Thursday, July 31, 2008

Poor Suffering Spain

I am in the midst of reading a book about the Spanish Civil War, which as you will recall was a tragedy the befell Spain in the late 1930's. Much suffering was visited upon Spain for selfish reasons by the triumvirate of Hitler, Mussolini and General Franco. (Yikes! Can you say Iraq?) After the destruction of the Spanish Civil War, the nation was bypassed by WWII, and then ignored when the Marshall plan helped so much of the rest of Europe regain its footing. Spain was left to its own devices ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco.

We made a brief journey into Spain and it was somewhat disappointing for me. Now, instead of destruction and ruin, thankfully, Spain is experiencing the joys of a economic boom. Joy, however, is probably not the right word. Everywhere we went there was major construction going on. On the roads, in the villages, almost anyplace we went was the noise of construction. Most of the roads we drove on were experiencing major highways being constructed nearby. I do believe there are some major tax advantages that Spain has compared to France and the result is a construction boom. A few weeks ago in Llivia (the tiny exclave surrounded by France), we noticed the same phenomenon. There are too many new buildings going up and nothing looks settled. Construction cranes dominate every skyline. I suppose buildings were torn down to make way for the new because it seemed as if there was not a building in Spain older that a few years.

We didn't get far into Spain as we didn't have too much time. We had decided to visit Pamplona and the Western end of the Pyrenees. Because we weren't sure if we would even be there before nightfall, we didn't make reservations anywhere. The result was no room at the inn. Pamplona was full. We struggled to find a parking space long enough to get out and find someplace to stay. When Nancy did find someplace to stay, they would not take a dog, or it was too expensive. We ended up staying at an airport hotel that could have been in Oklahoma for all the charm it exhibited. I remember, from a much earlier trip with a college roommate back in the early 70's, that Spain was more rough around the edges than other European countries.

Nonetheless, we found some beautiful places and saw some interesting sights on the way back to France. We stumbled upon a Roman ruin with gutters and/or sewers still intact. I had no idea the Romans had been in this part of Spain, but they had gotten to northern England, so why not here. There was an amazing old hill town that was reminiscent of Italy, but neglected by tourists. It too suffered from the feeling of being a little rougher, more unkempt, dirtier and the climate drier than things over in France. It had a beautiful church, winding streets and amazing doors. We passed from this town on into the area impacted by construction related to the ski areas and recreational opportunities offered by the Pyrenees. Poor suffering Spain, indeed.

High in the Pyrenees

We just returned from a brief visit to Spain and the section of the Pyrenees over near the Atlantic coast. Our route took us over a pass high up in the mountains where we crossed from Spain back into France, and then over another pass from one drainage into another. I suspect the roads were built mainly to access the ski stations (as they are called here) near the top. The road between France and Spain was quite respectable and accommodated two vehicles in opposite directions without problem. On the French side is a pass, called the Col d'Aubisque, and it was really not much larger than one lane with a white dotted line separating the two half lanes. Complicating the challenging driving conditions were numerous bicyclists, some maintenance with a track-hoe and a few campers that had to squeeze over for oncoming cars. At the top was a building, some vendors selling sweaters and woolens and these critters; a herd of cattle, two donkeys and a horse or two.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

How to Buy a Loaf of Bread

Young Ellie (with good friend Sally) lives around the corner from us. She's been living in Leran since last Christmas, and moved here from England. I asked her the other day how much French she knew before arriving, and how her French was now. She said she could say "bon jour" and ask for a loaf of bread and now she was doing much better. I told her I thought her rather gutsy to be plunked down into the French school system and just "go for it". She said she gets lots of help from friends Strathern and Cameron, who after living here for five years are now fluent.

I told Ellie that maybe I ought to enroll in her school and just sit in the back of the class, hoping that something French would penetrate into me. She looked at me somewhat puzzled and commented that "I might be a little old" for her class. Maybe too old but certainly not too advanced.

Last week at the Marche Nocturne, I bought some fabulous pain (bread) at the table set up by the boulangerie. It had a subtle hazelnut taste, golden crust and forked ends. It was devoured in minutes by ravenous friends ripping off chunks as if at a medieval fair. I didn't pay any attention to what it was called, but intended to get more.

This morning my craving got the better of me, but before I headed off for croissants, pain au chocolat and "mystery pain", I decided to arm myself with an appropriate description of the desired object---an illustration. Many of you know that Doug is the artist, so my sketch resembles something Fergus could have drawn.

Avez vous du pain se resemble a....and I pull out my Picasso. Voila! "Sarmentine" he proudly points out to me as he sets down two loaves of the luscious forked bread, so that I know this for the next time. I realize my pronunciation of "du" and "deux" must need some work, but this is one mistake I can live with. Sometimes it's the little successes that keep me going.

The Stroll of the Bumblebees

They may have been dressed in yellow and black, but their sweet tones were a far cry from the sound of bumblebees. The Master Singers, all the way from Merry Olde England, serenaded the gastronomes at the Marche Gourmande Leran last evening. Under the brilliant stewardship of our neighbor Alan Simmons, the travelling troubadours will perform three more times before heading homeward. The groups' mixture of talented musicians and vocalists were well-received by the winers and diners. A nice addition to an already special night. Thanks Alan et al.

Good Times in Old Leran

Last night was another Marche Nocture Leran. Another unqualified success, to be sure. You can see some of the revelers having some fun. Nancy got a picture of the saucy sausage seller. The other two young ladies are our house guests. There is a concert this evening of the MasterSingers from Yorkshire, England. Our friend Alan Simmons arranged for some of his friends to put up the entourage and we had signed up for two folks, the drummer of the outfit, we think. Late yesterday there was an emergency substitution. The drummer was allergic to dogs (Fegus is a dog?). We were lucky enough to get Jenny and Becky instead. A fair trade, we think.

Surprise Car Show at Marche Noctune Leran

Well, it was a surprise to me anyway. I suppose it took a great deal of planning and forethought to pull this off. I did not like the guy on the tractor wearing my costume from last year's Spectacular. Friars do not belittle themselves doing farmwork. Monks, maybe, but not friars. But you have to love the image of the nun driving a little Citroen. A monk and a paysan on a tractor? I think this is a little suggestive of monastical hanky panky. What about you? Great photos by Nancy who is hardly ever without her little camera.

There were perhaps twenty or so old cars with costumed drivers. Or maybe it just seemed like twenty, because they went around twice. Last year the theme was the "sixties" with hippies, flower children and tie dyed duds. I'm still puzzled what this year's theme is. Maybe you can give us some ideas in the comment section?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Alphabet Soup

Just that morning, Sophie, our French teacher, hinted that learning the pronunciation of the French alphabet would have a lasting benefit. She had us practice spelling out our names phonetically: enn-an-enn-se-ee grec. pe-err-oh-se-te-euh-err. If you don't believe me, click on the photo to enlarge and practice your own name. Sophie said she would make a photocopy for our next class.

We needed un ecran de baignoire (bathtub door enclosure) before I can finish tiling. This is an item that will not be in stock, so I decide to try ordering it over the phone. I have all my information in front of me: "Bon jour, je voudrais commander un ecran de baignoire le Largo, la dimension grande, S.V.P.". Then I hear the fatal two words: non disponible. Not available. OK, when? NEVER! I now assume that model is discontinued. I try to ask if there is something like it, meme. The gentleman asks if I have l'ordinateur, a computer. Oui! Then the plot thickens.

He refers me to another ecran (screen). It sounds like he says "Odessa". I can't remember how to say "can you spell that", but he starts calling out foreign objects, some of which I recognize. I repeat "Odessa" and he repeats what sounds like "Odessa". I say I'll go to the computer website and call back. The website reveals the Odessa line of bathroom furniture (meubles), not bath enclosures. I must call back, but I'm too embarrassed.

I decide to call another branch of the same LaPeyre stores, the one in Carcassonne. I ask about the Odessa ecran to replace the Largo. Do you mean "oh-de-ee grec-ess-ess-euh-euh"? I couldn't grasp all that she said, but when I heard the "ee grec", or Y, I knew I was on to something else: the Odyssee. We now have an Odyssee on order, due to arrive cinq aout (August 5th). Thanks, Sophie, you were right.

Une Bonne Idee


When I returned my grocery chariot to the assembly line at the Intermarche Supermarche this morning, and retrieved my 1 Euro coin, suddenly I put 2 and 2 together. You never see grocery carts rolling around loose in parking lots in France. Why? Because they are locked together and you have to insert 1 Euro or an equivalent token to release them. You get your coin back when you return the cart.

I was taking these photos when I noticed a woman quizically pondering my activity. In an effort to reach out to native French-speakers (as encouraged by our teacher Sophie), I attempted to explain that we didn't have these coin mechanisms in Etats-Unis and carts go everywhere. I guess I got my point across, because she said that now I could send the picture to Etats-Unis.

We chatted a little more, I told her I lived in Leran, she lived in Laroque-d'Olmes. I said that I found this to be "une bonne idee". She agreed and added that France has beaucoup bonne idee. I didn't want to argue with her and suggest that one idee that might be changed is closing the stores down for two hours every day at lunch. But that's only my opinion.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi

Another of the wonderful things to do here in the Midi is to go to Albi and visit the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. Albi is close to his birthplace and claims him as a native son. The town of Albi is full of goregeous red brick buildings, as is Toulouse and several other villages in this part of France.

When Nancy and I were in France in the Spring of 2001 we drove from Andorra to the World War II D-Day beaches in Normandy. One overnight stop was in Albi. The next morning, a Sunday, we went to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and actually killed some time and waited around till it opened at 10:00. We planned to spend several hours there and go on to northern France. The museum was open when we got there a little before t10:00, which we thought unusual and very unlike the French to open early. We went in and began wandering around. We'd been there for about and hour and one of the guards started to shoo us out. We were astonished. "Why must we leave?" He finally made us understand it was time for lunch. We were ushered out, angry and confused. We looked at our watch and it was 11:00 and they were closing and taking lunch early? He made us understand that our tickets would be good for the afternoon as well. Of course the museum was closed from 12:00 to 2:30 for the long French lunch break. We got in our rental car and drove on north, mad at the Frogs and their weird ways. Only later did we learn that it was Daylight Savings Time going into effect. We were and hour behind the rest of France. Six years later we went to the museum for most of the afternoon. It was worth the wait.

Below is a brief history of the man, Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec.

Born on November 24, 1864 to the Comte and Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec started out with the cards against him. His parents were unhappily married first cousins, leaving him to inherit several genetic disorders that would plague him his whole life. Educated mainly at home by tutors and his mother, young Henri developed a very strong love-hate relationship with his mother. Overprotective in the extreme towards her fragile son, she even lived near his studios in Paris for his whole adult life. Her hold over him was so strong that, despite his bohemian lifestyle, he would dine almost every night. The Comte, on the other hand, is notable for his absence and colorful lifestyle. Often mentally unbalanced himself, he shared with his son a love for women and animals. In fact, Henri first learned of drawing from his father and uncles, themselves accomplished amateur artists. The boy became especially good at depicting the motion of the menagerie of animals that roamed his childhood landscape. At a very young age, he could capture several stages of movement in one image. His talent for art was one small blessing in a young life that seemed cursed. Art became a defense mechanism against the many ailments that began to plague him around the age of 10. Previously a very active boy, at this time he experienced severe bone pain and was hospitalized for a year. Next, in 1878, he fell from a chair and broke his left thigh bone, only to break the right one the following year. By 16, Toulouse-Lautrec was permanently dwarfed, his growth having stopped at 1.52 meters. This also led to a severe impairment in his ability to walk, leaving him with a very distinctive duck-like waddle as a gait. Because this inability left him unfit for much else, his parents were very supportive of his early artistic aspirations, providing him with tutors and eventually sending him to Paris to study in 1882, albeit with mother in tow. While there, he studied under Louis Bonnat and Fernand Cormon and became friends with other young artists, such as Vincent van Gogh.His career officially started when, at the age of 19, he moved into his own studio and received his first commission – to illustrate for Victor Hugo’s latest novel. After five years of academic training, he had become very good at doing what was expected. His own works, however, already showed a disregard for the rules. Although he never joined a formal school of artistic theory, he was clearly influenced by Edgar Degas, Honore Daumier, Jean-Louis Forain, and Japonisme. Perhaps his greatest influence came from the neighborhood his first studio was in: the infamous Montmartre district, bohemia-central for Paris. The combination of several scandalous nightclubs, low rents, and a reputation as a haven for the poor and marginalized attracted the young avant-garde sector of Parisian society, leading to further wildness and bohemian behavior. Toulouse-Lautrec and his artist-friends became particularly well-known for their exploits in the night clubs and galleries. Very quickly, Toulouse-Lautrec spiralled into hopeless alcoholism, leading to outrageous drunk behavior where his physical appearance and ever-present sketchbook made him very recognizable. As could be expected, his unrestrained lifestyle caused much conflict within his aristocratic family, generating many arguments over money and the use of the family name on Toulouse-Lautrec’s often-scandalous works. Despite these clashes, the artist was very successful. Enormously productive, he became popular both with avant-garde crowd and the bourgeoisie public. His career was marked by boldness and a hatred for hypocrisy in people’s relationships with each other and themselves. With frequently autobiographical subject matter and scenes, his works have greatly influenced even the modern-day perception of turn-of-the-century Paris. By 1893, the alcoholism was taking its toll, as those around Toulouse-Lautrec began to realize the seriousness of his condition, including rumors of a syphilis infection. Finally, in 1899, his mother and concerned friends had him briefly institutionalized, but it was more than likely too late. In 1901, while on holiday, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered a massive stroke and died a little while later at his mother’s house on September 9, 1901, only a few months shy of his 37th birthday. He left behind no wife or children, only a tremendous legacy of artwork, including 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 369 prints and posters, 4784 drawings, and about 300 erotic and pornographic works.
This is a summary of the "Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de" article by Julia Frey in the Grove Art Online at

Le Pont du Gard

One of the most facinating sights in all of France has to be Le Pont du Gard. Nancy and I saw it in 2001 when we were on a trip that included Italy, France and Ireland. We stated in a little town in Provence, St. Remy, (where Van Gogh spent time in an asylum) and made a short day trip to see it. It would be a much longer trip from Leran, however, it would be doable in a long day. For your reading and viewing pleasure I have stolen some pictures and a description and history of the aqueduct.

The Pont du Gard aqueduct is one really amazing masterpiece of Roman Architecture and was built shortly before the Christian era to allow the aqueduct of Nimes (which is almost 50 km long) to cross the Gard river. The Roman architects and hydraulic engineers who designed this bridge, which stands almost 50 m high and is on three levels, the longest measuring 275 m, created a technical as well as an artistic masterpiece.

Designed to carry the water across the small Gardon river valley, it was part of a nearly 50 km (31 mi) aqueduct that brought water from springs near Uzes to the Roman city of Nemausus (Nimes). The full aqueduct had a gradient of 34 cm/km (1/3000), descending only 17 m vertically in its entire length and delivering 20,000 cubic meters (44 million gallons) of water daily.

It was constructed entirely without the use of mortar. The aqueduct’s stones, some of which weigh up to 6 tons, are held together with iron clamps. The masonry was lifted into place by block and tackle with a massive human-powered treadmill providing the power for the winch. A complex scaffold was erected to support the aqueduct as it was being built. The face of the aqueduct still bears the mark of its construction, in the form of protruding scaffolding supports and ridges on the piers which supported the semicircular wooden frames on which the arches were constructed. It is believed to have taken about three years to build, employing between 800 and 1,000 workers.

From the 4th century onwards, its maintenance was neglected, and deposits filled up to two thirds of the conduit space. By the 9th century, it became unusable, and the people of the area started using its stones for their own purposes. However, the majority of the Pont du Gard remains remarkably intact. From the Middle Ages to the 18th century, the aqueduct was used as a conventional bridge to facilitate foot traffic across the river. The pillars of the second level were reduced in width to make more room for the traffic, but this jeopardized the stability of the structure. In 1702 the pillars were restored to their original width in order to safeguard the aqueduct. In 1743, a new bridge was built next to the arches of the lower level, so that the road traffic could cross on a purpose-built bridge. The aqueduct was restored in the 18th century, by which time it had become a major tourist sight, and was restored again in the reign of Napoleon III in the mid-19th century. The outstanding quality of the bridge’s masonry led to it becoming an obligatory stop for French journeymen masons on their traditional tour around the country, many of whom have left their names on the stonework. Markings left by the original builders can also be seen, indicating the positions in which the dressed stones were to be placed: for instance, FRS II (standing for frons sinistra II, or “front left 2″).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Men in Tights

To the untrained eye, this is what Le Tour de France looks like.

We were able to slow it down a bit, capture the leader of the pack and the laggards......

The route for Stage 12 from Lavelanet to Narbonne is 168.5 km. Once they got past Puivert and Quillan, it was a fast downhill course the rest of the way.

Just before the crash. It was Barloworld's Aussie racer Baden Cooke. He got back on the bike, but dropped out a few km later. We didn't get it on film, but this is the very spot it occurred. And these folks must have seen it.

Brit Mark Cavendish for Team Columbia won Stage 12. Team Columbia is a USA team. It's about time something is going right for the US.

Le Pomp et Pre-Tour

After our grueling 90 minute French lesson with Sophie in Leran yesterday, we headed over to the neighboring village of Chalabre to participate in that all-French sport of watching Le Tour de France. We threw the bikes in the back of Smokey, thinking that we might have to park some distance outside of town, and drove the back route through Camon.

It was trying to rain and we wondered if they ever cancel on account of bad weather. We quickly concluded "NO" due to the rescheduling of all the road closures and accommodations. Chalabre was hopping for a Jeudi midi, and faithful friends Alan, Eileen and Billy had a table waiting at El Chupito Sports Bar.

Some of the locals had tables set up all along the street, bringing BBQ grills, and providing themselves with full-course meals, numerous bottles of wine, and dessert. Several of the tables at El Chupito had been reserved in advance, and food orders placed, so we had to wait until considerably later to eat. Live and learn. I was seriously hoping that the promotion vehicles would be tossing out hors d'oeuvres.

Just in case any more racers were yanked from the pelaton because of failed drug tests, the retirement home in Chalabre brought in some replacements. Several tables of the old folks were there to cheer on their favorite. I'm guessing that a few of the old codgers were probably quite the cyclists at one time themselves.

The gendarmie were plentiful, attempting to keep people off to the sides. Billy (a former London Bobby) commented that the gendarmie were merely wearing T-shirts, no "stab-proof" jackets as they call them in England. We then got into a conversation on the psychology of aggressive behaviors and whether law enforcement wearing body armor somehow subconsciously stimulates aggression.

We just know that in the US, the lawyers would have required the roadway to be hermetically sealed from possible infraction by any human being. I could have just reached out and grabbed one of those racers at any time, I know it. But, I did not have anything to do with the crash. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

The sponsors flash by at speeds uncommon in American parades, but it certainly makes things more exciting. Their 'floats' are ingenious, but it probably gets old doing this town after town, day after day. But, hey, it's Le Tour! A few days ago I was helping out at a friend's chambres d'hote in our village, cleaning rooms for some of the press corps coming in that night. While I was there, a gentleman came to the door who was apparently in charge of arranging accommodations for 400 press members during the Tour. Mind boggling. Well, I did my part.

By the way, I'm convinced it's Lance who's driving the Etap Hotel bed float. Just click on the picture to enlarge and see for yourself.

Confucius Say

There is an old Chinese curse and it may well have been Confucius who said, "May you live in interesting times". My observation on the news coming out of the US is, "Wow, these are sure interesting times we live in". People losing their homes. Banks failing. Bees mysteriously dying or disappearing. Food prices rising. Inflation rearing it's ugly head. Untold millions or billions of dollars spent each hour/day/week/month in Iraq. Gas prices soaring. The stock market rises and falls, mostly falls. We have a president who every day sets new low approval ratings. The president, like Hoover, tries to reassure us and ends up looking like a fool. Wow. What interesting times these are.

Well, here in France nothing that interesting is taking place. At least, if there is, I don't know about it since I neither read a French newspaper, watch French TV or listen to French radio. But, in any case, yesterday we had our last visit from the plumber, or plombier, as they are known in French. He installed the crapper, or the w.c. as its known in French. He installed the sink and faucet and drain (lavabo, robinet et siphon en Francais). And he hooked up and turned on the water (l'eau) to all of those things. Yippee. Oh, frabjous joy. We have a new bathroom on the third floor (deuxieme etage, in France the third floor is the second floor because they for some reason don't count the first floor as the first floor, got it?). It needs lots of work to make it finished, like trim and baseboard, tile and a tub enclosure, shelves, etc. But its pretty much ready.

And the Tour de France comes to our neck of the woods today. We are going to Chalabre after our French lesson to see the excitement. You can count on pictures and descriptive words before the day is out, making it seem like you were there with us. Stay tuned, kids.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Language of Vacuuming

Thanks to The Ferg, we helped out the French economy yet again last week. We invested in an Electrolux ergospace l'aspirateur. While it's a tiny little thing, which is great for hauling up three flights of stairs, the compartment for hair and dirt collection has to be emptied about every 30 seconds. But it has proven to be quite a Fergus-fighter.

I had some difficulty assemblying the hose linkage, so I dutifully referred to the operator's manual. Like many of the products that we have purchsed here, the exterior of the box is crammed with information in languages that rarely reach the USA. Click on the photo for a first-hand view.

Some (but not all) of the languages included in the instructions are:
Eesti keeles

Whoever knew vacuuming could be so interesting?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Things For Sale at the Chalabre Vide Grenier

Vide Greniers in French means something like attic sale. They are like a Garage Sale but they are held somewhere public and a whole bunch of folks get together and sell all their old crap. The difference is what we and what the French call old crap. I thought you might enjoy the kinds of things people have for sale. Like an American Garage Sale, there seem to be very few screaming bargains but the stuff does seem to have a cachet that is somewhat above the "Made in China" plastic junk you see in the States. And of course there are the vendors who mistake a vide grenier for a public market and bring vegetables to sell. So, click to enlarge and enjoy, especially the face of the doll.