Sunday, 26 June 2011

Driving to Church

It's been 39 years since I had a driving lesson. I haven't needed one since. I've been driving virtually all my life, manual or automatic transmission. I've even taught my daughter Laura to drive. But there I was, today, feeling as if I was a complete nervous novice. The temperature was a sweltering 31 degrees celsius.
I was driving a large unfamiliar car with everything arranged on the other side of the dashboard. But the worst thing was driving on the French side of the road. It's a lot harder than you'd think. The last time I drove in France (the only time, five minutes worth) was when I collected my ill-fated car for the first time and tried to drive on unlit country roads in an unfamiliar car. I wiped out a wheel and my miserable wallet. I certainly didn't want a repeat performance of that.

This time I had Jean-Claude beside me, in his big BMW, as instructor. He's patient, firm and tries not to get too nervous (he had a couple of reasons to but we got there). I had a tendancy to drive too far to the right and to drive too fast for my competence level (hence my previous accident). However with patience and attention I managed to improve my driving to where I was focused on keeping as close as possible to the centre line and keeping my speed matched to the situation. I SO didn't want to cause JC any problems by damaging his car or him. Next time I'll know better how to kick off. I find JC's car much too big for me but it's automatic, which I prefer. We took the back roads near Ymeray and Gallardon.

After my lesson we stopped off at Gallardon which, as you know, has the remains of a tower that was important during the Hundred Years War between France and England. It turns out it was the French themselves who destroyed the Tower because, at the time, it was in English hands. Near the Tower is the church of Saint Pierre - Saint Paul. It has an interesting history and interior.

The foundations were laid in 1003-1037. Various additions and amendments occured over the centuries and by the time the Tower was destroyed in 1421 with the villagers taking refuge in the church, the bare bones were finished and a bell was installed.

Later the church enjoyed additions, restorations of older work and the ceiling was painted between 1704 and 1711. There have been a number of tempests which have caused major damage eg 1728, 1788, and possibly 1999. The stained glass windows suffered greatly over the centuries. Many of them are missing now-it's too expensive to replace them.
Some of the carved designs and artworks that were set on the floor have been so worn-off over time they have had to be installed into the walls. There's a mix of Gothic and Renaissance design with a touch of Roman at the entrance.

A tiny free museum-exhibition contained some examples of ancient pottery (mostly with broken bits) which have been dug up in the area. It's interesting. Village churches can tell a lot about history and the activities of common people. Gallardon is small but it sacrificed a lot of residents to the First World War. Their roll call is inside the church.

That's the thing about France. Even small places can offer something fascinating to those interested in learning and understanding about life and events in the past.

Later it was time for me to go home. Once again, I'd enjoyed my time with JC. We'd visited his cousin in Mantes for an elegant french dinner where I understood a resonable amount of the conversation with everyone. Very interesting and convivial with champagne, red wine, politics and other key french topics in a beautiful setting. We'd done our individual workouts for fitness and had lunch outside under the umbrella in the heat, I'd had a driving lesson and we'd explored Gallardon. JC's a wonderful person and it's truly sad for me to say goodbye. I wonder if it's the same for him. Already I miss him and am looking ahead to seeing him again.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The end is the beginning?

On Sunday we departed La Rochelle with its three towers and colourful port. We collected the car and drove towards Ile de Madame to meet up with Alain, Gilles and our other cousin Michel.

This area at the mouth of the Charente gave us a view of the channel leading to open water; the channel the Comte de Paris took and was stranded on. We tried to identify the exact location but it’s not certain. There’s a low causeway accessible at low tide to the Ile which is topped by a fort. We inched our cars along the rocky road and then drove long the coastline looking at the intriguing fishing cabins installed at the tide-line. Some are large enough to sleep in if need be. Seafood and fish are important products from this area.

There’s an aquafarm and attached restaurant on the Ile. We made for that. Gilles had brought flags of NZ and France for fun. Working my way through the lunch courses and wines (plenty of that over this trip) and listening to all the French language swirling around me (much of which I couldn’t understand) I really felt like a tiny part of an important story.

As we were checking out, a French guy overhead that at least one of us was a Kiwi and started up a conversation. He and his friend were very knowledgeable about some of the All Black greats so thank goodness I could name-drop a few players from the past, even though I detest the sport. It was a very warm exchange between strangers.
It’s a shame the French know NZ rugby players but not about their country’s original foray into the South Pacific. The French government gave up on NZ which was their first choice for a base there and moved on to the Marquesas and Tahiti.

JC and I had to leave, which was a bit sad. Everyone except me is retired and their time is free to do what they choose but I still have to work and the trip back to Paris was a long one. There were lots of hugs and 'bises' and then an uneventful return journey. Once again a big thankyou to JC for helping to make this trip so much easier for me. This past weekend has been a milestone, memorable, precious and a special time spent with JC and my French family. I so hope we can all keep in touch.

In this last photo left to right: Michele and Michelle, Annick, Peter and Christine Tremewen, Gilles and Micheline Fornat, Alain Boussiron and me (JC behind the camera)

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Moments in history

La Corderie Royale at Rochefort has a fascinating history. Located alongside the Charente River it was a navy arsenal created by Louis XIV to supply and build his warships to protect his empire, to conquer the new worlds and bring back exotic goodies. It manufactured rope for rigging ships military and merchant. The process was laborious and required precision.
The building is 374m long sitting atop an oak base as the terrain is a bit unstable. It's so long because the ropes needed to be made 200m long for rigging and anchors.

Other buildings on site included a forge, powder store, foundry, drydocks for boat repairs. Five hundred ships and boats were constructed here until it closed in 1927. Rope-making for the navy ground to ahalt around 1867 as new technologies rendered it obsolete.

The Corderie was mostly destroyed by a deliberate fire set by the departing Germans in 1944. A tragedy. Admiral Dupont worked to have funds established to rebuild it. Work commenced in 1988 and since 1986 it has housed a museum and maritime training centre.

We followed up this visit by exploring the replica of the frigate Hermione, the ship on which the Marquis de La Fayette embarked in 1780, to bring help and support to the American insurgents during the War of Independence in the American colony. He seems to have fancied himself as a French version of George Washington-hero for freedom.

He harried the British and became a lifelong friend of Washington. La Fayette commanded the troops at the Battle of Yorktown and spent his life (76 years)in and out of political roles, saw Louis XIV succumb to the guillotine, Napoleon come and go and a new style of french government put in place.

His boat, the original of which was built at the arsenal, is being lovingly recreated with only essential nods to modern technology. Unfortunately the lengthy tour of Hermione was entirely in French and so I didn’t learn a lot but I was surprised by the large size of the vessel and the lack of reasonable space for men to live and die in. The cannons, gunpowder and arms took up a a lot of room. We all had to wear hard hats because the ceilings were so low. All through the tour I heard 'bonk....bonk...bonk' as visitors hit their heads unexpectedly.

Since its beginning, the construction site is a true living show place, open to visitors. Once the Hermione is fully completed in 2012, it is planned to sail again on La Fayette's journey, from Rochefort to Boston, via the Franco-American historical stops along the eastern coast « The Lafayette trip ».
We looked around the Ile de Re which is an island off the shore of Rochefort. The weather was wet and raining but we could still appreciate the little village which is full of tourists in the hot months. After that it was time to drive to La Rochelle and check into our hotel, right opposite the port towers.
Jean Claude and I spent the evening with Alain and Annick Boussiron at their home not far from Rochefort. I was so very tired and it was really difficult to concentrate on what the native french speakers were saying at times so opportunities for me to participate were very limited. Dinner didn't start until 10pm but was beautifully presented. Alain is a french cousin (more on the family story in the next post). It was a really treasured moment to meet him. He is regularly in contact with relations I've never met in NZ and France and Annick seems to have an excellent knowledge of her husband's genealogy too. Lovely, friendly and welcoming people. Tomorrow we'd be spending a special day with them and with another of my french cousins.

Photos show La Corderie, the building site with the Hermione, a statue of La Fayette, Ile de Re, La Rochelle at night

Monday, 20 June 2011

The journey south

It can take between 5 and 6 hours of fast driving to get between JC's place and Rochefort in the Charente-Maritime area, Atlantic Coast of France. Prepared for changeable weather predicted, I settled in to the journey, watching the changing countryside.
In the Eure et Loir region there are a lot of cereal crops being grown but as we got further South this gave way somewhat to cattle, maize and sunflowers. Ah those tournesols (sunflowers). They make incredible impressions on the landscape and it was so unfortunate that we were arriving about 3 weeks too early to see them in full bloom. They are grown for their oil. It’s used in the commercial production of crisps and oil for cooking.

The countryside also included, along the way, great files of eoliens (wind turbines) marching along waving their arms like white skeletons or benign Martian machines. And the cooling towers of Chinon nuclear power station. Hmmm.

The architecture changed too. Here the houses have orange-tiled roofs and lighter coloured cladding. It’s less massive and more Mediterranean.

I was here in the Poitou-Charente region to meet members of my French family whom I have never met, distant cousins. It has taken me years to finally be able to arrange a meetup. In a future post I will explain the fascinating history behind this pilgrimage over the weekend. So, for now, it's enough to say this is a part of France very new to me but not my ancestors and French cousins.

We were headed to Rochefort for the night but stopped off at Brouage which is further South. It's a medieval town with ramparts which was once bounded by the sea but like so many towns like this the coastline has changed over the centuries and silt and vegetation have replaced water.

The town was key for defence in the region with all the struggles against the British and French nobles with powerful aspirations. You can still see the ancient walls as well as the old graffiti carved by residents and visitors. This is the village where Samuel Champlain, the founder of Quebec in 1608, was born. The connection with the village and Quebec is celebrated in the stained-glass windows of the town church.
The town also harvests sea salt. It was now time to head north a bit to Rochefort.

We popped across the newish bridge and looked back at the old one. Arriving at our hotel next to the famed Corderie Royale we wandered around the older area of the city. I was particularly interested in discovering examples of buildings my ancestors would have known around 1800-1840, such as the old Marine hospital and other key buildings. This city has changed a lot over the centuries. It is no longer representative of its important past, La Rochelle has surpassed it, but there are still a few things to see.

We polished off the evening by dining beside the Charente River, a river of great geneological significance to me.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Dipping my toes

One of the hardest things to deal with in France is my lack of creative outlets and inability to pursue my previous leisure activities. I’m someone who has always been active in and outside of work with multiple interests.

In my youth I was busy with ballet, music, singing lessons with contralto Anthea Moller , violin lessons (I could have done without the sexual harassment though), theatre performances, modeling and acting in musicals and as a member of the Elmwood Players. Later, I took up piano lessons, guitar lessons from Phil Garland (a well-known folk singer at the time), had a pedigree breeding stud for cavies and competed with them in shows too, knitting, jazz ballet, crochet and embroidery, Beginner Japanese, model-making of spaceships (non-fiction and fiction) as well as other forms of transport.

Much later in life I was a keen member of Toastmasters International (ranked second in NZ for impromptu speaking 2007), was a film extra and kept fit by studying salsa and french jive (Le Bop) as well as bellydancing. That lead to costume design /making and performing Danse du Ventre/Raks Sharqi as a solo artist. All through my life I have been an avid reader, cinema-goer, pet guardian and most of all, gardener.

Sadly, the move to France has put paid to almost everything I enjoyed in my personal life. If it’s not a lack of money (almost always) it’s a lack of opportunities. My collection of books is so small now and I tend to have to read stuff in French as a last resort that I can’t enjoy reading as I once did. My books have been sold or given away and I can’t afford many new ones. English versions are very difficult to find here so I would have to resort to Amazon when the wallet approves.

There are no bellydance teachers within 47kms and I have no car right now so lessons of any kind (music or dance) are in the too hard basket. Living with an uncertain future in a studio apartment means I have no pets of any kind and there is no garden. The later is a really difficult thing to deal with. I have my window boxes and my herb garden which is lovely, but I yearn for a garden to design, work in, to leave the planet in a more beautiful state than when I found it.

My lack of outlets needs to find a solution. Working and sitting around in a one-room apartment is not enough for my happiness, intellect and mental health. Action is required; no good brooding and complaining too long.

I’ve started small. I asked JC if I could practice my dance choreographies on his outside terrasse. There’s no room in my studio. I need exercise for health and fitness and to keep the flab in check. So I went over there with my practice gear, CDs and portable stereo. Apart from the evening I put on for JC and some mini practices before-hand, I’ve had no dance lessons or serious practice now for almost a year. So there I was, outside in the open air, dancing with delight in front of the large expanse of lawn, the garden, the enormous trees while JC did his own workout upstairs. The broken concrete played havoc with my dance shoes so I need to find a solution for that. But my body was very grateful. Painful but grateful. I need to do this more often.

A bonus for me was JC taking me to a plant nursery over the weekend to choose plants for one of his languishing sections of garden along the house. I’ve been nudging him to do something about it as I can always see potential for beauty and how to achieve it. It’s nice that he gave me an opportunity to help him with his large property. He certainly helps me a lot and it was a pleasure to muck in.

Working with JC in his garden was a different experience to what I’ve had before in my life. He finds it unacceptable for a woman to have to do heavy digging or anything really physically demanding. He dug out all the old soil, mixed it with compost he’d made, fertilised and raked so that all I had to do was plant the plants, move some others and top up with any compost required. I enjoyed helping him choose the plants even though climate restrictions (the big freeze) are more limiting in Europe.

We discussed, compromised, agreed. I did not find myself doing all the hard work while my partner did his own thing. He likes to find the way of least effort but will put in whatever effort is required to get the best results. What a honey. We were both tired but satisfied with the results.

Dancing and gardening are back on the menu-at least in a small way. Maybe I can now find other interests too. I hope this tentative start will move things along towards new opportunities.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Napoleon's thoroughfare and balloons galore

I put my Pentecost long weekend to good use. On Saturday, after progressing my change of hair colour another step forward JC took me to Paris. It's the first time we've been there together as JC doesn't enjoy Paris much.

However, it's not too bad near the Champs Elysee if you don't mind paying for parking. At least you CAN find a park there and it's handy for taking a Porte out of Paris.

It was mid afternoon and I didn't really know what to expect as I've never walked the CE before. Of course there were the usual shops with the big brand names but also a lot of cinema complexes and what surprised me was that most films were Version Originale. That means they were in English with French subtitles. Normally it's really difficult to find such films but, clearly, the number of tourists and Parisians who communicate in English in this sector makes this worthwhile.

We made our way to the Arc de Triomphe at the Place de l'Etoile where so many main boulevards meet. There are no lanes circling around it, it's basically a free-for-all and rather dangerous. Pedestrians access the Arc and the other side via a pedestrian subway-very handy.

This day the old military guys were having a remembrance. A band with sousaphones was there, young army guys, lots of tourists. There was the eternal flame marking the tomb of the unknown soldier. The road circling the Arc was then stopped for traffic for a bit and then everything tool off again, including a very ancient Parisian bus in green livery.

Walking back up the other side of the Champs Elysee we came across buskers, famous restaurants and shops and a guy due to get married who had a novel way of raising funds for his wedding. He was asking for 1 euro donations. In return, you were given a condom (capote).Amused, JC donated a euro, received his condom in return and proceeded to wander up the CE waving it about in his hand as he tried to explain the sights to me. I thought that was rather interesting. No one batted an eyelid.

As we were nearing JC's home in Eure et Loir we chanced upon a 'herd' of balloons coming in to land. It was a beautiful sight, over the fields of barley and wheat as the daylight faded. One was really large and low and the folks aboard all wanted to wave to me. I returned the courtesy and had fun capturing the sight on my camera. I'd like to fly in a Mongolfier one day-serene, peaceful, beautiful and romantic. JC's already done that and thought it was terrific.

I enjoyed touching base with Paris again. It's been a long time. Next week I'm taking some time out to meet some members of my French family. I've never met any of them but the story is historic, part of NZ's special history and a very important part of mine. So we'll be off to La Rochelle and Rochfort in the Poitou-Charente region.