Thursday, June 26, 2008


Where has the month gone? Our life has changed with the sunny weather -- now, instead of being huddled inside, on the computer or reading, we're outside chatting with whoever has dropped by or going to what seems like a million different festivities of one kind or another.

On Saturday we move to a gîte in Issac for our final week in France. We're all very, very sad.

I don't think I'll be blogging life in Charlottesville, but who knows, maybe it will look different after having been away for a year.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

La Randonnée

On Tuesday both schools had a day-long randonnée, which consisted of biking, walking, and picnicking (of course), with some cultural/historical learning thrown in. Chris and I went along with Julian's class. I was a bit unsure how I would handle the 10K but quickly found my role as nudger and prodder of stragglers, and managed just fine.

All the students in the Dordogne were out on randonnées that day, and so it felt -- and this happens a lot in France -- like we were not just a little group doing its activity and going about its business, but were part of something larger, something shared. The children in my group sang as we walked down the road and the path that wound through the fields, and held hands, and boys walked with their arms around each other's shoulders. One of my stragglers confessed that he was starving and offered to share a hunk of cake he had hidden in his jacket. The whole group were avid pickers and pluckers of anything at all, and we had to stay on top of them so they didn't decimate the cornfields. Here they are lunging at poppies...

Our first stop was the Chateau Montréal, which is in the distance here...

Of course the picnic involved sandwiches, the usual and scrumptious butter-and-ham-on-baguette, but also there were half-tomatoes and little quiches. The longer part of the walk came after, as we wound through the woods and past houses that had me faint with envy. The children were yanking up the newly sprouted fern fronds and chasing, poking, and fanning each other with them. We stopped to see a dolmen, a kind of prehistoric table made of big stones, thought to have been part of a burial ritual. We stopped at a prehistoric forge, where we could find hunks of rock with iron ore, and hunks of rock that were the leftover bits after smelting, or at least you could, en principe, find these things; at that point in the hike I could no longer bend over, and I'm not sure many of the adults could. And my dogs were barking. My stragglers had gotten a second wind after lunch and were no longer straggling, and not a whine was heard from any of the children, even as we approached our 10th K.

Now that we're practically in our last month here, we've discovered the absolutely fantastic map series that shows not just the roads, not just the back roads, but all the houses and footpaths, so, en principe, we're ready for all manner of randonnées ourselves. Next year.

Monday, May 19, 2008

La Fête des Fraises

I was all excited to go to Vergt yesterday to celebrate strawberries, and celebrate we did, which means we stuffed ourselves silly. The Dordogne is the strawberry capital of France, at least that's what the flyers say, and the best part is that we don't just have strawberries when the season comes around, we get at least five different varieties to choose from, varieties that don't necessarily travel well, although I bet you can get them in Paris anyway. 

There was a table for rating the different varieties; you took a pen and a slip of paper that had spaces for notations as well as your ranking for each kind, then sampled from the five boxes of lettered but unnamed strawberries. After handing in our slips, we got another paper telling us which was which. From best to least best (but still good), mine went Charlotte, Darselect, Cirafine, Mara des Bois, and Gariguette. All of us participated enthusiastically and all of us had wildly different rankings. We weren't sure whether our tastes were that different or whether the strawberries varied quite a lot from berry to berry. Obviously a distinction that requires more investigation at home, possibly with whipped cream and lots of it.

Tucked away in a side street we found some organic Mara des Bois, which I've already had with both crème fraîche and whipped cream (equally good).

There were chefs-in-training making strawberry concoctions for the crowd. And there was a gigantic tart for which each village of the commune contributed a section, but we didn't stay long enough to get a taste. Because unfortunately we were afflicted by the Curse of Vergt. Vergt is a nice enough village deep in the countryside, big enough to have an ATM and a few restaurants. But every time we go there, bad humor descends on all of us and we end up snapping, crying, arguing, snarling, and sulking and generally falling apart. How, you may ask, could anyone be in a bad mood when grown men are dressed up as strawberries?

When there are strawberry tarts to be eaten along with saucisse and frîtes with mayonnaise? I do not know. But we had to hurry home to get away from the Curse before somebody got hurt.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In Bourrou

We got a flyer announcing some kind of celebration in Bourrou, a nearby village for which we'd passed the turn-off many times but never been to. So we went, taking Nellie's friend Pauline with us. It was gloriously, finally sunny, and the first thing we saw after getting our tickets was a homemade beach, complete with many pails and shovels and umbrellas. Nellie and Pauline pulled off their shoes and went to work. In a grassy area there were frisbees and tetherball. Everyone was walking around smiling and looking a bit dazed by the sun after so many months of rain.
As usual we only partly understood what was going on, but like sheep we managed to follow the crowd over to the lovely churchyard, and settled in to hear a story, a kind of funny fairy tale. After that the whole group walked to another spot, in front of an old stone house down a lane, and we heard another story, this time with a woman -- who must be a professional opera singer -- dramatizing parts of it and singing like an angel. That story was about a beautiful princess who farted in public, and wished the ground to swallow her up, which it did. 

By this time we got the picture -- it was a sort of Walk With Stories. Each place was stunningly beautiful in a medieval, pastoral kind of way. The old mossy stone walls had ferns with tiny round leaves cascading down, and bright blue flowers on top. As we passed a small meadow in the middle of the village, a donkey brayed at us, clearly not used to seeing several hundred people walking in his territory (even though generally the French are so quiet that all those people hardly made any noise at all). Roses scrambled up the sides of stone buildings, their branches weighed down with flowers the size of dessert plates. I wish I could describe the smell in a way that would make it real -- it was the smell of growth, of sprouting, flowering plant life, of light breezes and things being warmed up for the first time in many months. With a little tang of donkey manure underneath.
For the final story, about a branch that comes to life and starts eating people, we had followed a trail into the woods and stood under some chestnuts and oaks. Rain started to fall but no one moved since the canopy was as good as an umbrella. An old lady propped herself against a stump, and a mother sat in the leaves while her young son wrapped his arms and legs around her like a bear cub. We made our way out of the forest on a muddy path, sometimes walking with our arms stretched out, balancing on boards laid down over the really wet spots.
More playing on the beach, more frisbee, some homemade popcorn with sweet stuff on it and some Orangina (made with sugar and not corn syrup), and over the sound system came old French songs with accordions, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Doors. Nellie and Pauline fished plastic floating things from the fountain with makeshift hooks while I sat on a curb listening to "Riders on the Storm".

The finale was Cinderella in the churchyard, with the opera singer as the lead. The girls sat up front on a blanket, Julian had found a friend for tetherball, and Chris and I leaned against a stone wall to watch. I kept looking at the gothic church spire stretching up, with a mossy Virgin tucked into a niche, and feeling practically religious, I was so moved by her age and mossiness. The pollarded trees had leafed out in a dazzling green, and there was a palm tree leaning to one side the way palm trees do. As for the singer, it was like the churchyard had been built for singing. She seemed to be spending almost no effort but her voice sailed out so strong and clear and playful; it was intimate, sitting there with my back against the stone, listening to her sing. Her voice was like water, like a river, and everyone in the audience was swept, astonished, downstream along with her.

But oh no! Suddenly the clouds got black, lightning started flashing, and the wind got up, all while the singer was singing an aria while doing a tricky yoga pose. The girls appeared at my side and we ran for the car, the wind nearly pushing us backwards, the rain slamming down and turning to hail, the girls screaming that scream of joy and fear mixed up together.
There's nothing in Bourrou but a convent; there are no shops, not even a bakery, so we have no excuse to return. But how can we not?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Forest of the Squirrels

It's easy in France to satisfy the traveling desires of everyone in the family. Especially during ice cream season. With Hoppy, Jean, and Dan, we drove to Domme, ate sandwiches and admired the view, and just when admiring the view and the lovely town got to be too much for the children, we found ice cream. The peach-gooseberry combination was really really good.

After Domme we split up and Chris and I took the kids to La Forêt des Ecureuils for the rest of the afternoon. Everyone seemed to catch on to the carabiner clipping-on and -off without problems, and away they went into the treetops along with the other climbers. The sounds of German and Scandinavian languages I couldn't identify floated through the leaves.

Of course I'd have been up there myself swinging from platform to platform like a happy baboon, but someone had to take pictures. Tant pis for me.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Touring the Dordogne

For anyone who doesn't know the story, in 1940 four boys were walking in the woods and their dog fell down a hole. When they went in to save him, they found a cave -- not unusual, since there are over 130 Paleolothic caves in this region. But when they came back to explore, with lights, they found a series of chambers filled with paintings. They were quickly opened to the public and became very popular, so popular that the effects from people's breathing and warming up the caves began to cause calcification and ruin the paintings, so they were closed, and a replica made.

That's what we went to see, on a drippy wet day last week, Lascaux II in nearby Montignac. It's true that you miss being able to say to yourself, "A caveman actually painted that!" but it's impressive all the same. It's dark in there. The paintings loom up on the walls of the cave and it's easy to imagine the nomads stuck in there on a cold day with nothing to do but paint. The fact that the artists used perspective, which disappeared until practically the Renaissance, is astonishing. The animals have a sense of movement -- they aren't simply stick figures, not at all. The artists integrated the cracks and bulges of the wall into the figures,  and it's a bit like being in the woods surrounded by beasts, romping and dashing all around you.

After culture comes lunch, which we found in Sarlat, along with the house of Montaigne's best friend:

Lunch was as good as ever. The potage was very plain, just chicken broth with big chunks of carrot, potato, and parsnip. But the simplicity is a virtue.  Nothing canned, no ingredients Ahh. The confit de canard that followed was falling off the bone and full of flavor as well, and I had too much food to poach from the Périgourdine platters that Hoppy and Dan ordered, or the stuffed cabbage Jean had. Everyone had the satisfied smiles that come from a terrific lunch in a cozy dry place after walking in the rain. And the crème caramel is worth another trip to Sarlat, even if the children whine the entire way and fight like cats. 

On the way home we passed the chateau in Beynac, and considered being a soldier, standing on the plain, in the valley, and looking up at what you were going to attack. Eventually we'll drive up to the chateau and imagine looking down from the ramparts at the approaching army. This region has a long, bloody history, but when you eat confit de canard and crème caramel at least you have some idea of what they were fighting over.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Les Invitées

What a pleasure to have visitors -- it reminds me of the years I lived in New York, when my mother would come and I'd get to Broadway and the Met for the first time since her last visit. On their first day, though, in deference to jet lag, we took a walk around Montclard and then had a long lunch at the auberge. It was Sunday, and it felt a bit like going over to Grandmother's for Sunday dinner; the furniture was heavy and dark and looming, the decoration was Lacy Antimaccassar, the other guests were somewhat aged, the food old-fashioned.

Old-fashioned food in France is spectacular. The children had rare hamburgers, heaps of crispy frites, and a mountain each of creamed spinach and some sort of purée (squash and potato?). Butter was involved. The non-children kept dipping their spoons into the creamed spinach pretending to need another taste to identify the seasonings. "Nutmeg?" "Oh, maybe, let me see..."

White asparagus soup to begin, creamy but not too, the rich chicken broth shining through. There were seconds. Next a plate of monkfish in a cream sauce, tender little bundles of fish with some odd pieces of bone that we swept to the side with our fish forks, and more creamed spinach. By this time the kids had finished and off they went to play outside on the swing set, while the platter of lamb with roasted tomatoes and copper saucepans with beans and thinly sliced carrots appeared. 

One problem with this kind of meal is that conversation is often reduced to murmurings about the food and sighs of happiness. Who can talk about anything complicated when the creamed spinach is that good? 

At some point during the meal we realized that Grandmother didn't take credit cards and we were all low on cash. So Chris drove to Vergt in search of a cash machine while the rest of us attacked the dish of flan. Julian didn't think he liked it so he had three servings to make sure. I think we all came home and had naps after, in my mind the perfect end to Sunday dinner.