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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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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Calm Before the Storm

The Fête des Pailhasses is in operation and we are hiding at home behind the shutters making des escalettes and listening to the screaming and running outside, and staying away from the windows so we don’t wind up with a purple façade on the house. There are buckets and bathtubs of lie all over town and most houses have tarps and sheets tied over them. Here’s some pictures from this morning, and I’ll update as I sneak some pictures out the window…we’ll venture out again in three hours to view the carnage!

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Chaos in the Streets

“Living in a tree,
Yeah that’s where I’d like to be,
When the world falls down.

No one can say nothing,
Which I guess means they’ll say something,
But I won’t be around.

I’ll be in my tree,
Living free,
As any child would wanna be.

Chaos in the streets,
Lonely hearts bear lonely beats,
In a world carved with steel and stone.

Miscommunication leads to fear and hesitation,
And it won’t leave me alone.

But now in my tree,
I’m living free,
As any child would wanna be.

Maybe you and me can make a home for us and someday three from the strongest wood of the tallest tree and we’ll be,

Living in a tree,
Living free,
As any child would wanna be.

La la la la la la la
La la la la la la la
La la la la la la la
La la la la la la la…”

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This morning, while I was running around the village getting blood tests and prescriptions filled and all sorts of stuff, I saw a flatbed truck careen around the corner with the Pailhasse dummies in the back, with tons of green oak branches. The drivers were in costumes, as were the men following them…all in white with strange hats. People were playing drums and some strange high pitched whistle…

The main square of the village has been taken over with games and amusement rides, and as I made my way home, a band was marching through the streets, faces painted, playing a weird cheerful medieval song over and over again.

Yup, it’s carnival time! And on the fifth of this month, we will celebrate the Féte des Pailhasses.

Everyone remember what that is? It’s the totally bizarre Bacchanalia Carnival that has been celebrated here in our village since pagan times as a reenactment of an ancient dispute between the Cournonterralais and the Aumelassians.

Here’s the link to the original blog post: La Féte des Pailhasses

After a family apertif party for his grandmother last night, neither of us could sleep, so I changed my boots and we took off on a midnight walk through the village and then off into the hills. We distributed flyers for the mayor for the upcoming election, stuffing glossy ads into mailboxes (Mathieu volunteers with the mayor and his town planning commitee), and then slipped through the dark silent old town and into the hills, as the stars emerged from behind the clouds. We watched Orion come out, found Jupiter, and identified Sirius and Pegasus, the Great Bear and the little Dipper, and Casseopeia hanging in her chair upside down in the night sky.

We’ve been under stress lately…like the song says, “Miscommunication leads to fear and hesitation,” and it felt good to walk together and feel connected, my head tucked into his shoulder, letting our eyes slowly adjust to the darkness as we made our way along the paths.

We talked a little about the festival. I think he’s excited to show me. We’re going to watch them get ready, stuffing their burlap shirts with straw and covering their faces with oak and badger skins. There’s going to be a little thing in the morning in the square where there will be a circle dance and they’ll play that weird, sweet haunting song that they keep playing all day here in the village. There will be a parade. And then, three hours of total and complete anarchy will begin.

“My mom is coming over to bake des escallettes.” Mathieu told me. ” She needs a gas stove to make them, they’re little flat biscuits that are traditional for this festival and are only made here.” (click the links for recipes!)

“Why does she need a gas stove?”

“You make a batter with flour and sugar and eggs and lemon zest, and they get pressed in these iron presses and cooked over the flame.”

(The name is derived from the Catalan word “escala” or “l’échelle” in French, which means ladder, and symbolizes the inversion of the social order that accompanies Carnival and the Féte des Pailhasses.)

“We can go out after they’ve finished running, it’s three hours, and we can see how bad the town has been trashed,” he told me.

“They burn the pepettes late at night too, we can go see that.”

“Ok,” I said, “but I’d like to see what they do, you know, while they’re trashing the village.”

Mathieu shook his head and laughed and shook his head some more. “They’re all drunk, they don’t know what they’re doing. After they’ve finished the dance, the Blancs go running and the Pailhasses chase them with rags. They go crazy. Anyone walking by is considered part of the games. They attack people, they drag them into bathtubs and barrels, they chase you. If they’re coming for you, you need to run. They could hurt you. And I don’t think you can run right now.”

True. “But I’m pregnant, surely they won’t…?”

He shook his head.”No, they’re all really drunk. Best case scenario, you’ll get submerged in a barrel of lie, but you could get hurt. I don’t want to let you do it this year.”

(Me picturing getting chased through the streets by demented monsters with badger skins over their faces.)”Ok.” I protectively cradled my belly and was rewarded with a sizable kick.

“You’ll love making these cookies with my mom, too…it’s one of the biggest days in this village, and I think you need to experience it at least once.” Even though it was after midnight as we walked through the deserted streets of the village, we could still hear a band playing, repetitively, that strange song, echoing through the streets. We passed a school with Pailhasses painted on the windows. “They’ve been doing it for, at least, 600 years here. Maybe longer.” We were passing the old church and the remnants of the walls of the old town. “It was just here. Can you imagine medieval people running through these streets with badger skins over their faces, howling drunk and covered in oak leaves? They don’t let anyone from outside the village come in on this day, they don’t even let the buses through, because people won’t understand.”

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Because I promised: pregnancy update. (I put this at the bottom for those of you who are less fascinated with this stuff.) 🙂

Sorry, guys. I know, I know.

End of week 31, which means I am officially entering the EIGHTH MONTH. Eight. Eight? Wow.

We had a visit to the obstetrician yesterday to celebrate and got some new sonogram photos. Big news for me yesterday: the baby has turned, which I had suspected actually due to the fact that his HEAD was no longer bending my right ribs out. Also there have been a couple big movement days this last month of legs and baby butts and heads all over the place, so I thought he might be turning around. His head is now down, on my left side, with his back curling up along my right side.

He’s getting ready! For his great escape! How cool is that?

It now feels less like kicking and more like bonafide movements, rolling and turning and occasional little legs coming up under my ribs.  It’s just awesome. He’s at 1.6 kilos, which is 3.257 pounds.. I’m starting more and more to feel this little person…I can’t wait to meet him.

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Here he is! I recognize that it’s a little harder to see now that he’s bigger…But if you look you can see two eyes, a nose and a mouth. He looks perfect.

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This is the sonogram. Again, I realize I’m basically giving you Roscharch tests here, but maybe you can see the profile?

The discussions have begun in the family about “whose nose is that?”, and I’m going with, “Who can really tell ANYTHING from a photo like this anyway?” But Mathieu has started having dreams about him being born (I haven’t yet at all) and the latest dream this week was that we wound up with a green-hazel eyed, curly haired baby with blond hair. The eyes and the disastrous hair being from me, the blond hair being from Mathieu when he was a baby. Seriously, the pictures of him when he was little are ridiculous…women spend a LOT of money to get honey streaks like that in their hair.

Yup. You can have a minute if you need one. I’m going to take one.

I don’t have too many of me when I was little, but here’s one of my with my older sister. 🙂

Incidentally, my sister had a dream too, that we had the baby and named him Mario. 🙂 No, really.

If you’re wondering, I think we do have a name more or less picked out, although anything can change. It will not, however, be changing to Mario. Now, Luigi, hmmmm. 😉

…I’ll update again after the fifth and the festival to tell you all about it!