Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Patron Saint of Housesitting

I got up with the sun this morning, or shortly afterwards at any rate - the bedroom faces north, and the shutters are nearly closed, so I don't get the full effect of the light. I followed the purring cat downstairs and opened a pouch of goopy food for her, and by 7am I was out the door, taking the dogs for their morning constitutional. The weather's turned chillier, although the upper reaches of the house still get stuffy at night. The first thing I did when I got back to the house - after feeding the dogs, of course - was to open up the windows and shutters in the kitchen to get a cross-breeze and air out the house. One of the dogs has a skin condition and is rather stinky.

I made a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer to catch up on depressing news from around the world, fun things my friends are doing, and my Lexulous moves, and then went out in the back to vacuum the pool and clean the pump. Fortunately this time there weren't any dead mice in the basket filters by the side of the pool, because that's just gross. A few days ago while I was running the sweeper along the bottom of the pool I heard squeaking noises and looked over to see the cat tormenting a small grey animal underneath the wooden swing; the next time I checked she was busily crunching off its head. She eats three pouches of food a day as well, and she is a growing cat of just 9 months, but I think she probably also has worms. I might too, now, since she's been sleeping with me. But it has been so nice to have a cat to sleep with again, or to snuggle with as I watch silly shows on Food Network, which is about the only channel that the family's Sky TV subscription gets that I'm at all interested in watching, though I do tune into BBC News every day for a bit.

At some point in the past this traditional arrangement of house-attached-to-larger-grange was redone so that the house became two gîtes. It looks like one gite is the old house, with a large open space leading to a small kitchen area, two bedrooms, and one bathroom with shower (a recent addition), and a steep staircase leading to the balcony and another set of bedrooms and bathroom. The other smaller unit appears to have been tacked on later, with a living room/dining area/kitchen all together, and a hall leading to three bedrooms and the bathrooms, with no upper floor. I spent several hours doing the cleaning for the changeover last week, and several more hours washing and hanging out and ironing all of the linens. I'm glad that's all done.

The family house is what used to be the grange, I think, because it's the bigger blocker building, and because the upper floor is criss-crossed with head-banging huge wooden beams. It's got a lovely big kitchen that I've enjoyed cooking in, and an old wooden table that's almost at the right height for a laptop workspace, as long as I add cushions to the chair. I'm sleeping in a dark narrow room belonging to one of the boys, and I closed all of the other bedroom doors to keep them clean and tidy. The stairway to the top floor is fairly ladder-like, and I'm careful to hold on to the railing, especially when there are dogs and cats trying to navigate the stairs at the same time.

Behind one of the bedroom doors is a vivarium, and in the vivarium is a large corn snake. When I applied for this housesitting gig, we talked about the two dogs and the cat, and I think Nikki mentioned the hamster as well, but she didn't say anything about the snake. When we were going over instructions for everything the day I arrived, she asked me if I was scared of snakes, and I said no, not particularly. "I had a friend in Oregon who raised boa constrictors, in fact," I said, "and I liked handling them, but it was really icky when they had to feed the young boas on those little baby mice they call 'pinkies' - but this isn't a boa constrictor ..." She just looked at me. "I'm going to have to feed it baby mice, aren't I?" I sighed.

So every Saturday, I have removed a plastic bag full of baby mice from the freezer - not the pinkies; these are slightly older mice with actual fur - and placed a single mouse in a bowl, and then poured boiling water over it. After a minute or two the mouse is thawed and hot enough mimic being alive, if not very lively. The first time I opened the glass sliding doors the snake was curled up in his(?) den. I placed the mouse on the sacrificial altar and tried to get a picture of the snake, who started coming out to check out the offering, but I think the light on my camera startled him and he went back in, and wouldn't come back out as long as I was there. But the second time, I'd waited until the evening on Saturday, and when I got there the snake was waiting as well, halfway out of his den, head moving over the altar, searching for the prey that should have been there. He backed off a little bit when I opened the glass doors, but as soon as I put the mouse down he glided forward again, tongue flicking, before making a vicious lunge to subdue the immobile mouse and drag it back into the den.

The dogs have been fairly easy to deal with, though the smaller yappy one annoys me by being yappy, which is pretty much any time he sees one of the guests go by, or the neighbor's cat, or when the two neurons in his head happen to connect (this last does not happen very often). Actually, he's not that bad. The bigger dog is a Husky mix, and howls when he wants to go for a walk or be fed, but otherwise doesn't bark unless yappy dog sets him off. It reminds me of the time that I brought an LP (remember those?) of recorded wolf howls home from the Ashland library and we played it for our coyote-collie mix who had never ever howled before, but who joined in the chorus with a high ululation for a minute or two. Kate and I collapsed with laughter, and apparently that was enough to embarrass Brownie, because she never howled again.

I'm actually glad the dogs are here, because it forces me to get out and take a walk myself twice a day, and with the cheese-note recording and blogging and the freelance projects that have had me busy this last week, I probably wouldn't have gotten out as much just by myself. And that would have been a shame, because it's quite lovely around here.

There are a few pastures with cows, and others with large shrink-wrapped rolls of hay. There's a large grange at one corner filled to the rafters with rectangular hay bales, and an old mostly-abandoned farmhouse complex that's almost completely hidden under rampant swaths of wisteria, and a handful of houses that look like places that people have come to retire. There's a house across the street where an English couple came to retire, I think, but they've got the house on the market now. I found out that this house is for sale, too, so if you're interested in buying it let me know, and I'll give you the contact information. But mostly it's vineyards, interspersed with smaller fields of corn or sunflowers. A few mornings ago I walked the dogs past a vigneron's home, a well-kept place with a glassed-in porch and wide terrace and long cool green lawns on one side, and business-like barns on the other filled with all of the machinery used to cultivate the vines. There were two dozen tables set up under a large canopy, and plenty of chairs, and I wondered if they were going to have a family party, or an open house and wine tasting. On that evening's walk, I heard the sound of a not quite professional band drifting over the top of the vine-covered hill between this house and that one, but I didn't go to crash the event.

Other than the fact that there is literally nothing within walking distance here - unless you're an intrepid walker who isn't freaked out by insane French drivers (and, in this area, English ones who forget which side of the road they're supposed to be on) on narrow lanes with no place to leap aside to avoid the vehicles - it's a very nice location. I'm so glad that Nikki left me a car. After cleaning the pool this morning I came back to the computer and printed out all of the documents I need to get into the UK on Thursday evening (please, please let those be all the documents I need ...) and then did another few hours of freelance work. I'm going to take the car over to Talmont-sur-Gironde this evening, unless it starts raining; the sky is cloudy and the wind has picked up, though there's still no rain forecast and in fact according to the weather report it's supposed to clear up in a few hours. If the weather hasn't gotten any less chancy by 5pm I'll probably stay home and start organizing my packing, though I haven't really unpacked much of anything other than toiletries and a change of clothes. And I'm sure there's something wonderfully mindless on the Food Network.

Thursday morning I'll head to London, and my three free days at St. Christopher's Camden where I will be "[s]urrounded by rockers, city hipsters, young professionals and artists alike." It will make quite a change from being surrounded by goats (August 2013), pigs or young annoying mostly-male students, if that's not repeating myself (September 2013-June 2014), or horizon-spanning fields of green and gold (July 2014). I start my next housesit on August 3rd somewhere in north London, taking care of one dog and one cat. No snakes have been mentioned. So far.

Onward to the next adventure!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Here I Am

It's Sunday, and I finally visited the church I've driven by several times at Saint-Ciers-du-Taillon, one of the small villages scattered among the vineyards and sunflower fields here. I kept thinking "oh, I should stop and check it out" each time I passed by, winding my way through the narrow main street past the bakery and the butcher shop and the pizzeria whose terrace I ended up parking on the other day, accidentally, when I stopped to pick up some farce pour tomatoes at the butcher's shop that I really did plan on stuffing tomatoes with, but which I ended up just rolling into little meatballs and baking this afternoon in a hot oven, then eating while watching "Chopped: South Africa" and thinking that I would have done well in the competition, because I would have combined the sweet pumpkin-like squash with the corn grits and pan-seared cubes of that mixture instead of just making a polenta mush, and I would have created a savory jelly with the chicken feet, instead of deep-frying them, like all the other contestants did. And I definitely would have cut off the toenails first.

After spending the better part of the day on systems testing and laundry, I decided to go into Saint-Ciers-du-Taillon for a glass of wine; there's a bar/restaurant called Le Cheval Blanc that figures in Nikki's guide to local attractions, a sheaf of paper she leaves for the guests in each of the gîtes. But as I was driving up I heard the bells ring in the church - it was 7:00pm - and I decided to see what was going on inside, as I could hear music.

I walked in, and was greeted by two dozen people singing "Here I Am, Lord" in English. There are a lot of British people who vacation in this area - the two gîtes have been full of families from across the Channel, and the local Super U in Mirambeau has half an aisle devoted to "proper" tea and Weetabix and other groceries to make les rosbifs feel at home. The priest wasn't entirely comfortable doing his service in both languages, but had a white-haired British lay pastor to help out.

I didn't stay long, because the church wasn't terribly interesting on the inside - a 12th-century construction that had been pretty well entirely reconstructed in the 19th century - and the sound system was so echoey that I couldn't tell the difference between the parts of the service that were in French and those that were in English. The two young boys in the pew in front of me seemed equally uninterested, squirming away from their fair-haired parents' attempts to hush them, probably thinking of how they'd much rather be back at their own holiday rental, swimming in the chilly pool.

I had my glass of wine (or two) with une assiette de frites, which I almost had to eat cold, as I got caught up in a conversation/monologue with the proprietor, who - like many other French citizens - seemed to think that the United States was a much better place to live than France, at least in New York City or California, but not in the middle of the country. "They're pretty weird there, aren't they?" he commented. Then he left me to my book, Bill Bryson's "Neither Here Nor There", my red wine and fries, and a friendly local cat who joined me in the late-evening sunshine on the patio. It was just me and the cat, though eventually a local dropped by for his own Sunday drink, but he went inside to the bar. Cars passed through the town behind me, and the breeze picked up as the sun dropped in the sky.

I finished my wine (and left half the fries, as they really had gotten cold by that point), paid my tab inside, and pulled out of the parking lot at 8:30pm, with the sun still gilding the fields of sunflowers stretching out over the horizon. Ten minutes or less along the curvy vineyard-bordered lanes got me back home, and then I took the dogs for an hour-long walk up the road to a hay-filled grange and then down through the fields of corn and grapes, a quick hike through the woods back to the side road leading to the field behind the house, and here I am home again.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

À vol d'oiseau

Half a mile straight up, and nine miles all told for the loop around the Lacs d'Ayous. All of the websites I checked when trying to figure out elevation and distance blithely say that this route takes five and a half hours, an easy hike when it's sunny and dry, take the kids, it'll be fun!

People in France are in much better shape than I am.

Poor Flo - it took us eight hours to get back to the parking lot, because I was going so slowly, especially at the end. She probably would have clipped a half hour off the suggested time, had she been alone, but instead she spent a fair amount of time sitting on rocks and smoking cigarettes and (I hope) enjoying the view.

There are two parking lots, one a half-hour's walk lower down the slope, but we got there early enough to get a space in the upper lot, next to the Lac de Bious-Artigues. You can see where we started, and where we looped around the other lakes, on this website with its nifty floating magnifying glass. The path starts out paved, then alternates with graveled spots, past holiday rentals and camping sites, a place to rent canoes and a place to rent horses, up through the woods to the first plateau. Some sections are fairly steep for a fairly long time, and several people passed us. Passed me, anyway. Poor Flo.

A soggy slope was filled with wild orchids; they're marsh orchids (also called spotted orchids) and were the first of many, many photographs of flowers and rocks and random beautiful scenery that I took as an excuse to catch my breath, as well as photoblog the day. I'm not out of shape, I'm a journalist!

Once you get up to the first plateau, you have a choice of going right and up through the woods to the high plateaus and the lakes, or going left to a large meadow with a stream running through it. The meadow was full of marshy plants, which seems to indicate that it's fairly boggy or at least gets a lot of flooding in the spring. There was a sign for a fly-fishing club on the signpost pointing to the bridge, and two small vans that had passed us earlier were setting up tents and tables down by the stream. No one was there by the time we passed by the tents later that afternoon, so it must have been a weekend event. The setup people were long gone, so we couldn't ask anyone. It would be a lovely venue for a wedding, though, as long as all the guests were up for the hike in, and fording the second stream not spanned by the bridge. They could rent the horses by the lake, and ride up - that would be romantic. I was sorely tempted to rent a horse, especially after hour six or so of the hike ...

But the puffing and panting and increasingly sore legs were easy to forget with vistas like this. Just a little meadow, where a herd of cows and some horses were grazing, a small pond in the middle, and the Pyrénées as a backdrop. The transhumance was scheduled for the next day, but some herders obviously got an early start. While we were hiking up the steep muddy trail through the woods, I noticed hoofprints, both on the trail and off; the churned-up edges of the path on the dropoff side made it clear that not all of the cows (or horses) had an easy time getting up the slope either.

Above the tree line, the rocky meadows stretched out to either side. Patches of wild azalea made brilliant magenta splotches on the green, and the air was fragrant with wild thyme, covered in pink blossoms; the yellow flowers of wild flax lined the edges of the trail, and spiky blue thistles popped up here and there. The shrill cries of the choughs rang out from the higher rocks (Alpine or red-billed, but I'm not sure which as I didn't see any of them closely) and griffon vultures soared high above, heading for their cliffside nests.

Florence said that there are lots of marmots living among the rocks as well, but that she's never seen one. I have a recipe for cooking marmot but I'll have to try it out some other time, because I didn't see one either.

The higher we got, the more amazing it was to look back to where we had been. See that small round pond down there, in the photograph on the left? That's the one in the cow meadow. The first part of this hike is nothing but up, and up again.

Looking ahead was daunting and inspiring at the same time. Every time I looked back I'd think, "Wow, we've come a long way!" Every time I looked forward I'd think, "... and we still have to get up there?"

The stream far, far below where the tents were set up starts in the interconnected alpine lakes above, and the first one you come to is Lac Roumassot. A large waterfall feeds this lake from the one above it, with a steep path (is there any other kind? I was asking myself by this point) climbing alongside. And at the bottom of the waterfall, there's a sheep-herder's hut, and a newly-constructed prefabricated cabin, and people making cheese.

I can't find the piece of paper where I wrote down his name! But I remember that he and his young female helper (family member?) were among those who passed us on the first paved slope earlier that morning, and if I had just managed to walk a little faster, we would have been there in time to see the last of the milking, which finished not 15 minutes before we arrived.

Phillipe (I remember his first name, at least) had already made two cheeses, and a can of milk was staying cool in the stream for the third and last. He makes the sheep's-milk cheese Ossau-Iraty there in the high meadows of the Vallée d'Ossau, like his father and grandfather did; his son is getting ready to take over and keep the tradition going.

They used to make the cheese in the old stone and wood cabin where they live during the summer months of the estive but the regulations changed, and he had to purchase the prefab for his cheesemaking. We commiserated about rules - he was appalled at the attempt by the FDA to ban wooden boards - and he showed me the stamp he puts on every cheese, a stylized edelweiss, that shows the cheese was made on site in the mountains. He takes the cheese to a grossiste who sells it to shops in the region, and who takes a share of the cheeses as payment.

Tempting as it was to stay talking cheese all day, or to spend the afternoon just sitting in the sunshine with the Roman-nosed basco-béarnaise sheep, we had to keep going and scale the cliff (my perspective on this trail was changing radically) by the waterfall to get to the higher lakes, and the picnic spot. Up, and up, and then up again, to the small Lac du Miey at the top of the waterfall; I looked back down at the speck the cheesemaker's cabin had become, and the smear of white where the sheep were chewing their cud.

And then around the lake and up again, passing stones piled on boulders every so often. I thought this was just a hiker's habit, stacking rocks just for the hell of it, but apparently it's done deliberately to indicate to hikers who are lost in the fog and rain that they're on the right path to get back down again. Flo also said that parents use these boulders to encourage their children to keep going, giving them small rocks to carry "just a little farther" so they have a goal that is more immediate than the eventual destination high above.

She asked me if I needed a small rock to carry.

No, just a few more rest stops. Um, "opportunities to photograph the local flora." Whichever.

Up and up once more, to the second-largest lake, the Lac Gentau, with long sloping sides perfect for a picnic, especially when there's a nice warm flat-sided rock to lean your weary back against.

There's a refuge up there, a chalet that opens up in the summer to host people, whether that's spending the night or eating a meal or just topping up a water bottle and going pee, not necessarily in that order, which is what I did. My legs were so sore from the constant climb that getting up the tall rock-built steps to the building required many groans, and putting my hands on my thigh to pull myself up to the next step. Getting down was harder.

The obligatory "happy feet" photo features not so happy feet, and it was wonderful to sit down for a while. Flo had suggested that we do the side climb up to the col d'Ayous, the pass that gives a great view (she said) of the Pyrénées in both directions and over the Spanish border. We were close enough to the border that my cell phone had sent me a message reminding me of the charges for calling or texting while not in France. But I was dubious, given how long it had taken to get where we were, and how tired my legs were. Florence said that I'd feel better after we rested a bit and had lunch.

Lunch was thin-sliced Ferme Bergeras jambon de pays, a thinner slice than we usually did, which the clients didn't seem to want to buy. "They don't know what they're missing," said Flo. I agreed; it was wonderful piled on my seeded gluten-free rolls. A crunchy apple for dessert, lots and lots of water to drink, and I was ready to go on.

But not to the top of the pass. Although it was only noon or so, I could see the path up was steep (what a surprise!). The signpost said it would take 30 minutes to get to the top of the pass, but my legs told me that it would take me an hour at least, and that they were thinking of going on strike and calling a helicopter to get back down, were I foolish enough to attempt it. I conveyed their message to Flo, and she was willing to forego the views, especially since the clouds had rolled in to that side, and the views might not have been there anyway.

But I made it up to the top of the loop of lakes, and here's photographic proof, standing at over 2,000 metres with the iconic Pic du Midi d'Ossau rising almost another kilometre higher behind me. You can see this mountain peak from Pau (scroll down to the bottom of this post for a view of the peak as seen from Henri IV's château), and its outline was used by a marketing agency to create a spiffy new logo (note: not spiffy at all actually) for the town several years ago. The old logo (the one on the left here) was much better, except for one teeny tiny detail: the outline of the peak was reversed, so it was the view you'd get from Spain, not from France. I still think they should have stayed with that one and adjusted it, because (as many people commented back in 2011 when the new logo was unveiled) the three-P version they're using now is boring and looks like an iPhone icon, and the details of the three images that make the empty spaces in the Ps are so small you can't really tell what they are unless the logo itself is really big.

And then of course I had to get back off the mountain. Easier said than done. We did the loop rather than going back the same way, past the waterfall and down through the woods, though that would have been much shorter. Instead, we circled around and walked along the edge of the largest and highest lake, Lac Bersau, which has an island in the middle that looks like it should have the ruins of a castle on it. Which it might have had, at one point; if not a castle, at least a fortress. While it's not the easiest way to get over the border, it's one of the ways, and there were undoubtedly people living up there, herding sheep and eating marmots, and fending off invasions from Roman soldiers or particularly intrepid Moors.

It was a long way down. I took a lot of pictures. Every time I'd catch up with Flo, she'd ask, "Are you going to make it?" "Do I have a choice?" I'd answer. And since I didn't, I kept going. It reminded me of the time I got my truck stranded in the snow halfway across the pass between Randle and Packwood, and had to hike out wearing foam clogs and yoga pants and just a light jacket; I'd been going to a massage appointment, and had absolutely nothing that helped with the near-freezing weather for the nearly seven hours it took me to walk without stopping to the nearest house.

But as my legs started trembling and the trail got steeper, requiring much climbing over slippery rocks, I put away my camera because I needed both hands to get down the trail. My right knee, which has not had an anterior cruciate ligament for over a decade, and my left ankle, which still twinges me now and again from the surgery I had back in 2000 after I broke both leg bones falling off a horse, were letting me know in no uncertain terms that I had to be really, really careful or I'd be breaking and tearing more things pretty quickly. My thigh muscles started twitching and burning with the constant downhill movement, my calves began cramping, and I had to watch my feet as I placed them because I wasn't getting accurate feedback from them, nearly losing my balance several times before I slowed down ever further and paid more attention.

By the time I got down to where Florence was (patiently?) waiting for me at the place where the rocky trail turned into a hiking path again, I was nearly in tears from the pain in my legs. In fact, I couldn't walk forward when the path went down more than about 10 degrees. I had to walk backwards, holding on to Florence's hands, to let my leg muscles work in a different way. Trying to walk forward and downhill caused such intense burning pain that I could barely breathe.

Poor Flo! And poor Frédo, too, because he had to open the store that evening, since my already-slow pace got even slower with all the walking backwards. But we finally made it back to the parking lot, where I filled my water bottle from the underground spring someone with the national park service had piped up into a series of cascading troughs, and the collapsed onto the front seat. I pulled out my camera one final time to capture the late-afternoon view of the mountains; the slopes that were shining in the morning light were dark and grey under the gathering rain clouds in the late afternoon.

But honestly? I'd do it again, it was such a beautiful hike.

Or at least I'd do it after my six-month intensive fitness training class.