Sunday, August 30, 2009

Where the road ends in the middle

August 26, 2009
Blanc, Aveyron, France

You can go searching for the end of the world and miss it, finding yourself instead next to busloads of tourists at an alpine overlook, snapping pictures together at a disappearing glacier. Or the end of the world can sneak up on you. In August, as Europe’s cities empty and urban dwellers snarl traffic from Hamburg to Seville in search of tranquility, I didn’t expect to find ourselves alone in the middle of France. Yet here I am.

Where is the Aveyron? Where the Massif Central meets the Mediterranean ranges, where southwest France meets southern France, and Paris is light-years away. We followed the autoroute 75 south from Clermont-Ferrand and exited at Millau, just after the famous Viaduc de Millau, the giant cable-stayed bridge completed a few years ago and already a Michelin three-star attraction. I have to agree with Michelin: the audacity of building such a monument to progress, half five-masted ship and half spaceship, in the middle of nowhere merits more than a detour. But I’m not here looking for progress.

We took the road to Saint Affrique. It was late, eight o’clock, and the inhabitants were beginning their Saturday evening with a drink on the terrace cafés of the main road through town. I imagined their eyes on us and our Paris license plates. It certainly looked like a southwestern town, with plane trees lining the sidewalk and posters announcing the headlines of the latest Dépêche du Midi. I called up the owners of the house we were renting to announce our arrival. “You’re in Saint Affrique? You’ve got another 45 minutes, then.” I looked at the map, and although we were less than twenty miles away as the crow flies, the road twisted and climbed in an unpromising fashion. In the southeast corner of the Aveyron, the limestone plateau of the Grands Causses gives way to wide, red valleys and slate cliffs, and nowhere is close to anywhere. We passed a broken-down tractor with “Non au McDo[nalds]” spray painted on the side; a little farther along, another scrawled message called cryptically for “Down with GMOs, not with union membership.” I remembered we were in the land of José Bové. We were also a few miles away from Roquefort, home of the famous blue cheese: Bové may rail against globalization, but his cheese is exported across the globe.

When I say we weren’t looking for the end of the world, I’m lying a bit: the village where we were staying was an abandoned village on a rocky escarpment, deserted after the Second World War. It was recently purchased and partially restored by a British couple, who took up residence in the ruins of the 10th century fortified castle and restored the schoolhouse and the rectory as rental properties. It was twilight when we arrived, and I could just glimpse the village church clinging to a cliff below the road.

In the morning, it looked like paradise. A stony path led up to the church at the end of the cliff. Our house was nestled back in a grove of plum trees. The early sun turned the hillside facing us golden. But aside from lazing the day away in one of the hammocks strung between the trees, there wasn’t much to do, certainly no discernible economic activity. The hills were mostly forested, and many seemed to steep for livestock. The valleys had some small-scale agriculture, a few lonely cows or scattered hayfields. The towns we ventured into had disaffected textile factories and defunct thermal bathhouses, and the only thriving businesses in town seemed to be the grocery store, bakery and bistro. Half the houses leaning into one another looked abandoned under their cracked plaster, but the others looked alive, inhabited. People sat outside on terraces overlooking the river to eat lunch. What could people possibly live from here, we wondered.

Thanks to Parcours Romans en Rouergue, a fascinating local history book my husband found, the history and geography of the region began to come to life. We learned that in the 14th century, there were 42 families living in the abandoned village where we were staying. Now there was one, plus room for two seasonal vagabonds like ourselves. Why build here -- and painfully, stone by irregular stone – in the middle of the forest? We found a photograph from the beginning of the century, and it turns out that the forest didn’t exist. The steep hills were covered with meadows, and the local residents lived as shepherds, as they presumably had since before the Romans arrived. In the rural exodus that followed the war the land was given up, and beech, chestnut and oak rapidly moved in, blurring the landscape of centuries.

“We’re here for a week,” my husband said to the local grocer as they chatted over the cheese counter.

“And you… you like it?”

“Oh yes.”

“Because there isn’t a lot to do here, you know. A lot of people find it rather far from everything.”

My husband assured him that that was exactly what we were looking for. He bought Roquefort, some organic yogurt, and a small, round, fresh sheep’s milk cheese called pérail. The grocer explained that it was a cheese made seasonally from the excess milk not used up to make Roquefort. He confidentially added that it was quite appreciated by the locals. “We love it so much, we eat it without bread.” Eating a cheese without bread is a high compliment from a Frenchman.

We quickly learned that going anywhere was an afternoon or morning’s endeavor. There simply was no way to get anywhere fast on the mountain roads. But staying at the house, reading and lazing in one of the hammocks strung between the trees was not an option, since we had to chase behind le Petit as he raced up gravel paths and down grassy embankments. So we hiked up the mountains with le Petit on my husband’s back, stopping to gather blackberries. Or we followed the roads to the hidden vestiges of abbeys and castles and raced back in time for naptime. I’ve had my fill of off the beaten path for now. Although I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to fight my way to work in a packed RER on Monday morning, I am hoping to carry just a little bit of the infinite calm of this place with me when we go back home.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tidal horror show

I found the bleached skeletons piled up at the foot of the cliff, broken and mangled, some torn apart by the waves, others dashed to pieces against the rocks. All the colors of life were now faded and pale, and the hollow remains rattled with each gust of wind. Further away survivors clung to the rocks, exposed to the elements, waiting helplessly for the tide. Some were half-drowned already, flailing their limbs in the freezing water or advancing painfully amid the slippery weeds. I could only save so few. I grabbed hold of those I could and held them tight, preciously.

I always have loved collecting seashells.

Looking for Brittany

August 19, 2009
Missillac, Brittany, France

There are regions that hold you at arm’s length. Brittany’s coast of twisted bays and knotted granite cliffs defies casual exploration by summer tourists. The peninsula that you see faintly at the other side of the water may be an hour’s drive away or it may be three, or it may be on an island accessible only by boat. There are chateaux and thatched cottages hidden here and there, but all you see from the main road are identical modern houses, white and square as elsewhere in France, though stamped with traditional Breton granite lintels and slate roofs as a sign of geographic solidarity.

We are staying near Nantes, just north of the Loire estuary, on the edge of the Brière marsh, our destination chosen on a whim after watching an episode of Des racines et des ailes, a French documentary series. We’re on the edge of the region, and Brittany as I thought I knew it (having never before visited the region) is north, or northwest, as my husband corrects me. So far, we’ve spent our days wandering everywhere but the Brière – inaccessible except by boat, we’ve learned. We turn to the ocean instead.

But it is surprisingly difficult to approach the sea. It is everywhere, and the coastline snakes up riverbeds to meet villages and plays hide-and-seek among the salt beds and sand dunes. Yet even my husband, who is obsessed with maps since childhood, seems anxious when he tries to pinpoint the best place to land. Between sandy beach, muddy tide flat, windy cliff, forest-ringed cove with silent green water, you must navigate carefully. I can guess the terrain well enough from the detailed IGN maps my husband brought along, but the distances between ports and inland villages still deceive. We are mariners searching the horizon for blue water and not for dry land.

Tréhegieur was our first port of call, a village on the southern bank of the Vilaine river where it widens into the sea. There were working boats in the port, equipped with mussel farming gear, mechanical arms to pull the clusters of shells from their poles. In my constant, frivolous quest for authenticity, I was happy to see that a large, old granite house with carved window frames stood across from the port. A small stone chapel nearby was converted into a shop selling local seafood and seemed to do a brisk business. The tide was out and I breathed in the smell of salt- and sun-soaked mud.

We then headed for Pénestin, weaving our way up around the headland to the south of the Vilaine, where there were more identical white beach cottages. We thought we’d gotten lost in the looping subdivisions when we saw the parking lot for the beach. It was half-past seven in the evening, the time when all self-respecting French vacationers are heading back to start the barbecue and open up a chilled bottle of rosé, so we were swimming upstream against the crowd as we hiked down to the beach. We stripped le Petit down to his diaper and t-shirt and ran alongside him as he went off to splash in the water.

With a sandy cliff behind us and granite stacks of rocks just beyond the edge of the surf, the beach looked just like home to me. It could have been any beach along Washington’s Pacific coast, except that the lapping waves apparently couldn’t be counted on to move gnarled driftwood tree trunks and, I noted with surprise, the water was warm. The sand was fine, gray, muddy, and punctuated with rocks covered with seaweed and mussels. I was in love. “All the beaches in Brittany are like this, I’m afraid,” my husband sighed, as le Petit ran around and gleefully jumped in the puddles left by the tide.

The next morning was market day in Pénestin. We parked as best we could just out of town and followed the flood of tourists pushing strollers and carrying shopping baskets into downtown. It was a summer market like in every other coastal town in France, with stalls hawking sandals and cheap t-shirts, others local honey and sea salt caramel, fresh fish, local cheese or imported olives, or piles of bright ripe peaches, tomatoes, and apricots. I was bewildered, a tourist lost in the herd, but my husband found Breton artichokes, peppers and fresh beans to buy, stocked up on apricots for le Petit and fresh goat cheese for me. It was well past one o’clock when we got back to the house we’d rented, and by the time we’d eaten lunch it was le Petit’s long, late naptime.

We studied the map. There was a beach near the port of La Turballe, a long, westward-facing stretch of sand that according to the guide was beautiful at sunset. When we arrived it was well-past seven and the beach was nearly empty. As with most difficult to access beaches in France, the furthest reaches were clothing-optional; prudishly American as I am, I averted my eyes as we hiked well to the modest side of the “Beyond this point correct apparel is required” sign. “This is a real beach,” my husband approved, “With sand dunes and pines. No mud. No rocks.” All the beaches of my husband’s childhood were reached by sandy paths through pine forests. Le Petit and I were less convinced; it was beautiful but windy, and we both shivered when we left the water, but the sunset painted the sand a warm gold.

The next day we headed west to where the Pointe de Penvins jutted out into a calm sea and lobster boats dropped traps into the water. It was hard to imagine the shipwreck in the aftermath of which a chapel was erected on the grassy point. The beach stretched away to one side in a crescent, and we could just see the château of Suscinio behind the dunes at the far end of the cove. We’d planned to hike to it, but le Petit had other ideas, so we set down our backpack and let le Petit play for an hour in the surf. We later spied the château from the car, a half-ruined fortified castle rising above the salt marsh.

In the evening we drove to the small point of Pen-Lan on the northern edge of the mouth of the Vilaine, where a demur lighthouse kept a lower profile than the granite steeple of the village church, also shaped remarkably like a lighthouse, probably to confound tourists. I went for a run along the trail up the river while my husband hiked with le Petit on his back. We stopped together at a rocky beach ringed with tide pools.

On Tuesday we headed north (no, west!) to the far edge of the Golfe du Morbihan, an enclosed bay studded with countless islands and carved by small, winding coastal rivers. The road kept frustratingly far away from the coast, and I had the feeling of visiting the bay without ever seeing it. We hiked up the side of a salty riverbed from the river port of Bono on a path shaded by oak and pine. We passed egrets and herons, several rotting half-drowned rowboats, a château and an old tidal-powered mill rumored to have once housed pirates.

We had lunch at a crêperie in Baden, and enjoyed crispy buckwheat crepes so rich they seemed to sweat butter. Le Petit ate his crepe with his hands, delighted to pull it apart and find ham inside. My husband ate his with a fork, and was no less delighted with the combination of tripe sausage and apples. I shrugged; to each his own. We ordered sweet crepes for dessert, caramel apple and calvados-drenched pear, and ice cream for le Petit, which he refused to eat. Naptime was on the road, and we crept up one peninsula after another while le Petit slept: Locmariaquer, La Trinité-sur-Mer, Quiberon. We drove through the fields of prehistoric menhirs, slowing to a crawl to admire the rows of granite boulders from the car window.

Somewhere near the isthmus of Quiberon le Petit woke up. After some bickering, we decided to stop at the beach. A good choice: between running up and down the beach as fast as he could, splashing in the surf, endlessly refilling the moat of a sandcastle and playing in the waves with my husband, le Petit seemed to have never had such fun. It dawned on me that not since I was a kid had I enjoyed the beach so much myself.

Today was market day in Guérande. The fortified city, aloof, surveys the ocean at a conservative distance from behind its marshy salt fields. Bags of traditionally-produced salt were for sale, along with striped Breton sailor shirts, caramel and shortbread cookies, and all the usual tourist delights. We bought le Petit a blue and cream-colored striped shirt that he refused to try on in the shop. The bright colors of the market seemed out of step with the severe granite façades, and the whole had the look of a high school play staged with a borrowed set. I imagined the same scene in winter, when the souvenir shops would be deserted.

It is Wednesday, and we’ll be leaving in three days. I realize that I’ve just started to discover a hundred kilometers of Brittany’s southern coast, which is nothing at all. I can sketch the real Brittany with the faintest of lines now, but with the map spread out in front of me I see what’s left: west to the islands of the Finisterre, north to the channel coast, the highlands and forests inland, and everywhere bays, inlets, mountains. There are worse things than feeling obliged to come back.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Clearly I need a vacation

"I'm leaving on vacation tonight, and..."

My cell phone rang as I was in the middle of greeting my colleagues. Interrupting the ritual series of handshakes, I bolted for my desk.

"...and I'm not sure I'm coming back!" I added, yelling for the benefit of the office at large while swearing under my breath.

It was the answering machine. The second of two families we'd wasted last weekend meeting left a message saying they weren't interested in sharing our nanny. The agency fees were too expensive, and anyway, it was too inconvenient for them to start in October. I was a little relieved, since the woman had seemed flaky to me from the moment we met, but I was thoroughly annoyed that she'd wasted so much of our time. That would explain why the interview we'd set up for her with our nanny last night had lasted a total of five minutes; the decision was already made, but she hadn't bothered to call ahead of time to cancel.

I took my notebook computer out of my bag, plugged it in to the monitor on my desk, noticed the display on both screens wasn't coming up. Swearing out loud now, I toggled switches and pushed buttons until I managed to generate a strange, pixelated close-up of my wallpaper image, a photo of le Petit and me from last summer, and completely lose all the icons and the mouse cursor. It was beautiful. It looked like it belonged in the Centre Pompidou. I held the power button down in fury.

"It's broken! And... and..."

My colleague across from me looked up from his keyboard.

"What's broken?"

"Nothing."

Soon enough I was enumerating all the things that were broken, from the computer to the search for a family to share the nanny to the database problem I'd been up until midnight trying to solve. What was really wrong -- not much, in fact -- was that I'd slept poorly, that I'd left too much work for the last minute, and that I sorely lacked perspective. Nothing new.

"And all this money spent on the nanny just so that I can come to work and fight with the database all day!" I concluded.

Not that I couldn't fight with the database from my living room, as I had the evening before. I'd become so engrossed in a bug, the debugging of which involved staring for hours at records with corresponding columns of dates, that I'd dreamt about it. When le Petit woke up crying at four o'clock, a mercifully rare occurrence these days, I blinked at the baby monitor and thought confusedly, "The poor thing. He can't get those dates in that table to line up, either."

My not-much-more-coherent husband then went in to check on le Petit, walked straight into the closed door, mistook the door for the washing machine, and wondered why I'd left it for him to trip over in the middle of the hallway.

As I was yelling in my office at nobody in particular another colleague walked past. "Tea?" I asked calmly, pointing to my thermos.

"Why yes. What kind?"

"Earl Grey Blue. We're very civilized here."

Perhaps thanks to the tea, the day got better quickly. I got almost everything done, and I even went for a run at lunch. I finished up my last tests and sent an e-mail to my boss from home this evening.

Then at half-past midnight, I spent an hour cleaning my bathroom and my kitchen thoroughly. It's my strange, obsessive pre-vacation ritual. I like coming home to a clean home. I know, however, that the clean home will be instantly transformed into a unnavigable mess the minute we walk back in the door with all of our junk, so it's really just so that if I perish in a freak beach accident my dying thought won't be "What will they think when they see the state of the apartment?"

Then, naturally, I sat down to write a blog entry.

I think that two weeks off the grid, away from e-mail, the web and even reliable cell phone coverage is just what I need. We'll be spending one week in southern Brittany, not far from Nantes, and a second week in the Aveyron, near where they make the famous Roquefort blue cheese. I'll take the computer along, and hopefully will have some quiet time to write at some civilized hour in the afternoon during le Petit's nap time. I'll post what I write when I get back.

Bonnes vacances, everyone.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The dare

This is part three of how I met my husband. Look here for parts one and two.

The phone rang at work a few days after our dinner together. I was confused at first when I realized it was "A." Wasn't he supposed to be in Paris? No, he explained that he'd driven down to his brother's new place in DC to drop off the last of his furniture and was now back in Boston for a few brief days. (His brother had just moved in with his new American sweetheart, now my sister-in-law, but that's another story altogether.)

He sounded nervous and it took him some time to get to the point of his call. I didn't care, I was drinking in the sound of his voice.

"I was wondering... I mean, would you like to... maybe, I thought, since I have one weekend left here in Boston..."

I could almost hear the intake of breath, the here goes nothing, before he continued. "We could go up to Montréal. Or to Québec City. I don't think you've been to either, no? Or," and he rushed to add a third option before I could respond, "We could also just go to Cape Cod for the day."

Now, calling another man's fiancée and inviting her to go on a romantic weekend takes a crazy amount of nerve. Doing so on the eve of a definitive departure across an ocean throws a dash of futility in the insanity (although it does put one out of harm's way should the jilted fiancé get angry). "A" may have been crazy, but he knew me better than I knew myself.

I, however, was too distraught to think clearly. I confusedly thought I'd make it a litmus test for my engagement: if my fiancé agreed to let me go, I would. If he kicked up a fuss, I'd say no. I wanted to prove that he still cared after months of not connecting, and, I'll admit it, I wanted to hurt him a bit. So I said yes to a weekend in Québec, telling myself that I could always cancel.

I met my fiancé later that day for lunch. Staring down at our sandwiches, we tried to hold a normal conversation, but the spaces between the words spoke more than the words themselves. We tried to sound casual, but we sharpened every sentence we chose into a sharp point, aimed precisely, and gouged.

"I talked to 'A' today." I started, matter-of-factly.

"Oh, that's nice," he countered with tepid enthusiasm.

"He asked me if I'd like to go..." Hesitation. Big ammo, not to be used lightly.

"...with him to either Montréal, or Québec City. Or, he also said we could go to Cape Cod for the day if, you know, you objected..." Apology entered my voice despite myself.

"I trust you. If you want to go, go." Evenly. No hint of jealousy. No anger. Just an answer, the one he thought I wanted; he was being the Good Boyfriend, he pretended he wanted to please. Should I rejoice or despair? I wanted to go, and oh, how my heart raced when I thought about seeing "A" again. Yet I'd lost my bet.

"I trust you," he repeated. Maybe there was some sadness after all as he confirmed his choice. But how could he trust me when he didn't even know me?

Serves him right, I thought, as I called "A" back to finalize our plans. We were going to Montréal together.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Missing maman blues

Le Petit woke up last night at around one-thirty calling for "maman." Since we've noticed in the past that he falls back asleep more quickly when Daddy intervenes instead of Mommy, I let my husband go in to check on him. I heard my husband whisper something and le Petit mumble something back, then there was silence. A few minutes later my husband came to bed.

"Was he ok?" I asked.

He was fine. But when he saw that it wasn't me who entered the room, he said with disappointment and resignation, "Maman est partie au travail." Mommy's left for work. He was repeating what my husband tells him when he looks for me after I've left in the morning.

While I don't regret going back to work four days a week, I'll admit it, those words stirred up some latent Mommy-guilt.

Le Petit woke two more times during the night, but didn't ask for either of us. Instead he started into a toddler monologue involving Peter Rabbit, the Three Little Pigs, and a bunch of other things we couldn't quite understand over the baby monitor. My husband went back in to resettle him, which took a while. After such a fractured and restless night, le Petit wasn't stirring until long after I'd left for work this morning. I felt bad leaving -- he's used to having at least a little time with me before I head off -- but I figured it was more important for him to catch up on his sleep.

"He ran around the house looking for you, then cried when I told him you'd left," my husband reported over the phone.

"Oh!"

"Then I gave him some brioche and he forgot all about it."

I don't know what made me feel worse, that I was missed so terribly, or that I was so readily forgotten over a breakfast pastry.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The "S" word

The next installment of how I met my husband is coming soon, but just in case y'all are getting sick of sighing reminiscences, here's what's on my mind now.

My "s" word has five letters:

S-T-U-F-F

We have tons of it. I wage a constant battle against it, and at best, on most days, I reach a stalemate. It's not that our apartment is all that messy, disorganized or grungy; we clean, we sort, we put things away. It it simply packed to the bursting point with stuff.

This isn't an unusual hardship, I know. Urban-dwellers across the planet have the same problem, and a family of three in a 600-square-foot living space with reliable plumbing is luxury to nine-tenths of the world's population. But I grew up in a small American town where space is cheap enough to build three-car garages. When I was a kid, we had entire rooms in our house that we almost never entered. There was no reason to. The guest bedroom was for when we had guests, or when my mother needed to set up the sewing machine. And there was plenty of room for storing absolutely everything. Two huge boxes of Christmas ornaments? No problem! Toys from my parents' childhood? Put them in the attic! Ten years of back issues of the New Yorker? There are bookshelves aplenty upstairs!

I miss that. A lot. Now every time I buy something I face the question, where will it go? Our apartment is like a giant Tetris grid, and when a new item drops from the heavens, we have to scramble to find just where it will fit. Sometimes my (admittedly fragile) cool deserts me and I just can't take it any more. I start pointing out all the stuff and deem it too much. I suggest ever more drastic and unreasonable measures to get rid of it as my husband's patience with me runs out.

"That bookshelf! It's filled with CDs, so many that it is sagging! They're so ugly, I'll put them all on the bottom shelf and let le Petit take care of them..."

"Do you honestly need to keep all these postcards? I'm sure if I just recycled them you wouldn't even notice."

"If I have to look at that bag of shopping bags [my most hated object in the house, the dreaded and dreadful sac des sacs] one more minute I'm going to throw it out the window!"

And the worst thing I can say, of course, is:

"That's it. We're moving."

(It's always been an empty threat, but now that I've remodeled my kitchen, I am careful not to go quite that far.)

Clearly, all this stuff is taking up too much room in my own head. So what if our bookshelves sag and we can't actually walk out onto our (otherwise minuscule) balcony? Our household is fairly shipshape for the number of square feet at our disposal. If we didn't read and collect ridiculous numbers of books and CDs, if I didn't draw and weave, if le Petit wasn't so into jigsaw puzzles, in short, if we weren't such fascinating people, we'd have more room but our lives would be emptier, too.

It wouldn't bother me if I weren't so American about it. As a good friend of mine, a French woman who is married to an American man, said to me the other day, "Whenever I used to come back from the US and compare our tiny apartment where we were living as a family of four with my in-laws' enormous houses, I'd wonder, what are we doing here?"

We went on to agree that the other side of the coin is precarity: in the US if you get sick, lose your job, overextend yourself while buying the house or the things to put in it, you can suddenly you find yourself with no safety net. Here in France, I know no one (yet) who is severely touched by the financial crisis. Back in the US, I have friends who've lost jobs or who are trying to dig themselves out from crushing debt, who are calculating the months they can live off their savings or are considering walking away from their house and their mortgage. It isn't just the stuff, of course, and the causes are many and varied. I suspect, however, that all this stuff creates a cocoon of false security. It looks like prosperity, and it feels like prosperity, but it is a mirage.

In the meantime we're learning that all this stuff is unsustainable on a planetary level. The energy and natural resources that it takes to produce and transport it all are finite, and with the population growing and the atmosphere heating up, the entire Earth is looking more and more like a giant Tetris grid, and one, alas, where none of the filled-up rows ever disappear.

But (oh, the irony!) we've got to buy more to get out of the crisis (and that's where my understanding of macroeconomics ends). So shopping is also virtuous and necessary. And I'm the first to admit I get a rush when I find the perfect [insert miracle organizational item] at IKEA. My wardrobe is tired -- I should know, given the time I've spent reorganizing the closets lately -- so I'm planning to swing through the local clothing boutiques at lunch this week, although fashion-challenged as I am, I window-shop far, far more than I buy. Le Petit also needs some new pairs of pants. I'm no fashionista, but I can tell when my toddler's grown out of or torn through the knee of a pair of overalls. The clothes he's outgrown without wearing them out will go into yet another box for our basement storage unit, which is beginning to look like the Great Wall of Cardboard.

The battle continues.