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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Snails, Sète, and Ships

It’s grey out and I can hear the soft whisper of rain outside in the street. I put powdered chocolate in my coffee today. As I type, the space bar keeps sticking, so I’m having to touch type and watch the screen carefully to keep my words from running together…And as I do, I realize that my fingers have finally intuitively learned the French keyboard, which is laid out differently than the QWERTY keyboard back in the States.

It’s little stuff like that –  not having your fingers KNOW a keyboard, for example –  that can contribute to feeling out of sync with a foreign culture…imagine waking up in a world where everything familiar in your house was shifted a few inches off from where it normally is. The electrical plugs are different. Shoe sizes are different. Reverse on your car is in a different place. You go to bake, and the measurements and the temperatures are different, and the names of the ingredients don’t make sense (Levure boulanger is yeast, ok, BUT is levure chemique baking powder or baking soda, and if you ask for bicarbonate de soude, and the lady in the grocery store looks at you like you’re insane, is it because you pronounced it wrong, because they don’t call it that, or because she has no idea what it is?) None of this stuff is terribly major,but it makes you go through your day feeling a little slow and a little confused and a little dumb. It makes you feel foreign.

Seriously, the next time you see a foreigner making their way through the world, and maybe you feel some impatience or frustration at the amount of time it takes them to do things…think respect and compassion. This stuff is HARD and wears you down.

Typing makes me crazy because I’m actually a pretty good typist, and having to search for the right key because it’s no longer in the same place feels like playing a piano where they’ve moved all the notes. Loss of fluency.

However, practice isa great equalizer, and today I’m realizing that my fingers have finally learned this weird keyboard! BOOYAH!!!!!!!

This weekend brought another spring celebration, of fertility and life and rabbits and eggs; I took the afternoon to walk in the garrigue in the soft mud and photograph snails on sticks. The rain brings out the perfume of the garrigue, thyme and rosemary, and all the snails climb up to the tops of the branches and get out of theirshells and enjoy the soft rain. I love snails…I could have photographed a virtual army of them, transparent ones that looked like they were made out of glass, and others that looked like snakeskin, with their little delicate exploratory antennae. It was so peaceful…I could here the sheep bells ringing somewhere far away, and the Pyrenees mountain dogs barking.

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Lots of good things happening lately. I finally met the other side of my husband’s family, the Guerreros (his mom’s side of the family)…French born, Spanish in origin. We had a big lunch party with all the aunts and the grandmother, who I’ve actually heard quite a lot about – she’s a legendary cook, she is notorious for under-weighing produce in the grocery store (a habit that my husband has picked up, to my intense chagrin), and I’d sort of got the impression that she was a tough lady and judgemental. I’d wondered why I’d never met her, why it was that, a year after moving to France with her great grandson inside me, that no one had thought to get us together in the same room.

It turned out we got along really really well! We had a great time, she was easy to understand and willing to repeat herself for the one or two things I didn’t quite understand, and she turned out to be a really warm person. All those French women in one place – they were all super excited about the baby (most of them are mothers themselves) and came to the party with second hand bathtubs, French baby books and stuffed animals, and even a second hand baby carrier. I got the usual belly rubs, and since the baby was feeling particularily active and kicking all over the place, everyone got rewarded with little feet and baby butts.

I am generally pretty uncomfortable with the unsolicited groping that comes along with being pregnant. (Yes, we know pregnant bellies are cute. They’re also uncomfortable and strange and weird, and anyway, who decided it was okay to rub someone else in such an intimate way? It makes me crazy!) But it was ok, I guess, having his mom’s family do it…just nice to have a bunch of people as excited about the impending birth, maybe?

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Almost there, by the way…at 38 weeks, I’ve officially passed the milestone: if the baby were to be born today, he would be considered full term. I’m getting pretty regular Braxton Hicks contractions, so we’re just waiting now…anytime!

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Another major development: I’ve finally made a real friend! Really! Here’s the story:

A couple weeks ago I was going through a pretty rocky period of isolation and depression (this was right after the mayoral elections, the post has since been taken down), and Mathieu, not knowing what to do or say, found the phone number of another wine grower in the area named Paul Reder, who specializes in very high quality organic white wines (particularilyblends of Roussane, Rolle and White Grenache) up in the garrigue. His label is called Hautes Terres de Comberousse; from the website:

“The wine estate is located on a site that has doubtless been occupied since ancient times. Its topography have made it an ideal dwelling ground throughout history: cliffs containing numerous natural shelters overlook a vast hunting ground.

 

From as early as the Middle Ages, the harvest of live oaks has been the been the primary activity on the property. Traces of ancient ovens dating back to this period, as well as the ruins of a castle on a more fertile, adjacent property hint at metallurgical activities. The exploitation of wood (for glass production, heating and coal purposes) and sheep herding via controlled brush fires brought about the birth of “garrigue” lands made up of low bushes and a few forests.

The 1960’s saw a decline in sheep breeding. and the garrigue became little more than the theater for memorable scenes of hunting and the combat of forest fires.”

Paul Reder, before he took over the wine growing estate from his father Alain, was a geologist working in the U.S. While there, he was taking private English lessons with a beautiful American linguistics major named Krista. Love happened, they got married 12 years ago and moved to France when Krista was seven months pregnant; thus, Mathieu rang up Paul to see if the Cournonterralais-American Wine-Makers’ Wives Club wanted to get together for an inaugural meeting. Or support. Slang practice. Belongingness.

Well, DUH. I texted her the next day, and we’ve been getting together about once a week since then, although we text and call more often. She brings me crappy romance novels about Navy SEALS to get me through my insomniac nights, and cool knitting patterns. She gives me advice about French pediatricians and levure chemique (I KNEW it! Baking powder!) and it’s been just awesome, for the both of us I think. She is around my age, just a bit older, but has four kids, the oldest being 12 and the youngest just 13 months. And living up there in the garrigue with the baby, it sounds like she gets isolated sometimes too. It’s been such a huge things for me to connect with someone finally, particularily someone who understands being American in France, being married to a wine grower, starting a family, and struggling with life as an expatriate. She has TWELVE years here, her French is beautiful, and she even took a second Masters degree in archaeology last fall…in other words, she is much more integrated than I am. I think she’s inspiring and awesome and I feel really lucky to have met her. We had an awesome day last week in Agde, returning bones to the archaeological society and visiting the awesome open air market, buying cilantro and new potatoes and fresh salad greens and strawberries and hanging out with her super sweet, super precocious baby. It was amazing!

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Last sort-of recent thing: we went to the Maritime Traditions festival in Sète yesterday, and it was awesome! Sète hosts this festival every two years, and hundreds of traditional sailing vessels pour into the harbor, along with a celebration of the seafood and cuisine of this really cool little port town.

Sète is known as the Venice of Languedoc, as it is crisscrossed with beautiful canals and bridges. 

Built upon and around Mont St Clair, Sète is situated on the south-eastern hub of the Bassin de Thau, an enclosed salt water lake used primarily for oyster and mussel fields. To its other side lies the Mediterranean. And the town has a network of canals which are link between the Étang de Thau and the Mediterranean Sea. The town is known for having its own very strong cultural identity, traditions, cuisine and dialect…in particular, for the cuisine, these little pies called tielle à la sétoise, filled with calamari (sometimes sardines) and tomato sauce…although all the resturaunts were serving mussels and shrimp and oysters too, with fresh made aioli and lemon slices. 

They also do water-jousting here in Sète, a very old tradition that stretches back to the Ancient Egyptian Empire (2780 – 2380BC) though it didn’t really show up inFrance until 1177. Another document tells us that “in 1270 in Aigues-Mortes, (which is very near where I live), crusaders, soldiers and sailors, awaiting embarkation for the Holy Land with King Louis IX (Saint Louis), faced off in single combat mounted on small boats. It looks like this: 

The festival, called Escale à Sète, celebrates the maritime traditions, art, music and cuisine of this awesome town, and as part of the celebrations, hosted numerous tall ships, traditional sailing vessels, and little brightly colored Spanish fishing boats, which lined the canals. The big ones were the SEDOV and the KRUZENSHTERN – the Sedov is 117 meters long and is the largest sailing vessel in the world, the Kruzenshtern is 115m and is the second largest. They were incredible! Along with these giants, there was the Grace, an 18th century replica from the Czech republic crewed by men in traditional costume, firing cannons; the Santa Eulalia, from the EXCELLENT maritime museum of Barcelona; the Gyptus, a replica of a sixth century BC Greek ship discovered in Marseilles; over sixty restored Spanish traditional sailboats; and an exposition of steam powered boats by the Amis des Bateaux Vapeur. Plus other traditional canal boats…food and music and games for kids. It was awesome!

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Here’s the link to the official site for the festival: Escale à Sète 2014

I took a bunch of photos myself and I’m going to close this (insanely long) blog post with those. Hope you all are doing well! Thanks to everyone who checked in with me, writing and calling and sending words ofencouragement as I took my break from blogging…particularily Alabama-Goddamn, for the encouragement to get over myself, and get back to the keyboard and keep writing.I needed a reason to keep doing it, and you gave me a couple. Love you!!!

 

 

 

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