Vezelay.

A detail from the numerous stone carvings on the walls.

Vezelay is a little town that I’d never even heard of as of a month ago.  But now I count it as one of the most interesting of all the places that I’ve been in all of France.  Vezelay itself is a small town perched up on a hill here in Burgundy.  Perching a town on top of a hill was good strategic planning at one time, but now, it just makes for a beautiful place with a great view as well as a great workout as you climb up to visit it.  But what truly makes Vezelay special beyond its scenic beauty is the basilica that is in its very center.  It’s the Basilique de Marie Madeleine, or in English, the Basilica of Mary Magdalene http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilique_Sainte-Marie-Madeleine_de_V%C3%A9zelay  Supposedly, they have her relics in the crypt underneath the church.  Not being Catholic, I don’t fully understand the relic concept (yes, I know it’s her bones), but it doesn’t matter:  the feeling as you enter that space underneath the basilica is one of incredible reverence and holiness.  We were entering at nearly the same time as an ancient man in a long white and hooded robe.  We sat a row behind him, us praying our prayers, he praying his.  All around the room, people were seated on the floor, also praying.  Candles were the only source of light, which made it feel even more other-worldly.

Inside view of the basilica. Note the wooden cross at the left.

After sitting there in the candlelit room for as long as my 8-year-old’s patience would endure, we went back up into the church itself once again.  We just happened to be there on a Saturday evening, and as great luck would have it, Vespers was about to begin.  We were able to watch as the monks and nuns hurried about in preparation.  But no matter how busy they were, they paused without fail to bow to the entrance of the small chapel off the side of the main church.  Again, I don’t really know what that was about, but I can say that it made a great impression on my children, and I explained it to them as symbolic of their reverence and devotion to God.  We continued to walk around the church until Vespers started, looking at all the beautiful stonework and carvings, but especially at the number of wooden crosses that line the walls of the church.  Each and every one of those crosses had been carried there by someone crossing Europe on a pilgrimage to that place, and I don’t mean carried in a vehicle.  I mean carried on someone’s back.  The one that was the most moving and impressive was the one that was carried from Germany, to France, shortly after World War II.  It was built from the beams of a house that had been destroyed by bombs, and it reads, “1946 Germany, Crusade of Peace.  France.”  Here’s a great link with more about this:  http://www.eppinganglicans.org.uk/Sermons/2008/9Nov-PaxChristi.htm

I snapped this picture on the sly, hoping not to be disrespectful but instead just to hold onto the moment… You can see the monks kneeling in prayer to the right.

As Vespers began to start, we found a place in the huge basilica and settled in.  And waited.  Which is hard on an 8 year old, you know.  All the monks filed in to the church in their white robes and kneeled down and prayed for what began to seem like an eternity (definitely no pun intended here)…  At one point, my little guy whispered to me, “Are we just gonna watch them pray?  This is boring!”  But then the service began, and the vespers service is entirely sung.  Now, I must comment here that the vespers service we managed to see last year at l’Abbaye de Senanque was (can I say this?) better, because the monks there do the singing of the service entirely themselves  http://www.abbayedesenanque.com/.  At Vezelay, it is prerecorded by a choir, which is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and resonating through that huge space it is impressive.   But, I’d prefer it to be less perfect and more, well, real.  However, though I was initially disappointed that they weren’t going to sing it themselves, I didn’t think about that for long and just enjoyed the moment.  It was still incredibly beautiful.

Now, I’m not Catholic and I didn’t understand much of what was going on.  But as I told my children as we prepared to listen and watch, though we don’t understand their words or even necessarily their actions, we could understand their hearts and what they were trying to do:  become closer to God through worship, which is something we try to do as well on a regular basis.  We go to a church and though it looks very different, the goal is the same.  And though it didn’t hold their attention for that long, I know that it made an impression on them.  How could it not?  I like to think that some day they will look back and realize how truly incredible that experience was. I certainly found it to be very touching.  You have to think that all those people have been coming for all those years to that one place seeking God’s presence…

And then, we wandered back out into the chilly early fall evening into the town of Vezelay itself, seeking nourishment of an entirely different sort:  food!  It was obviously much too early for dinner, being only 6:45, after all.  So we wandered from restaurant to restaurant, reading the menus and trying to decide what we wanted to try.  As we did so, we fell into step with an older lady, traveling alone, and clearly looking for the same thing that we were, which was a restaurant that was open, affordable, and not booked up for the entire weekend.  As we walked, we began to chat, and so by the time we settled on a restaurant that seemed reasonably priced but not too touristy, it seemed perfectly natural when the restaurant owner asked if we were a group of 4 to turn to her and ask her if she’d like to join us.  She did so enthusiastically, and thus, the kids and I had dinner in a crepe restaurant with a perfectly charming retired French school teacher.  I can’t imagine doing that in Atlanta, but I’ve seen it happen here more than once:  the other night in a tiny and crowded restaurant in Germany, people were asked to share tables and they did so without hesitation.  Multi-lingual conversations were all over the place!  But that night, my children got an extra French lesson, just for good measure, and we had a wonderful evening doing so.  Our dinner companion, Therese, had made the trip to Vezelay on her own.  She’d wanted to visit for a long time, and had finally made it, and was thrilled to have some company after having spent the earlier parts of the weekend on her own.  As it turns out, she taught 3rd grade- I just happen to have a 3rd grader- so it was nice to be able to relax a little around someone who most likely would not be shocked by anything my son might pull.

And then, back out into the cold and rainy autumn for our drive back home- I found myself not wanting to leave Therese’s company so when she asked us to walk her to her hotel so that she wouldn’t be frightened, we did so.  We said our goodbyes (sigh- my new friend!) and off we went, down the mountainside and around the twisted and curving roads, back to the place that we are calling home for the fall.

What I’ve learned so far.

Cathedral St. Lazaire in Autun, France. Unbelievably, there is a huge Ingres painting hanging in here.

I’ve learned quite a bit so far, in our first 3 weeks here in France.  Really more for my benefit than anyone else’s, I’ve decided to make a list of those things.  Some of the lessons have been acquired with much pain, so I’d really rather not have to relearn them.  Thus, writing them down seems like a good idea.

1.  Driving in Paris at rush hour is something to be avoided at all costs.  Sit and drink coffee, eat pastries, DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO PROCRASTINATE AND AVOID IT.   The people who whine about Atlanta traffic clearly have never been anywhere else in the entire world.  By comparison, Atlanta traffic is one big tailgate party.  Sorry, folks.  But at least our road signs make sense.

2.  To get a fire really going in your woodburning stove, critical mass must be achieved.  There is no such thing as making a halfway or small fire.  You have to get that thing cooking.  And ashes are the best thing for cleaning off the glass.  Which is strange.

3.  French butcher shops smell, umm, odd.  Do not be alarmed.  And don’t worry, they will remove the chicken’s head when you purchase it and not expect you to keep it.  Chickens in America originally had heads too, one must remember.

4.  French shopkeepers in tourist towns (or perhaps other towns, for that matter) have no sense of humor.  None.  Whatsoever.  If your 8 year old winds the silly, cheap, tacky display music box the wrong way, just run away, quickly.  Offering to pay will not help.  Don’t ask me how I know this.

5.  You’d better have food in your house before Sunday comes, ’cause they don’t care if you’re starving- that grocery store will not open for anyone.

6.   The wine in Burgundy is shockingly good.  They grow only pinot noir (at least in the area around Beaune) and “grand cru” means the best of the best grapes.  Only 2% get to be called this, followed by “premier cru.”  I didn’t know this before.  Trader Joe’s sell neither type.  And if someone has ever explained this to me before, I didn’t listen.

7.  The Loir, or Edible Dormouse, loves dog food (http://www.lost-in-france.com/wildlife-in-france/650-edible-dormouse).  I know this because one shares our house.  I should have been suspicious earlier, because my mini dachshund never finishes her dog food (yuck, how boring!)  So the empty plate should have tipped me off.  I figured it out only when I heard her eating at her dish, only to look down and see that she was sitting next to me.  A few nights later, I came face to face with the dog food thief- good thing he was cute.  I screamed anyway.  Supposedly he’ll go into hibernation soon.

8. Twenty-four hour gas stations do not take American credit cards.  You’d better plan accordingly.  And as luck would have it, that’s all our town has- those unattended gas stations where you can only use credit cards.  That was an almost-panic moment the other day.  So fill up when you see an actual gas station, even if you still have half a tank.

9.  Get to the bakery first thing in the morning, if you want choices.  Otherwise, you will be forced to experiment.  Which isn’t always a bad thing…

10.  Lunchtime is absolutely, positively, and completely sacred.  You must plan everything you do in France around this truth, which includes securing a table for yourself.  If you arrive at a restaurant too much after the magic hour, chances are they will be full.  And that, malheureusement, is that.  

 

 

 

 

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Doesn’t our chicken look amazing? Only 3 hours before, his head and feathers were still on. I just can’t think about that for very long.

Sometimes, in France, I can sort of imagine that things aren’t that different from home, really.  But then, an experience comes along that reminds me of how very, very different life here is.  My trip to the butcher shop this afternoon was one such occasion.

Of course, the very fact that I was making a trip to the butcher shop should have tipped me off to the fact that life here is different.  I don’t even know where a butcher shop is in Atlanta, outside of the ones at Whole Foods or the Dekalb Farmers’ Market.  But yes, here in this tiny little not-quite-town there is a butcher shop.  There are also two bakeries in this little place.  But anyway, there I was at the butcher shop, looking for a chicken to roast for the evening meal.  I spied a chicken through the glass, requested it, and the butcher picked it up.  It was at that moment that I realized that it still had its head and feet intact.  The thoughts that went through my head at that point were, “Oh dear.  Do I have to remove that myself?” But those thoughts were quickly silenced as the butcher laid the chicken out on his block, head full of feathers and all, and with a resounding whack removed the head and then each foot.  Thank goodness.  The next thought that went through my head was, “I hope he keeps those.”  I’m really not squeamish.  I’m just American, and accustomed to my meat coming tidily prepared for me to cook.  But, not to worry- the butcher spent the next couple of minutes prepping the chicken for me (again, thank goodness), finishing by tying it nicely up with string so it would roast well. Not even any stuff inside to remove!

Oh, the relief.

So off I went with my chicken, trying to appear as though he had done exactly as I expected (of COURSE I didn’t think he’d leave on the head!).  I think I played it pretty cool.  Next stop:  bakery.  Nothing potentially disgusting there.  Whew.  However, they were out of baguettes, forcing experimentation.  Thus, pain de campagne  it was, which turned out to be sort of like a whole wheat baguette- delicious.  I think I just might get that more often- it was that good!   A couple of chausson aux pommes, which are an amazing little puff pastry thing filled with apples, and which we were forced to buy a few days ago when they were out of pain au chocolat.  Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Back at home, the kids and I rubbed the chicken with a little butter, stuffed a little fresh thyme from the herb garden into it (or at least as well as I could inside the very neatly tied up chicken), and put it into the oven to roast for a few hours.  I still haven’t really figured out that crazy oven and its metric temperatures, so I have to just watch carefully.  Vegetables were added in to roast alongside the chicken.  Then came the good part:  the sauce.  I absolutely love making sauces- it’s the “art” part of cooking, to me.  My trusty 8-year-old sous chef helped me mince onions and garlic to saute in butter and olive oil, plus more thyme from the garden.  The sous chef sliced up some mushrooms to add once the onions and garlic were nicely browned, and we cooked those down for a few minutes.  Next, we deglazed the pan with about a quarter of a bottle of white wine, and reduced that down by half.  Salt and pepper, a little juice from the chicken roasting pan, and then a little fond du poulet, another incredible thing you can buy at the grocery store here.  The best thing I can compare this stuff to is demi-glace, made from chicken- I don’t even know how you’d do that- but it’s like the essence of chicken and adding this stuff to any sauce makes you look like a pro, trust me.  Salt, pepper, and then, at last, some cream…  Served on top of roasted chicken, potatoes, and carrots.  The only thing I forgot to do was add a leek to the roasting pan- next time, perhaps.

My sous-chef.

My 8-year-old sous chef decided we needed garlic bread, which he made himself out of minced garlic in olive oil on our pain de campagne.  A stroke of genius, I must say.  And tomorrow, the leftovers will become a chicken pot pie, topped with the puff pastry I bought at the grocery story and with more of that white wine sauce we concocted.

And then, after that, a lovely chicken stock and soup!  I always feel so thrifty when I get a chicken to roast.

But I’m still glad the butcher didn’t hand me the head and feet.  I’m not that thrifty.

The Vikings are coming!

The basilica at Vezelay.

Okay, so not really.  Actually, they have already come, spent a week, and then went home.  And we had a wonderful time with these dear friends from Norway.  My husband met Harry back when they were both young pilots, trying to get flight time.  When my husband was hired to fly sailplanes out of a small airport in Atlanta, Harry was already there.  They quickly became friends, and from what I hear, they had a terrific time together doing the crazy things that 20-something year old single guys do in their free time.  Harry lived in the States for several years while accumulating flight time, and when he returned to Norway,  he met Anna.  Now they have two boys that are close in age to our children.  And they’ve become my friends now, too.  A few years ago, we spent two weeks at their home in Norway, which was an incredible experience for us.  It was nice to be able to repay their hospitality this past week.

We had a fun week together.  The Norwegians like their big, substantial breakfasts, so after a couple of days of the French style croissant and coffee thing which I lean towards, Harry pretty much pushed me out of the way and pulled out the smorgasbord.  We began our days with a HUGE breakfast, with baguettes (we were managing to somehow put away five of these huge loaves of bread per day), croissants, jam, this amazing gourmet butter that I accidentally bought but will continue buying, sausages, ham, eggs, fruit, and coffee.  The only problem with doing this is that by the time we were finished with our giant breakfast, the French were beginning to shut down the world for their own sacred ritual:  lunch.  Which meant that we were hanging around, waiting for things to open back up, pretty much every day.  We passed the time by packing a picnic lunch and finding a spot outdoors near whatever it was that we were visiting for the day, and this system worked pretty well for us.  We managed to do and see quite a lot, while remaining well-nourished at the same time.

It was their first time in France- the language barrier doesn’t only inhibit Americans, apparently, and they’d never felt comfortable traveling here before.   Thus, they were thrilled to go around the countryside with me able to do the talking for them.  We toured the sacred Basilique de Marie Madeleine at Vezelay,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbey_of_la_Madaleine,_V%C3%A9zelaythe , which is the starting point for one of the pilgrimages of the Compostella.  We also were able to see the Fontaines Salees, which are ancient springs that people have used as healing waters or for sacred rituals or just for bathing in for a very long time- the Romans, the Celts, and ancient people as well- possibly as far back as 2300 BC.  There is an old pump where you can taste the water coming from the earth, and it has a peculiar mineral taste but is also very salty, hence the name, which means “Salty Fountains.”

Les Fontaines Salees

A nearby chateau was also a favorite.  Silly me, I’d always imagined that most chateaux were found in the Loire Valley, but there are some beautiful ones dotting the countryside here as well.  The one we visited is called Chateau Bazoche http://www.chateau-bazoches.com/en/index.htm.

As far as homeschooling goes, the week was pretty much a loss.  Unless you count the amazing amounts of history they actually got to see and touch and walk around in, or the exposure to not only French but copious amounts of Norwegian… or the cultural exposure of being around our friends and their different ways of doing things.. or the VERY different way the French look at life…  Or the market that we happened across on our way to Vezelay where we sampled different foods and saw various birds (soon to be dinner) for sale.  Hmmm, maybe not such a loss after all.  Learning sure can be fun!

Chateau Bazoche, with running children.

Le dejeuner.

I love being in France.  I love the food, the scenery, the language, the history, and the architecture, which is what’s left visible of whatever history has happened in a place.  But the food is right up there at the top of the list.  Even just grocery shopping can be a pleasure, and then cooking up the good things you’ve brought home is a joy as well.  Several nights ago, I cooked thin cutlets of turkey quickly in olive oil with salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of thyme.  The kids and I each took a turn pounding them flat before cooking with a potato masher because that is all we had, and sometimes one must improvise.  It worked very well- they were thin, tender, and delicious.  The next day, which was beautiful and sunny, by the way, we ate lunch ate on the patio of our house.  I took the leftover turkey cutlets, sliced them up, and put them on top of a salad of butter lettuce with a little chevre and some sliced fresh fruit- pear, plum, and the most beautiful grapes I’ve ever seen.  I cut up yesterday’s baguette, drenched it in garlicky olive oil and baked it for some crunchy croutons (the kids’ favorite part), boiled a couple of eggs, and voila.  Simple, but wonderful.  And it was so pretty that I couldn’t resist taking a picture:  lunch, at home, in France.  Or at least our home for the fall.

Heidelberg.

View of Heldelberg castle from the square.

I have to say that of all the places we recently visited in Germany, Heidelberg may be one of my favorites.  Though I loved the look of Dinkelsbuhl and certainly of Rothenburg (ob der Tauber), I loved the feel of Heidelberg.  It just felt alive, perhaps partly owing to the fact that it is in fact a college town, and very, very interesting.  I’d heard that before we went, but it is apparently quite true.  The city is beautiful, and filled with people out strolling and dining outdoors, especially in the huge square next to the beautiful old church.  There just happens to be a good view of the castle from the cafes located down here as well, making it, at least for us, the perfect place to grab lunch.  Of schnitzel, of course.  What else?

We liked the city so much that we ended up here twice.  Once was only on the way to our actual destination- the day of the Romantic Road driving tour which included the two walled cities.  We hadn’t realized that Heidelberg should be its own destination, so we came back another day and really took our time exploring.  We walked from downtown up to the castle on top of the mountain, which was quite a trek.  Of course, there we Americans were, winded and gasping for breath, while aged Germans rode bikes and walked past us without missing a beat.  Impressive.  Actually, that was one thing about Germany that impressed me the most:  older people riding bikes or walking absolutely everywhere.  If there was any doubt in my mind that keeping your body moving keeps it young and healthy, it’s gone now.

The castle of Heidelberg, however, was less impressive, at least to me.  It’s apparently just a ruin, but we didn’t know that, so we kept walking around searching for where you could go inside to tour the castle.  If there was a place, we didn’t find it, although since we don’t speak German it is possible for us to have missed something!  The only place we managed to get inside was this museum of pharmacies (odd, though somewhat interesting) and a “cave” type place where you could taste local German wines.  Not quite what I had in mind.  But, it was terrific exercise, climbing all those steps, so no regrets.  And of course the view of the city down below was pretty spectacular.

Mendelssohn!

Another fun thing we did while in Heidelberg  was to hear an organ concert in the huge church located in the town square.  Just a stroke of luck on our part- we certainly didn’t plan that.  But, there we happened to be, just as it was beginning, and the Pilot and I looked at each other and said, “Why not?”  There was a bit of complaining from the the kids, but they enjoyed it in spite of themselves.  You almost can’t help but be impressed by Mendelssohn crashing around you from a giant pipe organ in a centuries-old cathedral.  I was thrilled because I’ve been trying to introduce a variety of different composers to the kids, and we’d just recently studied Mendelssohn- hooray!  Of course, I also have to admit that it felt pretty good to sit after the mountain-climbing expedition to the castle… though I bet all those elderly folks I saw weren’t even tired.

Lunch at a cafe in the square, with hefeweizen. Not both mine.

Comfort zones.

This is our neighborhood, which has made the drive all worth it.

It’s good to leave comfort zones, sometimes.  To stretch yourself a little.  You’ve probably heard that quote by Eleanor Roosevelt- “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  Well, I’m certain I don’t hit the every day mark, by any means.  But I think that yesterday’s adventures should stock me up for a while, or at least I’m hoping so.  You see, yesterday we flew in to Charles de Gaulle airport, just me and the kids, and I rented a car and drove out of Paris in rush hour traffic, made my way through the French countryside, and found our house that included directions like “look for the 1 kilometer marker.”   It’s funny- such things never used to worry me before, but with kids, well,  there’s just something about being responsible for two more lives that makes me a little more nervous than I used to be.  So yesterday, I definitely stretched.

Renting the car- no big deal.  The initial drive from the airport to Paris- also no big deal.  And then, driving the loop around Paris in order to continue south wasn’t a big deal.  Not really.  Unless you’re completely jet lagged, and driving a manual transmission at approximately an average of 20km an hour.  It took me absolutely forever just to skirt AROUND the city, and my foot began to go numb from holding in the clutch for so long. It was the rush hour part that was the most awful, though the crazy French road sign thing was also a challenge.  I never truly knew where I was going- it’s merely by the grace of God that somehow I made my way to the correct autoroute.   And the car does this trick when you put it in neutral and let out the clutch- it dies.  And then restarts when you push it back in.  Which, since the car is not a hybrid, I did not expect, and which worried me. But oh, this car had even more surprises in store for me, this tiny little Ford.

When I finally cleared Paris, which I had begun to doubt I would ever be able to do (I started to hate Paris- who hates Paris??), life improved.  I made progress, and in reality the drive wasn’t that long if you don’t count all the time sitting perfectly still while in Paris.  The countryside began to get more and more beautiful, and those lovely signs that the Europeans put along their major highways began to appear- the ones that show you what interesting thing that each town has to offer.  I started to see lots of warnings about the possibility of wildlife crossing the road, but noticed that they had built wildlife bridges over the autoroute in several places, which is a fabulous idea as far as I’m concerned.  Finally, I saw the sign announcing that I had entered the region of Burgundy.  Just as I was wondering if I’d be able to see the vineyards, I came over the top of a hill and voila:  grapevines as far as I could see.

And then, finally I left the autoroute for the smaller roads that would bring me to our town.  The closer I got, the more vague my directions became.  I found the town, but my directions said to leave the town heading south, and my darling little Ford has no compass, so I had no earthly idea which way south was (and this marked probably the hundredth time that I wished that the Pilot had been able to come with us at the beginning of our journey- he joins us in a few days).  I did the only reasonable thing, since I am a woman:  I stopped to ask directions at a bakery in the town center (and bought a baguette as well, of course).  While two women attempted to make sense of my directions (and could not, which made me feel better), the third took a look and said, “Oh, I live two houses away.  You can just follow me!”  Thank the good Lord in heaven above for sending me THAT blessing, because I was beginning to have visions of never, ever finding our house.  We both bought our bread, and she got in her car and I got in mine and started to back out… and couldn’t for the life of me figure out where reverse was on the car (that I was beginning to despise more and more by the moment).  Yes, indeed:  Surprise #2 of the tiny Ford was that reverse apparently involved a secret handshake that I was not privy to.

And that is when I was able to make my dramatic entrance into French life, into the town where we are staying.  The aforementioned surprise for me that my car had in store for me (I didn’t mention that I couldn’t roll down the window at the first toll booth I came to, did I?  The window controls are in the center console… Surprise #1).  I was in the town square, after all.  Not exactly empty.  Several men came over and tried to help me find reverse.  The kind lady that I was supposed to follow gave it a shot.  No good.  Not one of us could figure it out.  And so, my newly appointed French-speaking guardian angel issued an order to the gentlemen all around:  they were to push my car backwards out of its parking spot, which they promptly did (my guardian angel, who I would guess to be about 60, helped as well.  Unbelievable).  At last, I was going to make it to the house.  And thank goodness everyone in town knows we are here.

After that, it was only another 3 minutes to the house.  Easy enough to find if you know where you are going.

And by the way, my newly appointed French-speaking guardian angel came by later that day and took us to the market so we could fill our pantry without having to back my car out of another parking space.   Now, how’s that for French hospitality?  And how lucky am I that she just happens to be my neighbor?

And how lucky am I also that the house caretaker is a lovely British man who quickly decoded the Ford’s secret handshake?  I can now drive in reverse.  Whew.