France etc. Sept — Dec. 2013

Part one

Writer’s block is real !

We went to France in September and I had plans of writing a weekly blog. It just didn’t happen— I made notes and kept resolving to do it the following day and then always came up with an excuse not to do it. So I thought that I would do it when I got back home to Bunyip. That was over a month ago.

Anyway, here goes at last. I am determined to sit here for as long as it takes to get some stuff about matters French (and Italian and Spanish) onto the page or what would once have been a page. Mine’s a tablet.

We were very excited at the prospect of this trip because it would give us the chance to enjoy the house and do the bumming around in France thing that we enjoy so much.

Some people have asked why we bought a house as opposed to renting where and when we wanted to. I guess the answer is that we like to have somewhere which has our fingerprints on it— decorated as we want it, with our art, books and music (and even our kitchen stuff) and wine. In short it’s a home and not a place just set up for renters. It’s a base from which we can travel and explore as and when we want to. It all makes perfect sense to us!

So. This trip we again took the Cathay Pacific Premium Economy option making sure we got seats opposite the bulkhead, which gives unlimited leg room .Tres important!

The flight (from Melbourne) involves a two hour stopover in Hong Kong after an 8 hour flight. Then a 13 hour flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle, landing at Terminal 2. The TGV trains go from a station at Terminal 2, so it is all very efficient. On the platform there is even a diagram of the train showing where your carriage is, so you know where to stand. We get the TGV to Avignon and pick up a lease car at the station. Melbourne to our French house is 30 hours. Not too bad In previous blogs I’ve talked about the wonderful TGV and the Renault/Peugeot/Citroen leasing deal.

The trip to Paris was painless, except that our checked in suitcase didn’t arrive.  But it got delivered to us at the house two days later and we know through previous bitter experience not to put anything essential in it. And because we have a house in France we had a change of clothes waiting for us!

Previously, on my trips on the TGV, I have observed that the coffee machine in the Dining Car tends to be “hors de combat”. This time, the machine may well have been working but the servery (in which the coffee machine is installed) was firmly shuttered with a note stuck on it saying that the staff had not turned up for their shift! Ah, France .

Again the weather was pretty wet and misty until we got beyond Lyon, when it fined up between Paris and Lyon the fields were an intense green, a colour we don’t see here So we arrived in Avignon. The car was waiting for us–a new Peugeot 208— and we headed for Sanilhac.  It was wonderful to get to the house where Loesje was waiting to welcome us.  She had opened it up, put flowers in the vases and survival rations in the fridge. Everything just great! Our house was warm and welcoming, everything familiar. We slotted straight in and of course I headed for our “cave” for a celebratory bottle of wine. Loesje filled us in on the local gossip and we discussed some little jobs that needed doing during our stay. The main problem is that the plumber repaired yet another leak in a bathroom caused by Raymond’s shoddy workmanship. He did this about six weeks previously but did not make good the damage he had done to the wall in accessing the leak.  He told Loesje that he was too busy to return and rectify it, then said he was going on holidays.  It was after all August in France!  He has not been paid and doesn’t seem to care, so I’ll fix the wall myself.

It’s really weird—- we have never had a bill from the electrician for the work he did over a year ago, despite a number of requests for one. Locals tell us that this is quite normal.

Loesje left, we showered and unpacked our carryons.  Then we put French SIM cards in our Ipads.  Funny how the world has changed—- 100 years ago we would have been seeing to the horses, not the computers!

Next we headed for wonderful Carrefour to stock up.

BBQ duck breast and a Fontavin Gigondas for dinner outside on the terrace in the crisp evening. What it’s all about!

Next day we played B+B hosts to two American couples who had booked the house at the last minute for two nights.  We stayed elsewhere and turned up to do dinner for them.

When we travel we like to have special little adventures planned.  Our house was booked for two weeks in October so we planned to spend one week in Italy, near Verona, looking at wine. There is a style of wine made there called “amerone” which is our absolute favourite and we wanted to see if we could source some. The second adventure we planned was to visit Aussie friends in the Dordogne (which we had never visited) and then drive across to Bilbao to see the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum.  And of course We had found a restaurant near Bilbao which sounded irresistable (and unpronouncable). It’s called Asador Etxebarre and they do all their cooking over wood. We also planned of course to visit some new French wineries and to do a couple of old car related things.

So our first real holiday in our second home promised to be quite busy (but with plenty of quiet time so I could write my blog—ha!) It was autumn in France and in the local vineyards the vintage (“vendage “) was on— huge picking machines in the vineyards and lots of tractors on the narrow roads towing bins of grapes. The tractor drivers are typically oblivious to modern traffic; they just do their thing at their pace—- I love it! The villages smell of crushed grapes as you travel through them.

And being autumn the “Chasseurs” (hunters) are everywhere. In France “la chasse” is a really big deal. The back roads and villages are full of Toyota type utes with cages of vicious hunting dogs in the back ,the drivers and their mates wearing camo (with a touch of flouro pink to be legal) and bearing shotguns. They are basically hunting pigs “le sanglier”, but nothing living is safe.

Janelle and I had planned to do regular walks this trip. There are great walks around the area. But we were soon talked out of it by locals. “you’ll be shot!”  We were told that la chasse is banned on two days a week, which apparently varies from area to area.

We were never able to find out definitively which the local lay days were and in any event, being France, the citizens probably ignored the restrictions at whim.

So the regular long walks in les Garrigues remained but a dream.

The pace of Sanilhac, our village, suits us very well. It is quite small, but stil a “living” village, with its boulangerie and bars, where so many now have no commerce. As in many countries the young people are moving to the big population centres and many villages are dying. It is sad to see. When I first visited France about Forty years ago my recollection is that even the small villages had a tabac, a charcuterie, a boulangerie and a cafe. Sanilhac is fortunate to have a thriving boulangerie/cafe/bar . Consequently the village has an active and social community.

Being a small village not particularly on the road to anywhere there is little traffic, so it is almost eerily quiet at night, which encourages good, long sleeps. After we have got up and attended to matters of “toilette” I wander the couple of hundred metres through the village to the boulangerie for our morning baguette. At the boulangerie there is usually a small group of local men — no women– having a coffee and cigarette while loudly discussing matters of moment. I usually buy Janelle a naughty pastry along with our breakfast baguette, then wander back to our house “bonjouring” everyone I encounter from kids to oldies. It’s very nice.

We tend to have a leisurely breakfast on the terrace in the courtyard and plan the day. Is there a market on? Do we need to visit Carrefour? Will we eat in or out tonight? Is there a movie on in Uzes? Is there stuff to do on the house?

You slow down.

After our delightful American guests continued on their holiday we had a week before the next guests were due.  Being autumn the vineyards were looking gorgeous with the leaves changing colour.  We headed for the winery in Fournes to catch up with our friend Annelie, the export manager and to stock up our cellar. Annelie very kindly invited us to a “Primeur” party at a nearby winery where we would sample the first of the 2013 wines well before bottling. The party was great — after we found it! In France, directions can be un pfetit peu vague, as these were. The party was at the winery. There were about 300 people at the party .The bar dispensed glasses of the new wine and there was a food area doing freshly shucked oysters, paella, charcuterie, sausages and chips. We lined up, dividing ourselves so we were in various queues. The concept of a queue is pretty alien to the average Frenchman, so it takes a while to get to the head of one because of all the people who just go straight to the counter and order loudly.

The disorganisation at the various food stations was magnificent!  The paella ran out early. The oysters were shucked to order by the only person managing the oyster station who just loved a chat while he shucked. The chip cooker, also on his own, would take an order, go away and cook the chips, come back and serve them to the patiently waiting customer, then take the next order, go away and cook it. Etc etc. at least the charcuterie was cold and sliced.  We sat at long tables and started chatting to our neighbours at the table who were holidaying from Norway, spoke perfect English and had a house in the village where the winery was. We had a very predictable conversation — “Australia is so far away” ,”spiders”, “sharks”.


To be continued—–  We visit Italy and Spain

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