Friday, October 24, 2014

Finally, the Family; Finally

Pampa and the Pampettes, together again.
Maddie in her evening mode.
It's nearly 9 a.m. in Cordoba, Spain, and the Smith household is going full throttle. We got in, after yet another nearly full day of travel, yesterday evening and I can tell you that there is nothing superior in the human experience--mine anyway--than the sound, the look and the feel of a child running across a train station lobby, arms spread wide, yelling, "Pampa!" My heart melts.

That's what greeted me. Twice. Once from Madeline, once from Oz, her little brother.

Just an hour earlier, I was steaming at the ears because we had yet again had a train mishap. Our train was to leave at 5:35 and we simply missed it. By a minute. Even though we had been waiting for it for nearly three hours. Sonya managed to get another train to Cordoba 10 minutes later, arriving nearly an hour earlier than the one we had originally scheduled, but we had to pay twice.

The trip down from the South of France wasn't especially eventful, but it was beautiful. This part of the world is hotter than Florida, but its short trees almond and olive trees, high vistas, beautiful white or beige homes with terra-cotta roofs combine to keep it old looking and interesting. Saville was gorgeous, but Marseilles, an old Sailor's town with a rough reputation, was swirling with chilly wind when we got there. The ocean was rough.

Oz, the couch potato.
My cold is still hanging on (takes two weeks no matter what you do, a doc once told me) and the bronchitis is scary. There are periods when it feels like I'm not going to be able to breathe, but I suspect I'll muddle through. As you can tell from this first post in a couple of days, it's all left me drained and not especially good at writing, but I'm hoping that will come back soon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Southern France, a Home That is Safe

Olgica Chopra: 9/11 had a strong impact.
Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Olgica Chopra's father-in-law, who had lived in New York for 30 years, decided he'd had enough. He wanted peace and quiet and he would not get it there. Olgita, an art consultant in New York at the time, and her academic husband were asked to find a suitable place for him in France, preferably the southern portion where it would be safe, warm, remote and relatively inexpensive.

They landed him an apartment in Montpillier, a short distance from where Sonya and I spent the night last night with the lovely Olgita in the 400-resident medieval village of Durfort. Mr. Chopra apparently found what he wanted and Olgica (who is Czechoslovakian) ran into an irresistible project: a 14th Century apartment in what would have been a middle class section of a farming community.

The apartments are humble outside, striking when you pass the door, especially this one. Walls are nearly two feet thick and Olgita's is three stories tall with a magnificent bathroom that Sonya and I share. Olgita lives on the first and second floors and we share the second (bathroom and our kitchen) and sleep on the third.

Olgica is a tall, lithe, athletic woman with a regal bearing and an easy smile that has been used much. She is a kick-boxer, a runner and an art expert. She talks of work-life balance and natural living. That was out of balance in New York, she says, and spending time with her young daughter became more of a priority. She is the very essence of Southern France, from what I've seen, and I feel fortunate to have met her.

I'm not as taken with the bricks and mortar of Europe as many are, I'm afraid, but the people encourage me with their openness, optimism and genuineness. We have much to learn from people like Olgita.


I spent almost all day (20 hours of it) in bed yesterday with this dang cold. Went to the doctor Monday and he pronounced it bronchitis, something I haven't had since I quit smoking more than 20 years ago. It has been draining and annoying and I have eaten but once in the past four days. I'm hoping for a better day today. Tomorrow, after a quick two-hour run down to Marseilles, flight to Saville and train to Cordoba, I get to see Maddie and the gang. I can't wait. It's been a looooooong slog in Europe and I'm ready for some family time.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Time to Take It Down a Notch

This will be me for the next couple of days.
After trying to figure out what to do for this miserable and sometimes debilitating cold for the last couple of days, I think I have it. I'm going to rest. Take it easy. Sit outside with the birds and the cats. Drink some coffee. Wander the farm fields. Visit the goats. Watch for eagles. Nap. Take meds. Eat a bit.

I've been trying foolishly to keep Sonya's pace nearly 15 days and it simply does not work. She's 20 years younger than I and has conditioned herself for trips like this for years.

My inclination toward team play has gotten me into a physical mess, which is entirely my responsibility. Sonya is a big girl who can take care of herself and who functions well on trips alone. I'm having to learn all of this trip business and figure out how I fit best and get the most. I don't do either by wearing myself down and coughing all night.

I want to have some energy and good cheer when I see the grands this weekend and I want to enjoy Cordoba. It would not suit if I had to be confined apart from the group because I was contagious and it would not work at all if the airline refused to let me aboard the flight home early next week. So that's the deal. I'm done with adventure for now. I'm going to try being an old man for a while. A happy old man.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Day of Lively Diversion

The ancient abbey is richly appointed.
Today, I learned our farm mistress paints her chickens. Seems the purples and other colors don't bother the chicks, but they keep eagles and falcons at bay, wondering what the hell they're looking at. Jilly says she considered painting her white horse with black stipes, but couldn't find the black paint in the same spray cans that sheep farmers use to mark their stock. Comes in most other colors. Sonya suggested purple.

* * *

Anne Gauchet
I sat on a bench for a while today at the Caunes-Minervois Abbey about half an hour from the farm with Anne Gauchet and talked about ancient Roman archeology and translating highly technical information for organizations like nuclear power companies and IT firms.

Anne is a fascinating woman who is retired and lives in Carcassonne, a sort of capital of this small region. She is French, British and Dutch and caught my ear when she instructed Sonya and me to stand at opposite ends of what she called the "whisper room" and have a quite conversation. Our voices stayed at a whisper, but what we said was clear as if we'd shouted.

She invited us to go see her tomorrow. Hope we can work it in.

The old abby is an interesting place, though churches, especially Catholic churches with all their finery, are not my cup of tea. This one was started in the 8th Century and has been added on to over the years as political infighting and all the other side issues the church has found itself involved in moved past. It is richly appointed, as befits the largest private landowner in the world, and my guess is that most of its worshipers over the years were poor, even destitute.
An ancient bathroom throne.

We drove out through a couple of small villages on the way to the abbey and even stopped at what looked like an American flea market. I was taken aback by the wondrous old tools and the brass and copper items. I was not even tempted to buy anything. I'd have to get it home. And that ain't happening.

What did impress was the width of the streets the the towns. Some were--and this is no exaggeration--narrower than my driveway. But the locals drive them. We drove them. We were not comfy.

I'm still fighting a cold and it's getting late, so I'm going to bed. Toodles.

Even the village streets are decorative.
I will not say "Touchdown, Jesus!" Promise.
Wanna drive this?
Sonya in the Whisper Room at the abbey.

Gratitude: A Bunch of Things

Today, I am grateful for:

When I have a cold, it's difficult to find much to be grateful for, but I believe that is the time I most need to practice gratitude. So let me do this:

I'm grateful I get to see my darling grandgirl Madeline (and her family) in less than a week.
I am grateful that my cold is better.
I am grateful to be out of big cities and in lovely rural country.
I am grateful for the rich and natural welcome the French, Dutch, Scottish and Irish have given us. I am certain the Spanish will be their equal over the weekend.
I am grateful we are traveling by car for a while. I like the idea of mass transit. The delivery is not quite as invigorating.
I am especially grateful to be losing weight and not to be hungry. I'm having to force myself to eat. I hope that continues. I'd love to weigh 175 again.
I am grateful for this elegant old French home we are staying in. We move across the way in a couple of days to occupy one of the other buildings. It's pretty, too.
I'm grateful the goats here like me. I thought maybe the old black alpha male would whack me with his four-foot horns, but he's an old sweetie.

A Day of Solemn Recovery

This is part of the compound we're staying in. It's two doors down. Beautiful?
Yep. Even in France.
I took the day off yesterday. Like OFF. I slept a good portion of it, but did wind up walking for about an hour and a half and getting a few photos, all on the farm here.

Sonya drove about 30 minutes or so and found a narrow path up the back side of a mountain that overlooks a huge, sprawling, ancient castle. I was impressed she did the very difficult climb over a narrow trail (all roads in France seem narrow to me, even the footpaths). She was energized enough to cook a good dinner for us last night of salmon, pasta and grilled veggies. It was the first food I had eaten--save for half an orange and a banana--in two days.

You know, I've taken something like five major trips in my life and come down with a nasty cold halfway through three of them. I don't know what it is unless my body simply doesn't like being away from its natural comfort zone. In the future, I will limit my trips--providing I have enough money after France to take any--to a week. Not a minute more. That's enough for me.

We're going to venture out today to see what we can stir up. This place is simply covered with castles and small villages that are quite lovely. The country French people are as lovely as their surroundings, as well. I'm finding that I truly like Europeans because they seem to have a firm grip on what life means. I have no clue, but I like to watch them.

After about 10 days on the road, Leah Weiss asked me if I was homesick yet. "No," I said. I've discovered that comes on the 14th day for me.

Here's some of what I saw yesterday.
The grape fields are going into their fall color mode.
Individually the grape leaves look like this.
These sprigs held grapes.
When I was young, I built rock walls like this. Now I just admire them. It's easier.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cooling My Heels on the 13th Day

The building materials in France look fine, last a long time.
This has been a day of snoozing and reflection, trying to shake this sore throat and travel weariness. I sometimes forget how old I am and try to go at a teen-ager's rate of speed for too long. It catches me and forces a slowdown.

Who's your daddy?
The cold has had something of a good side effect: I seem to be losing weight. I haven't been really hungry since I've been here and yesterday I didn't eat at all. I've had a banana and half an orange today and it's nearly 5 p.m. Not a big hungry. But I'm loving the solitude. Sonya took the car and headed off on an adventure. My guess is she will find a castle with a gift shop and get lost in shopping for old stuff.

I've come to some distinct conclusions about travel, something I've ever much liked. I still don't like the travel. I do like the destinations, especially when they are like Northern Ireland and Southern France. The big cities are great for 24 hours. Not a minute longer for my taste. Far too much stress and hassle.

The people all over Europe--the ones we've met--are divine. We were struggling through the Paris Metro yesterday and several times, Frenchmen simply nudged Sonya aside, picked up her bags, smiled and lugged them up the steep steps for her without a word. Such a sweet gesture. Neither of us knew what to say beyond "merci," which didn't seem enough.
Can I eat these? Prob-ly not.

I will never pack big again, no matter what I'm told. Small is good. Small is excellent when you're lugging those damn bags through big crowds or trying to squeeze onto a subway or a bus. I have not worn half the clothes I brought, nor will I. I'm leaving half this crap at my son's house, so when I return, I won't have to bring much at all.

I will remember to take time for myself on a daily or every-other-day basis. Sonya and I get testy with each other because we both live alone and we're living together right now with people we're not married to or romantically involved with. Friction is inevitable and I think we both know that. Today's solitude has been a godsend.

I'm going for another walk. I think it could help my appetite and maybe when Sonya gets back, I can eat with her.
Freshly plowed fall field.
This is our charming living room.
Do goats really climb trees. Not so much.

A Return to the Tragi-comedy of All-Day Travel

This is our bungalo on the farm.
There was a point this afternoon when the tragi-comedy was swirling that I took out my note pad and began jotting this all down. There was an Laurel and Hardy routine sitting there waiting to be snapped up.

The farm's owner lives here.
This trip has had more snafus than the 8th Army, but this was ridiculous, Ollie. Sonya was standing at the Enterprise car rental counter in the small French coastal town of Brasiers (OK, cut the cute jokes), telling the clerk that we had walked half a mile uphill in the hot sun  dragging our ridiculous bags (I've learned my lesson, Leah; promise) to Avis. The Avis lady told us the car had been rented through Enterprise.

We trudged back down the hill to Enterprise where the clerk was away from the office--bathroom break, I'd guess--and upon return, he said he'd found the reservation but the car was at the airport--16 km away--and not at the train station where he operated. The cab ride to the airport was 30 Euros--about $40.

This old boy is part of a good-sized herd.
This came on top of what was already developing as The Day Hell Forgot. We'd awakened early (me 7, Sonya 8) this  morning so we could get a jump on the 10 a.m. strain from Paris to Aude Cathar County in the French wine country. We had rented a half of an old house here for a few days and were looking forward to getting out of the city, the stress and the unaccustomed large crowds. I knew this was going to be a slog.

First, we had to go half a mile through complicated Paris streets to the Metro. That meant arranging and carrying all that baggage. It meant climbing flight after flighty of steps at the Metro station. It means pushing the bags out of the train before we were trampled and getting a seat on the high-speed train before it took off. All doable, but we'd be cutting it close. That, of course, translates to stress, a constant companion on this trip. We finally got it all done. Sonya has said more than once, "It ain't always pretty, but I always get it done." Yep, true so far.

Just up from our bungalo.
So, we are totally tied up on the train for four hours arriving in this amazing county and we begin the absurdly complex trek out to the farm, where grapes and a number of animals live with an Englishwoman named Jilly, her son Oliver and her Iranian husband. Off the road and on the way to the farm, my jaw dropped and stayed there. Tomorrow morning, I will take the camera out. Tonight, I'm simply too tired and the light is gone. Sonya took me out to the front steps a bit ago to look at the stars. I'd forgotten there are so many.

LET ME MENTION that on the way to the South, we continually came across France's dependency on fuels other than oil, coal and the like. We saw huge nuclear reactors and giant wind generator farms all over the place in this wine county. France is just so damn civilized.

IT'S SATURDAY now and I took a bit of a walk this morning to get some photos in the glorious South France light, but alas, it's overcast. I'm still feeling puny, so I asked Sonya to head out on her own today and I'll stick with the farm, do some hiking here and try to catch up with my cold, which is keeping me up for much of the night. My guess is that Sonya will enjoy a day of solitude and privacy. I will, too. Close quarters like this cause a strain on even the closest relationship. I once spent 10 days on a sailboat in the Bahamas with some very good friends and by the ninth day, we could have all killed each other. This is Sonya's and my 13th day.

Scenic, but not especially useful.
The kitchen window.
The black dude's brown buddy.
This is the lock on our front door. Love it, or what?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

One Final Look at the City of Light

It was an overcast and gray day in the City of Light today, but what we saw in downtown Paris was anything but dull. It is, indeed, a lovely city, one of a kind and its charm and allure are undeniable.

My first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower was almost breath-taking, although I have seen it thousands of times in photos and film. The real deal is, as Sissy Spcaek once said of Loretta Lynn ,"Real real."

Our day revolved around seeing rather than doing--although getting around is a pretty good case of "doing." We had a couple of requests from friends to take photos of "a perfume factory" and "a used bookstore," which I did, and to "bring me back some Paris dirt," which I gathered at a huge garden in downtown. My pals should be happy. I also picked up goodies at both Chanel and the Shakespeare Bookstore for the writer of the two.

We ate a wondrous late lunch at a small bistro across from Notre Dame (I never could find the football stadium) and I don't believe I've ever had a quiche that was in this league (salmon). I also had my first French croissant. It was out of this world.

Don't have much time to write tonight because we have to get ready for the trip to the South tomorrow. Here are some photos of the sights, sounds and faces of Paris today, including one from a wondrous food market on the street we ran into accidentally on the way home. Enjoy.
The Eiffel Tower stands watch over the City of Light.
Pampa at Chanel, Mecca to many women.
Shakespeare Bookstore across from Notre Dame.
Pampa does a book-look.
Paris cops are everywhere.
Sonya walks through the outdoor market which was noisy, colorful and wondrous.
Boats on the Seine.
Pampa eats his first croissant
Smoking girls near the Seine.
Sonya in Chanel showroom. This place is the essence of glamor.
Shoes for the rich.
Mom helps a little girl.
Style of the street.
Chanel shopper scores.
Even the fences are special in Paris.
Motorcycles are everywhere.
Eiffel from the Plaza.
Another exotic vehicle.
Lovers beside the Seine.
This Californian said she was trying to blend in, so nobody would suspect she was a tourist. She did well.
Street merchant in downtown Paris.
Tourists trying to find their way.
Downtown lunch.
I love this old man's look.
Sweeping out the street near a cafe.
Portraiture downtown.
Waiting for the light to change.
Old lady driving fast.
Guess where she's from?
Bet you didn't know I love redheads.
One last homage to Paris.