Sunday, August 28, 2011

Post Heatwave Miettes

Been meaning to phone home a little sooner than this, but the past week has been pretty awful. Again, apologies to my friends in Texas, since nobody should have to endure what they've endured this year, with a heatwave which has seen daily temperatures hovering around 110°F (that's 43.3° C, folks) for weeks on end. Still, around here motionless air around 90°F  (32.2° C) with high humidity hasn't exactly inspired me to go out and snoop for stuff for the blog. It's the weather pattern here, and I'm quite sure there's a French word for it: either the winds are off the Mediterranean coming from Morocco or whatever bit of Africa is down there, and, thus, hot and damp, or they're coming from the Cévennes Mountains, and are cool and dry. The turnaround tends to involve violent winds, and when it goes from hot to cool, it's a welcome phenomenon indeed.

Still, one must go out from time to time, and hot muggy weather is prime observation time for Stupid T-Shirts. I don't carry a notebook for this, and there were days when I saw so many I forgot them all. Just enough of them stuck in my feeble brain to report a few classics back here.

Naturally, summer brings thoughts of water and the beach and all, so there are a lot of fake souvenir shirts for California beach towns made by the big designers. Someone has also come up with one that reads


In case any of you are thinking of taking this advice, may I add that most of the time surfing on the waves is far preferable. I guess shooting the curl is surfing in the wave, but that's not the usual way you do it, and is recommended for advanced practitioners. Maybe Mike will correct me on this.

Unsurprisingly, men wear the vast majority of stupid t-shirts. Some of this is because women's ts tend toward simple messages (I LOVE BOYS) or graphics with one word (FASHION or CHIC) -- or with no words at all. Men have to let it all hang out. One exception I saw recently was a teenage Japanese tourist girl whose shirt had the message


My immediate reaction was to get offended, but on solemn reflection, without having seen hers, I'm afraid I had to agree. I'm not sure how to make this blog more fashionable, but will entertain suggestions.

Men's ts also tend to have more aggressive messages on them, or, rather, teenage boys' do. One I saw had a picture of a black guy's hand with a huge ring on it grasping a sheaf of $100 bills and the message


I think it's a shame to live in a society where power and respect and taurn are all equated with money. Especially taurn. Whatever that is.

But the hip-hop ethos really does drive young French men, especially the white ones, and especially the white ones who don't seem to understand English very well. That's what I had to conclude when I saw


I dunno, dude. Sounds kinda gay to me. It's the Ghetto Absolutely Fabulous Mob you want to watch out for, though.

And finally, the other day, a wonderful summing up of the whole teenage male ethos, a picture of someone breakdancing (still huge here) with the words


Um, okay.

* * *

Montpellier is currently in the midst of a serious crisis, one which involves me as much as anyone. The huge French supermarket chain Monoprix has, apparently, discontinued its free pink bags for groceries. You can still buy sturdy reusable plastic bags for €.15, but they're not the same. The old ones were flimsy, but actually stronger than they looked. I kept a steady supply of them for use as garbage bags in the kitchen, and I wasn't the only one by far, to go by the bins where the neighborhood chucked its garbage. Sure, the 9% beer crowd tossed theirs on the ground, and so did others, but I'd still say a large percentage of my neighbors reused them for various purposes.

Which is what recycling's about, right? And when I went grocery shopping, nine times out of ten I'd take a cotton bag of my own (thanks, SXSW) to use, because I hate waste as much as the next guy. But now they're gone and they've been gone for a couple of weeks. I'm on my last garbage bag (looks to be something I brought back from Staples in New York), and I'm not sure what I'll do when that gets full and has to be tossed. Monoprix is a perennial candidate in various European green prize initiatives, and they've done many wonderful things in terms of making organic food available at sane prices (and packaging it so it looks different so you know it's organic) and trying to source locally (although what's with the Mexican garlic and Tasmanian onions?), but they seem to have forgotten the other end of the chain.

UPDATE: Aug. 30. Yesterday, pink bags were everywhere at Monoprix. They're back. Just in time for my next bunch of garbage, too! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, again we see The Power of the Blog In Action! (Well, if such a thing were true, they'd have taken down that fake Brassaï by now).

* * *

Another crisis seems to be the Estivales this year. This has always been fun: a bunch of local winemakers, many of whom are pretty obscure, set up on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, and you buy a tasting glass and three tasting tickets for €4. The pours are generous, there are loads of stands set up selling "tapas," ie, charcuterie and mussels and fake Indian and Japanese food and who knows what all, and the city sets up long tables and everyone hangs out, enjoying the nice summer evening.

Or at least that's how it's been. My first Estivale this summer involved my meeting a friend at 10pm, and it was the first time I noticed any tension: some guy was haranguing a server in one of the wine tents and things looked like they were getting a bit out of hand. I noticed a lot of rather, um, overserved people wandering around that evening. My second one was perfectly civilized, but started earlier. Then, two weeks ago, I met Kirsty and a friend of hers from the States for a tasting and, along with our glasses, we were handed a little flyer from the city suggesting the use of public transportation. Unnamed "incidents" were mentioned, and I remembered hearing about something in the local press through the grapevine. What was really telling was that, by the time of our last glass, workers were dumping piles of cellophane-wrapped thingamajigs with the city logo and instructions on how to use "Le Ballon." I should have grabbed one, just to see how a do-it-yourself breathalyzer works, but I didn't. There were also cops everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.

It's weird, but it's something I've noticed: in comparison to America, where alcohol consumption is considered something apart from daily life, as close to a civic sin as seems possible, in Europe I've always been gratified by the way it's integrated into the fabric of society, from my first visits to England when I saw people bring their kids to the village pub, to Germany, where the hotel vending machine had beer in it (and so did McDonald's), to France, where wine is almost a sacrament. The American attitude leads to binge-drinking: the drunkest people I've ever seen in public were in the parking lot of a "bottle club" in Tyler, Texas, a "dry" city with circuitious ways around the law. American students on year-abroad programs come here and slam down the cocktails, and apparently that ethos has crossed over to their French peers: around the corner from me is a "shooter" bar, serving nothing but flavored rum shots to college students.

I have no idea if there's a sea-change underway, and, to tell the truth, I kind of doubt it. Adults seem pretty balanced on this sort of thing, and it may even out. It's just that I suspect it wasn't always like this, and I'm surprised by the aggression and stupidity involved. On the other hand, apparently there are those people who, when they die, want it to look like they were doing something cool.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Salades Composées #2: Tortellini Salad

It's too hot around here at the moment, and the humidity is way up there, too. I beg the indulgence of my friends in Texas, though: this is nothing like what they've been suffering this year. That's just off the charts.

But it doesn't mean that 90° temperatures in the kitchen are any easier to bear, given how temperate and nice it's been here, or that the lack of breeze doesn't make the air any lighter. So it's time for another salad. This one's an oldie-but-goodie, one I've been making for ages, and one of my favorites. The recipe is simple: the Italian flag.

Green, white, red.

Easy enough. So the first thing you do is make my all-purpose balsamic vinaigrette, which dresses something like 90% of the salads I make. I have this nice little bowl I make it in which I got at an "Asia" store. So first thing I do is crush a garlic clove and wipe it all around the bowl.

Then you add some cheap balsamic vinegar

And then the three essential herbs, right to left, thyme, basil, oregano, in 1-2-3 proportions, using a finger-pinch as measurement.

Then a bit of Dijon-style mustard...

Then you whisk in some olive oil til you've got about this much dressing. 

You can do this anytime. It just gets better as it sits there, trust me. After a week at room temperature it's really good. But this batch was doomed to be consumed the same day. 

You'll want good tortellini if you can get them. In a pinch, those dried ones out of a bag can work, but I find their fillings taste a bit like dust. They've improved over the years, but fresh ones are best, and good supermarket brands are next best. Save the dried ones for snacking right out of the bag. 

This guy kind of gives me the creeps, but he makes okay tortellini and ravioli and stuff. The cooking time is three minutes, and you should never cook them at a rolling boil or they'll disintegrate, so cook them at a moderate boil and -- the first secret of great tortelilni salad -- overcook them. I cooked these for five minutes. The rationale here is simple: as with any pasta salad, as the pasta cools off, it also loses water. 

Okay, red-white-green number one. We can't get regular old green onions here most of the year, so I used one of these "sweet onions." I also wanted a nice pepper salame, but couldn't get one -- limited funds -- so I got some plain old saucisson sec, which is a salame even if the French don't want to admit it. In Germany, I'd get inch-thick slabs of salame and dice it fine back home. Cut the saucisson and the onion white up into small bits and toss in a bowl, and when the tortellini are done, drain them thoroughly and while they're still hot, throw them into a bowl with half your salad dressing and toss like crazy. Another ingredient (white) I'd put in at this point if you an get it is a good sharp Provolone, cut into cubes, but France doesn't believe in Provolone. Or most other furrin' cheeses. Anyway, here's where we are now:

Off to the fridge, covered with plastic wrap, for at least three hours to cool this mess down. Some hours later, the rest of the flag gets set up. I'd really like an avocado here, because that's a great (green) addition. Some of you might like green bell pepper, but not me. I do have some roasted red peppers from Spain here, though. The greens from the onion, a tomato (cherry tomatoes are an even better idea, or grape tomatoes), parmesan, and, to take the place of the Provolone, some balls of crack that Boursin's been plugging of late, both tomato-basil and garlic flavor. Little flavor bombs.

Not as inspiring a line-up as it could be, but overall it turned out okay. Throw down some greens, scatter the crack bombs in them, and ring the tomato around...

and then dump the stuff from the fridge onto it, season with Parmesan, grab that baguette you brought home from the corner bakery, haul the bottle of rosé out of the fridge and... 

...notice half-way through the meal that Mr. Rani's tortellini are bigger than you thought. If I'd been thinking, I would only have used half and put the rest in the fridge for another one. I wasn't thinking, however, but I was still able to pack what remained away. Not as good as if I'd made another fresh, but there ya go. Plus, it was good to see it in the fridge after last Friday's Estivales. Which is another matter to be taken up by the next batch of miettes sometime later in the week, along with ridiculous T-shirts and more. 

Anyway, bon appetit, and stay cool. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dordogne Diary, The Return

After many, many horrifying experiences, including a trip across Germany in a super-fast ICE train with no air-conditioning in the middle of the summer standing up for five hours, I have a hard and fast rule about rail travel: never on weekends. So I felt all smug and happy making a reservation for Monday instead of Sunday. Well, of course, if I returned on a Sunday, the stores wouldn't be open, and I'd done a pretty good job of emptying the refrigerator before I left. But Monday! Nobody travels on Monday!

Except when it's the Feast of the Assumption. Which, I'd forgotten, is celebrated in France, but not in Germany. My radar's up for Pentecost now, a holiday I'd never even heard of before moving to Europe, but the one the Germans call Maria Himmelfahrt, that was a new one on me.

Brian called in a favor from a friend, a Dutch woman who looks after properties in the region when their owners aren't living there, and she came to pick me up. I bid Brian and the farmhouse good-bye and watched it disappear as we went up the driveway, through the farmer's yard, and on to the tiny road that led to the somewhat larger road that led to a real road that eventually dumped us off in Les Eyzies. And from there, the little tram-like train to Agen, and a long wait for the Marseille train, which would stop in Montpellier.

This time it wasn't the TGV, the fast train, but a regular train, packed to the gills, and with a guy sitting in the seat I'd reserved (I've found the little box that gets you "direction of travel" on the website!) who wouldn't make eye-contact and pretended not to understand me. The worse problem was that the air conditioning was broken, and it was well over 90° Fahrenheit in there, simply stifling. But things worked out: he got off at Carcassonne, and as I took my place, I noticed cold air coming up through the vents by the window. Before I knew it, I was seeing familiar landmarks.

It was a lot warmer than where I'd left. The crowds eating at the kebab joints along the rue de Verdun were larger than normal, so I knew a lot of restaurants were closed both for Monday and for Assumption. A quick check of the mailbox found a New Yorker and a form letter from the telephone company informing me I could use direct debit from my bank account instead of paying by cash at La Poste. That's it. For a whole week. The apartment was refreshingly cool for having been shut up for a week, but I opened all the windows anyway. The scents and sounds of the neighborhood came in. I was back.

And I was: I overslept on Tuesday, so that the market, when I got there, was almost stripped bare: no good tomatoes, no eggplant (!), no peaches. I was lucky to find a melon, and the guy was trying to close down so he gave me another. An e-mail from my agent told me eight publishers had passed on my book proposal, but there were still more he hadn't heard from, which could mean that they were trying to figure out an offer, but could also mean that the editor who'd turn it down was still on vacation. My apartment seemed tiny after the place I'd been staying for the past week -- and that was a converted pig barn.

It took me a couple of days, but I've readjusted. It's probably just that I haven't had a real vacation -- an escape -- in, well, I can't remember how long, especially one of this duration. There's a sense in which living in a place so unlike the one I grew up in is like being on vacation all the time -- just walking the narrow streets between the 16th century limestone buildings is still a wonderful experience, even when, as they are now, they're clogged with tourists. I wish I could do this more often, and who knows, maybe I'll be able to before too long.

But for now, it's back to the usual: trying to raise money to live, trying to find work, and maybe holding a little of the peace of the past week inside me as a reminder that things can be otherwise.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 6

And so it came to pass that a day came when nothing happened. Well, nothing much. A light rain settled on the countryside in the early morning hours, and was still misting down as I rose to walk to the bathroom attached to the main building. Good thing it's there and not in the pig sty: nobody could get me out after I'd barricaded myself in.

I still hadn't been to a market and now necessity was moving Brian to go to one. Rouffignac, he assured me, was low-key enough that it wasn't overrun by tourists looking for the charming and quaint. Which turned out to be the truth: it was utterly no-nonsense, and in some ways a mirror on the market I'll go to on Tuesday once I'm back home. There were people selling saucisson sec, the French version of salame (and a couple who also had some Spanish ones, which really looked good), there was the guy with commercial fruits and vegetables that were of a far higher level than the ones in the supermarket, but were, still, commercial. And there were the little farmers with whatever had come in this week, hanging out and chatting with their regular customers. There were a couple of non-familar stands, one manned by a guy in chef's whites, selling croissants and pie-like things stuffed with ground meat, ground chicken, or pâté.

What was unusual was that the stuff I take for granted at home wasn't as prevalent: only a few people had peaches, which are either over here or haven't started, there were far fewer people selling eggplants and tomatoes (although we stopped to buy a couple of melons from some people who had tomatoes I'd never seen: utterly white! Too bad Brian won't eat raw tomato, because they were huge). We also stood in line at the local bakery to get bread, and I noted gigantic 1.5 kilo rounds (€3) that made me want to throw a dinner party.

Back home, we heated up the chef's ground-meat-and-hard-boiled-egg pastry, which certainly was weighty (and at €5 each, should have been), and tossed a salad. The pastry turned out not to be all that interesting, but his croissants were made with salted butter, and I thought they were magnificent. No wonder they sell out early, as he told us.

The rest of the day was spent figuring out my departure. Brian's wife, Melinda, and Harry the Kid had decided to stay on another day in Paris, and Brian doesn't drive, so there went my ride to the station for Monday. I debated staying on another day,, I'd already imposed on these folks enough. You can always tell when it's time, and it was time. Also, if I didn't catch the Tuesday market, I'd be unhappy: being here has somehow given me another look at the French attitude, one I can't quite articulate at the moment, and I want to see how I can make it play out on familiar ground with ingredients I know, and without having to drive out of the deep countryside to make it happen.

Eventually, Brian reached a friend in Le Bugue, and she agreed to come by and get me. We then jumped in the car and headed off to Les Eyzies to pick up a ticket I thought I'd reserved on line. The agent couldn't find it (or understand my accent), but it all got settled in the end, so now I have a train at about 2:30 which'll get me to Agen, and from there to Montpellier, getting in at 9:01 at night. I'm going to have to find a restaurant open on Monday at that hour. I do love a challenge...

The rest of the day was spent catching up on the news, lazing around listening to these guys snore...

and eventually defrosting a large chunk of phenomenal lasagne Melinda had made last week and destroying it utterly.

So tomorrow I leave, to go back to Montpellier and a little bit of work, plus the tension -- which has never really left here -- of waiting to hear that my agent's gotten a bite on my book proposal. Life as usual, but, I think, changed a bit for the better by the window into some other people's lives here, and the possibility that perhaps I might be able to do something similar some day, once my financial state improves, and on the slim chance that there might be someone out there who wants to share the adventure. Stranger things have happened, but I bring myself down to earth by reminding myself that it's about putting one foot in front of the other, and the next step begins at Les Eyzies station tomorrow afternoon and ends at my familiar slum apartment at 9 in the evening.

It's been nice, though. No getting around that.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 5

Yesterday wore me out. That was too much solo travel. On the other hand, I was damned if I was going to let today slip by. Blogger, however, helped, by balking at photo uploads and stalling out from time to time. It took almost three hours to put up yesterday's post!

After that was finished, it was necessary to worship the French god Lunch, and sandwiches were prepared, some with an amazing pepper-coated salame from Rouffignac. But after that...ummm, what?

"St. Léon sur Vézère is a nice village," Brian offered, and I figured that, instead of madly rushing from pre-determined point to pre-determined point, I'd head off there, take a look, and then improvise from there on. So that's just what I did: I punched the village into Paddy, plugged him in, and blasted off. On the way there, there was a sign pointing to Le Côte de Something, and I decided to investigate. Over Paddy's stern cries of "Turn around as soon as possible!" I drove down a wooded road, and found a place to park in a gravel lay-by. I parked and walked over to what looked like a sign. There, ahead, was a vista all over the Vézère valley.




If you know what you're looking for, according to the key on the sign, you'll see some prehistoric caves, and a bunch of troglodyte dwellings. This was the second bunch of these I'd run into, so I was getting curious. Maybe there'd be an answer once I got to the village.

So I got back in, Paddy got happy and I went into the village. Which was en fête.

This seemed to be happening a lot this weekend. Monday is the Feast of the Assumption, which may have something to do with the fact that, as we saw, Belvès was getting all dressed up, as were a few of the other villages I passed through on Friday. But then, nothing was happening. Today, St. Léon was...bowling. Well, not bowling per se, but playing boules. This game, sometimes called petanque, is all over southern Europe. Italian immigrants brought it to New York as bocce, and I wouldn't be surprised to encounter it in Spain or Greece. A small white ball is placed on the green, and larger metal balls are thrown in its direction. The closer you come to it, the greater your chances of winning, unless one of the other players knocks your ball away. It's custom-made for the French: deceit, argument, very little exertion, and lots of time to sip something while the throwing, deceiving, and arguing is going on. I wanted to see the church, which was a stop on the route to Compostella, only to find the entire area around it being used as boules greens.

It's a lovely church outside, but after carefully moving around the perimeter of the games, there was not much to see inside, except, I now remembered, a black Madonna, which Brian had mentioned. This is a mystery to me, although there's one in Montpellier (right on St. Guilhelm, actually, which gets dipped in the Lez when there are droughts), and one in Prague, and others scattered all over Europe. I'm sure there's a scholarly literature out there somewhere.

There was a sign to the troglodites, so I got back in the car, noting that not everyone was en fete. This was good: in my part of France, "village en fête" is apt to mean a running of the bulls is in progress, which makes driving through town a bit more interesting than I like.

The troglodyte site turned out to be a burn: some farmer with some land on which he'd erected some plaster dinosaurs, a parkour course, and, oh, yeah, you could visit, or look at, the caves. There was enough information that I deduced that the people who'd lived there hid out from the wars which raged over the region in medieval times in these caves, waiting out the conflagration and returning to their homes when things cooled down. I didn't, however, spend €12.50 to see these things, even though the plaster dinos were part of the ticket. Sorry, Marie.

Back in the car, I wandered aimlessly north, when a sign for a Cro-Magnon site caught my eye. This turned out to be Le Thot, a site affiliated with Lascaux, the most famous cave-painting site in the world. It looked legit enough to pay for, so I went in and was handed a text explaining the place. It took a bit of work, but I finally figured it out: there is an actual Le Thot cave, but you can't see it. Instead, a museum with scrupulously accurate reproductions of some paintings from Lascaux that aren't on display at Lascaux 2, the reproduction site which has been the only way of seeing the paintings since the original cave was closed down due to fungus and damage from visitors' breath began to endanger the originals. Le Thot, though, is laid out in reverse order. Towards the end of the short visit are three videos projected on screens the shape of the cave wall on which the paintings in the video appear. A narrator guides you through speculation of how and a bit of why some of these paintings were made, which makes it much, much easier to look at them. The narration is also in French (hello, administration! It doesn't cost much more to add on other languages and give foreigners a little radio thingy to wear), and the one I sat through was so thorough that I had to go back and look at the piece again. Another shows a rare human figure, apparently screaming as he dies and is being taken to the sky. It would no doubt irritate the hordes of kids to have to sit through these films, but if you speak French and visit this place, I strongly recommend just striding through to the end and watching the films first. Le Thot costs €7, and a combo ticket with Lascaux 2 is all of €12.50. I should probably have sprung for it.

Le Thot also has a somewhat interesting addition in the form of a collection of animals depicted on the cave walls, although I should warn you that 4pm is feeding time. I especially wanted to get pix of the rare horse breeds for b, but all I saw was their hind ends as they chowed down. I had to do with a small herd of reconstructed aurochs, which, actually, was pretty cool, since they were reverse engineered after extinction (the last female was shot in the 1600s) by German scientists in the 1930s.

The baby, up front, is inexplicably named Ghengis.

From here on, the day wasn't quite so interesting. My idea was to head up to Montignac, where Lascaux 2 is, but not go to the cave. Instead, I wanted to drive through some of the north of the country I've been living in this past week, and there was, actually, a bunch of nice stuff, although I didn't stop and photograph it. There was a chateau not far from Le Thot with a fortified gateway, leading to a courtyard, with the actual house quite a ways in. There's probably a story there, although the French rarely put up roadside signs to tell you these stories. Later, as I pulled into Azerat, there was a place that was almost a copy of the White House, except that it was made out of grey stone and loomed off the side of a hill. A very curious building. By now, I woke up Paddy, and, like any good drunk who wakes up in a strange place, he knew the way home, and in far less time than I'd anticipated, I was rocketing down the driveway.

I was glad not to have gone too far afield. Brian was intending to barbeque some chipolata sausages we'd bought at the market in Rouffignac, and roast some potatoes in duck fat. Me, I was going to dive into that huge box of produce from the night before and make a ratatouille. The recipe I'd been using called for three separate frying pans for the onions and peppers, eggplant, and zucchini and tomatoes, but since Melinda is Australian, her household guru is a woman named Stephanie Alexander, whom I'd never heard of. Given that there were three skillets in the house, but none of them had covers, which is essential for the traditional making of rat, I was happy to discover a one-pot variety in The Cook's Companion: The Complete Book of Ingredients and Recipes for the Australian Kitchen, which was lying around. It was ready in about an hour, had the added oddity of some coriander seeds crushed and added to it, which really brightened up the taste unexpectedly, and I added a couple of twigs of thyme and a fresh bay leaf from the basket of goodies. With a nice rich Cahors, this was as close to a perfect meal as I'd had up here.

Sadly, tomorrow would be Sunday, and time to start thinking about leaving.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 4

I was beginning to get itchy. A whole new area of France, and yet I hadn't seen much of it! Rouffignac, Plazac (yeah, I found it on the map and it's not called Prozac after all, although, as I may have said the suffix -ac means "place of," so that Bergerac would be the place of shepherds), and the farming country around the house here were all very nice, but I had a car and I wanted to see where I was.

The idea yesterday was that Brian and I were going to go to Le Buisson to the market, but although we both got up in time, he was mooching around on the Internet and the appointed time came and went. I knew what was going on: with the distractions of the wife and kid out of the way, he had time to focus on stuff he wanted to do, and wanted to use that time. But eventually we set out for the market. As we left the property, we were surprised by two young men on dirt bikes who weren't from around here. It was probably okay, but Brian remembered that he'd left the house open and I realized that this computer, with most of my brain (and work) on it, was in the unlocked house. Somehow as we plunged along the rural roads, the worry evaporated, but it hung on nonetheless.

And so it was that, as we approached Le Bugue, a new plan formed: traffic in Le Bugue was insane, rush hour in rural France! "All these people are tourists going to Le Buisson," Brian said. On the one hand, I found that hard to believe. On the other, what were all these French peasant farmers doing driving right-hand-drive Vauxhalls? Le Buisson was jettisoned, and Lemeuil, down the river, was the new destination. It's a village on a hill situated where the Dordogne and Vézère rivers meet, and was an important trade town in medieval times. There have been settlements in the area since the Paleolithic.

It was easy enough to park, but not terribly easy to photograph, being both compact and sprawling over a steep hill.

There were the obligatory glass-blowers and potters, the obligatory red-faced Dutch families dragging their kids up the hill, and some not-so-picturesque old buildings. We may not have gone far enough into the town to see what the fuss was -- we passed several official signs on the way in declaring it "one of the most beautiful villages in France" -- but we descended, stopped by a sort of ratty organic vegetable stand where I bought some tomatoes, and drove out of town.

There was a reason for this, though: I'd spotted a late 12th Century church on the way in, and wanted to take a look.

The graveyard, as you can see, is still in full use, but the inside of the church doesn't seem to be. Which is fine: there are some nice frescoes in there that might've gotten painted over:

 The bikers were still on our minds, so after stopping at a world-class bakery in Le Bougue (if you're there, it's over the bridge and has a fake windmill attached to it) for bread and croissants for tomorrow, we headed back. A short stop at an archeological site we'd passed on the way in (where people were working and some tourists were standing around) revealed that it was closed for the daily worship of the French god Lunch -- and didn't seem all that interesting anyway. Naturally, all was as we'd left it back at the house. Sandwiches were had and I started to think of what to do with the rest of the afternoon.

The idea of bastides fascinated me: medieval fortified villages which dot the landcape south of Le Bougue, some of which were built by the English as a way of staking a claim to this part of the country during the disputes over just how much of modern-day France the English could lay claim to. (You'll have to hit the books on this one: it's complicated). The entryway to bastide country is Belvès, which I'd gone through on the train to Les Eyzies, so that was my first destination as I set out solo.

A lot of the drive looked on the map like it duplicated this morning's at first, but I had a new companion: Paddy. Paddy was the Irish voice programmed into the GPS by Melinda, and as the day developed he seemed intent on proving an ethnic stereotype. But he started me off okay, finding a way to Belvès that actually went around the larger towns. Suddenly, there I was. A railroad viaduct had been painted in bright colors: Saturday was the annual Medieval Festival! This is the sort of thing where both historians and people with insight into the kind of behavior alcohol provokes tend to leave town, while the town square fills up with credulous tourists. But I was at the perfect moment: the decorations were up, but the stupidity had yet to start.

There's obviously a large story to this town, and it involves the church (there's a large fortified cluster of church buildings down a fortified street just to the right of that tower there)

from which there's a nice view of the surrounding countryside, which was probably more strategic than charming once upon a time

and, despite the nice buildings which surround tiny squares

there's a whole complex of "troglodite" dwellings underneath the town.

This place clearly demands another visit, but I was anxious to get to a bastide, and so I asked Paddy to get me to Monpazier, and off we went. Looking now at the brochure I picked up at the tourist office, I see that Monpazier is called "La Belle Anglaise," making it one of the English towns, dating from the 13th Century sometime.

My photos don't really convey the way the blocks of buildings fit together around a couple of larger market squares, but the whole place gives a feeling of always being on the defensive. Which, given the circumstances in which it was put up, it is. All these towns seem to have a covered market building, which you can see here.

Belvès is fortified, but Monpazier is socked in. There's enough tourist-oriented businesses, though, that I didn't spend a lot of time there. Instead, I jumped back into the car and set Paddy for...errr...was it Monflaquin? It was a bit of a drive, anyway, especially since Paddy started going to sleep and, upon awakening, seemed to have switched over to believing I was looking for something entirely different than I actually was. At any rate, along the way we passed another impressive chateau which might or might not have been occupied...

It was about 5 by the time I arrived in Monflaquin, and I parked right in front of the tourist office in the market square which had the usual covered structure, this one with a raised bit with three pots with spigots on them, long since unusable. No idea what they were for. This was a French bastide, built in the 13th century by Alphonse de Poitiers, brother of St. Louis, who was the King of France, for what that was worth, and creator of the first Crusade. I suddenly realized that there was little if any variation in these villages, interesting and atmospheric as they were, and I was beginning to experience something I hadn't felt in a decade. Back then, it was Temple Burn in Kyoto, with too many temples in too short a time. Now I was feeling Bastide Burn.

Fortunately, this being a French bastide, it had to have a very impressive French church.

Unfortunately, maybe during the French Revolution, someone had decided to use Jesus for target practice.

There was nothing much inside the church except a couple of folks who were very happy to have survived the devastation, whatever it was.

I had in mind that Janet and Patrick, a couple of New York folkie/beatnik types who were friends of Brian and Melinda's, and who lived somewhere around here, were coming for dinner, and I hadn't put any minutes into my cell phone so I couldn't call and say I was on my way back. I programmed the farmhouse into Paddy, and set off. Now, if we're going to call up stereotypes, we would say that our virtual Irishman was drunken and lazy. There was, of course, no smell of alcohol in the car, and I don't know enough chemistry to speculate what would make a silicon and metal person drunk, but I would get to a crossroads and Paddy would be silent, or I'd be driving along, not sure I'd made the right choice, look at Paddy, and find him trying to find a police station in Basque country. I'd patiently reprogram him, and...that would be it. Still, by following signs to Paris (!), I eventually found myself coming into Le Bugue along a vaguely familiar road and soon saw the bakery from the morning come into view. From here I didn't need any help, but there was Paddy, guiding me along the way I'd have taken anyway.

Finally I roared into the driveway, and a few minutes later, Janet and Patrick showed up with the results of a little garden clearing:

A ratatouille in the raw is contained there, and I suspect I'll finally get to do some cooking here! But not all the goodies were from the garden: Janet had invented a dessert that was a dome of chocolate zucchini cake surrounding a white chocolate mousse. I don't eat dessert, but I had to make an exception here. This was extraordinary; had Patrick not kept joking about "Boy, sure is a lot you can do with zucchini!" I'd never have known that it was there.

A full moon came up over one end of the deck, and the talk was of the impending meteor shower, but they had a ways to drive and I, too, was pooped. The meteors may have showered, but I missed them. And I knew one thing: the next day? No bastides!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 3

The morning was spent getting Melinda and Harry the Kid packed and into the car for the trip to Périgeux to catch the train to Paris. Me, I was getting itchy: I'd already been here 24 hours and hadn't seen anything of where I was. So, after all was settled, I blasted off in the other car to Les Eyzies, destination the Museum of Prehistory.

History is everywhere in Europe, prehistory not quite as much. Lacking buildings, language, and metal, the remains of the earliest humans are harder to detect, older, and harder to preserve. It was in the town of Les Eyzies that a guy named Magnon went into a cave on his property and found human remains and evidence of settlement. If I'm not mistaken, his coining the term préhistoire started the ball rolling. At any rate, caves galore have been discovered, as well as what they call abris, living-places underneath large rock outcroppings. And around this part of the world, they're all over the place: the Rouffignac cave is just down the road, and if I've figured out where we are right, the Magdalenian site is even nearer.

The place to get the grand overview is in the nearby town of Les Eyzies, unfortunately. There, the central French administrator of prehistoric sites maintains an office and visitor center, and the wonderful Museum of Prehistory, which has been there forever, but just got a magnificent makeover, will give you the big overview. There were, for me, two big downsides. First, Les Eyzies is a tourist-trap in the classic manner. Any place whose main street is one souvenir shop after another just sets off bells in my head. The other problem is more one of the material. Anyone with a deep interest in prehistory will be fascinated, following the evolution of hominids into humans, noting the gradual evolution of toolmaking skills until by the Magdalenian you have people whacking fish-harpoons out of flint, and watching the birth of art. Less than that, and it'll be less than fascinating, because there's a lot of stuff in the museum, and I don't know about you, but there just so many flint chips I can look at before my mind starts to wander. The incisions which form the first pictures, too, are kind of hard to get a grip on, although once you see them, they're darned impressive. Obviously, no paintings have been moved to the museum: they'd have expired in transit. So for that you have to go to the caves.

This is something I'd have considered any time but August, but by some sacred decree, every person in France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium goes somewhere else, and among the places they go is the caves. The waiting lists are weeks long, although you can buy tickets on line, that kind of tourism just doesn't appeal. Maybe if I come back off-season. Brian attests to the amazing feeling seeing the paintings in situ gave him, and yeah, I'd like to do that. But the roads and the sites are packed right now.

At any rate, the museum goes from the ground up, and on the top floor, you're released into an abris,

as well as some fantastic views over the valley.

Enlarge that by clicking on it, and you'll see an abris and a bunch of caves.

It didn't take me long to do the museum and as I walked back to the car, I remembered that Brian had said there was a British guy, Tim, who had a really good wine-shop where he sold some of Marc Dalbavie's wines. I figured I'd stop in and see him, and we had a good chat. He opined that the reason Marc's wines are go good are a) they're from young vines, and b) they're organic. The first flew in the face of tradition (not to mention that some of the best California wines I've had have come from vines well over 100 years old), and the second might be true. He said that the flavor of the grapes comes from the first, oh, meter of subsoil. Old vines make good wines because their roots have found a dependable deep source of water, but young vines have young roots in the most nutritious part of the dirt and they're very efficient at finding the good stuff. "The winemakers point out all the rocks in the soil, but what good are rocks when you're looking for water? Listen: 1961 was a legendary year in Bordeaux, one of the greatest wines ever, right? And that's because in 1954 there was a frost that wiped out all the vines and they had to start all over again: those plants were seven years old, no more!" And the organic wines he feels are better because there's no outside chemicals playing with the taste. I didn't have any dough to leave behind, although I noted that the two wines we'd had were €11 and €8, respectively, so next time I'm up I'm going to pay attention. Tim's joint is the only reason to go to Les Eyzies if you're not doing prehistory: it's the only wine shop that's not pushing foie gras and beans and colorful peasant crap at you, and it has a bilingual sign. It's on the way out of town towards the PiP parking lot (the visitor center for the prehistory stuff). Say hi if you make it in.

It took me no time (and no use of a map or GPS) to get me back to the house, and I realized that Brian was using the downtime to do a lot of internet surfing and so on. I wanted to take another drive after lunch, and it turned out that the next evening there were going to be guests and he needed to buy some food to cook for them. That entailed a trip to Rouffignac, where there's a really good butcher. He agreed to submit to some random driving around to see if there was anything cool before we hit the butcher and baker and headed back, which was nice, so we set out, and I again saw a chateau I'd noticed the day before. We drove to a good place to photograph it, but it's in private hands and you can't visit it. Still, it looks neat sticking out of the countryside

Very zoom-lens, though. We then drove around and got semi-lost in the middle of nowhere with nothing but rolling hills and fields and the occasional wrong turn. We saw one of France's rarest birds. I don't know what it was, but it must have been rare, given its behavior. We'd driven into a farmyard and turned around and this bird was transacting business in the road. Despite a fine set of wings, it tried to outrun us. A bird that thinks it can outrun a car is an endangered species, I'd say. He eventually remembered his wings and took off.

Rouffignac turned out to be not so scenic: a young guy working with the Resistance had killed a local Nazi and the Germans retaliated by pretty much levelling the town. The only semi-old thing standing is the local church, and it's not so interesting:

Clearly, this thing's been trashed before. But that view down the alley on the left looked nice...

So, loaded down with chickens and chipolata sausages, plus pastry for tomorrow's breakfast, we headed back to the farmhouse and ended the day with me watching the first two episodes of a U.S. TV program I'd been intensely curious about called Tremé, set in a neighborhood of New Orleans where a friend of mine has a place. It was interesting, but I'm having a hard time suspending my suspicion that every single person in New Orleans is as deeply invested in a musical tradition that basically ended 40 years ago as the program makes them seem. Still, I'm glad it's a hit.

Tomorrow, I told myself, would be a day of some intense touring around, and I whipped out the map and the two guidebooks I'd bought. I now have a plan. Let's see how it works out.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 2

And on the second day, nothing happened. Well, not nothing, entirely.

Much of the day was spent with Melinda getting ready for the next day's trip to Paris with Harry the Kid, and a family with three kids who were coming for lunch. This was the high point of the day, since Brian made an astonishing salad with fresh croutons and a dressing made with walnut vinegar. I knew that walnuts were one of the more important things produced around here, and I'd bought some (very expensive) walnut oil in the past to use on salads, but this was made with olive oil and walnut vinegar. I'm not at all sure how this is made, but it's by Maille, which is a big company, so I may be able to find it back in Montpellier. Wasps attacked the ham spread out for sandwiches, and I was fascinated that they actually managed, at great effort, to haul off proportionately huge hunks (about 1/8" across) and fly off with them.

We sat out on the deck in the sun, talked, the kids spent tons of time in the pool, and suddenly Melinda realized it was almost 6:30 and she had to get to three stores before 7, as well as fill the Volkswagen I'd be using with gas. Also I was to drive back from the store and learn how to use the GPS. And figure out how to get back to the house. The other family waited for us to get back, and we drove them to the nearest big road, so now I had two of the three ways into the house covered.

But it still wasn't a big deal. We were stuffed, since lunch took about three hours, Brian made an arrabiata sauce for pasta and we had some, another bottle of Marc Dalbavie's wondrous wine, this time Les Joualles, was opened, and the evening ended watching first the ITV reports on the British riots, which seemed skewed pretty far right, and then the BBC's which was alarmingly better and far more balanced. After that, Batman came on -- the first one -- but I was tired and so repaired to the piggery for another night's sleep.

In short, I spent the day feeling like one of the critters who can be observed sunning themselves on the rocks here.

Cute little thing. Pretty camera-shy, too.

Today, once the departure to Paris is finalized, there will be action: I'm going to catch the Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies before lunch, when the tourists will be otherwise occupied. After that, I'm not sure, but I have maps and books. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 1

One thing I'll happily admit to is an utter ignorance about French geography. I really don't know, except for large hunks of Paris and much of the landscape surrounding where I live, where anything is, at all. But I'm making a bit of progress at the moment, thanks to a couple of friends from New York, who have a, well, I guess you'd call it a cottage, in the Dordogne, and who've invited me up for a couple of days. Since I have nothing to do in Montpellier at the moment except to obsess over when my agent's going to sell my book, I can do that just as well from up here. Wherever it is.

As far as I can tell, here's where I am: I got on the train in Montpellier at 9 yesterday, and at first, the route was familiar. When we got to Narbonne, however, we headed north, and I actually got to see La Cité, the famous medieval fortified section of Carcassonne, out of the corner of my eye as the train came into the station there. We continued northish (I don't have a map in front of me just at the moment) and I got off in Toulouse at noon. There, I had an hour's wait, but there was nothing much calling me to explore. It was, however, a bit colder than where I'd just left, which was a bit ominous: I hadn't packed for cool weather, figuring it was August, high summer, and it was warm all over the place. But maybe not.

One thing I've always wondered about European train travel is whether people actually enjoy riding backwards. I'd found a Senior Bargain Fare to where I was going, which cost four euros more than second class and got me into first, but even there, 3/4 of the riders were going backwards, on the TGV, at high speed. I eventually spotted a seat aligned to the direction of travel and went and sat there. Anyway, the hour passed while I watched the cops rouse a sleeping skinhead with a bag of 9% beer and sent him on his way, and finally the train to Agen, my next stop, was ready to go. An interesting phenomenon presented itself just before we left in the form of a somewhat well-dressed beggar  who hit the two first-class cars saying very quickly that he hadn't had anything to eat all day and needed a coin or two. I felt like telling him that all I had in my pocket was €3.80 (my friends were going to refund my fare when I got to where I was going, wherever that was) and bet him that I had more on me than he had. But the nature of his hustle was that he had to work two cars very quickly between the arrival of the train and its departure: getting caught on the train would be a very bad idea. And, much to my utter surprise, he scored with one of the passengers and scooted off.

The ride to Agen was astonishingly boring. I realize how important it is to French people to eat what's grown locally and as we passed field after field of sunflowers, I began to worry. I mean, sunflower seeds are okay for a snack, but... There was also no place to right myself during the two hours to Agen, and although we slowed down quite a bit for construction on the way, we picked up towards the end and I was nauseous by the time I got off the train. Here, I was going to spend the money I had left on a sandwich. Of course, that required my finding something better than the buffet du gare, which looked skanky. I rolled my bag around the immediate area, but there was, much to my surprise, nothing but real estate agents along the street. Was I in France? Where were the bakeries? I never found out; I walked over to an old church, but there was nothing around there, either, so I reluctantly went back to the station and claimed a ham-and-cheese sandwich. It was quite good, although French ham still puzzles me, a subject for further discussion some other time.

The train to where I was going, a town called Les Eyzies, was barely the size of a Montpellier tram, and similarly shaped, almost a capsule on wheels. The monotony of sunflower fields (I should have noted that a few weeks ago this would have been a more cheerful monotony, but sunflower fields all die at the same time, with the heads all pointing the same direction, which is creepy, although the farmer, who's after the seeds in those heads, finds it convenient) gave way to a more varied landscape, with hills and the odd astonishing structure whizzing by. There seem to be a lot of old chateaux and castles and churches out there, and I'll have a chance to find out more before long.

At any rate, by this time I'd been travelling for six hours, and was ready to just be somewhere. I was counting down the names of the towns: Belvès (which was clearly the Belgian Elvis), le Buisson (the drink), le Bougue (the bug: obviously the drink was absinthe), and, finally, my destination, Les Eyzies. (Yes, I know those "translations" are bogus, but you have to keep yourself amused). I spotted my friends Brian and Melinda immediately although the 12-year-old with them was unfamiliar: last time I'd seen him he was pretty much a newborn. He was busy filming stuff; apparently he has a movie in mind. We jumped into the mini-van and blasted off. The countryside we'd come into on the train was of huge limestone cliffs with gaping holes in them. Yes, these were caves, and yes, they'd paid host to cavemen. One of these caves -- I'm not sure where it is -- is called Cro-Magnon, and that's where some unusual skeletons had screwed up the nice linear progression of human evolution. Les Eyzies itself is basically a tourist-trap devoted to prehistory, although it's a serious tourist-trap, and I intend to return.

Still, we headed away from there, and up over here, and down there, and the road got smaller and smaller to the point where it was no longer possible for me to figure where we were. We plunged down a small lane and there were huge, tan cows, the color of some of the people in Montpellier at this time of year, mooching around a field. Then the road plunged more, and we were where we were going, a small farmhouse where Melinda has spent time for the past 20 years, kindly allowing Brian there after meeting him. I'm on the back porch right now typing this.

That's the main house, but I'm not staying there. Instead, they put me into the former pig-sty.

Worse, the sanitary facilities are next door, on one end of the farmhouse. It's private, but just look:

It's an outrage!

We went to dinner in a neighboring village which may or may not be named Prozac, and just went to a bar on the main street. Not where I would think to go, and the menu was pretty thin. If, that is, you discount the €12 dish of duck confit with fries cooked in duck fat. I'd never had this before, and it's duck that's been slowly cooked in its own fat, then preserved in it for a while, then reheated. In other words, it's like velvet duck (not the Chinese dish). Man, was it good. Served with a small red pepper stuffed with, um, something delicious on the side. In order to maintain its reputation, though, the bar served the worst red wine I've put past my lips in ages. We made up for that back at the farmhouse by opening a bottle of organic grenache, BarleYrolle put up by the composer Marc Dalbavie (brother of my old friend Christian Dalbavie, who appears way earlier in this blog at Vinisud 2010), about 20 miles away. Astonishing nose of ashes, coffee, and, um, dirt.

Pig-sty or not, I slept like the dead, despite the sounds of something eating the roof. Brian told me they're called fouines, they're nocturnal, they're sort of like weasels, and they're protected by French law. I just pretended they were the folks upstairs, and by the time I woke up this morning, they'd been replaced by lizards sunning themselves on the rocks. Too bad I don't like to swim: the pool looks nice.

Anyway, I'm trapped here for the next few days, although not exactly: Melinda's off to Le Bougue right now buying a battery for the other car, and I'll be allowed to drive around and see some of the local sights once it's running and she and the kid, Harry, are off to Paris for a few days. There are caves, there are all those chateaux and so on...

I think I'll survive this .

Stay tuned.

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