Monday, 26 September 2011

Culture on a grand scale

Last Friday night Jean-Claude and I went to a concert together, our first. It took place in the magnificent Cathedral of Chartres. The current cathedral was mostly constructed between 1193 and 1250.

What makes the cathedral special from an art historical viewpoint is its exceptional state of preservation. The majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact, while the architecture has seen only minor changes since the early 13th century. The windows were removed just before the German invasion of WWII and put back and releaded after the war.

Since at least the 12th century the cathedral has been an important destination for travellers -attracting large numbers of Christian pilgrims, many of whom came to see its famous relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ's birth. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So inside this enormous architectural and historic masterpeice, there we were, near the back of the church sitting on our uncomfortable little wooden chairs to listen to two hours of classical music. I tried to imagine all the events that must have taken place there-it's atmospheric and a good use of the facility for the community.

The chairs were arranged on the stone floor and the front of the Nave was lit for the tiny orchestra but there is no tiered seating so we couldn't actually see anything. As befitted the era of the music the orchestra was very small and there was a soprano - Noriko Urata, and a contre-tenor- Rachid Ben Abdeslam.

The evening was divided into two parts, the first was Stabat Mater by composer Pergolese. It reflects the pain a mother goes through when she sees her son die and was written in 1736 about the death of Jesus. The second part was the same death but from the perspective of the last seven words spoken by Christ on the cross and was completed by Haydn in 1787.

Religious stuff doesn't thrill me but I had religious instruction for years when I was young so I knew a fair bit of the context and words. The orchestra was very good and the singers were OK but not my cup of tea- too operatic for my taste. From time to time two tiny birds would flit very quickly over the orchestra, their little bodies catching the spotlight momentarily, quite charming. But it was very cold inside the cathedral, with no refreshments or comfort or even a view. JC had his telephoto lens on, walked boldly up the centre aisle and took some shots which you can see here. It was an interestiong experience but I think I'd like to try something a tad more comfortable next time.

The other cultural event of the weekend was the Rugby World Cup match between New Zealand and France held at Eden Park in Auckland.

In general I detest Rugby. I can't stand the fanatical religious attitude in NZ to this ballgame or the violence that can surround it (players who beat up females, the whole warrior Maori culture thing). I hate sanctioned violence. As I watched the opening to the game it certainly looked gladiatorial with each team coming out and the usual posturing and threats by the AllBlacks to kill the opposing team- that's sportsmanship...not.

I don't watch rugby games but I was in a completely different situation this time. It was NZ vs France. I have strong links to each country. This time I had to watch it with a French commentary. Fast, furious French back and forth between the two commentators. I understood some of it and now I know a few Rugby terms in French.

After 30 years of NOT watching Rugby games (except a test match in the mid 80s when I had to accompany my daughter's father to one- really boring, had to read a magazine for the opener). Yes, it has been 30 years and the game has changed. It's more polished, the techniques in the lineouts and scrums are different, the game continues now even if a player is injured. The players are pinup boys. They also get paid a disgraceful amount of money.

JC commented on the physical differences between the two teams: the AllBlacks seemed to be bursting out of their microfibre uniforms like incredible hulks, whereas the French were of a more athletic build and weren't covered in tatoos. The ABs are built like triangles and don't have normal builds although a couple of them seem quite attractive. The muscles are a bit over the top on some of the players. I could see the French had less power in the scrums and fumbled the ball a bit-their management was furious.

Overall I thought it was a good game without silly fighting or arguing about referee decisions. The AllBlacks deserved to win and I enjoyed watching my two favouite countries. It was interesting for me to watch this game from a different country; a bit of emotional distance between me and NZ, but I did enjoy connecting with my roots for a short time. We'll see if they can keep it up to win the World Cup. Final score was NZ 37 to France 17. AB Captain Richie McCaw had his 100th test match.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Outdoor Pursuit

A beautiful sunny autumn morning dawned for the start of the hunting season. I’d agreed to come along with Jean-Claude, his son Vincent and Vincent’s girlfriend Sondrine.

I was wearing old clothes, added to that JC’s oldest hunting jacket and a hi viz vest, topped off with my new hunting boots and I was armed with my camera. The men were armed with rifles. Around their waists were cartridge belts. Around their necks were dog ‘peepers’to whistle to the dog and electrical dog controllers which emit a small electric charge if the dog doesn’t do what it’s told. This is important for the dog’s own safety. I was impressed to see that JC follows good safety procedures with the vests. He also walks along with the barrel of his rifle open. This way he cannot accidently fire at someone or himself if he trips. I was told to keep one or two metres behind JC in case he had to turn and fire suddenly.

Baika, JC’s hunting dog also follows safety procedures. She wears two collars when on the hunt. One is a hi viz collar with something like a little mini cow-bell. In this way you can hear where she is in the undergrowth. The other collar has an electrical device attached which emits small electric shocks activated by the handler by remote control. There was one section of woods where one side dropped steeply to the road. It was dangerous for man and dog. If she did not respond to voice commands she would receive a zap. I’m not sure if that was necessary on this occasion or not. Baika is six years old and exercises her hunting instinct every day, hunting on JC’s property for rabbits, mice and ducks and anything else she can smell.

The hunt wasn’t really very organised. It was just the two men and us two women with cameras plus the dog. We set out down the road and walked about two hundred metres before leaving the road and plunging into the woods. After a couple of minutes we emerged on farmland. You get a lot of exercise on the hunt. I found the hunting boots an absolute necessity as I trudged along up and down sloping fields, wading through dense brambles and dead branches in woods, climbing up steep banks under old railway bridges.

At one point JC asked me to carry his rifle while he helped Vincent look for a shot bird down a slope. Jeepers. It’s heavy but not too heavy and I carried it barrel open with the cartridges showing. Sondrine decided that was too good a shot to miss and captured the moment digitally. From time to time we came across other hunters, some had dogs and some didn’t but none of them had safety precautions in place like JC and Vincent. One guy seemed to want to pose for me with his dead pheasant sticking out of his jacket. Hunting jackets have a big pocket in the back for kills. The dog finds the prey and helps the hunter flush it out. The hunter fires and may or may not hit the target. When the animal goes down the dog is supposed to find it and allow the hunter to retrieve it.

All morning I heard ‘sniper’ fire reverberating around the slopes. Those guns are loud close up. The men had double-barrelled rifles and cartridge belts around their waists. I didn’t feel unsafe; it simply sounded a bit like very loud car backfires though I knew it was the sound of death for something. The adrenaline surging through JC when a bird flew up from trees was very palpable. I was surprised to see that the birds struggle to gain altitude quickly. They seem like people who have fallen from a great height into deep water and must battle their way desperately to the surface and life. Really, though it only took seconds it seemed such a long time, watching the pheasants trying to get high enough into the air but with a double-barrelled rifle the hunter has the advantage if the first shot misses. Vincent was quite successful. He bagged two pheasants, a cock and a hen. I was so focussed on the plight of the birds each time, I forgot to take a photo.

JC didn’t hit anything which is normal for him. He told me his pleasure comes from watching his dog work. She would run along with her nose to the ground. If she smelt something interesting she’d stop and look. Her nose would cast around for what was there and where it was. In woods she would bound about like a gambolling lamb in the undergrowth, directed by peeps and shouts from JC and Vincent. At regular intervals JC or Vincent would let out a ‘woop’ which the other would repeat in the distance. This enabled them to know where each was for tactical and safety reasons. Once again, other hunters seemed rather lax in that.

It was somewhat difficult for me to enjoy nature. For starters, I had to keep up with the hunters so I couldn’t slow down or stop to look around and soak up the scenery. Also, the countryside is not that interesting. For the most part it looks empty (smart critters would have gone on vacation to a city). The woods are not all that beautiful or full of interesting plants and insects, birds or animals. I‘m used to New Zealand forests, woods, rivers, lakes and mountains and fields which seem rather more dense and interesting with their variety of living things. We did see a small deer dash [ast us but they need a special cartridge to bring them down and it was too close to the road. Nor fair for the animal or motorists so the men let it go.

JC pointed out where small deer had been sleeping, he seemed to able to smell where certain types of animal had passed by. That was rather impressive. Near a clearing he said the bad smell would be a dead animal somewhere close by. I couldn’t smell much but was happy to move on.

We doubled back and headed towards the creek at the back of JC’s place looking for duck, trudging through nettles and brambles, trying not to trip over parts of the disused railway line. The train hasn’t used it since the tracks were bombed during WWII. It’s overgrown with weeds and saplings but is easy for hunters to use. Vincent shot a usck at the water’s edge. Baika was told to jump in the creek and retrieve it. She had some problems handing it over so Vincent had to lean down and pull it up and wrap it in a plastic bag and shove it in his jacket. The duck didn’t look pretty after that, covered in mud.

Even in the fields and woods there is litter. It’s so unsightly. I can’t understand why someone would want to light a fire and leave cans and plastic rubbish bags, full and bottles lying around in nature. When JC was president of the local hunt club he organised the hunters to do a massive cleanup of the local countryside. They even removed old rusting cars. Their contribution to the environment I suppose. They also pay fees to hunt. Part of this goes to the landowners. Sometimes the hunters try to protect disappearing ecosystems. Each year they do a wildlife census to determine populations of species. This year one bird species and hares were on the ‘not to be hunted’ list.

We walked back to JC’s place and had a BBQ lunch of brochettes made the night before. These are metal skewers with diced vegetables and assorted meat- in this case, pork, beef and lamb interspersed with pieces of green peppers and onions. And fries, fruit and ice-creams. What an indulgence. It was a merry dining table with four adults and four children. The children had stayed back at the house while we hunted.

Vincent explained it’s not the killing he enjoys, it’s the childhood memories of the countryside as he re-encounters the sights and smells of his childhood. Each to his own means of nostalgia I guess. For me, memories of my childhood would need to involve my Grandmother and my pets and they’ve been dead for years.

I find the creatures in nature more beautiful when they are alive and not panicked. I don’t want to possess them. I eat meat, yes. I’m glad I don’t have to kill it. It was very interesting to go on the hunt and see what it’s all about but I wouldn’t need to do it often.

Sunday, 18 September 2011


This weekend was not conducive to doing anything outdoors. Very cool, wet and windy. JC and I were going to see Chartres and its cathedral lit up at night, animations, entertainments but it was too wet to even leave home. What a shame. Instead JC introduced me to ch√Ętaignes (sweet chestnuts). We’d think of them as a fruit or nut from a tree. The French don’t call anything that isn’t a Walnut, a nut.The prickly outer shell was nowhere to be seen when JC bought them from the supermarket. I’d seen them before but ignored them through my lack of knowledge and experience.

They can be eaten raw, roasted or preserved. They can be made into some sort of cream, flour, icecream. JC peeled one and gave me a piece to eat. It didn’t seem very appetising. It wasn’t. It’s edible but seemed like a very uninteresting attempt at being coconut. I couldn’t see the point of eating it, but apparently in the past it has been a diet staple for more mountainous areas of France, Ardeche etc- poor people’s food. Remember those old stories about people roasting chestnuts around an open fire? It still happens, but not often. Remember those old braziers in England or France, on the street where vendors would sell hot chestnuts in snowy weather? That is all extinct.

JC roasted some in his frypan. It takes quite a while. He put coarse salt in the bottom of the pan, not for flavour, he said, but to make it easier to turn them. It’s important to cut the bottoms off the nuts, otherwise they tend to explode when they get hot. They are ready when the insides puff out the end a tiny bit. Try not to let them burn. Warning, they are difficult to crack and peel in your hands if you don’t let them cool down a bit. To me they seemed to taste a bit like floury sweet potato or overcooked pumpkin with a certain graininess. They taste better cooked but for me there are tastier things than these.

One of those is home-made apple tart made from home-grown apples. JC has a tree laden with some very tart apples which are suffering from moth attacks and lack of sun. The solution is to pick some and use them. He has made apple juice for sauces and compote last winter. This weekend I decided to make an apple tart for us. I don’t recall if I have made one before and kitchen equipment is rather different in France so it was a bit of an experiment. I have NO recipe books of any kind now so I resorted to the internet. So many different recipes for Apple Tart (not Pie). I decided to just wing it using common sense.

Recently JC bought an interesting gadget for peeling and coring apples. It doesn’t look all that robust but it’s surprisingly effective despite its small size. You can regulate the thickness of the peel, it cores as you go and is easy to clean by running it under the tap (see photo). It peels and slices apples into a spiral so it makes that job of preparation very easy and tidy. I needed apricot jam for the glaze after cooking but there wasn’t any so I used a favourite French jam made from Mirabelle plums which has echoes of apricot flavours. It worked a treat.

When JC got back from his AGM at the local Hunt Club he thought the tart looked wonderful. What was even better, he said it was delicious (served with sweetened whipped cream made the old way, not from a can). Yep. A success, thank goodness as I was beginning to think I might be a hopeless incompetent in the kitchen department and it’s rather intimidating trying to cook for French people. It’s so many decades since I had any interest in cooking. I want to explore more sauces and tarts in the future. I shall try to let the seasons dictate what to make. That way I can have something new to look forward to each season.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

What can I rediscover?

As the anniversary of my arrival in France approaches I've been thinking about what to do with this next year. We all know what happened with the last one and there are events and experiences that I definitely don't want to include in this next year.

Apart from most weekends when I spend some time with Jean-Claude, I lead a very solitary life. I'm comfortable with my own company but that doesn't make it a happy time. I gave up so much to be here, now I think it's time I clawed a few things back. I mean human interaction and hobbies.

This is no mean feat for me in Cafeolait. Nice though it is, it's not as dynamic a place as I am used to and the choices of activities are very limited. Pony club? Stamp collecting? Classic cars? Sports? Nooooo. And then there's the issue of transport. I still think I'm going to need a car to be able to do all I want, though even a car won't be much use in the ice and snow. Hmmm

On the way home today I walked my bike a little further out of town to the Conservatoire Municipal. It's in a big old building. While I was waiting for someone to ask me what I wanted checked out options displayed on a wall: dance, music. Aha.

It's 39 years since I've played my violin. I still have it; though to be a beautiful copy of a Guarnarius. A violin is very portable. Maybe I could play in a chamber group one day. It'd take a bit of work. Unfortunately I discovered there is no teacher this year. I must wait until May and start a waiting list.

The dance options are limited too. There's certainly no belly-dancing. There doesn't seem to be any jazz. I'm too old for ballet. I was advised to come back next Friday with comfy clothers and test a class in Contemporary dance. I haven't done that before and I'm not sure if my decrepit body would cope. I'm not fit or supple any more. But I'm making a date with myself to at least check it out. The lady I spoke to there became very interested in me and tried to be helpful. She told me her name was Susanne so I said see you Thursday.

I left the place feeling happy. A French lady of a similar age was very friendly and interested in me. Yes, I need some friends, that's a goal for this year- to broaden my activities and circle of friends. Victoria's been at me to do it and the time is right. I just need a good outcome from my trip to the prefecture  to hand in my application to stay here longer. It happens tomorrow.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Chateau de Blois

The chateau sits right in the heart of the town of Blois with its rich history and art. The town is charming with many ancient buildings to be seen and the Loire River alongside. The impressive church is just across from the chateau which displays four different architectural styles through the ages: medieval gothic from the 13th C, Louis XII flamboyant from 1498-1503, Renaissance Francois 1st 1515-1524, Gaston of Orleans Classicism 1635-1638. Its diverse history spans 12thC – 20thC.

Over the ages it was badly damaged by the revolution, neglect, wars. In the 19thC it was restored, so most of what you see is not original and most of the furniture is from the 19thC too. I found this unsatisfying and confusing. However, I did enjoy seeing things in a facsimile of their original state.

My first port of call in the complex was the Hall of the Estates General, a vestige of the medieval fortress built by the counts of Blois from the 10thC onwards. It is the largest gothic hall from the 13thC in France today. I couldn’t resist sitting on the ‘throne’ for a quick ‘if only’. It’s old and run down. There are better in the chateau.

The chateau is built into the rock with a steep drop on both sides. A good defensive design. The tower has narrow slits for arrows to be fired through at opposing armies.

The Louis XII wing is built in brick and stone. The Fine Arts Museum occupies the former royal apartments on the first floor. This had an interesting collection of busts, plaster figures, ceramics and glass. You will also find a display on this site of broken parts of the decorations of the building. During the revolution, anything representing royalty was torn down, such a shame to destroy such magnificent sculptures and decorative parts of the exterior.

The Francois I wing was built only 15 years after the Francois I wing. It translates Italian ideas into French. The projecting staircase tower is embellished with many beautiful details.

Built by Francois Mansart for Gaston of Orleans (Louis XIII’s brother) the staircase is an impressive double vault decorated with allegorical sculptures. Catherine de Medicis has her initials and those of her husband Henry II painted all over the ceilings in some rooms. Henry IV has his rival the Duc de Guise executed in one of the rooms we viewed. We also saw a nice portrait of Mary Queen of Scots who was married to Francois II at the time. She came to a sharp end, you’ll recall; being executed for treason against Elizabeth I of England.

There are no real gardens to explore but the view from the battlements is very pretty. There are no audioguides or guided visits in English. You also have the options of visiting a magic museum. We found ourselves sitting outside the chateau at a cafe and suddenly golden dragons started 'menacing' us with sound effects too.

 We didn't visit the museum which may well have been as weird as the dragons but they were amusing.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Selinunte, Segesta and Erice

The ruins of the magnificent Greek city Selinunte are one of the most important archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. The temple ruins, remains of fortifications,, the necropolis and the urban layout show us a 5thC city. It fell to Carthage and Hannibal’s army in 409 BC. The city was destroyed and a cruel massacre of 16,000 followed, with an additional 5,000 inhabitants captured.

The Romans never reinvigorated the city and in Byzantine times a catastrophic earthquake dealt a death blow to what was left. It’s such a shame because its deteriorating more and more. It must have been a marvel.

Segesta was founded by the Elymians (refugee Trojans) who were in perpetual conflict with the city of Selinunte. It was an ally of the Carthaginians but was captured by the Syracusans in the fourth century BC. It was then taken over by Rome, maybe because of the legendary origin shared by Trojans, Elymi and Romans. It is thought that the Trojans escaping the ruin of Troy (in northern Turkey) settled in Erice and Segestra. It was then abandoned by them and destroyed by the Vandals. Once again, the Doric style of architecture is in strong evidence. And the ruins certainly encourage one to take photos.

Our last excursion in Sicily was to Erice, a delightful old town with a rich history. Here at last I saw civic pride in evidence. Flowers bloomed in unlikely places, homes had courtyards and gardens. The streets were very clean.

In general the old stone houses were in good condition and the view of the countryside from the castle was splendid. Erice had a lovely, homey feel and was a picturesque delight. Thoroughly recommended for a visit.

There were many other places we might have visited had we not been on a guided tour, but all in all I think we visited most of the interesting places and saw most of the best sights. We were challenged by the heat and the physical exertions from time to time and we met interesting people. I enjoyed spending quality time with Jean-Claude.

In summing up I would say get out into the smaller towns and stay clear of larger cities. Take a dip in the warm Mediterranean and make sure you go home with some good quality ceramics. I went home with a piece of lava from Mount Etna and broken pieces of pottery from two of the archaeological sites. Those pieces are probably 2000 years old but are only of curiosity value.

This trip was an unexpected treat for me and it has whetted my appetite to see more of Italy.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The roman Piazza Armerina and Agrigenta

The roman Villa del Casale is the most important sight in this region of France. This luxurious manor house of Maximianus Erculeus’ imperial family was built between the end of the 3rd and early 4thC BC. It enjoyed its maximum splendour between the 4th and 5thC AD and consists of a luxury home and garden complex with farms where slaves and procurators exploited the fertile land.

It was buried under a mudslide and preserved until it came to light in the 1920s and the work of excavating is still not quite complete.

The use of beautiful mosaics on the walls and floors is very impressive. The work was probably done by artists of North African origin. There is a music room and gymnasium for young females. It’s an example of the ancient origins of the bikini.

The massive dining room and hallway, along with the basilica are very interesting to view. And when you consider they had none of our modern tools...

There’s even a roman latrine for the family. Little seats and plumbing were carved into it. For me the highlights included the mosaics outside. To stand on these artworks 2500 years after they were laid is very special and they still retain some colour. Much of them are worn away but you can imagine how it would have been in its heyday.

The house and adjacent buildings are roofed over to preserve them and to make it more comfortable for archaeologists.

We moved on to the city of Agrigento and it’s ancient ruins

The Agrigento area has been inhabited since prehistoric times dating from the Copper and Bronze Ages. The earliest traces of the Greeks date back to the end of the 7C BC. Outside the city there is the magnificent Valley of the Temples. It is unique for the vastness of its views and the richness of the monuments.

The Temple of the Concord is a wonderful example of Doric architecture. It has survived in reasonable shape although the centuries have eroded the limestone structure and stripped it of its stucco coating. It was converted into a Christian basilica in the sixth century.

The Temple of Hercules has eight columns standing out of the original 44. It is almost certainly the oldest temple there. It was considerably restored in Roman times

The Temple of Hera Lacinia was built shortly before the Temple of the Concord. It was burnt by the Carthaginians in 406 BC and restored by the Romans. Near the east front is a sacrificial altar.

I was intrigued by the ancient olive tree standing alone near the Temple of the Concord. We were told it was almost, if not, 3000 years old. I gave the tree a hug. It was gnarled and much of it was hollow but there's still plenty of life left in it.