Thursday, July 17, 2014

Before The Heat

The sun comes up in the cool mornings and light glints off the grass where the dew sparkles, but only for a little while; the days heat up quickly this week, with temperatures in the 90s. There's generally a breeze, so sitting in the shade is still pleasant, and inside the thick stone walls of the house it's nice and cool. Except on the upper floor, where the bedrooms are under the slanted roof of this former grange, rough wooden beams crossing head-high through the hallway, tiny windows not letting out any of the stifling air. The cat was panting as she sprawled across my legs last night, and it took us both a while to fall asleep.

The vines like the weather, since it's not humid. I have no idea what varietals are grown here, but there's a château not far away with cabernet-sauvignon and merlot grapes, and maybe that's what I walked through this morning too, taking the dogs for a walk before the heat beat down. I'm in the Charente-Maritime, which also produces white wine, so they might be colombard or chardonnay grapes instead.

The kids from the families renting the gîtes on the other side of the lawn are in the pool. I haven't gone in yet, but I probably will tomorrow. I'll clean the pool tomorrow too, and on Saturday will clean and prepare the smaller gîte after the first family leaves. There are thunderstorms forecast for the weekend, and rainy weather through next week. I don't mind swimming in the rain, so maybe I'll have the pool to myself, though it's not really big enough to do laps in.

I'm slowly getting through the pile of notes on paper and transferring them to my computer: notes on cheesemaking, on recipes, on places to visit and things to see, on information that I saved from my school programs when it seemed likely to have some use in the future. My notes on French tax law and Keynesian economic theory are a swiftly-scattering pile of ash behind the barn in Agnos.

It seems like the sky is so large and empty here. After spending almost a year surrounded by mountains, it's almost shocking to look out past the edge of the horizon and not reach the end. I'm out in the middle of a scattering of small villages and farmhouses, even more isolated than the small towns I've been living and working in since September. I expect it will be even more of a shock when I get to London. I'm looking forward to spending time in the city, but I'll miss these quiet walks on narrow deserted roads.

Tomorrow morning I'm going to take the dogs out for a walk even earlier, and then abandon them for a few hours to head for the coast - or if not the coast, at least the estuary of the Gironde. Although I have the use of a car, I don't really have any plans to go sightseeing, and the upcoming rainy weather next week (though better than crushing heat for playing tourist) isn't inspiring me to drive anywhere. In any case, it's a right-hand British car with a left-hand gearshift that's hard to get used to, even if it's a good reintroduction to my eventual driving around in England in the months to come. What makes it even harder is the fact that I'm driving on the right-hand side, so I can't see around large slow farm equipment without pulling out into oncoming traffic. I drove to the grocery store yesterday and got stuck behind a tractor and hay cart for several kilometers - dozens of people pulled out and passed from behind me, but I didn't want to risk it, and I wasn't in any particular hurry anyway.

It is such a luxury, not being on a schedule. I left my sunrise alarm clock in Agnos, and am letting the sun wake me up instead. My note-organizing is being done between breaks to walk the dogs, or feed the cat, or just sit outside and listen to the birds. I have all the time in the world. It's wonderful.

Quel ciel pur ! Je ferme mon livre.
Allons voir les blés, ma Suzon !
La forte chaleur nous enivre.
Baise-moi ; car, dans ce buisson,
Tous les nids nous font la leçon.
Dans ce champ dont l’épi nous frôle,
Aimons-nous loin de tout soupçon.
Les blés sont à hauteur d’épaule.
Les beaux blés ! L’oeil se plaît à suivre
Leur onduleux et vert frisson.

Ils deviendront couleur de cuivre,
Grâce au soleil, ce bon garçon.
Juin resplendit. L’aigre chanson
Des fauvettes d’eau sous le saule
Se mêle au trille du pinson.
Les blés sont à hauteur d’épaule.
Les pauvres auront de quoi vivre.
Quelle récolte à l’horizon !
C’est le pain à trois sous la livre !
Et, lors de la dure saison,

Pas de famine à la maison.
Quels épis ! L’oiselet y piaule ;
Le bleuet y pousse à foison.
Les blés sont à hauteur d’épaule.
The skies are so clear! I'll close my book.
Let's go see the wheat fields, my dear Suzon!
This stifling heat will send us to sleep.
Kiss me; all of the little nests in the shrubs
Are filled with scolding voices.
But in this field, caressed by waving stalks,
We can love each other far from suspicious eyes.
The stalks of wheat are shoulder-high.
O beautiful wheat! How the eyes enjoy scanning
These rustling, waving fields of green.

They'll turn copper-colored,
Thanks to the sun, that bountiful fellow.
June sparkles around us. The sharp calls
Of the reed-warblers under the willow
Mingle with the trill of the lark.
The stalks of wheat are shoulder-high.
The peasants will have what they need to live.
What a harvest they'll have!
Bread at three sous a pound!
And then, during the difficult times,

No one in the home will starve.
What plump kernels! The fledglings cheep amid the stalks;
Where the chicory is blooming lushly.
The stalks of wheat are shoulder-high.

— François Coppée, "Ballade en l'honneur des blés" from Les Paroles sincères (1891)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What I'll Miss

I'll miss looking up from the cash register at the store to see a flock of sheep or herd of cows go by. I'll miss talking with the people who come in to buy all of the delicious porky treats, the fresh meat and the preserved, and speaking a beautiful complicated frustrating language that I can finally, perhaps, say that I'm almost fluent in.

I'll miss living in France.

I'll miss watching the French quiz shows over family lunch at the farm, and laughing at the pronunciation of non-French words: the name of the comic-book character Lucky Luke has both its U-sounds pronounced the same (oo) and it took me several minutes one day to figure out the host was talking about a famous actor when he referred to Dooglahs Farbahnx. In French-accented English, the words "promise" and "paradise" rhyme, and neither are pronounced correctly. I'll miss the audiences on the quiz shows, who automatically go into choreographed routines when a song is played: everyone in the audience claps their hands, or waves their arms swaying back and forth if it's a slow piece, and all of the contestants start dancing in place when it's a quick number. I'll miss the wordplay and general good humor on the show "Les 12 Coups de Midi", and the part where people get to show off their talent as they introduce themselves. Once there was a woman who pulled out a saxophone and played a brief Michael Bolton tune, followed by an operatic tenor, a guy who did card tricks, and a young man who did a really excellent chicken impression.

I'll miss working at the farm, turning pork meat into pâté and blood into boudin, messing about in the store trying to find the exact placement of goods that will make people want to buy more, wielding a knife or a ladle or a glue brush, doing my best to help keep things running smoothly while Florence and Frédéric and Jeanne and Éloi efficiently turn half-carcasses into heaps of meat and fat and bone.

I'll miss Jeanette's quick laughter, and Frédéric's jokes, and Eloi's quiet smile, and Marie-Louise's patient vigil at the kitchen table, old eyes watching the images flicker on the silent television screen. I'll miss the rest of the family too: Sandrine and Laurent and their daughter Lilou, Nathalie and Clément, and all of the other aunts and uncles and cousins. I'm so grateful they opened their houses and lives to me, making me feel at home and giving me a temporary family to belong to, here so far from my own.

I'll miss working with Florence, who let me propose projects and products and push to do things just a little bit differently, just to see what happens. In tradition-bound France, that's something; you take your life in your hands sometimes here if you suggest that even though a dish has been cooked in the same way for a hundred years, maybe, perhaps, it might also work like this?

I'll miss those family lunches, which always start with la soupe. Sometimes I'd come to work in the morning and smell the potatoes carrots leeks onions chard simmering away over a burner in the grange, often with a slice or two of ventrèche from a package that had gone just past its sell-by date at the store, or a salty end of a jambon de pays. And then the entrée: grated carrots or beets, perhaps, or slices of cold boudin with cornichons, or a macédoine with homemade mayonnaise, and lately sliced tomatoes with slivers of sweet onions and a quick-whisked vinaigrette.

The main course then, often a roasted chicken or guinea hen from the flock in the orchard, or rich rabbit meat roasted (chewy) or stewed with potatoes and carrots in the pressure cooker (tender and savory). Goat meat sometimes, or veal, and of course pork, especially when there was a little too much of one cut in the week, or when we were making longe confite and there were slices left over from trimming the pieces to put them in the jars.

I'll miss seeing people wearing berets. I'll miss greeting people with a kiss on each cheek. I'll miss being surrounded by heavy-beamed stone buildings and cornfields and being able to see the Pyrénées when I step outside to stretch my back after hefting cartons full of jars up into and down from shelves.

And I'll miss Florence. This was an unexpected gift, finding not only an indulgent and supportive and easy-going boss, but a friend. I'll miss living in Agnos, getting up early in the morning to drink coffee and do computer work while Florence sleeps, going to bed early while Florence stays downstairs watching movies, a night owl to my dawnsong robin. I'll miss our too-infrequent road trips, and even though I rarely went out in the evenings (the French define "evening" as "between 9:30pm and midnight") I'll miss that too. I hope that I can arrange my life to be in the United States in a year or two or three, with enough time and resources to show Florence around the western states, San Francisco up to Seattle, and maybe even some real-life Lucky Luke action at the Pendleton Roundup, just to get the true "American" experience.

I'll miss you, Flo.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Iruña Pamplona Pampelune

For a city that has been sacked and burned to the ground several times over the last thousand years or so, Pamplona was looking quite good the first Sunday in May, when Florence and Michaëla and I spent the afternoon there wandering around. (Yes, I'm that behind in my blogging.) I wouldn't want to be there now - it's the middle of the festival of San Fermín and the streets are crammed with people, except when the hordes of rampaging cattle clear them out for a few minutes. At least the bulls won't burn the place down.

Charlemagne did, however, back in 778. This weights the argument back in favor of Roncevaux (Roncevalles) Pass as the site where the events in the Chanson de Roland actually took place, though I'm still disappointed that the pass itself didn't match up with my mental image of it. And the story (so many hundred years before things were reliably written down, and based on an account created so many hundred years later) of the heroic stand by Roland and Olivier against the overwhelming forces of the Muslim army is much more prosaic, it turns out: the reason that Charlemagne's troops were ambushed and attacked was because he sacked the city of Pamplona, which was the capital of Navarre and the Vascones (Basques). Not nearly as romantic, unless of course you're Basque. It was simply "The City" back then: Iruña.

Pamplona is the capital of Navarre still, though the region is no longer called the Kingdom of Navarre. The City Hall in the center of the old section of town was the gathering spot for the traditional fireworks start to the festival this week, a noisy beginning to what looks to be an extremely noisy week for the city. I'm glad we were there when the streets were less crowded. We picked up a map of the town at the tourist office, but still managed to get lost a few times. Though I'm not sure you can say we really got lost, since we didn't have any place in particular we were going.

I would like to go back to the Museum of Navarre, which wasn't open that Sunday afternoon. The building itself is interesting, and there's a good collection of Roman mosaics inside. And works by Goya that I might like better if I saw them in person rather than as images on a certain well-known blog. And there are a million churches in Pamplona, or at least it seemed like it, though we didn't go into any of them. Even though it was Sunday. The tourist map showed an interesting walk along the old fortified walls overlooking the river valley, and that would have been nice to do on that sunny afternoon, but we had already walked in Jaca and then spent several hours in the car, and we were all a little tired out.

And it would have been fun to spend more time exploring the nooks and crannies of this medieval city, like the covered cul-de-sacs that burrow in between the buildings that were constructed along the inner faces of the fortified walls, piling one on the other and hiding the older construction below. Near the old Gate of Portalapea, 20th-century workers uncovered a series of seven ogives that were once part of the outer wall dating back to the 13th century, along with rounded stones used as ammunition for the catapults that defended it.

What's got Pamplona in the news this week is of course the running of the bulls, and since we were mostly in the old section of town on the cobblestoned narrow streets where they release the toros we saw many signs provided to direct the runners along the correct turnings. The bulls are released from pens down by the river, and come charging up the slope to the old city walls and then start swerving through several of the plazas and along streets lined with apartments, whose owners probably make a fair bit of money this week in tourist sublets. They end up at the bull ring where they'll be performing, fighting, bleeding, whatever happens there - it's not something I'm particularly interested in researching more thoroughly. If it were a non-bleeding sort of thing I thing it would be fun, but when the barbed lances and swords come out, I'm out. Apparently there's a sword-free style of bullfighting in Navarre called recortes that's actually bull-leaping, like that practiced in Crete in the Bronze Age - which reminds me of a book I haven't read in a while, The King Must Die, by Mary Renault. I really liked that book, more than its sequel (The Bull From The Sea). I enjoyed The Mask of Apollo, too. I'll have to look up her books in the online Multnomah County Library catalog.

There's a bull-leaping tradition called course Landaise here in France, too, but I haven't been to any of the festivals. And they use cows, not bulls. There's a document dating back to 1457 that talks about a festival in the town of Saint-Sever where they let cows and bulls run through the streets for the fête de la Saint-Jean around the summer solstice. I don't know if they do that any more, but there are lots of cow-leaping events scheduled this summer, and probably into the foreseeable future, so I'll just have to put that on my list of things to do the next time I'm in southwest France.

But speaking of authors, and this time not one I'm particularly fond of - in fact, other than short stories and excerpts from longer works I seem to remember plodding through at very much not the pace of a rampaging bull back in junior high school I don't think I've read anything he's written - you can't avoid coming across one particular author if you're in Pamplona, especially if you're in the neighborhood of the Plaza de Toros. Apparently he wrote about it a bit. You might know that already. Especially if you were in the same junior high school English class.

My own room was locked and I could not find the key, so I went up-stairs and slept on one of the beds in Cohn's room. The fiesta was going on outside in the night, but I was too sleepy for it to keep me awake. When I woke it was the sound of the rocket exploding that announced the release of the bulls from the corrals at the edge of town. They would race through the streets and out to the bull-ring. I had been sleeping heavily and I woke feeling I was too late. I put on a coat of Cohn's and went out on the balcony. Down below the narrow street was empty. All the balconies were crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all running, packed close together. They passed along and up the street toward the bull-ring and behind them came more men running faster, and then some stragglers who were really running. Behind them was a little bare space, and the the bulls galloping, tossing their heads up and down. It all went out of sight around the corner.

- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Zzzzzz ... What? Oh, right. I'm in the middle of writing a blog post. Honestly, I can't figure out how someone can make something so heart-poundingly exciting sound so dull. Of course, I have no idea how you, gentle reader, make it through some of my posts, so I suppose I shouldn't be too critical. But yes, it's all Hemingway all the time in that section of town especially, and I imagine that during the festival itself you can get Hemingway-themed beer mugs and t-shirts and tchotckes of all shape and description, along with the Basque-themed ones. You won't find me at the souvenir booths among the approximately million and a half other tourists, but one day perhaps I'll be back for a quieter visit, and a chance to sample some of the pintxos I had to pass up the last time, eaten seated at one of the many sunny stone plazas, surrounded by colorfully-painted houses and a language I can't understand. Yet. It's on my to-do list, learning Spanish, along with learning Italian. At least enough to get by on a farm or in a dairy making cheese - and of course for ordering things to eat and drink.

"Fíjese que somos un país que no tiene miedo a ponerse delante de un toro pero ve un libro y se echa a temblar." - Spanish politician Julio Anguita González, in an interview in September 2012; if he was thinking of Hemingway I totally understand

Pamplona's another major stopping point for pilgrims headed to Compostela, whether they arrive over the mountains to the north or along the dry ravines from the west. I think I'm a bit too impatient to do the route by foot (bad pilgrim!) but on a bicycle it might be fun. I happened across a website advertising bike tours from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela and if I win the lottery I think I'll sign up. I like the idea of the van-accompanied tour where you don't have to camp out or carry everything with you on the bike. And I like the places they stop on this tour, like Santo Domingo de la Calzada and its miracle of the roasted chickens, Astorga and the Episcopal Palace designed by Antoni Gaudí (note to self: go to Barcelona some day soon), and Arzúa, where they have a festival to celebrate cheese made in the shape of breasts. Frankly, even if I don't win the lottery, I think I'll try to head down this route. Someday, anyway ...

But not today, nor tomorrow; I'm heading north next Monday and not south, north to Bordeaux and beyond and then even further up the latitudinal scale, to London and southwest England. I'm hoping to make it all the way up to the 60th parallel eventually before tumbling back down towards the equator again next spring. But there is much money to be saved and many plans to be made before that happens, and nothing set in stone past the end of November at this point. I can't say for sure where I'll be next July, much less in January - but I can say for sure I won't be running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The United States of America

Not so united, any more, if they ever really were. A theoretical democracy sliding down an oil- and cash-lubricated slope to theocracy, an oligarchy draped in patriotic flags sewn in overseas sweatshops. A population trying to clothe themselves in lottery tickets stitched together with invisible bootstraps. A polluted landscape drenched in chemicals creating new diseases as well as an overabundance of non-nutritious food that is at least cheap enough to poorly feed the poor, in a nation that sells its harvest to the highest bidders, while the people who work to raise the crops watch as produce and profits float away, leaving nothing behind for them, sharecroppers without a share. A culture of bread and circuses without the bread. Of desperate pleas for momentary fame that will lead to a temporary break in the nearly-useless daily race to not even get ahead any more, but just to stay in one place. A country that is still a wonderland for those in other countries, whether it's because they too believe the dreams portrayed on television, or because their countries are even deeper into the morass, and scraping an existence out of the edges of what's left of the United States of America is marginally easier.

And yet there's still hope, or at least I hope so. It's impossible to completely describe such a vast country with one or two phrases, and there are places and communities in every one of the fifty states where people are working together to make life better for as many as possible. But I'm using this photograph that I took on July 4, 2012 for a reason, blurry as it is: the country I left behind is getting darker to me, with only a relatively few bright spots. I've never been patriotic, really, but I know that I could go back and try my best to help it change, if I really wanted to. I don't want to. I want to keep going on my wandering road around the world, exploring and helping people and taking photographs. I suppose I'm embodying the independent frontier spirit this 4th of July, or at least I can rationalize it that way, so that I don't have to feel guilty about leaving these words as my only contribution towards the fight to keep this one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

La Poule

Sur un nid de rencontre, au coin de l’appentis,
La poule couve ; au toit la paille s’amoncelle ;
La hideuse araignée y file à côté d’elle ;
Elle couve en fermant ses yeux appesantis.

Les poussins sont éclos avec leurs appétits,
Elle gratte au hasard, fait diète et les appelle ;
Soùs l’orage elle fait un auvent de son aile,
Insuffisant asile où tremblent ses petits.

Ses enfants, différents d’espèces et de tailles,
Ne sont pas la plupart le fruit de ses entrailles,
Mais elle ne sait pas reconnaître les siens.

Parfois, dans les halliers, couvant une chimère,
Elle s’assied longtemps sur quelques nids anciens,
Pauvre et stupide mère ! et pourtant bonne mère.

In a communal nest tucked into the corner of the shed
The hen sits brooding; from the thickening roof thatch
A monstrous spider drops down on a thread beside her;
But she sits, brooding, her glazed eyes closing.

The chicks hatched already hungry; she claws the ground
Here and there, calling them over and going without herself;
She shelters them from the sudden storm with her wing,
A too-small canopy for her shivering family.

Her children, all different races and sizes,
Are, for the most part, not her offspring,
But she can't tell which ones are related to her.

Sometimes, in the shrubbery, she tries to hatch out ghosts,
Sitting for days on end on long-abandoned nests,
Poor foolish mother! and yet such a good mother.

- Gustave Le Vavasseur, La Poule, from "Caractères et Portraits Rustiques: Les Animaux" (1863)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Don't Scroll Down

... if you're my stepsister Amanda in New York or my friend Aurélie in Paris or my sister Kate in Portland or anyone else who is a vegetarian and doesn't like the look of meat in the transitional stage between living animal and dinner on the plate. Carnivores can continue.

After ten bloody months here, I'm not sure if I've been moving towards veganism or away again. Ducks and rabbits and guinea hens and chickens that I have seen first in the large orchard behind the house at the pig farm I have later eaten roasted or braised for lunch. And then there is all of the raw pig meat I have had in my hands during that time, cutting cheeks out of heads and flesh from bones, scraping every edible bit off a cartilaginous cooked ear before grinding it up and adding warm red blood to make boudin, which I have also eaten for lunch. Animals raised for meat will be killed and eaten, and I'm not bothered by being part of that process.

I think I'll be eating less meat in the near future, though not because of any karmic (or physical) balance. It's mostly because I don't want to eat meat that has been raised and killed in any other way than how I've watched it done on the farm, with animals outdoors living their animal lives, which are brought to an end quickly and with minimal stress. No trucking of frantic chickens for days to a slaughterhouse, no crowding of beasts into rooms hardly big enough for them to fit. No industrial meat, in other words. And if it means I have to kill them myself, I'll learn how to do it swiftly, using every part of the animal I can. Blood and fur, meat and bone, their cells becoming my own.

Rabbit, rabbit.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Durian Durian

All the photographs from Paris are still waiting to be blogged but they'll have to wait just a little bit longer. Tomorrow morning I've got the jury presentation for my final project paper and although I'm not nervous about it, I keep thinking about it, and can't concentrate on anything else. And I still have to throw some slides together for that part of the presentation. After that, I no doubt will wake up to the fact that I leave in two weeks and therefore need to get all of my things organized and folded back into suitcases, which is easier said than done, and I'll still be working at the pig farm on a regular basis, so I don't know how much time I'll feel like devoting to the blog before I get resettled - temporarily - in mid-July.

While I was in Paris I happened to wander past a large Asian market in the Belleville district that Sunday, and though I hadn't planned on buying anything, I did. I found a brand of wasabi peas that was SO much better than any others I've had; the wasabi was a light coating, not the thick shell you usually get, and the peas were crisper. I wish I'd saved the bag to get the brand, but on the other hand not even the label was in English (or French) so it probably wouldn't have helped. I bought some instant dashi mix that I've been cooking my rice in, and some black sesami mochi balls, and some jasmine tea for Florence's birthday present.

I would have bought more (seasoned seaweed paste! white miso! pickled radish and soy-braised sprats!) but I didn't want to carry kilos of groceries around the next day.

But I just had to buy the freeze-dried durian. Many years ago I took a fresh durian to Mom and John's house (in Packwood, Washington at the time) that I'd bought at Uwajimaya shortly after they opened up their first store in the Portland area. Unfortunately by the time I got there it wasn't all that fresh, and its signature rotten smell was overpowered by the actual rot. Not even the raccoons would eat it. So the next time I took some durian candy along, because I was still curious about the flavor of this famous fruit. After the olfactory assault they'd received from the fresh/rotten durian, Mom and John were dubious. "Oh, come on," I said. "It's candy!" I unwrapped one [crinkle crinkle] and popped it in my mouth ...

"Bleagh! (ptoo)"

... and spit it out immediately. "Here, let me try one," said Mom.

[crinkle crinkle] "Bleagh! (ptoo)"

"It can't be THAT bad," said John.

[crinkle crinkle] "Bleagh! (ptoo)"

I suggested they save the rest of the candy to hand out at Hallowe'en to children they didn't particularly like. The bag was probably tossed out, uneaten except for the three we tried, a year or two later when they moved back to southern Oregon.

Understandably cautious, I opened this box of Tasty Top freeze-dried durian and then cut open the foil pouch inside, ready to back away quickly and go running for a trash bag to wrap everything up in before tossing it away.

But there was no overwhelming reek, and when I took a cautious sniff of the light golden chunks inside, only a faint fragrance that reminded me of truffles and peaches and the way a thick layer of rose petals smells when it's been crushed underfoot. I nibbled one piece and felt the freeze-dried flesh turn to cream on my tongue, with a truffle-peach-rosepetal-umami-wow! flavor that was really quite addictive. Apparently something in the freeze-drying process removes or subdues the volatile compounds that attack the senses in the fresh fruit, leaving a gentle musky taste/smell I really liked. It's possible that the type of durian used for this product is one that isn't as stinky; apparently there are several varieties, some more overwhelming than others.

Durian production peaks in June and July and the markets in Singapore and Malaysia and Thailand are probably full of the spiky fruits right now. The Penang Durian Fair offers two months worth of odoriferous fun - maybe I'll get there some day. Like a lot of other tropical fruits, the durian is probably best eaten IN the tropics. I've never found a papaya sweeter than the ones I had in Hawai'i, and the clean clear taste of green coconut is never better than when it's been freshly cut under the tree it came off of. I have more traveling to do in Western Europe, but I'm starting to look east these days ...