Archive: Posts about France
December 8th, 2012, 3 Comments »
Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about zombies. Maybe it’s because I recently finished Justin Cronin’s excellent The Twelve, which is full of zombified vampires (or maybe vampiric zombies?) that reminded me of those nightstalkers in The Descent. I also recently watched the terrific Dead Set, a British series about zombies attacking the set of Big Brother.
I’ve even rejected some zombie-themed culture. I gave up on Colson Whitehead’s Zone One after about two hours. It read more like a Champions League of preening belletrism than a novel. I was likewise underwhelmed by the first season of The Walking Dead, which was too rote and uninventive to keep me watching.
Maybe my mind’s been on a zombie apocalypse because I live quite close to the only safe place on the planet during the purported Mayan end of days. The little village of Bugarach is just two hours away by car, and for reasons nobody seems to know, is renowned as the only safe haven on December 21. After all, even heads of state are warning us that we may face a zombie invasion that night.
Even if I don’t make it Bugarach on the 21st, there’s still cause for optimism. I’m extremely well-situated to survive an influx of zombies qui manger les cerveaux.
We have a typical French village house. It’s made of stone and concrete, and shares walls with the houses on either side. It’s flush to the street, and has a walled back garden. Thanks to the slope of the land, all of the walls in the back garden are at least 15 feet high. As long as we board up the front door, unless the zombies are unusually limber, we’re in good shape.
Assuming we can bunker down and survive the initial brain-eating rush, then we’re well-positioned to become survivalists. Even for neophyte gardeners like us, it’s incredibly easy to grow fruit and vegetables here, and you can grow food all year long. There are chickens around town that we could liberate, and the vineyards nearby are teeming with rabbits, pheasants and quail (and, you know, grapes).
But all that thinking may prove unnecessary. In the event that the apocalypse happens to be very orthodox, and the zombies rise out of graves in an old-school fashion, we’re in very good shape. Nearly all the graves have a heavy stone tablet on top of the grave site, preventing easy egress for the freshly undead. Are zombies smart enough to dig laterally to avoid the tablet? I’m not sure.
In any case, like many European countries, the French are wise enough to enclose their cemeteries in a high concrete wall with heavy metal gates. Any zombies that clear their graves will be penned in like sheep awaiting shearing. It will be a simple matter for the local hunters to lean over the walls and pick them off.
I, for one, will rest easy on December 21.
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November 5th, 2012, 3 Comments »
Over lunch, I glanced out the window into our back garden. The sky was full of starlings. I grabbed my phone and stepped outside. When I looked up, I was reminded of those shots of an endless stream of bombers crossing the English Channel on D-Day. The sky was busy with birds.
This was the first time I’d ever seen a murmuration of starlings in real life. They were a great amoebic mass, and seemed to behave almost exactly like a school of fish. Nature copies itself all the time.
I’m afraid the combination of an iPhone camera and many small black dots against a partially-cloudy sky isn’t exactly a recipe for brilliant web video. But here’s what I put together. And yes, I did get pooped on. Just my foot, mind you, but it counts.
Murmuration of Starlings over Argeliers, France from Darren Barefoot.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite the most Internet-famous (and much better looking) video of starlings, uh, murmurating.
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September 14th, 2012, 2 Comments »
It was not until I stood waist-deep in Desolation Sound that I truly felt like I was home. The Milky Way stretched across the star-filled sky like God’s wispy white mohawk, and an orange moon rose, The bioluminescence sparkled like a thousand tiny camera flashes around my legs. It was cold, but not viciously so, and my friends and I had just come down to the beach for a quick dip.
Our backs were to the shore, the beach and Hollyhock beyond. I’d come to Canada to attend another Web of Change–my fifth, I think. It was as challenging and insightful as it usually is–a welcome time for conspiring with colleagues and thinking big thoughts.
The evening before I’d had an eerie walk to a party down a dirt road in the dark. I was arriving late, and so walked over alone. The cedars crowded in on either side, leaving just a narrow band of stars to light my way. Rationally, I knew that death by cougar or wolf attack was highly improbable. My lizard brain, however, is not rational. I walked as fast as I could without running. You know, running like prey would.
I then traded the towering cedars of Cortes Island for Vancouver’s towering glass towers. It’s a cliched comparison, but doesn’t driving down Georgia Street feel like you’re traveling through a great, grey forest?
Coming home is always a little odd. It’s not so much the change of language that feels strange, but a shift in perspectives. I live in a warm, rural place, and now I’m a little chilly (despite the gorgeous Vancouver weather–one’s temperature settings change so quickly) and surrounded by skyscrapers and millions of people. The days are suddenly shorter, and the nights never really get dark in the city.
Home also highlights the little foreign habits one acquires. When I’m walking around our village, I greet nearly every person I pass with “bonjour” or “bon soir”. I actively had to prevent myself from doing this during my first couple of days in Yaletown. Similarly, my mind has now switched so that when I see somebody, I greet them in French. In Vancouver, you do that and you just seem effete.
These differences seem obvious, but they’re the ones that matter. Similarly, my fresh eyes observed just how many cars there are on the roads in the city. In our village, the horses and boats nearly outnumber the cars. It’s like we risk death every time we step off the curb. This was doubly the case for my first trip back from Ireland. I’d trained myself to look the other way when stepping off the curb.
The longer you’re away, the weirder it is. This is my third trip home to North America since February, so the cognitive dissonance was very manageable. We’re clearly not designed to be removed from one place and plopped, as if by disinterested aliens, on the other side of the world. If you did it to any other animal, it wouldn’t survive the afternoon.
Still, it’s always a pleasure to see friends, family and big trees on the West Coast. I return now to France, my bag full of red licorice, Stanfield’s underwear and over-the-counter drugs for which I don’t know the French name.
UPDATE: I’d meant to credit Sarah for inspiring me to write this post after writing about her own homecoming.
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June 26th, 2012, 2 Comments »
We’ve had lots of guests here in France over the past couple of months, and so I’ve been doing more than my fair share of seeing the sights. Along the way, I’ve enjoyed using Instagram to share photos of the countryside. Here are a few:
An art gallery sign in the little seaside town of Bages.
Also in Bages, this is a garage door covered in hooves. I thought maybe they were deer hooves, but Lee thought they were too hairy. Goats, maybe? That’d be rather devilish.
It’s been fascinating to watch the vineyards transform from barren miniature tree trunks to verdant ribs across the belly of the countryside. The grapes are already the size of a marble.
A stained glass window from the beautiful Abbey Frontfroide. The abbey was originally built in the 11th century, but this window is from the early 20th century. A local artist assembled it from the broken remnants of other church windows damaged during World War I.
A horse near our house in Argeliers.
Pro tip: I’m using If this, then that to set up a rule that automatically backs up my Instagram photos to my Flickr account. This enables me to easily link to the photos on my laptop. Otherwise, it’s a little challenging, because Instagram doesn’t really have a desktop view–it’s strictly a mobile platform.
This app offers another way to see your Instagram photos with a desktop browser. For example, here are all of mine.
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May 24th, 2012, Comments Off
Last Friday, myself, Julie and two friends set off for a 106 km bike trip along the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Carcassonne. Although the weather has been mostly agreeable this spring in the south of France, the forecast foreboded a lot of wind and rain. Nonetheless, we rented bikes from Mellow Velos and set off.
The first 50 km of the canal path is paved, so the first day was reasonably straightforward. We wove between strollers and joggers, and passed Europe’s first electron microscope. City gave way to suburbs and then countryside as we rode east against a strong head wind. It didn’t rain on us, though, and we actually caught some sun as we paused by a lock along the route.
The canal is an engineering marvel. It stretches about 240 km, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Designed, constructed and mostly funded by Pierre-Paul Riquet, it’s been an important transportation route since it was completed in 1681. These days, the only commerce on the canal is from tourists in rented boats and hotel barges (my friend operate a particularly classy one).
The canal has 91 locks along its length, and the maximum speed on the canal is 8 km/h, so nobody goes anywhere very fast on the waterway. The locks are quite remarkable to watch in operation, as they shift a boat 15 or 20 feet up or down. There are also a number of spots where the canal crosses another river. It’s a bit headwrecking to think that you’re riding a bike beside a canal which is on a bridge that’s over a river.
After resting our weary bones at a chambre d’hote in Gardouch, we braved colder and wetter conditions the next day. Happily, the wind had shifted and was now a welcome helping hand at our backs. The paved path ended, and recent rains had made several sections of the canal rather muddy. It was more BMX track than solid cycling path. If you’re considering this route, I’d recommend waiting until a little later in the year. It will be busier–we saw few cyclists outside of the cities–but the clayey soil will be drier and much harder.
We soldiered on, though, and arrived at Castelnaudary on the second night. Castelnaudary is a charming town where the canal widens into a basin. It’s also the heart of cassoulet country, so we replaced our expended calories with a hearty bean, rabbit and sausage casserole.
The third day of riding was the longest–42 km into Carcassonne. We eventually abandoned the canal’s towpath for the smooth tarmac of a nearby road. After picking our way among roots and mud puddles on the canal, it was a curious pleasure to fly down the road at 30 km/h. I appreciate that, to the experienced cyclist, these numbers aren’t particularly impressive, but they’re long and fast enough for me and my aging quads.
We did have lunch at a rather unusual pirate-themed creperie in the little town of Bram. Their crepes were excellent, as were their sea shanties and Breton cola.
I have mixed feelings about Carcassonne. The fortified old city is very striking, and the basilica inside is gorgeous. However, the interior has been entirely transformed into a desperate more-French-than-France cluster of tourist businesses. You can eat lousy meals, buy all kinds of Carcassonne-themed crap and take tacky tours within those stout walls. For stony fortifications and history, I prefer the working walled city of Valetta in Malta, or the tiny village of Minerve here in France.
I’m very fond of the pace of a cycle trip. You’re neither trudging along without much sense of progress, nor flying through the countryside in a car, disconnected from the sounds and smells around you. If I were doing the ride again, I might have actually started the ride at Gardouch or Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and carried on passed Carcassonne for another day or two. The paved surface out of Toulouse was welcome, but its suburbs were not.
I’m already planning another bike trip in the fall that will cover the westerly half of the canal, which would have us finishing near the Med at Sète.
The second and third photos on this page are by Monique.
March 18th, 2012, Comments Off
I’m an animal lover. That surprises a lot of people, but it’s true. I grew up with pets and mother who loved birdwatching. I’ve often thought that, in another life, I’d run an animal refuge.
One of the unexpected joys of living in France, then, is that I’m surrounded by animals. Our neighbour and landlord has two cats, a dog and a tortoise (named, creatively, Tortoise). One of the cats, perhaps weary of our neighbour’s young children, has taken up residence in our house instead. This is him sleeping on my desk:
In addition to the local animals, there are horses, ponies and donkeys in the fields that flank the canal. I usually feed one lucky equine my apple core when I go for a walk before dinner. Apparently there is a peculiar local practice of feeding one’s old bread to the horses, too. I haven’t tried that yet.
The plane trees along the canal are full of birds, and I’ve seen several species of ducks and swans. At dusk, they’re joined by flapping, looping bats that hunt insects over the water. There’s apparently carp, eel, perch and all sorts of other less familiar fish in the muddy shallows of the canal.
The most unexpected creature I’ve seen thus far was near this bridge, where I’d paused on a bike ride. I saw a mammal in the water–it looked like a beaver with a weasel’s tale. Knowing that Europe has very few beavers, I assumed that it must be a muskrat, or a very fat otter. I asked around when I got home, and it turns out they’re coypu or ragondin in French. They’re native to South America, but were apparently introduced to Europe by fur traders.
There’s also both an Australian and an African game park nearby. I think I’ll skip those, as I always find zoos a bit sad.
March 5th, 2012, 10 Comments »
- Face cloths
- Base board electric heating
- Automatic cars
- Ice in soft drinks
- Clothes dryers
- Hand sanitizer stations
- Paper towels in public washrooms
- Room temperature towels
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Semi-solid beverages like milkshakes and Slurpees
I’m about six months short of this blog’s tenth anniversary, so I know that every second reader out there has a cousin Philippe from Normandy, who loves Slurpees, washing his face with a cloth and Lincoln Continentals. The list is mostly tongue-in-cheek.
But I’m interested in how you experience a new place not only in the enormous differences (People constantly use words I don’t understand! There are vineyards everywhere! It’s sunny!) but also in the small and subtle ones. I’ve written about these changes before, like how in Malta there’s an ice cream season and fish availability depends on the wind.
You discern the foreignness of a place when you experience the prosaic details of your life differently. You’ll have lukewarm Coke, and moist hands leaving the bathroom and the like.
These sounds like complaints, but they’re not. Except for Slurpees. I miss Slurpees.
Because this assortment of minuses is replaced by an equally fascinating miscellany of new quirks. When I lived in Ireland, I discovered the pedestrian wonder that is the trouser press. In Morocco, I was both disgusted and delighted by watching the butcher, well, butcher a chicken right in front of my eyes. France is already serving up its own curiosities. The orange juice is better here. There’s a weird culture of motorcycles getting the right of way. Everyone greets each other in our little town, even the newcomers. The towels are warm.
Some days, the little differences seem to be the real source of a place’s foreignness.
EDIT: Some additional suggestions:
- Dinners out on Monday nights
- Enormous coffees to go
- Shower caps
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February 29th, 2012, 9 Comments »
Last weekend we cleaned out the back garden of our house. Renovations are just wrapping up, and the tilers had just finished their work. As such, the garden beds in the backyard were full of bits of concrete, red clay roofing tiles and other detritus. We pulled most of the junk out, hauled in some gravel and leveled the beds.
Our landlord pointed to those two big stones and said, “those are Roman.”
This sort of thing always blows my mind. Here are two human-made objects, likely more than 2000 years old, sitting in our backyard like a couple of discarded lawn darts. They may have been moved here at some point from a local abbey, or they may have always been here. But, of course, much of the world routinely interacts with very old objects. It’s totally routine to have some Roman rocks in your yard if you’re French.
When you’re a Canadian (with apologies to First Nations settlements), everywhere else is older than your nation. Traveling, therefore, routinely blows your mind. I’ve written about Dublin’s Museum of Natural History before, but I remember being shocked to discover that they have a stuffed rhinoceros on display that’s older than my country.
It’s a less spiritual experience, but it’s a little like standing next to a 1000-year-old Douglas Fir. It puts your life in perspective.
As for these Roman stones, we’re thinking they’ll look nice holding up some pots of begonias.
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