Sunday, April 29, 2007

All Decked Out

At 10:00 am this morning in Moab, it was already 80 degrees F, and I found myself retreating to the shadier patches of the yard to do necessary weeding. I also recently read that Great Britain is having the warmest April since the 1600's, and there are fears of a repeat of the 2003 heat wave in Europe that caused more than 30,000 heat-related deaths.

France has a much higher "muggetry index" than the single digit humidity of Utah could ever imagine. If there is a heat wave, there won't be enough cold showers, cold beer, cool breezes and hanging branches to make us feel comfortable. Thus our thoughts turn away from shutter colors to decks and terraces. A heat wave will no doubt hasten our goal for a rooftop terrace.

Click on the photo of the patchwork of rooftops and you'll be able to pick out a few rooftop decks. The French are masters at turning even tiny spaces into secret places. They are basically cutaways from the roofline, and are hidden from ground level. A south-facing deck may not be tolerable on a summer afternoon without a market umbrella, but glorious on a sunny winter day.

Our friends, Alan and Eileen, who are soon to be our neighbors across the street in Leran, have a terrace over their garage looking out over the river to the Chateau. I neglected to take a photo when we stayed there this winter, but nothing is quite as friendly under the low winter sun. I hope to spend a few evenings getting to know this terrace alot better over the coming summer.

When I am brave enough, I will include photos of the "petite cour" or tiny courtyard outside our kitchen at 14 Rue du Four in Leran. Right now it is dingy, uninviting, pitiful; but, nevertheless, it is outside space. It is tiny, about 9' X 15', enough for a table and chairs, some potted plants perhaps. The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by our neighbors' houses, so we wonder how much sun it will receive. This may be a blessing in disguise. But first, we will need to transform this space into a place where we will want to retreat.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Advertising a la Francaise

Back in the 70's in the days when mom and pop businesses were still plentiful, Doug and I saw one of the best advertising gimmicks in Westcliffe, Colorado. "Toad's Motel---Kids with Warts Stay Free!" We didn't have either kids or warts and we were camping, but I've tried to take a few pictures of signs or advertising ever since.
These photos are from various trips to France. I have no idea what "Baby Jesus Pur Porc" is, but I'm a true believer! Somehow I would think 'Sloggi' is not the image I really want to convey in slim-fit underwear, but I can't knock it til I've tried it. Doug and I have laughed over this menu board in Capestrang on our canal boat trip, so much so that we stopped again on the way back to see if had been changed. While we lunched at the restaurant twice, neither of us was brave enough to order the "salad in a warm goat". Ymmmm! Sure makes me appreciate good translating. The universal restroom sign in Beziers, however, needs no translation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Visit to the Ochre Mines

Last May, while staying in the town of Caromb in Provence, we took a drive to visit Rousillion, the town famous for ochre pigments. The village sits atop red sand similar to what one might expect to find in Utah. The difference is that in Utah, it is red sandstone. Quite a spectacular sight even though, coming directly from Moab, it was very small in scale. That aside, it was a very instructive day.

We stumbled into the nearby village of Gargas and found Dominique at the office of the mairie. Even though it wasn't her regular day, she offered to take Nancy and I on a private tour of the ochre mines a little later in the day. We felt deeply honored. Dominique was a Spaniard who came to France as a youngster during the Spanish Civil War and she was now married to a Frenchman. Her English was a wonderful collection of French and Spanish accents. To begin with, we visited the museum dedicated to the pigment mines and saw the tools, photographs of the old miners and I especially remember a map of the mines. Like anywhere with valuable minerals underground, over time, they had a myriad of tunnels running beneath the surface and it looked to me as they left only enough to support itself from collapse.

Back in the days before WWII they used to mine the pigments just as you would any other underground mineral. They dug shafts by hand, horizontally at a cliff face, into the pigment rich earth. At first the shafts were quite small, but over time they were enlarged downward. Using small rounded shovels, they enlarged the shafts until they were too big to deal with. In the photos, you can see the marks the shovels left on the side of the tunnel walls. They have since closed up the mine shafts and put doors on them so people can't get into trouble in there. But Dominique took us into one of the shafts and it was probably 30 degrees (F) cooler inside. As you can see, the pigment strata are very thick, occuring approximatley 60 to 80 feet below the surface.

Nowadays they mine the pigment like you would mine coal in Montana, that is, by removing the overburden with large equipment. The original ore varies in color from light to deep yellow, dependent upon the quantity of iron oxide it contains. The pigment ore is taken down the road to be processed in a manner similar to what was done years ago with very few updates, just slightly larger in scale but with less human labor involved. The sand is separated from the pigment by centrifugal force, then power-washed into decantation pits where the heavier ochre sinks and the water evaporates under the sun.
Baking the pigments at high temperatures alters the chemical composition of the oxides and broadens the color range from yellows to reds, and every combination in between. When it is perfectly dry it is pulverized into a silky powder and sold for various purposes including making paints and as a benign agricultural dye, meaning to dye fertilizers, herbicides and other products put onto fields. Other uses include tints for face powders and blushes used in cosmetics, as well as pottery and ceramics.

All in all, it was a fascinating tour and I wish I could remember more information, like why the pigment occurs in Gargas and in very few other places, and the what is the chemical composition of the pigments. As always, if you know more about this subject, be sure to comment.

Unfortunately, these photos are downloading in reverse order from what they should be, so you are seeing the last part of the process first. Photos by Nancy.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Mirepoix and a Nearby Windmill

Photos by Nancy. Click to enlarge.

Mirepoix is a most beautiful town and it is only 20 minutes or less from Leran. It has quite a history. It is a bastide town which means it was hurriedly built in the 13th century by either the French or the British who were occupying parts of France. Part of their purpose was to encourage settlement of sparsely populated areas prior to the Hundred Years' War. They are generally fortified and have streets on somewhat of a grid. There are supposed to be over 300 bastide towns in Southwest France.

When you go to Mirepoix, you will no doubt notice the half timbered buildings and the arcaded main square. It is said to be one of the loveliest in this part of France. The square hosts the weekly market which is one of the better ones I've seen, notable for the amount of produce and foodstuffs as opposed to junk which we already have too much of.

Mirepoix also has a fairly remarkable cathedral begun in 1343 and not finished until 1867. Six hundred years in the making. The remarkable feature is the width of the Gothic nave. Imagine the difficulty, when building with stone, of creating a roof without the use of long timbers. They did it with stone and mortar, fighting gravity all the way.

I'm not sure why Mirepoix has an arcaded square as no one has been able to answer my questions on why it was built in that manner. I've never come across another town in France built that way, although I'm sure there must be others. What I mean by arcaded is that the ground floor is set back underneath the first and second stories (I'm using the French terminology here) and supported by large posts and beams, and here and there by a new steel girder. There must have been a practical reason for it. I imagine it had to with protection, but something more than protection from the elements. If anyone knows, please educate us.
The windmill? I know nothing about it except that I think it has been converted to living space. It's quite beautiful and there was a sign that says it was for rent.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Submissions for the Shutter Color Contest

My niece Sarah, and my sister Leslie, submit these photographs for our consideration. Maybe when they get a chance they would provide some commentary. I think these are all from Provence in the town of Beaumes de Venise.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Paris, May 2006

We thought you might enjoy some photos of Paris. They are of course from and of the Tour d'Eiffel. In the summer of 1987 we visited Paris as part of our epic bike journey. Of course we were fit and much, much younger, but we rode the elevator to the first stage. Not wanting to wait in the line for the elevator again, we took the stairs down and took photos of us climbing a few steps as if we had climbed the entire way. Perhaps you remember the photo if you saw our slide show. Ho ho. What a good joke. Last year, almost 20 years and thousands of beers and wines later, we actually climbed the stairs to the first stage. Don't ask me why. My legs were fatigued for several days.
So if you've been to Paris and know it at all you can look at the photos and pick out some of the attractions. If you've never been there you should visit. Remember, click on the photos to enlarge them.
By the way, if you haven't yet figured this out, trying to maintain an interesting web-log about buying a house in France is very difficult to do from Moab, Utah. On the bright side, we leave for France in about three weeks.
Photos by Nancy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On The Road Again....Part Deux

As if driving to San Fran and back in less than four days wasn't enough punishment, Doug is off today headed to Houston. Texas has always been one of his least favorite states, and even moreso these past six years. One morning over coffee two years ago, he sat with his head in his hands groaning "I can't stand it any more". The next day he left for Crawford Texas to join up with Cindy Sheehan's anti-war protest camped outside the Bush ranch. Cindy Sheehan tirelessly campaigned for a one-on-one meeting with "W", but he was otherwise occupied clearing brush and riding mountain bikes with Lance.

The purpose of this return trip to Texas is to drop off old "Smokey" (our '94 Toyota pickup) for transport to France. After further investigation with the auto shipping company, we realized we could ship to Barcelona rather than Rotterdam. This was a very pleasant surprise, as Barcelona is about 3 hour drive from our new home in Leran versus a probable two day drive to Rotterdam. A shared container came available and if we can get the pickup there pronto, old Smokey will be on the April 21 freighter.

We spent the past couple days sorting through tools, clothes, books, bedding, kitchenwares, etc. to fill the truck bed with goodies since we have this space available in the shared container. Of course, if the freighter goes down, so do our possessions, so choose wisely.

The sailing takes approximately 28 days, so we expect it to arrive on May 18. Our plan is to head down to Barcelona and be there for the arrival. Maybe this would also lessen the chance of vandalism, but who knows? The next hurdle, and it may be HURDLE, will be going through customs with the vehicle. One thing I'm pretty sure of, it might be the only car in Spain or France with Utah license plates.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

On the Canal du Midi, 2004

Click to enlarge. Photos by Nancy

From "Hot Sun, Cool Shadows" by Angela Murrills.

"One day, we promise ourselves, we will journey along the entire length of
the Midi Canal, west to east, Toulouse to the Mediterranean. But not the other way around, because the only stage of the waterway that intimidates us, and is thus best tackled late in the voyage is Pierre-Paul Riquet's masterwork, the staircase of locks just outside Beziers....Riquet was forced to create a link between two levels of water a mere 300 metres apart with an altitude difference of 21.5 metres, about the height of a six-storey building. His solution was seven locks, one right after another."

Well, we did it the other way around, east to west. Not out of bravery or being secure in our competence, but out of ignorance. On our second day on the Canal du Midi, we hit the Fonseraines Staircase. The first day we had gone through one lock and had learned just enough to be confused. The fourth photo is of the "staircase" looking down at five or so locks that we had already navigated. We went through the locks with three other boats and it was a tight squeeze. All hands were on deck as the boats jostled about in the moving water. Then, as the water quickly flowed into the lock after the gates closed, the boat would thrash about and pitch and roll. You had to be roped up properly or your boat would knock into the others. And since we were gaining elevation, we had to take up the slack in the ropes as the boats rose in relationship to the ground. Of course, once the boats were in the lock and gates began to close you needed to toss the ropes up 15 or so feet to a bystander who would wrap it around a bollard and toss it back to you, and you would need to keep tension of the bow and stern lines, take up slack, keeping your boat away from the others, all the while fending your boat off from the green slime encrusted walls of the lock. Well, I can tell you it was an adventure for a couple of land-lubbers. The challenges were entirely different than piloting a boat on Yellowstone Lake where the main hazards were the extremely cold water and fickle winds and weather. Here on the Canal du Midi the challenges were entirely man-made and more of a hazard to the boats than to the sailors.
All in all, it was very exciting going through seven locks in an hour an a half. People, on summer days go out to to watch the canal boats just to see them progress through the locks. Some people moved with the individual boats, some stayed with the same lock. Some shouted encouragement and some laughed at our mistakes and lack of experience. The only other hazards on the canal were the exceptionally tight bridges that did not seem to be either wide enough or tall enough to get our tiny boat through, but they were, and they accommodated larger boats as you can see from the pictures. Some canal boats had cabins that collapsed to allow them under the bridges. Other boats had to pull in their fenders to make it through the bridges because they were at the absolute maximum width for the Midi. The only other hazard we faced was a very long canal boat that we encountered coming around a tight curve in the canal. Since the boat was long and the curve tight, it took up the entire width of the canal. They waved us to the left side and we squeaked by on the wrong side.
This summer we intend to spend a day travelling to Beziers and going to the Staircase to watch some brand new sailors go through the locks.
We went westward for three days and turned around and came eastward back to Agde. On the return, we were pros and went through the locks with the confidence of Admiral Nelson.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Gas $3.19; Room $102; Beer $5.25; Visa...Priceless

The French Consulate in San Francisco, ironically enough, is on Bush Street. I'm pretty sure there is no linkage between the current Bush family and the naming of this street, but even having to say it must make some stomachs sour. We wondered if there was a movement to rename portions or all of the street to something more neutral until such a time that normalcy returns.

The French Consulate employees in person are kinder, gentler than the "letter of the law" persona conveyed over the phone. Or, maybe it was just that we had dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's just so. My greatest fear, the letter from the insurance company swearing that they would cover us in case of medical emergency---ONLY AS LONG AS WE CONTINUED TO MAKE OUR PAYMENTS---passed muster. No questions asked. In fact, our only stumbling block was getting through the entrance door. The guard was not an overly friendly sort and insisted that I was wearing too much metal, so an additional trip past the detector was necessary. (I thought it funny that the guard, an old Chinese gentleman, perhaps a retired SF policeman, was speaking to the French staff in English, which seemed to be the second language for both of them.)

As we were sitting in the straightback chairs waiting to be called to go up to the glass wall with the speaking hole at the bottom, I did overhear a few people who were having some paperwork snafus. One woman was blaming her lack of proper paperwork on her computer printer and was hoping this new "the dog ate my homework" excuse would be accepted---wrong! She left perhaps not to return. A man was attempting to fineagle a few additional visas since he was planning several additional satellite trips. I'm not sure how that worked out.

When all is said and done, we drove nearly 2000 miles across some of the most desolate countryside, spent a mere 18 hours in one of the most beautiful US cities, and paid $262 for the right to remain in France an additional few months. And, if we want to stay more than 90 days again next year..........we will be allowed to repeat the process again! But, ooo la la, they are good looking.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

On the Road Again

We are traveling along the "loneliest highway in America"---Hwy. 50 across Utah and Nevada, headed to San Francisco. I-80 to the north has taken all the truck traffic, and apparently all the other traffic too, so that the only thing to break your view is an occasional tumbleweed or herd of sheep crossing the road. We literally drove for an hour without seeing another vehicle. Suddenly there were flashing lights ahead, and we came upon a highway patrol vehicle alongside what must have been a recent rollover....or maybe not so recent.

Our appointments to apply for the Visa Sejour Temporaire at the French Consulate are Wednesday morning at 9 am. We have separate appointments, so I have prepared our documents in separate folders. I am reminded of an old Calvin and Hobbes segment, and I'm sure it will ring a few bells with fans out there of the old comic strip. Calvin is doing a report on "bats" for school; and rather than putting any effort into researching the topic, he concludes that if he puts his report in a 'clear plastic folder' his teacher will be wowwed. Unfortunately, Calvin loses out as he starts out with an erroneous fact that "bats are bugs" and is immediately called down by his good friend Suzi. Well, I'm no Calvin---I've spent hours and hours negotiating on the phone with our insurance company; I've contemplated on becoming a document forger; I've photocopied and assembled all the required documents in neat little piles; but I resisted using a clear plastic folder.

The idea of driving nearly 1000 miles one-way for a 30 minute meeting with an unknown outcome does seem open for questions at this point. Are we insane? The visa officer at the Consulate one day told me that if I thought it was hard to obtain this Visa Sejour Temporaire, I ought to see how hard it is for them (the French) to get Visas to remain in the US. Point well taken! And so, perhaps, 30 midnights from now...none of this will matter.............

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Market Day

If you've been to France, or Italy, Spain or Ireland or numerous other places, you know about the markets and market day. If you haven't, then I will tell you that you are missing a visual treat. And it tickles most of the remaining senses as well, the smells, the tastes, the sounds. So, for the uninitiated...... most small towns and even the larger towns have a market day, or sometimes two a week. Travelling vendors in all types of vehicles arrive before the crack of dawn and set up their items for sale. Let's see, there are wine vendors, beer makers (you perhaps notice I start with my two favorites) vegetable sellers, butchers, spices, cheeses, clothing, knife sharpeners, gadgets, fabrics and on and on. You see chickens and pigeons, ducks. Soaps, hats, tools. I suppose anything you could transport in a van and someone could haul home in a market basket has been offered for sale at a French market. (I must mention, however, that some of the stuff offered for sale could charitably be described as junk.) The only thing like it in the United States is the Pike Place Market in Seattle, which is absolutely marvellous, and the French Market in New Orleans. There are some great Farmer's Markets in various places like Bozeman and a tiny one in Moab which has some good veggies on summer Saturday mornings.
I have memories of the markets in Ireland having coverings of all sorts for the vendors and their products because of the constant rain. And I remember being astounded by the incredible number of tweed products; hats, vests, jackets, pants, scarves, and tweed earmuffs. I'm sure there was a tweed underwear vendor too.
There are some good markets in sheltered but unheated spaces in France, "halles" as they are called. Mirepoix has an outdoor market and we went there on a cold day this January. I've seen cold days in Montana and in Yellowstone and this day didn't really compare. But I wasn't quite dressed for the cold at the Mirepoix market either and we had to repair to the cafe for a cup of coffee. It didn't seem to bother the little old ladies scurrying around gathering up the week's groceries. It didn't seem to bother the vendors either, who were out there wrapped up in insulated coveralls, wool hats and mittens. The sun helped a little, but I know these vendors are generally in the same spot, summer and winter. What might be a fine spot in the shade in August could be pretty miserable in January, and verse visa.
My favorite vendors from the south of France are the Paellea vendors. They make these vast pans of rice, mussels, chicken, shrimp, prawns, sausage, pork cubes, garlic, saffron, bell peppers, lemon and some secret ingredients. They begin the paella early and it cooks all morning, and if you're lucky, when you're hungry at lunchtime they will still have some left.
I hope you enjoy these photos by North of Andorra staff photographer, Nancy. As usual, click tho enlarge.