Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Retirement Blast? Or Just A Routine (Holi)day?

Practically every day, or so it seems, we are all challenged to keep up with job and home responsibilities, house and car repairs, electronic breakdowns, consumer challenges, financial distress, and family mischief.

I guess you're probably thinking that, just because Pope and I are retired and traveling in France, we are exempt from such day-to-day responsibilities? Relaxed and happy, all smiles as we roam the continent? I wish I could glow with enthusiasm and swear to you: "We are having a blast!" In fact, the grass is green but has plenty of brown spots.
Pope keeps reminding me that we are not "on vacation." This is "our life," and it gets complicated.

Every day I am challenged with researching transportation and places to stay, struggling with maps and travel guides, stumbling over language, second-guessing the weather, failing to figure out the complexities of France's opening and closing times, yearning to wash clothes, and wondering where on earth we can find all that fine French food we had heard so much about. Some days, there are a few hours left over for sightseeing. I haven't found time for exercising and, as you can see, rarely get around to blogging.
I bet you are protesting: "But you are in France! And you are not getting up early and commuting to work!" Well, I can't deny those. But I can assure you that traveling in France is not the sweet-smelling bed of lavendar that one dreams about. In fact, some days it's almost as hard as living on the boat!

Take today, for example. Yesterday we moved from a stuffy studio in the city (which Pope called our "cave") to a larger gite (self-catering apartment) in an old stone house. We are just outside of the tiny hamlet of St Nathalene in the Dordogne River area of France. Our section of the building is the old bakehouse, nicely renovated and minus its oven, but with thick stone walls that retain the chill, necessitating a sweater all day and down comforter at night, even on sunny days in late spring.
I thought the gite was going to be just outside the city of Sarlat-la-Caneda, where we stayed last week. Instead, it's way out in the country. Yes, the birds sing and wildflowers are blooming. However, it's a good thing we got sightseeing and castles out of our system last week, because now we are a long drive from anywhere, with only morning larks and flies on the patio, and only trees and green hills as far as we can see.
It looks enticing, no? But where are the croissants and fine French food? St Nathalene is too small to provide even our daily bread. In fact, we are miles of narrow, winding roads away from the nearest bakery, shop, market, or restaurant. And even if we survive near-collisions with French drivers who speed around the bends in the middle of the road, we are unlikely to find any place open. Last Sunday, when we were staying in the city, we almost starved trying to locate a restaurant that wasn't locked and shuttered. And last night, our first night in the country, we drove 30 minutes to the nearest "town" of Salignac, anticipating creamy sauces and a tasty Bordeaux--only to find the one or two commercial establishments closed up tight, without a soul in sight, well before 8 pm.

You could die from loneliness in this country--if you didn't starve first!

So early this morning we dragged ourselves out from under our cozy comforter, bleary-eyed from lack of food and sleep, because the pantry was empty and the refrigerator bare. We needed to return to the city of Sarlat-la-Caneda for the weekly market. We are reduced to cooking at home! Well, at least our kitchen is attractive.
After 45 minutes of dodging drivers and edges of cliffs, Pope dropped me off in the middle of the crowded and congested city and left to find parking, after agreeing on a meeting spot.

I waited for him a while, then gave up and forced my way through the enormous crowds blocking my path (school was out for a holiday, and half of the families in France descended on the Dordogne valley) to gather necessities: potatoes and eggplant and strawberries. Returned to the meeting place, waited another hour. No Pope. No cell phone. No way to find out if he was searching for me in the market or detained by the gendarmerie for running over a Frenchman with the rental car, struggling with language and lack of documentation, which was all in my backpack. Anxiety crept up my spine and edged me toward the brink of hysteria.

After another half hour, success! A familiar face in the crowd. Just in the nick of time before I collapsed in tears at the tourist information desk, begging for help in finding a missing person. He had been unable to find me among the crowds of holiday-makers.

By mid-afternoon, having survived the roads, the crowds, and three attempts to use a credit card to gas up the car--on the fourth attempt we gave up and paid cash--we limped home for a simple and barely sufficient lunch on our patio of bread, cheese, and olives.
Too worn out to visit a chateau or even explore the neighborhood, we drifted into restless afternoon slumber in our sleeping loft, way up at the top of a steep and narrow stone stairway, under the eaves--and then awakening too late for any meaningful sightseeing.
A typical day of missed opportunities! We had to make do with a lovely but lonely walk around the fields, dodging dogs and tractors, consoling ourselves with collecting a few wildflowers for our table.
Then the real trouble started. For days I had struggled with great difficulty to send photos to friends, blog, and Facebook. By evening, as I sat down to research AirBnB's in Paris for next month, the ugly truth set in: the iPhone was dead, or at least severely messed up. Only one month into our three-month journey! No emails, no camera, no Facebook??!! I had managed pretty well without phone service, but without internet, how will I get directions, book trains, make hotel reservations? No Apple store for hundreds of kilometers, and even if we found one it would probably be closed. Especially during the month of May, with four national holidays.

In dread of the sure-to-be chaos of planning for the next two months, I curled up in a fetal position in a corner of the sofa, shutting out faith and hope. In a valiant effort to console me, Pope patted my hand and trotted off to the kitchen to prepare a panful of tasty vegetables for roasting. And then he tried valiantly, and vainly, for an hour to light the strange and stubborn gas oven.
By 9 pm, with our satisfaction with "our life" in France rapidly deteriorating, we heaved a heavy sigh, gave up, and prepared a cold salad, reminiscing fondly on our simple life back home. Our clothes dryer. Our community garden. Our friends. Hopping onto Metro to get across town. Spaghetti dinners at our dining room table, and a 7-11 nearby if we run out of milk.
And that was before it started raining. We never got to use the nice patio again. We never got to go kayaking--one of our purposes in coming to Dordogne.
Dear friends, don't bother with envy or yearning. Sip your coffee, say good morning to colleagues, take a walk at lunch. Count your blessings when the bus comes on time or an old friend stops by. Whip out your cell phone to send a text and check the weather, and spare a moment of sympathy for your friends all alone out in the middle of nowheresville, France, struggling to get through the day, buy bread, and find a decent place to sleep!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Caves, Kale, and Stone Roofs--How Time Flies in the Dordogne Valley!

Time--how relative! We are visiting sites with tens of thousands of years of history--castles and caves and vestiges of man's habitats that have stood the test of milennia. With our busy schedules, we are struggling to see even a fraction of what was left behind.

Chinese horses, troglodytes, walnut farmers, bison, Josephine Baker, and French national kayak champions all have one thing in common: they inhabited the Dordogne River valley sometime in the last 20,000 years or so. The dwellings, drawings, monuments, and other paraphernalia left behind can keep a tourist busy for months, seeking them out. Where can one find that much time??!!
There is so much to see, do, and learn in the valley, we can barely keep up the pace expected of knowledgeable, interested, mobile, intellectually curious travelers. Each day we wake up, stretch, and sit around mired in indecision--what to do today? So many things to choose from. One day--it happened to be a Sunday when many attractions were closed anyway--we were so paralyzed with FOMS (Fear of Missing Something) we didn't actually  emerge from the mouth of our chilly stone cave until 6 pm (local time), when everything was closed, but still in time for dinner and drinks at a local brasserie. (Which were worth the investment of a couple of hours, by the way.)
In previous days--speaking of caves--we explored the troglodytes' cave dwellings, a la Mesa Verde, both under the earth and in natural hollows in limestone cliffs. The caves have been inhabited on and off for 17,000 years or so, the lastest residents being Protestants who were routed from their cliffside slumber and slaughtered wholesale by Catholics sometime in the Middle Ages. (This happened in regular villages here also, one of the reasons for so many castles and fortresses.)
When Cro-Magnon was master of the local underworld, he hired some exceptionally talented painters to decorate the inner sanctums in bright reds, browns, grays, and blacks. Whether he did it for spiritual, religious, war game, hunting, or just plain creative artistic reasons, no one really knows. What is known is that many many millennia ago, he built scaffolds to paint on the ceiling and invented techniques that today's art experts spent decades trying to recreate. The clever use of cave topography, natural dyes, and blowing and brushing techniques add to the depictions of horses, bulls, bears, bison, mammoths, man, and other creatures an air of natural movement and grace.
Well into his agricultural and domestication-of-animal years, man continued to come up with clever and visually appealing ways of protecting self, family, and meatstock; for example, domed roofs of stacked rocks, with no timbers, mortar, or mud holding them up. Animals on the ground floor; people slept in the loft.
Of course, religion has long been a significant factor in family, community, and political life, with the Catholics and Protestants especially battling it out for centuries, fighting for the hearts of the local lords and farmers as well as for valuable real estate investments--such as this cloister begun in the 12th century and renovated sometime around the 15th.
Even in the nidst of religous wars, respecting and worshipping Morther Nature was recognized by all parties as a means of ensuring the harvest happened at the expected time, as respresented in these sculptures of kale surrounding a 12th-century Abbot's throne.
We have managed to squeeze in some castle-viewing into our busy schedule--did I mention that there is a castle on every hilltop? And one from every century, it seems. Where on earth--or under the earth--can we find the time to visit them all??!! The one below is just a routine everyday private home, once fiercley defended by the reigning lord of the manor, now falling victim to the ravages of time and thinness of wallet.
If you're lucky, or rich enough, your castle is kept up by surviving family, or perhaps a non-profit foundation after your death, or even the government's historical preservation arm. All those renovations and upgrades of electricity and plumbing take time, as evidenced by the repairs underway on nearly every structure constructed of stone. For example, at the singer Josephine Baker's proud French chateau, furnished lovingly during her successful music hall career but lost in bankruptcy as she aged, and, in its final chapter, accepting donations from tourists to pay for roof repairs.
This has been a busy week, for sure, keeping up with the timeless march of history! We haven't yet made it to a walnut farm (the traditional industry here, along with foie gras production) or kayaking with champions--no time!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dordogne Dilemmas: A Quiz for Armchair Travelers

Time for a quiz about the Dordogne River region.
Question #1- How many chateaux, castles, medieval fortresses, Roman ruins, arches, and centuries-old buildings can a traveler tolerate before reaching saturation point? Amber's answer: I love them all and can't get enough of them. Pope's answer: one.
St. Emilion, home of dozens of wine-producing chateaux and surrounding vineyards established by some very successful farmers and merchants from the 2nd to 21st centuries
Covered market from the Middle Ages in St. Emilion; probably renovated inside into fancy lofts...?
An average-sized castle in Rogue-Gageac, a town built on the side of a mountain. Many of the lesser folks lived in caves. (Or maybe that was in a different era; I couldn't understand the French.)
Hilltop 12th-century castle, fortifications, and surrounding homes in Beynac-et-Cazenac
Archway from some era or other in some town in the Dordogne region; they start to run together after while
Medieval timbers in Bergerac, possibly shored up with modern concrete for durability...?
When I got too tired to walk around any more medieval villages, I did the logical thing: hopped on the tourist mini-train, in Dromme. Pope, during much of this time, sat in a cafe and drank wine, like a civilized visitor to France. Or maybe he just took a nap.

Question #2- How many bottles of French wine can one drink to the last drop in two weeks in Dordogne? Amber's answer: three or four. Pope's answer: same as Amber's answer to #1, above.
Question #3- What does a traveler do on their first morning in Dordogne? Amber's answer: why, go to the weekly market, of course. Pope's answer: stay in bed and recover from last night's wine.
I thought we were visiting Dordogne for castles and caves. But it turns out, in Dordogne, castles and caves are secondary to the regional speciatlty, fois gras--sold in every imaginable form at the shops and weekly market, including cans for safely transporting home in your suitcase (above). There are even postcards showing Madame, farmer's wife, pouring feed down the throat of le canard. When I mentioned to the tourist information lady I was vegetarian, her eyes got very big and she politely mentioned that I might want to visit Paris instead. At the market, however, I found lettuce, asparagus, strawberries, cheese, olives, and nuts--a healthy Mediterranean diet.

Question #4-- Where does one stay when touring the Dordogne region? Amber's answer: why, in a renovated centuries-old building inside a medieval fortified town, of course. Pope's answer: you've got to be kidding! Parking is a bitch and it's freezing cold in those old stone buildings.
Rue Barry, our lane in the historic city center of Sarlat-la-Caneda; no cars allowed, or should I say, no cars can fit, unless maybe they are Smart-Car-sized minis
Our doorway, the only access to the apartment and the only source of natural light and ventilation; Pope says he feels like he's living in a cave, like the troglodytes did in this area a long time ago (some people still live in caves here, just like in Morocco)
Our rented one-room studio, cleverly renovated to integrate electricity and plumbing and some modern dry wall into solid stone walls and sturdy ceiling timbers. The apartment stays cool even on hot, sunny days. Pope thought our little half bath under the stairs at home was small until he saw this one; yes, that is solid stone over and under and behind the water heater.
Question #5-- What does a traveler do all day every day for two weeks here in Dordogne? Amber's answer: see #1. Pope's answer: keep Amber happy by doing what she wants.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Mini-Holiday on the Cape: Heaven in a Small-Town Package

Arès is exactly the kind of petite ville I envisioned when I proposed living in France for a year. (A proposition that got hijacked during the ensuing planning phase, due to visa difficulties and a broken foot.) The houses are adorable. They sucked me in and made me want to call a realtor. (Go ahead, call me a pushover. But many of my female friends would agree.)
Arès is at the head of a narrow cape between ocean and bay--prime seafood region. People line up in the morning for oysters, which are very cheap compared with Chesapeake Bay prices.
Throughout the town, old mixes easily with new.

The population appears to be on the older side. Even the trees have some senior citizens, bent over from the weight of their years.
Some of the townspeople value privacy, while others seem to show off their plants and flowers.

The cars and buildings are interesting colors: aquamarine, celery, fuschia.

Plenty of biking and hiking paths here--to the sea, the lighthouse, the forests, the nature preserve, the next town. When the tide is out on the bay side of town, it's a looooooong way to the water. If you're a boater, check the tide tables!
Right around the corner from Arès, on Cap Ferret, are sand dunes on the Atlantic Ocean, surfing schools, and Oysterville--a series of bay-front villages where the residents live, breathe, and smell like oysters.
One of the few female oyster-catchers is also cook and proprietor of her own waterfront cafe, as well as raw-seafood-cookbook author: "Miex Vaut Tartare que Jamias," roughly translated as "Better Fresh Than Never."
Sure, the townspeople in Arès are aloof, for now, but I'm sure that's only because I'm a short-timer. That's the French way, according to Sally Adamson Taylor's book "Culture Shock! France." Respect for privacy--until they get to know you and invite you into their hearts, as in the sentimental movie "The Hundred-Foot Journey."

Right in the middle of an average residential street, this snug little cottage is crying out for an American to snap it up and merge gently into the community.
To imagine what it would be like to live here, I highly recommend the book "I'll Never Be French No Matter What I Do: Living in a Small Village in Brittainy." 
Likewise, I'll never be French or even fluent, but the small town of Arès has warmed my heart and left me wishing I could stay a while.