Saturday, October 23, 2010

Home Again, but Not Without a Story

We survived another trans-Atlantic journey but not without a hitch here and there. We returned our leased Kangoo to the Renault dealer and they gave us, along with Fergus and his kennel, a ride to the Toulouse airport. We got our boarding passes and put Fergus in his cage and sent him off to Denver. We then had to go through security which was heightened because of some unknown threat. In the past, travelling though Toulouse has been wonderful because of the ease of going through security.....but not this time. We had to take our wallets, keys and change out of our pockets, remove our shoes and belts, put our laptop and cameras in a tray, take off my sweater..........and still I had to be patted down and frisked with an electronic device.

We arrived in Frankfurt and after a bus ride to the terminal, had a quick jaunt of a few kilometers through that massive, dysfunctional airport, and through passport control. I'm pretty sure I know where all the grandsons and grand-daughters of the Nazi SS are now working. Yes....passport control.

Because we were flying to the US, we had to go though security again. Keys, wallet, camera, laptop, belt and shoes. We reached our gate and began boarding, but we had to pass though a turnstile. The electronic eye was supposed to read the boarding pass and allow us through the gate, but it didn't work for Nancy. By this time we were frustrated and angry. People were giving Nancy advice. "Turn your boarding pass sideways." "Turn it over." "Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight." Just before the mob behind her became unruly, Nancy got down on her hands and knees and crawled through the turnstile, the throngs cheered, but she immediately got the attention of the Lufthansa staff.

Then we squeezed ourselves into our seats for the nine to ten hour battle with claustrophobia. I swear, next time I am going to take some kind of powerful drug and just spend the entire trip asleep and snoring, perhaps in one of the latrines.

We arrived in Denver in a frazzled state, went through passport control, got our luggage. Fergus arrived in his kennel and then we went through customs. After Nancy walked Fergus, I took off in the shuttle bus for a distant parking lot where my sister had left our car. I had told her to put the keys in the tailpipe, and she had done that. I could feel the keys but I couldn't grasp them. They were a half inch too far up the tailpipe. I wandered around the massive parking lot until I found a beat up old pickup (I can tell you, owners of beat up old pickups don't seem to fly much) and lo and behold, in the bed of the pickup, I found what I was looking for. A piece of bailing wire was mixed in with some hay, a few sticks of firewood, beer cans and the rest of the junk that accumulates in the back of an old pick up. Voila, the keys were in my hands and off I went to retrieve Nancy, Fergus and my sister Peggy who had just flown in from Seattle.

The Denver airport is the size of some counties and closer to Kansas than Denver, but I got back there eventually. I drove to the concourse and discovered there are three levels. Unfortunately the one Nancy and Fergus were on was a level that only buses can access through a security gate. I didn't have a cell phone and I couldn't leave the car and try to find Nancy on foot. They would tow any unoccupied car in this age of paranoid security. I was frazzled; pissed, fatigued and anxious to get to Nancy's location on the secure level, not really thinking clearly. After about three trips around the airport at about five miles a circuit, I piggy-backed through the security gate behind a shuttle bus. It's a trick I learned, but had not used, this summer on the French tollways. The bus driver was on the radio quite quickly reporting the security breach, but I didn't care. I was finally on the level where Nancy and Fergus were waiting for me. Except that they weren't there.

Some nice security agent had informed Nancy that I would never find her on that level in a million years and she should move down the the next level, which she wisely did. Meanwhile, I was driving around the secure level looking for her. I was just about to leave that secure level before I got apprehended, and begin a search of other levels.....when flashing lights appeared in my rear view mirror.

When you are stopped by security, of course, protocol must be followed. I needed to be dealt with by persons much higher up than the ones that stopped me. I endured two lady security personnel tell me what a dumb fuck I was, while I tried to tell them how screwed up their security system was. I don't believe that either of us changed our minds on the major issues, but we agreed to see if they could find Nancy and let me know of her whereabouts. I'm sure that if they had not been able to find Nancy with a handsome black Labrador, and now accompanied by my sister Peggy, the security personnel might have found me very suspicious and hauled me off to jail, or to be waterboarded. After a mercifully short lecture by the chief of security I was on my on my way on another five mile jaunt around the airport to get to the next level, to finally find my family. The sight of them waving to me as I drove up was the best thing I've seen in years.

We went to Peggy's house where we were greeted by Tony and the delicious smell of chili on the stove. I sucked down a bottle of wine, ate chili and salad and went to bed. We were awakened by jet lag at 2:00 am, so we got out of bed and tried to quietly leave the house and start the six hour drive back to Montrose. But we were beset by one more frustration......a flat tire at 3:30 in Brighton. But I can change a tire like a NASCAR professional and soon we were on the road again with coffee, and an egg-a-muffin, watching the sun come up on Monarch Pass.

Friday, October 8, 2010

French Chainsaw Massacre

The biennial ritual has begun. Pollarding the plane trees. I have read some about this arborist practice of "extremely radical pruning"the leafy growth in order to control the height and size of the tree. It is commonly done to certain species in urban areas in Great Britain and Europe; but I don't think I have ever seen it done in the US.

Leran is now undergoing "French Chainsaw Massacre". A highly efficient crew is working its way along Cours St. Jacques, removing the canopy of massive plane tree leaves. For those of you who have never seen a plane tree, it is similar to the sycamore tree in the US with the papery-thin camouflage bark. I imagine these city employees having to attend "pollarding school", where they learn the techniques of cutting off just enough but not too much.

It may be good for the trees. It certainly keeps the city employees busy for several days. And by next summer, there will be a new full canopy overhead. But from now until then, there won't even be bare branches to look at. Because what is left is just stubs. Butchered stubs. It is like a blight has wiped out the village.

In a country that treasures fine wines, cheeses, breads, art, and architecture, it is aesthetically reprehensible to butcher the most famous tree in France.

There must be alternative solutions, ones that are more visually acceptable and yet accomplish the goal of restraining tree height and size. As I watched the crew buzzing away, it occurred to me that rather than pollard every tree every other year, why not pollard every other tree every year? Get it? This would always leave some leafy foliage until it drops, and branches to soften the harshness of the stubs. If you agree, drop a comment to your local city council person.

To say that Cours St. Jacques has that eerie post-apocalyptic feel and look would not be a stretch. Time to go.

A Day Out of Order

Our friends visiting from Montana, Ursula and Dee Dee, probably love garage sales as much as I do. So, when I was describing the concept of a vide grenier to them, their eyes lit up. In the thick of summer, there are hardly enough hours on a Sunday to hit every one being held. But they are getting a little sparser as the weather proves to be more unpredictable. Last Sunday in Bram felt a little like being in the Wizard of Oz. The wind was whipping up gusts that was tormenting people selling any lightweight objects. It gave us buyers the edge.

Ursula concentrated on one particular table, loaded with odd hand tools and old keys. These are perfect components for her metal sculptures. Her carry-on bag will now weigh double her body weight. Dee Dee on the other hand, outfitted herself for under 5 Euros with a fabulous scarf/shawl and a gorgeous dress.

Initially, I wandered around, not finding much of anything. Then I stumbled upon a couple folks selling boules. Not new ones, or even slightly used ones. But these were boules that I'm assuming go back a few years. One gentleman showed me how they have a wooden core, then filled in with nails or tacks in various patterns. Some of them had initials woven into the pattern. Of course, these were more expensive than the store-bought variety, but I just have this feeling. I was able to negotiate a little, and chose the "fish scale" pattern. The owner indicated that he was 58 years old and this boules was 53 years old (if I got my numbers right).

Since shopping works up quite an appetite, we headed to Chez Marie's La Table Cathare in Fanjeaux for...what else...cassoulet and chevre chaud and rose. We have been to this restaurant several times and have never been disappointed. The food is great, and Marie is even better.

When we drug ourselves away, the weather was improving, and we certainly needed to work off an excessive lunch. The next thing I knew, Ursula, Dee Dee, Fergus and I were on our way to Montsegur---and not just the village but the Cathar castle.

About half way up the trail to the top, I realized the gravity of our error. Doug was the smart one, by staying home and letting his lunch 'settle'. My cassoulet was rising. Suddenly I couldn't breathe, my chest hurt, there was a bowling ball in my stomach that wanted to be released. I had to sit down. Ursula and Dee Dee wet a bandana to put around my neck. People passing by wanted to know if they could help. Hopefully, I'll never run into any of them again. The bowling ball finally calmed down and I resumed the walk without requiring an ambulance.

I learned a good lesson from this. A vide grenier, cassoulet and a hike make a splendid day---but next time get them in the right order (vide grenier, hike...then the cassoulet).

Monday, October 4, 2010

The View Was to Die For

On Saturday Nancy and I, along with Ursula and Dede, our visitors from Montana, got out of the car at the parking lot at Queribus and our view was what you see above. It was the first day's outing with our friends to show them the beautiful section of France that we live in. In Leran, it was clear and sunny, but over near the Mediterranean coast, we had a cold and wet fog.

The view from the parking lot should have been something like this (above). My apologies to Jeremey Fressard for stealing his picture, but on a lot of other days, I could have shot this just as well as he did.

A cobweb at the first informational sign was dripping with moisture telling you everything you need to know about the weather.

We climbed the gravelled trail up to the fortified entrance to Queribus and I took a picture of Ursula and Dede taking a picture of me. This is the chute that was over the doorway, down which you would pour boiling oil on your attackers. Ouch. There were arrow chutes in all the strategic places; anyplace an attacker would stand to try to break down the door was exposed to arrows.

We could barely see where we were going, and we could not see the top of the chateau.

At one point, it was if the interpretive signs were trying to rub the nasty weather in our faces. There, below the stone guard rail was this sign pointing out all the majestic beauty of the valley below us. At least it's what we would have seen if we had more than about 20 yards of visibility. At the very top of the photograph above the rock wall is the gray void of fog. Still, the chateau was fascinating the way it was perched upon the rock and had a commanding view (or so it's said) of the likely routes of the invading armies.

Nancy and Dede were happy because there were dungeons and circular stairways, a chapel and a latrine, a cistern and a tower; everything a good castle should have. Queribus is one of the so called "Five Sons of Carcassonne", along with Aguilar, Peyrepertuse, Termes and Puilaurens. The five castles were strategically placed to defend the French border against the Spanish, which was somewhat to the north of the present day border. In 1659, Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain signed the Treaty of the Pyrenees, sealed with the marriage of the infant Marie Therese to the French monarch. The treaty changed the borders, moving the frontier south to the crest of the Pyrenees, the present Franco-Spanish border. The fortresses thus lost their importance. Some maintained a garrison of soldiers until the French Revolution, but they slowly fell into decay, often becoming shepherd's' shelters or bandits hideouts.

It was a very spooky visit due to the lousy weather. We all felt as if snow was imminent, but a few hours later we sat outdoors at a cafe near the river in Quillan and had a glass of wine in the warm sunshine.

Rick Steves Has Been There Before Us

Nancy and I were wandering around Minerve, over in the Herault, and we decided it had to be in some popular guidebook or another. We heard plenty of North American voices, Canadian or US, I couldn't say. The village of Minerve is in a gorgeous setting, situated as it is, along some limestone bluffs carved out by the River Cesse. Obviously, it was constructed there for defensive purposes, because it was sure hard to get to, even by car. The bridge you see in the picture was constructed in the years just before WWI, and it is intended for use only by the residents.
It was a town of narrow streets winding through archways and cobblestone pavements everywhere. People had found places to put gardens and terraces where they could get a little bit of air and sun.

If you walk through the village and down into the gorge, you can walk under the bridge and back up into the other side of town. Meanwhile, when down in the gorge you can see the two natural bridges. During the wet season, water flows out of the cavern pictured below. This is the smaller of the two natural bridges. The informational signs explained that just a little while ago (in geological time) there was a minor uplift in the Minerve region, and the river then had to carve it's way through the rock and over time created the gorge (and some natural bridges). Just like the Grand Canyon, only quicker.

I thought that this house on the rim of the gorge and sitting on top of the natural bridge would have been an incredible setting for a house. You would probably want a very good insurance policy paid up at all times, and wild drunken parties would be a very bad idea.
A few days later, our friends arrived from Montana and they brought along a copy of Rick Steve's guidebook to all of France. There are entire guidebooks on the Languedoc alone, and deservedly so. But, among the very few places in Languedoc that Steves recommends is Minerve, hence all the familiar voices.
And of course, Minerve has a colorful history. Once again, I briefly quote from Wikipedia: In 1210 a group of Cathars sought refuge in the village after the massacre of B├ęziers during the Albigensian Crusade. The village was besieged by Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester. The attacking army besieged the village for six weeks before it capitulated. They set up four catapults around the fortification: three to attack the village, and the largest, Malevoisine, to attack the town's water supply. Eventually the commander of the 200-strong garrison, Viscount Guilhem of Minerve, gave in and negotiated a surrender which saved the villagers and himself after the destruction of the town's main well. However, 140 Cathars refused to give up their faith and were burned to death at the stake on 22 July.