Tuesday, November 27, 2012

La Langue (Language)

 Why can’t I remember the meaning of “rater” (to miss, to fail), “chuter” (to fall, drop), “mensonge” (a lie) to name a few?  I try to grasp enough meaning from the news to understand what’s happening with the UMP (union pour un mouvement populaire--the party of the right) as a result of the recent election of its president, which has been challenged by the opposing UMP candidate.  It dominates the news day (journée) and night (soirée), and I sit here with my handy dandy Larousse electronic dictionary, which I carry with me everywhere I go, struggling to find the word before it escapes my memory.  By the time I find it, of course, it’s virtually useless because they’ve moved on to another complication of the issue.

There are really simple everyday words I can’t keep in my head, like the world for basket or lampshade or spatula.  I’ve never claimed to have a good memory.  While my son might be singing along to a popular song, I have to hum.  While my husband explains the period of architecture of a certain chateau, I can only remark on the materials used in its construction. 

And worst of all, I find that while in France, my English is beginning to suffer.  I can’t seem to find the words—never mind rater or chuter.  Even when trying to describe the green and white discs on the outside of the package, I am reduced to pointing my finger because the word “zucchini” is far from the tip of my tongue.   Quel horreur!  What horror! 

The written and spoken word, however, are dear to me in a way that other pieces of information are only auxiliary.  I don’t mean to say they’re less important in the total scheme of things.  They’re just less important for me to remember.  And anyway, my husband is usually there to supply the facts.  He’s like a flesh and blood travel brochure.

I struggle and learn and occasionally remember.  My conversations with the French seem longer and more nuanced.  I consider it a victory if I can get through a conversation without witnessing that “what the hell did she say?” expression resulting in a break in the dialogue to explain what I’m explaining. 

I imagine by the time we leave France, I will have managed to achieve some level of comfort in the language—just in time for me to forget it all until the next time.  In the meantime, I will persevere.    

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Les Landes

Moliets-et-Maa is in Landes, one of five departments that make up the province of Aquitaine.  Landes’ western edge is the Atlantic Ocean.  Stretching right to the sea are forests and more forests of pine trees that were planted just over a century ago in an effort to tame the shifting sands and swamps of the area.  Prior to the taming of the sands, the postal carriers and the shepherds walked the land on stilts--the most efficient way to traverse the swampy land.  Landes still holds competitions requiring stiltwalkers to pick up something from the ground without getting off the stilts.  Imagine.  Moliets sits in the trees right at the edge of the ocean. 

The roads between villages stretch on for long distances and are bordered with bike and hiking trails and pine forests.  The pines are harvested and replanted constantly so the road moves from one forest of tall trees to a sudden barren patch of land.  Then farther on, what would have been barren land is full of small pine trees.  And the cycle continues.  Amidst the trees are ferns--thick blankets of fronds completely covering the ground at the base of the trees.  They’re an interesting contrast to the towering spires—all growing in very symmetrical rows and spaces.

South from Moliets is a string of beach towns that fill up in the summer and empty out in the winter, just like Moliets.  When we arrived here, there were two restaurants still open.  On Armistice Day, we had lunch at Chez Vincent, the last of them.  Vincent and his crew had enjoyed a bit of bubbly to celebrate the last meal for the season and thought a lobster would add a festive touch to our photo.  I think the joke was actually on the lobster.  Now the road to the ocean is completely deserted but for the occasional surfer, hiker, stroller.  Most of the apartment buildings are empty and there is a ghost-town-like quality to the area.  The town away from the beach continues year-round with its tourist office, post office, boulangerie, tabac, etc., where one can access the very basic services. 

Next hole
Moliets sports the sixth-rated golf course in France.  Designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., the fairways are nicely kept and present a challenge for the experienced golfer.  The surrounding woods provide a beautiful backdrop to two beautiful courses.  The golf course is always busy and we often take the 10-minute walk over there for coffee and to use the driving range.  Golf is a year-round activity and unaffected by the calendar.     

When we first arrived here, we noticed cars stopped in unexpected places and people wandering around the ferns in the gulleys between the road and the bike trail.  They carried plastic bags, straw bags, boxes—all wandering around with their heads down.  They were mushroom hunters.  The French love their fungi.  Pharmacists are trained to distinguish between edible and less-edible fungi; and all but the most experienced mushroom hunter would usually take advantage of that service or perhaps suffer the consequences—illness or worse.  At one pharmacy I noticed a full-window poster with pictures of the good and bad mushrooms for those days that the pharmacy is closed.  I’d rather trust the person than the poster. 

These days we see duck blinds going up in the middle of fields and far out in the swamps—loosely-formed boxes covered with a mish-mash of branches looking as if they might collapse if a light breeze comes up and surrounded by fake ducks.   Just as we heard in the Vaucluse, one day we began to hear shots fired in the woods and saw the occasional pack of dogs crossing the road followed closely by hunters.   I haven’t seen any deer or moose tied to fenders so presume they’re hunting fowl.  Partridge?  Pheasant?  Certainly geese and ducks—the non-domesticated kind.   Nearly daily we pass a farm raising geese for the regional foie gras (no translation necessary, I presume).  They have free run of a large field and are joined by many mallards, presumably freeloaders, that should stay put at this time of year if they know what’s good for them. 

In Hossegar and Capbreton, the largest towns to the south of Moliets, oysters are raised in what they call le Lac (lake), actually a sea-fed bay, which experiences the daily tides.  When the tide is out, the oyster bags are visible on the piers, and the oyster farmers collect them or turn them to ensure good circulation of water.  Also at low tide, the bay enjoys a variety of sea and other water birds—great blue herons, snowy herons, cormorants, and the ubiquitous sea gull.  On the mudflats, fishermen dig for worms.

We go to Hossegar (pronounced hoos-a-gore) and Capbreton for all our necessary services—supermarket, cobbler, lunch.  We have a favorite restaurant along the water in Capbreton where the food is good and the proprietor is friendly.  A new supermarket recently opened up (hyper-marché) where we can buy pretty much anything we want.  At this time of year, the weekly markets are skimpy and not worth exploring—often consisting of one vehicle with six or seven boxes of root vegetables and little else.  The distances between towns are littered with rond-points (roundabouts), and there are no “straight shots” we might prefer.  There are, in fact, nineteen rond-points between our apartment and the hyper-marché in Capbreton.  That’s a bunch of rond-points to maneuver for a package of toilet paper or bottled water, so we plan carefully.  In the summer with all the towns full of summer visitors, that drive must be maniacal.

Landes is geographically very different from anywhere else in France.   Like other areas, it has its medieval churches, its tastefully-decorated rond-points, its chateaux, its friendly people, bullfighting rings, and thermal spas.  What makes Landes different is the interior of the area--sparsely populated but for the trees—and the ferns.   

Sometimes, however, sparse is magical.       

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


My brother-in-law’s mother’s family comes from the Pyrenées area of France.  I was motivated to see if I could find some trace of that family while I was here.  We went in search of Esquiule—an almost unpronounceable, but lovely little village east of Bayonne and southwest of Pau.  The Michelin atlas highlights particularly scenic drives with heavy green lines.  We chose to take one of those routes to Esquiule and to explore the countryside.  We had lunch in Orthez, which sports an interesting 13th-14th century fortified bridge over the river Gave de Pau.

French on top, Basque below
We climbed up to a ridge line high above the valley.  Lagor sits right on top of that ridge, and the road through the center of Lagor falls away on both sides with houses here and there below the road.  With little navigable throughway, it’s a wonder how they ever built the town in the first place.  The views were colorful if a little scary here and there.  We dipped down into Mourenx and returned to the ridge through Cardesse and deep into the valley to Ledeuix and Oloron-Ste-Marie--famous for the production of classic French berets.  We continued on the “green route” past St-Pée-d’en-Bas (just north of St-Pée-d’en-Haut) to Esquiule.

Madame et Monsieur chatting
Esquiule has little to distinguish it from other small towns in the area.  We pulled into town on Esquiule’s one-way street—the only route through town.  Gathered at the center of town in front of what looked like the only commercial establishment—a café—and the church were a few men talking as men have a way of doing in the afternoon—when they’re not gathered on a boule court.  I approached one of the men to tell my story and since he had never heard of the family, he took me to the much older man and woman standing in another group.  The man and woman repeated the name aloud and changed syllables to produce familiar names; but they had no recollection of the name I spoke.  When I brought out the date of birth, he perked up and suggested we follow him to his “ordinateur” (computer).  We did as instructed and crossed the street, following him through the unlocked door of his home, down a dark corridor where he hung his beret on a hook, right into the main room with a dining table and fireplace and into the room with the ordinateur.  That room served as the reading/writing room, the bedroom, the toilet, the 
bathing room and, evidently, the communication center. 

Just as Madame came in and plopped herself down on one of the beds for a mini-rest, he sat at his computer and opened an Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of names separated into ranges of years.  Her head popped up and down, encouraging us to sit down around the table while her husband did his work.  She was interested in where I learned my French as I explained my long-time interest in the language and the country.  She seemed pleased.  We were more a novelty than anything else. 

Monsieur pulled up the section that included birthdates in 1891 and scrolled down to the “Js” where he found, miraculously enough, no fewer than five people—three of them siblings and one of them, perhaps, a cousin.  I photographed the screen after he struggled to print out the page and after biting my tongue from saying “Si vous me permettez. . .”  (If you’ll allow me. . .) so I could highlight the page to print.  He then turned to weddings and found another.  But there were no deaths, which might indicate that the family deserted the town before anyone kicked the bucket. 
Monsieur l'Organiste

We got a photo of our helpful gentlemen who happens to be the organist at the church nearby and clearly the keeper of the town’s records.  He told me that he put that list together over the years using what information already existed plus announcements in the paper—a labor of love, it appears. 

After Madame established that my brother-in-law’s family was Basque about which she was pleased--this being Basque country to the core, we said our thank-you’s and crossed the street to walk up to the church on the other side of the café.  The town is small enough so that the cemetery is between the café and the church itself.  A small cemetery, I wonder where they buried all those citizens who lived here so long ago, though maybe most of them left with my brother-in-law’s family and died in other parts where the cemeteries are larger. 

The church is remarkably fancy for a town of this size.  The church/chapel was first built in 1641 and then reconstructed in its present form from 1875-1880.  The wooden beams are painted blue and red in a regular pattern.  The large pipe organ was replaced in the early 1990s and sits in the choir loft at the back of the church.  Around the nave of the church are two stories of balcony above the main floor topped with a barrel-vaulted ceiling also painted in blue, red and white.  The ceiling in the high altar is a stunning blue with gold points and highlights.  There are several stained-glass windows and crosses of the Knights Templar, which protected pilgrims on the walk to Santiago de Compostela in the 12th through 14th centuries.

On our walk back to the car, we passed the pelota court (pilota or eusko pilota in Basque), which was, of course, nestled in the town center next to the church, cemetery and café and across from the Le Mairie (town hall).  No boule court here.  It’s Basque country, if you please. 
Organist's house first after flags of town hall

Driving out of town, we looked back to get a glimpse of the town and the snow-covered Pyrenées in the background.  What a view.  As we turned the bend at the edge of town between two farms, we nearly ran smack dab into a lovely cow, followed by his owner and dog.  We all had a good laugh—except the cow. 

We finished our tour of the area, leaving Esquiule and the ridge on a one-lane road that passed homes and farms scattered here and there, pulling over to give the right of way to a piece of farm equipment or creeping by another that had pulled over for me.  France is one of the most automotively-civilized countries I’ve ever driven in.  Very few horns, attention to yield signs (and there are gazillions of them) at round-abouts (and there are gazillions of those, too), attention to temporary traffic lights installed where there’s construction in the road, passing on the left—ALWAYS—and then returning to the right lane—ALWAYS.  I digress. . .

This is yet another physically breathtaking part of France.  I’m sure we’ll never run out of them

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When Life Throws you an Orange. . .

On our way to the Orange store, we agreed that we would seek out someone who speaks English in order to make sure we got what we needed without misunderstanding.  A few days ago, we purchased a portable internet “hot spot” called “Let’s Go” (Coffret prêt-à-surfer).  With that little piece of technology shaped much like a much-used bar of soap and the size of a deck of cards, we can be on line wherever we are in France.  Between the purchase and today, I had a long conversation on Skype that sucked the power right out of that hot spot, so we were forced to go in search of more power.

We arrived at the Orange store where the greeter remembered us from the prior visit (not always a good sign).  I glanced over his shoulder through the store in search of the person who helped us the last time and whose English was so good.   Since he wasn’t there, we were paired with Claire who was finishing up with someone else. 

“Finishing up” doesn’t always mean “I’ll be with you in just a sec’.”  It means “I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done with this person and am not making any promises about whether it’s a second or a half hour.”  We stood around until Claire came back to say that her colleague, Celine, would be able to help us.  Neither Claire nor Celine spoke English, though both were very gracious and friendly.  So we were forced to make ourselves understood and make sure we understood the information in French.

One of the most important reasons for this trip is to improve my French.  I draw the line, however, when it comes to technology.  All too often, I’ve heard “It’s easy.  Just plug it in/charge it up/stick the thing in the thing.”  Alas, it isn’t really all that easy.  So after about 20 concentrated minutes of explanation, pointing to the computer screen and the piece of paper with numbers on it, and an exchange of 25 Euros, we left the store with what we understood is additional time.  Sure enough, it works.  I’ll have to admit, though, that there was a lengthy discussion of certain numbers associated with the SIM card and how long the SIM card would be validated that I could not explain to anyone else on pain of death.  I just hope that I won’t need to know that information without standing inside an Orange store next to an English-speaking employee.

For the moment we’re on line.  And I’ll have to admit that I walked out with a sense of euphoria at having survived the challenge without resorting to some kind of meaningless gibberish or having a nervous breakdown.  What I do in the name of technology. . .