Tripping the light fantastic & bringing in the grapes . . .

I referred to my first apartment in France as the cave. It had once been a grocery, or perhaps a baker’s shop–I’d heard different stories, but it had stone walls and was very dark. Not so bad on winter nights, quite cozy in fact with the wooden shutters closed. But sunny days, even with the shutters and windows flung wide, it felt claustrophobic. To check the weather, I’d have to open the front door, step outside into the narrow street, also quite dark, and look up over the rooftops to see if the sun was shining. Emerging from the apartment, I sometimes felt a bit like a mole.
I’m now living in a third floor apartment that I like to think of, romantically, as a garret. It has skylights in the living room and kitchen and French doors opening onto a very tiny balcony. After being somewhat light deprived in my previous place, I’m now a bit obsessive about what streams in during daylight hours. I use the room with the best light for my study and over the past few weeks, I’ve developed a routine. I set the alarm for six, while it’s still dark, make coffee, and sit at my desk as the sky gradually turns light outside.

The skylight in the living room is directly above the couch where I like to stretch out and look up at the sky — stars lately after a period of cold gusty winds. Rain, huge quantities of it, during much of September. One night I went to bed with the kitchen skylight open — there had been a break in the weather –and found the kitchen flooded the next morning. But, minor mishaps aside, while I love the sound and sight of heavy rain hitting the skylights, the storms over roughly a two-week period were catastrophic: several deaths, enormous property damage and disruption of services. For a winemaking area the storms, which arrived just as the grape harvest was getting underway, made for a couple of anxious weeks. Heavy rains cause the grapes to take on more water, this dilutes the flavour and sugar/acid balance. Too much rain can lead to swollen and split grapes which leads to mould and mildew. I’d learned this a few weeks earlier walking through the vines with Brigitte as she tested the ripening grapes to determine when to start her vendange. While the purple blue grapes looked and tasted perfectly ripe to me, Brigitte split one open, held it out in her hand for me to see. The pips she pointed out were still too green. A few more days of sunshine and, perhaps they would be ready to pick by the weekend. If the rain stayed away long enough.

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While Brigitte was deciding when to start her vendange, most of the cooperatives and bigger growers were already harvesting. In Laurens, ancient tractors and agricultural machinery the size of double-decker buses lumbered through the narrow streets. On my walks through the vineyards, I’d hear the massive blue pickers with their monster-like jaws then smell the drifts of wine scented air as they disgorged picked grapes into huge vats. A traffic jam in these parts during the vendange was two or three cars stuck behind a brimming tractor. Locals know to pull around even from the last car position. It’s taken me a while to judge exactly the right moment to zip around a ponderous vehicle and into the lane of on-coming traffic then back again in time to avoid a head-on collision. I was less apprehensive driving California freeways. On the other hand, I’m now a huge fan of the ubiquitous roundabouts which intimidated me when I first arrived in France, but which are a boon as I drive around the countryside getting lost — my way of familiarising myself with the area. If in doubt, just circle the roundabout until dizziness forces a decision.

One Friday evening in mid September, I was still at my desk when Brigitte e-mailed to say that the vendange would start early the following morning. The harvesters were lined up — a team of young Poles who had picked for her before — and the forecast was for sunshine. For this first harvest, they’d pick the Grenache which grows on a plot in the village of Corneilhan about 30 minutes from the Domaine de Cébène vineyards and cellar in Faugères.

Brigitte has been making wine at Domaine de Cébène since 2008, but this would be the first harvest vinified in the brand new Faugéres cellar — so new that last minute details were still being completed on this the eve of the vendange. “Everyone is working frantically to get the cellar ready,” she wrote. “Rémi, the electrican, Tony, the ébéniste (cabinet maker) and Vladimir the plumber.” An early night, she said and no coffee. She and her partner,Pierre, and her employee Stéphane would finish installing the égrappoir, the machine used to destem the grapes and the groupe de froid, a cooling machine. Despite all the activity, some things such as the “handy elevated metal path,” that would allow her to walk from vat to vat (there are nine of them, each about 12 foot high) without climbing ladders. “I am wondering whether this shall be installed at all,” she wrote. It was, several weeks later.

I set my alarm for 6 a.m. although I didn’t sleep much anyway mostly because I was worried that I’d oversleep. It was still dark when I drove through Laurens to the Caveau des Schistes, a big wine cooperative, on the highway. Compulsive about not being late, I arrived fifteen minutes early and sat in the darkened parking lot with the car idling waiting for Brigitte so that I could follow behind her to the Corneilhan vineyard. In her e-mail, Brigitte had talked in terms of a military operation; waiting in the dark and empty parking lot I felt more as though I’d arrived for an assignation –or was truly desperate for the place to open so I could buy wine. And then a car pulled up. It wasn’t Brigitte. It was a man. He motioned for me to roll down my windows. He spoke to me in French. I heard, or rather understood, the word vendange–actually the only word I understood. A picker, I guessed. Brigitte arrived and talked to the guy then he drove off. He’d wanted work, she said, but she had all the pickers she needed.

By the time we reached the vineyard, the sun was rising and the Polish team was off to an early start. Soon it was warm and sweaters and shirts were discarded, draped on the vines like exotic fruit. By noon, the first load of Grenache grapes had been driven off to Domaine de Cébène– the first pressing in the new cellar.

One vendange down, several more to go, but with most of the grapes still on the vines, the bad weather began in earnest. Rain came down in historic proportions — in some areas, three months worth in less than 24 hours. Days of heavy grays skies, nights of more rain and percussive thunder. During a lull, I took a walk around the village. What I’d thought was a dry stream bed — something equivalent to the Los Angeles River — flowed with muddy yellow water. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of my front door slamming. The wind had blown it open, then closed. France Météo placed the region on orange, then red alert. Red, the highest means that all public functions are cancelled. Many areas were without power. I sat at my desk, distracted by the rain outside. As though I needed further verification, I obsessively checked the weather on my Iphone. I sent anxious e-mails to Brigitte who thanked me for my concern, but didn’t seem unduly alarmed. A local newspaper ran a picture of a vintner leaving his cave in a canoe.

Then a brief reprieve forecast for the coming weekend and a window of opportunity for growers to bring in the rest of the crop before the next deluge. Brigitte too had decided to harvest, again after a lot of consideration. Another Friday evening, another e-mail. On vendange demain ou on ne vandange pas? We harvest tomorrow, or we don’t harvest? The Syrah was ready but, understandably given the race with the weather, pickers were in short supply. The Poles were working elsewhere and Stepháne wouldn’t be available with his tractor — he was needed by his father-in-law who also had grapes to bring in. Brigitte was short of cagettes, the heavy plastic crates used to hold the picked grapes, fifty of them would have to be picked up the next day from a fellow grower.

Saturday morning I again left Laurens just before dark, this time for the short drive to the vineyard in Faugéres. I was not alone. The dim morning sky glowed with orange lights from a procession of harvesters and tractors en route to the vineyards. Although she’d rounded up a small team of pickers, Brigitte was anxious. It wasn’t raining, but the air was warm and heavy with moisture; mushrooms had sprouted between the vines, and a few grapes spotted pale furry overcoats of mould. What was needed, she said, was a cold, drying wind, but Mother Nature wasn’t listening. Weather wasn’t the only problem. The area to be harvested was on a steep hillside and the logistics involved in transporting picked grapes to the cellar were tricky. In Corneilhan a week before, the cartons of picked grapes had been loaded onto a van that moved slowly between the vines but the hilly Faugéres terrain made that impossible. Instead the filled crates had to be carried to the waiting van.

I walked up to the top of the hill, in the vineyards all around either mechanical pickers or humans stooped low over the vines. Clouds hovered over the hills, rain seemed imminent. I wondered if the weather would hold until the end of the day. It did. By Sunday evening, the grapes were safely inside the cellar. It could have been much worse, Brigitte said.
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More rain again and a little adventure. All the water washing down the hillside at Domaine de Cébène had completely uncovered a trench in which electrical lines were laid exposing, as Brigitte pointed out, a nice layer of Faugères schist. I went to take a look, parked my car too close to the edge of a muddy bank, tried to back up, got stuck even further and had to call for a tow truck. Or rather Brigitte called for me, no words in my limited French vocabulary to cover the situation. On the bright side, I now know how to say in French that my car fell into a ditch. Hopefully, I won’t have another opportunity to use it.

Finally, September rolled to a close, the grapes all picked and on their way to becoming wine. As though every weekend until then had been a dress rehearsal, the last vendange was a perfect performance. The sun shone, a light breeze kept the temperatures comfortable, the Polish pickers were back, Stepháne was there with his tractor and the area to be picked was the closest to the cellar–good for the grapes, easier for the harvesters. On the slopes an interesting blend of the old and new– near the bottom, the ancient mazet used to provide shelter from the hot sun and at the top the newly completed cellar of Domaine de Cébène with a brand new sign still waiting to be installed. It’s like the last lap of a race, Brigitte’s partner Pierre said as the final tractor of grapes was unloaded. We beat the weather, he said. “Nothing can stop us now.” And despite everything–a smaller than normal yield due to a cool damp spring and the September rains– the grapes are wonderful, Brigitte said. “Maybe the best harvest to date.”

That last weekend, we all sat around a table in the sun, eating lunch and tasting some of the freshly pressed juice from the Syrah. Vlad the plumber wore a black t-shirt that read I❤️ Doritos Locos Tacos. I wanted to ask if he really did, but I didn’t trust my French. His wife told me, in French, that they have a son in San Diego, so perhaps that’s where the shirt originated. Neither Vlad nor his wife speak English. Nearby, the young Poles, at the end of their working holiday in the French vineyards, were eating Chinese food. I asked if it was good. “Not bad,” one of them said. He spoke English, but not French. Vlad, whose parents were both from Poland, speaks not a word of Polish. A week or so later, Brigitte had a lunch to celebrate the end of the vendange. I sat next to a Swedish couple and we all spoke English. She had used grape leaves from Brigitte’s vines to make the Greek appetiser, dolmathes. Brigitte liked the symmetry of it all –drinking the wine, eating the leaves of the grapes, later, perhaps, burning some of the wood trimmed from the vines. I like the way that it does sometimes seem like a very small world.

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One Year In France . . .and a project for the 2nd year

…actually not till the end of the month, the 26th, but close enough.  When we arrived in the Dordogne last year, spring hadn’t quite arrived.  Here in the south, spring comes a little sooner.   Almond and cherry blossoms are blooming everywhere and while the grape vines are still dark and sort of stunted looking, wildflowers are popping up everywhere.  I’m told it’s still a bit soon for wild asparagus, but it’s been a mild winter and apparently there have been sightings.  Rebecca has promised to take me on a hunt. . .

Not quite six weeks before I fly back to Seattle for a few months and a lot to do in the interim — pack up this apartment, surprising how much I’ve managed to accumulate, and store everything, including the car, in a friend’s garage.  And, my least favorite part of the writing process–continue the search for an agent for the book I’ve finally finished.   There’s also a new project on the horizon.

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When I first came to France, I read a book, Under the Ripening Sun, by Patricia Atkinson, who wrote very entertainingly  about what happened when she and her husband left England to buy a vineyard in France and make wine.  Their first effort was vinegar.  And then her husband left her.  And then things got really bad.  I read each night with horrified fascination.  Sometimes I’d  lie awake worrying about her.  One obstacle after another –and her French wasn’t that good either.  I could definitely relate to that.   At times, I couldn’t believe that she didn’t just pack it in, but she didn’t and now, many years later,  she’s won loads of prizes and is practically a godess of wine making. Not only did I admire her tenacity, I also  had a new appreciation for what goes into a bottle of wine.  Living in a wine making village, seeing a bit of the vendange,  also whet my appetite to learn more about the process.

As luck would have it, my new apartment in Laurens is just down the road from the Domaine de Cébene where Brigitte Chevalier has been making  Faugere wine  since 2006.  Yesterday, we had lunch in Damejane, a small café and epicerie Brigitte and a partner started recently in the village of Faugere.

After lunch, we drove through her vineyard, looked at an old stone hut–originally used to  store tools and to give the vintner and his horses some shade from the hot sun.  By the time tourists arrive this summer, it will  be a tasting room.  We also checked out progress on the new cellar to be completed in time for this year’s vendange.  The wind nearly knocking us over, we bent to look at a gnarled and twisted vine that seemed more art than organic.  Carignan vines that the previous owner was going to pull up, Brigitte said.  She convinced him to spare them. “They’re  part of our wine-growing heritage,” she said.  ” I felt it was my duty to save them.”

As I listened to Brigitte talk about the land, the vines, the art of making wine, I was reminded of how it feels when I get together with writing friends. We might moan and complain about agents and editors who don’t appreciate genius when they see it, or the fact that fast food workers make more than most writers, but there’s a passion and enthusiasm,  an obsession, a conviction that despite all the ups and downs, the uncertainties, there really isn’t anything else you could imagine yourself doing.

It all seemed to come together–my own thoughts about the creative process, Brigitte’s sensibilities and, of course, willingness to be involved.  A Year in The Life of a Winemaker  will be a project for my second year in France.   I’ll be back from the States in September, the start of the 2014 vendange and will follow Brigitte’s work and life over the following twelve months.   At the end of it all, we both hope, there will be a book and some bottles of very good wine.

ODDS &ENDS FROM FACEBOOK

28 fevrier: Went into Montpellier yesterday and saw Grand Hotel Budapest–the ads have been everywhere on my International edition of the New York Times. We’d actually meant to see the Jarmusch(sp) film Only Lovers Left Alive, but walked through the wrong door. My second movie, I think, in France and again I was struck by the absence of the popcorn/soft drink vendors. Absolutely love watching a movie sans crunching and crackling all around. Cheaper too, given the prices of movie snacks. Ticket prices here are similar to the States though
Grand Hotel was quite a romp.
26 fevrier In the wee hours of this morning, I woke to what I thought was a motor bike racing through the village–it isn’t unheard of. A moment later, there was a huge flash of lightning and I realized that what I’d heard was thunder. Today, the sky looks sullen, the vineyards full of black,barren looking vines that, to the uninitiated, (moi) look dead. But all around the village there are signs of life–almond and cherry trees in full blossom– clouds of pink and white everywhere. The photo with the blue sky was taken Sunday, a glorious springlike day, in Minerve, an ancient hillside city with a bloody history going back to the 13th century and the Cathars but which today has some excellent restaurants with great views. I would love to have photographed my food, which looked like a piece of art, but I’ve read that the practice is frowned on. Anyway it was quite delicious. As I write this, the skies have opened up–springtime in the Languedoc?
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24 fevrier

I need a big, gloomy emoticon to go with this post. Last week, I began the search for a new agent for the baby (AKA the book) that’s been gestating for the past one hundred and five years, three months and ten days. Finally, I sent it off into the big cruel world to see if anyone might possibly love it. I loved it. Kind of, except that it had started to feel like a kid who is still living at home at 40. Anyway, I’ve been through this process before, many times. I know all the stories about rejection and how you don’t take it personally, everybody gets rejected, blah, blah blah. So the e-mail, an almost instant and depressingly impersonal response, from one of the the agencies I queried shouldn’t really bring on a case of the full-on, paralytic doldrums. But . . . I’m sitting here wanting to rip everything to shreds. I hate my characters, the plot is wimpy, I’ll never understand high concept. And, sorry, I hate my baby. Why do people write? I don’t really want an answer, I just want sympathy and wine. Lots of wine.

Oh Little Star of Montpeyroux . . .

Can it be that Christmas is just over two weeks away . . . and Carolyn and Bill’s visit even closer? Time zips by. Joe returned to the States two weeks ago and I still haven’t written about our trip down to Bilbao. Perhaps a road trip retrospective for a future post.

I wrote the last entry on Thanksgiving day, really a non event for me this year. I’d wondered whether my newly purchased car would turn out to be a bit of a turkey. Glad to say all the issues were worked out and I now have my carte grise–which means the car is officially registered to me. As I wrote on Facebook last week, I often feel a bit like a tourist hybrid–not quite a tourist, but not really a resident either. The process of buying and registering a car definitely made me feel less of a tourist as did the bank account I opened last week. I actually had to make an appointment to do this. Wanting things to happen immediately is, I’m finding, an American attitude which can lead to frustration in France. Anyway, I now have French cheques and a credit card which will help a lot when paying rent and doing business at all those places (autoroute toll booths, for example) that don’t take American credit cards.

So Christmas is upon us. Blue stars are strung above the village streets and there are holiday markets and festivals everywhere. Last Sunday Montpeyroux held its marché´du Noel. I ogled the displays of dried and glazed fruits, bought a bunch of holly then drove to another holiday event, this one at the Chateau Cassan about half an hour from here. Stalls and stalls of tempting things for sale, all set out under the curved and gilded ceiling of a building which dates back centuries. At some point a certain Prince de Contii, a man who evidently knew something about gift giving, presented it to his mistress as a little token of his affection. It’s said she can sometimes be heard playing the piano, but I didn’t hear her. Perhaps she was Christmas shopping too. I bought English Xmas crackers and a Xmas cake with hard icing and marzipan.

Life in the village can feel very quaint and French–the small shops, the traditions and sense of history. For me, that’s part of the charm of living in France, but it isn’t necessarily representative of French life in general. Yesterday, I had arranged to meet a friend at the Odysseum, a huge American style shopping mall on the outskirts of Montpellier. She has a sixteen year old son who wanted to visit the Apple store. Anticipating holiday traffic around the mall, I drove to the Mosson station and rode the tram in. I was early so I picked up a few things at Ikea then sat on a bench waiting for my friend. An illuminated snowman glittered in the bright sunshine, palm trees sported stylized icicles. As I listened to the canned music playing Dreaming of a White Christmas, I had to remind myself I wasn’t in Southern California.
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I have no doubt that life in France would be much more difficult without Skype,Facebook,e-mail and the on-line community. The ex-pat sites, there are many of them, are particularly helpful. Even before I left the States, I joined several, posting questions about everything from whether I should bring my hair dryer to France and the prospects of finding a writing group. (No to the first question, better to buy one and, to #2, since every ex-pat in France is writing a book there should be no shortage of other writers.) Survive France is one of my favorites. Last week, an urgent message was posted on behalf of one of the members who had recently suffered a brain aneurysm. At the urging of her family, she’d moved to a small village to be closer to them, but they’d dropped the ball and she was without resources or very much support at all. Worse, her internet was down, she was having difficulty arranging for the nursing care she needed and, not surprisingly, felt isolated and depressed. Within minutes of the appeal, the message boards lit up. By the end of the day, her internet was back up, nursing care had been arranged and she’d discovered the true generosity of the human spirit. Without Survive France, she wrote, she couldn’t have survived in France. A nice story any time of year, but especially heartwarming at this time.
Merry Xmas . . . in case I don’t catch up before then!

Rainy Saturday. . .

I’d set my alarm so that I could get up early this morning and beat the crowds at the weekly market in Gignac, but rain on the roof around dawn woke me before the alarm.  I burrowed under the covers, listened to the rain and wondered if I really needed anything at the market anyway. For the past month, first with Marilla and then Barbara, the Saturday market has been a source of entertainment; the cheeses, the olives, the mounds of bright vegetables.  We bought hugely and ate hugely.  This week I only needed to shop for myself–not quite as much fun and something that could be accomplished at the less colorful but well stocked intermarché.  I went to the Gignac market anyway.

Rain had kept the crowds away, the usually full outdoor cafés were empty and some of the stalls were already closing. Live chickens huddled together in their crates looked damp and miserable — although what a happy chicken looks like I couldn’t say.

 Since I’d left without breakfast, I bought a Roquefort tart from the boulangerie, ordered a café creme at the place next door and found a covered spot.  Sitting there, eavesdropping on French conversations, actually understanding a bit here and there, I felt very content, very much at home somehow.  Only six months in France yet it feels so much longer.  I thought of the first time I went to the Thursday market in Exideuill. Newly arrived, I was beside myself with excitement. I took notes, snapped pictures (see above) and was so busy absorbing the theatre of it all that I couldn’t even think about buying food.

Today, I bought half a dozen or so of the scalloped and bright red tomates ancienne, then misplaced my umbrella –the Dali one I’d bought in Spain– and spent the next 30 minutes tracking it down. “Excusez moi, je cherchez ma parapleui.” I found it.

Now, as I write this, it is still pouring but the apartment is cozy with lamps and candles and music playing and I’m enjoying that content and rooted feeling. Still, I go back and forth about what I want to do. One minute, I can imagine staying in France indefinitely, the next, I’m overcome with longing to see my family, to hear familiar voices. If I stay, I know I want to find a place with a terrace or garden–some sort of outdoor area.  I’d also like to be closer to a larger town–although if I get a car (and my French teacher’s husband and a neighbor are looking for me) Montpellier is an easy drive. I’m told I can easily sell the car when I decide to leave.

  There is also much about Montpeyroux that appeals to me. The friendliness of neighbors–an elderly woman opposite who told me not to wait for an engraved invitation but to come over any time.  She would, she said, teach me French and how to cook like a French woman.  That offer seems almost irresistible.  Although I regret that I gave the vendange short shrift (maybe next year. . . and my French will be better!) I am fascinated by the wine making process and its impact on the villages. I’m in the middle of reading The Ripening Sun by Patricia Atkinson. With seemingly wide-eyed naivete and no knowledge of French, even more naive, she succumbed to the dream of becoming a wine maker in southwest France. To describe the work as formidable is an understatement; reading a few chapters every night, I’m exhausted myself. If her account didn’t discourage others with similar notions, I don’t think anything would. Fortunately for wine drinkers though, the rewards of being a vintner are apparently sufficient to keep the wine flowing.

 As an observer, I love the prospect of experiencing the different seasons in the vineyards. I’ve now seen spring, summer and early autumn. An English neighbor, whose French husband is a winemaker for the cooperative of a nearby village, has worked the vendange for years. The tidying up of the vineyards, as she called it, is the next step. Leaves, already brown and drying, will be burned. The long trailing vines cut and bundled, some will also be burned.  November, as everything slows to winter, is her favorite time she says. The whisps of smoke from bonfires in the morning air. The clear light. All very peaceful and beautiful.  So I think of moving on, then find that the more I learn about where I am, the more I want to know.  But perhaps that’s the way of life.

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Yesterday’s post from Facebook:

Beautiful autumn days here in the south of France. Walked through the vineyards this morning. Olive trees around the village are full of pale green fruit. Very hard to the touch at the moment, but I have no idea what olives look like when they’re ready to harvest. A few seem to be changing color. New sounds in the vineyards for the past few days; the pop of hunters’ guns. Pheasant? Quail? No idea. Trying to turn the truck around on a dirt road last week, I scared a few out of the shrubs and they strutted across the road in front of my wheels. The gun shots make me a bit leery–reminiscent of searching for chanterelles in the Pacific Northwest at the start of the hunting season. Walking back into the village, a more melodic sound–piano scales from an open window drifting down to the street.

Catching Up . . .

Seems to be the theme of late.  Yesterday, I saw Margot and Randy and then Barbara off in Montpellier.  Margot and Randy took the train down to Lyon for the night before going on to Paris.  Barbara caught an early flight this morning.  All are now en route back to the United States.  As I write this, it is early afternoon and I’m still in bed, the lap top on my knees.  The apartment seems strangely quiet after the past few weeks.  No appetizing smells wafting from the kitchen, no clink of wine glasses.  No discussions of the next day’s plans.  Things feel ever so slightly strange, a sort of in-between feeling. My visitors are gone and I’m still here in a place that feels like home one minute and exotic and foreign the next. In the village, when we all shopped together (nearly depleting the small wine section in the butcher’s) I felt quite the local as I introduced everyone as “Mes amis des Étas-Unis.”


 Having friends here, making meals, laughing and talking has definitely made the apartment feel more like home.  That and the lamps, scarves,  cushions and plants dotted around.  I’m thinking of  a book called:  Six Scarves, Four  Cushions, Three Plants and It’s Home.  The title might need some work.
I celebrated my actual birthday (Marilla and I had several early celebrations for hers and mine) while Barbara was here. The vide grenier also took place on my birthday and Barbara bought me some Limoges for a ridiculously cheap price neither one of us could believe, made a fabulous risotto for dinner and produced an equally fabulous birthday cake. This year has been so full of experiences that it is difficult to believe that just a year ago I was in Washington packing up my cabin to move to Long Beach.

Nights, and some days too, are definitely getting cooler. The trick, I’m told with these old stone buildings is not to let the walls get too cold, but to keep a low and steady stream of heat. So the approach of my first winter in France and a couple of quiet weeks to catch up on work before Joe arrives for a month and then Bill and Carolyn for Christmas and New Year’s. I can hardly wait!

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Comings and Goings . . .

The date marking my first six months in France passed while Marilla was still here. It seemed like an auspicious date and I’d intended to write about it, but we were too busy having fun for me to want to spend time at the computer.
After finally managing to rent the car, we put our wheels to good use. One Sunday, we drove down to the beach areas near Montpellier–Palavas les flots, Aigues Mortes, Saintes Maries-de-la-Mere. Palavas is on a strip of sand dunes that separates a couple of lakes– Étang de l’Arnel and the Étang du Méjean– from the Mediterranean. The air had a salty tang that, living inland, I’ve missed. We saw pink flamingoes doing their balletic twisting, numerous seabirds and an equally numerous number of competitors for the few parking spaces available. Not wishing to compete, we drove on to the Camargue, all marshes and farmland and very different from the landscape in and around Montpeyroux. We saw the fabled white horses, no longer wild it seems, black bulls lying on strips of sand by the water. We took a boat ride, had beer and chips at a waterfront cafe and got hopelessly lost in Montpellier as we tried to return to Montpeyroux. Actually we spent a lot of time during Marilla’s visit doing the last two things–eating, drinking and (not necessarily as a result) getting lost.


I’ve wanted to visit Collioure ever since someone told me that it was the anchovy capital of France. Although tourists have replaced anchovies as the chief commodity–we had to look hard to even find anchovies on restaurant menus– Collioure was charming and picturesque and definitely worth a return visit. We ate enough mussels to change Marilla’s mind about liking them. She decided she did, although perhaps not in the quantity that we consumed then. We also sampled, Banyuls, a sweet local wine. The following day we drove the picturesque, but hair raising, road down the coast to the Dali museum in Figueres, Spain. I think I preferred Dali’s house to the museum–more whimsical somehow with its glimpses into the artist’s domestic life.

Yesterday, October 1, I saw Marilla off at the Montpellier airport and picked up Barbara at the Mosson tram stop. The airport is at one end of the city, the tram stop at the other. In between, I managed to once again get hopelessly snarled in the middle of Montpellier traffic and thwarted by street signs that seem to indicate one direction but lead to another. At one point, thinking I’d taken the road out of the city, I found myself instead in the underground parking lot of a shopping center. Once in, I couldn’t get out. Cars lined up behind me at the security gate. I fumbled in my bag for change. I found the change, but couldn’t find anywhere to deposit it. More cars lined up behind me. I got out of my car and spoke to the guy in the car behind me. He said something I couldn’t understand. The car behind him backed up, then the guy I’d spoken to backed up. Then I backed up. Parking lots in France, I suddenly remembered, require that you validate your picket BEFORE you get to the security gate. I parked the car, took the escalator up to the shops, downed a cup of café creme, validated my ticket and this time successfully managed an exit.

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In April, when I first arrived in France, the vines around the Pigeonniere in Exideuil, were stark and bare. By June, I’d moved down here to Montpeyroux and the vineyards were green with new leaves. Now the vendange is, for the most part, finished and there are flashes of red and rust as leaves change color. I’ve spent a spring and summer here and autumn is very much in evidence with cooler mornings and evenings, but brilliant blue skies. Just a month ago, Pezenas, where I go on Mondays for French lessons, was jammed with tourists. This past Monday the streets were empty, many of the shops shuttered. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that as winter approaches and I look forward to more visitors from the States, there will still be enough to keep everyone entertained. As I write this, Barbara is out walking in the vineyards. She was in half a dozen different European countries before she arrived here and she assures me that a little time alone with nature is exactly what she wants. I’m happy to oblige. Yesterday, we had a lunch of olives, anchovies, various cheeses and bread that Marilla and I bought at the market in Gignac last Saturday. (Barbara says thank-you, Marilla!) This Saturday, I’ll take Barbara and we’ll replenish the stock. The market is open year round and, if all else fails, always a source of entertainment.

The dog ate my post . . .

Or why it’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote. Reason #1. Marilla and I have spent the better part of two days on busses and trams and a navette (shuttle) or two. Put another way, we’ve learned a great deal about public transportation in and around Montpellier in order to gain access to private transportation. More about that in a bit.

Reason #2. Some things are more fun than writing. No! While I really haven’t felt lonely or — except briefly– homesick since I arrived in France, almost six months ago now, it’s been wonderful having company. The joys of yakking over coffee in the morning, exploring the area during the day, then more yakking over wine at night have provided stiff competition to time spent working at the computer. Actually, most things provide stiff competition to working at the computer. Since I’m still essentially a tourist myself, I don’t need much persuasion to leave my desk.

We’ve taken walks through the vineyards, last week still full of purple blue bunches of grapes. I picked bouquets of thyme, rosemary and lavender for my own herbes de provence mixture. We found fig trees dropping their juicy little gifts at our feet– some we helped along by shaking the branches. Ripe figs are delicious fresh, incredible broiled with blue cheese. One day, we walked through the vineyards to Arboras, a village just up the hill, and ate salads of chevre drizzled with honey. A glass or two or rosé is, of course, obligatory.


We’ve also done the sort of thing that has now become part of my life in France–the Saturday market in Gignac for cheese, olives and, from a nearby boulangerie, an olive studded baguette that is only available on market days. At the Sunday puce–flea market–in Paulhan I bartered, in French, for a couple of wicker chairs. We both admired a little egg basket that folds flat. Although I bought it for myself, I should really give it to Marilla to take back to the States as a souvenir. Jury is still out on that.

I’ve also succeeded in infecting Marilla with my obsession for witnessing the vendange. Or she’s just being polite. Anyway, we’ve been zealously watching the vineyards; as of yesterday, still lots of grapes unharvested. I’ve set the alarm and we’ve wandered out in the pre-dawn light hoping to see grape pickers. Instead we caught a dramatic early morning sunrise, a lot of activity around the Montpeyroux cooperative involving tractors of every size, shape and color and bins full of picked grapes. We’ve also watched mechanical pickers in the fields, but we’re holding out for bent backs and human toiling. If all else fails, I’ll have Marilla do some toiling, I’m sure she’d be happy to oblige.
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A few days ago, we decided to rent a car so that we could explore further afield. The cheapest rentals were at the airport — maybe an hour from Montpeyroux by car, considerably longer when things don’t go quite as planned. If, as the saying goes, getting there is half the fun, the last couple of days had to rank high on the list of ways to entertain visitors — future and prospective visitors should confirm that with Marilla though . . .

Day 1 of the rent-a-car adventure, we walked around to the cooperative to catch the 12:35 bus to Montpellier. It rolled into view about 12:48, we boarded and paid our 1.60 euro fare. Although the destination on the front of the bus said Montpellier, I was pretty sure we changed busses in Gignac and confirmed this by mumbling something to the driver which he didn’t understand. Then he mumbled back something that I didn’t understand. Employing the sheep theory, which I do a lot in France, when everyone else got off the bus in Gignac, we did too.

Good decision. The bus to Montpellier was waiting. At the Mosson tram station in Montpellier we bought tickets and got on the tram to Place de l’Europe. According to the schedule I’d found on line (much easier to do it this way, I’m discovering, than battle with the language later) this was where we’d catch the airport shuttle. Somehow though we failed to notice the bus stop across the road and wandered around Place de l’Europe looking for anything resembling a shuttle stop. Eventually, I asked a bus driver. At first– usually the case when I go into my fractured French explanations– I got the blank, uncomprehending stare. Then I fractured a bit more French and, voila, he understood. I get such a charge when that happens.

By the time we got to the shuttle stop it was nearly three p.m., almost an hour after the time we were supposed to pick up the car. I call the rental company and explain that we’re running late. No problem, I’m told. At four, we walk into the rental office and I hand them my reservation information. The clerk behind the counter shrugs. There is no record of a car reserved in my name. Nothing. Rien. The reservation has disappeared. Perhaps a dog ate it. My card had not been charged though and she could offer us a car for approximately three times the cost of what we’d originally been quoted.

Marilla and I stared at one another. Our options–to pay an exorbitant sum, or to head back to Montpeyroux. By this time it was nearly five p.m. and the last bus back to the village was . . . leaving very shortly and we still had to catch a navette, another tram and a connecting bus.

We chose to race the clock. At one point, when the tram back to Mosson stalled, it felt a bit like an episode of the Amazing Race. It was after seven by the time we were back in the apartment toasting our adventure, albeit unsuccessful, with a glass of wine. The next day, we took the bus back into Montpellier and picked up a car from the Gare St Roch station–decent price and easier than going out to the airport again.
“But we learned a lot,” I said to Marilla.
“Yes, we did,” she agreed.
“But it was fun though, wasn’t it?” I asked.
She smiled.
I think she had fun.
Tomorrow, we’re off on a new adventure.

Easter morning on the terrace

Easter morning on the terrace of Le Pigeonnieire.
The walls are very thick which keeps it a bit on the chilly side at the moment, but, I’m told, also keeps it nice and cool in the summer. Yesterday some English people–four generations who now live in France–invited us for lunch. Today, we walked into Excideuill, less than a mile. Very quiet today, all the shops were closed because the day after Easter is a holiday. We were going to drive into Montpellier today–about 45 minutes from where I will be living in June–but because of the holiday many gas stations were closed so didn’t want to push our luck. Dinner du jour: more mushroom soup, this time with the addition of leeks, onions and carrots. . . and, of course, more Bordeaux.Image