Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Changing decades

What a difference a decade makes and how our lives can be so altered from one decade to another. How have YOU celebrated your milestone birthdays?

This year I turned 60. Though it may only be a number there is still some significance to it. It suggests I'm not young and not really middle-aged either, yet not quite decrepit. I turned 60 in France. That comes as a surprise to me even now when I look back at those other 'milestone' birthdays and the events and effort it has taken to get me where I am now.

On my official 60th birth day there was no party, no restaurant dinner nor anyone to celebrate it with. I spent the day pleading with my employer to make an exception to the system and give me a job so I could stay a bit longer in France. The evening was spent alone watching an old DVD. That seemed a bit miserable to me so I told my boyfriend Jean-Claude we should have a joint party, a decade-changing party, since I'd turned 60 and he'd be 70 later in the year. He's not into parties and birthdays or Christmas but he agreed.

We invited 14 guests and 10 came on the day. A large number for us to cater for in the French style but intimate. I have almost no friends here but it was great to have a former colleague come to share the celebrations with us, and I know JC's friends. They are all lovely people our age. The challenge for me was planning and socialising entirely in French.

It all came together at JC's place on the day and the weather was superb. JC and I were flat out preparing French and NZ dishes. In NZ I'd have made life easier for myself by having things informal and buffet style but JC preferred things with a bit more formality.
I had prepared some Maggi Onion Dip from NZ via the UK. Everyone loved it with the raw vegetable crudites from my potager, the apple tarts, the pavlovas and chocolate brandy balls. the fruit salad, JC's roasted pintard (guineafowl) with vegetable purees. There was champagne and hors d'oeuvre, French cheeses, salad from the potager, raw ham and fresh melon. We were all well and truly replete after that and declared the day a great success. JC had regaled everyone with his story of the horrors of vegemite/marmite and explained it was totally repugnant to anyone not Anglo-Saxon. I'd have loved to have let everyone decide for themselves how it tasted but the jar is forbidden on JC's territory after he tasted it once.
I don't remember my 10th birthday. It was the final year at Bishopdale Primary School before I went to Casebrook Intermediate in Christchurch.

That's me 4th from the left in the second row, with the teacher who introduced me to the Narnia books by CS Lewis.

My 20th birthday was a non-event and I can't remember that either but my 21st was spent with my father and my future first husband in a restaurant in Christchurch. Just the three of us, me in a long dress I'd made myself. I was sad not to have the 21st birthday party most from my generation enjoyed, but my parents had divorced and had little interest in me. I was in my final year at Teachers College before heading to Wellington.

When I hit 30 back in Christchurch I did so alone, probably watching TV. I was separated from my first husband and living frugally, working as a part-time teacher in the private sector. I had decided I needed to change my life by the time I hit 30 so the week after my birthday I changed jobs and entered the world of medical detailing with a company car, the South Island to manage, selling, selling, selling. I toned down my hair style for that.

My 40th birthday was shocking. The father of my daughter, with whom I had been living with for many years sprang a surprise party for me at my workplace head office and it was the worst party of my life.The only guests in attendance were a couple of colleagues and the rest were my partners friends and family. None of my family or friends bothered to come and in the middle of it my partner proposed in front of everyone. Unexpected and shocking, as it put me under a lot of pressure and I needed time to consider the idea, (since the relationship was neither happy nor healthy) without the eyes of his family boring into me, showing expectations of a positive response. In those days I was sales and marketing manager for the luxury George Hotel of Christchurch but I was now living in Auckland.

Birthday number 50, in Auckland, was also a surprise party but a much better one. My second husband (not my daughter's father) went to a lot of trouble to hire a room in a restaurant and put together a slide show presentation. I thought that was great and friends came. What was left of my family were all down in Christchurch. It was like the 21st I never had and the cake was iced to reflect my hobby as a professional bellydancer. In this era I was a full-time student studying for my Bachelor of Applied Communication.

And as you now know, number 60 was spent in France with a French man and his friends, with me in yet a different career as a university teacher, teaching intercultural communication, and English.

Where will I be when I turn 70? What country will I be in? Will there be a special man in my life? What will I be doing - in retirement or still having to scramble for a job? Will I still be around? People start popping off around now though I'm not expecting to miss out on seventy years. Usually at my age life becomes more settled and secure but, clearly, mine seems to be au contraire. How are you getting on?

Monday, 8 June 2015

Hard labour

No matter what country we come from, where would homes, businesses and infrastructure have been without cobblestones, paving stones and mill stones? I live in a French town that specialised in supplying these products. But it meant truly hard labour for the employees, many of whom died earlier than they would have done in a gentler employment.

Epernon (in the Eure-et-Loir department) was, from the 19th century and even before, a town of sandstone quarries and millstones where more than 120km of material was extracted. At certain times, 40% of the population worked in open sky quarries where the production of these millstones would bring renown to Epernon from around the world.

 It was exhausting work for generations of quarry workers  for whom mechanisation arrived a little too late, in a time where all the quarries were already almost run out. The workers were suspect to various lung and hand maladies because of dust and stone splinters. Each building block and millstone and cobble stone had to be shaped by hand, carted by hand. What a hard job. All the wind and water mills, streets and buildings needed these products. The ancient quarries can still be viewed today via a self-guided walk through Epernon and towards Droue.
It was in prehistorique times this industry would first see the light of day. Later, Vauban (the King's great civic builder/architect) himself  chose the sandstone quarries of Epernon when Louis XIV decided to divert the waters of the Eure in order to make the great fountains of Versailles gush up. Heavy barges laden with stones went down the specially channelled Drouette River that flows through Epernon, to feed the construction site of the aqueduct at Maintenon - a three-storied aqueduct built to send water to Versailles but that was never finished because Louis ran out of money thanks to his war-mongering.

I'm a member of the local heritage society  and am currently translating some of their brochures into English. It's really interesting to learn about my neck of the woods and how it fits into the events of French history. It's also satisfying to make a voluntary contribution to local tourism.

A museum display is open to the public at the Conservatoire of Millstones and Cobblestones from the Epernon Basin.

23 avenue de la Prairie
28 230 Epernon

The conservatoire is open 01 May until 30 September
Visitors are welcome every Saturday 2pm to 6pm,
Sundays and public holidays 10am-12pm and 2pm until 6pm
Other days available for groups by appointment (10 persons minimum).