Friday, December 24, 2010

Adventures Part 7: France--Weather and Food

"If I'd known we were going camping, I'd've brought a different wardrobe."

I had rented an old stone farmhouse in south-central France for three weeks. DSL and I were pretty excited about staying there. It really sounds romantic, doesn't it? Spending weeks in the French countryside. Cows in the pastures. Hills dotted with small stone houses. But like most fuzzy, romantic idylls, this one didn't quite live up to expectations.

Limousin cows. Hardy buggers.

As most of you know, in early December of 2010, western Europe was hit with the coldest, snowiest early winter storm in recorded history.

That storm of course coincided with my and DSL's stay in the farmhouse in La Cote, France. La Cote is a blip on the map south of a slightly larger blip called Saint-Laurent-sur-Gorre.

The farmhouse? Shoddily restored, falling apart, leaky plumbing, dark, moldy, filthy from top to bottom. Oh, and unheated.

I suppose it all depends on how you define "heating." There was a fireplace. There was an electric radiator (wheels falling off) and a small electric blower, smaller than a dinner plate, with only half of the heating coils working. And that was it. DSL took the radiator into her bedroom and I took the noisy blower into my room (think hair dryer only less effective).

We spent our evenings around the fireplace and our nights buried under two layers of down duvets in our cold, dark, musty bedrooms.

We lasted ten nights in the hovel, each colder than the last. The persistent rain that followed us from Germany to France gradually turned to ice, then snow. Each morning we scrambled to bring in wood in the hopes that it would dry a little bit before we needed to start the fire in the evening. On a warm day, the temperature got up to around 2C. Our last night there, the outside temperature dropped to -6C.

We took this on our way out. We had cleaned the parts of the farmhouse that we used, cleared the snow off the car, packed it, and took a few seconds to take this last pic. Hovel in the background.

Yeah. No heat. It was a downright picnic, I'll tell you.

This is the one-lane road to the next village. I took this pic the morning we decided we'd had enough and that it was time to head north.

I braved the frigid kitchen each night to make us a nice meal and DSL braved it to do the washing up. By the time we left, it was colder in the kitchen than it was in the fridge.

DSL keeping an eye on the fire. I decided to move all of the candles in the hovel to the mantle and light them, partly for light and partly for the illusion of heat. The duvet piled on the couch to her right was one of a pair of them on bunk beds upstairs. We wrapped up in them in the evenings then carted them upstairs and put them on top of the other duvets already on our beds.

Our world collapsed further each night until by the end we were huddled in duvets in chairs positioned scant inches from the open fireplace (mentally praying that no sparks would shoot out and ignite the duvets; because we decided to keep the glass door on the fireplace open to maximize the heat we could get out of it, we totally trashed the wool rug in front of the fireplace with scorch marks from cinders popped from the fireplace). DSL worked out a system by which she positioned an array of logs all around us so we only had to dart out an arm from our blankets and select the next one for the fire.

I took this photo with a flash so the amount of light is greatly exaggerated. This room was never this well lit even during the day. By about the fourth or fifth day we had abandoned the couches for the chairs which we could pull up much closer to the fire. You can see iPads on both chairs (more on this in the next post) and two decks of Uno cards on the little table. I brought the table down from my bedroom as there was no table of any kind in the den area.

We ran out of firestarters the second or third night. We managed to get the fire started that night but the next day it rained all day and we were really struggling with the fire. I said, "We need some accelerant! Hey! There's some 2-stroke engine oil in this cabinet here!" We got the fire started with oil-soaked wads of cardboard that night but the next night they failed to do the trick; the wood was too wet even for petroleum products. Plus I was kind of worried that using the motor oil was dangerous.

So in a fit of frustration, I threw myself in to the car and drove not to St-Laurent-sur-Gorre--no, because that blip of a village wasn't large enough to have a market open after dark--and not even to the next village, Sereilhac, but all the way back to Aixe-sur-Vienne which was large enough to have a market open late (late for rural French village markets is about 8:30pm or so). I rushed into the store, went right up to a woman stocking some shelves, and in my horrible, fractured, pidgin French, said, excuse me, madam (never forget to be polite with the French), do you have "starting for the fire" which is of course total grammatical nonsense but "firestarter" wasn't in my dictionaries. She looked at me, and said, "le feu?" And I said, oui, oui, le feu! She took me right to the shelf of the things. I bought three boxes and rushed back home, hoping that DSL hadn't frozen in place in the time I was gone.

By the end of the first week, my eyes were gritty and red and I could hardly breathe from the smoke that filled the house every night. The smell of wood smoke and mold permeated everything in my suitcase. I am still washing some items in attempts to get the smells out.

I was talking to my mother a few days ago and told her that I was ready to walk out the first night we arrived. The place was that dirty and cold. At any point, if DSL had thrown up her hands and said, "I can't take another minute of this squalor!" I would have had the bags packed and in the car before you could blink. But she never did that! And I figured we weren't going to freeze to death as long as we could get the fire started every night.

[Note added 12/25: DSL reminded me on the phone last night that while we didn't have heat, we did have plenty of very hot water. We could take parboiling showers each morning--even if we did step out into a bathroom that was colder than your refrigerator when we finished. There's no way we would have lasted as long as we did without hot water.]

Yeah, it's a bit staged, but this is me enjoying a brief post-prandial stupor in front of the fire. I am utterly thrilled that I tossed my favorite fleece hat in my suitcase at the last minute. I don't think I could have braved the freezing kitchen every night without it.

What went wrong, you might ask? Well, in the first place, even though the absentee landlord of the hovel, a silly British woman, was a total ditz, it's still a case of caveat emptor. Lessons learned: cheaper is not always better, and if the ad says the place is "heated," you would be advised for winter rentals to ask how.

Cooking Under Duress

I've had plenty of experience cooking on whitewater rafting and backpacking trips so I know how to make good use of limited materials and equipment. But what I dealt with in the farmhouse was a challenge even beyond that. The food wasn't the problem, of course. I planned every menu and we shopped for fresh ingredients each day during our regular sightseeing trips out of the hovel. We ate very well indeed (and polished off by my count around 20 bottles of wine in 11 days, the evidence of which we dutifully recycled like good citizens).

Fresh field mushrooms that we bought at a "salon gourmand" in Sereilhac from the local boys who probably collected them.

The only knives that had an edge were two 2-inch paring knives. All of the glasses had greasy finger- and lip-prints on them. The pots were blackened lumps, none with lids. There were no staples in the kitchen, not even salt and pepper. We had to buy all of that--even a wine opener (I continued to use this handy device during the rest of my own trip so it wasn't a bad investment).

DSL with a container of local greens.

For our first night (of which I will tell more in another post), we had bread and sausage and cheese and wine. But after that, I pulled out all the stops. Here are most of our menus (we had leftovers a couple of nights):
  • Potato and leek soup with crusty bread and butter
  • White bean soup with carrots, onions, garlic and Cranberry-Orange "muffin tops" (I'll explain)
  • Sauteed blood sausage and spinach on pasta (not one of my better efforts)
  • Pork chops (not just any old chops but meat from free-range noirs cochons, the big black pigs they raise in France, bought from the guy who raised and butchered those very pigs) with field mushrooms sauteed in butter (bought from a couple of French Jim Bobs who very likely picked the darned things) and green salad with homemade dressing
The chop and 'shroom dinner. This photo was a bit staged as of course we never ate at the table in the kitchen. Far too cold in there. We ate in front of the fire every night.
  • Daubiere paysanne a la Denise (baked pasta and goat cheese) and green salad with cranberries
  • Baked chicken and haricots verts with crusty bread
  • Cheese omelettes (another failed effort, I'm sad to say)
  • Pasta with melange of cheese (all the remaining bits of the half dozen cheeses we'd purchased over the previous 10 days, to be exact), sauteed onion, and the remnants of the baked chicken
DSL looking forward to dinner.
    The "muffin tops" (christened thusly by DSL) were supposed to be cranberry-orange cookies, made with fresh clementines and dried cranberries. Baking soda is sold in pharmacies in France, not in grocery stores; the acquisition of that little box was an adventure unto itself. The problem was that I didn't have any measuring spoons. So I put in a little bit too much baking soda and those cookies got pretty darned puffy. They did look just like the tops of muffins.

    The cheeses were of course fabulous and I had quite a good time buying all sorts of crazy kinds just because I liked the way they looked. I have decided that Morbier is my favorite. That bit of mold running down the center gives it a nice bite. 

    We'd come in after a day of sightseeing of one sort or another, change clothes, and DSL would start the fire. I'd lay out the ingredients for dinner and pop open our wine (white for DSL, red for me). I learned that it was best to begin dinner right away because if I sat in front of the warm fireplace for even just a few minutes, the prospect of that frigid kitchen became more and more depressing.

    DSL with a glass of wine in front of a warm fire.

    Bad decisions make good stories.

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    Adventures Part 6: Trier, Germany

    Wow! It's been a full month since I last posted. I got back from my trip just a few days ago. The dogs were ecstatic. I thought Mimi was going to explode in a puff of white fur. And Harry wouldn't stop squeaking and squeaking. They jumped and crawled all over me for several minutes, Mimi even sneaking in a few licks even though she knows I hate that. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the storm of doggy greeting was over. Tsingy has obviously figured the dogs out, strolling into the living room to greet me in her turn only after they had calmed down.

    I called Upul every few days. It was a fine balance between having him think I was checking up on him and me wanting news of my dogs and cat. There were no major incidents.

    Since I abhor the solipsistic, navel-gazing nature of social networking "status updates," I deliberately chose not to post while I was traveling. I don't want the blog to become a commentary on the quotidian because frankly I find that kind of blogging boring and tedious to read. I want each post to have some sort of purpose (murky or stupid but purpose nonetheless). I thought I would give myself some time to digest the adventures I had on the trip and pick out the choice bits for you. And there are plenty of bits to choose from!

    I spent 17 days of the 26 days I was traveling with my friend DSL from Virginia. As you will learn, some of our adventures became the sort that either destroy or strengthen a friendship. She had the most amazing positive attitude through the worst of it and I am really happy that we could travel--and survive--together.

    It all began in Frankfurt where I met DSL at the airport on November 18. None the worse for wear for her trip out, we hopped in the rental, a sturdy Renault Scenic diesel, and headed west for Trier where we were to meet my mother and her husband.

    This short trip (four hours or so) established one of the themes of our adventure: navigation. I had my iPad loaded with GPS but wanted to hold out for an Orange microSIM, which we could of course only buy once we got into France (Orange is the largest telecom company in France; I did end up getting a prepaid Deutsche Telekom SIM for my phone so I could call Upul). All I had to get us from the Frankfurt airport to Trier were some woefully inadequate printed Google maps. DSL did a magnificent job as navigator even with such limited resources. The fact that we circled downtown Trier three or four times looking for the hotel certainly was not her doing. I told her, don't worry, I've got tons of maps for us to use in France, digital and paper. As it turned out, even good resources don't help much if you don't know where you are supposed to end up.

    It was cold and wet, either threatening rain or drizzling for our entire four-day stay in Trier. Here's a picture taken from my hotel room balcony.

    View to the northeast towards the Dom Cathedral. Note the slate roof tiles. Our hotel was next to the south end of the Roman wall that surrounded the town, near the Ponta Negra, an original gate in the wall.

    I didn't know at the time but this was really the calm before the storm. The literal storm. Weather quickly became another theme of our trip.

    One day, the four of us piled into the Renault for a short road trip to the old part of an old town called Bernkastel-Kues. We went there to see their Christmas market. The hot mulled wine was sticky, sickly sweet and I drank a couple of glasses because it was warm, certainly not for the taste! Our route paralleled the Moselle River, which is lined with vineyards that extend up the steepest parts of the hills and cliffs on either side. Here is a picture of a vineyard that was snugged right up to the town:

    The Moselle River is between the far hills and the town.

    I didn't take any pictures of the market. I think DSL did so perhaps I can add a link to her photos if she gets them posted on a public site. I found it a bit twee (but I am such a cynic anyway). I was expecting more food and crafts. But it was fun to wander around the narrow streets and window shop.

    One of the funniest events during our stay in Trier happened when DSL, my mother, and I went out to dinner. The small restaurant served a hearty northern German cuisine. Each of us really enjoyed our meals (I had venison). But the real surprise was the table of half a dozen Chinese and a German guy off in the corner. They were putting away white wine like it was water, emptying 5 bottles during the time we were there (clearly not their first bottles). And one of the Chinese guys was already down for the count, so drunk he was barely able to sit up on his own. They shuffled him off to another table and plopped a cup of tea in front of him. It was the usual laughs and such you'd expect from a group of drunk people...until one of the Chinese guys pulled out a harmonica and they all started singing (the German couple at the table next to us Were Not Amused although the three of us got the giggles immediately). I managed to capture "Jingle Bells" and a Chinese folk song. Unfortunately, I didn't get the highlight of the evening, "O Tannenbaum," which in drunken Chin-English came out as "O Tanneball."

    The cloud of disapproval from the German couple combined with the drunken singing of the Chinese group and the bemused look on the young waiter's face all made for a very fun evening.

    Trier is an old Roman town so DSL and I spent a day wandering around looking at walls, ruins, and museums (I'd highlight that as another theme but I figure you would know that walls, ruins, churches, and museums are a given when you are traveling in Europe). Here's a couple of pictures of the baths, which were never finished (which means, I guess, that they looked like ruins in Roman times too!). Still, with the grey sky and the rain, they looked suitably atmospheric and crumbling.

    The baths were integrated into the north end of the wall that surrounded the town at that time. DSL and I ate in a cafe, adjacent to the Roman history museum (highly recommended), that was built around and integrated part of the old wall.

    Another view of the baths.

     The Romans made bricks out of the local sandstone. You can see bits of the red sandstone in the mortar too. They also used large pieces of natural sandstone to build the baths as well as a church built by Constantine in 326 AD.

    We also visited some old churches. I find the trappings of Catholicism bizarrely inexplicable but some bits are fairly photo-worthy.

     Not sure I'd want this gruesome thing on my tomb for centuries to come.

     DSL marveling at the pipes of the organ which were suspended from the ceiling of the Dom Cathedral.

    Here is DSL taking a picture of the pink confection known as the Elector's Palace, started in 1615 and finished a few decades later. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we passed by. The interior is supposed to be even more raucously rococo.

    DSL and I stayed in Trier until their Christmas market started up on November 22. We spent the morning wandering around the booths, had a quick sausage and roll lunch, said farewell to my mother and her husband, and began our trek to southwestern France.