Monday, June 30, 2008

Tintin from Wikipeda

The Adventures of Tintin (French: Les Aventures de Tintin) is a series of comic books created by Belgian artist Hergé, the pen name of Georges Remi (1907–1983). The series first appeared in French in a children's supplement to the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle on January 10, 1929. Set in a painstakingly researched world closely mirroring our own, the series has continued as a favourite of readers and critics alike for over 70 years.
The hero of the series is Tintin, a young Belgian reporter. He is aided in his adventures from the beginning by his faithful fox terrier dog Snowy (Milou in French). Later, popular additions to the cast included the brash, cynical and grumpy Captain Haddock, the bright but hearing-impaired Professor Calculus (Professeur Tournesol) and other colourful supporting characters such as the incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson (Dupond et Dupont).
The success of the series saw the serialised strips collected into a series of albums (23 in all), spun into a successful magazine and adapted for both film and theatre. The series is one of the most popular European comics of the 20th century, with translations published in over 50 languages and more than 200 million copies of the books sold to date.
The comic strip series has long been admired for its clean, expressive drawings in Hergé's signature ligne claire style. Engaging, well-researched[ plots straddle a variety of genres: swashbuckling adventures with elements of fantasy, mysteries, political thrillers, and science fiction. The stories within the Tintin series always feature slapstick humour, offset in later albums by sophisticated satire and political/cultural commentary.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

French My Way

Alan Simmons told me the other day he was reading "Into the Wild" in French, not English. He was hoping to improve his already pretty good French. I decided this was a really good idea, but I know I would never get two pages into a respectable book. I knew if I was to use this reading in French idea, it would have to be something with a few words and a lot of sex and pictures, or comic books. Today we went to two Vide Grenier (garage sales in American lingo) and there were the solutions to my problem. Tintin. I remember reading these in English at my sister Leslie's house many years ago. A lady was offering the hardbound books for 10 euro each. I tried to bargain her down to five, but to no avail. We went to the Vide Grenier in Mirepoix and some kids were selling them for a euro and a quarter, which I thought appropriate and snapped them up.
Actually only three turned out to be Tintin. I obtained some other French hardbound comic in my haste to snap up the bargain, but, c'est la vie. In days to come you can find me on the couch reading comics and improving my French. (Click on pictures to enlarge for the full effect.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Not So Secret Gardens of Leran

When I happened to be traveling in France a few years ago, I was reading a book called "Educating Alice: The Adventures of a Curious Woman". The author, Alice Steinbach, travels not simply as a tourist, but immerses herself with a local expert to experience a sense of place, if even only visiting briefly. Ironically, I came to the chapter on the secret gardens of Provence at the very time we were staying at Joan and Drew's French country house in Vaison la Romaine in the Luberon of Provence.

In the tiniest villages of Provence, behind unassuming doors on narrow lanes or screeching motorways, Ms. Steinbach was introduced to secret worlds. People passionate about plants and the relationship of plants and personal well-being, poured their hearts and souls into these hidden treasures. There are no doubt those secret places in Leran, but I do not know them...yet. But I have seen the doors.

Down the lane from Rue du Four are the unattached garden plots. They are sacred grounds to those that care for them, some having constructed elaborate garden sheds and others more humble structures. These plots, while a short distance from the village, are deeded to village houses, and are sold with a house. They run along the river, and clever mechanisms pump water for flowers and vegetables. There is always a chair or two and a little shade. The fruits of individual gardener's labors are evident as they cycle back and forth with daily baskets of produce and flowers.

Other villagers take advantage of morning or afternoon sun and adorn the entrance to their maison with inviting wisteria, geranium, roses, succulent or even small citrus trees. 2 litre bottles of water are often propped next to the flower pots, ready to be poured to quench a thirsty plant. (Click on the pictures to enlarge).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Search of a Soutien-Gorge

After reading my post about my cultural misunderstandings with France Telecom, my friend Harley emailed me a humorous story recalling a shopping incident during her year in Provence in the 1960's where a better command of the language sure would have helped. In her own words.....

It reminded me of when I first arrived for my year in Provence. My mother had told me to wait until I got to France to buy a new bra, since the French made superior ones. So off I went to the lingerie store and there I encountered the short, fat 60ish proprietor who had pasty skin, a tiny little mustache and beady eyes. I explained in pulverized French that I wanted to purchase a bra and told him my American size, but he indicated with a fierce head shaking and emphatic “Non!” that he wanted my French size. I said that I didn’t know it, assuming that I would be given some choices to try on. Mais, non! He grabbed my left boob with his right hand, gave it a hard squeeze, and announced my size. I fled the store with my virginal face ablaze.

Oh, Harley, when I think of all the stories some of these shopkeepers have to tell when they get home---more than a few good laughs at our expense, no doubt. Perhaps it is a good thing you didn't have the rest of the 'soutien-gorge' experience that day, oui? Merci beaucoup for another great story.

Peas in a Pod

On our way to the Quillan market to visit the book exchange lady, I noticed this recent (at least from last summer) graffiti addition. I'm assuming Bush needs no introduction, and Sarko refers to Nicholas Sarkozy, the new President of France elected last May. After less than a year in office, his approval ratings have plummeted to percentages shared by those of the US president. My take is that the graffiti author recognizes the presidents in a two-peas-in-a-pod sort of way when he/she crafted the message "Sarko Bush are shit".

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Work in Progress

One of our goals this summer is to get a jump start on the third floor bathroom so that our visitors coming later in the summer have a bathroom on the same floor as the bedroom. Last summer, just before we left for home we had a plumber come in and rough in the plumbing for the salle de bains. You can see the blue pipes for fresh water to come in, and the grey pipes for the waste water to flow out. On the left you can see a drain for the tub; in the middle, pipes and drain for the sink; and on the right, water supply and drain for the toilet. The strange, large pipe running vertically is the insulated flue for the wood stove on the first floor. If you are very sharp you might also notice that the floor seems to sag in comparison to the horizontal grey pipe. This is not an optical illusion. Not only did it sag, it was bouncy. I did not want to replace the floor and sagging beams for reasons I won't go into now, so the solution was to build another floor on top of the old one.

And so..........we constructed a new floor by laying down the equivalent of French 4 X 4's, which will got covered with a subflooring and ultimately Tongue & Groove. This will make it relatively flat, relatively level and definitely non-spongy. Three pluses for any new bathroom. This was not an easy task, nothing in this old house is plumb, vertical, level or straight. One drawback of raising the floor was that we now have to step up into the bathroom, but find this is a rather common occurrence in old French houses.

Once the floor was in place and the ceiling joist were in place, the walls could be built. Again, we used metal studs. In the photo below, you can see the door and window of the bedroom we created last summer, along with various tools and construction residue. The old, not very handsome stone wall will get covered up with drywall, as will the metal studs. Some of the old beams will still be visible.

Progress has been relatively swift to this point. The walls are framed in and the door is in place. Soon, I will wire the bathroom for electricity, hang drywall, put down a floor and then call the plumber to come and continue his work.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Cacophony of Colours

Whereas the market vendors are setting up their tables of wares, produce, gadgets, vracs of wine, pain, and mattresses and drap housse at the crack of dawn, marketeers are leisurely in arriving. On Monday mornings, the Mirepoix square undergoes a transformation. Elegant jewelry displays sit next to underwear racks; wispy scarves dangle and tease in a slight breeze; polished produce shines with mirror-like reflections; clucking chickens in cages capture attention of little children; and multitudes of tables of 1 Euro gadgets, too good to resist, lure even me.

I always come with a list to the market, but rarely fill it. I am too overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells. This morning it was the colors that captured my attention.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

So Why Are You Calling Me?

When we left Leran last September we put our telephone and internet on "suspension". For a nominal fee we could retain our phone number (which took forever to obtain) and with the promise of a mere phone call from Moab to reinstate, I took the bait. Two weeks before departure, I started calling the France Telecom English-Speaking Hotline. My two favorite recordings---in fact, the only recordings I repeatedly heard---were: "Thank you for calling....all our lines are busy....thank you for calling back later"; or, "Your call is being handled in the order in which it was received". I could only listen to the latter recitation a couple million times before I had to disengage and move the next bloke one up in the queue.

Our departure date came and went and I still hadn't connected with my friends at France Telecom. I was resigned to making an in-person trip to Pamiers, wait in the in-person queue there and conduct business the old-fashioned way. We did this last Tuesday on the way back from dropping off our rental car in Carcassonne. It was as if I was blessed since I waltzed in and out with nary a hitch. I presented my facture (bill) to the young gentleman and explained that "J'ai la telephone et le internet sur suspension et je voudrais faire meme chose comme avant". What I hoped I was saying, roughly, was "I have a telephone and internet on suspension and would like the same as before. You must understand that this was a memorable sentence for me, and the last thing I was remotely concerned about was whether I had proper tense or proper gender stuff. I just wanted to see the light go on in the guy's eyes.

He indicated he understood, clicked on the computer, punched a few keys to pull up the account and Voila! Pas de problem, madame! Aujourd'hui ou demain, he informed me. Not bad I thought. But when Thursday rolled around and no internet I began to worry, and started calling the FT English-speakers again. No luck. No big surprise. No internet on Friday, so I decided to stay on the line until the proverbial cows came home with the FT folks. A good 20 minutes went by before a distinctive click in the phone line occurred.

I introduced myself with my name, phone number and stating that I had been to Pamiers to get re-connected but still no internet. The gentleman interrupted "So, why are you calling me today?" After waiting 20 minutes I was a little taken back with his customer service approach, but plodded on. I explained that I 'expected' internet service on Thursday, so was checking to see if something was wrong. (I think 'expect' is a word not to be used in dealing with French services.) He then changed tactics, and asked me if I wanted to receive my bills by the email of my choice. I'll make him happy and say yes, I thought. I made a grave error in attempting to clarify my email address, however, when he suddenly interjected "I do this every day for a living". Desole.....

Before cutting me off, he humored me by checking the account and discovered that the person in Pamiers had connected our internet to a dial-up instead of a broadband account and that is why it wasn't working. "That person didn't know what he was doing, he shouldn't be working there. I have now done it correctly. It will take four days, it always takes four days for it to work...never the same day. Good bye".

Four days would have been Monday or Tuesday, but Saturday morning we had internet. I think that person in Pamiers actually did get it right. And, he was very polite. Once again, we are reminded that if we spoke better French our lives would be much less complicated. The simplest things become obscure when your language skills are fuzzy.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Morning Ritual

Two months of rain and early morning soft light result in a landscape that is easy on the eyes, soggy on the feet, apparently benefical to the crops, and equally amenable to Fergus. With the shutters only partially closed (we're not pure French), the bedroom remains dark long after sun-up. I rely on two key indicators that it's time to arise: Fergus' stirring around, and more imperatively, that I have to heed the call of nature. I've conquered jet lag once again, it's about 5:45 a.m., and Leran is barely twitching---except for Cecilia at La Boulangerie, who is probably well into her day at work.

I'm allowed a quick cup of coffee, saddle up the critter, and head out. In the field next to the Chateau, a flock of noisy sheep are pruning the weeds and grasses. Through the fence, Fergus meets these alien species and is intrigued. (I find it quaint that the wealthy Chateauans, ensconced in their high-rise medieval apartments, find time to tend to flocks of grazing animals. It is good to know that they also "get back to the land".) We continue on through the lane flanked by Plane trees, a species related to our American Sycamore. If France has a national tree, I would bet that it is the Plane tree, since it is everywhere along the Canal du Midi and the south of France to provide shade.

I encounter a young mother with baby and four dogs circling the stroller. Fergus made a mad dash to add to the excitement, and by the time dogs and baby were sorted out the sun had started to rise above the hillside. Amazing rays of sunshine fanned out to the ground, shining on the moisture in the air. For a moment I thought I was in the Great Smokey Mountains.

My understanding of the water cycle is pretty limited, so I had to rely on Doug (the answer man) for some clarification, but these vaporous clouds were ethereal. The ground is saturated from non-stop rains of late, then yesterday's 95 degree F heat(@ 33 degree C). It's created a perfect combination. Warm air can hold a lot of moisture, but as the temperature drops at night it loses it's capacity to hold the moisture which condenses on the ground in the form of dew. There is soooo much dew that it is producing tremendous misty clouds when the sun hits it. Please, anybody with a better explanation, step forward.

Fergus heads off into some of the fields, lost in the grasses. Le tournesol, the sunflowers, do not fool me this year. I recognize the stalk and leaves, and know that before we leave many of these fields will be blankets of brilliant yellow. We look down on the village of Leran, shrouded in mist, and across to the Pyrenees with barely a hint of snow remaining. Everything is quiet. But in two weeks, the Marche Nocture Leran, Friday night town-wide dinners begin, and in mid-July Le Tour de France zooms through in nearby Lavelanet and Chalabre. Nothing will be quiet then.

We cut off from the road onto a two-track through some fields, past the camping-park and down along the river. It runs fast and high and clear. Last summer this path was easily crossed over on boulders, but this year they are underwater. The water is cool and refreshing, even in the early morning. If you gotta have a morning ritual, mine's not too bad.

Back in the Saddle Again

Nancy and Fergus relax after a nice walk in the countryside.

Yes, we've arrived back in France and are struggling with the everyday activities of trying to get the house back into a livable state. We drove from Paris in a cool, drizzling rainstorm, with Fergus sitting, as much as possible on our laps even though he had much of the back of the car to himself. I guess "clingy" would describe the way he was feeling. "Don't make me stay for eleven hours in a small cage inside a long, dark aluminum tube that vibrates and shakes ever again," Fergus reportedly said.

We put the key in the lock and opened the door to 14 Rue du Four and stepped inside. It was cold and dark........and damp. There were dead bugs littering the floor and cobwebs everywhere a spider could manage to go. We flung open the windows and shutters, turned on the water, filled the water heater, turned on the electricity, turned on the water heater and it began to seem like home again. We soon found things that we thought we had lost or didn't remember that we owned. The plastic tub of wine bottles upstairs were unfrozen and unbroken, praise be to the wine gods.

We're adjusting now to the weather. Today, Saturday is the third day of lovely sunshine. However, it comes with a price. Apparently, the last two months were somewhat rainy and gloomy. With the warm weather and sunshine comes the dreaded heat and humidity. Since we are used to something like 6 to 10% humidity in the desert of Utah, we're struggling with, and soaked with........sweat.

Fergus is adjusting to the fact he can't go outside on his own recognisance. He no longer has a dog door to go in and out of a hundred times a day, and he no longer has his own fenced yard. He must be escorted to the bathroom facilities around the corner. Our second day here, he made a leap, unbeknown to us, out the first floor window and took himself for a short walking tour of Leran. Luckily, our friend Billy found him at the bar and escorted him back unharmed.

We've visited the bar, Le Rendezvous, with it's new owners Marek and Shirley. What a glorious change. It's open almost all the time you would expect a bar/cafe to be open, and run professionally. We've touched base with a bunch of old friends from last summer. We've been to the building materials outlet for some floor joist, metal studs, this and that, to begin our bathroom building project. We've gotten the tires on our bikes aired up and ready to ride. We've stocked up on some groceries. We've been to Pamiers and had the phone hooked up again, and today the Internet service was turned on. We're officially back in business, I guess.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Return to "North of Andorra" Headquarters

We have no internet acess yet but here is an update on our travels.

We have arrived in Leran, but first let me back up and explain the last part of the journey. We spent a couple of days with my niece’s Anna and Katie in Burlington, Vermont. We had built in an extra day to account for car troubles or the unforeseen, like flooding in Iowa. But the time was not needed so we did our laundry instead and prepared for our flight. Fergus and Ajax became fast friends and rasseled for two days with barely a break.

We headed out to Montreal, Kate’s car loaded to the gunwales with a dog crate on the roof, four adults and one dog and plenty of baggage in the cabin. All went well. We found the shipping point for Fergus with plenty of time to spare, in fact we arrived an hour early, five hours before the flight, instead of the four advised. But eventually we got the crate put together, Fergus in it, paperwork in order (always, there is paperwork), and then it was time to say goodbye to Fergus and leave. Not having done this before, and not knowing when, if ever we would see him again, it was a bit emotional, but Kate, Anna, Nancy and I said “Bon Voyage” and “Au Revoir” and off we went to the Zoom Airlines terminal.

Anna and Kate then said goodbye to Nancy and me and off they went to see what two attractive, single young ladies could see in the big city of Montreal, Canada. They had booked a place for one night and were working on French translations of: “Hey, Sailor” and “Buy me a drink, big boy?”

We endured the four hour wait for our flight and then seven hours on the plane and we were in Paris. (May I say that somehow, the Canadians have done airport security just right. They have found the perfect balance between safety and the absurdity of inspecting one’s shoes). Zoom is no frills, none. No magazines, no booze, no first class. They have what you need; a meal, something to drink, seatbelts, two movies, a couple of pilots and stewards and not much else. We had booked extra-legroom seats, which turned out to be right next to the door. Nancy and I were the first ones to step off the airplane, about the first ones to get our baggage and about the first ones through the French customs. This consisted of two Douanes officials giving us a glance without breaking off their conversation.

Then began the difficult part of finding out where Fergus was. We drove around the airport looking for the freight area, not knowing for sure if we were in the right place. Sunday morning is rather quiet in the Paris airport realm. With difficulty, we found the freight area, then the address, and then our poor French led us on a wild goose chase from facility to facility, Nancy and I growing more and more frantic as each one turned up empty. I began to despair of getting our dog out of hock. It began to remind me of finding old Smokey in Barcelona. Finally we found the correct freight terminal, then the “porte bleu”, contacted the right person, paid the right amount and were told we could take Fergus. They would not allow us, however, to walk over to the crate, which we could see, open the door and walk Fergus out to the car. It had to be transported by fork lift the thirty feet to where we stood behind a yellow line.

Then a long drive (not as long as the one from Moab to Burlington) but long nonetheless in our jet-lagged state. We lucked out and found a beautiful old hotel and had a nice dinner in the little bitty town of Vatan near Limoges. We picked up Smokey at Bill and Sally’s, and Smokey seems to be in fighting trim. Bill gave it a wash, the only one it’s had since we owned it. It’s good to be back. The house seems to be in fine shape, with the addition of several feet of cobwebs and numerous dead flies and bees. All is well. Vive la France.

Friday, June 13, 2008

On the Road Without Jack Kerouac

We followed a cold front across the country, from Moab to Burlington, Vermont. Everywhere we have been has been nice and cool. Ahead of us, and behind us, has been a certain amount of turmoil. In Nebraska, we saw buildings, trees and billboards torn apart by a tornado. In Iowa we saw evidence of too much rain and we've seen news stories since of flooding across the central part of the state.

Nancy took care of business in Lincoln with the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. Fergus has gotten U.S. government approval to go to France. We crossed into Canada and got a few hours of practice reading things in French. Deja vu, n'est pas? Fergus was unimpressed with the effort it took to get him back and forth across the international border, in what I guess you could call a trial run.

Gas prices are at an all time high. We are paying about the same amount to gas up as I used to pay for a month's rent on a one bedroom apartment. Consequently, you might think the roads would be empty of cars. You would be wrong.

Today is a rest day, the first day in five days we haven't been on the road. We're holed up in my neice Anna's house doing laundry and making last minute preparations for the flight. In short, all is well. No automobile breakdowns, no surprises, no catastrophes, knock on wood. It appears our airline is still in business, which probably means we'll be flying out on schedule.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I Said I Loved What?

Somewhere in a long forgotten post I said I loved the word itinerary because it indicated travel plans were afoot. Well, I may have spoken prematurely. Our upcoming itinerary is rather daunting. Here's where we think we'll be spending the next several nights after we leave Moab on Sunday morning the eighth of June: (1)Denver, Colorado at my sister Peggy's for one night; (2)Lincoln, Nebraska where we have an appointment with the USDA regarding taking an animal to France; (3)Merrillville, Indiana where we'll have dinner with Nancy's brother and family; (4)near Toronto, Ontario, Canada; (5 and 6)two nights in Burlington, Vermont where my two nieces, Anna and Katie are living; (7)one night somewhere over the north Atlantic, probably sleepless or nearly sleepless; (8)and perhaps one night somewhere in France between Paris and Leran. Whew! That's what I call an itinerary.

I know. I know. It seems like a long, boring journey, but there are some high points I'm looking forward to that you, perhaps, have not considered. I get to see two thirds of all my sisters in Denver, and their families, drink some beer and wine and maybe have a barbecue. If that is not enough, then a visit to the USDA facility in Lincoln. Almost all my life I have been wanting to visit this magical place and I know you have dreamed about it too. I think there will be several posts, perhaps with pictures, regarding the place where some of the greatest agricultural minds this country has ever produced toil daily in relative obscurity. Following that, I get to visit with Nancy's brother and sister-in-law and not have to go to a funeral. I have met Jim two or three times in 26 years, generally because of a funeral and always in Merrillville. I can't think of any high points regarding staying overnight in Toronto, but I'm sure there are some, and if there are we will let you know. And lastly, but not leastly, a visit with fully one third of all my nieces in Burlington.

An itinerary like that would be the entire summer vacation for some. But not for us. We pay a brief visit to Pierre Trudeau Airport in Montreal, and then on to la belle France.