Monday, December 24, 2012

Living in a Fairy Tale

That's what I thought when I got to the top of the hill and saw this château, a 10th-century castle overlooking the Loire here in the city of Saumur. It's the first one that really made me look around for noble knights on high-stepping horses, or women in jewels and silk with a retinue of maids carrying baskets of flowers. But all I saw were a few other sightseeers and locals out for a walk yesterday afternoon, moving through the ghosts of centuries across the gravel and over the drawbridge to the new vineyards planted on the side of the hill. The city owns the property and manages the tours of the château, which is currently closed for the winter. They've also gotten the first harvest out of the vines, but Sebastien's father wasn't sure how they were going to market the wine. Seb and I came down here through many other vineyards yesterday, along the banks of the Cher and Loire and Vienne rivers. It hasn't been raining a lot in the valley, but up where the Loire has its beginning in the Massif Central there must have been quite a bit, along with melting snow, because the waters are running high and muddy. Seb said that near the town of Chinon, half of the village of Cravant-les-Côteaux was underwater when he tried to make a delivery there this week. He thinks it's going to be a bad year for floods.

We drove through the village of Montsoreau, where half of the houses are built right into the cliffs, and passed the estate of Domaine Filiatreau, where the entire winery is apparently underground. If we hadn't had a box of oysters in the back of the car I would have asked to stop at every picturesque overlook and town along the way. Next summer, provided I find a way to stay here, I'd like to do day trips out of Tours to some of these places, many of which are accessible by bicycle along the bike path that runs for 700 miles or so from near the source of the Loire down to the coast at Nantes.

Seb's parents, Henri and Armelle, live in a house that Armelle's parents had built here in Saumur, which they bought after her parents died. It's a square house that's three stories tall, not including the basement/garage area, with a big yard out back full of fruit trees (and dog poop, on the dogs' side of the yard), a tiny toilet just off the kitchen, which seems to be how residences are designed here, and a narrow spiraling wooden staircase up to the top floors. Armelle has made sure that I can eat everything except the cheese, and they laid in a stock of soy yoghurt for my breakfasts and desserts and soy milk for coffee; she's avoiding butter and using oil on the roast meats, and using coconut cream instead of crème fraîche for the chestnut purée we'll have on toast tonight with the traditional roast turkey, and I brought enough gluten-free bread for the few days we'll be here. The next time I come, Armelle says, she'll make me her famous couscous using the brown-rice variety I found. She's an excellent cook.

After lunch, Seb took a nap and I took advantage of the clear skies to see some of the town, not being sure what the weather would be like today (about the same in fact). They were having an antiques/junk fair in the center of town, and also had some Christmas games set up for the kids, including a snow-free luge ride that was very popular, and an inflatable castle decorated with Disney characters (with writing in Chinese characters) in which several dozen of them were jumping around. I looked for a booth selling hot wine, wanting to compare the local version to that of Tours, but didn't find one, or anyone selling roasted chestnuts. So I walked down to the river instead.

The château is easy to see from the river, and there are helpful signs pointing the way as well, and I walked without really worry about my direction for a while, looking at the local architecture and peering in shop windows and watching the people around me. Since it's late in the season and the château is closed, there weren't a lot of other people headed in that direction, and I had an unimpeded view of the château as I came up through a small park to the top of the hill. The château itself is on the edge of the bluff overlooking the river, but there's a large flat area behind where there are other buildings, and what probably used to be stables, with a well in the the middle of the courtyard. A crumbling wall with arrow slits looks out over the edge of the park, looking every decade of its ten centuries, and a deep moat now contains walking paths and a segment of a local road.

I get into a daily-life routine here in France, and it seems so normal to be speaking French and taking the bus into town for my physical therapy and chatting with the neighbors every Friday afternoon as we wait to get our eggs and chicken from Le Colombier's delivery van. And then I suddenly realize that I am living in France in the culmination of a dream and the beginning of a grand plan for the future, and feel like I have to be careful to not accidentally wake myself up. Of course then there are the other times when I'm corrected in my French pronunciation by a five-year-old and I realize that not only am I here, but I also have a lot of work to do. "Demandes un ruban à ta grand-mère," I said. "Un quoi?" he asked. "Un ruban." "Non, c'est RRRYU-ban." "C'est ce que j'ai dit, un ruban." "Non, RRRYU-ban." "RRU-ban." "RRRRRYUU-BAN!"

Even with all that, I'm very very happy to be here. And tomorrow after an oyster feast I'll go back to Tours and pack for my trip to Scotland, which also makes me very happy. My life is amazing.

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