- Submitted by: Monica Barreto
- Website: http://thebarretos.blogspot.com/
- Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005
Leaving Washington, DC for Montpeyroux
Our departure from Washington, D.C. was uneventful, and the flight was quite pleasant. The Lufthansa staff went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. We had been told that our baby (25 pounds) was too big for the crib, yet when I tried to make him comfortable on the blanket on the floor, a crib was pulled out and he went right to sleep. What a luxury!
Our car leasing in Paris was also uneventful. We had booked a car through Europe by Car, and had ordered a small Peugeot for an extremely inexpensive price compared to all the other rental and leasing companies. The rental desk was easy to find, and the woman who helped us spoke Spanish and English, so conversation was easy. I still didn't have a chance to practice my French, and I was nervous, never having actually spoken the language after studying it for more than 20 years!
The car was new and comfortable, although small, and our baggage and car seat and stroller all somehow managed to fit. We took a few moments to get adjusted to the car and to study the map. We had arrived at Charles DeGaulle Airport, and previously had made arrangements to spend the night in a bed and breakfast about two hours south of Paris. The World Cup games had all the hotels in Paris booked solidly. We found the route to take and drove out of the airport. Unfortunately, it was already 4:30 P.M., and so what could have been a two-hour trip took almost four, including getting mildly lost somewhere in the south part of Paris.
Once we left Paris behind, we began to relax and take in the scenery. We decided that this part of the highway was about as attractive as the New Jersey Turnpike. Of course, at that moment, I'd much rather be on that French highway than the NJT. After we exited Paris, we took the toll road A10 to Orleans, and then followed another toll road toward Blois, exiting just before the city and heading toward Chateauroux. We stayed at what turned out to be a delightful bed and breakfast in Verneuil. It was difficult to find because there were no signs outside the building, but eventually we located the owners and were shown to our rooms in the attic of a wing of the house. The children were immediately enchanted by the large, very friendly dogs. We made a meal of the things we had packed in the diaper bag, which included packets of oatmeal and energy bars, and then tried to put the baby to sleep. What a task! His time was all off, and it was after 1:00 a.m. before he finally fell asleep. Since I hadn't slept in many hours, I slept soundly until eight a.m..
Our breakfast the next morning was simple and tasty, with fresh croissants, good coffee, and orange juice. The baby just wouldn't wake up, so the three of us ate breakfast without him. Renato, being the friendly five-year-old child that he is, tried to wander all over the house, and after us stopping him many times, the owners finally took him into their kitchen where he hung out with another five-year-old girl and the dogs. He didn't want to leave the place to get on with the journey!
By 10:00 a.m. we finally packed everything and headed south. We meandered through smaller roads until we neared Clermont Ferrand, at which point we got on the A75, which is not a toll road in spite of its numbering. It is not quite finished, so I guess they are not charging until the entire road is finished. Thank goodness for that, because the previous tolls had put a serious dent in the 1000F I had changed at the airport. Fortunately we had a diesel car, since the difference in the cost of gas is quite noticeable. We can find diesel fuel for under 4F a liter, while the other gases are over 6F the liter. Visa is accepted for all sorts of things, so cash won't be that much of a problem, it seems. The only problem with Visa is that to use it, one must make a purchase of over 100F.
Arriving in Montpeyroux
We eventually arrived at Clermont Herrault, and took off onto the side roads toward Gignac and Montpeyroux, our final destination. We arrived in Montpeyroux at 7pm, but found the house locked and no owner at home next door. After a 45 minute wait, we decided to go in search of food and more important things, so we set off for Gignac. After strolling a bit through the centre-ville (downtown) we chose a pizza place that had many other children there. At 9:00 P.M., Guillermo promptly disappeared to watch one of the World Cup games at a local café. Unfortunately, he was unable to be enthusiastic when Brazil would make a goal, since the crowd would cheer wildly when the European team scored, and would make noises of disappointment when Brazil would make a goal. But he enjoyed the experience all the same.
Around 11:00 p.m. we returned to Montpeyroux to find a note on our door requesting that we bang loudly on the house next door. Julie, our landlady, let us in and gave us the tour. The house, as are all the other houses on this particular part of the street, are 300 or more years old. It had been recently renovated, and even had a brand-new bathroom with a wonderfully large tub. The rest of the house had been freshly plastered and painted, and the fixtures cleaned. The house was a strange layout, with a largish kitchen and dining area below, and a long bathroom alongside. At the top of the stairs was one bedroom with a sink, and after passing through the hall that was directly above the bathroom, one went into the back bedroom. This is my favorite room in the house, with an ancient sink built into the wall and a hole in the bottom of the basin to let the water out of the building. The window in this room looks out onto a garden full of tall trees. At night, the breeze here is quite strong and enchanting. Looking out of that window at night to listen to the night sounds and the wind, and look at the stars above, became a favorite pastime of the baby and me during our evening routine.
It feels all so strange, but once I unpack and begin to put our feel on the place, it becomes more comfortable. By 1:00 a.m. I finally go to bed. Guillermo and the boys had gone to sleep right away, exhausted after the long drive, and the night out in Gignac. I stay awake briefly listening to the wind, but I am soon soundly asleep also.
The next morning, we began the task of getting the place stocked. We went down to the local grocery store, and I began talking in French at last. I found that I could make myself understood, and that I really understood everything that was said, although sometimes I was making educated guesses. Everyone was quite friendly, especially the older women that hang out in the center of town. I should explain that it would take about 10 minutes to walk from one end of Montpeyroux to the other. The number of inhabitants is listed as one thousand. We are about three minutes from the five stores in the center, which are the butcher, the baker, the tabac, the grocery store, and the winery. I quickly became acquainted with all very quickly.
We had to make a trip into Gignac to go to the Inter Marche (supermarket), since many of the things we needed weren't in the grocery store. It did take us quite awhile to figure out exactly which coin we needed to put into the shopping cart line in order to remove the cart. I'm sure that the management has ways of removing all the wrong sized coins from the carts that we put in during our learning experience! In the end, we discovered that it took a ten-franc coin (about US$1.50), and off we went, only to discover (we thought) that our cart was broken. We took it back to the line and took another one out, and set off again, only to have the same problem. It was then that we discovered that carts here in Gignac can move sideways as well as forwards and backwards. All four wheels move around, which took a couple of visits to feel comfortable with the sensation. I still have problems moving straight ahead when the road is slanted, as it is at the entrance of the supermarket.
The grocery store seemed like many in the states, but with emphasis on different things. For example, the cheese sections (there were two) were so large and overwhelming that I just couldn't decide on a cheese. I just closed my eyes and grabbed two. The cereal section is quite small compared to the US. An oddity we discovered was the milk. There is no milk in plastic bottles as in the US, but rather the long-lived milk that lasts indefinitely on the shelf. The other section that was quite different was the beverage section. There were two full aisles of wines, and almost no sodas.
The village of Montpeyroux has its own winery, which was mentioned in several places on web pages I'd discovered. For more information on the winery, and Montpeyroux, see http://www.epicuria.fr/montpeyroux-village/coteaux-castellas/anglais/body.htm. As soon as we returned to Montpeyroux, we stopped by at the winery, and bought a container to hold the wine (about 1.5 gallons, I think) and then had it filled with the cheapest priced red wine. Two weeks later we are still working on the contents, which are quite pleasant. I think we'll buy bottles from now on, though, since we are not big drinkers. Getting up early in the morning to deal with two happy and energetic boys puts the damper on having anything more than two small glasses of wine a night.
Summer camp for Renato and babysitter for Andoni
We soon found a day camp for Renato, which he thoroughly enjoys. That whole situation is just too good to be true. We heard of the camp, visited it, and liked it. We were told to go to the mairie (the mayor's building) to fill out the paperwork, which we promptly did. The cost for one full day of camp plus lunch is $15. We can take Renato any day we want, and only for ½ day if we wish. They will then send us the bill for dates attended to our Washington, D.C. address. I asked when the bill would arrive, and they thought perhaps October?! They didn't even ask for ID or verification of an address. How could we go wrong? [Note: The bill finally arrived in March for $265 for two months of camp, with lunch] Renato seems unfazed by the fact that he speaks Spanish and English and they speak French. They seem to communicate quite well, which is exactly what we wanted.
As for the baby, we have found a local babysitter, a mother of five and grandmother of three, to take care of him on the days we go on long trips to the beach or on long walks, and for the month where Guillermo will be staying alone with the boys after I return to DC. Andoni still needs two naps a day, which makes anything more than a ½ day trip impossible. He loves her house because there is a long hallway with plenty of toys, and a very friendly black cat roaming the house. She charges 100F ($16) for a full day of care, including meals. I never did figure out just how many hours a full day consisted of, because a ½ day for her was from nine until two or three!
Trip to the beach
Yesterday we headed south for the beach areas of le Cap-d'Agde and Sete. We roamed through several beaches, comparing beaches and planning where to return for a full day at the beach. We found a very pleasant beach on Grau-d'Agde. It was our first experience with topless bathing, and Guillermo was unnerved... briefly! But after a few experiences, it became almost routine. The water was very cool and refreshing, and the waves were nonexistent. It was a very pleasant scene, with families sitting quietly sunbathing or playing in the water. Our only bad experience was overstaying our time out of the house, and having to deal with a hungry five year old who doesn't understand the concept that all restaurants are closed until 7:00 P.M.! We finally found a boulangerie open and picked up a baguette. What would we have done without them...they are a basic staple in our household now.
An excursion into Montpellier
One day last week we headed into Montpellier, the capital city of the Languedoc region. It is only ½ drive from our village, and it seemed to take more time to find parking than to actually get to the city. We parked in a dark, extremely smelly, badly ventilated parking garage under a large plaza in the downtown area. When we emerged into the sunlight and the wonderful fresh air, we were delighted to find the downtown area mostly closed to cars. We were able to walk around for quite awhile without having to deal with traffic. It's a very international city, perhaps because of the many students there. We heard so many different languages, and at one point got into a multilingual conversation with two women, one who spoke Greek, a smattering of English, and a heavily-accented French that I could not understand, and the other who spoke Spanish and very good French. Between Guillermo's Spanish and my French, the four of us had a great conversation.
We also found, finally, a playground that was not cause serious damage to our kids' knees. It's the oddest thing, but we never see grass here in France. The playgrounds are made of pebbles, or an extremely nasty rough concrete that makes mincemeat of flesh, or a mixture of gravel and concrete. The Montpellier playground was a soft spongy surface, so we let the kids run for two hours. The ethnic mix at the playground was quite interesting, with North African women, Arabic women, some Oriental women, a couple of Indian families, etc. But the children tended to play with their own brothers and sisters, so the playground consisted of circles of kids that never quite overlapped. Our children loved the experience, especially chasing all the pigeons. They slept until 10:00 a.m. the next day!
Drive in the hills above Montpeyroux
One day we followed the Herault River up past St. Guilhem-le-Desert into some spectacular scenery. The gorge goes on for quite a distance and can get quite dizzying in places. There were many families kyacking down the river. Perhaps we will try that another day, without the baby of course. On the way back, we drove over two high locations where I was very nervous! The first was near St. Maurice-Navacelles, and the other a little further south near Arboras. Some of the drops were so spectacular and so unprotected, with those French drivers just zipping around the corners in the middle of the road, that I kept having these images of the car going over the edge. Needless to say, I was very relieved when we got back to Montpeyroux that day.
Guillermo drove down to Barcelona recently for the day and rather enjoyed that experience. There was too much to see in the city for one day, so we are planning to go back for an overnight. [Note: we never did get to Barcelona. In the end, we chose to stay away from cities and instead enjoy village existence].
Each day there is a market in a different village or town. We have visited all the local markets, and enjoyed the Gignac market the most, perhaps because it is the largest and has the most variety. It is very hard to eat unhealthily here, with all the fresh fruits and vegetables available. One day I made a chicken soup with onions, garlic, yellow squash, potatoes, carrots, leeks, a purple and white bean freshly popped out of the pod, turnips, wine, pasta and a couple of ingredients more that I can't remember. It was a delicious soup, and the kids loved it. We are spending all our money on fruits, vegetables, cheese, and fresh bread, and just loving each meal. I have no idea how we are going to deal with going back to U.S. supermarket fruits and vegetables!
The World Cup Finals Part I
Tonight is the last game of the World Cup, between France and Brazil. The village has rented a large screen TV and has invited the entire village to the local municipal building to watch the game. We all plan to attend. When France won the last game, although we don't have a TV or radio in the house, I knew very soon after the fact that France had won. A cavalcade of cars came blaring through the village, waking all by honking their horns energetically. I can't imagine what it will be like tonight if France actually wins. It seems a long shot that France might actually beat Brazil, but who knows...
Writing and drinking wine
As I sit here writing, the village sounds are sweeping over me. The birds are chirping, the cicadas are singing everywhere, an occasional dog is barking, and everyone (except for me) is taking the mid-afternoon siesta. There is no air conditioning anywhere, as far as I can tell, and the system for dealing with the heat is closing all windows and shutters until after 5 P.M.. The houses stay relatively cool, and then really cool down overnight with the wonderful breeze. In the sun, the heat can get unbearable, but the shade is oh, so cool. Now two women are chatting with each other across the narrow street, chatting perhaps about family matters. I can hear the church bells sounding 3 P.M.. A car whizzes by on this street that was constructed long before cars were even dreamed of. We have, in fact, been on village streets where cars do not fit, and they weren't much smaller than our street. A fly buzzes outside on the screen, and some cat meows briefly. The boys are upstairs sleeping quietly. Renato has his next-door best friend staying over, and they have their arms wrapped around each other as they sleep. Andoni is in the back room in his crib, and Guillermo is passed out on our bed. I never learned to take naps, and regret not being able to sleep now. These lazy afternoons are made for naps...but instead I write.
We are now into the second stage of our vacation. I categorize it not so much for the fact that two weeks have passed and now I have only two weeks to go. It's more for the fact that I feel at home here now, whereas before we were more like outsiders. We now know the neighbors, the men working on redoing a house a few meters down the road, the local merchants, even the pets. Each day starts slowly, with a regular routine of getting the children ready for their day. Guillermo dresses them and I get breakfast ready for all. It's been a battle to get Andoni used to the children's food here. A French breakfast consists of bread, juice and jams, but we've raised the children with substantial breakfasts, smaller lunches, and tiny dinners. Trying to locate oatmeal, or cream of wheat, or other cereals that he is used to is difficult. So we are trying the different French baby cereals...but he is not pleased! Somehow chocolate Bledine just doesn't seem healthy, but it seems to have all the vitamins and iron that a baby needs. It takes some convincing, but with a bit of bribery of a fresh baguette, we are getting him to eat his cereal.
Children and the French
One of the pleasing aspects that I find here in France is the love and attention that adults give to children, theirs and others. People will stop in the street just to talk to Andoni or Renato. So I, in turn, feel comfortable doing what I have always loved to do, engage children in conversation and play. The rule seems to be that, though, the conversation between the adults is very limited, and so I only ask their ages, and comment on how beautiful or handsome they are.
Dogs and the French
Adults here also love their dogs, and go everywhere, and I mean everywhere, with them. Hmm, I haven't seen a dog in church, in a playground or the supermarket, so I guess there are limits. But in restaurants, cafes, post office, mairie, etc. dogs roam with their owners. The dogs are all very well trained and pay no attention to other people. The one aspect of all this that I find disconcerting, though, is the dog poop. It's literally everywhere. One morning we woke up to find dog poop right in front of our door! The worst place of all was in Montpellier, in the streets in front of stores and restaurants, the owners let their dogs stop and poop. So far we have been lucky and the kids haven't stepped in it. Our local paper, though, did have mention of it, exhorting the residents of Montpeyroux to be conscientious of the mess it creates. Since then there seems to be a difference on the main street.
The World Cup Finals Part II
Earlier I had mentioned that the final game of the World Cup was being celebrated, but instead of going to the village plaza, we went to the local café. They were offering a dinner, so we decided togo. We paid 45F per adult for the dinner, which consisted of little grilled fish as appetizer, unlimited local wine during dinner, and a dinner of frites (fries) and shish kebob of tender pieces of beef separated by very thin slices of fat. It was delicious.
Before dinner a local man was painting everyone's face (and body, if so desired) with grease paint, in the French colors. Renato immediately wanted his face painted, so I took him to get it done. Then Guillermo convinced me to do it also. Andoni wouldn't look at me for several minutes, but finally we convinced that I was indeed his mother! I couldn't get Guillermo to get his face painted, but I think it had more to do with vanity than putting non-Brazilian colors on.
Not only was the game extremely entertaining, but so was watching the crowd reacting to the game. I don't think anyone really thought that they could beat Brazil, so when the first goal took place, the people were yelling and screaming and blowing some really loud horns hidden under the tables. By the end of the game, when France finished beating the Brazilian team with that last and dramatic goal, the village exploded in firecrackers, horns, yells, song and dance. Before we had even gone to the party, Renato was cheering for France. By the time I had painted my face, I too had decided to cheer for France. After the first goal, Guillermo himself was routing for France. It was quite an emotional event, being in France while 1) they sponsored the event, and then 2) won the World Cup for the first time in history. It was quite appropriate, after all.
The aftermath was rather raucous, as scores of cars paraded in and out of town, blaring their horns and yelling. I think things finally settled down around 2:00 P.M.! It didn't keep the kids awake though, thank goodness.
July 14 (or Bastille Day) celebration
The next night was the celebration of July 14th (Bastille Day as we know it in the US). In Montpeyroux, it was celebrated the night of the 13th. The local square, where the statue of the Virgin Mary is, was converted into a party area, with tables and chairs to sit about 200 people. We headed down to the dinner around 8:00 P.M., only to find that everyone was taking their own plates, utensils, cups, etc. I ran home quickly to pick those things up and head back to the party. We found seating right next to our American landlady and her family and guests and settled down for a night of fun.
Things were slow to start, but eventually bread and wine were brought. Bottles of rose, red and white wine were brought to the table by teenagers in T-shirts spray-painted the colors of the French flag. Soon after, salad was brought, much to Andoni's delight. It was full of tomatoes, his favorite vegetable, as well as chicken gizzards. I had eaten several before I was told what they were, and in fact, they were delicious and tender. Then the rice dish was brought, tasty and with plenty of vegetables mixed in. At this point Julie, our landlady, told me to go and look behind the main building in the plaza and see how the rice was prepared. As I headed there, I could see a fire burning, rather like a camp fire. There was a large wood burning fire going, and in the middle of the fire was a huge pan (and I mean huge, as in the width of a kitchen table) full of rice. It was quite impressive!
The main course showed up around 10:00 P.M., thick slices of ham with a tasty light brown sauce (I think it was called madere). Finally dessert was brought, thick chunks of a Brie-type cheese and delicate slices of an apple pastry.
In case you think I'm focusing too much on the food...well, it's hard not to focus on food in France. It's everywhere, everyone talks about it, and it's just simply delicious. I was told by the man who I spent an hour talking to (in French, no less!) that Americans live to work, and the French live to eat. At least I think that's what he said!
The dinner ended abruptly as everyone flooded out of the dining area and started walking down the street toward the winery. Guillermo and Renato had already taken off down the road, so the baby and I walked slowly through the crowd waiting for the action to start. In about 15 minutes, the fireworks started, and Andoni alternated being alarmed and fascinated. At the end of the fireworks, I took him home to bed, and went back to the party. Our neighbor was home already, and so kept an eye on him.
By the time I returned, the party had started and everyone was dancing. We spent the next hour or so dancing with everyone. We closed down the party in the early morning.
Going to the butcher
We visit the local butcher twice a week. He sells raw meats, cold cuts, pates, several prepared dishes such as a squid salad, rotisserie chicken (roti), and grocery items. It's quite an engaging place, with too many options for purchase. Paul, the butcher, is very patient with my French, and somehow understands what it is that I need to purchase. I discover a salami that the kids love, a cooked ham that is great for sandwiches, the squid salad for Guillermo, and other delicacies. I really like going shopping at the local butcher!
An evening out in the village
One evening, our landlady Julie offered to keep an eye on our sleeping children. Guillermo and I took advantage of the offer, and went to the local café to play table soccer. As we entered the café, all conversation stops and all heads turn to watch us. There were about 10 people there, including one woman and her five-year-old daughter. They all listened as I stammer through my order, and one person helped me figure out how much money I need to play the soccer game. It was all very pleasant, and I could tell they were curious about us.
Later we took a long walk around the village, enjoying the strong gusts of cool wind that blow through the village. We walked down to the end of our street, and stood staring up at the stars for quite awhile. There are no lights down there, and the wind blows very heavy, moving the branches of the trees wildly. This is my favorite place at night, although I think I'd be scared to be there alone at night. So we stand there quietly for a while, holding hands and watching the brilliant stars.
Walks with the children
Aside from that walk with Guillermo, we have had little time to ourselves. Our walks in the village are usually with the children. Renato and I love to walk along the streets and look at the doors of the houses, and try to find dates in the walls. So far the earliest date we have found is across the street from us. A house has a date of 1575. Further up the road there are two houses with dates from the early 1600s. So the date of 1575 would probably make our house more like 400 years old rather than 300.
When I take walks with Andoni, we have to walk slowly and examine each stick and stone in the road, and take a short sitting spell at each interesting stoop. I never would have had the patience to do this back home...there's just never enough time. We walk along, looking for dogs and cats to pet, and talking baby talk (he's only 1 ½ years old). I have met more people here during my walks with Andoni than any other way. He greets people with his tiny baby voice 'bonjour,' and then waves goodbye and says 'au revoir.'
Climbing in St. Guilheim-le-Desert
One day, we leave Renato at his summer camp in Aniane, and drive to St. Guilheim-Le-Desert, which is about five minutes from the camp. We park at the foot of the village, and put Andoni in the stroller. We walk up through the village, which is very quaint and beautiful. The only mar on its charm are the vast quantities of tourists, of which we are just drops in the bucket. We stop in the town square to rest from our walk up the hill, and to give the baby a snack. By now the Abbey is closed and won't reopen until 2 P.M.. I very much want to see the cloisters in this abbey, since it is from this location that many of the beautiful pieces in the Cloisters in upper Manhattan came from. I have read about the story in French, and what I gather is that a rich American purchased many of the artifacts from the abbey and took them to NYC to set up in his house. After several years, they because the property of the city, and the Cloisters was built. I grew up three subway stops away from the Cloisters.
So we decided to climb higher in the village, and shortly came across a fountain of water coming out of the side of a building, and running down an alleyway to a stream. The sign above the water says that it is drinkable, and so we fill our bottles with water. It is, in fact, very cold and very delicious, and much better than the calcium-laden water of Montpeyroux. We decide to fill our wine bottle with this water on our way home.
We continue up, and come to a fork in the road. In the distance, some ruins are visible high up in the hills straight ahead. We decide to head in that direction and so store the stroller under a tree, and hoist Andoni into a backpack and onto Guillermo's back. We head up and up and up for about an hour, until Guillermo gives out. Just around the corner I can see the ascent to the ruins, so Guillermo is very gracious and allows me to go on by myself while he takes care of Andoni. I jog most of the way, until the ascent gets very steep. At one point, I was directly below the three arches of the ruins, and about ten minutes later, I'm directly above them. As far as I can tell, there is no access to them unless one where to drop down a rope onto the ledge in front of them. Somewhat disappointed, I head back for the place where I left Guillermo. I try to locate them to wave at, but there is so much area that I can't see them. I later find out that they could see me the whole way because of my white shirt. I descend, finding that it is much harder to descend on loose gravel and pebbles than it is to ascend. Once I get to flat ground, I'm off jogging again until I reach them. In all I was gone 40 minutes!
Losing track of time
I tried to keep track of what we did every day, but by the fourth day, I gave up. I decided to enjoy this trip without worrying about days, dates or hours. So now as I write, I merely let my thoughts float and remember bits and pieces of the things we did. Days and weeks have no meaning for us
here, and the only reason I can (sort of) keep track of the day of the week is because Renato doesn't go to summer camp on the weekends, and the market in Gignac is on Saturdays. It's the largest, and best, market around, and it's almost impossible to buy anything on Sunday, so I manage to keep track of the days of the week. Guillermo, on the other hand, has lost all count of days and weeks. He leaves it all up to me.
A brief visit to Lodeve
One day we decide to visit Lodeve, about 20 minutes northwest of here on the highway. As usual, we search out the playground, and spend several hours there, picnicking and playing with the kids. It is a memorable afternoon, because for the first time I use one of those public bathrooms that I remember with dread from my first trip to Paris 14 years ago. Guillermo explains the system again to me, since they have similar bathrooms in Peru, and off I go. It's a bit disconcerting, but I survive the experience!
Guillermo announces that he does not like the park in Lodeve, and when asked why, he remarks on the lack of grass. I laugh and ask him to think back on all of the playgrounds we have been to, and count how many of them had grass in them. He thinks, and then laughs also, because he realizes that none of the playgrounds have had grass!
We did notice many North Africans in Lodeve, and one even starts to speak in Arabic to Guillermo. The poor guy never realizes the problem with Guillermo, because he was sure that Guillermo was one of them. And the worst part was that Guillermo could not speak to him even in French! This happens to Guillermo frequently in New York City, and other parts, but it's the first time it happens in France. Guillermo has been confused in Fiji for Fijian, in Peru for Brazilian, in the US for Egyptian or Kuwaiti, and even Ethiopian. When I first met him, I was sure he was from the Dominican Republic!
Laundry has been a problem for us, since the house does not have a washing machine. We wash things by hand, but with two small, sometimes messy children, the clothes accumulate faster than we can deal with them. So, one day we decide to do sheets and towels, and the remaining dirty clothes an easier way. We head for Claremont L'Herault, which is the largest town near here, in search of a laundry mat. I find one, but it has recently gone out of business. I stop in a small epicurie (a grocery store), and ask the woman behind the counter for help. Somehow she manages to understand me, and turns to speak in Spanish to a man standing at the front of the store. It was quite a relief to speak in Spanish for a few minutes, and get directions to another laundry mat. During our conversation, I find that this man, Juan Cortez, has a first cousin in Montpeyroux, and that most of the people in our village are either children or grandchildren of Spaniards, or married to Spaniards. He claims that most do speak Spanish, although it might be hard to get them to do so. Guillermo says that he will test that out later. Juan's cousin is also named Juan, and so we say goodbye, promising to drop by and visit his cousin in Montpeyroux. [Note: After I return to the US, Guillermo got along very well because he discovered that, in fact, almost everyone in Montpeyroux understood Spanish. He would speak Spanish, and they would answer in French. So he survived quite well.]
We arrive there, and find to our dismay that it costs a fortune to wash clothes by machine in France. We spend 25F per small machine, which holds 7 kilos of clothing. The larger machines, which hold double the amount, are 50F. The cost of one large load of laundry turns out to be $8.30! Then the dryers only go for 10 minutes, at the cost of $1.25 per cycle. While I left Guillermo beginning the wash, the kids and I went on a mad dash to find enough change to wash and dry our six loads of wash. Eventually, several hours later, our wash is done and we are broke. We decide from now on to wash by hand a bit every day, and only take sheets to wash. What an experience!
Keeping in touch
I decide to send postcards to those people who don't have access to e-mail, and so purchase several postcards. The kids and I talk a walk down to the village post office to learn what is involved in sending postcards. I imagine that it is simple...buy a stamp and off the post card goes. The woman at the post office very patiently explains that, in fact, it is cheaper to buy, in bulk, the international envelopes and put the postcards in them. So we purchase 20 and go home to address them. So far, I've sent close to 40 postcards, mostly to Latin America and to elder relatives and friends around the US.
The local chateau
Yesterday we take the children and follow our landlady to a nearby chateau. A friend of hers is the caretaker of the place, and has set up a kiddy pool for his grandchildren to play in. Our kids love the place, especially the three dogs and one very friendly kitten. They splash in the water, chase and hug the animals, swing on the swing, and generally keep themselves entertained while the adults sit around a table and drink wine and speak four languages. The caretaker is Italian, but has lived here 24 years. His wife is French. Julie and I are English speakers. My husband speaks Spanish. Somehow, perhaps with the help of a glass of wine, there is lively conversation all around, and the afternoon flows by amicably. He invites us back to dinner, but unfortunately I will be gone by that time, so Guillermo will come alone with the children.
Throughout the entire, a five-year-old boy kept riding up and down the dirt road in front of the house, muttering to himself and watching carefully our kids playing. I greet him but he does not respond. I repeat my greeting twice, and finally he responds, but rides off again. Later in the day, he rides by the tiny pool again, very slowly, and I ask him if he wants to play with Renato. He mutters something very quickly, but I only heard something about 'I have ....mutter mutter ... very very big.' I later find out that he's from the chateau and that there is a large, spring-fed pool on the property. I guess he was trying to tell me that he had a big pool and didn't need that little pool. I felt at the end of it, though, that he was lonely and did want to play but didn't know how to do it.
As we were leaving later, he was walking down the road toward us, carrying a large, brand-new inflated raft, larger than the little plastic pool. He went and put it against the wall near the pool and quickly left around the back of the building. We didn't see him again.
Summer camp again
Renato's camp planned an overnight camping trip for the kids. Renato agrees that it might be fun to do, and so we pay the 20 francs extra, and run home and get a blanket, a flashlight, pajamas, etc. That night they go to a campground where large tents with beds are set up. They are fed dinner at the site, and then breakfast the next morning. All in all, Renato had a wonderful time, although he admits frustration with a couple of the kids, who tease him about not speaking French. He and I spend a bit of time rehearsing some basic phrases, and also what might be going on in the minds of his classmates. In the end, he feels better about the situation. He's really enjoying it, and loves the two camp counselors, who are very loving and attentive to him.
Our family is consuming vast quantities of bread. We buy bread twice a day, a baguette in the morning, and a loaf of a thicker bread in the afternoon. Our car floor is covered in bread crumbs. The car rental place is going to charge us extra, I bet, just to vacuum up all that bread. But how can we resist the bread? Many times, it's hot out of the oven, and we devour it within minutes of the purchase. Andoni and Renato are the largest consumers, pulling the soft center out first, and then eating the crunchy crust last. The bread is so good that no butter or jams are needed. Again, I think, how are we going to get bread like that in the US, and so inexpensive.
The couple who run the tabac (the local store where cigarettes and stamps are sold) have taken a liking to our family. They speak a bit of Spanish, and so conversations are possible with Guillermo. One day they start talking about business and friends and selling, etc. but I'm not quite sure I understand. They make arrangements to come by our house the next day to introduce us to some friends. I have a suspicion about what the visit is for, but when they all show up in suits, I am not surprised. The friend, Jean Claude, had a white board to write on, and immediately sets off into his spiel about desires being larger than income, and about Mercedes Benz, and so on. Guillermo and I looked at each other, and patiently sat through his talk. At the very end, we discover that he is an Amway representative! Later we have a good giggle, because Amway started in the US and now someone in France is trying to get us involved. Fortunately, people are not as pushy as some we have run across in the US, and so the presentation ends, and the conversation moves on to more interesting topics. In the end, they leave, and we never hear about the proposition again.
Our vacation within a vacation
We took a three-day trip up into the mountains west of here. We manage to leave the house by 11:00 a.m., and I'm surprised that I don't feel the pressure to rush, organize, do things perfectly, as I would in the US. We head off in the direction of the lake of Salagou, which is a man-made lake about ½ hour from Montpeyroux. We circle the lake high up in the surrounding mountains, enjoying the view of the red earth which colors the land and the houses. We go back around the lake to the Cirque de Moureze, which is an astounding assortment of rock formations that have many different shapes that people have put names to, and Renato and I clamber over rocks for a few minutes.
Soon we are hungry, and find a chapel just off the road where we can sit in the shade of its front door and eat our picnic lunch. The children consume vast quantities of raw vegetables, fruit, bread and cheese. We drink the water from St. Guilhem, and have a sip of the rose wine we brought. By this time, it is almost 3pm, and so we leave the lake and head west. Soon we pass through Bedarieux, and then Lamalou-les-Bains. The children are restless by now, and upon arriving in Lamalou-les-Bains, we find a grassy playground in the center of town. The children play for a while, and Guillermo takes a quick nap on a nearby bench. The children run and play and shout and get their energies out, and then we go for a walk through town. We stop at a local café, and the adults have a cold beer, and the children have ice cream, and watch the people who have come to the baths.
I begin to notice that the servings of food are small. In fact, they are very healthy servings. The beers are small, and just enough to quench one's thirst. The ice cream scoops are also very small, but the children don't seem to mind. I also notice that in the supermarket there is not a junk food section at all. You can find potato chips, but only one brand. There also isn't much soda either, yet there are two aisles of bottled water, and two of wine.
After our snack, we drive up into the hills north of Lamalou. We pass through St. Gervais and continue north, looking for a place to stay. Just north of St. Gervais, at a scenic stop, we find a large map that mentions two nearby chambres d'hote (sort of like B&Bs). We head to the first one, and within ten minutes we are driving onto the grounds. We are immediately stopped by ten llamas that cross our path in search of fresher grass on the other side of the road! Since Guillermo is from Peru, he is quite taken aback by the presence of animals native to his country wandering around in the south of France. We quickly park, and I go off in search of an innkeeper. I find a man at the back of a building washing his feet, and I start to ask him in French about rooms. I could tell from the expression on his face that French was not his native language either, and I took a wild guess and asked if he spoke Spanish. It turns out that he is from Colombia, and he was the keeper of the llamas. He takes groups for long treks in the mountains, and the llamas carry the food and other materials needed. He points out the owner, who informs me that the two rooms are already booked for that night.
We are very disappointed because the place (named Le Fau) is quite charming, with ducks and geese, llamas, dogs and cats, and other animals. The children are already running around and enjoying themselves. The owner offers to call a place in St. Gervais to see if they had room. He calls and is informed that there was plenty of room at 'le chateau.'
We drove back to St. Gervais and to search for the chateau. Somehow I remember enough of what the innkeeper had said, and I locate a chateau at the very end of town. It seems deserted, with no lights on, so we are uncertain of the situation. I try and find an open door. I see a large dining room through a window, but the entire house is dark. As I walk around, I notice a driveway on the other side of the house, so we drive past the house, and enter the driveway. It is here that we see a little handwritten sign, out of sight of the cars driving by, that announces chambres d'hote! So again I go in search of life of some kind. It's almost dark at this point, with just enough light to walk around, but dark enough that shapes take on strange forms. From the distance, I see a form walking toward me. The house is dark, and the large trees around make huge moving shadows. The form turns out to be a man, speaking with a French accent that I do not understand at all. Eventually, slowly, we manage communication, and he directs Guillermo where to park. He carries our bag, and takes us up two flights of stairs to the top of the chateau and into a spectacular room. He takes our order for breakfast, and then bids us a goodnight and leaves.
We are a bit taken aback at the whole thing, and we just stand there for a moment, trying to take it all in. The room is huge, with 15 feet high ceilings. There are windows on three sides, each more than ten feet high. Across the far wall are four twin-sized beds, neatly made up. There are a kitchen table, four chairs, and a large, beautiful wardrobe. The bathroom is also large, although the toilet does not have a toilet seat.
We set up a quick meal for the children, and get them off to bed. Andoni is too excited about the idea of sleeping in a bed, and with his older brother, that it is well after midnight before he falls sleep. Guillermo and I then pull out the bottle of rose, chilled while the children were being put to sleep. With all the windows open, we drink wine in silence and watch the millions of stars outside our window. The chateau is alongside a stream, and the sound of running water is so soothing.
It is a very strange feeling, however, because it seems like we are the only people in the entire building. Neither of us sleeps well, Guillermo worrying about the fact that we had no key to lock the room, and I that Andoni would fall out of bed during the night.
The next morning we shower, pack and head downstairs in search of breakfast. We discover that we were in an old folks home, and that there are dozens of people there after all. They are put to bed at 7:00 P.M., which is why no lights were to be seen. The breakfast is spectacular. The milk is fresh, not the awful long-life milk in a carton that French supermarkets sell. The peaches are perfect and white fleshed, the butter is soft and creamy, and the bread thick and warm. After breakfast, we pay our $50 and continue on our way.
The next day we drive through Brusque, Camares, Belmont-sur-rance, and end the day in Lacaune. The day went by in a blur of fantastic scenery as we drive up and down mountains. I can't even remember where we stopped for lunch, or where we got out to walk. Whatever we did, though, was fun, and the air was crisp and cool.
As we drive into Lacaune, I immediately spot an old hotel right at the corner of the village square, across from the church. I knew we would end up there, but Guillermo insisted that we wander about, checking on other hotels. After about an hour, we end up at the end of town, and find a delightful park and playground. I leave everyone there, and walk back to the hotel in the centre-ville. The hotel offers us a room for $50, without breakfast, and I take it. I unload the car, and head back to pick up the family. They love the place! The ground floor is paneled in old, thick, dark wood, and consists of a bar, sitting area, and restaurant. Our room upstairs is comfortable and spacious, and opens on a patio with a pool outside.
Again, I organize a meal with produce purchased during the day, and we bathe the children. Renato and I head out for a jaunt downstairs, and Guillermo is left with the unenviable task of putting Andoni to bed. An hour later Guillermo indicates that the baby was asleep, so the rest of us go to bed.
After a quick kids' breakfast, we pack up and load the car. We then walk around in search of an adult breakfast and found some quiche and fresh bread. We sit in the main plaza eating breakfast, watching everyone heading out to work
Then we head down to the lakes south of Lacaune, and after purchasing cold cuts and fruit, ended up circling the Lac de la Raviege. The children fell asleep, but we are hungry, so Guillermo heads down the first dirt road he finds. We park at the side of the lake and set up lunch there. Renato woke first, and so the three of us eat a wonderful lunch, shivering at the edge of the lake. It was chillier than usual because of the white clouds blocking the sun. Renato and I then explore up and down the lake, looking for lizards. Andoni wakes up two hours later, and after lunch and a quick walk, we head down to St. Pons-de-Thomieres, and then Olargues.
The best playground that we find is in St. Pons. It is a long area on a sloped landscape covered with bright green lush grass. Through the middle of the playground, originating from a large fountain, is a shallow valley of paved stones carrying a stream of water down to another fountain at the bottom of the playground. Initially I tried to keep the children to get their feet wet, until an older woman there with her grandson indicated that I should take their shoes off! What a marvelous afternoon they had, running up and down the stream, splashing in the water, and playing with the equipment.
We ended our little excursion with the purchase of a rotisserie chicken and fresh bread, which we ate in the main plaza alongside the older men playing pétanque. I was unwilling to head back to Montpeyroux because it had been such a great trip, but it was getting late and our budget didn't allow for another hotel. We drove back to the house, arriving sometime after 8 P.M..
As I pack and get ready to leave Montpeyroux, I am very sad. It obviously will be hard to leave the children and my husband behind, but it is also going to be hard to leave this house, the people we've met, the good times we have had. I'm also a bit envious of Guillermo and the kids, getting to enjoy another month here! I am heading back to good old hot DC, with its oven-like temperatures. August will be spent running from air conditioning to air conditioning. We tentatively make plans to return to Montpeyroux in the summer of 2000!
My husband's month stay could best be qualified by the term 'social.' By the time I was preparing to leave, the social invitations began coming, which surprised us greatly. Folks tended to be very reserved with us, and so we didn't expect any invitations at all. But Guillermo ended up with at least two dinner or lunch invitations a week, in houses all over Montpeyroux. And the best part was the help that he received from the wives, since he was a man alone taking care of two small children. The women helped him with laundry, invited Renato to play with their children or grandchildren, cooked for them, etc. Others would take Guillermo to the beach, or to the city, helped him out when Andoni developed conjunctivitis, and even took him on a tour of the Roquefort caves.
What Guillermo has yet to explain to me is how he managed to communicate so well with everyone! It turns out that the village does have a very large contingent of people of Spanish descent, and Guillermo searched them all out! Initially it was very difficult to get them to even admit to the fact that they spoke Spanish, but when they realized that Guillermo only spoke Spanish and English, they would eventually give in and speak Spanish. Guillermo also learned a little French in the process. He claims that dinner conversation always flowed freely, and he understood a great deal, and that they understood him well enough, so it worked out well. I'm sure the village wine helped a bit in the process!
In the end, we both fell in love with the village and the people. We have already agreed to return in two summers to spend another two or three months there. We have made good friends with whom we are keeping in touch with, and whom we are missing now. The person who misses France the most, though, is our son Renato. He misses the atmosphere, being able to go out into the village alone to play with friends, going to a local family's house to eat and play. He also misses the adults he met, because they were so affectionate with him. We all loved the summer experience, and are yearning to go back.
The World - Europe - France