La Canourgue

…We went back to La Canourgue this week. M’s grandma rented a house there for the last month, as she has every year for the last forty years, a kind of peaceful vacation.

La Canourgue is in the department of Lozere, in the Languedoc region. It’s the least populated department in France, bases its economy on cows and tourists, and interestingly has the lowest unemployment rate in France. This is because of the long-standing tradition whereby young people emigrate to cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Montpellier when they reach working age.

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This is the house. There’s a bedroom upstairs with old fashioned wallpaper and heavy wooden shutters where M and I stay with the baby. There’s a little garden full of flowers and an old apple tree leaning over the creek, facing a hillside covered in grazing cows. There’s railroad tracks nearby. It’s very peaceful, and at night the sky glitters full of stars, the Milky Way spanning the horizon. I stand in the garden in my bare feet in the dark, the grass wet and the scent of flowers in the cool air, trying to spot satellites crossing the heavens as the baby, snuggled in his sling against my chest, sniffles forlornly, overtired.

We go mushroom hunting in the daytime in the cool forest, among the slugs and the damp green moss, looking for the abricot colored chantrelles and for porcinins the color of fresh baked bread. We even find a variety of mushroom called pieds de mouton. As we come out of the forest, an old woman in brown stockings and a shapeless smock is coming along the dirt path with her cane, a basket in her hand. Although she can barely walk, she is searching for mushrooms too, and she inspects our haul gravely, with a twinkle in her eye.

“The people here are tough people,” Mathieu whispers to me as we leave.

We make omelettes with the chantrelles, and we all sit around the table into the evening. M’s grandmother is an excellent cook; I’ve never seen this kind of food. SHe is confused by my vegetarianism. As I sit drinking coffee in the morning, she is disassembling a jack rabbit next to me with a pair of bone breaking pliers, removing the head and separating the kidneys. The stew cooks all day, in a black sauce that I realize is rabbit blood (although Mathieu tells me if you can’t get blood, very often cooks will substitute dark chocoilate instead.) When she serves the stew, his grandmother takes the blackened head for herself, the tiny teeth still visible.

She prepares another dish called peau farci, stuffed rice and vegetable inside lamb stomachs, a kind of French haggis. That evening, they devour pig’s feet. There is always a selection of good cheeses at the end of the meal, and fresh grapes. I take the baby away at the end of the meal, sleepy at last, when everyone lights up cigarettes and keeps talking and laughing into the night.

Some pictures of the village…

 

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Phillipines Independence Day

Two years ago today, I was working as a glassblower on the Solstice in the Mediterranean; it was Phillipines Independence Day, and since something like 20 percent of the crew is Filipino, the ship had closed off one of the guest lounges, Sky Lounge on Deck 14, for an after hours party. I put on my skinny jeans and heels and went up to have a look. At one point, I was sitting by the wall watching the dancing when a boy sat next to me. I paid not the slightest attention.

As I’ve said before, there’s a nine-to-one male to female gender ratio among the crew of cruise ships, so you learn quickly that, to avoid being misunderstood, it’s best not to throw out misconstrued signs of interest. I’ve seriously had men on cruise ships get angry at me and tell me off for “sending mixed signals” when, after saying hello and smiling every day to certain coworkers I’d see frequently in crew areas, they found out I wasn’t at all interested. What I considered as being polite and greeting, they saw as me sending out “interested” signals. Making a joke, continuing to sit at a table after I was joined by a male crew member, and making a piece of glass as a thank you for my room cleaner all ultimately got interpreted wrongly, and there was anger and hurt feelings. There are people from a lot of different cultures and countries on board, and I think, too, that sometimes behavior just gets interpreted differently in different places.

And then remember, once all THAT drama goes down, you then have to CONTINUE to see the person multiple times every day, off work and on, for the remaining months of your contract. There is NO getting away. So to avoid this, I learned to be more careful about making eye contact, talking to, or being alone with male crew members on the ship, at least those that were outside my smaller Entertainment department. It worked fine if you kept people at arm’s length…unfortunate, in that you then got accused of being “cold” or “bitchy”, or “thinking you’re better”… but better than being accused of misleading people.

I did wind up talking to this guy, though, and found out he was on the cruise director’s staff, helping to lead activities on board. He went and got a couple of the weak crappy beers they were giving away for free, and we stood on the furniture to see over the crowd when they started doing traditional dancing. I barely looked at him, to be honest. I was tired, and grumpy…not in a party mood… and left fairly early, leaving him sitting with the beers unopened on the table. I asked my friend as we took the elevator down who he was.

“His name is Mathieu. He’s French,” she replied.

The ship photographer, a guy from Vancouver named Peter (though we called him Scorcese) apparently snapped a photo of us standing on the furniture. I don’t remember it being taken, but it stands as the only photo from the night I met the guy I was going to marry. 🙂

Kind of an anniversary! So happy Phillipines Independence Day to all of you! It’s been an incredible two years with the most wonderful man, and it’s crazy to think – it was a kind of nothing night, with just another person, and yet, looking at this photo, I didn’t even know that my life was about to irrevocably change.

I’m glad that I’m giving two thumbs up, though.

Hold On

I’m hitting that level of exhaustion I was told about.

Not because the baby is colicky or excessively grumpy…not any more than you’d expect from someone for whom the world is so new and confusing! But at this point it’s just been a while since I’ve enjoyed uninterrupted sleep…so that cumulation is resulting in a kind of zombie state…

Probably I just need an Alka Seltzer!

It’s not as bad as i thought it would be. The tiredness is tempered by compassion and gentleness towards the little unhappy creature who seems so bewildered by the hunger pains and the trumpeting sounds his nether regions are emitting. His bicycling legs and waving arms manage to be sweet even in the middle of his crying…and really, he’s easy enough at the moment to calm.

Crying (actually starts more like sniffing) triggers me to run through the checklist:

-Hungry? (Usually I can figure this one out by asking a second question – is he attempting to stuff his entire fist in his mouth?)

-Wet? (For example, this morning we managed to soak through pajamas, sheets, mattress…it’s too pitiful to make you mad. And the feeling once you get him dry and warm in clean pajamas, laying in his cushion and contentedly sucking his pacifier is enough to make you feel like a super hero.)

-Gassy? (This is the hardest one, since it’s going to come out when it does, and hurt him UNTIL it does, so you try different positions (on the belly, supported by your arm, massaging his tummy and pushing his knees to his chest seems to be the most effective position to pop those farts out. I feel like I’m wielding a weapon.)


If it’s not one of those things, we go through the “Needy” list. Holding, bouncing on a yoga ball, singing, and cuddling all are tried. We see if he wants to look at his flags (he continues to be passionately fascinated by the bright simple colorful geometry of the St Kitts and Puerto Rican flags, and very often will become so interested that he forgets he’s supposed to be crying.) My last resort in the “Needy” list is to tuck him into the infant insert and strap him into my Ergo baby carrier, where almost always he will tuck down looking at me crossly, arms akimbo and pacifier furiously sucked…for about thirty seconds, until the warmth and secure feeling makes him fall asleep.

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Louise just left yesterday. We had a nice visit but I was exhausted and distracted the whole time. Thank God Louise is mellow and knows me well enough to be accommodating when my flag is flying half-mast! I’m not used to entertaining people anymore I guess; or maybe it’s just that the exhaustion from not sleeping is making me lose the plot. But it was great to see her, and she was just coming off a semester of uni so I think she was happy to keep it mellow, cook in the kitchen w the window open listening to tori Amos and eating melon and mango slices. She goes to school in Sunderland near Newcastle and it sounds like it was grey and cold and rainy so getting some Mediterranean sunshine and tomatoes that actually taste like sugar and sunshine…gotta be nice. We cooked simple fresh meals and poached eggs and worked out every day and she even said it felt a little bit like a detox in the end.

I took her to a cave I hike to sometimes. It’s the former wellspring of the Coulazou river, which is now dried up…I guess it used to be a geyser in the spring. Now it’s a deep hidden hole going into the earth. It’s hidden in a stand of trees and a bowl of boulders and most people don’t know it’s there. There are quartz crystals set into the rock. It’s a weird unsettling place…thinking about that geyser…like a doorway to the underworld.

We hiked in to Aumelas Castle the next day which is a castle ruins off in the hills. It dates back to the 9th c. One time my little sister in law Coralie found a heavy silver ring there w a black sapphire and the fleur-de-lys which was the insignia of French royalty. It was very old. The last time it was used was in the 14th c when the Protestants used it as a refuge during the religious wars. It’s very high on a hill overlooking vineyards.

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We went into montpellier that night, Friday, and it’s a cool city…because there’s a university, there are a lot of young people and bars and open squares. We walked around…there’s an aqueduct and an arc de triomphe and a plaza with unicorn statues and an ancient medical school w an anatomy theater that Nostradamus went to, in the time of the plague, with a huge ancient medicinal plant garden. We went to a cheese bar that had wine too…sat outside. The baby actually became fascinated with a sunbeam. Really. Totally charming. He was happy to be outside and sat quietly on my lap looking around. (Maybe, mostly looking at Louise? Well, he IS French!)

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And then the next day we went to Palavas on the sea, to get ice cream and wade in the sea. There’s a huge old cathedral on an island there called Villeneuve-de-Maguelone, just stone and tombs, no decoration, carvings in the walls and weird statues over the tombs that are kind of crude and worn away…and there was a woman in white jeans playing the cello in the stone domed apse. It was minor key and simple and kind of haunting.

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There were white peacocks outside.

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Mostly though, we enjoyed good conversation and, best of all, the chance to introduce the baby to one of my best friends. The very last night, I staggered to bed early and the baby fell asleep on Louise’s chest. It’s the best feeling in the world, to have this tiny creature cuddled under your chin, blissful and dreaming, rising and falling with your breathing. I’m so glad she got to experience that! And the next time she comes, the baby will be walking and laughing and getting into things…it’s nice to enjoy a baby at this age. It seems like it all changes so quickly.

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And in the end, during the sleepless nights, sitting on my couch nursing, my eyes half swollen shut with sleep, the grey light of dawn behind the shutters, I think of that impermanence often. These precious moments with my baby in the wee hours of morning will pass, and I’ll never get them back. So through the tiredness, I remind myself to enjoy the silence and dark in the house, the sleepy grumpy baby and his gas, the spit up on my pink night robe, the sight of Mathieu sleeping across the room…the indescribable essence of the scene that embodies the tenderness of being a new parent.

 

Equinox

Today was the first day of spring; for all of you in the U.S, it must have been a celebration, even if largely symbolic! I hope the weather starts to warm up, and thge days of sunshine grow longer and longer. You guys have kind of earned it this year.!

In southern France, it feels like spring has been here for a few weeks now. The leaf buds are starting on the vines, which is making us move faster with the pruning to try to keep ahead of the new growth! We’ve started attaching the vines to the wires (basically taking a single long vine branch, winding it around the lowest wire, and stapling it in place), and if the leaves burst out while we’re in the middle of this job, it’s easy to damage the vine by knocking off or ripping the fragile new leaves as we wind the branch.

Photo: Chardonnay 2014! First leaf buds...

The weather heated up this week, and left both of us tanned around the straps of the electric shears. We finished a field of Chardonnay and have moved on to the final parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon. Spring seems to be bursting out everywhere! My back no longer hurts, and my hands feels strong again, and I’ve been able to do some full days at work this week; it’s hard going when I have to crouch down low to cut stray vine branches growing at the base of the plant, since standing back up again takes just about all the energy I have. The fresh air feels good though, as does staying busy.

I’m a little bit of a magpie, and have noticed for a long time the tiny bits of pottery and glassware that are everywhere in the vineyards here. It literally seems like generations of French people have been taking out their kitchen plates and old antique pottery for decades and decades and smashing them into a thousand pieces and leaving them behind. I love them; some of the pottery has elaborate patterns on it, and often the old glass has turned to a pale purple from its original clear due to the sunlight reacting with manganese in the original glass formula. There’s iridescence on the surface, rainbows, from where the glass has developed tiny surface microfractures, diffusing the light. It makes me feel like an archeologist. I’ve started an album of photographs of these shards (since I think Mathieu would kill me if I started bringing all my treasures home!)

After work yesterday, instead of heading home, we drove 15 minutes to Frontignan, to the sea, to take off our work boots and roll up our jeans and plunge our feet in the cold Mediterranean Sea. It was glorious, and on the way home, Mathieu stopped at a roadside stand and came back grinning and holding bags of fresh oysters, sea snails and mussels, right from the producer. He whipped together a thick, fresh aioli from garlic cloves and lemon juice and egg yolks and olive oil, and put Roquefort cheese inside the oysters with bread and baked them, and had fresh lemon on the table. I made hummus and salad for myself, and watched as the shells piled high on the table. We both were sunburned and had salt air on our hair and on our skin. It felt so good.

Other new developments for the springtime: I’ve started going to a weekly tea-and-conversation-exchange at the French American Center in Montpellier. Largely an orgnaization for French people who want to learn English, the organization also arranges travel-abroad exchange programs for French students, has an au-pair program for young people who want to work in England or the U.S while practicing their English, and hosts monthly American-themed parties (last month they did a kind of line dance thing? And this month there was a Saint Patrick’s Day party.) I’m not crazy about tea, but I love to talk to people.

Tea Party

I’d used the center as a resource before, to find conversation partners to practice French. I’d never actually visited before, and since this last week I was in the city for another midwife appointment anyway, I decided to walk over to the center and see what these weekly tea parties were all about. From the center of the city, where the midwife’s office is, you have to walk through the Arabic section of town to reach the French American center, and the actual building is just half a block away from L’Aqueduc Saint-Clement in the eponymous Les Arceaux district…one of the prettiest parts of the city.

The Aqueduc Saint-Clément dates to the 17th century and was used to bring water from the St Clément spring 14 km away. The aqueduct emptied into a water tank near the triumphal arch, from where the water would run downhill to fill fountains and public water points. It terminates at the Place du Peyrou, which is GORGEOUS and full of trees and which gives you an amazing view of the terracotta rooftoops on the city:

I’ve become associalized. It’s true. After almost a year living in France, struggling with the language (and slowly succeeding) and isolating myself in the vineyards in Cournonterral, I have literally become unaccustomed to being around people, and thus I had to walk back and forth in front of the French American Center for about fifteen minutes before screwing up the courage to enter. No, really. Remember how I was saying I had developed panic and anxiety issues around answering the phone, or the door? This is part of that. It takes a lot for me to relax around people now, and to open up. My guard is always up, and I spend so much of my time in silence (while working in the vineyard) or alone (at home, or walking) that it feels a little weird to have all the noise and stimulus of sitting in a big group of people.

Once I made it through the gates, and sat down though, I had a wonderful time!

Now, that’s not to say it was really a chance to practice French. I was the sole American and sole native Anglophone there, so while I began in French, it became clear after about five seconds that all of the people were there to have a full immersion, all in English experience, and they seemed really happy to have a native speaker there! And I’m not going to lie, after the last year of struggling to talk to people? It felt REALLY good to my poor bruised Anglophone ego to have people actually wanting to talk to ME for a change. So I relaxed into English and spent so much time talking that I let my cup of black tea go cold.

Best part of the conversation (or at least the part that still makes me laugh) was when people started sharing words that they found funny in English:

“I love the word ‘mushroom’! What words do you find funny in French?”

I thought about it. “The verb for ‘purring’. ‘Ronronner’. The verb for snoring. ‘Ronfler’. Anything that ends in ‘eil’, like ‘feuille’ (leaf)or ‘oeil’ (eye)or…or…’écureuil'(squirrel). And there are a lot of French expressions that I like a lot.”

“Like?”

“Like, ‘It’s not your business’? ‘C’est pas tes oignons.’ (It’s not your onions).”

I can’t go to a lot of their events, since they often are late at night, and I don’t have the energy these days to do that. But they do have a book club, and some other things, so I’m hoping to continue to drop in as I can and maybe volunteer? It felt like a good place to be. The inside of the building is brightly painted and has a small library and a kitchen and computers for  Internet. It was warm. It seemed nice. At the end, a young woman who seemed to work there came in and bounced up the stairs, and when I heard her speak in an American accent I wanted to follow her around like a puppy. 🙂

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I hope all of you have a wonderful equinoc! I’m going to finish with some pictures I took today on my daily hike in the hills. Every day there’s something new opening up, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful!

   

Asparagus Hunters – in the Garrigue

The temperatures are shooting up, and the garrigue is coming alive with wild thyme and rosemary, wild leeks, and best of all: wild asparagus!

POW!

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You might hear the term “garrigue” tossed around in reference to wine flavours… basically, the word garrigue refers to the low-growing scrubby vegetation on the high-calcium limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast. It’s what we call the landscape here on the coast in Languedoc. There are a bunch of bushy, fragrant plants that grow wild here, such as juniper, thyme, rosemary… and so garrigue refers to the sum of them. Think fresh herby-minty florals and you’d be getting pretty close. The French concept of terroir plays in here when you hear “garrigue” referenced in the taste of a wine; the idea is that sense of place is reflected in its regional products (honey, wine, cheese, etc) and that if you close your eyes and focus – really focus! – on a taste, that it can summon the portrait of a place…the sun on ripe olives, the scent of thyme flowers after the rain. I think it’s true, particularly in white wines from Languedoc, that you can taste a little bit of the garrigue.

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There are wild game, birds and black pigs that roam these hills, and crumbled stone walls that cross the landscape. You can see a row of windmills on the hills in the distance. There’s a dry riverbed that winds through the terrain, quartz crystals, and a cave system that was used in the Neolithic era that still houses artifacts and paintings. There are olive trees and almond trees covered in pink flowers and buzzing alive with bees. The flowers : a variety of wild orchid, pale buttery yellow and deep violet iris, whole fields scarlet with poppies (called coquilicot))… I love this landscape.

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Sunday, Mathieu and I woke sleepy with the sun pouring in, ate croissants and drank coffee, and decided to take an expedition to go hunt wild asparagus. His dad just picked up an ATV, which is pretty much Mathieu’s new favorite thing ever…so after about an hour working sticking new FDA approved wine labels on the backs of bottles, we pulled on our helmets and took off down the dirt roads into the garrigue.

I hold THIS truth to be self-evident: to my thinking, there is not much better in life than to be feeling alive and young, sitting on the back of a bike, wind blowing, with my arms wrapped around a beautiful boy and my face buried in his back, in love. We’ve all got our holy moments; this is mine.

Flashback: It’s true that, mere days after we first met while working aboard the cruise ship, we took a day trip to the island of Capri and rented a motorcycle for the afternoon, and I remember that feeling of warmth and completeness and anticipation and joy… that feeling of perfect contentment with a life that had, through a winding series of heartaches, coincidences and chances, contrived, somehow, to bring me to THIS place. That somehow, miraculously, I was speeding around a beautiful exotic Italian island in a black halter top and sandals, on a motorcycle on a warm summer day with my arms wrapped tightly around a perfectly sweet, sexy French boy, whom I hardly knew.)

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We weren’t together. Not yet. I don’t think we even took pictures together. We weren’t sure of each other yet; I think we’d only met for this first time a few days before, at a crew party for the Phillipines Independence Day Celebration. (I had just cut my hair super-short, and he wasn’t so sure about that…and I spent part of the day paying for his pizza and wine and return ferry ticket to Naples, wondering who was this freeloader, and why exactly he hadn’t brought any money?) But on the ferry on the way back to Naples, after an incredible day, I fell asleep with my head on his shoulder, and after a whole day of being so close to him on the motorcycle, it felt easy and natural. And though I wasn’t really looking to meet anyone – not then, not in that way, for many many reasons – I couldn’t stop thinking about how good it felt, to have my arms around him.

(Fun fact: This was incidentally also the day I had the best pizza of my life, bar none, EVER. Definitely NOT your typical thin crust Napoli pizza, but I still think about it sometimes. Was it actually the pizza? Was it the day? It tasted better than anything I’d ever had in my life.)

I think of that day, now, whenever we go riding and I put my arms back around him again. It still feels so good.

Back in the garrigue, we climbed high enough to see the Mediterranean. We stopped along the way and loaded up on the slender green and purple wild asparagus shoots. It seemed like they were everywhere. It took a while for my eyes to focus to them, but once you see one, you see them everywhere. We were already thinking about the omelette we were going to cook for lunch when we got home, and when our hands were full, we climbed back on the quad to speed home.

When my hands got cold I slipped them in his jacket pockets and closed my eyes in the sun, listening to the engine growl, warm and content, as we swerved and bounced on the rough gravel road.

He grew up here. He knows these backroads. I love him so much in these moments.

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Burning the Pepettes

I walked back to the square after dark. It was a crescent moon and the street lights reflected back in the puddles from where the streets had been power washed.

There were still elderly men, resigned, scrubbing the fronts of their houses.

The tarps covering the building façades flapped like the sails of a ship, and the bathtubs full of lie are packed with garbage sacks and plastic cups. I passed a red headband, trampled, and a handful of green oak branches and turkey feathers.

There are handprints and splatters on the walls. The smell is thick and full of grapes. You can still here a flute playing that cheery marching Pailhasse song somewhere in the town, echoing off the buildings.

In the square, the drinking continued at the bar and spilled into the street. You can see men still in costumes, top hats and turkey feathers silhouetted in the orange glow of the street lights.

The effigies that had been hanging in the town square, representing the Pailhasse and the Blanc, have been tied together and set on a pyre of wood. A man in costume reads the “charges” against the Pailhasses in old Occitan, and condemns him to burn. As the flames ignited, the man said something like, “Until next year!”

Here are the final images from the square and my walk home.

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