Saturday, October 23, 2010

That's it for now

Remember, if you have not been on the site for a while, scroll down to the bottom and read UP from where you left off.

I will also post some more random photos just to get you into the drama. This shot is Linda Joseph and I in front of her new gate (Old gate to Linda's right). This was one big goal completed for Linda.

The tile starts to go in place.

Like any tile project the full tiles go fast but cutting edges and making gables, ridges and valleys takes time and talent. Patric and Eric are good at the field placement but not so hot on the details. Our French workers do not understand that when you break a tile it can be used later to cut, they simply grab a new tile and cut off the corners rather than using the broken ones. It is very hard to determine from a huge stack of tiles just how far it will spread on the roof but soon it becomes clear that we will not have enough. We start to develop a system. I load the tiles in the bucket of the Manitou then drive to the house lift the bucket right into the back pockets of Patric and Eric. Patric hands them to Eric and he places them on the roof. It dawns on me that I am lifting every tile and they sit and wait while I drive back and forth to the stack. They take a cigarette break while I load all by myself. Clever these French “workers”. It only takes me about half of the roof to get the big picture and then have Patric and Eric alternate coming down in the bucket to help me load.

Roof is stripped

The first layer of wood that will become the ceiling in the Hay Loft.

Within 3 days we have the roof completely stripped. It is determined that we want to keep the old oak rafters for their looks but they really need to be supplemented with new ones to support the weight of the new tile. Off we go in the work van to the Toute Faire. Another 1000 euro and we have rafters. These rafters are put in place with nails that are bigger than any sold in the US. We need a bigger hammer. The old tiles were set on slats with broken pieces of tile under each one to shim them into place. The new tiles require a flat surface so that they can interlock. It will be necessary to level these beams both from side to side and front to back. A time consuming process. After the rafters are put in place the batons are placed across them and spaced so that the tiles precisely overlap. These batons must also be very straight or the roof will look like ocean waves. Jules and Eric find their rhythm and Patric becomes the narrator (Vs the worker). This “team” Patric and Erin we find out later do less work when they are together than when alone. It seems that their process is for Patric to pick up the tile and hand it to Eric to place when Eric could pick up the tile himself. They like the Café the lunches the cigarettes and oh yes the euro so they work together at twice the cost to me. It is not long that we let Patric go back to catching and killing chickens.

The other end of the Hay Loft

Open air Hay Loft

Another shot of the Hay Loft

Our newly formed team... now two Americans and two French get down to work.

The Hay Loft sans roof tiles...

Patric and Eric look at the beam project and tell us that we are crazy. We are in their country so we listen. Sure enough they come up with a better solution. This by-lateral international planning program takes about 2 hours. Now it is time for lunch. Linda has the Hertz rental so our only means of transportation is Eric’s work van. It is a 20 year old reneau full of tools and parts and it smokes worse than Eric. It is a diesel and it is slow, it has 3 bald tires. I jump in the front seat, Eric at the wheel and Jules and Patric sit in back with the doors open for their feet to hang out. Off to lunch we go. Lunch in France yes even very rural France (France Profunde) is a big, slow deal. There are three levels of prices for the Plat dejour. 12.50 for the full lunch including entre, wine, main course, and desert. 9.50 is for the plat and wine and 8.50 plate only. I write these numbers on the place mat get Eric’s attention and cross out the 12.50 and the 8.50 and make a big circle around the 9.50. He gives me an affirmative toothless grin and I think all is well. Remember that the Euro costs me $1.30 so lunch at 8.50 euro costs me well over $13 each. The French waitress comes to the table and we make a choice from two main courses. There is a side conversation with the waitress and Eric. I think they must be friends. I order the 9.50 euro deal as does Jules. For some strange reason both Eric and Patric get an entre. Then out comes the main course and a large carafe of wine. Humm who ordered that? We all get down to work. It is delicious of course. As we finish there is another conversation with the waitress and Eric. The plates are cleared and out comes desert for Eric and Patric. They clean their plates eat all the bread drink all of the wine eat desert roll and smoke two cigarettes each. Jules does not drink but smokes. This process takes 2 hours and Jules is chomping at the bit to get going. Jules eats on the job with one hand while running the hammer with the other so this lunch process is truly foreign to him. He is type A and going nuts to get back to the job and my inner calculator is running at full speed. I get up and walk in to pay the bill 52 Euros. Yep they ordered what I told them to order then added on all the other stuff one at a time. One lessens well learned by me. On the spot Jules and I decide to pack lunch and give these bozo’s 10 euro each and let them buy their own lunches.

The story continues - this is Barry's Post.

This is Linda at the base of the steps going into the room we call the Hay Loft.

The size of the job becomes a reality, we will need help. Back to JP for assistance. He has a “worker” that is paid 15 euros per hour. He is a crazy Frenchman and spends every dollar he earns the day it is given to him but he has tools and a work van with a roof rack for lumber, he has no front teeth, and is meth amphetamine thin... “But if you watch him he will work for you”. This is my kind of guy. We tell JP to have him show up the next day.

The Manitou and Eric show up first thing in the morning. Terez and Joseph invite the entire group in for Café. At Jules and Eric’s combined hourly rate each Café break costs about $35. And after Café there is cigarettes, Eric rolls his own cigarettes so that he can mix in a little marijuana to make the day go by a little faster. Oh yes the smell of tobacco smoke, pot and liberal amounts of French calone make Eric, well “aromatic” at best it is a good thing this is outside work.

The first day with Jules and Eric is roof strip day. Roof tiles more than 100 years old begin to fly off the roof and form stacks on the ground. These tiles will be broken up and used as fill around the building. The French waste nothing!!!

The roof stripping job becomes difficult and slow. There is literally tons of tiles to be removed plus tons more of rotted wood slats that support the old style tiles. At the end of the day Eric tells us he has a friend that will work for 12 euro per hour so that we can get this project done much faster. We agree to hire Patric. He can’t start for a few days because he works at a chicken ranch and is catching and chopping off the heads of chickens at night and sleeps by day. We tell Eric to work this out and we will take what we can get.

When Patric arrives the cost of the Café beaks goes up to $45 each. That includes the time for all of the kissing and smoking. We are told that we are getting a great hourly rate and part of the deal is that we feed the workers lunch. How bad can that be?

Another angle shot of the beam

With the help of cousin JP we are told to go to another village to the Toute Farie (not to be confused with the Tooth Fairy). He knows the manager there and has an account. Jean-Michel also speaks a little English. Barry and Jules find the blocks, of course they are larger than the ones used for the last post project (we think the old blocks are circa 1940) We buy a stack of blocks, all that will fit in the back of the Hertz rental car, put a few bags of concrete in the back seat and off we go back to Montegut. This is the first day and I am already lost in the drama. So glad I brought my Kindle. After all the materials are unloaded I park the car in the shade and get back to my book. Every kind of construction noise comes from the barn. Wood cutting, concrete drilling, block cutting, hammering, by the end of the day there is a stack of blocks that reach the floor above. Barry and Jules agree that day one was a good one. They are both filthy beyond belief, covered with sweat and pouter from the terracotta block cutting and saw dust from the post cutting. Jules is covered with concrete from head to toe. There is about 2 feet of straw on the second floor of the barn with about 2 inches of dirt under the straw and on top of the board floor. It takes Barry and Jules about an hour to dig a path through this stuff to make sure they do not step in any hidden. Both must wear masks because of the dust. After all this... Yes, they plop themselves down in the Hertz rental and we head back to Monteseque and Bassouse. This will be our daily grind for 3 weeks. It is clear to me that I am not needed on a daily basis. I will run errands from time to time but full time contact with the project is not necessary.

The Poutre Project

Because the Manitou will not arrive for a day or two Barry and Jules decide to start with the poutre. The poutre beam is the single most important support beam in the barn roof. It is some 25 feet long and the thickness of a large oak tree. It actually is a large oak tree. One end has rotted out because of a multi-decade roof leak and the beam has fallen about 14 inches. It is propped up with one of the jacks and another oak tree limb. The position of the beam is such that the roof line has a major sag. There is a beam lying under a foot of straw that looks to be the same length. And another one the right size to be a support post. After a lot of discussion Barry and Jules decide to build a support structure similar to the one that supports another beam. This is a stack of terracotta blocks joined by concrete-mortar. They must drill holes in the concrete floor to put in reinforcement bars so that the stack doesn’t move around and then as the stack grows a row at a time reinforcement bars are again added to link the new stack with the old one so that the support structures will work together. They will then wait until the roof is stripped removing the weight of the tiles from the beam before they jack it into place and install the post.

Every morning we are greeted by Joseph and Therese.

Therese is 82 and Joseph 86. No matter the hurry we are in there must be time for the Bise. Everybody gets kissed once on each cheek. They do not speak one word of English and are both deaf so there is a lot of hand waving and pointing. They shrug, smile and go back in the house pulling us behind for Café. This routine will expand to Café in the morning, at lunch and at 5:00 and for Barry will include wine and if a project is completed a shot of Armanac. There are about 20 to 30 assorted chickens in the yard. Therese is raising a new batch of chicks and is training them to move from the barn to the garden. She uses a bamboo stick for herding and a pan full of feed for motivation. It is really cute to see her work with the chicks. Little do they know that in 2-3 months they will be in the freezer? They all seem happy now.

We arrive early in the morning.

The Manitou is supposed to arrive this morning or maybe the next. JP One of our French cousin has arranged for the delivery and a “special price”. JP’s help has been fabulous. One thing for sure is that the old roof must be stripped off so that is where we will start. The back side of the house is only 1.5 stories high and more accessible than the front full two story approach. The back side is also at a lower angle. Jules does not want to “walk” the front side of the roof and prefers to “work out of the bucket”.

Georgette invited Barry to use any and all of Jean’s (her deceased husband – another cousin) tools so the first stop is at Mommoulouse to shop around in his garage. Barry had been in there before and was impressed with the tools and equipment tucked into various cabinets and a large loft. There were also 10-15 jacks made for tunneling in a rack at the back of the garage. These would come in handy for the “pootra” (major support beam) part of the project. Jules approaches the garage with a take no prisoners profile. He is like a kid in a candy store. Soon the rental car is full to the top with rakes shovels jacks all sorts of hammers and electrical tools from grinders to cut off saws. This is where I begin to think that the Hertz rental car just became a utility truck. The only thing missing was the roof rack. Off to Montegut we go. The rental Fiats is riding down on its bottom and struggling to move at all.

Will it rain?

Today is slightly overcast and the roof at Montegut is still open so we hope that it doesn’t rain. I can see that Barry is trying to relax, however his brain is tabulating the costs of the work so far and what it will take to get this project wrapped up. My hope is that this trip, including all the work is well under the original estimate for the repairs we received in May. That estimate is what motivated this “do it yourself” trip, so far we are well under the estimate price, and hope to stay there.

The MANITOU, the material lift, alone costs $260 a day and each day our workers burn through about $400 and the cost of materials is really stacking up. A single sack of rapid set concrete cost $20 (less than $4 in the states we have invested $3,000 in rafters so far and $1,300 in wood lap to cover the ceiling in the hay loft. Barry is hoping that the roof tile that is already on site will be enough to cover the roof sections that have been opened.

Work gets started:

Barry will post a little later about the construction process. This is what it looks like to me. He has been successful in finding the right products, getting them on site, explaining to the workers what to do with them and supervising the process while working the heavy equipment. He loves this kind of three ring circus atmosphere. I have a photo of Barry operating the material lift with Jules and Eric (local French worker- the spitting image of Peppy LePue) in the bucket being lifted to the top of the roof of this 2 story building. The lift boom is 40 feet long when fully extended. I know he is exhausted at the end of the day, but I know he is also having a blast. He loves this kind of stuff!

Monday, September 20, 2010

We took full advantage of the opportunity to sleep late, against the theory that missed sleep can be ever be reclaimed. We are awake and ready to go by mid-morning!

We are invited to J-Pierre and Odile’s home for lunch. We are happy to be included in the celebration luncheon of J-P’s mother, Helene 90th birthday. Georgette is also invited and we always enjoy her company.

We arrive at nearly noon. Helene is beaming as she stands over a small sample of her tomato and green bean crop from her small garden, all the guests will take home several days bounty.

The meal begins with pate on small toast rounds, a sliver of cornichon a delicious and lively flavor combination.

For our second course we feast on a beautiful shell fish terrine of remarkable flavor, garnished with fresh tomato and onion slices with finished with lemon and parsley. The presentation is exquisite but the flavor is beyond description. A culinary work of art.

Next a colorful plate of local melon with whisper thin slices of jambon (ham), this is a little bite of heaven.

Each course seems better than the last when the main course of new potatoes and grilled lamb and beef kabobs are cooked as the conversation slides easily from weather to family to travel to gardening. When we finish feasting on the tasty kabobs we are presented with an array of cheeses that are all tempting and in the end quite satisfying. Dessert tonight is a Pruneau Gateau, moist and rich the perfect end to a relaxing Sunday afternoon meal with family.

J-P and Odile live only 4 miles from Bassoues, in the charming village of Montesquiou. The church sits high and the steeple is visible from many miles, biscuit colored stone houses trickle down steep curved streets of cobblestone. This is one of the prettiest little villages in the area. The road sweeps past beautiful and carefully landscaped gardens and most tourists motor past on their way to view larger churches and abbeys. Each village in this area has its’ own unique personality, Montesquiou possesses its own quiet charm. There are hanging baskets thick with bright red geraniums, trailing ivy and vivid begonias, these cornucopias depict summers bounty and offer an inviting and personal gesture from village. A sweet invitation to explore further into the life of this village.

And if you have, thanks for reading

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It has been two weeks since our arrival. I am writing like a madwoman to get everything documented, but internet access is very limited on this trip, I am sorry not to have posted the high points.

Here is a quick run-down:
1. old tile was stripped from the roof
2. new wood was added to account for the difference in tile size
3. weather has been very accommodating
4. a few problems were encountered and solved - whew!
5. canned tomato sauce with Georgette
6. prepared plums to can with Claire
7. met two very interesting English couples... hi David and Ida
8. struggled with the bank again today... long story no end in sight!
9. found a new chateau
10.observed a movie scene being shot in Bassouse
11. took me ONE FULL DAY to wash 3 loads of clothes, that is one very tiny machine
12. slowing down a little now that some major problems, at home and here are being solved..
13. found some interesting antiques... photos to follow!
14. shopping for bathroom tile this afternoon

Must run, promise to post more later.

And if you have, thanks for reading.

Monday, August 9, 2010

La grange toit

Our recent trip in May was a planned reconnaissance. We took hundreds of photos of Montegut, inside and out, each wall/floor/ceiling in each room and close-ups of window ledges, ceiling joists, door frames - and on and on and on.

Don't you love this photo of the steel plate used to hold the tips of the floor planks together.

There is so much to do, everywhere. Once at home we were able to make a list, a very extensive list, and then prioritize the repair lists. Our intent is not to remodel or Americanize anything, but to restore as much as we can to make it liveable in a day to day and season to season plan. We would like to be able to travel during any season and have family and friends join us, too.

No matter how we looked at it the roof over the hay loft always tops the list. There is a section of roofing that has never been replaced, original tiles from who knows when. Well, we do have a pretty good idea of when, but it is hard to believe the tiles have been up there for two centuries.

This photo shows the corner of the "L"... home to the right and barn to the left, the corner that creates the "L" is the hay loft. You can see how much darker the roof tiles are, those are the original tiles and they just happen to be twice as heavy as the new tiles.

This is good news and bad news.

Bad news; because each and every tile has to be removed to reinforce the basic structure of that inside corner, prior to new tiles being placed.

Good news; the tiles are quite sought after for renovating period homes in the area. They will have to be handled a bit more gingerly, but in the end perhaps we will sell them.

I would prefer to use them to top the new chicken coop I have planned. The chickens run free, all 30+ of them, that's a LOT of chickens walking, pecking and doing what chickens do... around the house. The original free range chickens. There is plenty of room for me and the chickens, I just prefer the chickens stick to their own space.

Needless to say B will be the captain of the Projet la Toit (roof project). I will be trying my hand at plastering! Take another look at the photo, you'll see an area that appears to have been newly patched? The term NEW is relative with a house as old as Montegut. That patch was probably done when repairs were made in the 1960's! I figure by the time I finish the side of la entable (this is Barn for animals, Grange is Barn for crops)my skills will have improved so as to look at least acceptable. Ochre has always been the color of Montegut, no one can remember it ever being anything but ochre colored. It will remain ochre on our watch. The pigment is mixed into the plaster, pretty efficient.

La toit projet will take at least two weeks. Plastering the east side of la entable should take me only a few days. The second project I have in mind is to build a new gate to replace the rickety one (same photo). I am pretty excited about these jobs, and can hardly wait to get started.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

More Monet

Here are a few more photos from Giverny.

Where did your kindergarten class go for a field trip?

Near one of the bridges that Monet had built was this little cluster of row boats. Standing across the stream from them I instantly understood Monet's obsession with light.

If you don't know his story, his life, his work, his family and the search of the elusive light that he strived to capture in his paintings, go now and reward yourself with his story.

Next is a photo of the lovely woven branch edging on both side of the meandering stream and the larger ponds. I'll have to look close at the paintings to see if these are visable.

Here is my *most interesting man in the world*, looking very french, doncha think?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Heating Montegut

Photos of the original fireplace. I can almost stand up in the opening, it was used for cooking and to heat the house, in the beginning. We even found the original long handled pan used for making omelette's. There is no damper, affording a clear and wide view of the sky. Nice view, but bad for keeping a fire lit in the rain. The heavy cast iron plate at the back of the fireplace helped deflect heat into the room.

It is currently used in the winter for heat (no other heat source!). Although, the chimney is damaged so the draw is weak, it is still in use everyday in the winter months. There are now 4 fireplaces in the house but only one is used. There are 2 chimneys, one on either end of the house, the tops of both have been damaged over the years and are now below the roof top which causes a weak draw. When the large section of roof tiles over the hayloft is replaced the chimneys will be built back up another 20 inches or so, and a cap will be added to prevent rain from entering and will improve the draw.

Because it is REALLY cold in the winter.

PS I would to thank everyone who has left a comment on this site. I would be happy to reply, there have been questions asked, so please remember to leave your email address. I enjoy your comments and am flattered you take the time to read the entries. It is a true joy for me to be able to share this experience with you.

If you would like to email me directly with questions, please use;

And, if you have, thanks for reading.

And, if you have, thanks for reading.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Odds and Ends

We saw 17 Deux Chevaux cars (Citroen 2CV) on this trip, an all time record! Considered the Car of France, the last production year was around 1987. They are adorable. Little buggy eyed headlights, canvas roll-back sunroof and very small. They are like the runt of the litter, can't help but want one. Remember the Pink Panther movies?

French women are beginning to wear Brown, it may be the end of an era. I said 'beginning', Black was still predominate.

One-third of our English words are from French words, it is all about the pronunciation (say: Pro Nun C A Shon) see, you already know a lot of French. Voila!

Euros are minted in each EU country, one side is consistent through-out the union, the other side is different in each country. Interesting to see where they come from.

Also, there are no paper 1 Euro bills, only 5,10, 20 and 50's. The coins come in 1cent, 2 cent, 5 cent, 20 and 50 cent equilvilents, plus the 1 and 2 Euro coins. The edges on each coin is different, as are the sizes.

There are National toll roads, nice surfaces and with many rest stops, fuel stations and resturants along the way. The french can't go very far without a good cuppa or a meal. Those highway resturants are better than any you will find in California fast-food stops.

The country really does close for lunch, from 12 to 2:30 don't expect any shops, banks or markets to be open. And don't wait past 1:30 to find a place to eat or you'll loose out.

Small resturants might have one bathroom... you might have to share. It is a good idea to carry a small pack of tissue, just in case.

Opening a bank account is a long and arduous experience.

All lettuce is called Salad.

Their Used Furniture are Antiques to us. Think about that....

Frenchmen do not wear white socks, but are not afraid of color. They can get away with it, fuschia, turquoise or bright yellow. And they have the confidence to work it.

The average French person is pretty dissatisfied with their politicians, too.

Farmers pay for their own health insurance. And you thought is was socialized medicine? Well it is, but if you are self employed you do not receive this benefit. It is payed if you are on company/business payroll, as a tax.

You cannot buy Aspirin over the counter in a Pharmacie (french spelling).

Diesel fuel is called Gazole, and about 80%-85% of autos are diesel powered. That same percentage of cars have Manual Transmissions. Fuel is sold in liters and would average about $6.50 a GALLON!

Country roads are very narrow have no center lines and it is a bit harrowing to pass another car and if a tractor comes along, yikes!

On any road the french driver follows WAY to close, at highway speed they are less than a car length, so close you can't see their headlights. Some call this the "French Intimacy"

They are bracing for an even weaker economy this summer. The price of milk is lower than it has been in many, many years for example. The Greece debacle outraged everyone and now they are waiting for Portugal and Spain to follow. (I am only repeating what I heard)

Levi 501's cost about 100 Euros. Surf/Skate t-shirts are popular, most of these shirts are literally translated and barely make sense!

Desperate Housewives is a very popular TV program. Too bad, they don't also watch Discovery or PBS.

Every French person we have met has been patient and delighted that we try to speak their language. If you have a different experience, well, it is said that "Paris is not France"

And, if you have, thanks for reading.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Seeing Montegut for the first time. Continued…

The road from the back of the house in Moumoulous begins with a section that is capped with asphalt. This lasts only about 200 yards then it turns into packed gravel, another ½ mile or so then it becomes just two well worn tracks through the grass. At the beginning the corn is over 6 feet high on both sides so it is like walking through a corn maze. As we walk further up the hill there are open fields of grass with grazing cattle. The French in this area raise cattle called Limosin they are a very pale almost white color. We are surprised that there are no real fences. There are small stakes or posts in the ground with a single strand of electric fence wire.
“Do not touch ze wire!” says Jean Mark.
The current in France is 220 amps vs. 110 in the US. I think that means you will get twice the heart stopping shock if you get involved with the fence. To hold back a 1500 pound cow or 2000 pound bull it takes a lot of electricity. The cattle seem to know this and never challenge the wire. They just walk around and graze look up once in a while then graze some more.
The road comes to a Y.
“We walk through ze woods” says John Mark.
We continue up hill and walk into a densely covered area with acacia, poplars and some oaks trees, ferns and vines and many varieties I don’t recognize. I squint into the shadows looking for the ROUSE and the fire pits.
“This is our forest” he states. Then he tells us that land owners in this area own an undivided interest in all of the forests.
“We are now very near to Montegut” he tells us.
We have reached a high point in the trail and there is a break between the trees. We step out onto the grass and are instantly engaged in the panoramic view of this tiny valley. On the down slope there is a large pond surrounded by tall grass.
“It is there” Jean Mark says softly and points.
Just beyond the pond we see the red tiled roof of Montegut. The wall that faces us is that of the barn side of the L-shaped structure. At the north corner of the building there is a enormous weeping willow tree then a row of three elms, lush with foliage The barn is constructed of many rows of large river rocks. Just to the right there is a white metal gate attached to two square posts, capped with red brick pyramids, then a concrete wall that runs about another 50 feet to the south. From our vantage point we can see that there is another large building, (we learn later it is a garage built of adobe in 1870 to house large farm equipment – think Threshing machine), and a garden area and orchard nearly twice the size of the house and barn area.
Everywhere we look it is green, every shade of green I have ever seen.
Several minutes pass in silence. We stare at Montegut, it is real and we are finally here. It is difficult to move, we are all mesmerized by the moment.
We slowly make our way down the grassy hillside and come to a small vineyard next to the pond.
“These are Joseph’s grapes, what ever you do… do not drink his wine” warns Jean Mark.
We walk further down the hill and onto the road next to the house. Barry reaches out and puts his hand on the corner of the building, and then gives it several affectionate pats - it is far too large to hug. Then we enter Montegut on foot, just as Octave left.

There is a large gravel courtyard. Once in a while a chicken will dash across from the barn to the trees or off to the orchard. Man, this is an old house, really old. The front doors open and Joseph and Terese step out, they must be at least 100 years old. These are two tiny people frozen in time. They speak not one word of English and are yelling out something in French. It sounds welcoming. They take a few steps out of the doorway and open their arms. There is a frenzy of cheek kissing everybody gets kissed on both cheeks. We are invited in to the house. Joseph has a bottle of wine on the table with glasses. The bottle has been opened, but we are not sure if this is the wine we were warned not to drink. Jean Mark asks Joseph if this is his wine and he answers in the affirmative. Then Jean Mark goes a little further and asks him something in French. There is a brief reply then Jean Mark laughs. He tells us that it is okay to drink because it is purchased wine not homemade. Joseph told him that this was his wine because he bought it.
We are taken on a tour of the house. At the top of the stairs, with much pomp, the double doors are opened and we enter the room where Octave, his father and grandfather, and several more were born. In the grandparents room… also frozen in time… there on the wall are two framed portraits. One is a picture of Barry’s grandfather Octave his wife Victorine and 3 children, Frank, Ernest and Henry. This is a professional picture staged and with the family dressed in their finest perhaps taken to commemorate the turn of the century. The picture was taken long before the birth of Octavia, Barry’s mother, in 1907. It has been hanging on this wall for 100+ years. This picture was sent to the family from America by Octave and was among the last correspondences received. There is another portrait, Octave’s niece Francine as a young girl, she was the last of the Dargeles line to live in the house.

We are told that this family has held tight and passed along the story of the two Dargeles brothers who left for America and never returned. In the family it is said that Montegut has slept since they left, but now that the Dargeles family from America has returned it is again awake!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

La Grande Tour du Monuments (well, churches actually)

With as much passion as Jean Mark with his famous “We Walk to Montegut” Georgette says “You must go with me on the monument tour”. We ask, “What is a Monument?” She says “These things are very old things”. That’s it… we go. In order to get an early start we will stay at her home in Moumoulous, this means another fantastic dinner. It is late when we get there and she knows that we had a big lunch so she starts cooking a small dinner at 8:00. We smell something wonderful… yes, a new kind of fat frying smell. This time it is from “ze pig” Some time later I will tell you about the video of the killing of “ze pig” but not while I am thinking about eating a slice of it. It is kind of ritualistic and in the beginning the pig doesn’t like it much. (And if remind me to tell you about the blood sausage). While the ham is sizzling steam begins to rise from the pressure cooker. A giant, old pressure cooker. In there is a fresh vegetable soup. At its core is fava beans picked less than an hour ago. Long story short… after the veggie soup a plate of ham and braised eggs (from the hens in Montegut, collected today) shows up. Yes, there is a wine that goes with this dinner too. By 11:30 and after desert, baked apples, we are ready for bed.

I almost forgot this post is about the Monument Tour. So Barry is up at 7:30 and heads for the bath. In France this is a BATH room. No toilet, that is in another room all by itself. Breakfast is a bowl of espresso with frothed cream and sugar, a bowl not a cup, and a couple of slices of bagette for dipping.
Off we go in the rental car. Georgette sits in front to give Barry directions... tourne a gauche, tourne a droit Left - Right. We take a “school boy route” short cut through the woods. At the top of the hill Georgette waves her arms in a circular motion and tells us that these are her woods. We meet her friend near Saint Severn, a monastery some 1100 years old. The friend, Clare drives her car and we follow, again like the Mr. Toad ride off we go trying to keep up, stopping only for a short time to pick up another friend at a farmhouse along the way. The caravan begins to grow.
We arrive at the first Monument, a church built on the foundation remains of building from the Roman Empire; this one is 2000 years old. A good place to start we think.
Inside the church a lecture is in progress. There is a professor type in front of the group 35-40 people, he is right out of a movie, looks like someone called central casting. Stephan is an archeologist from the university in Toulouse and is the foremost authority on the Monuments of Gers. It is very difficult to follow the lecture in French and in the church it sounds a lot like a Latin mass, but without the smoke. After about 10 minutes there is a break and the crowd moves outside for espresso and croissants. Georgette says calmly “We eat again... we are French”.
Then there is a mad dash to the cars. No agenda, no maps and no idea where we are going next, Barry falls in line behind a car he recognized and off we fly. Another small village appears in between the freshly planted fields. This one is only 1500 years old and in need of major repairs. We learn it is a fine example of architecture, blending roman arches and gothic detail. Still all in French but we are catching the eye of the professor. He has found out that there are two Americans in his midst. He tags along after the presentations and gives us the rerun high lights in English. Stephan is very intelligent, a handsome fellow and he seems to knows it. He turns on the charm. After 3 more Monuments it is time for lunch. In the middle of nowhere there is a classic farm house turned into a restaurant. We are in the back of the pack of cars and the little parking area is full. All of the available land is planted. Everybody starts to jump over the curbs and park lined up in the grassy area along the narrow road on the wrong side apposing traffic. We follow suit. Again… soup, wine, two entrees, veggies, potatoes, cheese, salad, and dessert, 2 hours of bliss. Others start to notice that we are Americans and one by one the brave ones come over and chat. This starts a trend. One woman with very little English simply asked us to speak English because she loved how is sounds. When people find out we are from California we become very popular. Two more monuments and long French lecturers later we stop at two ancient farm houses. It is a little bit hard to understand Stephan but I figure out that he said that these farm houses are excellent examples of 15th century buildings. Frighteningly they look a lot like Montegut. We can’t see more monuments without stopping at a winery. This is a very welcome stop because they have toilets. No toilets in churches and the farm houses had out-houses. This time the lecture is turned over to the vintner. We tour the barrel rooms about 300 yards from the tasting area… then walk back to do a bit of tasting. The tasting room is a chateau that is about 500 years old but updated for the tourist trade. By now it is 7:00PM, this must be the end. After spending a bit more Euro on wine we pile into the cars again. They split into two groups, we follow the one that is lost. I think that we are headed home, but no… somehow at an intersection in the middle of a corn field we reunite with Stephan and head to another monument. Now even the most subtle differences in these buildings are becoming apparent to me. I think that I can give this speech myself. In the last two churches there are two big very masculine plaster arms protruding out about 4 feet from the walls holding torches. They are even correct left and right hands. No explanation for these things. I am afraid to ask. The tour is over? We say our good byes to Stephan, in turn he gives a short lecture on cities and churches of the United States and says that he will send us his book on the history of Montegut, some 400 pages all in French. Professors are professors everywhere.

We follow our two new found friends to another site off of the tour. It is the center of a very small village. It is the village nearest to Sylvie’s farm. The church was build by the same family that built the castle, perched atop this beautiful mountain. This is now a summer home of the Queen of Norway, Denmark, Sweden (it is all getting blurry now). Its not 15 minutes form Montegut. We take the short walk around the church and take a few photos of the surrounding landscape and the Pyrenees’ in the distance. No photos of the castle because of the rampart (wall) and very high vegetation. We do get a peak through the trees of a majestic tower with a 'witches cap' slate roof at one corner…just enough to make Barry talk about renting a helicopter. Our French tour guides are quite blasé about living among royalty, they are simply happy that it’s not the English and glad that they take care of the property, the church and surrounding little village.

We return to Georgette’s home… we eat, we drink wine, we talk… it is now midnight… we go to bed.

And, if you have, thanks for reading

Friday, May 21, 2010

We are headed south!

After Georgette’s call we found our way to a travel agency and booked a flight from Orly to Toulouse for the next day. We arrived in Toulouse, picked up our rental car and with several maps we plotted our course and were quickly on our way. This was definitely country, flour (ble) corn (maize, for cattle feed only, traditional French menus do not include corn) and tobacco. The low rolling hills, thick forests and small clusters of ancient buildings created the most serene landscape imaginable. Village after village we were totally enchanted… it was as if we had taken a step back in time. (Well, except for the toll roads and the speeding cars).
The southwest area of France is primarily composed of family farms, most passed down through branches of family for generations. Farmers (paysans) might still live in the same farm house built in the 18th century their great, great uncle, few have been remodeled but more likely the family has renovated them. The homes were painted in the colors of the region, cream to orange to rust colors most with a contrasting color on the shutters set against the greens of the surrounding forests and fields it created a completely perfect palette.
Jean Mark gave us directions to meet him at the small town of Tourney, an easy exit from the toll road. Jean Mark is waiting for us, under the sprawling shade tree; he is the classic looking Frenchman, eyes like a doe, tan skin, silky black hair with a captivating smile. Yet unlike the American idea of a Frenchmen, he greets us with cheek kisses and grand hugs and I notice tears in his eyes. This is sincerity, pure and simple, he is deeply touched and we instantly become part of his family.

Following Jean Mark through the countryside was like taking the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, dodging oncoming speeding drivers in small odd looking cars and pulling over for an occasional tractor or truck. Many of the roads through this area began as walking paths, then cart ruts, worn deeper and deeper; many now measuring 6-8 feet lower than the fields, until they were finally paved in the mid 1900’s. Trying to keep up with J-M while soaking up all of the scenery, was well, nearly impossible. Total system overload. We weave our way through several small villages, each one with a church, until we come upon his mother and father’s farm house, in Moumoulous.

We meet Georgette and Jean Darees for the first time. She is the epitome of French elegance even in her blue jeans and a simple plaid shirt, with the collar turned up a bit in the back, silky gray hair combed straight back with large waves, twinkly eyes. She looked very familiar, she could have easily been related to Barry’s mother. Jean (who is actually related to Barry) was the spitting image of Barry’s youngest uncle Raymond, fondly called Frenchie. It was a little creepy. There was much to say, but only Georgette and Jean Mark spoke English, and our French was nearly non existent. But we were thrilled to finally be so close to Montegut, only 1.5 miles away!

“First we eat”, says Georgette with her “Approximate English”. French rule #1, you must eat, always, the afternoon meal is the largest and takes at least minimum 2 hours. We sit at an enormous table. Surrounded by smiling faces ranging in ages from the late 60’s to 4 years old. An entire new - old family, three generations together at one table.

Soup arrives first in a huge antique tureen, every ingredient is fresh, next come appetizers, thin slices of cured ham and sausage, from a neighbors farm, pickles, tiny onions, then two main courses delivered one at a time. First great slabs of duck, raised by another cousin, then venison, hunted in the forest owned by the family, both have rich thick sauces. Oh, did I mention that there was also a loaf of french bread at the head of the table so big that it looked like another guest. Jean masterfully cut at it and tore it into pieces that were then handed around like hot potatoes. I used to give Barry hell for using his bread to sop up juices from his plate, today I found out that his bad habit was genetic. I am in that game big time. Next up an assortment of vegetables, all from Georgettes garden, also delivered one at a time with lovely aromatic sauces and then the potatoes, chunks, boiled first, cooled then pan fried in the duck fat (which we would come to worship in subsequent trips) with a dash of sea salt. There is a french theory that duck fat has no cholesterol and actually cleans it out of your blood. Next is another huge plate of 6-7 different cheeses. Several bottles of wine are consumed along the way each with a full explanation of appellation, the make up and mix of the grapes, the history of the vintner’s family, and an explanation that it is the wine that keeps your arteries and veins flexible so that the cholesterol (If any got in there after the duck fat cleansing) does not attach. Then a salad, actually individual leafs of lettuce, three kinds, from the garden, with simple dressing of light oil and a dash of apple vinegar. Not done yet, there is desert. A tart the size of Texas appears with a variety of glazed fruits, also from her orchard, floating on a 1/2 inch of creamy custard, all held in place by a pastry shell so light that the whole thing seemed to float out from the kitchen. This was simply… well, lunch.

The French do love a bit of drama… “We must walk to Montegut” says Jean Mark. Walk? He has to be kidding; we just ate the equivalent of 3 Thanksgiving dinners! Will there be rest stops… bathrooms… oh my god! I can’t get out of this, I finally pull out my master trick…. Wrong Shoes… but even that doesn’t work, Georgette has a pair of shoes in just my size. The trail is up hill all the way and it is 100 degrees. He loves the view of Montegut from the top of the hill behind the lake. “Your first sight of Montegut must be from the top of the hill” he commands. No nap? How can this happen to me? I have things to digest first.

And if you have, thanks for reading.

Friday, May 14, 2010

We just had to go!

Letters flew between California and Montegut in the next two years. Georgette and I began as pen pals, posing questions about the weather and non-personal likes and dislikes. Each letter Georgette received from us she would carefully translate into French, and make copies and distribute to our French family. The family tree had turned into a forest. No longer did we think Dargeles’ ended in California, the French family branch was flourishing. There were so many that we soon decided to call everyone Cousin. We began to understand the nature of our relatives and that our grand French family also has its foibles; with a crazy aunt here or lazy nephew there plus a few characters of questionable intentions, it became real and for the most part pretty normal.

Georgette, however, became the central focus of all things good in Montegut. Her two sons Jean Phillip and Jean Mark both young professionals, married with two children each, have become a life line because they were well schooled in English. Jean Mark is an executive with IBM and Jean Phillip the owner of an international produce import company. They are not only family but are true French historians and love to share the French culture. They are also excellent teachers.
Georgette, however, became the central focus of all things good in Montegut. Her two sons Jean Phillip and Jean Mark both young professionals, married with two children each, have become a life line because they were well schooled in English. Jean Mark is an executive with IBM and Jean Phillip the owner of an international produce import company. They are not only family but are true French historians and love to share the French culture. They are also excellent teachers.

After all the letters we exchanged the pull to travel to France and meet our “new” family became impossible to resist… we began planning our first trip to France. We were caught up in the flurry of acquiring our passports, booking flights and studying travel and French history books. The internet is full of discounters, many with low fare come-on’s, a round trip price at $499 then with the hidden taxes and fees of $699+ added, then flights were only available when it is freezing or 100+ degrees in France… Finally we found reasonable fares during our timeframe… we were booked!

In an odd twist of fate Garth and his wife Elizabeth had been backpacking around Europe since March. In May he had answered a plea from a college friend of Erin’s who was working in Greece for, SAIC, the company that coordinated all of the security systems for the Olympic Games. They were in need of a wireless systems engineer, which is just what Garth does (we knew he did something with computers). With a phone interview he was hired and they were on their way to Athens, just a short flight away.

The annual Fete (local Village/Saint celebration = Annual Family Reunion held at Montegut) was scheduled for a weekend in August. When word got out that we would be visiting in August the French family rallied the forces, a Fete to end all Fetes’ was planned. Once we knew the date of the Fete Garth and Elizabeth made arrangements to join us in Montegut.

Our Travel Team included Barry’s cousin Patricia. With our enthusiasm and energy we could have powered the flight all the way to Paris. (and after 12 hours in a cramped plane we felt like we literally powered that plane). We arrived in Paris, stumbled upon baggage claim and came across a Currency Exchange kiosk, and then found ourselves piling into a taxi headed for Rue St.Charles. A cousin had booked us into a charming hotel within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower.

A short nap and a liter of water each, we hit the nearest bistro. We were denying the existence of jet-lag. Eager to experience the area we found some chairs, enjoyed an excellent cup of café au crème and settled in for some serious people watching. We spent the next three days walking to monuments, museums and art galleries. It was warm and sunny, the popular city sites were not too crowded Many Parisians leave Paris during August, only “necessary” workers are required to stay, they must rotate vacations.

On our last day in Paris we received a call from Georgette; another cousin would pick us up at 3PM. We stayed with Elizabeth and Patrick, their three children for two days, visiting some beautiful sites including Versailles. On the second day of our visit we again received a call from Georgette; we must come to Montegut the next day, there were only five days until the fete and many cousins to meet! Off we flew.

And, if you have, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No Photos to Protect the Guilty

Last night was Barry’s turn to choose the hotel…

We stopped in Capbreton, a very small coastal town north of Biarritz. We were late driving into town; there were a couple of hotels that looked abandoned, not a good omen. Sunday night is slow in most small French villages, slow as in… nothing is open and no one is on the street. We wove around narrow one way streets and found nothing, one more loop and we were ready to move on to another town. Getting dark and starting to rain… Barry glanced up a tiny street and spotted a H’OTEL - BAR sign… in glaring neon. We are definitely old enough to know better, but were very tired and more than ready to stop for the night. Barry dashed inside (did I mention it was raining?) and negotiated the “Deal of the Century”! Less than half price of the room in the Chateau we stayed in last night, what a deal?

The woman proprietor spoke no English and after many gestures and drawing of numbers on paper the fee decided and paid in advance. We were given the key and told where to hang it up on the board behind the bar when we left.

One really old rundown room, one story up a narrow stairway, down a dark hallway was room #9, only 42€. Beyond paper thin walls and a door made of plywood (opened with a skeleton key with a plastic tab), sat a bed, armoire (actually a fine old piece with inlaid designs and a beveled glass mirror, used furniture in France about $3,000 in the USA), a tiny refrigerator with an even smaller microwave on top was balanced a tiny TV with the remote control on top. A pyramid of technology resembling something you would see in a dorm room but without the computer.

The toilette and the shower were packed into a little space that once was an insufficient closet. The toilet sat at a 45% angle pointing toward a double folding door that separated it from the “bed” room. The toilet had a surge pump arrangement, rather than the flush mechanism used in most US homes, so that it could use a smaller drain line. When you flushed, it first growled like a demon, made a belching sound, then a grinding sound then a second huge flush/gush of water. Not something to flush at 2AM! The only window opened onto a roof deck. Straight across the roof you could see a woman frying fish. It was odd that the smell was almost intoxicating.

Oh Well… as Barry’s mother used to say, “Your eyes will be closed when you’re sleep anyway”.

In the morning we attempted to shower. The shower curtain wrapped from wall to wall on two sides. When the hot water eventually began to flow the rising steam would suck the thin curtain up against your now burning hot skin. You had to fight it back (Like a teenage boy on his first date). Of course there was no window to open or even a vent in this space so the steam quaffs out into the bedroom and out the window across the roof deck like our room was on fire. Now that it was daylight we drove 4 more blocks to the actual Coast only to find a 6 story two star Hotel with full service and plenty of ocean view rooms.

Near the sea wall we found a small café open, ordered our usual café a lait and croissants to ease our pain and shock us out of our deep depression. We sat, sipped and gazed out over the Atlantic deciding once again that we can make it though just about anything. But the next hotel will be MY choice… possibly another Chateau room.

And if you are, thanks for reading.

Le Mont!

From Giverny we drove toward Le Mont St.Michele via Caen(say-on). We found a hotel only 3 km from the main parking lot, at 9AM it wasn’t a long walk to the entrance and the parade of buses had not arrived yet. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of people, but it was still possible to walk through the lower town without bumping shoulders and being bitten on the heels by strollers. Marathon de France was setting up their finish line at the base of the isle, complete with tents, cameras and crew. Strategically positioned ATM machines greeted us at the entrance (après draw-bridge), right near the toilettes… everything the tourist needs.

The town is built at the base of the Mont. The earliest houses and shops are at the highest positions, late comers had to build lower and lower until they were at the high tide level. We walked up a narrow path past narrow shops and narrow restaurants. Where the incline exceeded more than 15% there were steps, but more important there were handy deliberator units indiscreetly attached every 100m to the ancient stone walls… with multilingual instructions. We stopped to read them, feigning interest but really trying to catch our breath. When we reached the entrance to the Abbey, I stepped aside so Barry could conquer the tower. With camera in tow he paid 12€ for the honor of climbing to the top. Well, 84 pictures later he returned quite pleased and still fascinated with the architecture and sheer willpower that it took to build this incredible monument. He swears that once inside the abbey walls, the Disneyana disappeared.

If you are interested try an internet search for Le Mont St.Michele for the history, it is truly amazing. It is said to date back to 708, when Aubert Bishop of Avranches had a sanctuary built to honor the Archangel. In the 10th c the Benedictines settled in and by the 14th c. the building extended as far as the base of the rock. The town grew, to support the monks and builders, eventually spiraling down and around from the Abbey to the draw-bridge. St.Michele has played an important part in France’s history. During the One Hundred Years Was it was seen as an exemplary military strong hold, and a symbol of national identity. During the French Revolution until 1863 it served as a prison. In 1874 it was classified as a historic monument and the renovation began, it continues today.

We got out of town, just in time, as we drove the 1.5km back into town the tour buses were lined up bumper to bumper from the town out to the parking lots.

And, if you have, thanks for reading

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Giverny! Claude Monet's home, his gardens and his studios.. what an honor to stand in the rooms where he created his masterpieces. To take in all he saw, even a century later it is inspiring. His gardens are beautifully designed, exquisite in their simplicity and exciting in its colors. When he organized the garden space it was a brilliant plan, more than a century later it still "works". During the beginning he had 4 full time gardeners to help him plant and care for the grounds, I only saw four today but surely there are many more to maintain this masterpiece!

Off to La Mont St.Michele tomorrow, wish us luck that's a lot of climbing.

And if you are, thanks for reading

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On a spring day in 2001, a letter arrived at the post office in the little farm town of Caruthers, located about 30 miles south of Fresno, California. The residents all know each other, members of their immediate and extended families, where they came from, the year they left and when they returned.

The address on the letter was simple, it read:

California, USA

The letter was postmarked from France.

Elizabeth Barber Dargeles was the widow of Raymond "Frenchie" Dargeles. She was the only remaining relative of her generation. Elizabeth Dargeles has returned to live in Caruthers after Frenchie's death. And as luck would have it the postmistress in this little town also grew up there and knew the Dargeles family and knew Elizabeth. The letter was hand delivered to Elizabeth.

In beautiful flowing script and 'approximate English' the story begins to unfold.
The first question.... "We are looking for the family of Octave Dargeles and his brother Jean Marie Dargeles. These brothers emigrated from France in 1886 and we are looking for family members in America".

The letter is written by Georgette Darees, wife of Jean Darees. His mother Francine Dargeles Darees was the last surviving Dargeles and had inherited the family farm. Francine married and raised her family at Montegut, the farm that has been in her family for centuries. There no Dargeles remaining in France.

Elizabeth calls Patricia, and then she calls Barry to share the news.

There are only 4 direct descendants, plus their families, from Octave Dargeles. Barry Humphrey, Judy Humphrey-Lawrenson, children of Octavia Dargeles Humphrey and William Humphrey. Patricia O'Donnell Reeves, William "Skip" O'Donnell children of Francine Dargeles O'Donnell and William O'Donnell.

Octave Valare Dargeles had 4 sons, only 2 married but they had no children, the other 2 met with tragic early deaths. The Dargeles line in America is growing smaller, too.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The countdown has begun; departure is close enough to haul out the suitcases! The search for electric outlet adapters was successful and I was rewarded for remembering where they were stashed with a small bag of Euro's. This is good, very good. It means Barry won't have to stand in a long slow line to exchange $ to € while I wait at the baggage claim at Charles deGalle.

May is not considered High Season so we will only make reservations for the first two nights. After that we will stop when we find a quaint village. (Side note; France claims 30,000 quaint villages!).

We have opted to rent a car and do a bit of exploring through lower Normandy and Brittany, rather than fly down to Pau or Toulouse. First stop will be Vernon where we'll stay the first night, less than 4km away is Giverny where Monet finally settled with his family, to paint and design and plant his famous gardens. It has been interesting to reacquaint ourselves with his story. The gardens, house, greenhouses and his studios have all been renovated. Then over to Mont St.Michele on the northern Atlantic coast, you would recognize it from photos, enormous cathedral built on a rock that is surrounded twice a day during high tide. These two spots cater heavily to tourists so we won't stay long, but we consider them must see.

We will drive south toward the Pyrenees. For centuries it has been said that the Gascogne paysans (rural residents/small farms) have used the Pyrenees as a geographic as well as a moral compass. This quality of the residents is one reason we have fallen in love with the area.

And if you have, thanks for reading

Saturday, April 10, 2010

This is Montegut, we discovered it in 2001. Montegut has been waiting for us for over 150 years, yearning really, if you believe the cousins.

Located in the Midi-Pyrenees Region, Gers Department, France. If you are curious you may find it on a detailed map of southwestern France, roughly 1.5 hours southwest of Toulouse.

The story is one you might expect in a fictional novel, flavored with Love, Hardships, Long Journeys, Adventure, Success and Heartbreak. But it is real and it happened to us.