Thursday, June 23, 2011

Un Sac de Marin

Normally, a canvas duffle bag hanging on a fence at a vide grenier wouldn't catch my attention---even if only one Euro.  But this one wasn't just a duffle.  It was "un sac de marin", used by sailors in the Marine Nationale (French Navy).  The gentleman selling it proclaimed he wasn't the artist and was more interested in demonstrating the snap closure and carrying handle.  

Not knowing anything about any navy, let alone the French navy, I can only offer my interpretation of the illustration.  The sailor has his bag packed and is presenting his permission slip for leave to his commanding officer. The officer denies the request and informs the sailor he is to be punished.  Where I get lost is the nuance of the officer's statement in the balloon:  

Any translators out there?  Did this sailor get sent to the brig, have to swab the deck, or get his leave?  It's a Euro's worth of torture until I find out.

Ten Million Dead in the Great War

Almost every time I come upon on of these monuments, naming the dead of WWI, I get out of the car and take a picture.  I must have a hundred photos of these monuments.  If there is a village in France that doesn't have one of these monuments to the "enfants" lost in World War I, I'd like to know where and why not?   Yesterday, as we drove back from Pamiers, we saw three more monument that I hadn't seen because we'd not been to these little villages before.  These three towns might have had 200 inhabitants each, and a few more souls in the nearby farmland, and the list of dead always surprises me.  How could this little village have sacrificed so many of it's "enfants"?  I know that the UK, and Germany, Slovakia and other places have these monuments that name the dead.  However, I can't think of single town in the United States that has such a monument to the dead of the "Great War". 
Why is this?  I don't know for sure, but I am willing to speculate.  Look at the list of casualties as listed by Wikipedia.   France lost 1,397,800 of her young men.  That's 4.29% of her total population.  Germany lost 2,050,897 or 3.82% of her young men.  The UK lost 885,138 or 2.19%.  The numbers are absolutely staggering. I am always astounded reading accounts of the generals who so blatantly threw away the lives of their men to gain a hundred feet of useless ground. Almost 10 million people lost their lives in that incredibly stupid war.  By contrast, the United States, which came into the war late and tipped the balance over to the Allied side, lost 116,708 soldiers, or a percentage rate of 0.16.
I don't mean to diminish the losses of my countrymen, or diminish the effect we had on the outcome of the war, but our losses were minuscule in comparison.  There are no doubt monuments to WWI soldiers somewhere in the US, in fact I think I've seen them in larger towns.  But, make no mistake, there are no monuments in every little town all across the country with names of the dead.  No doubt because only 0.16% of the population perished in that war; very few American towns lost anyone at all. What a contrast to these three tiny towns in southern France.

We Stumble Upon a Solar Farm

Yesterday we were driving back from Pamiers and decided to take the back roads through the small towns in the area and we stumbled upon this solar farm.  We had known that France derives some 85% of it's electicial energy from nuclear power generation, but we don't know where the other 15% comes from.  By looking at this display of solar panels, it's obvious some of it comes from the sun.  At first, I thought "What a wonderful idea".
As we drove beside the site we realized it was absolutely enormous.  Lo and behold, we arrived at the entrance and there was an informational sign telling us the solar panel array covered 235,362 square meters.  For you Americans out there, that's a little over 58 acres. For you urban Americans, that's something like 58 football fields. In any unit of measurement it's a pretty big investment in land area that could be growing food, especially in this rich agricultural region.  Besides that downside, photovoltaics produce energy only when the sun is shining brightly, which is during the middle of the day when electric power usage is at it's lowest.  Cloudy weather, like yesterday, reduces the output very drastically.  And, there's more.  Solar energy, like other forms of generation, can't really be effectively stored except in batteries, so it must really be used as it is generated.
I'm all for solar energy, but every form of energy generation has it's downside.  We had three solar panels and four golf cart batteries at our cabin in Montana, and it was the most wonderful feeling in the world to see all that free energy pouring into our batteries on a sunny winter day.  But this solar installation seems less than totally wonderful, which I first imagined it to be.  For some interesting discussion about farms such as this one, go to this link,;topic=13973.0

They discuss many of the upsides and downsides of this type of solar array, including grazing goats in the solar farm, putting panels on buildings, and putting solar arrays over parking lots. And on another note, I reallize these photos are pretty boring and don't do justice to the subject, but it would have taken a heliocopter to get a good photo of the site.  My apologies, still click on 'em to enlarge 'em.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Patriots and Politics

License plates in European Union countries are a far cry from those in the USA.  You won't come across 37 distinct personalized plates per country promoting such interests as college alumnis, professional sports teams, state mottos, tourist landmarks, anything and everything.  EU plates have a circle of stars and a letter code of the country beneath it: F (France), GB (Great Britain), PL (Poland), E (Espagne), IRL (Ireland), TR (Turkey), CH (Switzerland), etc.  Some are more obvious than others.  I recently came across the above plate in Ax-les-Termes:  OC for Occitania.  Oc is a linguistic region rather than a distinct country defined by political borders.  But it is very political in this region, and you will see numerous stickers on vehicles displaying Oc patriotism.  Since OC is not an actual country, someone has altered this license plate.

Another highly charged political issue in the Midi-Pyrenees is the re-introduction of bears and wolves. For pretty much the same reasons that grizzlies and wolves find themselves in the hot seat around Yellowstone National Park, Pyreneean sheep ranchers contend that bears and wolves threaten their livelihood.  "Neither bears nor wolves" is frequently painted on the roads, this one headed up the Plateau de Beille.

Baaaack in Montana

On the motorway near Tarascon the other day a little Citroen utility wagon passed us.  Nothing unusual there, except when we noticed the cargo.  Then I looked closer and counted four sheep in the back seat and a man and a woman up front.  All in a vehicle about the size of a Toyota Rav4.  It was just like being back in Montana, goin' on a "double date".  And speaking of double dates and Montana, check out for hilarious postcard interpretations of interactions between man and nature.

Come with Me on My Morning Walk

Most mornings I walk out our door, cross the stone bridge, past the chateau and 
head down the tree lined lane.  I turn the corner and get
another great view of the chateau, this time with the tennis court.  The pool is just out of sight on the right.  I contunue on
up a gentle hill, through another tree lined lane.
I continue on through more trees until suddenly, the little road breaks out of the trees,
and I have this beautiful view of the village of Leran.  In the distance are the eastern reaches of the Pyrenees.
On this particular  morning, the hayfield had just been mowed but hadn't been gathered up into large round bales.
At the top of the hill I take a left and head down a little grass path used by walkers, bicycle and horses.
The path takes a left at the River Touyre,
which flows under a small footbridge,
and back to the beginning where it flows beneath the old stone bridge near our house, and I'm home. (Click on 'em to enlarge 'em.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are You Feeling Stressed and Irritable?

Then play this short video and perhaps it will help you relax.  This little video is taken at the end of the paved road on the Plateau de Bielle where the Tour de France will finish on July 16.  There are cross country ski trails, dog sled trails and hiking trails leading off from the little station at the summit. The ringing noise is the cowbell that each cow wears so that the responsible party can find them (I couldn't decide on the correct term; shepherd, cowherd, cowboy, rancher).  When you are close enough to them, the sound of the cowbell is deafening. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hats Off as Traditional Beret Fades out of French Fashion

By Philip Delves Broughton in Oloron Sainte Marie
02 Aug 2002

Farm workers, philosophers and gamines winking astride their bicycles made the beret an icon of French life.

Whether worn low over the brow, in the style of Basque shepherds, or aslant, like Jean-Paul Sartre, tipped back like a carefree Breton sailor or straight like a Resistance heroine, the beret became a symbol of France.

But now, it has all but vanished from everyday life and the remnants of the beret industry are struggling for survival.

Forty years ago, there were 15 beret factories in Oloron-Sainte Marie, France's beret capital, a picturesque town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Now there is just one, employing 85 people, mostly women, churning out berets for armies from New Zealand to South America, and a few for the domestic market.
But even the foreign markets are drying up. The Cubans, for example, now use cheaper manufacturers in the Far East. Their last big order, for 20,000, came in 1997 for the 30th anniversary of Che Guevara's death.

A beret bought in a a souvenir shop in France has probably been made in China. It will be very different from the real, hand-crafted French beret but few seem to care.
"We suffer from the savagery of fashion," said Bernard Fargues, the head of Beatex, the last beret maker in town. A thin, lugubrious man, M Fargues is all business and wears a beret only for special occasions.

In Bearn, close to the Spanish border, the beret is a symbol of rural independence, both French and Basque. The earliest record of it is in 13th century stone carvings on a local church. Shepherds found it warm and versatile, as it rarely blew off in mountain storms and could be pulled over the eyes at night. It became known as the beret basque.

Its popularity surged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in France and soon the fashion industry adopted it, making it a popular item for American women in the 1920s. Then came the British army, followed by the Americans, and the Boy Scouts.

By the 1950s, the beret was everywhere, on children and celebrities, such as Che, the jazz musician Thelonius Monk and the artist Picasso. There was even a French cartoon superhero, SuperDupont, who wore a beret and striped shirt and carried a cockerel.

"Urbanisation ruined everything," said M Fargues. "At first when rural people moved into the cities, they carried on wearing the beret. And the intellectuals began to wear it as a symbol of solidarity.

"They were cheaper than the formal hats that the bourgeois wore. But then people stopped wearing berets in the towns because it came to be seen as a sign of a provincial, a peasant. Beret wearing declined in proportion to the rural exodus."
French newspaper cartoonists still use the beret as shorthand for pompous jingoism or nostalgia in politicians. Older men in rural communities, especially in the south, still wear them.

But Beatex and the only other French maker, Blancq-Olibet, in the nearby town of Nay, have had to lay off workers in recent years. Blancq-Olibet has set up a small museum to try to boost interest in the product.

"We've thought about asking for government help," said M Fargues. "It hasn't yet come to that, but it's not easy. The Americans are particularly protective of their beret makers, which deprives us of a big market."  His factory produces 700,000 berets a year, of which just a tenth are the traditional berets basques.
Among the French, though, the beret seems to have retreated to its rural domain, patiently waiting for its next turn in the spotlight.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hot Hot Air

Sometimes at a vide grenier, I see an item that isn't just the typical bed linens or baby clothes or old tools. Yes, sometimes there really are those one-or-a-kind things that deserve notice. Such is the Mari Gonflable, the inflatable husband. As the packaging highlights, M. Gonflable possesses superior qualities:

All your friends will love him. No danger of annoying your parents. Always tries to be pleasing. Doesn't watch football on TV. Never farts. 100% faithful. and...floats!

If you are interested in acquiring 1 meter of pure happiness, then Mari Gonflable just might be your dream partner. I did not take M. Gonflable out of the box to determine exactly what dimension the 1 meter referred. In the interest allowing others to partake this experience, I left M. Gonflable on the table in La Bastide S/l'Hers.

Where Carte Bancaire Is Not Welcome

We were just getting into the car after a couple hours wandering around the castle of Saissac when the noon church bells started chiming. To me, this is always a good sound because it means restaurants in France will begin serving lunch. Not a minute before. Then we realized that there was a welcoming restaurant just across from the car park, and the sun was shining for the first time in nearly two weeks. Serendipity! We picked the table in the fullest sun, ordered lunch and a pichet of rose, and felt good. Doug's quiche lorraine starter literally hung over the edges of the plate so I easily talked him into a few bites. His chicken curry and my lasagne evaporated before I even thought of taking a few photos of the presentation. We rarely have coffee with lunch, but this day we just didn't want to abandon the sunshine after the slimy weather we had been suffering.

The proprietor, who had earlier proudly told us that he had been to New York, brought the bill. When I handed him my Carte Bancaire card, he both verbally and demonstratively indicated that he did not take that card. I offered my Visa, but soon discovered no plastic was acceptable. He suggested a check, which I did not have. I asked him why he did not accept credit cards, a young man sitting at the bar responded something to the effect that "we are not Parisians." The proprietor concurred, with a sense of honor in his demeanor. I suggested that I would go to the bank and asked where the nearest CredAg was. "Carcassonne" I was told. That didn't seem logical at the time. I scoured my purse for Euros, turning up no paper bills but only small coinage being saved to use at vide greniers. I had approximately 18 Euros, which I offered to apply to the 40 Euro bill.

The proprietor then asked me for an ID, and I understood that he would hold it ransom until I mailed him a check. Upon receipt of my payment he would return mail my driver's license. Since the Leran La Poste wasn't open Friday, my chauffeur drove me to Laroque d'Olmes. Within thirty minutes of transacting my business at La Poste, I regretted not including a self-addressed stamped envelope to make the proprietor's part easier. With no mail delivery on Monday (the day after Pentecost) I don't expect my check to arrive until Wednesday.

In the meanwhile, if anyone sees my Colorado driver's license being offered for sale on Ebay, please let me know. I'd include a photo of it for authenticity, but I'm unable to right now. I'm also making sure I carry some real cash with me from now on.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The SILENCE of Oradour-sur-Glane

At the entrance of the destroyed village of Oradour-sur-Glane, a large weathered sign rests at the base of a tree. "SILENCE" is its only caution. This visit will be painful. The village that exists after the events of June 10, 1944, cannot help but evoke a gut-level reaction. This did not occur hundreds of years ago. It was not a radical religious incident. As if to think that either of those situations would justify, let alone explain, what happened.

Walking down the streets of Oradour-sur-Glane was surreal. I felt like I was on location of a Hollywood movie set. It was like a giant grotesque dollhouse. Doors, windows and roofs were missing, and walls were crumbling. The cityscape was disturbing, abandoned. What could burn, did...and disappeared forever. What didn't burn were objects of metal, iron and steel. These materials, usually considered cold and calculating, are what today gives Oradour-sur-Glane its lasting humanness. Their tortured form is part of the monument and have not been moved.

We began our journey walking down Rue Emile Desourteaux. Name plates have been erected outside numerous buildings, identifying the inhabitants and/or shop proprietors on June 10, 1944: Vin-Spiriteux -- L. Denis; Forgeron -- D.-B. Beaulieu; Carrier-Puisatier -- J.-B. Doire; or Courtier -- M. Picat, to name a few.

We read the signs as we looked inside the buildings, and imagined what their lives were like before 2:00 pm on that June day. The objects of iron and steel that remain in these houses link us to L. Denis, D.B. Beaulieu, J.B. Doire and M. Picat, their families, and to what happened that day. This is all that is left of the lives of 642 people, but it helps to tell their story. They were alive, engaged in their occupations, socializing with family and friends, or handling household chores.

There may have been people sitting at the cafe, chatting about plans for the weekend.

Young girls might have been learning to sew their first dress on their mother's Singer sewing machine.

Teenage boys could have been tuning up their cycles for a big ride after church on Sunday.

Since it was Saturday, some men might have dropped their car at the garage to have tires changed.

There might have been people lined up at the gas pump, using their ration cards to top off the tank. In other words, before 2:00 pm, nothing was much out of the ordinary for wartime.

Plaques are posted on the interior walls of houses, listing the inhabitants present on June 10. The plaques tell us that entire families were wiped out.

Continuing walking through the town, and now we see signs not about the livelihoods of the people but signs about their death. "Here, the place of torture, a group of men were massacred and burned by the Nazis. Meditate." Another sign reads "Here were found two bodies burned to ashes." The descriptions are not intended to be pretty, but accurate.

Inside the church it feels especially cold. The rain begins to fall harder through the roofless structure. The church is good-sized, but I try to imagine 240 women and 205 children and babies being locked in here on a June day that is not cold and rainy. This is where all but one woman was burned to death. The altar and baptismal font have been damaged. On the floor in front of the altar lies a collapsed baby pram. Was this mother out on promenade when she was so ruthlessly rounded up? Twenty children murdered that day were less than one year old.

Small personal artifacts that were found afterwards were placed in a display case in an underground memorial next to the cemetery. One case held numerous burned pocket watches, all of which had stopped working between 16:00 and 17:00 hours (4:00 pm - 5:00 pm). The time on the watch indicated the approximate death of the individual wearing it.

The regular tramway from Limoges arrived in Oradour-sur-Glane that evening at 7:30 pm. I have tried to imagine what the passengers saw and felt upon their arrival. I do not think the imagination is that powerful. Recueillez-vous.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Sorrow of Oradour sur Glane

This is the entrance to the museum, visitor center and to the former village of Oradour sur Glane. On June 10, 1944, the people of the village were rounded up by the SS and shot and burned. Six Hundred Forty-two people perished on that day and no one really knows why. Survivors, of which there were only a handful, describe an almost leisurely process of the Germans rounding up the residents and herding them to the town square. They were then divided into six groups. Most of the women and children were forced into the village church. Other locations held various groups of men, boys and others.

At around four o'clock in the afternoon, a grenade was exploded as a signal device, and the massacre commenced. A handful escaped, one woman from the church, and five young men from a barn. After the machine gunning of the villagers, the SS set fire to the entire town with straw and hay, oil and petrol poured on the bodies and other flamable items tossed into the mixture. The Germans left only their command post in the village untouched. They returned the following day to bury the bodies and try to cleanse the scene of their involvement.

After the war was finally over, General Charles DeGaulle visited the village and declared that it should remain in it's present condition for all time as a reminder of the vagaries of war.

In this confessional inside the village church, two young children were found with their arms wrapped around each other. Their bodies were dessicated by the intense heat.

Inside the church, where the women and children were, was this marble commemoration of the dead soldiers of World War I. Two stray bullets from the massacre left their mark on the names from the previous atrocity.

Very little of the 642 dead was recovered due to the intensity of the fires. Most bodies could not be identified. In the cemetary, inside a sealed vial are some of the charred bones and bodily

The cemetary has a series of plaques that display all the names of the dead in alphabetical order. I didn't think to count the plaques, but I'm guessing there were easily six or seven of them. To walk through the cemetary was a totally different emotional experience from that of wandering through the village itself. Pictures of the dead are everywhere along with names, ages and their relationships to others. As sad as it was to see the ruined village, it was infinitely more troubling to see the cemetary with it's tokens of sorrow. Note: I just noticed that Monsieur Compain and his wife are listed on this plaque. His photo is in the previous post, leaning out of his bakery window.

In the days following the massacre, locals were engaged in cleaning up the bodies and trying to sort out the mess the Germans had made. This is one of the few photos from the recovery effort.

In our next post, we'll present some photographs of the town as it appears today, assuming you want to see them.

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there was a peaceful village in the midst of war-torn Europe. It was in Vichy France and the horrors of war had mostly bypassed Oradour Sur Glane. It sits some 20 kilometres from Limoges, the renowned city of porcelan and enamels and Limousin oak barrels used in the manufacture of Cognac. There was a tramway running from Limoges to Oradour and people used to come out for the day to picnic or fish in the peaceful River Glane for an afternoon. The folks in Oradour had rarely seen German soldiers and rationing and shortages were the only hint of war. In the picture above, Monsieur Copain leans out of the window of his patisserie. He would be dead in the very near future.

There was a newly formed football club competing in the 1944-45 season. In the top row are Rene Mercier, Henri Bouchoule and Joseph Bergmann, among others, but those three would soon be dead.

Here is a photograph of the boys school, class of 1936-37. Robert Hebras is in the second row with the large white scarf. Eight years later, he would survive while others in this picture would die a gruesome death.

This picture is of Georgette and Denise Hebras, sister of Robert. They would both soon be dead.

This is the girl's school photo for 1943. In a year, almost everyone in this picture would die together in the village church, either of bullet wounds or by the fires that followed.

It is very peaceful and picturesque in this photo from around 1900, but today, it looks nothing like this. As we know, southern France returned to near normal after the German invasion and the fall of Paris. The Germans were interested in occupation of the Atlantic coastline to prevent an invasion, and keeping the Parisians in line. Southern France, for the most part was left on it's own. On June 6, 1944 the Allies invaded the Normandy beaches and the French Resistance stepped up operations of sabotage, and everything changed.

A division of the SS began moving towards Normandy and found themselves near Oradour on June 8th. On that night the Maquis blew up a railway bridge near Saint-Junien, which is near Oradour. A few nights before, a German Sturmbannfuher was taken captive by l'Resistance. These events, or perhaps other events, led up to what happened on June 10, 1944. No one knows for sure, and the German Army and Nazi regime remained silent on the ultimate reasons. The result was the slaughter of Oradour sur Glane.