Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Travel Days

Today we leave Leran and head for Toulouse and the airport bright and early tomorrow morning. We won't be posting till we are home, in all liklihood.

We are going to post some pictures of Moab and Utah for our European friends who are checking into this site. Stay in touch.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Signs of the Times

On a very positive note, I wanted to report that someone in France has introduced poop sacs for the canine population. As you can see from the photo, a tremendous amount of thought, artistry, creativity, and money went into this signage. But now, someone else must step forward and encourage the people to actually use these sacs. I believe that the French must be afraid that if any of the other dogs saw them picking up their dog's feces, it would result in a potentially psychologically damaging situation for Fifi, non?
If only "le guichet automatique" (the ATM machine at Credit Ag) had instructions so visually comprehensive as the signage for the pooper-scooper sacs, perhaps my cash card would not have mysteriously been swallowed on Saturday morning. When a secret code was requested, I entered the same 6-digit one I key in for my online French account. What else was I to assume but success when it advanced me to the next screen asking how much money I wanted to withdraw. Not only was I not entitled to my desired 250 euros, but the window flashed "DESOLE!" with great eagerness, not the presumed apology, and the card slot began a series of mechanical noises that didn't sound forgiving. I envisioned the lucky next person, at the conclusion of his/her transaction, being rewarded with my card and and additional 250 euros popping out. We may have already mentioned that one of the greatest mortal sins in France is to bounce a check. You will be blacklisted from not only your bank, but refused an account throughout the country. Maybe I had keyed in the wrong amount, say 250,000 euros, and now the gendarmes would be out for me because I had overstretched my account. I would have to wait until Monday to find out the "rest of the story" when the bank reopened.
With regard to the bumper sticker: I have no idea what the "206" means, but I think the donkey and the bull need no explanation. If you can't figure it out, you are probably one of those who wouldn't use a poop sac either.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The French Have Some Quirks

Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the early 1800’s, I believe, and made all sorts of insightful comments about America and the American character and politics. Looking back from our vantage point nearly 200 years later, he made some remarkably concise and accurate comments. My comments on France will not be nearly so long-lasting or intelligent, or particularly creative either. But by god when you travel, you need to whine.

I think my biggest complaint about France is the amount of dog shit. IT IS EVERYWHERE. The French do not bother to take their dogs to appropriate places to do their business, nor do they clean up after the critters. One must indeed watch were one steps. It’s in the road, on the sidewalk, on your doorstep, on the gravel, in the grass. Thank goodness for gravity or it would be floating through the air.

There seem to be no garbage disposals. Shocking. No French houses have them. We looked everywhere to buy them and they are not for sale. The French don’t seem to know what they are. Composting is a good solution if you have a garden. If you don’t, then of course you must add it to your garbage and take it out regularly before it begins to smell. Covered garbage bins are a good idea. But why not have garbage disposals? I’m told, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that garbage disposals remove a lot of volume from landfills, and it’s a lot of volume that feeds varmint, crows and ravens and breeds foul smells and vermin. The solid waste stream is also enhanced by having ground up food items introduced into the mix. So, apparently the garbage disposal is convenient, and also a good thing for municipalities. Except here.

French drivers have a thing for speed, or perhaps it’s an aversion to being behind anyone. I’ve passed one car on French roads in nearly a month here, and I think that woman had lost her glasses or was on her first solo trip, or had been mortally wounded, or something. But everyone has passes me. One minute there is no one in my mirror, and I look back again and there is a line of three cars. The French have a very leisurely pace of life, outside of their cars anyway.

Why do the Europeans put toilets in little rooms by themselves? A toilet without a sink makes no sense. It requires an extra door and a wall to segregate the toilet and to what purpose? Apparently so that someone can use the sink while you are using the toilet. And then you can switch places. And speaking of switches, why are the light switches outside the bathroom?

Closure hours are a mystery but they do have an unintended side effect. Closure hours, for those who haven’t visited France, involve the closure of almost all businesses except restaurants between noon and 2:30 or 3:00. Businesses close down, the workers go home for lunch or go to a restaurant, take a nap, make love to the spouse, go back to work. I’m not sure how many hours the French work in a day but I do know there are four rush hours. When Nancy and I were on our epic bike trip in 1987, we encountered the closures for the first time and no one had explained it to us. Say you are riding your bike from town to town, and you arrive ready for lunch, hungry beyond belief, sweaty, smelly and on a budget. You find all the grocery stores closed. No where to buy lunch fixin’s. You’d be angry too. To this day we haven’t figured out why everything has to close, banks, hardware stores, bakeries, garages, jewelry stores. The only thing you can do is carry supplies with you, or wait, or spend the money to eat in a restaurant. The good thing is that no one lives too far from work if you always go home at lunch. This eliminates the long commutes and urban sprawl we see in America.

But you gotta love the French. They may not have garbage disposals and have an excess of dog shit, however they did tell us not to involve ourselves in Vietnam or Iraq.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Juggling Game

When Doug and I were first going out (back in the pre-cell phone, pre-personal computer days of the late 70's), a perfect afternoon's entertainment was often people-watching on the Boulder Mall. I still have the most vivid memory of a particularly clever performance artist, a juggler. His objects de art included a chicken (plucked), a raisin and a chainsaw. I kid you not. With great finesse he made these three unlikely bedfellows spin in melodious harmony. It was so mesmerizing, his ability to balance the seemingly impossible and make it work. I decided right then I wanted to learn to juggle and the next day enrolled in class (only in Boulder). Too bad, a passion that cooled quickly, but it has had some transferable lessons over the years.

I feel that we are now at a point where we must juggle some chickens, raisins and chainsaws. What may seem like minor, mundane, boring or non-existent decisions if we were State-side, are creating quite a conundrum for us as we prepare for this dual-continent existence.

For instance, do we buy a clunker car or rent every time we come? Do we ship hand tools over and pay the freight or bite the bullet and buy a whole new raft of them here. We have an arsenal of hand tools sitting in our shop in Moab, and the airlines would just love it as baggage. Plus, tools are expensive here, but maybe not as costly as shipping. Juggle, juggle. Over the years, we have consolidated houses, moving from storage locker to cabin to Yellowstone and back and forth. Things are hard to keep track of, and you end up buying two of this or that, so we are somehow well-endowed with miscellaneous household items. I may sneak along a few favorite items on the return trip, kind of like 'comfort food'.

IKEA seems to be the dream solution for new part-time residents outfitting their homes. You can literally purchase a "room in a box" and they will flat-ship absolutely anything---couches, kitchen cabinets, beds, tables, anything. You assemble. That sure solves how we were going to go out and find some Doug-sized couch and haul it back in a France-sized car. Juggle. Then we find out that the Super U marche also rents vans specifically for this purpose---a marketing brainchild. Juggle, juggle.

We can't forget taking care of things back in Moab if we're going to be gone for several months. The guest rental will have the management company, and we can keep tabs on them via email more-or-less. Shutting up the house isn't a problem, but lately we have had marginal success finding a reliable person to monitor the landscaping and drip irrigation system. Last summer we received regular phone calls from our next door neighbor who complained about the invasive weeds that were spreading at apparent lightning speed throughout his yard. In less than two months' time, the yard maintenance company "forgot" to deal with any of the weeds and there were three foot jungles running rampant. Moab is one of those towns where you get points just for showing up for work; actually knowing what you are doing is a bonus. Juggle, juggle.

Maybe all of this will sort itself out and I am worrying for nothing. In the big picture anyway, what does any of it really matter I could ask? Gotta run, my teacher is here with the chicken, the raisin and the chainsaw. Juggle, juggle, Bon chance!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chalk and Cheese

Ant Nancy here (after surviving another giant ant attack):
We met up with Veronica (our "estate" agent and M. Lamand, the owner, yesterday to view the house once again before our 7-day cooling off period expires. I still marvel that, after numerous face-to-face meetings and even more phone calls with Veronica, she still continues to call Doug "Mr. Reid." And we still refer to M. Lamand as "M. Lamand. I guess we're not quite into the good ol' boy network here yet.
Veronica greeted us with an exclamation that the weather lately had indeed be "chalk and cheese". Was she daft? No, just Brit. Upon demand, she explained that it was an expression to describe the wild weather patterns we had been experiencing. Well put!
Our purpose was to nail down specifically what items stayed with the house and to negotiate purchasing furniture. We have heard these nightmare stories about the French removing doorknobs and lightbulbs, but M. Lamand is more than a reasonable man. He and his wife are hoping to build on a piece of nearby property with their profits, and we anticipate that he will be a great resouce during our continuing renovation phase. We understand they have recently adopted a baby from Tahiti. We sat around the dining table to "discuss" the furniture. They had some pieces that I couldn't touch in the States, some pieces that would be great to already have here when we arrive. We counter his proposal, he pulls out a piece of paper with individual prices and I'm assuming the head-butting will begin. But once again, M. Lamand proves to be a reasonable man. We do not get away with a steal, and this is good. We pay a fair price and I think this is as it should be.
Tomorrow we will head to the Notaire's office and write a cheque for the deposit. The only thing I worry about at this point is how we are going to fit this on the Payee line: "SCP Barbe Barbelanne Aude Bruno Barbe et Jean Cathala Notaire Associes". I think I better write real tiny.
Yesterday when we were in Chalabre for a meeting with our banker, I stoped in the Pharmacy to see what hoops I had to jump through to get my "drugs" here in France. I took my bottle (illegally ordered online from the UK), showed it to the pharmacist and asked if I could get without a prescription. She responded "apres mange" and we took it to mean that I should take it with food; after further dialogue we interpreted her to say that it would be available 'after lunch'---no prescription needed and cheaper than buying them online! Voila! Gotta love the French. This could never happen in the good old USA. I'm now the proud owner of my first French drugs.
As we have been driving and touring around, I have the habit of religiously carrying a tiny pocket dictionary. It fits in my back pocket, but because it's small, it does have its limitations. Today we took off for Castlenaudry and its environs, and ended up in Belpech for dejeuner. The plat du jour offered choucroute as an option, so I inquired, because it wasn't in my book. As is my habit, I tend to hear what I want to hear---something about cabbage and vegetables I thought. I imagined a stew, yummy. Guess I missed the part about sauerkraut and maxxxxxing out on MEAT---ham, salt pork, sausage, and an honest-to-goodness Oscar Mayer hot dog! But the tomato salad and citron glace was worth it.
Our patrons, Alan and Eileen, return on Friday. We have tons of questions for them about the purchase process regarding hooking up utilities. We have also learned that we may have to get a French marriage contract, a "community universalle", that will ensure me as the sole heir should something happen to my beloved husband. French law does not favor the spouse otherwise.
The "chalk and cheese" of the French and American cultures is just that---chalk and cheese.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Takin' Care of Business

We've been busy doing our homework for the past couple of days. We've visited Mr. Bricolage, the French version of a large chain hardware/lumber yard. And we have been pricing things at a antique store in Mirepoix in preparation for negotiating for the furniture that is already in the house we are buying. It is difficult to know what something is worth when firstly, we are dealing with another currency than we are used to, and secondly, a different economy. Raw materials seem to be very expensive, things like lumber. Yet some of the antiques are relatively inexpensive compared to what one would pay in the states. Supply and demand rules and it is totally turned on it's head from what we are used to. requires Nancy's rational mind.

We have also been trying to find a French teacher for when we return. There are a number of them around here. Some are native French speakers, some are speakers of French as a second language. Seems to me, you'd want someone who is a native speaker, no? Then again, its not like we will ever be able to speak the language as natives, no one will mistake me for a native of Paris, I'm sure. Every French born English speaker has an accent as near as I can tell. So why worry about the native tongue of the teacher, worry about how good of a teacher they are. We've bought some self-teaching books and wonder about the effectiveness of tapes/CDs. It was suggested to us to read comic books in French. Good idea. What I've learned is that I can dredge up some French as long as I'm not in immediate need of it. If I need a word, that word will not come. Same as in English at my age. Need a particular word? Forget it, lost in the haze. The important thing is to learn enough to make conversation with the locals and then we will learn by doing. Well, that's the theory anyway.

We've also been making sure that our first check will be written correctly. We have to write a check for the deposit, similar to earnest money I guess, but a more significant amount written to the notaire. It has to be written with the numerals written in the French manner which is substantially different, and the amount written out in French, so we cleared our suppositions with our banker. She must think we're nuts. Nancy confirmed what name she signs with: Mme. Dwight Reid or Nancy Procter? You can well imagine she claimed victory when told it was "Nancy Procter". And we have begun pricing the home insurance we will have to have, from our banker, who also sells insurance. All in all, not as strange as signing a contract for a large amount of money (for us) in a foreign language. If you can remember the first time you bought a house, and signed the papers in a fog of boilerplate, you will have some idea of how we feel.

We've also been touring around seeing some of the sights in the area. Montouleiu, Tarascon, Pamier. There are signs of Spring in the air and the sun after several days of clouds and some rain, it feels good.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Les Deux Durforts

We read about a village that piqued our interest---all they do there is make copper cookware. It was hard to keep my imagination under control at that point, so out came the maps and the search was on. The weather was glum and drive along the tiniest of backroads was just the shot in the arm we needed. The promise of viewing artisans perfecting their centuries-old coppersmith craft had me on edge.

The roads, as they were, narrowed, the signposts almost negligible. Would we be the first visitors to this amazing place? Without notice we were there. It at once became obvious that their copper industry was a well-kept secret. There was absolutely no evidence of artisans, shops, craftsmen, or that a tourist had ever been remotely close. Doug looked at me in his "you are the navigator" stare, and I had no rebuttal but to pull out the book and check my homework.

Who would have known that there would have been two Durforts? Why on earth would they name another town identically in Ariege and Haute-Garonne? Go figure. So, a few days later
on yet another glum morning, after thoroughly studying the map in the guidebook, off we head to Durfort in the Haute-Garonne. After one let-down I know the experience cannot be repeated, can it? The countryside is captivating, the mist rising off the hillsides. It reminds me of the Smokey Mountains. Hawks and herons everywhere. The hawks are always on the hunt, but I have yet to see one successful. But we figure it must be good hunting grounds around here.

On to Durfort Deux. I have only made a few miscalculations in directing our whereabouts. The fine print on this map is not designed for bifocals. The road takes us through the greenest rolling hills as we head towards the Montagne Noir, the Black Mountains. Durfort is nestled deep within them, along a river that fueled the industry supporting this village. We arrive shortly past noon on February 10. Deader than a doornail would be an understatement. Not only were the 2-1/2 hour luncheon closure hours in effect, but it is the middle of winter. No one, and I mean no one is open and there is no life on the streets. We press our faces to the windows of the shops and drool looking at the shelves of copper pots and bowls inside. Behind these shop doors, there are artisans actually making these items (of course not right now!). Ferme, ferme, ferme, the signs all tell us.

We will return. Probably to both Durforts. Why not?

Click on the pictures to enlarge. By the way, none of them have anything to do with Durfort.

Friday, February 9, 2007

A Stolen Travel Guide to Languedoc/Rousillion

Monsieur Reid here. I thought I'd shamelessly edit/steal from the Rough Guide to Languedoc & Roussillion that is here in our Leran rental house to entice some of you to the region. This area is not Paris with it's high prices and legendary snooty waiters we always hear about. Nor is it Provence where tourists can outnumber residents. I love both those places and have had wonderful visits, however I don't think I could live there, much less afford to buy a house.

So here are the top places not to miss when in the Langedoc/Rousillion. Some comments will be taken directly from the book because we haven't even scratched the surface of this area.

1. Le Grotte de Niaux-prehistoric cave paintings similar to Lascaux.

2. Train Jaune-a little yellow working train running high up into the Pyrenees.

3. La Petite Camargue-"Little Argentina" , like the real Camargue with horses, cowboy like fellas and open space.

4. The Orb Valley-A spectacular river valley with villages and views.

5. Collioure-A beautiful and interesting villiage on the Mediterranean coast.

6. Tauromachie-Bullfights French style, they don't kill the bull. If you want Spanish bullfights, they are two hours away in Barcelona or further in Madrid.

7.Rabastens-A medieval church with spectacular stained glass windows .

8. Le Canigou- A snow capped Pyrenees mountain sacred to the Catalonians.

9. St. Roman - a medieval monastery apparently in caves hewed out of the banks of the Rhone.

10. Seafood - No comment necessary.

11. Montsegur- I can see it from here. A mountain top fortress where the Cathars, overwhelmed by the forces of the Pope, were burned to death for their heretical beliefs.

12. Nimes amphitheatre- Bullfights and other spectacles in a Roman amphitheatre.

13. Oppidum D'Enserune- A pre-Roman settlement. That's PRE.

14. Beaches- An hour and a half from Leran.

15. Cordes-sur-Ciel- A great little hilltop village reminiscent of Italy.

16. Swimming at the Pont Du Gard- This ought to be at the top of the list and no mention of swimming involved. Christ, it's a three tiered aqueduct built by the Romans spanning a huge gorge, the Rive du Gard. I believe its right on the fuzzy borderline with Provence, but like Montana claims Yellowstone on their maps, Languedoc lays claim to the Pont du Gard.

17. Water jousting- In Sette, a centuries old sport in fantastic boats.

18. Cirque de Navacelles-Adramatic ox-bow canyon that with some cedar trees and red rock would fit right in back in Utah.

19.Christmas traditions-I guess they have some traditions which sets this area apart from the rest of France. Ho hum.

20. Outdoor activities- Yes, for France this is the real thing. The Pyrenees and the Canal du Midi and the beaches.

21. Pezenas- An ancient town with an old Jewish Ghetto. The main attraction now is the brocante, or antique vendors. Lots and lots of them.

22. Carcassone-The most famous walled city/castle in France. Look up pictures of this on the internet. Why it's down here at number 22 I can't imagine.

23. Toulouse-Lautrec- The museum in Albi is worth the trip because it has the largest collection of Lautrec's work anywhere. And Albi is an interesting city.

24.Aigues-Mortes- An ancient fortified seaport village that is now miles from the sea. It is one of few examples in France of a city built on a grid rather than in the more organic, natural fashion.

Thirty Midnights From Now None of This Will Matter

It seemed like an easy enough task. Call Eric Vidal and order some firewood to be delivered. But first we had to anticipate what questions M. Vidal might ask: how much do you want, what length, what kind of wood, where do you want it delivered and when, etc. Not to mention that we needed to negotiate a price. All in French. We wrote out a script and Doug made the call. I don't know whether he was more relieved or anxious that all he got was an answering machine. In his best French he identified himself as an American with a little French, in need of firewood, and please call me at the following number....

The gentleman on the phone that evening was saying something about firewood and did I call that morning. Oui, oui! I would like to buy firewood. I am an American and only speak a little French I respond in my limited francais. He queries me about something and I ask him to repeat and speak more slowly for me. The second time round I pick up that he is asking me where I live. Leran I proudly reply and I can tell he not only understood but knows where it is. Hey, I'm thinking, I just might pull this off. But then the hard questions started. And I faltered.

I look to Doug who is trying to talk to me at the same time that M. Vidal is talking to me at the same time that my brain is shutting down. On the phone there none of the usual crutches available, no pantomimes, no writing. It's either there or not.

Doug suggests that we call back later with a French speaker. Brilliant. I suggest this to M. Vidal who must also think this is brilliant, but when? I suggest demain nuit, tomorrow night, but I can tell that won't work, so I ask how about this evening. That gets a positive reaction, so I want to tell him that we will call him back at at 6:30 pm. I totally forgot the 24 hour clock and couldn't quite remember how to include the half-past part, but I was hoping he'd get the gist. There was a long pause, and I realize I just told him we'd call at "six noon". On to Plan B. Tell him I'll call back in 30 minutes! Piece of cake. Another long pause, then finally, Oui.

Off we go to John and LeeAnne's to beg mercy. She made the call, arranged for delivery, he knows Leran well since his parents live here. Our firewood will be here Saturday before lunch. After the call, over drinks with John and LeeAnne, I recounted my conversation with M. Vidal and pieced together some of the things said. M. Vidal was wise to pause at the phone arrangements I was making. I apparently had told him that I would call him back "in 30 midnights" rather than 30 minutes. Better put that on the calendar, as I'm sure he'll be waiting.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Hee-Haw. Hee-Haw!

Click on the photos to enlarge.

What you don't see a lot of in France is bumper stickers. How can one get through the day without being the recipient of vehicular greetings ranging from the lofty "Visualize Whirled Peas" to the mundane "I love my Schnauzer"? It is puzzling. There is such a lack of bumper stickers, in fact, that at one point we thought it illegal to actually engage in affixing one to your bumper.

When we were in France shortly before the 2004 illegal election in the States, we carried numerous Kerry-Edwards buttons and stickers, as well as what we thought was the universally-accepted red circle and slash around the "W". The French are well-versed on US politics, knowing more than probably a high percentage of Americans themselves; but the concept of "W" has not translated well. On this 2007 trip, we have expressed our on-going sentiment that began election day, 2004---Worst. President. Ever.

While the French do not express themselves in loud garish verbal expletives on their car bumpers, some express their passion for their nationalities with small emblems. The Guara Catala, Catalan donkey, is the most common one we've seen in the Ariege, no doubt because of its proximity to Catalonia---the northeastern corner of Spain (with Barcelona as its capital). The "USAP" donkey is wearing Catalan flag stockings, but we are not quite sure what the USAP represents. The donkey is as much a symbol of national identity of north Catalonia as is the French rooster, the Aussie kangaroo, the American bald eagle, and the Spanish bull.

We understand that outside of Catalonia, in the rest of Spain, the Osborne Bull dominates as the unofficial national symbol. The Osborne Bull was widely used on billboards throughout Spain until roadside advertising was outlawed in the 1990's. Clever marketers mounted the massive black iron silhouettes on hillsides to loom over the roadways, and the bull endures. Over and above the fact that we are close to the Spanish border, there was an influx of Spanish at the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936 +/-) and many have remained. This is evident on names in the phone book and signs on stores. In a forthcoming trip to Spain we will verify this information.

If you know anymore about this, please comment. And if we can find any of these donkey stickers we are going to bring a few home as a statement on our truck.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Lost in Translation

Last evening we dropped by Dominique's on the Rue du Perdut in Leran to inquire about French language lessons. A very commanding woman, perhaps just what one needs when immersing oneself in a new language. One of her students, John, from Galway, Ireland, was also there. He was just completing his second week of classes and lived to tell about it. Others sitting around the table in the presbytery (now a house) included Dominique's partner, an artist from Zambia who was tortured during apartheid for his sympathetic attitude toward the blacks; and her 92 year old mother, who was jubiliant over having lost and recovered her pocketbook and celebrating by smoking her second and last cigarette for that day. The mother begged permission to smoke in our presence, having heard about the Americans disgust towards smoking. Over olives, almonds, potato chips, and of course wine, we learned a little bit more about the town we have chosen---the communist mayor, for instance.

But not to forget the real reason for this post, ah yes, we met at the Notaire's office this afternoon to sign the Compromise de Vente (promise to buy) on No. 14 Rue du Four in Leran. With Veronica, our new half French/half British estate agentb by our side every step of the way, the Notaire Monsieur Jean Cathala rapidly shot one document after another in our direction indicating where to initial or sign. The Notaire is not really the equivalent of the title company, nor an attorney. The Notaire is an employee of the Republic of France, and if you want to feel humbled, this is the place to be. He was obviously efficient and equally self-impressed. But it was not the time or place to piss people off. By law, the Notaire gets a hefty chunk of change from a real estate sale, in our case 7% off the top---so you want him to be on your side. Oh god, I can't believe I am writing this.

However, with some raised eyebrows, I did manage to have my name, (that is Nancy Procter as opposed to Mme. Reid) put on the documents. One small step......

Back to the house to deal with the euro transfer situation. Before we left we had taken the effort to set up an account with a foreign exchange specialist through our banking system, hoping to streamline the process if we needed a speedy transfer. During our absence, our local branch manager in Moab took a medical leave of absence and the necessary paperwork was somehow lost in transit, nobody else there knew what to do, and the foreign exchange specialist was scratching his head. I guess those Mormons just don't get out of Dodge too often. Well, after numerous emails and phone calls, the wheels are turning and the money is on the way.

The "closing" as we say in the States is set for May 15. Anyone who would like to join us for the signing, utility turn-on and furniture shopping party is hereby invited. The village of Leran will be well out of hibernation by then, with local fetes filling up the calendar.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Carnaval in Limoux

What a better de-stresser from house-hunting than to head over to Limoux for the annual Fecos, or Carnaval? From January 17 to March 7, 2007, in the Place de la Republic, His Majesty the King of the Carnaval will preside over the proceedings. Every weekend there will be more and more parades in the main square. Masked pierrots accompanied by musicians following and playing for them make their way through the tunnel of spectators. They stop at each cafe along the square, enter and entertain and/or annoy the customers. Confetti forming snow-like drifts is strewn about the square. The pierrots wear clown-like uniforms, the colors strikingly bright even on gloomy days. The weekend events occur at 11am, 4:30pm and 10pm both Saturday and Sunday until Easter. The bands playing take turns, but each is apparently distinguishable by its distinctive colors. Entertainers also sport carabenas, the long flexible decorative wands. Hundreds of people turn out the Sunday morning we arrive. Vendors selling beignets and honey, little girls riding the carousel, elderly ladies wearing their finest, and the sun streaming down. Life is good!

Limoux is also famous for another reason---Blanquette. As the story goes, Dom Perignon was making his way through the Limoux area and happened to stop and was treated to a taste of a delightfully effervescent drink. He was so taken by it that he immediately returned to Champagne and reproduced the "recipe" to create what we now know as champagne. Where the fable ends and the truth begins is up to the imagination. It all depends upon whom you ask, and how much you've had to drink.

Intro to Leran

Click on the photos to enlarge.

We took a walk this morning with the purpose of getting some pictures of Leran before the weather changed. A couple of days of clouds and rain are expected. The sun was barely up and it was still frosty.
Leran may not be the most beautiful village in France, but in our time here in May and now it has grown on us. With a village about every 3.5 km there is some mighty stiff competition, Leran has some features that set it apart from the ordinary. Most obviously, the people we have met here have been warm, receptive and gracious. There are several Brit couples residing, either part-time or permanently. They are all in various stages of learning French. The native French on our Rue du Four always acknowledge us very politely coming and going. We engage in minimalist conversations with the owners of the local bar, Thierry and Nellie, over glasses of pays d'oc.

The main architectural feature in Leran is the Chateau. It is being broken up into luxury apartments right now and I think work is going on. The attached gardens are reminiscent of Versailles. Leran is too small to support many businesses. The main street has only a few shops, a chambres d'hotes, and a bar. Around the corners there are a restaurant and an epicerie. I can only assume most people work in Chalabre, Mirepoix, Limoux or Lavalanet, which are all just a short drive away. It is quiet execept for the Friday evening fete held in July and August---the gourmand marchand---when tables are lining the street and vendors are cooking your hand-picked dinner.

The surrounding landscape is spectacular. Leran is nestled in the foothills in the foreground of the photo and the Pryrenees are off in the distance. Nearby is the largest reservoir in Europe, Lac du Montbel, which attracts a lot of visitors in the summer, and the ski areas of the Pyrenees, and in particular Andorra, a destination ski resort and a country all rolled into one. The Tour de France routes its way nearby on one of its stages in the Pyrenees.

I won't touch on the history here because it would require a book but in later posts we'll try to give a hint of the history of the Cathars who were massacred near here 800 years ago.

And to top it off, there are caves with paintings that rival Lascaux. All in all, a great little village and an intriguing region.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

We Looked all Over and it Was Just Down the Street

The day we backed out of the house in Magrie, the weather turned nasty---cold and misty. Maybe we had offended the gods. Our hearts were glum for a few days, but then something quite ironic happened. We happened upon a house about 10 doors down from where we are staying now on Rue du Four in Leran. It is an old village house, date unknown as yet, and has been refurbished by a local teacher/handyman. He's selling because he's bought a house in the country where he can keep his horses. Two of these pictures show the second floor, and the third picture shows the back door out onto the unfinished courtyard. A far cry from the cramped feeling of many of the village houses, this village house has open space, lots of original stonework, original beams, georgous plastering and limewash. We were smitten by the craftsmanship, taste in furniture, and ultimately the fact that it was staring us in the face all along.

Our budget, however, is not without obvious disadvantages. We cannot have everything, and must make choices. We put having a boulangerie, a bar, an epicerie, an outdoor seating area and Internet access at the top of the list. Outdoor seating seems to be the biggest "if" in the equation in France and at a dear price. This house at 14 Rue du Four has a petite cour (small courtyard) out back, but from an American perspective that would be generous description. With vision and sweat and potted plants and vines, I know we can make it a welcome outdoor retreat, but it won't ever be like sitting on our deck up at our cabin on O'Rea Creek Road. There will be tradeoffs wherever you are.

On the plus side: the kitchen/living room are quite beautiful and open and uncluttered; it now has three floors and if we wanted we could add a fourth, or possibly a roof top terrace; the entire third floor is unfinshed and we would be able to do with it as we please; it is in Leran which we have grown to appreciate; we know some people in the village already and the Simmons' are just down the Rue.

Click on the pictures to enlarge them and read the post below for more information.

On the Rue du Four, Leran

I hope Alan and Eileen Simmons like us because we are probably buying this house just a few doors down from them.

The pictures show the exterior, taken on a cold winter morning and some of the first floor, and one of the unfinished third floor. The present owner exposed all the beautiful old stone work and the original beams and joist and rafters ( le chevron). The kitchen is nice and open and well equipped. The picture of the third foor shows unfinished walls, unfinished floor and the light from the skylights through the new roof. It's a blank canvas which we will need to finish. It already has hot and cold water pipes and a sewer connection up there so plumbing another bathroom will be relatively easy....the decision is to leave it open or break it up into rooms.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

New and Improved Comment Section for User Friendly Comments

We've changed the comments section so that it is easier to comment. You should be able to comment without obtaining Google's permission. Je suis desole. We're new at this so bear with us.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

We Get High, We Get Low

From the instant we walked under the arch at Rue Porte d'Aude in Magrie, under the Cathar cross, and climbed up to the rooftop terrace to take in the 360 degree views of the surrounding vineyard landscapes, I rendered myself powerless. I am like a kid in a candy store---I want one of everything, and I want everything I see. The house in Magrie sits at the top of the hill, across from the church. The arrangement of the rooms was a bit higgledy-piggledy (as they say), but all the original doors and woodwork remained. The bathroom is about half the size of Doug, but it was the courtyard and two terraces that got us hook, line and sinker. The only building higher in the village is the church. The tradeoff was that the village has no shops, but a "bread van" comes every day, and other vendors make regular stops. This is the usual way when a village cannot support these services in itself.

When we stood on the lower terrace with our realtor, discussing the asking versus offering price, we knew it was beyond our projected budget. We knew we needed to think about it. We knew we needed to proceed slowly. An hour later we were at the office signing papers---the convention de vente. So much for slow moving; unfortunately the subsequent ulcer and buyer's remorse set in much quicker.

It is so hard to compare apples to oranges when house-hunting here. Many village houses we have viewed are sandwiched row houses, three or four levels with an attic and windows only on the front and back. It is a very efficient land use, and obviously not easy for us "big sky" Americans to appreciate. While you don't often see the typical American "yard" here, there is very creative architure in terraces being constructed. The house we are staying in (Alan and Eileen's) in Leran has a fantastic terrace directly off the kitchen, and they admitted it was the big selling point for them. Other possible options are converting portions of the attics and even incorporating outdoor kitchens, since this would eliminate numerous trips up and down several flights of stairs.

After the high wore off reality set in. We realized that while we could barely afford to buy this house, we could not afford to "own" it. Up at 4:00 am with churning stomachs, knowing the inevitable. After several hours talking and balancing the lists of "Reasons For" and "Reasons Against", we would have to draw upon the right of withdrawal that is a mandatory inclusion in French real estate contracts---called their "seven-day cooling off period". Nevertheless we feel embarrassed, foolish, and hopefully have learned that the candy in the jars comes at a price.