It may be art, but... where's the door.

Little apartment near the City Hall, Paris, getting cool.

...

The best way to be constantly surprised in life is simply to not know anything. This is certainly my approach. A few days ago after walking randomly for ages I was surprised to stumble across a massive building type structure of colourful water pipes, girders and glass. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a bit over the top; you can tell the architect was pretty excited.

Today, after more rambling, I was surprised to stumble upon it again, and to discover it’s the Pompidou Centre National Museum of Modern Art. Ah, I see...
I decided to forgive it and go in. The door I was heading for was an exit, so I started to make a clockwise circuit of the...whatever it is. I could certainly see people inside, but could only find more doors marked exit.
Finally, an entrance. It said, “Public Library” (except with a French accent).
Could this be some kind of post-modern deconstructionist building oeuvre where all you can find is exits (very deep), then the entrance, if you do find it (even deeper) is has a completely unrelated name...

I kept searching just in case and discovered a HUGE clearly marked and queued-up-for entrance right beside where I’d begun my circuit.

Tomorrow I’ll actually visit the artworks...tonight I’ll leaf through the Centre Pompidou catalogue I bought at the bookshop. From a packing point of view, that combined with the one I bought at the Musée d’Orsay will still be marginally lighter than the French/English Dictionary I’m finally tossing because the front pages are falling out. At this point my French conversation, while not too bad, doesn’t cover anything beginning with “a”.


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I made the long walk home, circuitously, tailing a young chic couple and then a leather-jacketed guy just to see where they went. They kept getting on public transport. Drats. But it was a great way to explore new areas, even if I didn’t see much because I was concentrating on not losing my people. Incidentally, if you try to exit that big shop behind the City Hall and the automatic doors don’t open no matter how much you step back and forth and wave at them, it’s because they have handles. Quaint.

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Walking around the corner from my apartment this evening to pick up a baguette and chocolate croissant, I was surprised again. The Pompidou Centre is two blocks away.

Art up to here...

Sunday, kitchen table, north of the River Seine, but not far, Paris


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A lively bunch of dead impressionists can be found hanging at the Musée D’Orsay, across the Seine from my little apartment.

Sunday morning in Paris, there are almost no bikes in the racks; the rest were ridden centrifugally from the city centre yesterday. Sunday lunchtime they’re all back again. The footpaths are humming. Traffic is congealing.

An aging accordion player on the timber-planked footbridge crossing the river creates a perfect Parisian atmosphere, while a stubble-chinned young man on a bench tilts his face to soak up both music and sun. The tune has a strange, halting, and uneven quality to it. I can’t tell whether it’s a particular ethnic style I’m being exposed to, or a really shocking musician.

As I walk towards the Museum along the left bank, the bells of Notre-Dame toll in the direction I’ve come from. A nun is rushing towards me, habit of deep blue plastered to her front, looking at her watch.

I realise I’ve left my camera behind...recharging the battery so I wouldn’t miss anything...



Two tall rollerbladers skim along the footpath then pull up to wait at a crossing. The tall female rollerblader leans nonchalantly on the railing as I reach them. Suddenly she’s gone. Her feet have slipped out from under her and she’s flat on the ground. I offer to help her up but she prefers her partner. Possibly she prefers to think nobody noticed.

The antique shops here really have...antiques...15th century for example. I remember seeing a 3000 year old piece of bread in the Egyptian exhibition when it came to Australia (on loan from the Louvre, as it happens)...imagine making a vegemite sandwich and having it end up in a museum 3000 years from now.


...
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Note: If you go to the Musée d’Orsay on a Sunday, it will be crowded. The crowds actually enhanced the Louvre experience, just like live theatre, but the Musée d’Orsay is smaller so enhancement sometimes gave way to elbowing. I don’t apologise...she deserved it.

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Incidentally, if you have to stop half way through looking at Renoirs and Van Goghs to go home and do a cartoon with snowmen in it, you can come back later the same day using the same ticket. Your ticket for the Louvre won’t work for the Musée d’Orsay, however, so just make sure you grab the right one out of your bag. The monsieur will notice. You could explain it was under your wallet, camera and sunglasses because you were here earlier. If you’re very lucky, he won’t ask why you interrupted your viewing of Renoirs and Van Goghs and you won’t have to say, to do a cartoon with snowmen in it.


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The Louvre is on the way home from the Orsay. Don’t you just wonder what it throws out?


Oeuvres, The Louvre, and Sneaky Manoeuvres

Tired feet, two and a half floors up, rue des Archives, Paris

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It was timed to perfection. Looking back on it, I have to admire the woman. A round of applause for a tidy little performance. Hers more than his. His rhythm was perhaps a bit off, or maybe I’d just been there done that.

I was striding towards the Louvre. Just after crossing the road, out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman stoop to pick something up off the gravel footpath. She looked at it and so did I. It was a ring. She asked if it was mine. No, I said and started to move off. She said that it wasn’t hers and would I like it; she showed me her ringless fingers saying she doesn’t wear them. I showed her my ringless fingers and said I don’t wear them either. Looking back on it, I think that was a cute moment.
I moved on, but she caught my arm and smiled and insisted I take the ring, as a souvenir (no thanks), she wouldn’t wear it (no thanks) out of friendship...please. OK. Thanks, and I felt warm and fuzzy. We parted. Count to three. “Madame...”. I turned...she was heading back to me, shaking her head slightly as if there were something she’d just remembered...could I part with some money...for food, she said. The penny dropped, so to speak. It was a scam of sorts. A way to make some kind of connection with somebody then play on their sense of obligation seeing as she’s just given them the ring...I didn’t give her money...I said if she needed money she should just ask and not do the ring thing; I gave it back. I had to admire her though, as I walked on. It was well done.

The Louvre was wonderful. Great marble on the floors. The sandwich was a bit stale and I have to say, while the decor is fabulous, the coffee definitely isn’t anything to write home about.

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There’s an extremely odd custom here. As soon as a person gets close to an objet d’art, particularly a famous one, they turn their back on it and smile. Sometimes they don’t smile. Time and time again, individuals, pairs, even groups, would immediately present their backs to the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, perfectly good Raphaels... you name it, they turned their back on it. I sneaked a quiet go with a few Roman statues, an Egyptian sphynx and even an Innuit carving. Nothing.

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Striding towards the Arc de Triomphe, I saw a man, out of the corner of my eye, bend down and pick something up...it was a ring...he asked if it was mine...after some insistence I didn’t take it, but turned around to watch him. After half a heartbeat, he did the same thing with a youngish couple. I caught his eye as he followed them for the insisting-they-take-it scene. I wagged my finger at him, and have to confess I was smiling. He put his finger to his lips saying...don’t tell them, then rubbed his belly and put a pleading look on his face. I wagged my finger at him again then took off. I reached an intersection and he was at my shoulder. Money for a baguette and a coke, he said. No money, I said. I was a bit worried that he’d followed me. A baguette and a coke? I guess the coke is because any westerner would, of course, identify with that, and the baguette for a nice French touch.

Fifteen minutes later I tracked him down and after waiting for the closing act (what is the correct etiquette about interrupting a scam?), cut in as he negotiated with another couple. I handed him a salami panini, then a tin of orange juice, then a straw, the same dinner I was having. I hope he shared it with his wife.

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Jelly legs

Late evening, Paris, little apartment almost within spitting distance of Notre-Dame



Even doing washing in the bathtub in Paris feels special, even though to be doing washing in Paris seems like a waste of Paris... (did I mention I’m in Paris?)

There are a lot of wheels here. Cars, trucks and buses certainly, strollers, a few wheelchairs, the odd skateboard or rollerblades or razor scooter, lots and lots of motorbikes and scooters, lots of bicycles, power-assisted and regular, and bicycle rickshaw getups. At about 300m intervals there are stands of city bikes you can rent ...the first half hour is free. Great idea and they are well-used.

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After a number of weeks in France, one becomes more confident doing such things as crossing roads. First, though, it is necessary to keep an eye out for roads. One may be happily meandering along a cobbled lane in Poitiers, and suddenly realise that one is meandering across an intersection, with traffic lights, which may be against one. In Paris, a green light for pedestrians means that at least eight more vehicles will pass before you can actually venture onto the road. A steady, authoritative and confident glare at oncoming cars is called for to establish one’s priority and make them come to a halt. I find the glare is very effective, but then again I do tend to use it after everybody has stopped anyway.

...

Scooters and motorbikes sift through to the front while everybody waits for the lights to change. Being at the front is probably an advantage; it gives one a chance to try to figure out the rules before tackling the intersection. The Paris roadmap comprises a series of stars where multiple roads cross each other. Some of these intersections are roundabouts with very peculiar rules, obviously designed to confuse the enemy. Actually, I don’t think I’ve seen a learner driver here. Make of that what you will...

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The Jardin des Plantes (Garden of Plants) didn’t allow access to the ancient greenhouse which was a shame, and my legs were too pooped after yesterday to climb the steps to the zoological building.


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I tried out a lot of benches today. I sat for a time in Notre-Dame and just absorbed. It was powerful and moving, as the building was designed to be. Yesterday, soldiers with machine guns at the Eiffel tower were a reminder that the same passion and engineering that can build something like that, can also be scary.

.........

A little nun was sitting on a chair at the exit holding out a basket with coins in it. Very generous of her, I thought.

Why didn't you TELL me about Paris?

Absolutely delightful tiny apartment, rue des Archives, heart of Paris, Autumn



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It’s so beautiful I feel like weeping. The light in Paris this afternoon was gut-wrenching. The sun lingered low in the sky, muted, warm, hovering between golden and peach hues catching the most wonderous stonework, bridges, statues, rooves, pathways, cobbled roads, River Seine, and Eiffel Tower. A wound in the mauve clouds, edged with gold, let fingers of light through to drive one crazy. This city is like the opening performance for which every city I’ve ever been in up until now has been merely a rehearsal. What do people do if they see Paris first??



I settled in after a truly joyous introduction to the apartment by its very French owner...nested immediately, studied a map, tucked it into my bag just in case, and decided to aim for Notre Dame Cathedral then the Eiffel Tower for a good walk and a chance to get my bearings. Four hours later I’m back and still shaking my head. I used a lot of swear words and God’s name in vain constantly. In a good way. I couldn’t believe what my eyes kept finding. I could not believe the feel of this wonderful place.

This morning in Poitiers ...

.........

...was filled with last minute packing, buying chocolate croissants, waving good bye to the cat in the window across the way, and after a quick last sweep, trundling by taxi to the station to catch the TGV (very fast train) up to Paris. I entered Poitiers backwards, and left the same way. Suddenly we were in Paris. It was very fast.

......

The organisation through whom I’ve rented my little apartment suggested I could book a car and driver to wait for me at the station, ring the owner to let him know we were on our way, and carry my bags up the stairs. I decided to book one, not for any of that, but because for one time in my life I’d get to be the person whose name is written on that card being held by somebody at an airport or station.

It was worth it.

When I visit a new place, it’s the people and the back gardens and alleyways and the detail that I love the best. I’m not so interested in the sights. Today, though, I actually felt a bit excited when I decided to head out and aim for the Eiffel Tower. When Van Gough’s Irises came to Australia, I was at the Art Gallery to see something else, and almost didn’t go to see it because you had to pay to get in ( maybe $4 - I am very cheap ) and I’d seen pictures of it so many times I certainly wasn’t going to be impressed. But I was. It was absolutely beautiful. Paint live does things that prints of paint don’t convey. And the frame itself was a wonder of the world.

It happened again today. I was more excited than I’d expected at the prospect of seeing the Eiffel Tower, very excited when I caught my first glimpse, and blown away getting closer and closer then actually standing under it. I had no idea it is so beautiful. I had no idea it would be so exciting to be there, even though it was essentially designed for and has always been for tourists. My first thought...the ironwork is beautiful...my second thought...it’s the Sydney Harbour Bridge on end...steel girders, rivets, lots of structure...and big. I also had no idea it would have such a halo of communications stuff on the top. I wonder if the Statue of Liberty has such stuff on her crown too, these days?...

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I gave some coins to a woman who was begging - she looked like a caricature of a woman begging and I wondered if she were genuine or a con artist or an actor...I was happy to share, whatever the case.

Vendors have boxes fixed to the railing along the Seine...lots of secondhand books, miniature Eiffel Towers, art deco postcards, original oil paintings (hmmmm...)...the books not junk but classics and genuinely antiquarian.

A man was dusting the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Booksellers read ( what do they read?) while waiting for custom. Is the beret genuine or for tourists? Japanese commercial being shot at twilight; what kind of hatstand do you find in the Louvre?


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There’s a cat across the way...we said hello, but this one plays on a ledge two floors up. I can’t look.


...



Tomorrow I may just sit somewhere and smile.

Let them eat cake

Comfy armchair. bags just about packed, Poitiers, France.






Countdown has begun for catching the Very Fast Train to Paris tomorrow. Days like today involve working through a carefully thought out list of essential tasks requiring completion before leaving, and an enormous amount of procrastinating. The day was barely long enough.

I ate out.

Menus are displayed outside each establishment. Many weird and wonderful dishes; eg “Surf & Turf”.

I ate lunch at a funny little restaurant decked out with ye olde coffee grinders, ditto flat irons, ditto milk urns, ditto tea kettles, ditto etc. I nearly jumped out of my socks when a ditto cuckoo clock went off, and I could swear I was hearing ditto bagpipes the whole time, but as if another diner were listening to them on headphones; that tinny buzzing that’s there but almost not there. I couldn’t work out what the ambience was supposed to be and I think they achieved it.

The tea kettles and urns made me feel trusting so I ordered the Plat de jour. I knew the Dish of the Day involved beef, and neither the kettles nor the urns let me down...it was ye olde slices of same with potato and cheese. I wasn’t complacent, though. I was working on what I think may be a loophole in the basket of bread scenario:

If you ask for a menu, a basket of bread is placed on your table. If you change your mind about eating something and order coffee, it is taken away again. If you order a meal, you can eat as much bread as you like and you can even ask for MORE bread, but the instant your plate is clean, the basket is whisked away. It doesn’t matter if you’re obviously enjoying some with the end of your carafe of red . It doesn’t matter if you’re reaching for it while exchanging warm smiles with the waitress as she passes. She’ll have it in her hand and out to the kitchen without breaking eye contact.

The problem: there’s only so long you can stretch out eating your main dish to keep the waiter/waitress at bay, and portions may be too chic (small) to leave a bit on the side while you keep filling up on baguette. So...why not position a piece of BREAD on the edge of your plate while you keep dipping into what’s in the basket? Genius.

Tonight was the first time in France I’ve seen Frogs legs on a menu. It was in the Chinese restaurant.

Incidentally, when being seated at a table in France, it appears you can only have up to three seats per person. Therefore, two people might be shown to a table for six, but one person is never shown to a table for four. Even if it’s quite a nice table and she was here early and doesn’t really want to sit over near the fish tank. Undoubtedly something to do with global warming...


...




Bus ticket, tick busted

4th floor, a few doors up from the Chinese Restaurant, Poitiers, France




“I was on a drip in hospital for three hours because...”...and the line went dead.

It’s my youngest daughter’s 22nd birthday today, well yesterday, somewhere between here and Australia. I had tried to ring her a few times last night and this morning (from my computer, using Skype) to give her happy birthday wishes and I’d been answered three times by a nice enough but rather humourless woman who told me to leave my number if I wished, or to hang up RIGHT NOW!!

Late this morning I got through. I sang, she laughed, then we got cut off the first time just as we began to build up a head of steam. I’d been tidying my computer desktop as we chatted and had neatly closed the Skype window. I rang her back. She was telling me about going bushwalking and ending up in hospital on a drip because...and my computer decided to go to sleep. I hit the keys and we got cut off again.

It was a tick. She had a paralysis tick (which was removed after being sprayed by insect repellant so is probably now nervous) to which she’d had an allergic reaction so went to hospital to avoid fullblown hives- it has happened before, she tells me.

When I was 22 I was very much an adult. When your child is 22, she’s very much a kid.





You can get a nifty bus ticket in Poitiers, called a ticket jour. For 4 euros you can hop on and off of buses all day. Once you buy your ticket, you tear off the smaller portion which is the active bit, and the first time you get onto a bus, you obliterate it. Train tickets require composting, bus tickets obliterating. You obliterate it in a little yellow machine behind the driver. It’s not totally obliterated mind you, in fact the date and time are stamped on it and that’s the only damage I could see, but apparently that’s enough.

I went to a stop where lots of buses berth. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years waiting for buses, but this time it didn’t matter which one I caught and so I planned to hop on the very first one that came along. It seemed unfair somehow that even though for possibly the first time in my life I could take ANY bus at all, I had just missed a bunch and still ended up waiting.

I took a number 4. Such a great way to get a feel for a place and the people in it. The city began to remind me of Ottawa with its office blocks and apartment buildings, university campus woven in amongst the rest. Then I wondered if it reminded me of Ottawa because I only knew the city I grew up in by bus, and the beast I was on was shuddering and humming up and down the scale and was driving on the right exactly like the number 75 St. Laurent at home.

...

Apartment blocks and parks took me back to Russia.

Then I wondered...if a new place keeps reminding you of other places, do you remember the new place?

Modern suburban houses here have angled red corrugated tiled rooves and shutters with decorative hinges.

A few days ago I watched bollards disappear into the road for a bus to go past, and today I was on that bus!

One would naturally expect the #2 would travel half as far as the #4, but au contraire. The # 12 eased its way around a bendy, very narrow road where it only JUST scraped past windows by centimetres. One would need to be mindful of the bus timetable before opening or closing the shutters. Or maybe the driver has a shutter timetable. The bus then wormed through a lovely suburb called Saint Benoit, and there was time for a snooze at the end of the line before turning around and picking up passengers on our way back to City Hall.

10 minute parking spots have a post beside them on which a bold LCD display yells out to everybody just how much of your ten minutes is left, and counting. Flashing hazard lights do not repel parking officers.


The $2 shop here is chic if the window display is anything to go by.......(actually, it would be the $3.65 shop at today’s rates)

Two gelled and black T-shirted taughtly-muscled young men with small rhomboids of facial hair on their chins who work in a restaurant kissed noisily on both cheeks in greeting. Why is that reassuring?

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An 11 year old boy worries his way back to school after lunch, nothing in his hands but a comb with which he’s fixing his forelock.

Three businessmen walking briskly...three heights, three shapes; the tallest, the middle one talking. The other two, heads turned to focus not on his face, but on whatever it is he’s talking about as it moves along in front of them.

A father leaning forward, red tie swinging and trouserlegs flapping in the wind, both arms extended behind him, each one ending in a small child in exactly half as much rush as he is to get them back to school.

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Brightly coloured patterned material on brown-skinned women, white-beanied baby watchful eyes from a sling wound around her mother, grandmother’s shiny green scarf twisted up into a magnificent arching headpiece like a beak; a stroller wedged against seats, one twin awake, the other asleep, another pram with tiny red shoes escaping from under layers of wraps. City clothing is black, white and red. The further you get from the CBD, the more colourful people get.

Having tried up until now to avoid looking like a tourist by not obviously photographing buildings, today I decide to try to photograph people and do so by pretending to photograph buildings.



Doorknobs are easier.




Caught in the act...

Little desk, 4th floor, Poitiers, somewhat south of Paris

...

I was tumbled.

I went to see the first Real Estate Agent and explained that I’m here in Poitiers to get a feel for the region as part of my research before possibly buying a house in France. Which is true. And did she have any houses of a certain type that she could show me?
Quick as a flash she was telling me, politely but firmly, that she couldn’t be a tourist agent showing people around. Poop! Caught out. It would have been a great way to see the region.
However, she didn’t realise that I was also cleverly using my interview with her to hone my language skills. I was able to look convincing enough that I was comprehending everything she was saying that the speed and complexity of her delivery never faltered. In fact, they noticeably increased as she explained and described, consulted maps and brochures, kidded and confided while I held her gaze and nodded. I’m definitely improving. And I’m beginning to see that the key to this language is to never actually open my mouth.
We left it that she’ll email me, or... I’ll call her, ...or ...her people and my people...something about a colleague...she seemed so genuinely happy that we’d reached an agreement that I couldn’t bear to spoil it by telling her I had no idea what we’d just agreed to. I do know that she didn’t ask for my phone number so I’m guessing she isn’t lining up inspections for tomorrow. I think she isn’t...although, there may be something lined up for April...

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The truth is, of course, that I need to see houses to get a feel for what a certain budget will buy in a certain area to help me decide which area/s to focus on, and also how sizes and descriptions of houses on the internet translate into reality, whereas agents need people to have already decided on the area to make arranging inspections worthwhile.

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Village houses tend to open straight off the street, but can have engaging things happening out the back. Heating is important as oil is expensive but the demand for firewood is increasing. Many houses boast a cave which is a vaulted wine cellar. The equivalent of a “handyman’s dream” may be three tumbling stone walls with a giant bird’s nest of timbers for a roof or possibly just the memory of one. Placards are built-in cupboards and not residue from political activities, and exposed beams may mean structural elements criss-crossing at chest height as you lie in bed. Houses four hundred years old look appealing from the outside, but may be very dark inside as the thickness of the walls is in direct proportion to the number of years since construction. As anywhere, beware of “cute” (really small), “character” (really impractical), and “water feature” (really leaky).

I decided not to bother with the second and third Real Estate Agents.


poi mon lagoon............

I went for a walk. Another beautiful garden to be strolled through (a pine tree with unexpected berries...unexpected by me, that is...) then I spent ages trying to figure out how to cross what must be a mighty river spanned by a huge multiple-lane scary major motorway bridge. Eventually I discovered (after consulting the map) there’s a quiet footbridge a little way back which daintily steps across what turns out to be lovely tame and slender waters.

Tomorrow, I may take a bus. For fun.


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Sunday in Poitiers

Poitiers, evening, France



The only drawback to taking your work with you when you travel is that every now and again you have to work.

Today I worked, partly in a cafe, partly in the apartment, and took a break and walked a bit to see what Sunday looks like here.

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I had the window open a bit last night and remember being woken from time to time by motorbikes ripping down the street, a group of people calling out, and somebody alternately playing the mouth organ and laughing.




Victuals, Nuptuals and Criminals

Comfortable chair, fourth floor, rue Carnot, Poitiers, France




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Farmers’ markets are not only colourful and good places to eavesdrop if you’re trying to pick up another language and tasty produce at the same time, they’re where small producers can, without embarrassment, lay out two bunches of knobbly carrots looking like uncles you’ve known, one cucumber, a hand full of potatoes, and for the heck of it, several small bunches of cheerfully colourful flowers. Yes, If one had managed to arrive earlier perhaps there might have been a few more potatoes, but it feels good being able to buy small amounts of blemished and tasty fruit and vegetables pulled this morning probably, right out of the earth (or off the tree) belonging to the person selling them, while he or she grabbed a bouquet or two from the garden for those wanting visual rather than visceral nourishment.

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The range of fish and molluscs and crustaceans and other sea entities and meats is amazing. Especially the meats. I haven’t seen anything like it since vet school. Even than I doubt I could have identified everything. The French eat absolutely anybody. Sometimes they leave heads unplucked so you (and possibly they) know what exactly it is you’re taking home to put in the pot. But you have to hand it to them, they waste nothing; they eat absolutely every part one way or another. Remember this at dinnertime.

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Of course, getting engrossed in the market can mean you’re too late for any of the real estate agents who may have been on your agenda given that they close at noon on Saturday, but instead you may be rewarded by running into a wedding at the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville) then a wedding later at the cathedral. It may even have been the same wedding as there are two ceremonies I think, one civil then the religious one.

They really do hats at weddings here.

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Later as you sip a glass of rosé while reading through real estate brochures at a café next to the Palais de Justice (Courthouse), you may see two men being escorted briskly down the long flight of stone steps from that very building and across the cobbled plaza through strollers, lovers, map graspers and hip-hugged jeansters, wrists handcuffed behind their backs.

It certainly is all action on Saturday.

Later, when you decide to have a meal out, you may not be too hungry after demolishing a number of pepperoni type things you picked up at the market. You may not know what they’re called because you may have cheated and just pointed.
The salad looks good. Just water, thanks. No, just the small salad. Then it appears, a mightily heaped plate of, certainly lettuce underneath, slices of prosciutto around the side and then some chopped warm unidentifiables in the middle. You eat the beansprout garnish on top. So far, so good. Unfortunately, last night you may have looked up a few gastronomical terms to explain menus which you’ve enjoyed being surprised by up till now. The words, gizzard, and offal spring to mind. Unfortunately you can’t remember their French counterparts, and even if you could, you don’t remember exactly what the menu said was in the salad you ordered.
You eat the lettuce out from under whatever it is, and wonder how on earth you’ll decorously get out of eating the rest as there are more and more pairs of diners mounting up on both sides of you, watching your progress and blocking your exit. The only option you have is to catch the waiter’s eye with confidence, then do the hand across the throat international sign language for, “I’m afraid that this might be gizzard which I’ve never had before and which I don’t wish to start having now besides I had a pepperoni type thing for lunch, in fact, several, and am not as hungry as I thought and can you take it away please because even if it isn’t gizzard I don’t think I want to know what else it is” . He nods.

Your stomach is relieved when it recognises coffee, which also makes it look like you’re coming to the close of a normal meal, all of which it could be assumed you have eaten.

Tomorrow you will explore whether it is possible to be vegetarian in France. Apart from that other salami type thing in the fridge...




Oui Oui Petanque




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Painted along the road and footpath is a blue line...I kept vaguely thinking “That’s the blue line in Sydney which marked where the Olymipc marathon runners were to go in 2000...what’s it doing in Poitiers?” then realised there was sometimes a red line and a yellow line too. Then I realised there were red, blue and yellow lines on the tourist map I’d picked up. Brilliant! Follow the line on the ground and it takes you on a tour...kind of a GPS for dummies.

Incidentally, parts of the blue line in Sydney had to be taken off the road after the Olympics because drivers were getting distracted and following it as it drifted across into oncoming traffic...

The apartment is on a busy road, albeit one lane in one direction, so striking out this morning it was fun to see cafe chairs not yet unstacked for the day, rollers going up on the side of a beer truck, baguettes, horns tooting, traffic like treacle and frowns on faces while people try to circumnavigate cars perched on impossible corners to allow owners to dash into shops for this or that on their way to work.

I walked for most of the day.

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My soul wasn’t stirred by the towering Cathedrals and Churches whose stone carving is as intricate as their history - I wasn’t moved because I haven’t the tiniest fraction of understanding what I’m actually seeing . It’s too vast. It’s a frustration. I simply cannot grasp the concept of these walls having been here for centuries upon centuries and what they’ve meant for different people. That they feature in ancient tapestries and parchments.

I best heard the story that the hollowed steps told.

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....




Possibly I need to be taken by someone passionate about such places rather than by a blue line.



A wonderful park immediately felt calming, even though everything is carefully planted and cropped and pruned and groomed. Trees pruned to stand wafer thin shoulder-to-shoulder making a wall of foliage were somehow satisfying, even though part of me was saying I should be finding them grotesque. I caught myself thinking that the bronze statues looked a bit pretentious, then laughed when I remembered that these are the actual statues that people with pretentious statues are trying to copy.

..............................

A flamethrower deals with weeds on the gravel pathways.

Men playing petanque (the onomatopoeic French name for boules).

The little animal zoo has guinea pigs. I wonder what a French guinea pig sounds like? (Oui, oui, oui ?)

.........

Elsewhere waiters laden with trays of beer and rosé and warm goat’s cheese salad dash back and forth across the busy road between their restaurant and islands of tables in the sun, traffic and waiters ignoring and miraculously missing each other. (You can just imagine the ambulance bringing one in...
Le Docteur, “Status?”
Ambo (pompier),”Hit by car, temperature and blood pressure normal, reflexes sluggish, Duck a l’Orange slightly overdone, perky little red from Bourgogne definitely corked”)

A bus slowly squeaks and hiccups around a corner, narrowly edging past parked cars, kerbs and tables. Two fat bollards block the roadway in front of it and I stop to see what will happen. Another bus has nosed up behind the first. They’ll never get out.

I blink and the bus is lumbering past. I missed something...what happened to the bollards? They rise up out of the pavement where they’ve been patiently waiting for the bus to get through, then obediently sink out of sight again for the second bus. Something about it reminds me of elephants bowing down to their mahout.

A motorist tries to reason with two traffic police on bicycles but the ticket has already been written. His hazard lights were on as he left his car outside a bank in a no parking zone. I was struck by two things...how the police officer getting a tissue out to blow her nose was a very disarming and defusing bit of body language, and how the police wrote a ticket but didn’t ask the driver about the very heavy and awkward bag he had come rushing out of the bank with.

...........................


Oh, and it wasn’t a washing machine after all. Silly me. And I have no idea how to use it...

I’ll have to google my bidet.















Setting forth back to front

Little desk, rue Carnot, Poitiers, France, listening to a CD of JP Cormier, first saw him in Nova Scotia, sorry I have to get a tear in my eye for a minute...





A week and a bit ago I tried unsuccessfully to get to Poitiers twice. Poitiers wasn’t co-operating. Time to change tactics. One week ago I passed straight through Poitiers on a train on my way to Chaudenay. That hopefully gave it a feeling complacency and lulled it into a false sense of security having clearly seen me disappear over the horizon. Then today I sneaked up on it backwards. Totally outwitted it and here I am.



Knowing how long queues can be for tickets, I turned up at Chagny railway station this morning with an hour to spare. We passengers were outnumbered by staff 4 to 1. There were 4 of them.

Several Very Fast Trains went by Very Fast, then eventually my Little Green Train pulled up.

After travelling for two months, today I finally learned how to carry my bags. The smaller grey pack on the front, the bigger black one with my computer on my back so I look like those young backpackers who look so silly with backpacks on front and back, then I have one hand free to pull my main bag on wheels and the other to negotiate the various and ingenious mechanisms used to open and close train doors and confuse passengers. I always graciously let the natives off first, mainly so they’ll get the door open.
Also with this new method, I look so awkward, people offer to help. Although now I don’t actually need it. Unlike the other day struggling crazily up the steps to the platform in a Paris station and a man offered me aid in French. Pulling two wheeled cases up a flight of steps isn’t easy. Oui, Oui, I said. Thanks, merci, merci, and handed him my black backpack. But he was gone. How rude! Then I realised he wasn’t asking if I needed help, he was asking if I was OK. Oui, oui. Thanks.


Today I ricocheted off Paris up from Chagny and back down to Poitiers. On the first train you couldn’t book window seats because you couldn’t book seats at all, but I got one. It was a short haul. Trains number 2 and 3 I’d booked window seats. They were both Very Fast Trains, but not That Fast. It would still take a couple of hours to get there. You know how between windows there has to be a bit of wall? That’s the bit I got on train number 2. I was able to watch the passing scenery one eye at a time. A bit of left brain...a bit of right brain...parts of France I think are romantic, others I think the maize is crooked.

.........

Train number 3 was looking better; as luck would have it I was again sitting beside the bit between windows but there was a bit more window. Then the train started moving. I was sitting backwards. #$@%* !

I’ve never been good at backwards. I was sitting on the right side of the train (as you face backwards) and wondered if people who read from right to left would have less difficulty than I was having as trees and villages and fields were already rushing towards being memories before I knew they were there. Then I looked out the other side where the scenery was passing from left to right, and I still felt seasick. Maybe it’s too reminiscent too much rosé.

.........

At least it was quiet. French trains are very quiet. Mobile phones are supposed to be turned off, or you use them in the vestibule. Funny how quickly you get used to a certain ambience. I was getting annoyed that a few young people (at what age do we start saying “Young People”?) were going through the doors so frequently (imagine a Star Trek soundtrack...schwoosch...schwoosh), that the couple in front of me were arguing in whispers, and then some idiot was turning the pages of his magazine without any consideration for others.


Tomorrow I’ll really explore. Poitiers is a big city so for some reason the beautiful old architecture surprises. The Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) is just wonderful.




And the apartment is great. It has a French washing machine. It’s my first. It is in the bathroom and looks a lot like a toilet . I thought it was one until I saw the hot and cold taps which of course, toilets don’t have. There was some washing powder on a shelf which was another clue, and a mop and bucket beside it which were definitely necessary as it transpired. There were no instructions so I had to figure out how to use it by trial and error...always put your clothing in first, then the detergent, then turn the taps on, otherwise you get a facefull. It’s great for socks...just hold them over the spray. Personally, I wouldn’t have the nozzle facing in quite the same direction.
Then mop up the floor. And the walls.

Oh, and for dinner I just had to have Chinese. There’s a Chinese restaurant a few doors away.To hear somebody switch from Mandarin into perfect French was absolutely delightful.

But I’m still hungry...











Scent of Jazz

Kitchen table, two stations south of restaurant in Beaune, Burgundy region, France

......

Autumn is here. Starlings (?) are getting chummy in preparation for their annual migration to wherever the French go in the winter.

The little train from Chagny north to Beaune is too comfortable and the countryside is too pretty to want to step off when you get there.

Beaune is another lovely French city with twisting streets and fascinating shops, meandering rooves and cobbled roads, but the most interesting bits are in the back alleyways and small lanes behind the beaten track.

..................

You may find jazz in beaune (do they play trombeaunes here?) and a display of glass spheres filled with flowers, or leather, or mosses, or fruits, which you take a whiff of through an open neck, reproducing some of the fragrances which you’ll find if you sample the regional wines, Burgundy.

...

The good thing about going in a complete circle when you’re lost, is that you can get lost without fear, knowing you’ll end up back at the point where you started. The only hitch is in just where your brain believes it started from. Much like a GPS, dare I say. If it latches onto the restaurant where you had lunch rather than the station from which you need to catch your train home, it is a relief the first time you arrive back there early in the afternoon when you’re exploring, frustrating the second time when you’d like to explore a different bit of Beaune, and downright worrying the third time when you were actually trying to go home.

.....................
You eventually find a sign with a map on it and a big dot saying “you are here” . Because the dot on the diagram is in the middle of the road, however, you can’t tell which side of the road it is on so you still have no idea whether the station is to the right of you or to the left. You know where it is in relation to the dot, but it is very difficult to determine which way the dot is facing, dots being what they are.


.........



If you do ever find the station, you might decide to avoid the electronic ticket-dispenser because somehow it’s easier to deal with a human being, but people in front of you may have complicated questions for the human so you may wait quite some time. When you do get your ticket, you compost it casually like an old hand at this (zapping it in a machine that dates it), then cross under the line to your “Voie” #2. You may ask the railway man in your best French if this is the right platform for Chagny and he will answer you in English. Whenever this happens, never mind.

A TGV (Very Fast Train) may thunder past and it may be really exciting as the ground under you trembles and you may decide to video the next one on your little camera, but another one may not come. Poop.





...



Nice garden, too bad about the house

Tigny, nr Chaudenay, nr Chagny, nr Beaune, in France somewhere or other

...


The real estate agent (agent immobilier) rang me last evening to say he’d pick me up at 9am today to look at some houses. He sounded a lot more brusque than when we chatted in his office earlier today, spoke very quickly and densely, but I could catch most of it.

I’d be ready for him.

I stood in the sun across the road for a bit, a sleek black Audi glided past with a sleek shorn male inside but it wasn’t my guy, then it came back again and it was.

I hopped in, we shook hands, and set off. He’d had a haircut since yesterday. And I certainly didn’t remember him being so...well...gold braceletted or maroon shirted or black suited. But the eyes were familiar.

We talked and visited several small, cramped houses along the canal, and I explained that I was looking for a lot more garden, and a more rural aspect.

He had mentioned a daughter. I asked how old she is, and he said five. I said, what a lovely age, but then, they all are, and he told me he looks after her every second week. Oh, I said with enthusiasm. He takes every second week off to look after her...great. Silence...Then he talked again, and the word divorce was mentioned. He had just told me that he only sees her every second week, and I’d responded as if that were the most wonderful thing. I sat wondering what on earth he must be thinking. Will he talk to me again??? Previously he had been driving the manual car around French bends in roads while talking on a hand held mobile phone and writing something on a piece of paper. Now he was fiddling again...to produce a photo from his wallet. A lovely dark-haired little girl. His wife left him when their daughter was 2. He has made her a princess bedroom. The wife is filing for full custody. He’s distressed.

We look at another house and this is closer to something I might want to live in, but isn’t it.

Then he remembers another, if my budget can shift. It shifts. We return to his office. And there we meet the guy I thought I was with, the guy I’d talked with yesterday. I’d spent all this time today with another agent, one whom I’d only seen briefly yesterday.

I wonder if he has any idea!!!???


He picks me up again in the evening- this next house has a lovely garden with fruit trees, but the house isn’t appealing; hard to say why in French, as it’s hard to define even in English. But I love the village, and the other villages we’ve seen today.

I do a lovely walk again and wonder what it would feel like to live here.............

Back home the other guests and I are invited to share a bottle of wine with the tall, sandy-haired, polite, 50ish ex NZ owner in his 17th century wine press. It’s amazing, and so is the wine. He points out the enormous wheels used to lower the beam (!) to press the boards on top of the grapes, then he draws our attention to the other giant beams criss-crossing overhead and invites us to marvel at how they are simply pegged together. I take a REALLY good look at the extrelemy insignifigant looking pegs. Yes, they’ve held for 400 years...but I still take a REALLY good look.

The other guests are interesting people from Australia and the U.S. working on instructions for voter software for the upcoming U.S. election, telecommunications in Nigeria requiring gun-toting body guards, and preschool teaching. The others return to France yearly because they love it so much.

Tomorrow I may catch the little train into Beaune which everybody says is lovely.

The only thing that worries me is the jet fighters which scream overhead in pairs every now and again. Looking like black arrowheads they tilt to one side then the other while flying absolutely straight for the horizon. To me they look for all the world like two kids on bikes showing off to each other. They’re probably designed to make us feel protected. Jet fighters just don’t have that effect on me. Our host later tells me that it’s a weekly ritual, every Tuesday. I could have sworn it’s happened on other days but maybe I’ve just been in other place don’t tell the opposition...they, like me, might be under the illusion we’re protected all seven days.

Dogs here aren’t desexed...owners don’t want to deprive them of their fun.

Their Olympic swimming hopeful was well off her game...she was distracted. She’d fallen love. Unforgiveable.

.................................

It's French, dammit!

Kitchen table, Tigny nr Chagny nr Beaune, France




My gite here is lovely.

...

I could get used to this. Reading, working in the morning, sitting in the sun to connect to internet (not so fun after dark in the rain) then a three quarter hour walk along a track between fields of sheep and cattle and, just field stuff, into the neighbouring town. I’m so glad I’m walking and not driving- I love the sun and the smells and the shadows and colours. Meander around, lunch of scallops and rosé, then try out the extent of one’s real estate French with an agent who, blissfully, doesn’t lapse into English.

...............

It is hard when I’m asked my budget as I don’t know what the type of place I’m looking for would cost. The plot - I’ll sell my house in Sydney, spend part of the proceeds to buy here (or somewhere) then will invest the rest. Hence the budget is flexible and rather depends on what I’m getting.

I’ve arranged to be picked up tomorrow morning by an agent who will show me houses in several neighbouring villages. He knows it’s research, and he knows it’s the first step for a sale. What a great way to get to speak and listen to French, and to see the surrounding countryside and learn a bit about it. Wish I’d thought of it.

I pop into the local supermarket to pick up a few things. I think, as I stroll along the aisles, how at ease I’m becoming here. How having driven a car has given me confidence (particularly now that I don’t have it any more) and I know that next time it would be easier, and how using public transport gives a feeling of being able to get yourself around, and an equal feeling of confidence. I’m amused that on the shelf there are bottles of real fish bait, tiny fish and grubs- haven’t seen them in the supermarket at home, and the freezer contains snails (escargots) and duck paté. I sneak a few photos. This is kind of relaxing.

...

“Madam,...Madam...” She was addressing me. I was trying to exit from the supermarket through locked doors. No wonder they were hard to open.

Funny thing is, yesterday I entered through these very doors which were wide open. “Madam,...Madam...” I looked, realised I was being addressed and that every pair of eyes in the place was looking at me, the nightmare of every tourist gingerly navigating new turf. “We’re closed”, she informed me then. I apologised and retreated. How was I supposed to know what the shop looked like closed? I’d never seen what the place look like open...

France is trickier than it appears...

Lovely walk home again.


...There cars are small, slow, aren’t allowed on major roads, and you don’t have to have a licence to drive them

............,,,...........................


The owner here has the place on the market. His agent came today for some paperwork and we were introduced. While I tumbled straight into French to explain my position, the two of them conversed back and forth in English explaining to each other what I was saying. Sheesh!


Sprung, musselled and smoked

The knock at the door caught me still in my pyjamas, even though I’d been up for hours working. I needn’t feel guilty when I get caught I guess, but always do. Pretended not to be here, dressed, pretended to have come back.

The owner here was dropping into Chagny to the markets and thought we’d arranged that I’d come with him. I thought that was a great idea. Apparently, again. The day had dawned sunny and clear and it felt wonderful. Then I realised he was leaving me in town, and I hadn’t brought the map he’d loaned me to get back again. No problem, I had been talking of using taxis so if the backpack got too heavy, I could always do that instead of walking. I immediately found a “Presse” and bought a map so I was ready for anything.
......
There were French people everywhere. It was great.

............
Wandering, eavesdropping, even shopping.

I looked at a skirt and asked in French “What size” (two words, right?) and the guy answered me in English. Guess my French needs some work. However, I persevered...how am I ever going to improve if these people keep insisting on speaking English?

......

The atmosphere was great and there was a real mixture of ages in the crowds. Baguettes under arms and poking out of bags everywhere. Mushrooms I’d never seen before, sausages snuggled up in baskets, little piles of vegetables from small gardens, and the ubiquitous CDs, multicoloured clothing from Nepal, handbags, blingy jewellery. A group of sequinned youngsters, while nervously awaiting their turn, watched a pubescent girls’ dance group in lycra wring out the same steps you’d see in Australia or Canada or almost anywhere. Small children in the audience looked fascinated, older women not sure whether they approved.It was being held on the steps of the “Hotel de Ville” which, it is useful to know, is the town hall in case you are tempted to look for accommodation there, as I was warned by my friends in Bonnes.


..........


Onlookers in upstairs windows leaned on their elbows.

I bought half a florentine (baguettes were all gone) and two “pain au chocolat”, a sausage (I don’t know what’s in it but I know it’s smoked”, a “botte” of radishes, spinach, a small cake of goat’s cheese, a melange of olives, a bottle of rose and one of a red wine (wine is so cheap here) and two slices of ham.

.........

A restaurant boasted “Moules Frites”...mussels and fries, and forgetting I’d decided after eating them in Toulouse with my niece last year that I wouldn’t need to try those again (after discovering tiny crabs cooked in with them), I got all nostalgic about my niece and ordered some, and a glass of rose, and a caraffe of water. The waitress brought a spoon. OK...and a hand towelette...this isn’t looking good...and a big pot of mussels. I suspected I was supposed to use the spoon so tried with fingers and spoon, fingers and fork, spoon and fingers and finally spoon and fork. Was absolutely full half way through and remembered that was the second reason why I’d decided I didn’t need to try them again.

Then two elderly women tottered into the restaurant. Big pots of mussels were brought to them, one each. No...don’t tell me it’s not as strenuous as it seemed and that frail elderly people can manage mussels...It was fascinating. The first picked them up one by one, in her fingers, and just sucked the mussels out, smacking her lips and again using her fingers to pick the odd one out of its shell. The other woman sucked the first mussel out, then deftly used its shell like pincers to pick the next ones up, scoop the mussel out, and scrape out any remaining sauce. I didn’t wait until the end, but suspect they both finished their pot.

The bag was by now too heavy to carry for an hour to get home, but I couldn’t find my phone (must have forgotten it) and the pay phone wouldn’t accept money or my card, so I was a bit stuck calling a taxi.

The door to a boulangerie (bakery) was still open...I went in and a woman came out from the back wiping her mouth...it was dinner hour. I showed her the map and explained I needed to know where I was exactly to walk home because I’d not brought my phone and couldn’t call a taxi, and suddenly she’d whipped her own phone onto the counter for me. Funny, I’d assumed it was too much to ask to use the phone so hadn’t even thought of it...

Taxi called, directions to where I’d wait explained and confirmed, description so she’d know me, and warm thanks for my shopwoman who had become very interested in how I would meet up with the taxi who wasn’t sure she could get to where I wanted to meet because of the market. She said this new taxi driver is very grand. I thought she meant big. But she meant fancy. Nice though. And didn’t speak a word of English to me.

............

Afternoon walk, flea market (same fleas you’d see anywhere, except perhaps for the crucifix amongst the tools). Later groups of people, some with dogs, some with walking poles, some with children or various combinations of the above strolled past the house enjoying the late afternoon sun.

......

Lovely day.

.....................





Incidentally, I discovered my mobile in the bottom of my backpack when I got home.



Jesus and Moon Flowers

Opening the shutters, I saw my surroundings for the first time this morning. ...

The apartment ( holiday house = gite ) is a renovated “Pressoir”, part of a winemaking establishment. It is stone and ancient timbers, tiled floors and lots of space. There are other out-buildings which have also been converted to apartments........

The amazing grand old house is now lived in by the Australian/UK-NZ owners.



A garage which was part of the winery, has several floors and wonderful timber beams and a vast doorway which leads through to a completely unsuspected parklike garden spanning some several acres with some very elderly trees, and cow fields beyond complete with cows.

......


...............
As I’ve been discovering, so many houses look like blank walls on the street with shuttered windows, and you have no idea what magical rooms and gardens they actually hide. My kitchen window looks out onto the main road. Out the back I’d be surprised if there weren’t deer grazing after dusk.

A folder in the apartment describes a lovely one hour walk. Out the gate, up along the road opposite, bend around and pass the Monastery. Then look for Jesus. When you find Jesus, turn left, follow the road past the 12C church, turn left at the village square, and you are home again.

Amazing old houses started as soon as I was out the door.

..............................
It was BEAUTIFUL. I loved it. I guess the flatness and deciduous trees reminded me of where I grew up. I felt really happy. Walking and being in such surroundings make me feel wonderful.

............
.........
There was a lot of maize which is used as fodder for the cattle during winter, but my eye was caught by reddish-orange splotches amongst the green. Sure enough, there were poppies! I was enchanted.

......
......

Stands of poplars mesmerised.

............

Some white flowers looked like morning glories, but now I think they were Moon Flowers. I have a vine at home- the most wonderful flowers, they open at dusk at such speed that you can see them unfolding. They release a puff of perfume which is said to attract the particular beetle who pollinates them. More magic.




A 12th Century Church looked its age, and there was a taste of the patterned tiled rooves which the region is known for. By those who know about them. Other tossing and turning rumpled and crumpled slate rooves supported crazy landscapes of lichens and mosses.

..........................................

I was confused about actual village names but it turned out I was in ours and only a few houses away from where I’m staying when I found a park bench under shelter to read the map (it was raining), thinking I’d somehow taken a wrong turn and was in the next one.

I tried a bike but either the seats aren’t made like they used to be or I’m not made like I used to be and I’ve decided to walk. It’s about an hour to walk into the closest town where there are shops, and I’ll take a taxi home if the wine is too heavy. Tomorrow- I’m going to look for a French person.


I lost my apple in Paris

Bound from Bonnes to beyond Beaune






Every aspect of the alarm clock had been double-checked.

Turned it off and had another half hour snooze, then all systems go.

Things into suitcases (GPS at the very bottom), check money, camera, information about where I was going, cupboards, drawers, under beds...all set.

Early cup of tea with the dogs.

...

Lovely farewell breakfast and hugs all ‘round and I stepped into my car for the last time. I sincerely hoped.

I would hand it in at Augouleme then take the train to Chagny, beyond Beaune south east of Paris.

The road to Angouleme where I was to catch the train was “dead easy”. I didn’t like the sound of that.

I got the first bit. Then went through a village which confused me and I thought I’d missed a turn, so doubled back (I’m getting very good at that), realised I had been on the right road after all and resumed the journey. It seems I expect something to go wrong to the point that I don’t recognise when everything is actually going to plan.

The roads got flatter and straighter and wider and the signs I needed were usually there. Sometimes they were placed on the other side of a roundabout or intersection where you could only see them if you knew that was the way you were going and therefore turned your head in that direction, which seemed a bit redundant to me, but I managed each roundabout with only one circuit, unlike my early days of driving here.

Suddenly the little signs to the railway (SNCF) weren’t there any more, and I wondered how people were meant to know when they’d actually arrived at the station. I’d actually arrived at the station. Spotted the car hire place, found an intersection to make a turn, and found a park right outside their front door. PHEW!!!!!!!!!

Cleverly, as I’d returned the car a week early, I used the extra time to leave my bags in the boot (trunk) (coffre) and go across the road to the railway station, use their toilet, and print out my tickets.

I had on one previous occasion run into a French railway toilet so I approached this one with a casual air. It was cheaper than the last one (30 centimes rather than 50) and the space inside was bigger. Money into the machine, electronic clunking sound, door unlocks. Step inside. Close door...no lock or handle...electronic clunking sound and you are committed. This time, however, I was finally face to face with the notorious hole-in-the ground toilet. I had met their kind before in other countries, but was fascinated to finally confront the French species. Obviously designed by a man. I have to give it to the French, though, they’re very hygienic. The instant the door locked, the water started running to wash your hands. Unlike the previous pay-to-pee unit, this one didn’t say exactly how long one had before it automatically hosed itself out. In any event, there isn’t enough time for germs to do anything untoward as you either don’t make physical contact with anything in these getups, or you are so afraid of being hosed down you are out of there as fast as you can. If only there were a way out. Ah yes, press the button...electronic clunking sound, you are released.

I had a wonderful day!

Whereas cars are designed to prevent you from making contact with others, rail and bus travel require you to use your French and wink and nod knowingly to fellow passengers as we silently comment on that idiot standing in the doorway of the jam packed bus blocking passengers from getting on and off, and watch the little French woman mutter under her breath about him, then make comments as she alights which he responds rudely to, for which other passengers admonish him. Finally a woman getting on tells him to move and he does. The rest of us nod and wink at each other.

I got my tickets out of a self-serve machine at the Angouleme station, with the help of a SNCF staff member who spoke English while I persevered with my French. I suppose it was more important for me to understand her.

I composted my ticket (see an earlier train voyage episode).

One may wonder why French stations are filled with people standing and sitting silently, gazing up at a central screen, then suddenly they’re on the move, streams of them flowing quickly in several different directions passing through each other like bagpipers in a military tattoo. On the screen is a list of all of the trains, but you don’t know which platform yours is on until the sign flickers and there it is. Then you have 20 minutes to get to your seat. If you’re smart, you’ve already sussed out where the various platforms might be. Once you’ve found your TGV platform (they don’t believe in elevators and escalators at stations for the most part..silly of one to have luggage ) you find another little screen with the “composition” of the train. If you’re in car 11, the little picture of the train will have car 11 under area “F”. You look up and along the platform and find the sign saying “F”, then go and stand under it. You feel smug that your spot is out in the first bit of sun you’ve seen that day and not under the sheltered bit. Then it rains.




The TGV (very fast train) pulls in and it isn’t car 11 but car 12 in front of you. This is my first TGV. Remembering how the subway in Russia takes one breath then pelts off at breakneck speed, and visualising ending up in a pile at the back of the train with the other tardy passengers who weren’t in their seats when the TGV left, like that stuff at the bottom of the fridge, I was a bit panicky and enlisted help. Some young fellows helped me stow my bag. I was in seat 14, but the seats seemed to go down to 32 and stopped. No, there was a small compartment at the front with what amounted to a couch running around the walls, and a large young man theatrically asleep in my place.

I took the seat beside him and tried to like it better.

French trains are very silent. People on the trains are very silent.

I prepared myself for the explosive lurch into motion.

The TGV politely began to glide forward, cautiously picked its way through the outskirts of Paris, then when it was sure we were all ready, gathered momentum and got down to the task of putting the French countryside behind it as fast as it possibly could.

I couldn’t see much because the strip of window at the top revealed the sky, the strip at the bottom revealed the bushes and banks just beside the train, and there was no strip in between which would have contained all of the villages, agriculture, geography, topography and other useful bits. I can report, however, that the clouds between Angouleme and Paris are lovely.

The train arrived at Paris Montparnasse station (Gare) , I caught the aforementioned overcrowded bus to Gare de Lyon and in so doing learned how buses work, and was delighted to pass through Paris again, a city which reminds me of Saint Petersburg in Russia. Seeing St Petersburg before Paris is like seeing the movie before reading the book. St Petersburg was built by one of the “Great”s, Peter. I don’t know how Great he was compared to Alexander . Presumably Catherine, being a woman, had to be extra Great . Anyway, he thought he could make better use of the space than the Finnish so he put St Petersburg there.

First he travelled about Europe incignito, learning architecture and shipbuilding, posing as an apprentice in order to learn from the ground (or seabed) up. Of course, being about 7 feet tall, speaking Russian, being highly educated and having Russian noblemen with him, it’s probable he was the only one who thought he was fooling anybody.

He was very excited by Europe and built St Petersburg to be a picture European city, Like Paris.

Outside Gare de Lyon.......

Gare de Lyon.....

Another TGV, a change at Dijon where I decided to get some fresh air but had to retreat back into the station due to the cloud of smoke outside...a LOT of people in France smoke, and they spread out when they go outside for a cigarette, presumably in consideration for one another’s health.

Smaller train but equally determined to get us there to Chagny, met by my host, into my new abode, and a glass of wine at my next kitchen table.

I have learned that I MUCH prefer to travel any way than by car, because then I actually get to learn so much and have to talk to people, and I LOVE people-watching. Paris is full of different people- like the monk with a coat over his robes, sandles, a monkish haircut, and a briefcase. I wondered what was in it...a quill pen, stone jar of ink and maybe some gold leaf? The man with the most stunning solid dark comb-over I’ve ever seen that stopped exactly halfway back- when he looks in the mirror it looks like he has hair. I wonder if he’s ever seen the back. Maybe he doesn’t care. Stiletto heels, leather jackets, Japanese tourists, suave older men, rollerbladers, scooters, poodles, so much to enjoy.

Tomorrow I get on a bicycle.

Oh, I bought some food in Paris between trains. It was in a bag. I hung the bag from the handle of my rolling suitcase. When I arrived at my new abode and dived for my apple and sandwich, there was a hole in the bag from running along the ground, some centimeters of the sandwich had been ground off, and my apple is lost in Paris.



How to get to a place you can't pronounce without sounding like Inspector Clouseau

Little desk, Bonnes, France

............

A lot of the day was occupied by looking at various and sundry options to get me from the kitchen table in Bonnes, to the kitchen table in my gite (holiday cottage) in Beaune, on the other side of France, by tomorrow evening.



The only problem with booking accommodation in another country over the internet, with no knowledge of the geography of country in question, I’ve discovered, is that the accommodation may occur in places travel between which was not ever anticipated by those who designed major motorways in that country, or minor motorways, or any other roads. Including goat tracks.
I am not totally comfortable driving here, on the wrong side of roads I’m not familiar with in a car with gears which keep turning up in unexpected places, in a language I can only just order food reliably in. I have the car for another week.

My hosts and I pored over maps, fired up the GPS, and consulted the delightful French neighbour who pursed her lips and shook her head slowly. She knows the region that I’m going to very well. It was looking pretty dire in her opinion.
Then we checked with the GPS. My GPS has the voice of an Australian bloke at the moment. His pronunciation of the roads here had us all in tears. I know his French isn’t great, but to be honest, I suspect he was bunging it on just a bit for the neighbour.

Then we had what looked like a major a breakthrough. I had asked it to map driving to Montlucon, a city half way to my final destination. No problem. The GPS told me to go out the gate, turn right, turn right again, turn right once more and voila! I’m there. Montlucon.
In actual fact, I’ve just left the house through the back door, driven all around the block, and arrived back at the front door.

The others could see why I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. Which is pretty tempting.

My options:

Drive for hours and hours and hours and still not be there.

Drive all day to get half way, find accommodation for the night and drive all the next day to get the rest of the way. The silly thing is, I only have six days then have to head back west again.

Forfeit the price of the accommodation in Beaune, stay in this region and return the car to Poitiers at the end of next week as planned.

Drop the car tomorrow at an airport with hire cars and fly from wherever I can to as close to Beaune as I can get, and fill in the gaps with taxis, trains, buses, whatever.

Drop the car at a railway station with hire cars and do the trip by train.

Drop the car in an alleyway and go home.





I decided to drop the car at a not-too-hard-to-get-to railway station tomorrow morning, timing it so any fog can lift before I go, then whip up to Paris then down to Beaune and be there by 9 tomorrow evening. Having been able to watch the Beautiful countryside slip past. With somebody else navigating. And the GPS at the bottom of my suitcase. Sigh.







Today I didn't go to Poitiers. Twice.

Bonnes, south western France, back garden, green bench.





Today I was meeting up with the writer who is currently staying in her apartment which I’ll be renting later in the month, in Poitiers.

The city is north of Bonnes and accessible by train. I would travel there leisurely in a gently rocking carriage from which I’d watch the Beautiful countryside slip away, we’d meet, lunch together, check out the ropes for the apartment, then part with probably a peck on the cheek when it was time for me to make my leisurely way back to Bonnes.

It turns out that to get there I would need to catch the train from not too distant
Chalais at the not so leisurely hour of 6:51 am to then connect with the even less leisurely TGV (Very Fast Train) which catapults hysterically from Angouleme to Poitiers several times a day.

No matter.

I set my alarm for 5:10 am for a relaxing shower, cup of tea, toast, and departure at 6:10 for the 20 minute drive, which I knew would take me longer but would still leave plenty of time for purchase of tickets in French.

I rechecked the alarm to make sure the little button was in the right position...I have been known to have pushed it a bit too far to the left and it doesn’t go off.

I woke all through the night as I do before a morning when I am due to wake up alarmed. I decided to check the clock to see how many hours I had left to sleep.

It was 6:12 am.

(Insert swear words here)

It was pitch black. Shot out of bed, groped, found light switch, threw on clothing, found light switch, brushed teeth, looked all over for car keys, could remember seeing them right there (insert more swear words), found them in the pocket where I’d just put them ( ditto) , grabbed bag, coat, camera, handbag, checked for money, added money, turned lights off, pitch black, groped, found light switch, found nifty torch keychain, turned lights off, turned handy torch on, down the winding stairs, out the door...it was pitch black.
Except for the fog.
Thick fog.








Found car.


Deep breath. I may still be able to do this...started car, remembered clutch and handbrake, gears and found light switch, crept through fog- found driveway, found gates, opened gates, crept through, closed gates, indicated, pulled out onto the road.

It was pitch black except for a wall of white directly in front, and a small doormat of grey directly beneath. I waited for me to go faster. The road, even with creeping, lurched this way and that, went up and down, met other roads wandering lost through the fog, and all the time I was painfully aware that I’d never driven to the railway before and wasn’t entirely sure where it was. I got out through the gate at 6:25 am. At 6:35 am I was just barely up the road. At 6:37 am I could tell I’d never make it. At 6:39 am I took a wrong turn which actually allowed me to make another turn and end up heading back for home. By 6:45 am I was incredibly glad I hadn’t tried to go faster, by 6:46 am I realised I’d never have arrived in time even if I had woken at 5:10 am, by 6:51am I was drinking a VERY welcome cup of tea.

I rang the writer. I’d look at alternatives...and in the end decided to take the 1:15 pm train. We’d only have a few hours together but that would be nice anyway.

At 11 am I started the drive to Chalais again, this time in bright sunshine on clear roads with green fields and sunflowers on either side.

Luckily I had lots of time up my sleeve because I still ended up travelling at fog speed: about 20 kph, behind a tractor.
Luckily I had lots of time up my sleeve because the directions I’d been given weren’t QUITE right...you DO actually have to take that little road under the railway to find the station; if you don’t you visit other interesting quaint narrow little roads with small boys on bicycles and you wonder why anybody would put a station so far from the tracks.

I practiced my French by listening in on the conversation between the ticket lady and the young man and older woman who had several complicated requests, and spent several minutes trying to figure out which side of the line my train would be on. Two signs gave completely opposite advice. I sat down, walked outside, sat down, read pamphlets, sat down.

Luckily I had lots of time up my sleeve.

Then it was my turn. I didn’t take long.

Yes, there is a train at 1:15, but I’d have to wait at Aubeterre for two hours for the TGV to Poitiers which would arrive there at 4:11 pm. I would have exactly 45 minutes before I’d have to catch the train back.

I rang the writer.

Having missed going to Poitiers twice and then giving up, I helped let the hens out again. A little family of wild ducks joined them and the two tame ducks with toupees for a bit of breakfast, but because my camera thinks for a minute before it clicks, I kept just missing bits of them. One friend has asked why my photos don’t have people in them...it’s because they’re long gone, in fact home having their dinner by the time the shutter clicks.

One and a bit ducks...just missed the second one
...Red hen...just missed her...

...almost...


...Got them! ......


We stepped into the Church in Bonnes.


.........

One of my hosts needed to make a trip to the Airport at Bergerac in the afternoon to pick up a friend.

At the airport there’s a sign clearly depicting the things that one ISN’T allowed to take onto the plane. In France, those things include fine wines and Duck paté. Show offs...

I had a chance to photograph the countryside out of the side window. Because my camera thinks as it does, and because the road is likely to change its mind at any moment about what direction it’s taking, I JUST missed photos of quaint houses, picturesque dairy cows, beautifully laid out vineyards and gardens, little old men in berets, pigeon houses, rivers, lakes, and an entire forest.
Tobacco shed...just missed the rest

...quaint church just missed.............delightful houses just missed......lake just missed...


...no idea what this was but I just missed it...


However, the French, being very considerate, and being aware of digital cameras and the nature of French roads which can make actually arriving at a destination less than a sure thing, have placed little signs at the exit from villages, towns , and cities to let you know which one you’ve just missed.



Unlike the roads in Australia which start you off in one city or town and take you to the next with relatively little procrastinating, the roads in France are just as likely to start in somebody’s kitchen as at a Town square, then wander about wherever they please. They’ll see how the maize is doing, stroll into the woods for a bit of shade, tumble down a hill and around a bend then remember they forgot something and will head back again. They come across one another and that can be a real distraction. Sometimes they forget completely where they were going. That’s why road signs are placed at an angle...because even they aren’t sure.

We put the hens to bed. It was late. Dark. I took a photo....

Incidentally, I’d set the alarm for 5:10 pm.

Do I order in French in France if the waitress and I both know perfectly well that we're both English?

Bonnes, little village near Aubeterre, France


The first Galette I ever met was last year in Toulouse. My niece and I thought their description looked good, and decided to order the one with spinach. It was called a galette Popeye. Thin buckwheat pancake, edges folded in over a filling to make a square. Quite stunning to look at.


The waiter came to take our order.

“Deux galettes pop-eee” we said, in our best French accent.

“Pardon?”

“Deux galettes pop-eee” we frenched again.

Still no comprehension.

We surrendered and pointed to the menu.

“OH!!!”, he said, in French.

“Le... Pop-eye” he corrected us in an American accent.



I had one again today.

I just pointed.



I was in Aubeterre and the view from the table was lovely.


The waitress and I both began in French. She was rushing energetically between the few tables and was somehow walking on the flats of her feet so the old floor heaved whenever she went past and I couldn’t help remembering that France has termites and that the restaurant was perched on the side of the hill.
She then spoke to the neighbouring tables and out poured a broad rural British accent. ALL of the tables around were occupied by British persons. I stuck to my French because I was in France and wanted to get my money’s worth, but my cover was blown when the real estate agent with whom I had just spent a couple of hours came into the tiny restaurant across the tiny square from her tiny office to get my e-mail address. In English.

At the next table were two men who had also been in the agency- the term “Million Euros...” had caught my attention...and “She...” for whom they seemed to be acting. “She...” was being very hard to please and they were bickering between themselves like an old married couple. Two architects? Investment strategists? Sons?


The delightful real estate agent friend of my B&B hosts had offered to show me to and through a few houses today, to help explore the idea of buying here. I’m thinking of moving from where I am in Sydney and have decided to explore various corners of the world, including this one, as potential new nesting spots.

I know her car is old, but her driving reassured me that my stopping and peering for absolutely minutes in all directions before crossing intersections, growling up hills in who knows what gears, and taking my time painfully and gingerly on bends and twists and through the core of villages is actually how some locals do it. My ego shifted from first into second. Or is that fourth...??

Aubeterre is yet another delightful village and has an amazing pottery studio.

......I noticed a depression carved out of the cliff face that somebody was using as a shed.

...
We stopped to get “Gazole” (diesel) and I fired up the camera to take a few shots. On the LCD screen I could see my legs. My GOD but I’ve put on weight!!! Then I realised it was the reflection of my legs on the side of the car. Distorted. Phew!!!




The countryside was beautiful again.

............but little stone houses have very thick stone walls and very little light inside. I need light so probably won’t end up in a little stone house. Not that I am looking for anywhere to “end up”...


Once back in Aubeterre, I discovered that not only is there a shed carved out of the cliff face, but also a whole monolithic Church, carved out of the mountainside about 1000 years ago. Visitors were handed electronic personal guides which crooned commentary into our ear in French or English at various numbered points. I chose French to help work on my language skills, meaning my History skills are still a bit rusty.

As people wandered silently through the cavernous space, guide pressed to their ear, look of private concentration and meditation on their face, it seemed as though the atmosphere may not have been too different from that created by the monks all those centuries ago. It was impossible not to imagine those who had lived their lives out there, knowing each bump in the wall and the fall of each step and the character of the echo in each chamber.

Depressions in the floor marked tombs which have been archaeologically explored and emptied. Part of a skull rested on a ledge. It felt too intrusive to photograph it. Him.





...............

Back to Bonnes.


.........


You can take a duck to water...

Bonnes, small village, south western France


.........

The sun was lovely today. When I’m working on cartoon ideas while sitting out in the garden, I can look exactly like I’m asleep. It’s uncanny.

...

A neighbour is away at the moment so the household here is letting hens out in the morning for her and feeding and putting them to bed in the evening. When I accompanied the two labradors, one Auntie and one small boy to do the deed this afternoon, the hens were nowhere to be seen. We looked everywhere. The garden is beautiful and peaceful and runs down to the river. A playpen with a half-eaten carrot in it suggested that the guinea pigs, who I understand have gone back to England, were called away urgently. Twin white ducks with toupees were hopeful about the container of layer pellets, but were ultimately disappointed.

Apparently these particular ducks don’t like water. They prefer to perch on top of a swimmer’s head. Makes sense.......

I went back later in the evening on my own to see if the hens had returned from wherever they’d been and to shut them in for the night, but realised after I’d lured and locked up whoever was there that I had forgotten to ask exactly how many of them there are and what they look like. Luckily “two” and “red” was right.

The light this evening was wonderful......................


....The lovely woman who lives in this house is 104 years old. Her daughter is 85.


Interesting facts picked up while travelling:


There are little cars in France that you can drive without a licence (non-permis) - they only go at 35 kph and are very fuel efficient.

There are lots of moles in France. They are much bigger than you thought.

It is simply silly to suggest you could make a mountain out of a molehill. I tried.

The Boulangerie (baker) here isn’t open on Mondays any more now that summer is over.

Octopus like to be stroked between the eyes.

Octopus must have eyes.

France has termites.

If you meet a bear, you are probably not in France.

If you meet a bear, try to look big, back up calmly, and leave your pack on the ground to distract it while you slip away.

If you meet a Black Bear, have done all of the above and it attacks, fight to the death because they don’t like to get injured, unlike you.

If you meet a Grizzly Bear, have done all of the above and it attacks, roll into a ball and protect your neck with your hands.

Or the other way around. You may be a little hazy at the time.

Unfortunately your Bear identification book is in your pack.

With your “What to do if you meet a Bear” book.





Fourth gear at last...

Bonnes, Chalais, Aubeterre, and goodness knows where else, France

Everybody had left the house ( B&B ) for Church or Bordeaux. I had the industrial sized toaster to myself, and after a fortifying cup of tea, decided that today I would go exploring.

Abbeterre is a small village on a hillside not too far from Bonnes.......................................................

Being Sunday, the centre of the town was crowded with tourists and locals visiting the stalls and butcher, Hotel and galleries , Tabac, and other odd shops. English seemed to be the most common language. This area has been settled by a lot of English and Dutch, which has revived the various towns and their schools. As a natural mimic, I am having an extremely hard time restraining myself from falling into various British accents.

Rain played with us for a bit, but the day ended up sunny and warm.......

They have BIG bread there! ......

I got lost coming out of Aubeterre, which is practically impossible, so I decided that I would just drive whichever way looked inviting for the next little while and the whole thing would look intentional. I think it worked.

The car finally got to experience fourth gear, and I progressed to juggling the camera as well as brakes, clutch, accelerator, bending roadways, hills (both up and down), oncoming traffic on one lane roadways, corners, bridges, rain and the odd fly.

...............


Things I learned by driving through the countryside today:

French drivers have a highly developed ability to judge, with lightning speed, exactly what the width of the road is, the width of your car, the width of their car, the extent of protrusion of door handles, side mirrors and hubcaps, and from those estimates are able to calculate precisely what position to take on the roadway in order to fit all of us on the paved bit as we pass one another at speed. If they should conclude that we aren’t all going to fit, they calculate that you’ll notice they are going to drive in the same position on the road anyway and that you will pretty briskly utilise the conveniently provided shoulder.

French drivers in general are very tolerant of cars being driven by persons not used to gears, clutches, driving on the right, bends in the road and French drivers. They acknowledge their support by revving their engine in salute as they speed past while overtaking you or as you finally scuttle out of their way into an even smaller roadway after they’ve been stuck behind you for, I actually don’t know how long.

Some French drivers are Dutch. Or British.

At an intersection, if the sign which is directing you towards a village is positioned as if it can’t make up its mind exactly which road it’s pointing to, i.e. it’s at a bit of an angle, you will take the wrong road.

If you are being spontaneous and follow a sign which points you towards a “Le”, a “La”, or a “Les” something, you will end up in somebody’s yard trying to do a u-turn either in the ruts left by their tractor, or inconspicuously on their front doorstep.

If you are being spontaneous and follow a sign which points you towards a “Saint” something, it will probably be a small village which you passed through not fifteen minutes ago from another direction.

The countryside is beautiful.




...Mussels and rosé for lunch, the car was replaced by walking shoes for the afternoon.

The path beside the river that passes through Bonnes is lovely......................

Things I learned along the river today:


Newfoundland dogs walk upwind of one regardless of which direction one is walking in.

There was a slight wind today.

If a Newfoundland dog rolls in something stinky, there is an awful lot of dog to have rolled in whatever that was.

A Newfoundland dog near the river in Bonnes definitely rolled in it.

Newfoundland dogs like to come for walks with people they don’t belong to and who wave at them and hold their noses and tell them to go home.

Other people who have canoes on the river bank think stinky Newfoundland dogs belong to the other people who are obviously waving at them.

If a person falls out of a canoe, his friends fish him out; stinky Newfoundland dogs don’t jump into the river to rescue him.

Damn.

Newfoundland dogs walk upwind of one regardless of which direction one is walking in.











As far as the garden path

Mostly around the kitchen table, Bonnes, Charentes, France

I had planned to take the car out for a putter today but had cartoons to do and decided to have a good solid day’s work. It had been raining and as I finished up the sun came out so I toddled off for a walk, but only got as far as the garden path. Everyone from the household was outside enjoying a cup of tea and a chat or a run around the bushes. The graphics tablet came out for a demonstration, a group illustration, then a bit of a try by the two five year olds.
...

A lot of conversation flowed across the kitchen table today. ......


Topics to think about:

.....How do you protect your children from unsafe others without instilling fear in them for other people in general, adults in particular, men specifically?

.....Is the move of young people from the country to cities inevitable nowadays, and maybe good for them?

.....How many five minute turns each on a graphics tablet can two five year olds want?

.....Why does it rain as soon as the clothes are hung out on the line?

.....Why didn’t the @##@$! barometer say so?

.....What are bats called in French?

.....Who would call a bat in French or anything else?

.....Who invented the desire for flat clothes? Did he (had to be a man) then offer to do the ironing????

.....Would animals in the zoo be happier if they were given a good fright every now and again to use their camouflage and running skills and instincts?

.....How would you frighten a jellyfish?

.....How could you tell?

.....What’s that scratching noise behind the wall?

.....Why do kids have the best questions, like: If worms don’t have eyes, how do they sleep?

.....Why don’t most barnyard fowl fly?




Because most of them are chicken. ( A riddle invented by my older brother in about grade 7. Ask him to tell you the elephant joke sometime...)




Watch out for the Cheese Man

Bonnes, Charentes, south western France

The garden here is a treat.

............It was market day today, in Riberac, so off we went in two cars. I had the person who knew the way as my passenger so we were leading the station wagon full of bouncy family, who are also visiting the household at the moment. While my trip was edge-of-the-seat, full concentration, alert, lightning reflexes and precision steering, scraping daredevillishly past churches and barns on elbow bends, those in the rear, I understand, nodded off at our 45 kph pace.

My passenger was aware that I usually drive in Australia in an automatic rather than on the right with gears, and in order to put her mind at rest I mentioned that I’m a very safe driver- and have only ever had one ticket which was for untidy parking...at which instant, having successfully negotiated a roundabout, I found myself, car, and passenger shooting out into the path of and then having to floor the accelerator to avoid colliding with the black 4WD which was already whizzing around the second roundabout which was attached to the first without anybody telling me. The chef friend of the household who was driving the car following us later explained to me, for future reference, that the red triangle in France means you’re meant to slow down, not accelerate.

The market was full of colour and texture and smells and umbrellas and music. Strawberries were soft and warm and delicious, doughnuts were tender and the flavour surprisingly not sweet for the wicked look of them, and we were warned about the cheese man.

The Cheese Man. There are several and I can’t swear which one it is so be generally afraid.

He offers you a taste. The cheese is delicious. You, in an unsuspecting, trusting sort of market day good humoured earthy kind of way say, thank you, monsieur, that’s lovely, I’ll have a bit. He smiles. His knife flashes and the wedge is wrapped. It costs you 20 euros (about $30.00). You pale at the realisation of how much of your holiday piggybank has just gone on a bit of curdled milk. Many tourists share this experience as their central recollection of Riberac, possibly of the region, maybe even of France.

The locals who want cheese accept the sample, say merci, I’ll just have 120 grams.

Those in the know who DON’T want cheese accept the sample, said merci, then leave.



..............................

A trip to the supermarket (wine and groceries and clothing all rubbing shoulders...the prices on the shelves are LCD displays which I suspect are changed from a central computer...you push a one euro coin into the trolley to unchain it from its colleagues, then retrieve your euro when you return the trolley to its shackles...no bags or boxes are provided...you weigh your own produce and punch the little button with its picture on it to print out your own pricetag) and once again it is amazing to see not only the same brands of toothpaste as in Australia or Canada, but that the French have to solve the same dilemma- do I want white teeth, or strong teeth, fizzy teeth, fresh breath, baking soda, new flavour, tartar reduction, cavity protection,or triple action. There isn’t one tube of toothpaste to simply get dinner off your teeth.

A drama class was held at the house this afternoon for adolescents, which is how the household earns its income. Delightful kids. English, French and Dutch. They enjoy a romp in English after their formal French days at school.

Out to dinner with my hosts- gradually less nail-biting weaving about the countryside in the car but I still take it slowly- old French house, wonderful food, good conversation, home in the dark with light rain. Two navigators. They live here. We get lost on the way home (no, it wasn’t the church she thought it was after all, which became apparent when a water tower appeared which wasn’t supposed to be there)

Fun day. On Monday I’ll go and look at some houses with the real estate agent at whose house we had dinner. She is also a cultural transplant and doesn’t feel her home of 21 years is “home”.

What is “home”?

Last day, first day and GPS in Wonderland


.........................

I’m sitting in a cosy yellow stuffed armchair in a grand old house in Bonnes. It’s my first day here, having arrived last evening at 6 pm.

It was raining lightly and having taken 7 1/2 hours to drive the 200km from Clermont-Ferrand where I picked up the car, the warm kitchen and welcoming apero and an invitation to join the household for a dinner of fish pie prepared by the friend who happens to be a chef, were enough to make one weep.





I said goodbye to Saint-Flour on Tuesday.
..................A motor scooter was churning up the road far below- a blowfly in a bottle- the sound disappearing and re-appearing as it was swallowed and regurgitated by folds in the the hillside.

Madame Chaumiers picked me up in her taxi at 8 am on Wednesday morning for the short run down the hill to the station.

I bought a ticket for Clermont-Ferrand from the sour-looking chap behind the counter- even singing “Bonjour” didn’t have an effect. I “composted” my ticket- I understand it now! The ticket you buy is good for two months and has no date on it- the “composter” prints today’s date on the end so you can’t re-use it. The sound is a cross between canvas ripping and a short circuit.

The countryside was lovely- as on the same trip going the other way a week ago, rolling hills, but, of course, rolling in the opposite direction.

After being deposited at the Clermont-Ferrand railway station, I had a map of the car rental place’s street so I could walk to it, but needed help figuring out where exactly off the edge of the page I was starting from.

Car rental: My “micro car” was bigger than I’d expected, but quite nice.



It had keyless entry which I wasn’t expecting because my car at home doesn’t have it - the lady must have thought I was a bit thick unlocking the doors with the key. The car was pointing out the gate so I didn’t have to reverse, thankfully, and the nice fellow who beeped at me is probably used to customers rolling out of there, a bit stunned, forgetting to look.

The car: Overall I did pretty well, only forgetting to use the clutch to get it to change gears at one major roundabout, and kangaroo hopping when I turned on the ignition once. I signalled with my windscreen wipers a couple of times but people got the gist.

The driving: Clermont-Ferrand looks harmless as a small blue dot on a map. I thought I’d just set the GPS for Bonnes and sit back only having to worry about remembering to use the clutch and signals and driving amongst French persons. Just whip onto a main sort of road, and I’d be off. What I didn’t know then is that once Clermont-Ferrand gets a taste of you, it doesn’t let you go. Roads and crossroads keep re-appearing...you stop a bit too far forward so you can’t see the traffic lights (which are only placed at the approach to intersections and not on the far side) so have no idea whether to stop or go...you get caught in the middle of a huge intersection which you’ve navigated twice already but still don’t understand...and a man throws up his hands in frustration at you (which makes you feel better...you’ve survived your first abuse) so you try a different road and back you arrive yet again at the intersection from Hell...from exactly the same direction. You listen to the GPS for a bit, you ignore it for a bit, but you CAN’T GET OUT OF CLERMONT-FERRAND!!!!
You experience driving along narrow cobbled roadways, are in danger of having to do a u-turn inside a cathedral, squeeze past people on footpaths, take left turns and right veers and only once forget which side of the road you’re meant to be on, but nothing works. An hour later you end up back at the station which is five minutes from the car rental place, but on the other side of the tracks from where you started. You get out , (your knees don’t shake as much when you’re standing) and in fear, panic, and frustration decide to return the car and take buses, trains, marry a taxi-driver, whatever alternatives there might be to get you to...anywhere.

The GPS: But that would mean driving the car back to the car rental place. On the other side of the tracks. Damn. You take a deep breath, get back into the car, and tell yourself you can do this. But you are at the end of your rope. You have no choice. You decide to trust the GPS.

GPS Guy sounds confident enough. Apart from his hilarious pronunciation of the French road names (which you’re sure you’ll be able to laugh at in a day or two) he takes you in a new direction. This is promising, and yet you are suspicious. Clermont-Ferrand is in the lap of mountains and you have been frantically avoiding uphill as you haven’t driven a manual for 22 years except for two lessons in Ottawa a few weeks ago. The road appears to be going up. You have no choice; he still sounds relaxed. The incline steepens, the road narrows, you squeeze through a tunnel under the railway line, veer up and left, have to change from second gear to first, now pure survival is the goal. It gets steeper, your underwear will need a good wash.
At last he tells you to turn left onto the bustling road above where people are obviously coming from and going to somewhere else, but the road you’re on is blocked off!!!! They don’t connect!!!! HELP!!!! The only possible spot to turn around is in the mouth of a small patch of driveway at the very top of the road. Luckily you are good at 12 point turns.

It dawns on you that the GPS is looking at a flat map. It probably takes you straight up mountainsides because it doesn’t know, although you’re inclined to suspect a touch of malice at this point.

You decide to take a chance. Bordeaux is to the west. You want to go west. You spot a sign for Bordeaux...that will do! Missed the turn...third time lucky...no signs...are you still on the right road?...seem to be in somebody’s driveway...ah....success!!!

Over the next 6 hours, the GPS will navigate you along backroads which you take in 2nd gear while calculating how long it will take to go 200 km without getting into 3rd, and will take you onto and off of tollways (you had asked to avoid tolls but now know that one sort provides you with a ticket at the beginning and you make payment at the end, and another you have to put coins or card in at the beginning - you wish you knew your PIN) You meander around cowpats then are directed back onto the main road you’ve recently left, off again, through tiny villages, up more cobbled lanes, around fields of dairy cattle and depressed sunflowers (going brown, heads and shoulders stooped, staring at their feet)
, along one-lane roads through glowing green tunnels of branches interlaced like a guard of honour, over bridges, a stop for coffee and sandwich, back onto main roads, then you exit at its suggestion and spend two hours wandering more narrow back roads through woodlands and farms. The most worrying aspect is that the estimated “time until arrival” on the GPS is increasing.

6 pm, light rain, green iron gates and two labradors - you’ve arrived!..............................



Pink bikes and cigarettes

Last evening was peaceful.

The chimney pots across the road look like they parachuted into place...



Today I had to draw up and send cartoons. It was an odd day in that not all of the shops were open.

Every time I come around the corner from rue Sorel I’m taken aback by a really creepy guy who’s standing on the footpath. Then I recognise him...he fools me every single time!

The wall at the park is a meeting place.

Facts:

*Tomorrow is the first day of the school year. Kids have gone to school on Saturdays up until now, and not on Wednesday. This year Saturday school is being cut out according to the local paper...but it all depends on my French.

*Young kids can buy cigarettes...or at least the young girl ahead of me when I was buying the paper today can.

*Rubbish in bags is collected from the street early every morning, except Sunday.

*People occasionally leave discreet bags of dog poop at the side of the road because rubbish in bags is collected from the street early every morning, except Sunday.

*If you eat at the Hotel de L’Europe and think that you’re being asked if you want mushrooms with your dinner, they’re actually asking if you have a room at the Hotel.

*Long-haired dachshunds are allowed into restaurants with their people. They pull their owners behind them and their tails are wagging.

*On the table there’s salt, pepper and mustard. A basket of sliced baguette is brought to the table but may be whisked away if in the end you decide to order an apero (drink) and not food.

*There’s no plate for your baguette if you do decide to order food so you have to leave shards of crust on the tablecloth. Nobody else is eating baguette so you can’t see what the natives do. You still don’t know.

*If you’re REALLY hungry because you were ready for dinner at five but had to wait until 7:30 pm (19h 30 ) which is when the restaurant begins to serve food, one glass of rosé totally does the trick.



Today I walked and had fun catching shapes and patterns and colours and doorknockers......................................................................................................................................................................

Apparently the last guillotining took place in the 1960’s.

Sunday in Saint-Flour

Lounging on the bed, propped up on cushy pillows, Saint-Flour, France



Last night was noisy. A young man was shouting and banging on a door just down the street. It went on for quite a while, then there was the sound of a car pulling up, a car door slamming, a car driving away, then silence. I wouldn’t have minded if whatever he was shouting was helping my pronunciation, but I didn’t recognise any of it.

A little later, there was an enormous crash bang. A young woman had run her car into the wall at the same spot! Being a narrow road, it’s hard to imagine how one can run a car at speed into a wall, and again, the French she was using wasn’t familiar to me. She was OK - on her phone and hopping mad by the time I poked my head out the window to see what had happened. She got towed away and life went on.......People spilled out of the Cathedral, men with caps, women with canes, the priest in a bottle-green robe. Small groups went into the Hotel for a bite, or sat around an outside table with cafés reading papers and magazines from the newsagent on the corner. In the park, small groups were chatting...by afternoon, everything except the odd restaurant was closed.

Today I felt like walking and following whichever road looked interesting. I found myself at a stoney cemetery, baking in the sun, the graves festooned with flowers and little marble plaques....In a corner, plastic flowers and silk leaves had blown up against a wall. Even the rememberings by people who are left behind become forgotten.


...The road got smaller then began to climb and became a grassy track. Suddenly I was standing beneath a small Church perched on the very highest point in the region, a huge boulder in suspended animation resting impossibly just below it, a hawk wheeling above...................A few steps further and a familiar statue stood towering over the valley. ...There was a bench and I sat there for awhile; now the hawk was circling below..........If you look closely, you’ll see that on the opposite horizon, windmills, like so many whirling white crosses, also tower over the valley. Each a source of its own kind of energy......On the way back, I sat on a bench beside a tree that was doing the same thing.

Sitting in the park, legs stretched out, I watched a couple encourage their panting boxer (dog) to hop up and have a drink from a fountain. A few minutes later a man got out of his compact car to fill his water bottle from the water spurting into the same fountain. He then drank it. I would have imagined the water was being circulated rather than using fresh...? A cheerful chatty man with a grey scruffy beard had just thrown his grey hairy pup into another fountain on this side of the street...before stopping to chat with the boxer and his owners.

A policeman on a motorbike gave a young woman motorist a ticket. Much paperwork and writing was involved. She appeared to have multiple documents of different colours to hand to him. They smiled at each other. Which reminded me of being in the back seat when a senior student at college (I was her junior by several years) was pulled over by a cop in Sydney. He queried her interstate licence plates. She got out, they chatted for some time, he asked for her number, she married him.


A few notes:

Men on holiday don’t wear socks.

Wire-haired dachshunds are incredibly appealing. I’ve seen three today. Or one with three different sets of people...

When a policeman is giving somebody a ticket, onlookers all carry the same expression on their face: a semi-smile with slightly raised eyebrows conveying at the same time fascination, smugness it isn’t them, relief it isn’t them, an air of innocence in what they ARE doing, disapproval of whatever the person was doing to warrant a ticket, disapproval of the policeman for ticketing them, curiosity to see how both parties are taking it, deeper curiosity at what the motorist actually did wrong and how they got caught, sympathy, complete lack of sympathy, and longing to keep watching it to its conclusion without looking like they’re looking. Even if they have to slide along the bench a bit to get a better view past that post...

Saint-Flour is like an Alice in Wonderland world. Yesterday I helped a young woman with a stroller negotiate a door into a bank. I passed that way a bit later, and the bank was gone! In its place was a butcher shop!! A shop will be closed, dark and full of cobwebs five minutes after you’ve walked past and it was full of customers. Streets turn up in different places each time you try to find them; alleyways turn up never to be seen again. Or, maybe once again......but twice is probably the limit.

I’m beginning to recognise the local kids- the girl with long hair, glasses and a pink bike, and the brother and sister in the cobblestoned square in front of their father’s delicatessen.

And apart from the moments when I think my French is going backwards then realise the people I’m tuning in to are speaking Japanese or German, I feel that I’m getting the hang of it.


P.S. I absolutely mean no disrespect. Absolutely; it’s a beautiful thing and very moving. I am simply sharing the workings of my brain. After admiring the statue on the hill, my first two thoughts were; he looks like Elvis, and, I forgot to put sunscreen on.