Saturday, June 29, 2013

Don't blink at the Tour de France

The Tour de France doesn't pass anywhere near our little corner of France this year, but in honor of the race, I am sharing some memories of l'an dernier (last year), when Ken, our son Luke, and I went to Cahors to see the bikers race through town.

History-rich Cahors is bordered on three sides by the River Lot, and the beautiful Pont Valentré is the town's main landmark.

After some morning sightseeing, we situated ourselves in front of the Tower of Pope John XXII, where the TV crews were setting up. 

The pregame show featured a parade of elaborate sponsors' floats and goodies tossed into the crowds lining the street. We scored some flags, shirts and (oh, goodie!) foam fingers to wave.

Eventually, the racers zipped by, allowing just enough time to snap a couple of pictures.

Then it was on to a late lunch, where the day's highlight (for me) occured: Our French waitress was a student at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania ... in the small town where I grew up. Une telle coïncidence!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

He's the 'how' in how we did it

Ken and I often are asked how we managed to retire young and move to France. We usually give simplified answers, citing frugality, financial responsibility, hard work, good luck and excellent timing as the main "secrets" of  "how we did it." But today, since it's a very special day, I want to cite the No. 1 "how" I landed here, living a dream. 

It wasn't always our shared goal to live abroad. In most of the 30 years we've been together, Ken and I rarely talked specifics about where and what kind of life we would live after we were able to stop working. While I might have been eyeing Paris, Australia or Manhattan, Ken likely was dreaming of a small fishing cabin on a lake in Northern California or a hacienda in Ecuador. What we did share, was the commitment to work hard, stay out of debt, give our kids educations and the means to launch their own lives, and to save enough money so we wouldn't have to worry about having to eat cat food in our old age after working ourselves half to death. As the years went by, we dipped our toes into traveling. Ken agreed to try France and he ended up éperdument amoureux (madly in love) with the people and lifestyle here.

Quitting one's job and moving so far away from family and friends can be very lonely. It is absolutely necessary to become (again) éperdument amoureux with one's partner. For every moment of passion, there are dozens of moments of frustration, irritation, anger and boredom. It is a wonder to me that I am still so much in love, after all these years, with that young carefree man I stumbled upon in a Sausalito grocery store. And it is astonishing that he still seems to like me, too.

Ken is my "how." Without him, without our separate dreams becoming one, without patience, endurance and (mostly) good humor, we would not be here.

So, joyeux anniversaire (happy birthday) my love. And thanks for the memories you create every day.   

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Finding pho in Pau

The seemingly endless winter edged into summertime last week here in southwest France, so Ken and I decided to take a quick trip to Pau in search of some sunshine. We booked a cheap (55 euro) room at Hotel le Postillon, based on reasonably good reviews, WiFi, free parking and proximity to the sites of the city. 

Pau, described in more than one guidebook as an elegant city, is the capital of Béarn in the Pyrénées- Atlantiques department. We drove south, through the lovely Landes forest and were met by sudden views of the snow capped Pyrenees, which reminded me of my first trip to Tahoe. I fantasized at the time that the Sierra were my own personal Pyrénées since I couldn't have even dreamed of someday seeing the real peaks of Europe.

Once settled, we set off in search of déjeuner. The square along the rue du Château offered plenty of options at reasonable prices. At L'etena Ristorante, I was able to mooch a slice of Ken's Roma pizza in exchange for some of my salade niçoise.

Fortified with food, beer and kir, we decided to start our sightseeing with Pau's most famous site, the Château de Pau. Despite it being the first Saturday of summer, there was only a few visitors and we were directed toward the tour which was just about to start. On this day, the tour was only offered in French, although we were given an English cheat sheet. Usually, Ken and I enjoy tours in French as it's a good chance to practice our oral comprehension skills, but this particular tour was jammed pack with history and lasted so long, that our minds wandered and the slow pace through the castle rooms was more tedious than fascinating. We agreed with a Texas couple on the tour that we would have preferred to wander around at our own pace. 

Château de Pau is a perfect example of decorations and furnishings of the mid-1800s. Dozens of tapestries depict everything from mythology to the simple pleasures of the aristocracy. A welcome respite from the usual biblical scenes, I spotted humor and whimsy in their threads.

Since rain was forecast for the the next day, and it was becoming clear that Ken was coming down with a cold (which turned out to be a doozey!), we completed our sightseeing that evening with a walk through the mansion-lined pedestrian streets, through the jardins of Parc Beaumont, and along the boulevard des Pyrénées where small signs identify the various peaks of the mountain peaks to the south.

Ken's cold made him less than eager for a traditional Gascon meal, so, thinking some pho might do him so good, we chose Ai-Vy, located across the street from l'eglise St. Martin. How fortuitous! We don't have many (or any) restaurants vietnamiens in our neck of the woods, so this was really a treat. While studying the menu, the couple at the next table introduced themselves: She, a chemistry professor from Colorado (the self-described only female chemistry prof of Thai descent in the U.S.) was in Pau on business. He, her affable copain was along for the ride. On their advice, I ordered crispy crepes stuffed with shrimp and served with mint, lettuce and fish sauce. Ken had a noodle dish, similar to my beloved #53 at Reno's Golden Flower. Yum! And the less-than-40-euro check made Ken smile through his sniffles.

Since we were in no hurry, we bypassed the tolls of France's autoroute and took the back roads home, stopping to look at the flags along the river in Aire-sur-l'Adour. 

And now, a few days later, Ken's cold is waning, the sun is making its appearance, and I am browsing guidebooks and plotting our next petite escapade.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Randonnée de l'été

To celebrate the beginning of summer, our village held a randonnce de l'été last evening. Considering we've had maybe 10 days of nice springtime weather this year, we were eager to put this miserable, soggy printemps behind us and get on with summer.

The randonnée originally was planned as a 6k walk or 15k bike ride, but the day's rain necessitated shortening the event to a guided walk through and around the village. We even strolled right past chez nous!

Our guides, a lively group of university students from Bordeaux, outnumbered the participants, but that didn't matter. Despite touring the rues and paths we tread each day, we learned a few things about our sweet village. The stones making up the chateau's walls, for instance, were engraved not for decoration, but to mark each worker's progress during construction. (The marking in the rock at right, however, is a mystery.)

A hill just outside of town was once a fortress, complete with tower, village and moat, but nothing remains of the 11th century site except a pretty spot to stroll. Three chateaus can be seen from the top of the hill.

After the tour, there was a picnic at the village Halle, followed by entertainment: an hysterical one-man show performed by Lionel Rami, one of our handsome French guides. (All our guides were gorgeous ... vive la France!) Truth be told, we understood little, and our heads were spinning by the end of the 45-minute soliloquy, but when he offered to do it one more time in English for les americains, we got the joke and laughed along with everyone else.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Commencer le canal

Taking advantage of the last nice day before yet another rainy week, Ken and I, along with our next door voison Philippe, loaded up the bikes and drove an hour to the village of Le Mas d'Agenais. Our short-term aim was a leisurely ride, but the day turned out to be the just the first step of a goal Ken and I will pursue in the upcoming years: to ride the entire Canal des Deux Mers

France's 270-mile shortcut between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic is comprised of two sections. The southern portion, which runs from the Mediterranean to Toulouse, is the Canal du Midi, built in the 17th century. Two hundred years later, the Canal de Garonne, along with the Garonne River, connected Toulouse to the Atlantic near Bordeaux. This amazing feat of hydraulic engineering has a fascinating history, some of which I will share here as we continue our journey.

A peniche docked along the canal
Tranquil is the word that best describes our maiden voyage. The shady quiet flat path along the canal was a welcome change from the hilly country roads we usually ride on. After parking in the tiny village of Le Mas d'Agenais, we rode north for a dozen kilometers. The slow pace allowed for plenty of time to stop for photos and to wave at the vacationers passing by on the decks of their rented bateaux.

We quickly realized that the canal path will take on a different feel in the summer when the tourists descend, but on this day, the only crowd we encountered was a family of ducks taking an early afternoon nap.

With lunch back at the car, we decided to turn around after an hour. I brought the grub: ham and butter sandwiches on baguettes, crudeties, oranges and homemade peanut butter cookies. Philippe brought beer and wine, with a '92 poire calvados (pear brandy) to top it off. As usual, the more we drank, the better we could understand Philippe, and, we fancied, the more graceful our French became.

A little later, a little drunk, we headed south on an unsuccessful quest for coffee. Even though we didn't find an open cafe, we explored le Mas d'Agenais'' massive church and pretty lavoir before heading home.

What a perfect start to our canal quest.