Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Flock Of Friends

One of the things that makes me happy these days is the fact that I am meeting new people and seeing new places. The exhausting suitcase-dragging hours-on-the-road(or -rail) aspect of travel is the only negative, but it's quickly forgotten with the first conversation or amazing landmark. Even non-amazing landmarks are neat, because they're so different from wherever it was I had been previously.

But even better is going back to visit people later, conversations continued through the space of months or years, catching up and reminiscing. My address book is filling up with names from France and England, and I hope that I can add more countries and contacts over the next several months. Au revoir, mes amis!

The lovely Mandy in Devon and the ever-inspiring Pascoe in London.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Pondering My Next Move

Tomorrow I get on the train and head north to York, where I will be taking care of three cats and a long-legged Saluki cross until mid-October. Then I'll get back on the train and go even further north, to visit relatives who live outside of Glasgow. I'm not entirely certain how long I'll stay there but I need to be back down by Plymouth around the 28th of October at the latest, and then I'm set to go through the first week of January when I finish up my final UK housesit in London.

I am still hoping to be chosen as a volunteer for the Geilo Ice Music Festival, but I've decided to go to Norway in January anyway to see Bea in Flekkefjord, whether I go on to Geilo in February or not. My plan is to go first to Buckie, spend some time with my Scottish relatives there, then fly from Aberdeen to Stavanger. Eventually I will get to Oslo, and then - change in plans again! I have decided to go to Hungary. I'd like to connect with my Magyar heritage. I have absolutely no idea how I am going to pull this off, but now is the time to start writing to Hungarian cheesemakers, looking into the Workaway opportunities, and putting this post out into the ether to see what sort of energy begins sparking through the universe to help get me to my goals.

Azonban, a határ a csillagos ég úgy szép az élet, ha zajlik. Kérem segítsen, a légpárnás hajóm tele van angolnákkal.

"The Lewis Chessmen ... were probably made in Norway, about AD 1150-1200. At this period, the Western Isles, where the chess pieces were buried, were part of the Kingdom of Norway, not Scotland. It seems likely they were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland ... The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks." - British Museum website

Thursday, September 18, 2014


"Vielles amours et vieux tisons s'allument en toutes saisons." - French proverb

Half a lifetime ago, I met a young man who had driven his motorcycle down to spend his summer vacation time camping at Lake Annecy, not far from where I was spectacularly failing as an au pair. I was walking down to the lake to check out a free open-air concert, and he was riding back from it, but when we passed on the road he turned around and came back. My nose, he later told me, reminded him of his cousin's. One thing led to another, as they say, and I ended up spending several weeks with him at his parents' house, and later at his apartment in Amiens. My French wasn't nearly as good as it is now - spending four months talking to no one but a two-year-old doesn't exactly build vocabulary - but we laughed through mistranslations, rode bikes through the country roads, and had a hell of a lot of sex. But then I had to go back to the States, leaving behind a mistranslation that never got cleared up: the exact meaning of amour.

I don't really know what I felt back then, other than that the sex was great and I enjoyed his company. I do know that when he came to visit me in Oregon, he was anticipating a reprise of our French affair, and I was not ready to be that serious - because he was serious, and I was not ready to settle down. No sex, that time. In fact, I asked him to tear up the sexytimes photos from the year before because I was kind of embarrassed about that part. But we kept in touch over the years anyway, mostly in expensive whispered long-distance telephone conversations, and each time I'd say "je t'aime" as I said goodbye. "Toi aussi," he'd respond. I don't really know what I felt during those years either, other than a sense of comfort that in all my wanderings and weirdness, there was someone there waiting for me, steady and unchanging, a rock unmoved by my tidal surges of emotion.

And yet I still wasn't ready to settle down.

But even rocks get worn away eventually. Life goes on, we meet other people, summer affairs get relegated to nostalgic photo albums. He got married, and has two children. We still kept in touch, but via letters. He sent me photos of the babies. And he sent me a letter saying that there was a hole in his heart when he woke up in the morning and it wasn't me lying there next to him. I visited in 2007 and met the wife and kids, even stayed at their house for a week. We went to see his parents, and his father brought out an old cassette tape on which he had recorded a conversation he'd had with his son during the Oregon visit, in which the son describes how I basically abandoned him to spend my days working, and he couldn't understand why my feelings had changed. Which is understandable, because I never really talked about it, just pretended it was normal to be platonic even after being decidedly non-platonic the year before. I apologized for being such a bitch that year, especially after all the kindness I'd been shown by the family - or rather I apologized for being a shit, since I used the word chiotte instead of chienne. Though I suppose that comes to the same thing.

I was trying very hard to keep everything on a "friends only" level, even though I wanted to touch, to kiss, to relax into an embrace. I wanted to say that I still felt the same way.
That I still felt the internal tug of the bond that connected us. But he was married, and the boys were still young, and I don't do marriage-breaking things like that. Though it was arrogant of me to assume that if I said the word the marriage would break up, of course. Over dinner in Paris he told me about problems he had been having with his wife, and I misunderstood some verb tenses and thought that he was saying that he planned to divorce her in a few months, and I assumed (arrogantly) that it was at least in part due to me, and my visit. I rushed to say that I didn't love him, that we were just friends, in a panicked attempt to fend off what I was afraid would turn into a request for me to stay, to come back, to settle down. And I left, again.

My six months in the UK back in 2007 set into motion the series of decisions to move to France, and while I was making plans and relearning verb tenses at PSU I realized that I had started thinking of him more and more. In fact, all the time, for a while. We'd started chatting via that newfangled e-mail system; I practiced my French and he sent me pictures of his garden. And one day I sent him an e-mail that essentially said "by the way, when the kids are gone, do you think it's a possibility that we might get back together again, after all, you and I?" A few weeks passed in which I was nervous and hopeful and scared that he'd actually say "yes, and let's make it right away, I'm getting a divorce" because I was still not ready to settle down.

When he finally answered, the answer was "no." I was more upset than I thought I'd be, but I eventually got over it. Mostly. We met up in Paris for a day back in 2012 and talked about the past and the present and the future, and other than the immediate electricity in the car when we were about to say goodbye things seemed to be on a friendship-only level. And yet, and yet ... that electricity kept buzzing underneath all of our brief e-mails afterwards. Since I am still not ready to settle down, nor to contribute to marital discord, I debated whether to invite him to visit me in Paris when I went up for my birthday weekend this last May. But I did, and he did, and now things are both more clear and more conflicted. Thank god my French had improved, because other than not understanding the word cadenas ("padlock" - we were walking over the Pont des Arts whose railing collapsed not long afterwards) we had no trouble communicating. We walked around trying to find a place to eat ("no tourists!" I said; "no accordions!" he said) and ended up at the courtyard restaurant where Jean and I ate when she visited back in 2012. I had the salade contre-coeur that combined smoked salmon, bananas, and fennel seeds (I had them leave off the goat cheese, but that would have been good). The phrase "à contrecoeur" means "unwillingly" - literally "against [one's] heart." I ordered the salad because of the odd combination of ingredients, but also because that's how I was feeling. I didn't like the fact that I immediately felt that electric connection strengthen as we hugged and kissed hello. And yet I did like it, a lot.

I have changed, and he has, too. His spirit is not so grey and shadowed these days, and he seems happy, or at least happier than before. The conversation flowed fairly easily, although at points I was talking a bit too much, so that I didn't have to listen to the silence that was full of the things we were not saying. I am not comfortable with that silence, when he looks at me in a way that seems to combine "hello, again" and "goodbye forever." Maybe I'd be more comfortable if I knew which it was. I don't think he does.

In one of the classes that I took last year - the tourism one, I think, because we were talking about rules and regulations - the teacher said in answer to a question about those rules, "Tout ce qui n'est pas interdit est autorisé." I don't know what's forbidden any more.

What I do know is that I am still not ready to settle down, and that the future holds an infinite series of choices and future paths. He has settled down, and believes that the choices he made in the past have set his feet on one unchanging path. At least that's the impression I get; since I'm still not entirely fluent, there are times when I miss nuances of words, or don't understand the way they're used - and then of course there's the whole American-vs.-French outlook issue. I grew up in a society that encouraged flexibility and career options, although today that's more of a "be flexible because you can't depend on keeping your job, so you may have to start over" reality as well as one that allows (forces?) middle-aged people to quit jobs as electricians to become chefs or teachers, or the other way around. He grew up in a time when the profession you chose at age 15 or so is the one you could expect to retire from forty years later, no matter that the economic situation has changed and there's no guarantee there either any more, just as in the United States.

And finally there's the fact that I don't have a family and children, and people depending on me. I can, and do, change my mind at a moment's notice, without worrying about anything other than how to get to the next place and whether I can shove everything back into the suitcases again. But I can see a time coming when I'll be ready to settle down, finally, and part of my heart wants it to be with him.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Regent's Park

When I arrived in London last month, I had a few days before starting my housesitting gig, and I took advantage of those days to wander around and play tourist. I was staying at a hostel in Camden Town, so it was a fairly short walk to get over to Regents Park, something I ended up doing every morning once I realized that the only coffee at the free breakfast buffet at the hostel was (shudder) instant, and after I found the Cow and Coffee Bean Café at the beginning of the Broad Walk, the long straight paved path that leads from the Avenue Gardens, full of benches and flowers and topiary, to the London Zoo. Unpaved paths curve away across the fields on either side, and the morning coffee drinkers and newspaper readers give way to afternoon frisbee-players and picnickers - if the weather's good. The second morning I sat on a bench underneath the trees, just out of reach of the misty drizzle, sipping my soy latté and watching damp joggers huff past.

Sunny mornings brought out the herds of little yappy dogs, Yorkshire terriers and chihuahuas and papillons, running around the ankles of their well-dressed chatting owners or darting into the walkway, causing bicyclists to swerve abruptly. Older men with older dogs watched silently from the benches, then ambled off under the trees. The park grounds were once owned by Barking Abbey, but when Henry VIII decided that he was going to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England, that abbey was shut down in 1539 and all of its lands taken over as Crown property, which they remain today. The Crown does a very nice job of keeping the park toilet facilities clean, by the way.

The park was designed by John Nash at the beginning of the 19th century; he also designed the Regency-era "terraces" around the edges of the park, the long curves of pillar-fronted joined row houses where the well-dressed dog owners live. Apparently there was supposed to be a summer house for the royal family built inside the park, but the project ran out of money before it could be started. The zoo was built at about the same time, though at first it was only open to scientists. The $40 entry fee to the zoo was a bit steep for me, even though I could have gone to visit Harry Potter's snaky friends (apparently that enclosure houses a black mamba, not a Burmese python, so future glass-dissolving spells should be avoided).

In the Middle Ages, all of this area was part of the Forest of Middlesex, and Henry VIII hunted the boar and deer found there. However, after the English Civil Wars - which I was going to try to summarize but sheesh, the Wikipedia entries go on forever, much like the wars themselves, so you'll have to read it for yourself if you're not already up to date on the events of 1642-1651 - the woodlands were parceled out and sold for timber, and only a few small forested areas are left in North London now. While the forest was cut into pieces, the end of the Civil War also created the Commonwealth uniting England and Scotland; in two days we'll find out if the people of Scotland have decided that it's time to cut the ties again. Hadrian's Wall might once again mark the border between Caledonia and Britannia.

Remnants of a later Empire dot the park, including the Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Fountain (no longer with running water) that was built by a man whose family became wealthy under British occupation; he helped establish the opium trade in China and got the nickname "Readymoney" which became even more appropriate when he was put in charge of the Empire's income tax department in Bombay. On the plus side, he did spend a lot of his own money on charitable works, including this fountain, which was used both as a drinking fountain and a watering trough for cattle being led to the slaughterhouses, and horses that pulled the carts and trams which formed London's main public transit system up until the first World War.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was in charge of this and other public fountains between 1859 and the 1930s, more or less. Though they're no longer building livestock troughs, you can still see them everywhere in London, now generally planted with flowers. The Association also focused on clean drinking water and worked with temperance organizations to build fountains to give people an alternative to drinking beer, which was generally safer than the water normally available. The early fountains weren't quite as hygienic as the Benson Bubblers, but the association later abandoned the tin-cup-on-a-chain format for the more sanitary jet fountain.

Although it's only a replica, the floating restaurant Feng Shang Princess is a popular place for Chinese food that recalls the Hong Kong harbor. If you pretend that the algae-covered pond of the Cumberland Basin is a wide stretch of salt water, that is. Theoretically this restaurant could float all the way back down Regent's Canal to the Thames, if the waterway below Camden Locks were opened up again. For now, only the ducks can paddle down that way, but as in Paris the canal paths are popular for walking and cycling. When I go back to London in December, I'll be on the south side of the Thames, and I plan to walk along the river when the weather's good. And I'll be near Kyd Brook, the upper (or lower, depending on how you look at it) section of what becomes the River Quaggy, which flows into the River Ravensbourne, which flows into Deptford Creek, which flows into the Thames. As you can see by the fact that the penultimate destination is called a "creek," the word "river" is used rather loosely. I would have to cross several major roads or scuttle through culverts to follow the route exactly, but in theory I could float from Sutcliffe Park to the Isle of Dogs, barking all the way.

I would be barking, to try such a thing, but it's fun to think about.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Leap Of Faith

I am fortunate indeed to have spent the last two years in France. An amazing two years that was also sometimes rather boring, occasionally very difficult, often astonishingly easy, and full of moments when I would just stop whatever it was I was doing and look around and think, "I am living IN FRANCE!" and each moment was always as full of wonder as the last. I barely scraped by, financially, but I did have a lot of fun, and the more I let myself relax into the present, the more the future started opening up. As it continues to do, again to my good fortune.

The week before I left, I needed some fresh bread for the new guests who would be checking in to the gîtes. I didn't feel like going all the way to Mirambeau and the Super U there, so I drove to the nearby town of Saint-Fort-sur-Gironde, where there is a small superette and, as I found out, a very large church. Shopping was put on hold until after I went across the street and took a look around.

The massive church was built in the 12th century, or at least that's when it was first built; repairs and reconstruction and additions continued into the 16th century, with some final adjustment of interior decoration in the mid-19th century. In general, though, it has loomed over the countryside like this for five hundred years.

Église Saint-Fortunat, Saint-Fort-sur-Gironde, France

The stained glass windows are from the 18th century, I believe, including the depiction of Sainte Clotilde. Clotilde was the wife of Clovis I, who was considered the first real king of France - or rather the King of the Franks - controlling about 80% of what is now modern France and a few bits to the north and east as well. He united and ruled over the formerly independent chieftains who had spent the last few centuries pushing the Romans back out of Gaul, and eventually married Clotilde, who convinced him to convert to Catholicism. Clovis was the first king to be confirmed at Reims, though he was only was baptized there, not crowned, as Charles VII was nearly a thousand years later when Joan of Arc defeated armies to lead him there in triumph. The economics professor last year made a long rambling speech tying Clovis to the current global price for wheat. Mom and John and I visited Reims and the cathedral where kings were crowned over the centuries, and later Rouen where Joan was left to fall by the king she helped raise up. After Clovis' death, Clotilde went to Tours, to the Abbey of St. Martin, which is now the Basilica of St. Martin, the older building having been demolished in the Revolution. I don't think I ever went in to the Basilica in all my wanderings around the old section of Tours that year. I'll have to go back and continue tying together all of the threads that connect me to the web of history that is France, and Europe.

The French Revolution led to the destruction of many churches and abbeys; later wars caused problems for churches in England, and London in particular. All Souls Church (above, below left) was finished in 1823, so it's a fairly modern building anyway, but it's even more modern now after reconstruction following a landmine explosion during World War II. It's a weird little building tucked away at an angle and surrounded by tall glass buildings in the center of London. The BBC headquarters are curved around the back of the church courtyard. I listened to the BBC World Service radio hour late at night in Portland, volume set just low enough that I could hear it but so that I could fall asleep lulled by the sound of mellifluous posh accents describing the day's disasters.

The area of London called Somers Town was being built up just before the French Revolution, and one of the Roman Catholic priests who refused to swear allegiance to the post-Revolution government, Abbé Guy-Toussaint-Julien Carron, built a chapel there after he fled France. The Roman Catholic Church of St Aloysius is on that site now, built in the 1960s, from whose blocky brick walls Jesus blesses the people in the beer garden outside the Prince Arthur, another a blocky brick-walled building.

St. Mary's (above, right) is another church in Somers Town, and I wish my photo had come out more clearly to show the four seagulls that were perched on the four spires of the bell tower when I walked by. St. Mary's was completed in 1852, one year after Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - who was born just around the corner - died. Mary (née Godwin) used to meet the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley over the grave of her mother, in the churchyard at St. Pancras Old Church (left), from which they later eloped. Apparently Mary's dying wish was to be buried in Bournemouth with her parents, although they weren't there at the time; Percy the Younger had them dug up later to join their daughter Mary's grave. He's buried there too, along with his father's heart, which was removed from the funeral pyre by a friend after the poet died in Italy, and shipped to his widow in England.

Several churches lay claim to being "the oldest site of Christian worship" in London, including St. Pancras Old Church, which is in fact a brand-new building, as these things go, having been almost entirely rebuilt in the mid-19th century. There was an old church on this site back in the 15th century, but the Church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate has a better case for its antiquity, both in the documentation of Roman-era Christian worship and in the fact that the foundation of the current church dates back to the beginning of the 13th century and an even older Saxon chapel. Although St. Botolph's made it through the fire of 1666 it had to be demolished and was rebuilt in 1729, which still makes it older than St. Pancras, no matter what the literature at the entrance to that church says. "Sancti Botolfi Extra Bishopesgate" stood outside one of the seven entrances through the old Roman wall surrounding London (Londinium): withūtan is the Old English/Saxon word meaning "outside of" that we no longer use the word "without" for any more, which is too bad. At one point people on this site were out of their minds - the parish buildings nearby housed the Bethlehem Hospital for Lunatics, also known as Bedlam, for over four hundred years.

Things are just as crazy these days in the area, which has become the focus of the financial district. The London offices of UBS, Deutsche Bank, the Japanese Norinchukin Bank, Israel's Mizrahi Tefahot Bank, Australian Westpac Banking Corporation, and the Bank of Ceylon form a circle around the church. The Royal Bank of Scotland is just down the road, and I wouldn't have known about this church otherwise, because I happened to walk by it while going in the wrong direction after coming out of the Liverpool Street station (why do they always print maps upside down?) on my way to meet a potential housesit client who works at RBS.

The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.
- Proverbs 22:7

For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
- 1 Timothy 6:7-10

A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.
- Ecclesiastes 10:19

We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us. Our necks are under persecution: we labour, and have no rest.
- Lamentations 5:2-5

The Parish and Ward Church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3TL

Fortune smiled upon me again that day: because Lynne was able to meet me half an hour early for lunch; because she bought lunch and I had a really nice bowl of vegan butternut squash soup with sage at a nearby branch of Pret A Manger, the accentless nonFrench chain; because she decided after our lunch and chat that I was the one to housesit for her in December, instead of the Australian couple she was also interviewing (long distance - it's an advantage to be on site and prêt à parler); and because we started early we also finished early, leaving me time to walk quickly back to St. Botolph's for the 1:10pm Choral Eucharist "upon the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord." I'd caught the announcement in front of the church doors out of the corner of my eye as I walked past earlier, saw the names Tallis and Lassus, and immediately sent a text to Lynne asking if we could please meet right away, so that I could get me to the church on time. There were only five singers, but they did a good job performing the Lassus (Orlando di Lasso) "Missa Qual Donna" in bits during the service, and the Tallis "O Nata Lux" during communion was very lovely, with a soaring soprano who controlled her vibrato nicely, and a countertenor who blended well with the mezzo.

I meant to visit Westminster Cathedral last month, but the first time I ended up walking right by it and going to Westminster Abbey instead, where I had to immediately turn around and head back towards Victoria Station to meet my friend Pascoe for lunch, so I didn't see either of those places. A few days earlier I had gone to Victoria Station to find out where Victoria Coach Station is, which is neither where the underground station nor the train station of the same name are, though they're all in the same general area. I looked on the map and saw that I wasn't far from Westminster Cathedral, but didn't realize I was on the wrong side (damn those upside-down maps) and so headed in a long loop that I finally figured out was taking me even farther from my goal, though I did find out where to go if I want to become one of the Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus or visit the ambassador from the Republic of Albania. So when I saw a lovely little church shaded by trees, I decided to go in there instead.

St. Gabriel's Pimlico (above), off Warwick Square, is an Anglican church built in the Victorian era that is apparently famous for its bell-ringing society, but since I was there between services I didn't hear any of the carillons. The church was empty and I wandered around for a few minutes, thinking that I was alone. A woman came out of a side room after a few minutes, and walked back to the main doors I'd come through, and locked them up. I wanted to find out more about the church, as I'd not found any little leaflets at the entrance, and gave a cheery "hello, there!" which startled her a bit, since she hadn't heard me come in. She didn't give me any information, though, other than the fact that she was locking up, and could I please follow her out this side entrance? I suppose if I'd been locked inside the church for six hours until the next service I might have found out more myself, but I had to get back to walk the dog anyway. I'd like to hear what that organ sounds like, one day.

St. Mary Abbots (below) is another church shaded by trees that I just happened on one day, as I was walking from Shepherd's Bush towards Hyde Park through Kensington, where I saw a sign for "Kensington Church Walk."

The walk goes through the gardens in front of the church, where students at the associated primary school might play during the year, but which during the August holiday was filled with well-dressed employees from the dozens of clothing stores on Kensington High Street sitting on benches and eating their sandwiches from Whole Foods Market, or noodles from Wagamama, or soup from Pret A Manger. There was a noon service going on, so I couldn't clomp around taking pictures inside the church, but now that I'm looking up more information on it I would like to see more of the interior, and find out about the history of the church, which is another one that can trace its history back to the Saxons and the 12th and 13th century.

Plus they have Friday lunchtime concerts, as I have just discovered! I will have to go to Wagamama and get something vaguely Japanese to eat myself in December ... let's check the menu: onigiri, nope, they deep-fry them in panko for some reason; edamame with chilli and garlic salt - that would make me popular with the people in the pew next to me, I'll bet; rice noodles and prawns with vegetables in a green coconut and lemongrass soup sounds wonderful but I would have to time my slurps to the music. Maybe a sandwich from Whole Foods would be a better choice.

And now I'm poking around churches in Salisbury as I come across them. I went to the famous cathedral the day after I arrived, but my camera ran out of batteries before I got inside. I'll have to go back and see it next week, fresh batteries at hand. They do a Choral Evensong every weeknight at 5:30pm, which would give me enough daylight to take pictures and enough evening light lingering so I don't have to take the bus back home in the dark. After spending all day sitting in front of the computer I really should take the opportunity to get out in the afternoon and evening, instead of sitting down in front of the television watching Food Network and the BBC news broadcasts. Though I am actually quite fascinated by the debate going on for (and against) Scottish independence. I hope the referendum passes, so that I can go back to the US and dig out the documents showing proof of Papa's Buckie birth, and then come back here to apply for citizenship. I'm sure that they'll need cheesemakers and writers to keep the economy strong - or I could always try to get a job on one of the oil platforms providing the inrush of wealth that has, in part, spurred this current breakaway movement. I could join the people going back to the highlands to reclaim the small farms that were emptied and razed to make room for herds of sheep owned by wealthy lowland (or worse, English) landlords back in the 18th century. I've been collecting names of goat-cheese makers, like Jumping Goats Dairy (way, way north near Thurso), though as yet I haven't written to any of them to propose my services as cheesemaker or on-site worker or general all-around helper. I will, some day.

Not far from Salisbury Cathedral is the fortress-like Church of St. Thomas à Becket, which has some really nice wall paintings from the 15th century. The ones in the Lady Chapel show paintings related to The Lady, naturally; above is a sort-of-closeup of the panel showing Mary visiting Elizabeth for a bit of mutual congratulation over their blessed baby bumps. Over the chancel arch (left) is the famous "Doom Painting" depicting the Last Judgment. At Christ's left hand (how sinister!) a red fanged dragon opens his scaled mouth to form a portal to the flames of Hell below. "Nulla est Redemptio" reads the scroll amid the tongues of fire below: there is no escape for the wicked.

I have leapt across the Channel to England, and I have escaped the routines of school, but I'm still trying to build a new support system with my freelancing and housesitting. So far, it has worked out, though I've had some worrying moments trying to piece together the housesits as closely as possible to minimize money I have to spend on hostels and B&Bs and trains and bus trips. Almost everyone so far has been very helpful, though, offering to let me arrive early and/or stay late, at least for a day or two. Things are going well.

Haec fortuna duraret in posterum.

Monday, September 8, 2014


The house I was taking care of in France in July is out in the middle of a very lovely nowhere, but the owner kindly left me a car to get around in. I appreciated it very much, though I didn't take the opportunity to do as much exploring as I could. It was a right-hand drive UK model, which when combined with the right-hand drive French roads meant that I couldn't see around the cars in front of me, and so I never passed anyone. Once I got stuck behind a tractor hauling a load of hay, and puttered along slowly behind him for several kilometers, watching the line of honking cars and RVs behind me first pile up and then zoom past, their drivers making rude gestures and comments that I'm glad I couldn't hear clearly. When possible I stuck to the smaller roads where there was almost no traffic, so when I went to the town of Talmont-sur-Gironde I chose the D145 running through the marshy fields along the banks of the estuary at the mouth of the Gironde.

Two thousand years ago, there wouldn't have been a road, or if there had been it would have been washed by the tides that once came up to the low cliffs along the edge of the land; they're called falaises mortes now, dead cliffs no longer in contact with the living sea. The monks who lived here once are long dead as well, their third-century bones now indistinguishable from the white chalk they're buried in. The seaside caves were, according to legend, discovered by Saint Martial, who founded a hermitage there (possibly before going 120 miles to the east, where he was the first bishop of Limoges). Sailors sought shelter there once, anchoring their boats to the rocks at the water's edge.

As the waves receded, pilgrims arrived on foot instead, making their way south to Compostela, and the monks ferried them across the Gironde to the Médoc side of the river and the northern edge of the long sandy beach that runs south to Bayonne and the Spanish border. Today the river runs a mile west of the rocky cells, but if you climb the steps carved into the cliff up to the tower, you can see the river and the sea beyond. The hermitage was closed that morning, so I couldn't see the sea for myself, and had to keep driving north.

Two thousand years ago, the waves filling what is now a tidal estuary brought ships carrying tin from Ictis Insula to the city-port of Novioregum, or possibly Tamnum; archaeologists are still trying to decide which ancient Roman city was uncovered and rediscovered in the 18th century. The buildings are long gone, most of them; after the port finally silted in and the Romans left, the locals saw no reason not to take the well-shaped blocks of stone and use them in their own homes and granges and churches over the years. The archaeological site and museum called Le Fâ, between Barzan and Talmont-sur-Gironde, is open to visitors, but I didn't go in. I wish I'd had time later that afternoon to stop by, though, because I got a free entry ticket when I paid for my parking spot at Talmont-sur-Gironde, but I had to get the car back so Nikki could return her rental, the family van having died on their way back home. There are Roman ruins here in Salisbury, of course, and possibly even ones that can be linked to the French coastline to the south of me. I can imagine tools and mosaic tiles being shipped back and forth, soldiers and sailors playing dice on the decks during the week-long journeys, passing around pewter goblets from Londinium filled with wine from Burdigala.

A thousand years later, the ships were sailing between London and Bordeaux, connecting the two halves of the Plantagenet realm that had been cemented by the marriage of Henri I (or Henry II if you're following the English line) and Aliénor d'Aquitaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1152. Their great-grandson Edward I fortified the area around the 6th-century chapel turned 12th-century church, the Église Sainte-Radegonde, built by monks from the nearby abbey of Saint-Jean-d'Angély. The English king added ramparts and the town grew up around the church and behind the walls; the walls are still being built and rebuilt to keep this little rocky peninsula from sliding down into the sands around it.

The church is a mixture of Gothic and Roman styles, with a newer round tower said to have been built to recall the Tower of London, when the Angevin ramparts were built around the Aquitaine church. High tides send spray over the walls to wear away the carvings on the north and west faces, and the sheltered eastern side protects the old gravestones in the small churchyard. Some of the graves date back to the 18th century. Sometimes there's only a cenotaph, marking the place waiting for a sailor lost at sea. Inside the church a ship is raised to heaven, a prayer for safe travels and abundant catches, from the boats headed offshore or the small huts bordering the tidal flats, waiting for the water to bring in the sole and the sturgeon and the flounder, and the eel caught twice a year, once when they migrate landward in squirming swarms from their deep-sea nurseries in late fall to early spring, and then again as they travel back to salt water in the summer, a dozen years later. The civelle, or baby eel, is called pibale in Aquitaine; to cook baby eels, soak them in water with vinegar for ten minutes, blanch them in simmering water for a minute, and then quickly sauté them with garlic and parsley.

No one was serving or eating baby eels when I was wandering around Talmont-sur-Gironde, but a lot of the children running around had ice cream or gaufres from the stands at the edge of town, near the carousel. Talmont-sur-Gironde is one of "les plus beaux villages de France" and gets many, many visitors throughout the year. There's a huge parking area outside town, just off the road in. You can't drive in to the town, partly because there's no room, and partly because the streets are so narrow. People do live there, but I saw many signs for holiday rooms for rent, and most if not all of the shops are geared towards the tourist trade. I arrived fairly early in the morning, before it got too crowded; by the time I left mid-afternoon, the parking lot had filled up, and the streets were packed. The town is famous for its houses with their white walls and blue shutters, and for the roses trémières, the hollyhocks, that grow everywhere. There's a night market on Tuesdays in the summer, when the shops stay open and the streets are lit with candles, that I didn't make it to while I was there, partly due to the bad weather every Tuesday, and partly because I didn't trust that I could find my way back home in the dark to the house in the middle of the vineyards.

On either side of the marshy inlet, a line of carrelets stand empty until the tide comes in. There used to be an entire row of them curving around the base of the ramparts, a fringe of wood under the stony walls, but all of those traditional fishing huts were destroyed in a huge storm that devastated the area in December 1999. The newly-rebuilt huts are back, but fewer in number. Since the tide was well out when I arrived, I didn't see anyone actually fishing from them.

I walked into town and went to the church and the cemetery, got lost briefly in the narrow winding streets (believe me, I can get lost in any French town, no matter the size), admired the hollyhocks, peeked into gardens where people were chatting over glasses of wine or cups of coffee, bought a few postcards in one of the dozen or so souvenir shops, walked along the ramparts, and then realized that there wasn't anything else to see or do in town. It's a very small town, but quite charming. More and more people had arrived, with their dogs and children, so I went back out of town and across to the other side of the marshy inlet, and up onto the top of the low cliffs there.

There are vineyards at the top of that cliff, where Les Hauts de Talmont was started in 2001. There's a walking path along the cliff as well, and there were couples and families out jogging or strolling along, or getting ready for a picnic lunch at the grassy area that looks out over the inlet to the walled town on the other side. I walked by an abandoned building that used to be an auberge that might once have rented rooms to pilgrims heading to Spain, or English tourists, or weekend trippers from Paris. Perhaps the owners had a fishing hut set up below, and would walk down steep wooden stairs from the edge of the lawn to the hut to catch fish and eels to feed the hungry travelers. I wondered if someone would buy the place and open up a business again - it seemed there were plenty of people coming to the area to provide the clientele - and toyed briefly with the idea, as I always do when I find yet another neat place to live, of winning the lottery and settling down to be a chef and aubergiste. But I had a reservation at a hotel and restaurant that is still in business, the Hôtel-Restaurant L'Estuaire, located along the flat eastern edge of the marshy inlet between the two cliff edges.

I'd made a reservation for 12:30pm but arrived at noon, and the owner let me spend a half an hour seated at my windowside table with a borrowed pen, as I sipped an apéritif of chilled Pineau des Charentes rosé and gazed out the window towards (more or less) the country I was headed for two days later. As I finished my postcards and wine, other guests started arriving, and I picked up the menu to choose my meal, though I'd already decided that it was going to be seafood and nothing but. I ended up choosing sea snails and also land snails, instead of the eel dish I was also considering, since it wasn't really eel season and their recipe included lots of butter. I hesitated between the regular seafood platter and the "oyster-seller's" seafood platter, remembering the last time I'd had raw oysters before starting on a day-long international journey.

I decided to be brave, especially since I had the next day to recover if necessary before getting on a train. The oysters didn't twitch when I dripped lemon juice on them, but they were fresh-tasting and briny. The mussels in vinaigrette were amazing and I could have eaten those alone for lunch, and I thought of Mom as I pried the sea snails out of their shells and bit off the tough foot plates before dipping them in mayonnaise. The land snails, cooked with ground veal and bacon and tomatoes, were a dark meaty contrast to the sweet saltiness of the sea snails.

I had a glass of wine from the vineyard at the top of the cliffs, and savored the final drops just as the sun got low enough to shine into my eyes. It was time to go back inland and return the car, and finish packing for the train trip to England. I'm so grateful to Nikki for letting me use the car so I could see more of the region, and I hope to go back to do all of the things I didn't get around to doing this time: seeing the snail farmers in action (very very slow action), visiting Domaine Elisabeth (of course!) to taste the cognac, and exploring the town of Cognac itself, and the other medieval towns of Pons and Saintes and Angoulême.

There are so many reasons why two years was not enough time to live in France. I'll go back, one day.