Sunday, March 9, 2014
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Unlike the one-day (or, if you're in New Orleans, the one-week) celebration of Mardi Gras in the United States, in France the parades and festivities take place any time during the period that stretches from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. There was a big parade yesterday in Pau, when the effigy of Sent Pançard was paraded through the streets along with Sent Porquin (the Holy Pig!), but the weather was fairly crappy and although I had the day off, standing in the milling crowds in the pouring rain wasn't so appealing. But the Biarnés Carnival in Pau is one of the biggest in the Aquitaine region, and as a journalist/blogger/travel writer (in my dreams) I probably should have made the effort, rain or no rain. Sent Pançard, after embodying all of the sins of humanity during the carnaval period, will be burned at the stake on Mardi Gras - or at least they'll attempt to do so, because he escapes every year - and humanity will be purified for the Lenten period of fasting and penance. Which I don't think many people pay much attention to any more, here in this once very Catholic country, and personally I don't plan on giving up anything this year. The weeks of dorm life ahead of me will be penance enough for any sins I have committed recently.
There were people with green paint on their faces (aliens) or with blue paint (Smurfs) and even a few with bright gold faces and round gold-foil costumes (Ferrero Rocher chocolates). Characters from the comics were well represented, from Spongebob to Obelix (Astérix's strongman companion), and there were a few people in the masks and medieval outfits you might see at the Carnevale di Venezia. A set of mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles strolled by, and then a young man dressed as a pumpkin (I think) with two onions and a carrot at the end of a string on a pole. Although a family-oriented celebration - the dancing and drinking would start later in the evening - there were not a few frankly phallic costumes, including a handful of men dressed as bananas with large penises, and more men with huge fake breasts. There were also at least half a dozen men in cow costumes with prominent udders but if this is something sexually suggestive for the Béarnais then I don't really want to find out more, thank you very much.
There were only two dozen or so floats, but Florence said that the various community and/or business-supported groups work on them for months ahead of time. The festival has expanded from the village of Géronce over time, and now includes the other villages that run like a string of Mardi Gras beads tossed from a New Orleans float along the side of the valley of Josbaig: Orin, Saint Goin, Geüs, Aren, and Préchacq. When we arrived, the parade had formed up in Géronce and we walked ahead of it to the next town where we met Nathalie and Frédéric and Clément, and eventually several other people from the extended Bergeras family, and waited for the floats to rumble by.
There were no strings of plastic beads or candy thrown from these floats, but there were vendors walking ahead of the parade with carts, selling fortunately not too loud air horns, along with balloons, plus bags of confetti and cans of silly string. Sometimes the people on the floats had the confetti and silly string, and other times the children in the crowd sprayed the silly string on the people in the parade. The younger children quickly ran out of confetti, and started scooping it up from the ground to toss it at each other and the passers-by.
The last float went by, and then people either walked on behind it, in costume or not, following the parade to the next village, or waited chatting and visiting until it came back in the other direction. More friends and family members showed up, and while everyone was catching up on gossip I went over to the side of the road to sit on the stone wall. A group of older people sitting on the wall next to me were talking to each other in Béarnais, and I caught a phrase or two that I understood, but not more than that. Helium balloons were being accidentally or deliberately set free, and all around me winged unicorns took to the air, dolphins went swimming towards the clouds, and superheroes demonstrated actual superpowers.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
All the locals are represented in this case - Rivers Edge, Tumalo Farms, Pholia, Juniper Grove, Oregon cheesemakers I hadn't ever heard of and Rogue Creamery that everyone's heard of, Black Sheep Creamery and Beecher's from Washington. Then there are the cheeses from places I'd like to be a local in for a while, with imports from Italy and France, Germany and England. I tasted some Stichelton from Neal's Yard Dairy - soft and buttery with the gentlest possible bite of blue. Steve Jones, the owner and winner of the 2011 Cheesemonger Invitational, did an internship at the Neal's Yard shop in London and still keeps in touch with them; in fact he got the first commercial wheel of Stichelton in the United States.
I went to the Cheese Bar several times after it first opened up in the Belmont district, and before I stopped eating cheese. I took along my gluten-free bread to get sandwiches from their ever-changing menu, and sampled the charcuterie, which also draws from the new Oregon and US-based artisanal producers, as well as their European inspirations. Steve was here in France last year for Le Mondial du Fromage et des Produits Laitiers but I just missed it; I got back from my travels with Mom and John an hour after the last vendor had packed up, and long after the contestants in the "world's best cheesemonger" competition had left.
There are more and more places in France (particularly Paris) that not only sell cheese, but also sell tasting plates or have other sit-down options. One of the cheese shops in Paris I visited last year, Fromagerie Hisada, has an entire floor above the store for the restaurant space. Another place that opened up last year, La Vache dans les Vignes, focuses on dégustations that pair cheeses with wines.
Alas, not for me. In fact, the draft of this post has been sitting unfinished since late 2011, which is when I first attempted two things: becoming an all-cheese-all-the-time blogger and author (didn't work), and testing whether I needed to give up dairy (which worked all too well, unfortunately). But if you're in Portland, or visiting, I encourage you to take advantage of the wide range of local and imported cheeses at the Cheese Bar, and if they're still offering "raclette nights" then you don't want to miss that specialty of the Alps, where the rich hot liquid cheese is scraped off the large aged wheel as it melts under the grill, onto plates of boiled potatoes and ham, served with pickles. And they make (or made) their own pickles at the Cheese Bar, and they're quite good.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
I saw an old story on the NPR news feed this morning about saying "rabbit, rabbit" on the first day of each month for good luck the rest of the month. I'd been seeing the occasional "rabbit, rabbit" comment on friends' Facebook posts, and each time wondered why, but never followed up to figure it out. Now I know. And so I said it this morning, hoping for good luck this month as I head out on Monday for two weeks of microbiology and quality control and business management classes. I'm already feeling a little stressed out.
It will be dorm life for me on the campus at Hasparren. I'm taking my computer, and while I have been assured that there is wi-fi available, whether this is (a) true; (b) true, but only if you have your own paid internet/phone account; or (c) not true, as several other things related to this school program have turned out to be, remains to be seen. I may not be on line for two weeks, in other words. However, I'll be spending the weekend in between with Marie-Morgane, a friend I met at the cheese program last year in Tours, at her home in Bayonne, and I'll probably be able to at least check my e-mail at that point. Or maybe I'll just take a two-week vacation from the internet.
À bientôt, mes petits lapins.
February 2005, Portland, Oregon
July 2005, Cannon Beach, Oregon
September 2007, Corinium Museum, Cirencester, UK
October 2008, Gresham, Oregon
March 2011, Indio, California
August 2012, Tours, France
May 2013, Rouen, France
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Le jeune philosophe et la vieille portière
The young philosopher and the old landlady
- Gustave Le Vavasseur, Études d’après nature (1863)
Monday, February 24, 2014
The schedule at the abattoir has changed, and instead of taking pigs to slaughter on Thursday and working Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to process them, the pink porcs now head out on Monday, and the red blood and white fat return on Tuesday morning along with the heads and innards for making pâté, with the half-carcasses hanging in the cold room to be cut up as needed over the following days. That means that Sundays, instead of being sausage-and-salami-making days, are days off at the butchery. I always had Sundays off (though I often used them for doing school or freelance work) but Florence always, and Frédéric and Jeanne and Éloi almost always, had to put at least a few hours in on Sundays, and since the on-site store is open all day Saturday (except for the two-hour lunch break, of course) that meant no opportunity for weekend trips, or even day trips. However, the last two Sundays we've all had time off, and have profited from it, and yesterday Florence and I drove up to the ski resort La Pierre St. Martin, along with Aurélie, her childhood friend now living in Paris, and Aurélie's boyfriend Matthieu.
The other three were planning to ski, as one does at a ski resort, but during my first and only time on downhill skis in Japan back in 1984 I tore the ACL in my right knee, and then completely shredded it during a game of tag with Morgan and Leah approximately 20 years later (correction: the game was "hot lava monster" per Morgan), so I'm a bit nervous about strapping long boards on my feet and getting all twisted and tangled. I considered doing some cross-country skiing though, or going for a walk on snowshoes, but the area for those activities is further down the slope, and I wanted to get a good view of the mountains. So while the other three stood in line for ski rentals and lift tickets, I set out to explore the area around the resort, which is mostly chalets and apartment/condo buildings and parking lots where people set up their motor homes for the two-week school vacation we were in the middle of that day. School breaks are staggered around the country, and right now it's the turn of the kids in Aquitaine and Paris, who are currently in their second week, and the non-Parisian northern half of France where the break started on Saturday. The rest of the south of France gets their two weeks starting March 3rd, and that's when I go back to school.
I got into a snowball fight with some kids playing in one of the chalet complexes, admired a snow cat someone had sculpted, watched the chair lift going overhead from the lowest slopes down by the cross-country area back up to the second-highest peak, and squinted my eyes to see the people skiing and snowboarding back down. There are about 25 kilometers of ski runs, and a vast area hors piste that people head out into even against the warnings of the orange signs and roped-off access points. However, I haven't heard of any avalanche problems recently in the Pyrénées, though there were a lot of them in the Alps not too long ago, leading to several deaths. The slopes lead down from the drop-off points at Soum Couy (above) and Arlas, criss-cross down into and past the resort, through a tunnel (if you choose that route), and end up at the Pas de l'Ours by the Nordic ski area. I had seen on the resort's website that there is a service where a person can sit in a sort of ski-chair and take to the slopes, steered by one of the expert skiers on staff, but it turned out that this was only for truly handicapped people, not just ones with wonky knees who wanted to feel the wind in their hair. I could have also signed up for a dogsled trip, but although I enjoyed the sled rides I took in Alaska, I didn't feel like spending a half an hour staring at dog butts.
Instead, I bought a 5-euro lift ticket to go up to the drop-off point at Arlas where I could take pictures and admire the view. I sent a quick text message to Florence to tell her I'd meet them at the top, and joined the queue.
The Pic d'Anie is the highest point near the resort, but it's well short of the highest peak in the Pyrénées. At its southwest base it sticks its foot into Spain. The resort is very popular with Spanish tourists/locals, partly because it's so close and partly because the ski resorts in France are in part State-funded (or so I was told) and are cheaper by nearly half when compared to the lift ticket prices at the Spanish resorts. While I was waiting at the top of the slope for Florence and the others to arrive, a group of Spanish snowboarders asked me (in Spanish) to take their picture, and I did, all the while talking to them in French - why I didn't try English I don't know - but mutual comprehension was achieved, as well as the series of fifteen or so photos I took when I accidentally held down the camera button on their iPhone screen. I noticed that at least half the people getting off the lift were speaking in Spanish, the rest in French, and perhaps once there were people from Germany, though I'm not sure. No English spoken within earshot, although all the resort signs are in all four languages. I thought of my visit to Norway, and of my friend and former teacher Bea Rynning-Tønnesen, who spent much of her twenties traveling around to ski resorts in many countries, using her fluency in many languages, and wished she were there, though since her knees are wonky as well, she's not downhill skiing any more either.
The people continued to arrive and descend, peeling away to the right-hand blue-flagged medium-hard slope, or to the left and the red pole marking the difficult route. I was amazed to see so many young children - they looked to be as young as 6 years old, sometimes - confidently settling their goggles on their heads and their ski poles around their wrists before zipping off alone down the red side. An amazingly fit man came walking up the red slope while I was there (no wussy ski lift for him!) then strapped on a set of crampons and took ice picks out of his backpack and headed up to the top of the Pic d'Arlas. A cross-country skier glided off the lift and herringboned his way up the same slope a few minutes later, and I watched them crest the ridge and disappear over the top, shadowed by the chocards à bec jaune, the alpine/yellow-billed choughs that kept swooping by, or hanging still-winged in the breeze blowing up the cliff below.