Friday, March 8, 2013

A Series of Firsts

I've had a lot of firsts since arriving in Normandy.  I'll share a few of my favorites, or rather, a few I won't soon forget.

1.  Riding a horse: I'm pretty sure I rode a pony around in a circle when I was little.  I think it was some kind of field trip.  Or maybe that was a dream I had.  Either way, I'd never really been on a horse until coming here.  My fascination with horses has grown; what started as a vague interest mixed with a hint of fear has turned into more of an affectionate liking.  I remember just walking in the horses' field while they were in it for the first time.  I kept watching them over my shoulder, waiting for one to come trample me.  Two did get rather frisky then thundered by us.  Then the time came for me to climb on top.  Alex was a good teacher.  I helped her groom and prepare them for an hour before, then I got my helmet in place and led Madison outside.  I used a short concrete wall, and after a quick briefing, heaved myself up and over.  I looked around, smiling, feeling unexpectedly comfortable and relieved. Alex led Madison and me into what she calls the school, a small track of sand, then as the situations arose, she explained how to communicate with the horse.  I practiced telling him to go, stop, turn left, and so on.  She gave me some directions, then I did my best to coax Madison through them.  After a bit, Alex called out, "Okay, great! Do you want to try trotting?" I just said yes, not wanting to sound stupid for not knowing exactly what trotting meant.  She used her little whip and gave Madison a command.  He started trotting along (I realized quickly what trotting means), and I bounced easily in the saddle.  We made a few laps around then slowed to a walk.  Alex exploded in her congratulations for us both.  I did one final test leading Madison around the sand, then we called it a day.  I flung my right leg over his enormous backside, then slid to the ground with a stomp.  I thanked him with a lot of pats and a few treats.

(These photos are courtesy of Ed)

2.  Watching cows being milked: This was one of my least favorite things.  When Ed and Alex were out of their stock of local cream, they asked if we'd like to accompany them to refresh their milk pail and have a look at the milking process.  We both were curious.  The dairy farm nearby milks by a system that's about as close to doing it by hand as anyone does around here.  We dropped in on a Friday night when the teenage son was finishing up his last few lines of cows.  He wore a rubber apron with sleeves and giant green Wellies.  Splatters of thick white liquid dotted the back of his neck and chest. We walked into the barn and were immediately faced with a huge silver vat with pipes extending from it in several directions.  We walked into the next room into a stench so foul I thought I could feel my hair curling.  Half of the room contained the milking equipment, the rest housed the lady cows.  In the front portion there were two main lanes for the cows to enter, running parallel to the barn walls.  Each lane then had eight perpendicular stalls for the cows to stand in.  They stood staring at the walls, and the milker waits in the large open area between just one story below.  In his hand he held a bottle of disinfectant with the top grooved inwards just perfectly to fit over the teats.  The boy shoved the device onto each utter one by one, then clamped each utter in four places with what looked like a gas mask with four tubes.  This device connected up to the pipes running along the ceiling and into the tank in the other room.  If the cows were ill or on any medication, a switch was flipped to send the milk off to be dumped.  After all the udders were clamped, a rhythmic pulse began throughout the lines.  Some of the cows stomped around a bit, one released an enormous amount of urine, with the boy just out of the splash zone.  When the pressure in the tubes changed drastically and for a certain period of time, they released automatically.  When all the tubes had released, the udders were disinfected again, then freed.  Another lot filed in soon after and so it went on.  After one line, we had seen and smelled enough.  The rubber suit and fluorescent lighting added to the eerie feel of the barn.  We stepped outside and began gulping down the crisp, clean air.

3.  Eating escargots:  Pushing the nearly full shopping cart and half-jogging to keep up with Alex swerving through every aisle, she called back, "I've just got to find the escargots." She noted my reaction immediately and said, "What you've never tried them?" Well, of course not!  A few nights later she said she'd be making a dozen as the starter, and we were welcome to try one.  I agreed to one and only one.  Kyle did, too.  She came out with a silver plate shaped like a snail with a dozen shells coiling into the center.  Oily green sauce bubbled out of the openings.  Warm olive oil and garlic filled the room as she divided the steaming snails.  Following Ed's direction, I used my two-pronged fork to pluck the mass from inside the shell.  It was so hot I could barely steady it between my fingers.  When it finally came out, I stared at it for a minute, asked if I was meant to chew or swallow it whole, then popped it into my mouth.  The chewy texture reminded me instantly of mushrooms, which is all my brain would allow me to accept.  It really tasted like a chewy, garlicky mushroom.  Thank God.  I had another for good measure, then sopped up the extra oil with a slice of baguette.  Certainly not the worst thing I've tasted (thanks for the sloppy joe pancakes, Mom), I don't think I'll be ordering them anytime soon!

4.  Dining in a traditional French workman's cafe:  There are two cafes in the village, one visited by office workers and another by more grisly manual laborers.  We went to the latter, owned by the neighbor's uncle.  There is no menu; he cooks one meal a day, usually consisting of four courses and complimentary wine and cider.  Depending on what sort of day the cook is having (what is it they say about him..."he has a liking for the bottle"? or something like this), the food is either marvelous or mediocre.  We walked up to the house with nothing more than a "Restaurant" sign displayed out front.  After a maze of doors, we came to the main dining area, just big enough for two large dining tables and two smaller ones.  We seated ourselves, and the cook's wife came in to take our order.  Well, it was either a cold meal of leftovers from the previous day, or the hot meal he was preparing that very day.  We all took the hot meal.  She served the cider, wine, bread, and butter.  Out came the starter, on a tray at the woman's shoulder level.  She leaned forward to display the four plates, and all the meals of Korea came flooding back.  Minus the head and tail fin, half of a herring on a bed of potato lumps plopped onto my place mat.  The fish was cold and marinated with many of the smaller bones still contained.  I chewed cautiously and focused on getting as much down as I could.  It tasted pretty good, but something about cold fish makes me hesitant.  I washed it down with a glass of cider.  Next she brought a roasting pan with basically roast beef, whole potatoes and carrots.  We served ourselves then chewed the dense meat with the accompaniments, dill pickles and spicy mustard.  We nearly emptied the pan and cleaned our plates with extra slices of bread.  Ed started pouring glasses of wine, and after we had our fill, the woman cleared the dishes and brought the cheese plate.  Again, we helped ourselves to various hard and soft cheeses, with the mandatory Camembert among other less memorable wheels.  At last, she cleared this and brought a tray of dessert choices, apple tart or egg creme.  The crust was soft and buttery, and the apples tart.  I didn't taste it, but Kyle said he enjoyed the egg creme.  Everything was washed down with coffee. The food was decent, but the interesting parts came after. 

As we ate, we were surrounded by tables of men in work clothes, dirt and grime coating their fingers that only a week away from work would fade. Their gazes followed us as we walked in, then quickly turned back to their meals.  When we started talking, their necks turned again at the sound of a foreign language; Alex was translating everything for us.  After awhile they became bored with us and generally seemed to forget we were there.  Though we hadn't so much as exchanged a word with them, they all nodded and mumbled "Au revoir," on their way out.  As we were finishing the last of our courses, the husband cook and wife waitress came out with another worker or two and sat at a table behind us.  They dug into their pickled herring and nodded our way.  The cook's nephew is dating Alex's daughter, so they made a few jokes about that.  It was strange to hear such a range of voices speaking French and so gruffly. One man had a deep, raspy voice that almost sounded painful to use.  The cook's words were barely discernible.  One large man got to talking with Ed about horses, so the cook grew bored.  He looked around at the rest of us until his eye's landed on me.  I tried to look away quickly without being rude.  Please don't speak to me... Please don't speak to me... (I'm not even confident saying, "I don't speak French" in French).  He gargled out some phrase, and my eyes grew wide and apologetic.  I did my best to paint a clear expression on my face as I looked to Kyle, "HELP."  Kyle just smirked and looked over at the cook.  He answered the man's initial question, then chuckled explaining that I don't speak French.  No one could understand what we were doing in a small village in Normandy unable to speak French.  I suppose if I ran into a person in Wadsworth, OH who couldn't speak English I'd be pretty confused as well.  We thanked our hosts graciously and returned to the car for the short drive back to our work at the hedge.

Believe it or not, we were served at an actual restaurant in these clothes

Shadow and Gin hoping to tag along
 5.  Witnessing (and assisting) a calf being butchered: Alex's back was bothering her, and last time they got their half-a-calf from the butcher she said Ed asked too many questions and got everything disorganized.  She said she'd rather take me to help label the freezer bags and sort everything out.  I figured I may as well season my life experiences as much as possible while I can.  We drove for awhile down curving, bouncing single-lane roads then pulled up to a small house.  We backed up to one of the rear barns, then unloaded our supplies: three sizes of freezer bags, pens, plastic tubs, and twistie ties.  We pushed open the barn door slowly where a man with an enormous knife and a plastic apron stood half-squatting as he pulled chunks of flesh apart.  He reached for a decent-sized hand-saw and started sawing through bone.  What appeared to be a quarter of a calf's carcass lay on the table in front of him.  Alex chatted to him quickly in French, then we set up on the table next to him.  There already were about 3 or 4 rows of varying cuts of meat displayed.  It was cold and damp in the barn with a faint smell of raw meat.  Alex began organizing immediately, instructing me what size bag to pull off and what to write on the label.  A system emerged quickly between us; I listened and wrote, handed her the bag, then she filled it and pushed it aside.  When the present pile ran out, we twisted up the bags and stuffed them into the plastic tub.  When that filled up, I heaved it into my arms and staggered out to the car for a replacement.  During any spare second, I peered over my shoulder at the butcher, memorized by his work, hardly aware we were even present.  Some of the cuts Alex only knew in French, so I asked politely for a spelling.  I scrawled words like, escalopes, poupillets, shoulder roasts, roasts with the bone, chops, and so on.  I soon got into the job not unlike the butcher, rhythmically tearing bags, writing, and holding tight to the opening as I spun the thing closed.  Then, thud! A huge mass dropped out of the butcher's hold onto the table right in front of me.  I think a splatter of blood hit my cheek.  The calf's face, with all the important organs plucked out, stared into mine.  Pale, folded flesh and ears were just at waist level.  Alex started laughing immediately, I suspect by the look on my face.  I relaxed and laughed, too, though I can't say I'll soon forget how startling it was.  Since then, I've been threatened with the calf's hooves, brain, head, and other things loosely labeled as sweetbreads.  I tried the escargots; that's enough for one trip!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

British Englishisms

My old high school friend and college roommate taught me how to impersonate a British accent.  I remember pretending we were British during one particular weekend in New York City.  We'd walk around talking too loudly saying things which required very deliberate pronunciations like, "Excuse me, which way to St. Patrick's Cathedral?" or "I'm rather bored.  Shall we leave?"  We used British English textbooks while we taught in Moscow.  I decided to intensely hate British English after that, having heard enough educational recordings in British accents and seen enough lessons teaching "have you got" as a proper phrase to set me for life.  However, Ed and Alex have made quick cures of that hatred with their witty humor and (what sound to me) entertaining colloquialisms.  I've decided I like British English again. Here are a few words and phrases I particularly like:

One of our first days here Alex asked if I had enough warm clothes or did I want to borrow a jumper?
Excuse me, a dress? The kind my mother used to make me wear with those weird shoulder straps on overalls??
No, a jumper is just a sweater.

Kyle and Alex at the trotter races

Alex kept updating Ed on the dogs and their training, etc. throughout the day with the word "lead."  She said, "Well, Brigit is scared of the horses, so normally she wouldn't follow us through the field out to the hedge.  However I put her on the lead, so she had no choice but to join us."  For days I thought this was some sort of dog hierarchy, like let her be first in line or something.  No, again.  It's just what they call a leash.

Gin and Shadow checking Kyle's technique
There's a theater in the area that plays American films without French dubbing.  Alex told Ed, "Oh well, it seems we missed Lincoln.  It was playing last weekend.  Now it's.... something.... Django Unchained."
Ed replies instantly, "Oh wow! Why now that's cracking!"

Every day around mid-afternoon Ed says something to the effect of, "I'd quite fancy a tea, would anyone else?"

Ed and Gin on the Utah Landing Beach
 The first day Ed let us bring the horses in the from field into their stalls, Jack (the one with his separate pen) came in last.  We came upon Ed talking to Jack, "Hello there Black Jack, why you're a cheeky monkey aren't you?"

This one isn't particularly British, but funny nonetheless.  On our first day here, Ed walked us around the property, pointing out which field was theirs, which fields they were renting out to other farmers, and so on.  He knows quite a bit about the flora as well, and he likes to call our attention to ash, oak, hazelnut, and other trees.  We came upon one large oak, and he said, "Now this one is dead.  Someone tried to save it by trimming away the dead branches.  You can see where they trimmed because instead of a nice new branch, now there's... well, these little... hmm... well a sort of beard growing around there."  He looks back at us seriously, looks directly into Kyle's beard then says, "Oh, sorry..."

Kyle and Ed after a long morning chopping wood
 While we were driving along the Brittany coast, Ed got to talking about his past travels.  He has a group of friends he goes sailing with a few times each year.  He got really animated and descriptive with his stories then cut himself off saying, "Well yes, you see, I'm rather mad on boats."

The old bag Brigit walked in with her paws just covered in mud.  Alex hadn't noticed, but Ed saw her as she tried to sneak through the door.  The most disgusted look came over his face as he called out, "Oh my GOD! Blimey! Would you look at her!"

Brigit sitting like a lady with her paws crossed
 When we clank our wine glasses together they say, "Chin chin!"

We're just going to pop over to see the neighbors for a bit.

This new batch of cider is smashing.

Do you like mussels? I'm quite keen on them.

This house is full of hand-me-downs, nothing posh.

I've just got to go to the loo, then I'll be ready.

Did we have this soup last week? No, it's been at least a fortnight.

We're happy to have dessert whilst you're here.

Would you like more water? Yes, I'll have a spot.

If Poppy's the last one in she'll get cross.

She had been in London at the time as it were.

Everything on the telly in England right now is rubbish.

Well, he's rather daft, now isn't he?

I'm going to muck out the horses, will you help?

How do you keep your trousers so clean?

I'll take the lorry to pick up the hay bales.

Oh bugger, I've burnt the cake!

Ed and Kyle hard at work in the woodshed
 Kyle and I make fun of each other because we've picked up a few of their usages.  American English just doesn't use the word 'proper' enough.  For example: Out in the mud, you need a proper pair of Wellies.  Let's have a light lunch, then I'll make a proper dinner.
We also say "quite" in just about every other sentence.  (No thanks, I'm quite full.  I'm actually quite tired.)
We take our tea "white," or with a splash of milk.

Our hosts Ed and Alex

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Saint Malo, France

After arguing with Gin (remember the big black guard dog?) about his not being invited, we slid into the Land Rover and took off down the one-lane road.  The sky was clear blue and the sun was beaming through the windows.  Roxanne, Alex's daughter, attends veterinary school in the UK and had been in just for the weekend.  We were driving her to the airport, followed by a sight-seeing trip to a city called Saint-Malo (clicking the name links you to the Wikipedia page).  During the ride, we chatted on about the hedge we had worked on over the weekend and the delicious meals we had all shared.  Roxanne educated us on the livestock in the passing fields.  After an hour or so we could see far off in the distance the foggy outline of the famous Le Mont Saint-Michel.  We wouldn't be visiting the island this trip, but it was quite majestic looking even from afar.
The airport is so small we didn't even see signs posted until about 1 km away.  We said our goodbyes then pulled back onto the road.  The sun continued bursting through pockets of the trees as we began approaching the region of Brittany.  Suddenly the rolling hills, miniature trees, and plotted farmland changed into stretches of deep green valleys and rugged cliffs that plunged into the sea.  Saint Malo is entirely walled-in and surrounded by the English Channel.  We found one of the two entrances through the wall where Ed dropped us off to explore.

We decided to climb the nearest staircase and walk the wall in its entirety.  We stopped soon after we reached the top for sandwiches Alex sent with us, ham, pickle, and butter on crusty baguettes.  The wind was blowing crumbs from the bread, but the sun and constant movement gave enough warmth. 

The views were incredible.  Small waves crashed along the varying shorelines, some dotted with jagged rocks, others long, smooth, and consistent.  Several small castles and other buildings completely encompassing other small islands in the Channel where within view.  Gulls were sweeping through the air, then diving into the water, often coming up unlucky.  The already blue sky was put to shame by the intense color of the water. 

Each curve of the wall yielded a new viewpoint.  There were several monuments and open grassy blocks to relax in.  Some sides showed only a short beach with water straightaway.  Along one side numerous sailboats lined up in rows.  Peering through the collection of masts you could see another strip of land built up with plenty of seaside rentals, shops, and other buildings.  We walked by pairs of joggers and dog walkers, a surprisingly decent crowd considering the brisk air.

French Explorer Jacques Cartier

We made our way around the city in under an hour and still had another to spare.  We walked along a path that shot out into the water and watched birds swim up to us.  I swear, about 4 or 5 different species of rather normal-looking birds were swimming under water for extended periods of time.  We started exploring the narrow brick streets, darkly shadowed by the grid of edifices.  We passed butchers, bakeries, cafes, candy shops, pastry shops, boutiques, food carts, and tour offices.  We bought a little cellophane bag tied off with a bright orange ribbon that was filled with handmade nougat.  After another little while we stopped at a sandwicherie and shared a long baguette stuffed with tuna, wedges of egg, and homemade mayonnaise.  We eased into a park bench within view of our common meeting point, then soaked rays of sun into our only exposed skin, waiting for Ed.  He had spent his afternoon eating mussels and chips, reading, and doing Sudoku puzzles.  He had planned a scenic drive back to Le Mesnil Veneron up along the coast, hoping to get a few more looks at Le Mont Saint-Michel. 

I haven't been to California, but the drive along the Brittany/Normandy coast on a perfectly sunny day looked to me what a drive along the Pacific coast might reveal.  There were huge cliffs, great white sandy beaches, and more rock-filled islands in the distance.  We drove for long stretches along the water until we hit a small dollhouse of a village with perfectly designed little cottages and not a sign of weathering or aging anywhere.  We stopped a few times along the way for a breath of fresh sea air and to walk through the soft white sand.  We caught a passing glance of Le Mont Saint-Michel on our way back to Normandy just along the highway. I could lie and tell you about the way the land morphed back into the rolling hills and plots of farmland, but the lull of the car and warm heat put me into a comfortable doze the rest of the way home.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Week One on the Normandy Farm

"Come on! Help me get this down!" I urged Kyle to get our luggage from the overhead compartment to depart from the train.

"We still have at least 15 minutes before we even slow down.  Relax, would you?" he replied impatiently.

I was so excited to meet Alex, the French portion of the English-French couple we agreed to help out for the next three weeks, that I'd already been to the bathroom three times, once for its proper use, and the other two to smooth down my hair and moisturize my skin from a damaging day of travel.  When we finally unloaded, I started on slowly, not wanting to barge through the station searching the greeters' faces.  I had only seen a few pictures of Alex, but we spotted her rather quickly, smiling warmly and grasping a black leash attached to a giant black-colored collie.  We exchanged hellos, and she explained that Gin is their guard dog, understandably wary of strangers.  She thought she'd give us a chance to meet him outside his territory and give him a head start on becoming accustomed to us.  He glared at us through his chocolate brown eyes, then we headed for the car, a large black Land Rover.  I walked around the car a few times, trying to sort out which seat to take; the steering wheel was on the right side of the car.
After all the gray and cold, we were finally greeted by blue skies

 We chatted the 20 or so minutes back to the house, a huge stone building, once serving the village's manor family.  There are two huge stone barns, and several large fields.  As we pulled in, two other dogs barked and ran along the tires, anxious to see their owner's face behind the wheel.  Gin burst out of the trunk and continued eying us suspiciously.  The other two dogs leapt at our feet, tails wagging furiously.  Brigit, the fluffy mutt, took any rubs and pets she could extract.  Shadow, the husky-German shepherd mix, pranced around sniffing us down all the way to the door.

The sun was shining brightly, and we were happy to leave our heavy winter coats inside.  Ed came to greet us in the kitchen, just as warmly as Alex had.  His soft eyes and traditional English accent (and sense of sarcasm) won us both over immediately.  The couple showed us around the house first, then the grounds with the dogs sprinting to catch up to each new location.  The bottom floor is split into two main parts, the front half for daily living, the back half unfinished with paint cans, packed boxes, and other things necessary for finishing the house.  It was a shock at first to see the dogs covered in pond water and dirt traipsing through the house, but the house really doesn't feel dirty, so to speak.  The upstairs is finished, more or less, so no dogs allowed.  There's a kitchen Alex is constantly cursing about, as she doesn't yet have cabinet space and just recently got a stove.  She was using hot plates before.  The place is furnished with the neighbors’ hand-me-downs since they don't want to buy anything nice (or as they say, posh) until the big projects (floors, walls, etc) are completed.  The bottom floor is heated solely by a wood burning stove, which makes coming in from a cool day of work very inviting.  Especially when Ed has made, in his eyes, the only respectable brand of English Breakfast tea with a splash of milk.

The main house in Le Mesnil Veneron
 There are four horses in the large barn, all 12 years or older.  In the first stall resides Trilly, a large black female who is very well-trained and mild.  Next is Jack, who is 26-years-old and a pure New Forest breed.  During the day when the horses are in the field, Jack is kept in his own roped off area because he's known to be "a naughty monkey" with the other horses, in Ed's words.  Next is the patchy-haired giant Madison, who Alex says will follow just about anyone's instructions.  Finally, the youngest chestnut female Poppy has the largest stall and the largest personality.  She's very spry and active, always trying to escape or walk around to shove her bum in your face for a nice rub down.  Over the past week (has it really been an entire week?!), I've learned how to fill and hang the hay nets for their evening snacks, shovel out manure, sweep out the stalls, fill them with new straw and other materials for bedding, lead them out to the field or back into the stalls, clean mud out of their shoes, prepare their respective dinners, and brush them.  It's a lot of work, but having them around is pretty rewarding in many ways

Madison, Trilly, and Poppy

Jack in his separate pen, along with some gorgeous oaks
 After a few hours of touring the grounds and moving into our new room, we sat down for a late dinner prepared by Alex.  It was their light meal for the day, so we had a couple slices of a delicious leek and onion quiche with a large basket of sliced baguette.  Over the meal we discussed our plan for the workaway.  You're probably wondering what that is.  Upon researching ways to travel cheaply or even free, we found Workaway, a program throughout the world where farmers agree to host travelers in exchange for their work.  You pay a small fee for a membership (to keep the less committed and crazies out, I suppose), then have freedom to roam the site for places to visit.  Different families offer different things, but typically you get room and board for about 25 hours of work a week.  We contacted a few families in France, and Alex and Ed responded first.  They said they needed help with wood during this time of the year.  At the backside of one field, there's a giant hedge needing trimmed.  Not a hedge in the American front lawn sense, but a large line of trees, bushes, brambles, and overgrowth separating Alex and Ed's land from the neighboring dairy farmer.  Every seven years or so, hedges should be stripped down, which somehow encourages the hedge to grow more orderly down the center again.  What's large enough is saved for firewood, and the rest is burned.  The hedge we were to confront hadn't been cut in over twenty years.

Alex and Ed needed to drive their daughter Roxanne to the airport on Monday, which happened to be near a very interesting city they thought we might like to see.  We agreed to take advantage of the opportunity and exchanged Saturday for having Monday off.  We planned to meet for breakfast at 8:00, then headed to bed.

Four hens who have been providing fresh eggs for the quiches
 The next morning was quite surprising because we learned that in French tradition, and particularly in this village, families still sit down together for every meal.  People aren't grabbing a bagel on their way out the door or having a bowl of cereal over the morning newspaper.  We helped set the table, then all sat down to eat. Breakfast has been the same every morning: a basket of baguette slices with a collection of spreads and a pot of coffee.  We tested Alex’s homemade apricot and rhubarb jams and their individual slabs of cream cheese.  Then the four of us headed to the barn to collect the necessary tools for cutting the hedge, a chainsaw, handsaw, loppers, and fuel.  Gin, Brigit, and Shadow tagged along, weaving between our legs and splashing happily through the mud.  Brigit is 15-years-old, so she usually just barks at the other two wrestling and chasing each other all day through the fresh air. 

As close to a photo of Brigit I could get with a camera; she's bashful in her old age
We spent the morning working our muscles, dragging sawed trees to be trimmed down, sawing smaller trunks by hand, and sorting the wood for keeping and burning.  What would have been a hard job turned into quite a trying one because the entire field is under water.  The horses have stomped through it enough to make it one big mud puddle.  Thankfully there were plenty of Wellies to spare; I can’t imagine any pair of shoes in that mess.  In some spots we sank, others suctioned to our boots so we’d pause and tug for a while, but most just clung to us like giant globs of glue.  After a few hours we headed back to the house for a lunch break.  The daughter Roxanne was in from England for the weekend staying with her boyfriend, the farmer next door.  They were coming for lunch, so Alex hurriedly prepared the fixings.  Because the boyfriend Eric is French, Alex felt it necessary to have a proper French lunch, the biggest meal of the day in most households. 

Still working on capturing Gin, but Shadow is more than happy to pose

Very happy to pose
We started with an aperitif, a drink to get the hunger juices flowing, along with some pretzels.  Next came the starter with another aperitif.  The starter consisted of dried duck breast, bread, and marinated, grated carrots.  We ate this slowly and sipped our tiny glasses of strong and sweet red wine.  After everyone had finished, we moved on to the main meal, beef bourguignon cooked in local cider overknepfle (or spaetzle).  We ate this with our small glasses filled with the same cider.  After the main dish, we ate the salad, traditionally after the main meal in France.  A platter of delicious cheeses was shared following the salad course, along with more bread.  Last came crepes with apple filling and a rum sauce.  After this large meal, the French head back out for a few more hours of work.  I sat there with my head buzzing a bit from the alcohol and my stomach bulging.  I dragged my feet to the garage and slowly pulled my once green, now brown boots over my feet.  We stumbled through the field with two extra helpers, Roxanne and Eric.  Like I said, Eric is a real farmer, so he handled the chainsaw like a professional while most of us just dragged the wood around.  After a couple more hours, it was time to call it a day.

Most days have followed this same routine.  We meet for a breakfast of baguettes and spreads at 8:00 then head out around 9 or 9:30 depending on the frost covering the ground.  We work on the hedge for two hours then come in to do work in the stables for another hour.  We relax for a bit until our massive lunch, then head back out to the hedge for two more solid hours.  We come in and change out of our mud-covered clothing, hang it to dry for the next day, then relax.  Ed usually makes a cup of tea with cookies, excuse me biscuits, and we all enjoy the evening with a book or laptop.  Later at around 8:00 we eat a lighter meal, again at the table, then make our way to bed.    

After one day on the hedge - can you see the line where his Wellies stop?
It feels incredible to be physically exhausted when we finally collapse into bed at night, and it’s really enjoyable sitting down properly for each meal.  We are forced to converse, no matter the situation, which has made us all get to know one another quite quickly.  Every meal Alex has prepared has been remarkable.  We’ve had pumpkin apple ginger soup, bacon and onion quiche, veal casserole, sausage and sauerkraut, roasted cheesy potatoes, veal polpette (delicious!), and many other creations.  The cheese platter has quickly become our favorite part of the meal, with blue cheese, the region’s famous Camembert, goat cheese, munster, and on and on it goes.  Some mornings when Alex stops at the bakery, we have a treat of croissants with chocolate or raisins.  She’s made apple cake, rice pudding, and flamed bananas as dessert.  It’s really amazing how she works part-time as a Marketing instructor, works almost as many hours as we do on the land (about 25), and does all the cooking and cleaning in a week.  Not only that - every day she turns out two fabulous meals.  She’s very focused and motivated, speaking quickly through a think French accent despite having lived in England for 20+ years.  She readily gives orders and tells you bluntly what she expects.  She’s very pleased to have found someone to indulge in dessert with (me) and two people who ravenously enjoy her food.  Ed, in a completely different manner, is a complete pleasure to be around.   His witty sense of humor always catches you off guard.  He has an encyclopedia of knowledge running through his mind at any given moment.  He’s informed us all about the region of Normandy and jumps into just about any conversation with a sage view.  He takes plenty of time and effort in explaining any new job to us, often getting off-topic and onto some tangent for quite some time.  He’s patient, easy to laugh, and always congratulating us after our work, always saying, “Well done!”  He’s retired, but happily involved in the village by playing table tennis twice a week and golf another day.  I think he very easily could be the funniest person I’ve ever met, half the time without meaning to be. I really can’t believe how lucky we are, having contacted a few farms on a website, then committing to the first couple that responded, and getting on so well with these complete strangers with whom we’d only exchanged a few e-mails. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Kyle's Birthday in Strasbourg, France

The glass latticework of the train station in Strasbourg, France surrounded us, and as we strained our necks, following the signs for Tram C, we were suddenly aware of the daunting officers pacing with what appeared to be machine guns clutched against their torsos.  It wasn't the most welcoming first sight of France, but we carried on. 

To our relief, with each stop on the tram, our surroundings became more and more picturesque.  The road split to accommodate a wide median with tram tracks perfectly aligned and cutting straight through the center.  On either side of the tracks, trees appeared with branches that resembled an arthritic hand and clusters of giant spikes shooting from each final knob, looking like arrows stopped mid-air.  The cheap storefronts and dirty sidewalks transformed into stoic sandstone and white and black timber-frames.

The view from our window

We used airbnb again to rent a flat for the week, and as Strasbourg is more of a spring-summer tourist destination, we got a fair deal on a perfectly located, large, and clean apartment overlooking a canal.  Per our usual luck, the weather was miserably cold upon arrival, so we bundled up for a stroll around our new, temporary neighborhood.  The flat owner was kind enough to stock the cupboards with some basics and some not-so-basics, so we didn't have a pressing objective.  Like all our previously visited cities, we walked around, rubbernecking.  Before coming to Europe, I thought surely all the movies and books that depict quaint European villages must be an exaggeration, some fairy tale.  From what I've seen so far, they really don't.  We crossed foot and cycle bridges onto cobblestone walkways spread along cozy cafes, fresh bakeries, and other specialty trades.  Hand-holding couples walked by with baguettes laid across their arms. Children trotted along the canals, arms stretched out hoping to snatch a swan or duck.

In the quaint little neighborhood called Petite France in Strasbourg

 At one time the largest building in Europe, we used the spires of Notre Dame de Strasbourg as our beacon.  Finally we came upon the base of the great Gothic church after weaving through the narrow streets, barely wide enough for one car.  Giant mismatched stones of the gray family made up the bulk of the structure and stacked up to the bases of the cathedral's peaks, which reminded me of the drip castles I used to make with sand.  The only inconsistency of the stonework was the giant wooden door.  Dozens of gargoyles stretched out from the sides.  A stained glass window with a giant spiral of tight petals decorated the church's face.  The bustle of activity outside the enormous church (I can't wait to see the Notre Dame de Paris!) was practically silenced when we passed through the front doors.  One corner was lit by tables of votive candles.  Another corner held the enormous crucifix, where putting one Euro into the slot lit the spotlights for 2 or 3 minutes.  The ceilings were so high it was easy to miss the sculpted heads jutting out where the peaks met.  The pulpit was enormous, though it looked small being so far away from the entrance.  Along one side, a gorgeous, ornate pipe organ took up the entire space.  Hundreds of simple wooden chairs were arranged in precise rows.  We took seats smack in the center and just gazed around for awhile, knowing it was impossible to get a grasp on the massive interior.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg

Notre Dame de Strasbourg
 We spent a few more days like this, running an errand or two per day, but mostly just doing exactly what we felt like doing during each part of the day.  When Kyle's birthday came around, I decided to let him plan the day.  We woke up around 8:00 AM and headed straight out the door.  Stopping at the first bakery we came to, we grabbed a couple of croissants and a coffee each.  We walked with our breakfast to the cathedral, where we sat waking up and quietly talking.  Next we strolled along the canals in the crisp air.  After awhile, we just so happened to find a bookstore.  It was organized in the most interesting way - the bottom floor was all literature arranged by country (French authors, English, German, etc).  The second floor was for children, and the top floor held the science, philosophy, art, and business sections.  The consistent white shelves contrasted quite nicely against the solid wood flooring.  The flashy best sellers and new releases of Barnes and Noble were nowhere to be found.  Everything was clean, organized, and scholarly looking.  In other words, it was Kyle's ideal.  Everything was in French, but this didn't stop Kyle from buying.  After we had picked through everything, we headed back to the apartment for lunch.  I made some elaborate egg sandwiches with fresh French mayonnaise, tomato, thick-sliced bacon, and avocado, then we polished off the chocolate chip cookies from the day before.  I got started on the cake of Kyle's choosing, peanut butter cake with salted chocolate ganache, while Kyle reveled in the quiet time with his Kindle.

A birthday smirk

Inside the enormous cathedral

Cookies and milk after a birthday brunch

His excitement over his new purchase is palpable
The canals of Strasbourg

Our brightly colored apartment
While the cake cooled, we cracked open a few beers, courtesy of our kind host, and started playing some music.  We spent a couple hours sipping, talking, and making song requests on YouTube.  For dinner, we walked down a few blocks to an Indian restaurant.  We started with Riesling and samosas, then dived into some of the best quality Indian we've had.  A creamy sauce of butter and tomatoes with chunks of tender chicken made up my meal, and Kyle dined on a thick spinach sauce with lamb.  We tore through the flat garlicky naan and inhaled the savory aroma of saffron basmati rice.  Stuffed to the gills, loopy on beer and wine, we conquered the cold again intent on finding a warm bar.  We quickly found a place of interest, and as we entered, old 90's American pop was pulsing through the speakers.  We ordered a couple of beers and slid into one of the wooden booths.  We laughed and watched groups of 20-year-olds flirting awkwardly and one group of middle-aged men drinking brightly colored drinks with umbrellas at the bar.  After a couple of beers, we took to the streets again, this time in search of dessert.  I performed a solo of "Happy Birthday" in Kyle's honor, then we cut the cake.  A few more YouTube requests later, we collapsed happily into bed.

Making due with the only dish that would accommodate our peanut butter cake (recipe here by the way - mine is so flat because though I found baking powder (levuvre) in the store, it was definitely yeast...)

Last but not least, I obnoxiously documented most of the day. Clearly, we've spent too much time together and are in dire need of some new company.