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