Monthly Archives: April 2013

La France Profonde: A tiny hamlet in the Périgord

I arrived for my 6-day French-immersion home-stay on Sunday, April 28 after a four-hour train ride from Paris, with a train change in the city of Limoges.  My hostess, Monique, picked me up at the station in the small town of Thiviers.  It’s located in the Périgord Vert, the northernmost part of the Dordogne.  Guidebooks say the Dordogne is in southwest France; southwest-ish is more like it I think, as Nevada might be described as in the southwest of the US.  Périgord is the ancient provinical name for the region, and is preferred by people who live there.  It’s divided into the Périgord Vert, Blanc, Noir and Pourpre (green, white, black and purple).

IMG_2859 (1)The Noir, anchored by the picture-perfect little town of Sarlat, is south of here, and has more tourism.  In 2011, I spent a week near Sarlat with Santa Rosa chef and restauranteur Michael Hirschberg’s group at the lovely B&B run by Santa Rosans Caitlin and Albert Woodbury. The Périgord Noir is especially known for truffles and the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings.  The Purple contains the wine region of Bergerac. Monique served excellent red Bergerac wine with meals.

After a drive of about 20 kilometers, which took us through a countryside with gently rolling green hills and a couple of small villages, we reached Monique’s home in a cluster of old stone buildings at a high point called Le Pic (the peak, though it was by no means what any of us would consider a peak).  There are only four full-time-inhabited houses here, plus an English couple’s vacation home, and about six houses and several barns in varying states of disrepair.  The French speak of La France Profond, the country roots from whence came most French families’ ancestors, and it is revered in a nostalgic sort of way.  We are in La France Profonde.

IMG_2844 (2)First view of Monique’s home with its cheerful red shutters, just past the neighbor’s walnut orchard.  Downstairs windows, left to right:  Living-Dining area; open kitchen; Bathroom with large walk-in shower.  Upstairs windows: Great Room made cozy by a couch in front of a wood stove.  This level also includes a large airy guest bedroom on the right, and a half-bath.  Monique’s bedroom is in the attic. Its windows on the far end of the house face the back yard.

I could kick myself for neglecting to take pictures of the inside of the house.  It is comfortable and inviting, with an uncluttered almost Zen feel.  Furnished with almost equal portions of family antiques and modern, it is at once homey and charming.  We spent six evenings and five-plus days taking long walks in the area, and traveling to see sights further afield, speaking only in French.  It was a challenge that left me tired every night, but it went well.  We understood each other, and she gently corrected my numerous errors.

IMG_2827Here’s a not-very-good photo of Monique with her sweet dog, Flocky.  They are contemplating cooking in the kitchen of an ancient château we visited.

IMG_2838 (2)This is a typical layout for a country or small village home in a farming area: stone house facing a sort of courtyard with a stone  barn.  This courtyard and the carport area are covered in crushed walnut shells.  Beyond the carport is about half an acre of land, with lawn, fruit trees, flowers and a vegetable garden.

IMG_2846 (2)Here’s the peaceful bucolic view across the street.  The neighbors to the left of this scene have a herd of sheep which they breed, and sell the lambs in the springtime. I didn’t realize that “spring lambs” are born in winter, but of course they must be, to be ready for the table by Easter.

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This is the rest of Le Pic.  No traffic here to speak of, just a very occasional passing car or small truck.  About half of the structures are in serious disrepair.  Some are worse than others, with cracks and what appears to be serious structural damage.

IMG_2793I have heard that if a house has a collapsed roof, the French government considers it uninhabitable, and the taxes are much lower. It is common for families who live in cities to have inherited homes, some in ruins, in villages where their families originated.
Above is the house voted “Least Habitable”.  Still, it looks pretty and full of character in the sunshine (of which I saw precious little), doesn’t it?

Below is the site of a serendipitous experience I had.  It is the perfectly kept home and farm of Monique’s friends, a Le Pic couple in their 80s.  I strolled down the road, taking pictures, and was accosted by a barking dog.  Madame came out to investigate, and ended up giving me a tour of her place.  She was very cordial, and we chatted for  a good 15 minutes.

IMG_2857 (1)Madame graciously agreed to pose for a photo, after taking off her blue housewife-smock.  I thought she looked exceptionally well-dressed for a country elder who was not expecting guests.  The stone part of the house is hundreds of years old.  The “new” stucco part was added only about 45 years ago.  Madame, who was raised on a small farm not far from here, moved to her husband’s family home and farm when they married in 1955. They have one child, a son who is in the grocery and beer and wine distribution business in the nearby town of Excideuil.  He comes out on weekends to help his father, but likes his own work and is not interested in taking over the farm.

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This is the back of the house, facing an exceptionally large courtyard, which is one of the prettiest I have ever seen.  It is paved in gravel, and accented by olive trees in pots and half-barrels.  There were wonderful smells of simmering soup wafting from the kitchen, on the right.
.IMG_2850 (2)Everything is in tip-top condition.  Behind the green door is a storeroom which has a freezer.

IMG_2855 (1)There is a newer barn where up until a year or two ago, they kept about 20 cows.

Perhaps they were dairy cows, though all the cattle I saw grazing in fields in the area were being raised for beef.  The French are major meat-eaters.

Beyond is a field where they raised hay as fodder for the animals.

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The large, high-roofed shed serves to store farm equipment.  As you can see, there isn’t much left.  It’s sad to see a farm without a tractor, every farmer’s pride.  I can only imagine that in earlier days, this lofty storage area was full of the tools and implements and  equipment of a bustling operation.

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Laundry here dries the old-fashioned way, on a clothesline.  Can you summon up that fresh smell from your memory-banks?  I can.

IMG_2853There is lawn now where the potager (kitchen vegetable and herb garden) used to be.  As they age, the couple finds that they can no longer keep up with the hard work of the life they always knew.  With no family to carry on, it looks as if the chain of generations of farmers on this land will end with Madame and Monsieur.

So dies a little hamlet, and a way of life.

À la prochaine,

Iz

Out and About in Paris

Elegant and Luxe Paris

That first day (April 19) in Paris, I realized that I had left my computer on the plane in Newark.  Madame at Reception in the hotel looked up the office of United Airlines.  It said United was located on Boulevard de l’Opera, so off I headed on the Métro (subway).  It was a bit of a walk from the Métro station Pyramides where Madame had instructed me to get off, but all the while with a view of the beautiful Opéra Garnier in the distance.  The Opéra Garnier, named after its architect, is old and elegant and well worth the cost of a guided tour in English.  The newer Opéra, at Place de la Bastille, in the style of the 1960s and is very ugly, in my opinion (and that of many others).  Below is the Opéra Garnier in all its splendor.

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To the left of the Opéra Garnier, on the corner, is the café where as a little girl in 1950, I remember eating my first croissant with a cup of chocolat chaud (hot chocolate).  My father, a career Army officer, loved the Café de la Paix–the Peace Café.  His favorite rose was the variety called Peace–pale yellow with pink edges.  I think it interesting that a military man was so attracted to things named Peace.  He wasn’t in a direct combat specialty like the Infantry, but rather the Army Corps of Engineers. We were stationed in France for three and a half years, 1950 to 1954.

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This Metro station, Palais Royale / Musée du Louvre, is in the famous art nouveau style of the late 1800s which I love.  It is across from one of the entrances to the Louvre Museum.  You can see a banner advertising a temporary exhibit.  If you cross the street here, and head to the right, about a block further is an entrance to a  smallish but luxe shopping center located below ground.   There is an entrance to the Louvre down there which typically has shorter museum-entry lines than those by the more well-known glass pyramid entrance up above.

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I crossed the street and walked to 99, Rue de Rivoli, then took the escalator down to the Carousel du Louvre shopping center.  A glass pyramid extends downward from the ground-level courtyard, bathing the open area of the shopping center with natural light.  Note the guy “holding up the pyramid” for his friend’s photo op, and the Apple store, well-located in this high-traffic area.  The underground entrance to the Louvre is off this central space.

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There are two Apple stores in Paris.  This is the first one, which opened a couple of years ago.  I went in and charged my iPod at one of the demonstration tables, as I had nothing to plug it into without my computer.  As with every Apple store I have ever been in, it was full of people — plein du monde, in French.  It has two stories, with all the products on the entry level, the Genius Bar and tutoring above. Other than being two stories, it looks like all the other Apple stores I’ve seen in the US: same tables, same guys and gals in blue T-shirts (only they speak French), same Genius Bar, etc.  The stair steps are a graceful spiral of clear glass.  See photo below for the ambiance of Apple in Paris.

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Paris is divided into sections called arrondissements. of which there are 20. Many of the higher-numbered arrondissements were little villages outside of Paris in the past, which were swallowed up as the city expanded.  As a result, there are neighborhoods to this day which have a village feel.  Each arrondissement has its own Mairie, or town hall, and mayor.  The Hôtel de Ville is the City Hall (more like a palace) of all of Paris, with the Mayor of all of Paris.

The Tenth Arrondissement: Not so Luxe, but Definitely Real

I have stayed in the tenth arrondissement in the past, and it is perhaps my favorite, because it’s familiar and well-located, though slightly farther from the tourist sights than the lower-numbered arrondissements. I like it also because it is quite interesting and diverse.  It contains two train stations, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est (North Station and East Station).  In the past, many immigrants arrived at Gare de l’Est, and ended up settling in the Tenth.  It was not elegant, and is still quite shabby closer to the train stations.  But a decade or so ago, artist types and others in search of cheaper rent for studios, shops and apartments, began moving into the Tenth, and it began to become more bohemian and spruced-up.  When Tut and I stayed there in 2006, it was fairly early in that process.  It was called branché, an adjective that literally means plugged-in (to electricity, like a lamp).   Branché signifies the hip and happening culture which was beginning to transform the old working-class Tenth.  It’s still hip, mixed with the ordinary and the less savory, but now it’s much more expensive.

The Canal Saint Martin, one of the best-known sights of the Tenth, runs from the Arsenal, a boat harbor at Place de la Bastille (connected to the River Seine) in the Eleventh arrondissement to an industrial zone called La Villette to the northeast.  In the past, barges carried products and materials to and fro, and there were a lot of big brick warehouses beside the canal.  The arched iron pedestrian bridges are famous, often pictured on old postcards.  There are locks to gradually raise boats from the water level of the Seine to that of La Villette. This particular pedestrian bridge and one of the locks is just half a block from the apartment building on Rue Lucien Sampaix where we stayed, and where friends Valerie and Benôit (our upstairs neighbors in 2006) and dear little Madame Lafit, age 92, (our downstairs neighbor) still live.

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Classic bridge over the Canal St Martin.

Below is the Boulevard Magenta, as seen from our Métro Station, Jacques Bonsergent.  It runs from the Gare du Nord (train station) to the huge Place de la République, which borders both Tenth and Eleventh arrondissements.  Magenta is a major street, lined with apartment buildings in the style called Haussmannian.  They were part of the major urban renewal of Paris in the mid-1800s, when the Baron Haussmann, under the rule of Napoleon III, changed the face of Paris in a very short period of time.  Whole neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for the grand boulevards, and streets lined with buildings in the new style appeared everywhere. The famed Champs Elysée was created then, in part to facilitate the ingress and egress of troups of soldiers, mounted and marching–and later, tanks.  A modern sewer system and healthier living conditions were other features of the massive travaux (works) of that era.

Haussmannian buildings are typically six or seven stories high, the rez de chausée (ground floor) being counted as zero. The formula called for continuous balconies across the second and fifth floors, which would be the third and sixth floors as we count it.  Often the top floor contains maids’ quarters, tiny chambres de bonnes, which have in some cases been converted to small apartments in modern times, since the Paris lifestyle no longer includes maids except for the very rich.

What interested me here are the trees.  One of them seems to believe that spring has arrived, and it has begun to leaf out.  The others are not so sure.  It was a long, cold, wet winter which is just now, in late April, beginning to show signs of yielding to spring.

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Haussmannian building on Blvd Magenta.

Off to the Fifth Arrondissement

Hop on the Métro line 5 at Jacques Bonsergent station across the street from those buildings, and head for the 5th arrondissement, where I stayed the first week on Rue Monge. Below, you can see the living room of my apartment.  I spent way more time than I wanted to on that canapé (couch), trying to get my computer back.  The apartment is small but budget-priced, which is hard to find in the Fifth, a very desirable and expensive area.  The Fifth arrondissement is on the Left Bank of the Seine, called the Latin Quarter because hundreds of years ago, university students there spoke Latin. The Sorbonne and other colleges / universities have been located in this area since the Middle Ages.  Nearby to Rue Monge is a famous very old and narrow street  which escaped being Haussmannianized, called Rue Mouffetard.  It is lined with restaurants (many of them bon marché–inexpensive), cute boutiques and small food shops and groceries.  Lots of tourist guides mention it.  One of the closest Métro stops is Place Monge, where they have a regular Farmers’ Market (un marché) two mornings a week. Tip: there is an outlet of the Amorino gelato chain on Rue Mouffetard, selling many yummy flavors of Italian ice cream.

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While walking down Rue Monge, I discovered the entrance to Les Arènes de Lutèce.  Lutèce was the name given by the Romans to what we now call Paris.  The arena dates back to Roman times, but all that remains is the round outline.  I’ve been told that the stones of the arena were taken to use in the construction of other buildings.  That is to say, later residents often used the older buildings, or arena seats in this case, as a quarry or a latter-day Home Depot — a source of building materials.  This was very common all over Europe, and I suppose the world.  Older edifices were decimated and new things built, often on top of the old.

There were kids kicking a soccer ball around in one part of the large former arena.  Across the way, these adults were playing the game of boules, or pétanque, a national pastime in France.  It’s a bit like bowling with smallish metal balls, two per player, and a bit like croquet or pool, because the balls often hit and displace each other—by accident or on purpose.  It involves a lot of standing around and discussing which ball has landed closest to the smaller one called the cochonet  (literally, “little pig”).  In the end, the player whose ball came closest is the winner.  It looks as if the guy in the middle with the dark coat and hat has just thrown his ball.

The sign at the entry says that the arena was built in the first century AD by the Romans, and used until the end of the third century when it was destroyed by invading Barbarians.  It was eventually buried under detritus and dirt, and only rediscovered centuries later, during excavations for Baron Haussmann’s redevelopment of Rue Monge.

A game of pétanque at the former Roman arena.

A game of pétanque at the former Roman arena.

Flower stores are in full bloom in Paris now, spilling out onto the wide trottoirs (sidewalks).  Found in every neighborhood, their cheerful profusion of living plants offer a breath of sweet nature.  Also found in every neighborhood are delectable Patisseries, Pastry shops–but they deserve their own posting, don’t you think?

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Typical Paris neighborhood florist.

People’s Park in the Nineteenth

There are lots of beautiful parks in Paris, ranging from vast to pocket-sized.  Le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in the Nineteenth arrondissement, is the third largest, after the Bois du Boulogne on the western border of Paris, and the Bois de Vincennes to the southeast.  Not so many tourists find it, but it’s a favorite of Parisians.  It features a playground and pony rides for children, small lakes, exotic trees, acres of lawns, seasonal plantings (that would be tulips just now), ravines and miles of paths to stroll.  On a clear day, from that faux-Greek temple, you can see the famous white onion-domed Basilique du Sacre Coeur atop the hill in Montmartre.

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View near entrance of Buttes-Chaumont park.

View of Sacre Coeur from Buttes-Chaumont park.

View of Sacre Coeur from Buttes-Chaumont park.

It’s time to find a café to rest my feet and quench my thirst with a panaché, a refreshing  mixture of beer and lemonade.

Á la prochaine fois. (Until next time),

 Iz

ps.  This is a work in progress, the first posting I have done without the help of my mentor, Anet Dunne.  It needs some work, I know, but I was so excited that I wanted to post it right away.  Comments welcome.