Thursday, May 31, 2012

We have guests!!

Steve and Julie are here!

We've wandered the village (jetlagged - they were such heroes!)

gone to the markets

and climbed Dentelles, of course...

                                                ( It's a beautiful walk, it never gets old.)

We've been to a Cherry Festival

and slipped into a gorgeous pre-Christian pagan temple that served as a Roman temple and then as a Christian Baptistery.

We came home for some wine and a bit of this

Under this.

                                                     (Aren't they clever chaps!)

Later we did The Walk To Seguret  

and picked bunches of wildflowers on the way home.

Really, it's awfully good fun.  Thanks for taking the photos, Julie and Steve  :)

Friday, May 25, 2012


Our village is at the foot of les Dentelles, but today, with a few hours notice, we drive down to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for the feast of Saint Sarah, patron saint of the Roma people. The landscape changes on the Camargue estuary – it is flatter, even fuller of wildflowers, and drifts of water lie over the floodplain.

There are  fields and fields of water, some for rice cultivation, but mostly the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue which is an ornithological refuge. It’s beautiful country, wide and wild and empty,

home of the white Camargue horses,

                                                                    the black bulls, 

and the gardians who raise them

The village is already crowded when we arrive – caravans, minibuses, campsites – and it will stay full for some days because this is a major pilgrimage for the Roma, a coming-together of clans and family groups. The sun is beating down and washing up again from the walls and pavements and there is a wild and vibrant excitement in the air. A girl outside the church pins a medallion on my shirt despite my protestations, and insists on a five euro payment. She is proficient in making demands in at least five languages (we run through French, Italian, German, English - yes! - and another I don’t quite recognise: she balks at Berber)  and she knows where Australia is, so I give her two euros. She seems quite pleased and waves at me when we meet again later.

The 9th century church itself is beautiful

and the fact that the religious history of the area predates Christianity by centuries is the kind of thing I adore. There is a pre-Christian altar in the church that dates to the 4th century BC. I desperately wanted to see it – shades of my Basilica St Clement - but today is not the day…  

The gloom of the church is held at bay - just -  by thousands of candles; outside, the air echoes with music and laughter and shouting. The clothes are astounding; the young girls are stunningly pretty 

and the young men are bold and arrogant and fun to watch. The church is packed with devotees of the black Saint Sarah who may have developed as an incarnation of the Hindu’s Kali. The young woman who stands in for her during the service is quite overcome;

and later, during the statue’s procession from the church to the sea, there are people in tears -

 But for the most part it’s a joyful, exuberant celebration of Roma community, family ties and history,with the pretty song to Saint Sarah constantly thrumming in the background. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Vide Grenier

The Antiques Fair was on in Sablet this morning, which meant that we walked right through it on the way to Bruno’s for the ritual coffee-and-chess.

It was good. There were some stunning things to buy and the prices were not exorbitant – but we'd already been spoilt last weekend at the Sablet vide grenier, where the stalls belonged to locals and all the treasures had once belonged to grandmere or grandpere’s maman and came with stories attached, and smelled of Provence and woodsmoke and lavender. Where I'd found  –

 baby dresses, of course, hand sewn in the late 1890s; 

some poetry, playbills - and French grammar books  once owned by a real French school child. (Hatchette, 1918). They were covered in old brown paper, ruled and titled and named and probably loathed as well - though her marks were good.

I nearly bought another missal, stuffed with cards and indulgences – but no, this has to stop, it’s becoming quite the obsession, something I bring back from every vide grenier and I’ve not been inside a church for so many years: so instead, I find a photograph, a child of indeterminate age, not-pretty not-plain but uncertain, assessing, wondering whether to smile with her hat-ribbon tangled into her curls.

We found other things, too, that we needed, that we’ll leave in the house when we go.

 A kitchen bench, old and tiled and just the right size; a carpet, some bowls and a coat-rack - to make the place warm and welcoming. Just like home should be. 

And later we went for a walk to Seguret, to find a Juniper bush that we had been told had berries ripe for the picking. We didn't find it - but we have time on our side. We can look again later.

And anyway, we still have 

Friday, May 18, 2012

*sigh* Heart you, France.

The Mistral is blowing again out of nowhere, chilling and wicked and unpredictable, bringing crystalline skies and streets full of turmoil and laughter. There are hearty cheers when a plastic table goes skidding across the square from the café; and wild applause every time a wrap - we are trussed up again in the shawls  and jumpers of April -  every time a long Sabletian wrap  untangles itself from its wearer and soars up over the roofs of the village. The glorious Mistral!, and now the village is peopled with children, 50 years, 60 years,  70-year-old arthritic children - because who can be old with such naughtiness all through the air, such blue in the sky, such terrible mischief about to blow up in an instant, down any lane, around any corner?

And still we’re surprised on a trip in search of les Celliers Amadieu - a trip with a deadine because we have guests arriving next week, and we need to try this wine that has been recommended by someone we know to trust – we are surprised, when we stop by the road to plug in the tomtom and there, upon us, literally out of the blue, quite magically there is a tiny old lady, laughing, and chirruping French so specific, so regional, that we're lost and can’t make head nor tail of it. Have we parked her in? Does she need something from us? Is there an emergency? (But how could there be an emergency with that naughtiness all through her face, that merriment spilling and dancing around her?) But yes, une urgence, she agrees, and I leave the car and she pulls my arm, quickly! quickly!  and Paul is there too, swept up in her spell. We come to a tiny rise, and below, her field is stretched out before us, and there! "Regardez! L’abre, la!

A tree – a beautiful tree, in an empty field: but she loses her patience then and pinches my arm.

"Les cerises"! The cherries! And she has had her fill and they’ll only last for a week, and look! - she’s pulled us down under the tree in a chaos of cherries and leaves, and she’s grabbing them, handful on handful, "Quickly! Before the Mistral can get them - mangez! Mangez!" Then she’s bolted back up to the car, grabbed my basket and tells us to fill it! Fill! so we join her in fits of laughter, this darling, this wicked, this windblown grandmother who tells us “Quickly! Or they will be gone!”

We bring them home, and after we’ve eaten as much as we can and more, and with the basket still heavy, Paul turns them into a sauce (cherries, lavender honey, balsamic vinegar, red peppercorns for citrus and shallots for a taste of the earth) that he serves with a fat pan-fried duck-breast. 

And later, blessing Laura because such a long time ago in an artisan shop in the Hunter Valley she told me “Look at these! You'll wish you had them when you find somebody really special, somebody magic”, we go back to thank the Cherry grandmother, armed with a gum-nut teaspoon, and a packet of Diggers seeds. Sturt Desert Pea. They might not take, but if they do, they will fit very well in a garden that’s all old rocks and snow-in-summer and Flanders poppies. 

And here we are, windblown.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Oh, stop your fussing. He wasn't hurt.

 I knew this would happen – outraged emails of the “Why would they want to kill Paul?” variety. I think the question should rightly be: Why the Swiss?

This is what happened. We were climbing up the face of the Eiger – no, wait: we were climbing up near the face of the Eiger, and when I say “we” I mean Paul and Stevie and me but when I say “climbing” I mean mostly Paul because Stevie and I had found the gift-shop-and-bar and were splitting our time between fortifyingly adult breakfast drinks and looking for the perfect souvenir snowdome - when Paul decided that it would be really excellent if we took the tiny train to the top of JungFrau instead and went for a walk in the gale-force winds.

How we laughed!

Here’s one of us, laughing.

So Paul went off on his own, a little bit Shackleton, a little bit Scott of the Antarctic, 

caught the wee train to the end of the line on the highest peak in Europe and got out and started walking.

Here’s a photo of what he walked through.

When he got all the way up to the top, he was confronted with a perilous 100 metres of  suspended walkway that led a kind of take-that!-gravity  restaurant. The walkway was iced over, and because this was an enthusiastic spur of the moment kind of thing (have you met my husband?) it could be said, perhaps, that Paul was not entirely appropriately kitted out. He had a nice down vest and a wooly scarf but no walking sticks and not even a smallish barrel of St Bernard brandy for emergencies.   He got to the restaurant ok – but on the way back, he paused to come to the aid of a lady of a certain age who was unsteady and stumbling ahead of him. Having held the guide-ropes tight for her, so that she could get her footing, he was blasted by a sudden gust of Weather and his feet went from under him, to leave him dangling – I swear this is true – dangling above the kind of fall that he says probably wouldn’t have killed him, exactly, but would certainly have shattered a lot of bones. (That’s comforting, isn’t it?)

The lady walked on. 

Man that he is, he pulled himself up the rope in a hand-over-fist kind of way, and as he grabbed the walkway-bridge with the very tips of his fingers, he was distinctly relieved to see a well-built Swiss gentleman (properly kitted) standing over him. He gulped down a few breaths  and said “I seem to have slipped. I’m afraid I’ve got the wrong shoes on” in a fairly apologetic tone, and waited for the Swiss gentleman to reach down a helping hand. The gentleman instead – without betraying any emotion beyond tighty-clenched  disapproval – said “Yes. You should only wear Swiss Army Boots” and walked on, leaving Paul – well – just leaving him…  Hanging.

Turns out the Swiss Gentleman was the falling-down-lady’s husband: which makes me wonder if Paul interrupted some kind of Insurance Crime…

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Switzerland. And the Swiss.

So we went to Switzerland.

The Swiss are a funny bunch, aren’t they? But tcha! I digress. 

We went to Switzerland, and I think that it might as well be noted here that, yes, Switzerland is the most beautiful place on the planet – it’s truly astounding. Outrageous: compellingly gorgeous –  just built for adjectives. And it’s not showoff-y, god bless it – just huge and awe-inspiring and, well, < insert  superlative here>. It’s  all of that and big and covered with snow.

Here’s a photo. You'll need to double-click. The tiny things in between the hills are houses. 

We took Stevie with us, partly to see if she’d get mugged again (she didn’t) but mostly because we needed her German. Here’s a photo of Stevie and me, and behind us an avalanche descending really quite quickly. Don’t we look calm and unbothered?

There was a storm on our last night, and a rude chap who stole our car spot and had the gall to smug at us when we mentioned it, scored a bunch of rooftiles on the top of his blue BMW. I don’t say this to gloat, you understand – I merely mention it as a warning to those of you with blue BMWs. Don’t be smug - we have Swiss Weather Gods on our side.

But we don’t have the Swiss onside. The Swiss rather hated us (can you believe it?) We kept going into their shops and trying to buy things and then we’d insist on saying thank you and otherwise ruining their days. Sometimes we even said Hi to them on the street (it’s the French coming out in us – what can I say?) thus undermining their General Neutrality. 

One of them tried to kill Paul.

 I mean - can you imagine? 


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Childhood. In, like, Europe.

See this?

This is part of a little outcroppy-thing just behind our village. It's in a bit of the range called, appropriately enough,  les Dentelles de Montmirail. (trans: "the sort of lacey bits of the Admirable Mountains"). Les Dentelles are very high and jaggedy, and they go up  - and down, I suppose - about 2,400 feet. 

Quite a ways.

See this photo? 

This is Paul being all food-oriented and devil-may-care about halfway up. I'm sorry if it's out of focus. I was oxygen-deficient and terrified about being so far above the ground. I left him there because he looked as though he might keep walking up, and Up was not where I wanted to be. 

And - see this? 

If you look very closely, there's a teensy little leaning thing just near the cloud at the top. That's a man who passed us on the way up. See him? There? Just diagonally up from the unlikely spot of dark green foliage?. 

Now draw a line down the rock-face from him. See, just about half-way down the sheer ediface - that little balancing thing on the outcroppy bit? That's the little boy he had with him, who might (as far as we could judge as he scampered past us) be ten years old. Perhaps eleven. 

And see quite a long way down from him? Quite a long wayyyyy  dowwwwnnnn? A little bit of a pinky thing - little white cap?  Yes, there - teeeny teeeeeeeny little thing, quite a long, long, long way down from, say, help or rescue? Double-click on the photo, if you can - it might help

That's the girl. Maybe seven years old. Maybe not quite. Singing. In French. 

Couldn't see Mother, funnily enough. Not anywhere. Which, I think, is perfectly understandable...

The lesson here, then,  is that if you ever get stuck on a mountain more than about say nine feet above the earth, pray to god for a French child to help you down.

Not for a Harmon.