Monday, July 30, 2007

Thor and Roy.....and Memories of O'Malley

We have been sharing dog-sitting responsibilities for the past 10 days. David, Louise and Jake across the street have been back in rain-soaked England, and Thor and Roy remained behind. As Louise warned us, they both are molting terribly. Craig and Jo Heritage's kids walk them several times during the day or take them to Lac Montbel for the day at their VeloMondo bike rental. Then my night duty kicks in. The dogs make themselves right at home as I cook dinner. Thor is a black lab, pure and simple, a bundle of people-pleasing pooch. Roy is an overly energetic border collie, wary at first of his new caretakers but a real sweetie. Thor is notorious for finding the the most in-the-way spot to lie, and Roy seeks out the most secluded niche available. Their dinnertime is 9 pm followed by a final pee-and-poop constitutional along one of the village pathways. Then they are tucked into their beds at their house, overlooking the River Touyre, awaiting mom and dad's return.

It was just about a year ago that we put our faithful steed O'Malley down, so this bonding with Thor and Roy has churned up alot of old O'Malley stories. Remember the time he got bit by the bear, stomped by the cow elk, drug by the pickup, or shot by a 44 Magnum, etc. There was none better.

Some Days We See Progress

Some of you have probably been wondering if we ever do any work anymore. The answer is yes, but some days it's hard to tell. There are days when we shouldn't ever pick up the tools, but head for market towns instead. Those are the days when progress is microscopic and frustration runs rampant.

When we purchased No. 14 Rue du Four, a compromise we made was forfeitting outdoor space. Our petite cours, because it is our only outdoor space, has been taken over by bags of chaux, ciment, mortier, and sable (thats lime, cement, mason's mortar and sand). Squeezed somewhere out there are a table, chairs and several potted plants. The goal has been, with the approval of the French powers-that-be, to have une toiture terrasse (a roof terrace). We met with a very energetic young British planner/designer who assessed our space, took measurements, went to the maire's office to retrieve necessary paperwork, and indicated that drawings would be emailed within a few days. I guess he's been living in France too long, because that was several weeks ago and no contact since.

While we were hoping to see plans for the roof terrace and proceed with further development on the deuxieme etage based upon those plans, we got tired of waiting and decided to forge ahead. The wood floor which used to create a loft above the deuxieme etage has been taken down because we are using that flooring in constructing the new bedroom on the third floor.

There were several options for building partition walls---hollow clay blocks that are called 'skinny brick', light plaster blocks that are tongue & grooved together, or plaque de platre on a steel framework.

Plaque de platre is drywall, but it was the "steel framework" that really had Doug mystified. For a guy who can pretty much build anything with 2 X 4's, just figuring out the individual componentry of "le fer en U galvanise" required the aid of a friend, Julien. He brought over a kit of bits and pieces of various sizes "un rail" and "un montant" (horizontal and vertical pieces) and even accompanied Doug to the MicoBrico. Lots of swearing was going down as Doug was attempting to screw metal to metal with drywall screws; my little French dictionary came in handy at Bricomarche as I translated 'vis autoperceuse' into self-tapping screws---voila! Then Aussie John drops off a magical crimping tool that totally eliminates the need for screws...period. Once Doug got the hang of it, the stud wall went up quickly and smoothly. He kept remarking how different this construction was from the States since the wall is built beginning with the door in place rather than roughing in an opening for a door at a later date.
The cost of the 'un rail' and 'un montant' are about the same as 2X4 studs, but significantly lighter, which is relatively important when considering that we are carrying everything up several flights of stairs. In fact, we just unload from Smokey and hand it up through the window. We hope to have the plaque de platre delivered via someone with a forklift who can shove it right into the deuxieme etage.

Today we started laying the flooring, pine or fir (pin ou sapin) by our best guess. We have seen similar stuff that gets dubbed "Western Rustic" because it has all the knots. We've laid floors before using pneumatic nail guns or a nailing machine that pre-angles the nails. No such luck here, it's all skill and labor, so a slower pace.
A couple of windows (fenetre) are on order, the walls have been lime plastered and limewashed; and if even for a brief period of time, we can report progress is being made.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Eventful Evening

Last night was the fourth of the Marche Nocturne Leran events we have attended. It was unusual in several respects. First, it had a parade of not quite antique tractors followed by vintage cars. We were aware that it was going to happen but surprised a little when it did. The tractors came idling down Cours St. Jacques and disappeared around the corner. Not having an agricultural background, all I can tell you was that they were indeed tractors, and small by today's standards. Then came the vintage autos, and Nancy was up and trying to pull out her camera and get few shots of them before they too were gone. I was surprised to see a really nice Ford flatbed and this Chevy pickup pictured here. The advance billing said we would see Citroen 2 CV automobiles, and indeed there were several, but the other "voitures et camionettes" were a surprise. I cheered patriotically as the American pickups came by. We wondered if in future years we can enter Smokey in the parade. The last "voiture" pictured is a 2 CV which must have been manufactured in the 60's or 70's and it has two local kids duded up in garments that were supposed to suggest the era, beads, flowers in the hair. Her t-shirt said (I think), "Faites l'amour, pas de guerre" which as we all know means "Make love, not war". (Or, if my French is incorrect, it may mean "Love making prohibited during war"....who knows?)

And secondly, our enjoyment of the Marche was disturbed by the "Spectacular repetition" also taking place that evening. Nancy and I reluctantly left the festivities and made our way over to the grounds of the Chateau promptly at 8:00. A few folks were already there, but the sound wagon, still on only two wheels, hadn't arrived, nor had the director or the "boss lady", as Nancy calls her. She had the key to the chateau grounds, so we all waited for 20 minutes for the essentials to arrive. They couldn't get the sound system going, no electricity or something. We waited around, the locals chatting to each other and Nancy and I rather impatient with the delay.

Finally, about 8:40 we began the dance number. I refused to participate (You know how I feel about dancing.....monks don't dance) due to my fragile knee. They did an abbreviated dance number and were beginning the second repetition, when one little dancing peasant took a bad fall. The friendly 80 year old French lady pictured in our post, "Monks and Peasants" was down and in obvious pain. Her leg was twitching and her face was contorted with pain. At first I think we all assumed it was her heart. But as we learned a little later, it was her leg. Nancy and I don't know the extent of the injury as of right now, but it was perhaps a broken leg or dislocated knee. We think she had knee or hip replacement surgery. The Pompiers (firemen) eventually came and got her leg stabilized with a splint, put her on a stretcher and hauled her off to the hospital.

It was close to dark, so another repetition of the dance number was completed and the kindly yet bumbling director decided to cancel the rest of the clusterfuck. Nancy and I went back to the Marche Nocturne Leran for another hour.

Friday, July 27, 2007

La Mort du Tour

"The death of the Tour de France, on July 25, 2007, in Orthez, at the age of 104 years, following a long illness. The funeral will be celebrated in the strictest privacy."

France is reeling. This was the lead article in the France Soir, a French daily newspaper, mourning the drug-infested state of the symbol of French identity. Other newspapers are calling it Le Tour de Farce or an equally justified play on words. An Italian sport website conducted a poll, asking its viewers for solutions. Albeit, not a scientific sample, but their answers are worth considering: 1. legalize doping during Le Tour; 2. ban media from covering Le Tour; and 3. suspend Le Tour for several years to clear the air.

The Belfast Telegraph sums up Le Tour's state of affairs pretty well: "It is heading towards its conclusion in Paris on Sunday minus two entire teams, the pre-race favourite, and the rider who until his enforced withdrawal on Wednesday was wearing the leader's yellow jersey and was odds-on to emerge as the overall winner. " Why? It's not the same excuse politicians use for a sudden departure from office (I want to spend more time with my family). In case you haven't been following Le Tour as closely since Lance laid the yellow jersey to rest, this year's race began under a cloud. A year later, the verdict is still out on Floyd Landis, the 2006 winner, as to whether he will be stripped of his title for alleged doping charges. Le Tour de France 2007 is embroiled in the biggest scandal in it 104 year history, big enough to make some people believe it is dead.

There are some who say that drugs in one form or another have been part of Le Tour since Le Tour began, whether amphetamines, steroids, EPO or just the injection of fresh blood (your own or someone else's). Is it really possible to race clean? Well, duh? Sure it is, it just might take you longer....and maybe you wouldn't win seven years in a row....and what fans would ever want that to happen?

The big debate now begins. Towns on upcoming itineraries have financial investments in Le Tour, and stand to make big bucks. They don't want to see it cancelled. Sponsors make big bucks. The fans would be greatly disappointed. The media would need another big story to fill up space. And for sure, the elite cyclists would lose big bucks. Most importantly, the pharmaceutical companies would lose out. What a shame. And on and on it goes. It's all about money. I doubt that anything will ever change.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Never on Sunday

The bill for Doug's pouce arrived the other day, much quicker than the 18 months we were expecting. But then, the annual August shutdown is only days away, so no doubt every office worker is being asked to sacrifice a few minutes of their 150 minute lunch to crank out a few extra letters and invoices. Oh, probably not.

As you can see, the total is 55.48 Euros. This includes the doctor, nurse, and medical supplies and equipment. Doug was in the urgence at the hospital for more than an hour, soaked in a large tub of betadine, was carved on for a considerable time and sullied vast amounts of gauze. The specialist's fee was only 23 Euros---when was the last time you went to a doctor for a surgical procedure (without insurance) for $30? So it seemed that the 55.48 Euros charge was considerably less than if we had made a trip to the ER in the States.

Then I noticed the heading "Majoration Dimanche" on the bill and realized that there was a Sunday increase! And a sizeable percentage at that. I guess the moral of the story is never schedule your emergencies on universal closure day.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tour de France, Part III: The Racers

One hundred sixty-five riders in the 14th stage of Le Tour de France. An elite group at the forefront wizzes by about five minutes ahead of the pack. Thunderous ovations for all.
One hundred twenty-nine and a half kilometers to go.
The crowd disperses.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tour de France, Part II: The Spectators

The spectators were a spectacle. I imagine London or Paris would be much more of a spectacular spectacle, but it was fun to people watch in Limoux.

The young man sitting down taking a break was reporting for a sports talk radio show and showed up on a motorcycle with a driver. This was his eighth year and he was somewhat jaded. He was French but spoke great English. When he saw the Utah plates he began to question us a little about our story. When we mentioned Moab, he got pretty excited and said, "Mo-hab, ze mountain biking capitol of ze world". He was all ears and wanted to know how big it was, what was going on there, what it was like and what was what. It was "ze" place he wanted to go to in the States.

People were climbing towers and were positioned where ever they thought they would get the best view of their heroes. The gent that displayed the Australian flag was convinced his guy was to be the ultimate winner, but events have proven otherwise (as of this writing).

The gendarmes kept traffic and parking in hand. There were a number on the ground but many more whizzed by in police vehicles. It might have been the ideal day to pull off a big bank heist, but even the gendarmes joined in collecting key chains, ballpoint pens, H20 bottles, coin purses and other essential advertising paraphernalia.

There were people like us who just wanted to say they did it once, folks who were just there to see how much loot they could drag home, some were there to be seen, some to see the promotions and some to see their heroes. Some, it seemed, just happened to be there and didn't really have a clue that there was going to be a race passing through town.

Tour de France, Part I: Promotion

We went over to Limoux on Sunday to see the Tour de France. We were of course, virgins, not having ever seen one in person or really even watched one on television. I guess we were naive virgins, to be exact. We had talked to our neighbors and rabid Tour fans, Harry and Dianne, from Alberta, Canada and they gave us some tips on how to see the thing, how to avoid the maddening crowds, where to go, etc. We set out with every intention of following their suggestions but instead went directly to Limoux found a likely spot across from the Cafe de France, parked Smokey six feet from the race course, and went and had a coffee while waiting for the festivities.
We were advised to go to a hilly spot so you could see the cyclists for a few seconds more because they would be going slower. We were advised to find a place where a road came to a "T" where we wouldn't be too far from the course, park and walk to the scene. Take a lunch and something to drink. Good advice, but as we were driving through Limoux we found a good spot and jumped on it. Instead of a hill, it had a cafe and a boulangerie. Instead of a "T" it had a shady parking lot. We didn't need the lunch and water.
We waited for awhile and along came the sponsors of the Tour de France. Unlike a parade in the States where floats are made to withstand a high speed of 2mph, these things whizzed by at a good clip, may be 30 mph. So fast it was hard to take a photo of them. Instead of candy, as in an American parade, they threw hats, pens, keychains and all kinds of things with logos and promotional bullshit printed on it. I was trying to take pictures and things kept pelting me in the head or elsewhere. People came prepared with bags to put their loot into and some filled them to overflowing. The stream of promotional vehicles, Le Tour de Vendors, lasted maybe 45 minutes. These aren't even necessarily the best or most creative ones we have pictured here.
After the promotional vehicles came the official vehicles carrying writers, judges, gendarmes, timing officials, television crews, drug testing labs, drug testing officials, drug testing employees, drug testing equipment and other necessary people to handle the race. It was very impressive. We had now seen something like 350 vehicles cruise by in some official capacity. And, as of yet, we hadn't seen a peloton. The only lycra in view were the wannabees strutting their stuff, just imagining that someone might mistake them for the real thing.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Deal Goes Down

A funny thing happened as I left the Chalabre pharmacie the other day. It took awhile before it hit me what the pharmacist had said. When I related the story to some friends at the marche gourmande last night in Leran, Doug commented, "This would never happen in America". He's probably right.

Earlier in the week we had stopped by a pharmacie in Mirepoix to inquire about getting our prescriptions filled. I was told that my medication wasn't sold in France, which puzzled me (as most things here do) because last January I purchased the same med a few km away in Chalabre. So, a few days later I took my pill bottle to Chalabre and the young lady said it would be ready "apres midi" or, in the afternoon. I told her I would be back the next day.

We stopped in Chalabre on the way to our French lesson Thursday, and a gentleman sadly informed me once again, "Apres midi". I suppose my disappointed face combined with, "Je habite en Leran," indicated that I really didn't want to make yet another trip. When I said Leran, however, his eyes lit up, and I caught the words, "Je mange a marche gourmande" accompanied by the universal sign language of eating and a huge smile. Still not certain where this was going, he said in English, "I bring".

There are several hundred people at the marche gourmande, everyone milling around. By the time things settle down, it is getting dark. How was I ever supposed to connect with someone I barely recognized, whose name I didn't know, never set a time to meet or left a phone number? All I remember saying to him was, "Le Leran Bar? D'accord!"

We were sitting at a table at the Leran Bar laughing about me making my drug deal right there on Cours St. Jacques, when, as if he were wearing a pink lycra suit I picked him out of the pack headed our way. Just like in the movies, I grabbed my dossier, handed it to him, he passed off the goods and with a profound "merci" I was on my way. Never, never in America.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Monks and Peasants?

Last Sunday afternoon we heard music and voices blaring from loud speakers, and since we weren't certain if it was some sort of Leran emergency evacuation underway we headed out in search of the source. Yes, I am quite certain that the French would have music accompanying a village evacuation. The sounds pulled us in the direction of the chateau on the other side of the river, where through the hedges we could see the local villagers engaged in some sort of jousting. We found a way into the field and through the grazing sheep and were met head-on by a rather large lady with a clipboard. Uh-oh, the end of the line for us. She indicates by pointing at her clipboard that she wants to know if we are on her list. "Je voudrais regarder" Doug tells her that we would just like to watch. Not knowing if we had happened upon a communist party meeting (being that Leran has a communist mayor) we had not been invited nor were expected.

As we turn around to leave, we are caught by Corrinne Lamand, who with husband Philipe sold us #14 Rue du Four. Did we want to participate she asks? In what? The LERAN'CESTRAL!!! It is only the biggest event of the year and this was one of the first practices. We weren't at all convinced how we could be in the pageant, being unable to follow directions, but Corrinne pressed on. Just give it a try, she encouraged. So we did.

The Leranians went out of their way to accommodate us. It was a point-and-follow script for Doug and I. But we were intent on listening to the narration over the loudspeaker: a somewhat skewed historical perspective encompassing Simon de Montfort, the Cathars, Indians (Geronimo and Cochise, for what reason we are unclear) Christians and who knows what else. We could pick up occasional words and tried piecing some semblance of a script together. While we were on opposite sides of the field, we independently came to the same conclusion: this would be a great way to interact with the local French, pick up few words, practice our limited French with a patient audience, and have some fun.

Never having been involved in either the big screen or little screen, we consider ourselves quite lucky landing these roles without screen tests. Doug has been assigned to be a monk or friar, at least some outstanding member of the clergy (perfect type-casting we thought). I, on the other hand, am with the ranks of the paysans (peasants) in one scene and the pauvre gens (poor people) in another. Then there's a processional scene where we walk with the nobles. We assume there are costume changes for all these.

We've been given a schedule for all the 'Repetitions', and by the number of them I can tell that people in Leran take this seriously. The audio equipment is wheeled down Cours St. Jacques on a cart to the practice field, and last Wednesday the front wheel broke off the cart. Nobody panicked in the least, they just laughed, and propped it up on a hay bale.

At the end of the first 'Repetition' the boss lady wanted to add our names to her clip board, but they just couldn't seem to get the big guy's name right. "Jean"? someone said. "No. Doug."' "Jacque"? "No. Doug." Every time he would answer "Doug" pronounced in a normal American accent, it would baffle the French. It is apparently a vowel sound that is not in their repertoire. Our friend Alan, from Yorkshire in northern England, pronounces it "Doog" as well, and this the French can understand. So, here in France, he will be "DOOG."

The Yellow Sentinels

Day after day for several weeks after we arrived in early May we would drive past the greening fields, watching for little shoots begin to emerge. As the plants started to get their first leaves we assumed it would be easy to identify the crops, but corn was the only one that was easily recognizable. We were totally buffaloed by one particular plant that was growing by leaps and bounds daily. We eventually ruled out tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and beans. Then it suddenly developed stalks. While Mathilde was here, we investigated further and another piece of the puzzle was put into place---all this time we have been surrounded by sunflower fields.

Thousands, millions, an infinite number of sunflowers. One morning 10 or 12 had popped open, and by weeks end they had exploded exponentially. Now they are in full bloom, lining the main roads and petite rues all across our area of the Ariege. They nod their heads in unison, welcoming each passerby, tilting their heads to the sun. A glorious prologue to the Pyrenees. I hope their sunny faces will still be shining when we leave our French home in September.

It was such a treat to discover all these fields were not hay or wheat, but yellow sentinels watching over little Leran. Some knowledge that we have acquired here has not come without a struggle. Much is still needed and yet to come. Those little discoveries are the rewards of being here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A La Marche dans Mirepoix

I met these three young mademoiselles at the Mirepoix Market on Monday. Daphne, Rochelle et Blanche and they were all very smartly dressed. I talked to them for awhile and I believe they said they were from Paris. The other photos are of Nancy's favorite vegetable stall, a shot of the center of the market with the Mirepoix cathedral in the background, a lady selling les oeufs (which I now know is pronounced...layzoo) and of course, a monsieur in a beret. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Wandering Around Leran with a Camera

I got a little bored this afternoon and rather than do my French homework, I decided to wander around Leran and take some photos. For you folks in the good old United States who have never been here it might serve as a travelogue of sorts. If you live in Leran, you will probably ask, "Why did he take those pictures?" And the answer is: Because I could.

  • Starting at the top:

  • There are a number of these small shrines scattered around town. This one is across from the church.

  • The date, 1813, is above a doorway on a abandoned building, of which there are more than a few. It indicates to me when a lot of the building took place in this town.

  • Next, is a house Mathilde liked when she was here. It's for sale and I'll give you the number if you ask.

  • The kitty was poking it's head out of a window around the corner from our house. I couldn't resist.

  • And again right around the corner from us is the River Touyre. I could throw a rock into it if I could get it over the houses across the street. It has an ancient stone bridge crossing it which give access to the Chateau du Leran. And in the river are many fish, big and little.

  • And right on the main drag is and old building that has the appearance of and old garage or auto repair facility. Apparently, when someone dies, often times their property sits for years while the heirs, which can be a number of people, decide whether to dispose of it or keep it or fix it up. It's part of what gives France it's charm, and while disturbing at first, it grows on you----having relics next door or around the corner. There can be near-abandoned buildings next to going concerns.

  • And lastly, another shrine. This one is right outside of Nigel and Barbara's house and to my knowledge, they are not responsible for maintaining it.