we met some life-long friends that night, but that’s another story – and a final concert in Uzes at a beautiful old monastery.  The shows were all terrific in their own way, and had been a ton of work for Brigitte, but, we stayed with Brigitte and Philippe throughout at their home, and that’s where the real magic happened.  We all became great friends.

Brigitte was pleased and proud of us, I think.  Of our shows, of our improving french, of our fortitude. (She would insist that we have a lie-down every day after lunch, which was very luxurious.  For us it’s quite normal to shop, cook, eat, go sightseeing and hike, paddle or play tennis in the same day, but true to french form, Brigitte insisted that was too much for one day!  The Boudins concluded that the strongest breed of French people had left for the new world.)  Philippe enjoyed our company, too, and as our french vocabulary expanded we had long and wonderful discussions about life, history, politics and music.  For our part, we were smitten.  The Boudins offered us perfect hospitality, delicious food and wines and warm and interesting company.

This trip, in many ways, cemented the idea of moving to France for a year.  We now had a destination in our minds, a small community of friends, and a slight familiarity with the region that helped make the whole concept more “real”.  We entertained other ideas.   We thought of landing somewhere near Cognac, where Bob and Ellen and family had lived during their year abroad, and where we also have friends as a result.  In the end, Joey and I took a crazy yet fateful drive from Paris to Uzes last year (a fourteen hour return trip in two days) to confirm our suspicions:  the Uzes area is where we were headed.

We arrived at the Boudin’s and were so warmly welcomed (“They came all this way just to embrace us!”) and Brigitte had even secretly invited our new guitar playing friend Benoit Robbe to join us and we all ate and played music and had a wonderful time.  It would be crazy not to go somewhere where we had a base of friendship already, we decided on the drive back to Paris.

So.  Once we had made up our minds, the real work began.

There are many steps to getting a long-term visitor’s visa to France, including finding a place to live.

We had great fun surfing the internet looking at homes, apartments, walk-ups, pied-à-terres, villas and townhouses.  It was a great way to get Lila and Audrey excited about the adventure, too. (“That’s our room?  There’s a pool?  Look at the orange trees.  Awesome!”) Everything was pretty pricey, and many did not rent during the off season (a.k.a. the entire time we were going to be there!).  We considered renting a small place for a month or two, then looking for something while “on the ground” in France.  We had asked Brigitte if she might be able to look around for something, and, in inimitable Brigitte style, a few months later, we were thrilled to open our email and see “your new house” in the subject line.

Brigitte had gone to a local realtor, with little success.  As she told us later, the houses were all “moche” (ugly) and “triste” (sad) and “tres,tres chere!” ($$$$).  She mentioned that she was on the hunt for our house to her neighbour, Suzette in La Bruguiere.  Suzette thought of her good friend Mithou.  “Mithou lives in Celas (pronounced Say-Lass), near Ales(Al-ess), 25 kms from Uzes (eu-zess).  She owns and rents out the house next door during the summer, maybe she would like to rent to your friends?”

It turned out she did.

We received two photos of the house:  one of a charming bedroom and one of the stone exterior with Mithou and Brigitte in the foreground.  It was hard to tell much about the place, but Brigitte and Philippe had gone to see it, and said it was “tres charmant”, so that was good enough for us!

With the house in place, we could proceed to get the girls enrolled in school.  Ummm….Brigitte?  How do we…?  Well, once again we were saved.  Brigitte went to both the schools and started the process, and got the paper work in place.  We had to take it from there, but good lord, we really, probably, literally could not have done it without her – and Philippe, I know he dealt with many emails and faxes and so on for us, too.

So, back to the Dream Team:

As I arrived and settled in at the Boudins with the girls, still sans Joey for another week, I was told things like:  “Today we are going to see your house and go to the schools, and you will meet Mithou, and she is coming with us to the schools because she used to teach at both of them!”  What?  I was so grateful.  I was still coming into my own linguistically, and very unsure about french manners, mores and norms.  If you could have two french women on your side when you walked into a french room, these ladies would be it.  Confident, powerful, gorgeous and gracious.  People just couldn’t and didn’t say no.  Not once did I hear the dreaded “Non, non, non.  Ce n’est pas possible.”

In the end, Mithou came with us to get our insurance, to sign up for our internet and cell phone service and to help us start our french bank account.  All day trips to Ales.  So generous.

That’s my Dream Team.  I am thinking of writing a song:  Brigitte: elle nous a trouver une gite, Mithou: admirer par tous….Philippe:  le president de l’équipe….

I’m working on it.

About my amazing children.  The girls were absolute champs.  Not only were they dealing with day to day hustle and bustle, and a new bed every couple of nights, but also a very different set of expectations from the french regarding manners, posture, traditions, habits and comportment.  There was no tolerating bad table manners, and we were schooled early on about how the french eat.  You hold a piece of bread in your left hand and use the fork to push the food into the bread, helping to secure it on the tines.  Unless, of course a knife and fork are required, in which case it’s basically the same as Canada, knife in right hand, fork, tines down in left, not turned over nor switched before reaching the mouth.

Audrey soon learned not to over-serve herself as she would be expected to finish all the food on her plate.  Lila was sure to keep upright at the table, never slouch.  I was happy to let the french polish my daughters manners.  The first night alone in our own house, however, I was also happy to serve dinner without placemats, pour myself two glasses of wine, and leave the dishes until the morning!

Our house is a cozy, three bedroom cottage.  Transformed by Mithou and her husband Philippe (that’s right, another Philippe) 15 years ago from a granary with three rooms into a beautiful and charming rental home.  We have a pool, and a lovely big garden, a fireplace and a terrace.  The girls and I were instantly thrilled and couldn’t wait for Joey to see it.  For everyone to see it!  I had to hold back tears of joy when I first came here.  It already feels like home and it seems strange that we will only be here until July.

Maybe we will come back some day?  We certainly have more than a small group of friends here now.  We have the Dream Team!

Gite! Part 2

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We pull in to the driveway as directed by the GPS, and find ourselves face to face with a large iron gate.  This practice of gating your home, we find out later, is absolutely de rigueur in France, but it seems very special to us at the time.  We read the directions:  “Je suis dans le jardin, sonnez SVP”.  I push the buzzer and sure enough a few seconds later, the gate begins to swing open.  We exchange excited glances:  our first night in France!

The place looks great.  The winding driveway passes by some large enclosures filled with birds, be-vined trellises and many sprawling gardens.  We pull up to the front of the 17th century stone farmhouse.  I get out and see a sign on the door in broken english:  “Please attending here for Madame.”

Madame.  Anyone  you meet outside of a social setting is addressed as Madame or Monsieur in France.  “Bonjour Monsieur” to the 25 year old gas jockey, “Bonjour Madam” to your McDonald’s counter help. (McDonald’s is good place to get free WiFi in France – I learned this while in the Charente region with the Wrights and Fortiers – thanks Joan and Bob!).

The land lady appears, a small woman with dark curly hair and round cheeks.  She is quick and chatty and talking so fast!  I confirm that I am Jenny Whiteley, she looks at her notes, and discovers I have only reserved for two guests.  Oh la la.  “Will it be a problem, I can certainly pay extra for a third?”   She mulls it over, making the classic french sound of exhaling while forming the sound shhh…a sound like “pish”, followed by several “tisk”s.  I am thinking we might be alright here.  There does not seem to be another guest in site, and we are a bit late in the season.  After a moment, she declares:  “Alors!”  and assures me we can have the room with three beds in it, I’ll cover the cost in the morning.  Good stuff!

She shows us to our room, up some ancient stairs, through a large great-room, full of antiques.  There appear to be several old fashioned Judys (headless dress mannequins), Victorian dolls, a wicker pram, lots of lace everywhere.  This will merit further exploration.

Our room in quite nice.  A double bed, and two smaller beds tucked along either side of the room under the slanted ceiling.   Cozy.  Our washroom is across the hall, down three steps and has only a sink and a bathtub in it.  The toilet is next door, in the WC.  We tell her it all looks very nice, thank you.  We will park and bring in our things.

She leaves us to our own devices.  We assess the room in privacy.  As we point out little French touches to each other we start to notice a theme.  “This plate is so pretty, mommy”, observes Audrey.  “That’s Marie Antoinette” I say.  “Is this Marie Antoinette?” enquires Lila.  “Yes. That is a china doll of her” I respond.  “huh, this whole room has a Marie Antoinette theme” we realize together.

“Why is she so famous?” the girls want to know.  I try my (feeble) best at explaining the French revolution and the famous cake quote and the ultimate gruesome end.  It puts a bit of a damper on our mood.  Never mind, off to explore.

On the way out of the house we check out the common room.  It really is something.  There are old dolls and old hats everywhere.  Antique parasols, overstuffed sofas and a fuze ball table.  The thing is, this is all in a converted granary, very dim and dusty.  Everything has a bit of a droopy look.  There is a door at the back of the room with a sign reading:  “Do not open door, dangerous!  I must remain closed always!”  Through the glass I can see that there is a 20 foot drop into a grain bin beyond the door.  Always indeed.

On our way down the stairs we spot another sign:  “Do not circulate in this room after 21:30 or before 9am.”  The floor is very squeaky and I can see that it would be noisy downstairs.  I do the math, however, and that sign is telling us that we must spend eleven and a half hours in our room!  Strange, but, who knows?  A french thing?

Only after we check out the next day do we realize that all three of us are acting excited about this farm house and putting on a brave face, when all of us are actually feeling a little creeped out.

Madame asks would we like to use the dining room for our picnic.  Yes please.  “Also”, I slip in, “do you know where I can buy a bottle of red wine?”  I mean, after the last couple of days, I am not spending my first evening in France sans vin!  She tells me she can sell me a bottle of “Vin de Pays”.  Great.  I’m a happy camper.

The landlady comes back with the wine and an opener.  She also mentions that the door at the end of our hallway is the door to her son’s room.  “Not to worry, he only comes up once in the evening to go to bed, he’s very quiet.”  Yikes.

After we finish dinner we tour the gardens.  There is a playground and the girls play on the swings.  I am quite pleased and content with a glass of wine in my belly, and three beds to climb into.  It is only 8pm, but with the time change it’s 2 in the afternoon in our brains, except I haven’t slept.  Trying to do the math and getting nowhere, I decide I should just lie down and see what happens.  There is a tv in our room, all in french , of course, but the girls manage to find a cartoon  to watch.  I am drifting in and out of sleep.

Suddenly Audrey is shaking my shoulder to wake me up.  “Mommy, I dropped Sock out the window!”  She is upset.  Sock is her Sock Monkey and security blanket.  What has happened, is, that while she was playing with him, dangling him out our second storey window, she lost her grip and Sock fell down onto the driveway.

I am annoyed at having to retrieve the doll, but it has to be done, so I rouse myself, slipping on my flip flops and glancing at my phone.  It’s almost 10.  We aren’t to circulate in the main room after 9:30!  Well, we’ll just have to be really quiet.  Audrey and I sneak out of our room, down the hallway, through the squeaky large salon and down the stairs.  We manage to unbolt the farmhouse door and we slip out into the night.  I spot Sock on the gravel under our window, scoop him up and hand him to a relieved Audrey.

Back in our room, we settle back in to our respective beds.  The girls are colouring now and I’m reading my book.  Suddenly, we are plunged in to darkness.  What is happening?  It is pitch black, no ambient light seeping in through the window.  The girls are panicky, I try to stay calm.  “Get into my bed, girls, it’s just a black out,”  I soothe.  We all snuggle into my bed together.  I tell the girls that “it’s ok, nothing to worry about, let’s get some sleep,” but in my mind I am thinking:   “what’s with this?  Is it because we circulated after 9:30?  Is this some elaborate human trafficking scheme?  What’s that sound in the hallway?”

The girls hear the shuffling in the hallway, too.  I tell them, “It’s nothing to worry about, it’s just her son who’s room is at the end of the hall.”  Yikes.  Being sleep deprived in this kind of low level terrifying situation is no help at all.  It takes all my will power to shut out frightening thoughts and focus on snuggling and reassuring my kids.  Again with the “grownup” thing!  I think about my friend Alysa, and how on a road trip we took through North Carolina many years ago, she was convinced that a tourist attraction in the hills called “The Mystery Hole” was a ruse to lure innocent travellers in and…what?  Who wants to imagine what.  I was very sure that we were in safe hands at The Mystery Hole, and to this day it may be the best $2.00 I ever spent.  I try to channel that Jenny.

About 1 am, and the lights come back on.  As is the case during most black outs, we have not thought about turning the lights or television  to “off” after the power was cut, and now all the lights are on, and the tv is shouting at us in french,  startling me awake.  It is a relief though, and I am able to easily fall back asleep in one of the twin beds leaving Lila and Audrey curled up in the double.

In the morning I find a lighted candle and a flashlight outside our bedroom door.  It had been Madame shuffling out there, ensuring we could find our way to la toilette in the night.  Little did she know, that I would have forced the girls to pee into one of the Marie Antoinette vases before I would have unlocked the door to our room before dawn.

Having payed our bill, including a hefty 10 Euros for that wine, we get in the Polo, punch La Bruguiere into the Sat Nav, and pull away.  We are not three minutes from the gate when we all chime in with variations on:  “that was so scary! right?  I know, creepy…Oh my God!”  We are giddy with the relief of having left the farm and with finally being able to admit we didn’t like it.  We are united in our goal to get the heck away from there, excited at the prospect of our arrival at the Chateau that evening.  Only six hours to go.