Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Sign

28 March 2010

Today we spent the day with friends following them to 3-4 "vide-greniers" (french flea markets or the closest thing to a garage sale which are held on various days in different villages every week). They were good people to go with as they used to sell their own brocante finds at these venues and knew the prices that things should be sold for. It was quite an interesting shopping experience as there are beautiful antique fois gras pots displayed next to an old man's used slippers, so you have to be willing to go through quite a bit of junk in order to find the treasures. But, it was a fun way to spend the morning and I cannot wait to return when I do not have to worry about the logistics of trying to ship my purchases back to the states.

Later that afternoon, I dropped Caleigh and her friend off at her house and on my drive back to the gite, I can’t really explain it, but I felt so at home, so comfortable driving through the idyllic countryside. I could not imagine myself driving back in LA, or living there again.

Later I wrote to my mom about how it just felt like this place was "right for my soul". I explained further that I was really at peace and for the first time in years, I wanted to venture out and try new things (i.e. build and sell/rent houses or gites, write travel stories with Hank, make homemade jam to sell to the toursits...i know, i know, that last one sounds like a stretch, but the thing is, i really think I could do it!).

It just feels like that I'm meant to be here for some reason.

The next morning, Fariba writes an informative, somewhat positive email about the showings of our house and the market in Topanga in general, but suggests that we lower the price slightly so it will move and we agree. Then, a little later, when Hank goes to the marche in Duras so he can also scout properties on his way to and fro, he gets a call from an British friend asking if he would be interested in seeing a dilapidated farmhouse with great potential. Hank agreed that it was a great property, but way to much work and money for us. But, as they were driving back toward Sumensac, they passed the first farmhouse that we fell in love with back in January. Back then, we had inquired with a few realtors in the village about it, but no one seemed to know if it was actually for sale so we did not pursue it. Since there was a hand painted sign with a phone number out front, they called and spoke to the owner who confirmed that it was indeed for sale for $240,000 euros.

We felt like it was a sign. Or maybe, we twisted the feeling into a "sign" that we were indeed supposed to stay in France. Knowing that we could use Hank's skills and expertise in building and renovating home and my passion for entertaining, cooking, gardening, and so on, we began dreaming of what we could do to actually make this work. Rather than build our farmhouse in "Farmville," maybe we could do the real thing!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Big Night

27 March 2010

“The Big Night” La Sauvetat du Dropt sans frontiers Village presentation

Well, we survived it. Hank, Caleigh and I, along with eight other foreigners or “gavaches” as we are called thanks to a word given to outsiders in the 15th century, put together our presentations in front of about 100 villagers explaining where we were from and why we chose La Sauvetat du Dropt as our home in France.

First, Danny from Belgium described how he accidentally came upon this area some 10 years ago when his motorcycle broke down. Ended up finding a farmhouse and later meeting his beautiful wife, Claire from England, whom we had previously met during our first month here when looking for a rental beyond April. Such a small world.

Next, John & Carol presented their hometown of Cornwall and they described how different it looked and felt when compared to the rest of England; so much that I would really like to visit there someday, especially because of it’s “Pagen” celebrations. Who knew and it ‘s probably the part of England some of my ancestors came from I am sure.

Then, there was flamboyant Petra from East Germany, who I could hardly understand, but I couldn’t stop cracking up as she took us through a comical look at life in East Berlin before the wall was torn down. Comparing ultra serious black and white photos of her in her school uniform in the 70’s to her present day attire of a leopard skin blouse, short-short skirt and go-go boots proved yet again that complete deprivation will ultimately cause the opposite effect – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…Petra and I instantly took to each other but unfortunately could not commuicate until her English-speaking boyfriend, Phillipe saved the day and we all agreed to exchange emails since I was able to read and write in French (which she spoke fluently).

Mini American flag (thanks to isabelle I’m sure). Then it was our turn. Although Hank started off a little bit nervously, he recovered quickly and had the audience laughing with his “merci pour le cadeax” as he pointed to the picture of the Statue of Liberty. I was calm for some unknown reason and was even able to make an unscripted joke at Hank’s expense about his being a comediene that also illicited laughter. Caleigh handled her segment like a pro and everyone said how amazing her accent and delivery were.

We also had two wonderful Scottish couples – Peter & Maggie and Helen and Gerry who we befriended easily at the previous few meetings. In fact, Peter and Maggie had us over for a Scottish Whiskey nightcap after the event joined by the sweet Brit couple, Julie and Bob until 2am.

Dino, originally from Italy, had moved to the area back in 1954 when he was 10 years had a great presentation and represented the many Italian immigrants who came to this area in the 1950s.

Finally, Jean-Luc, the Maire of La Sauvetat de Dropt, spoke about why they had wanted to sponsor this event as he described the desire to bridge the differences between the natives and the “gavaches” and hopefully bring everyone together.

Afterwards, we took group pictures for the local newspaper and there was a little cake, juice and wine as we got to mingle with the villagers and town council. We had a few interesting encounters after the event. A mysterious man came up to Hank immediately after the presentation and told him of an elderly bed-ridden man from LA in the area that would love to have another American’s company. I also attracted two sweet French women who were so excited to tell me of their “American connections”; one having a daughter living in Virginia and two grandchildren with dual citizenship of which she was so proud and she said that she loved to visit in America. The other woman just smiled a lot and made me feel like a true celebrity just by virtue of being from America.

We also spoke to the kind Maire who I had previously thought was sort of standoffish, but he opened up and it ends up, he was very interested in the history of the Hollywood sign of which we really could not help much except to explain how it originated in the 20’s or 30’s as a housing development called, “Hollywoodland.”

And of course, there was dear Colette, who we brought to and from the event. For someone who was not even sure if she could actually be able to go out a few weeks ago, she dressed up and looked beautiful and walked with very little assistance (thanks to the nicer weather and fact that she did her exercises before hand).

Isabelle and Thierry were of course there as she was instrumental in organizing this event and Thierry is always so supportive of her, not to mention all of their parents and some of their friends.

We left with such a feeling of community and wishes that we did not have to leave in two weeks. In just 3 short months, we have made such dear friends, feel like we have our own little village and a sense of belonging in France. If we just had some magic beans to pay for an extended stay.

Love you all,


Friday, March 19, 2010

La Sauvetat de Dropt - 1

19 March 2010 Dress Rehearsal for village presentation, “La Sauvetat du Dropt sans Frontiers” (La Sauvetat without borders)

About a month ago, our gite proprietor extraordinaire, Isabelle, (not to mention cow farmer, house builder, sheet metal hauler and local village activist) asked us if we would like to participate in an event she was working on with the local village’s Mairie (mayor’s office). She described it as a presentation to be held in the nearby village of La Sauvetat du Dropt that would bring together the “gavache,” or outsider residents with the locals. As the “gavaches,” we were being asked to put together a presentation that would describe where we came from, what it was like in our native countries and why we all chose to live in La Sauvetat. The residents in turn would get to spend an evening “traveling to distant lands” and hopefully get to know some of their foreign neighbors which I know can be tricky thing to do here (or at least can take years), especially in such small communities such as ours where the locals have lived here for generations.

So at first, I told Isabelle “mais, bien sur” (but, of course) we would love to participate and I quickly volunteered Hank as my mind seems to go completely blank, my face turn beet red and I begin sweating (nice imagery I know) whenever I have the undivided attention of a room full of people. Fortunately, Hank was actually game back in February, especially since it seemed so far off and we truly thought that this would be a little local event of no more than 20 or so people as there is exactly one main street with one boulangerie, one tabac, one petit poste and only two restaurants in the whole town, one of which is not open most of the year.

Well, I guess I kind of underestimated things in retrospect. Super Woman Isabelle does not do anything half-ass and the busier she is (last week alone, she sold a few cows, helped install insulation in their third rental home, prepared the fields for planting, and I believe updated her farm’s blog), the more thinly she seems to be able to stretch herself. She planned and coordinated numerous introduction and rehearsal meetings over the past month between all 12 of the presenters, the Mairie, various “Conseiller Municipale” officials as well as members of the newly formed, Les Associations Sauvetatoises which was in charge of sponsoring this event. In fact, I am pretty sure that just about everyone who is anyone from the La Sauvetat had been included in these early meetings. I am also beginning to get the idea that this is going to be considered quite the village event with many more people attending than I could have imagined, especially now that the posters for it include the number 1, to denote that this is just first in a series of future events.

We meet with our fellow presenters over the course of a month. They are all real nice people from England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium & Italy and we work together to fine tune our newly evolved power point audiovisual presentations. And now seeing how serious everyone seems to be taking this event (the Brits have flags; the Scot bagpipes and a kilt), I have decided to enlist the help of my trusty 81-year old French buddy from Eymet to assist us with some of our translations. Also, because Hank had helped Colette with some floorplan drawings of the new flat in La Sauvetat du Dropt that she plans to move into later this Spring, I suggest that she plan to attend the event as well so she can hopefully meet some future neighbors.

At first she was quite hesitant as she confided, “I have not been ‘out’ in years.” I also know that she was probably worried if her legs would be strong enough for her to walk on her own. I told her to just think about it as Hank and I could pick her up and bring her home and that she could decide at the last minute since it was still a few weeks away. Well, I think that she thought about it for two minutes after I left that day and then began drafting a beautifully composed letter to Les Associations Sauvetatoises offering her translation services at the event to which they graciously accepted. In fact, they asked further, could she come to the rehearsal?

Oh boy. As ecstatic as I am that Colette is going to socialize and get to feel needed again, I also hope I have not created even more work for Isabelle. Colette is amazing and I love her, but with her old Catholic School teaching background, she is quite the perfectionist and she had already taken it upon herself to proof and of course, find mistakes in the Association’s French portion of their newsletter. I could not imagine what she would do to the English speakers’ segments. I try warning Isabelle that they might want to reconsider sticking with the woman that they already had in mind to do the translations, but Isabelle just laughs and tells us to bring Colette anyway and not to worry.

So, Hank and I arrive at Colette’s house about 8pm and although she is slow, her legs have improved considerably and she can walk without assistance. Her complexion is glowing and her shiny, long white and gray hair is pulled up in a bun. She looks stunning and quite alive that evening. Everyone enjoys her company and she mingles effortlessly between the French and British. We make it through our rehearsal, although Hank has chosen a terrible time to tell me that he hates speaking in front of groups and that he is very nervous. After going through everyone’s presentations and sharing some cake and a glass of wine, we drive Colette back home. She is tired, but so excited about her first night out in years and she wants to assist us with our translations and pronunciations as much as we need her the following week. She says that she wants us to really look and sound perfect as our presentation is the most foreign to the French and that the people will be especially interested in our segment. Oh shit…I mean, great.

We help her out of the car and make sure that both she and her cat, Lord Nelson, are safely inside. We talk a little more about how nice the evening was and about our hopes of staying in France should our house in Topanga sell. She becomes quiet for a moment (which is really rare for Madame Delaport) and says with much heartfelt emotion, “I really, really hope that you can find a way to return.” With that, she leans over to signal the ok for the much awaited bissous (the double or triple French kiss that young people give you automatically, but with older people, you must take their lead on this – at least what I have been told). I lean it to the left, when apparently I should have been going to the right according to Hank (there really has not been any consistency to this rule though) and voila! I smack her right on the nose. I’m sure I can hear Hank chuckle as he sits waiting in the car. “Damn,” I think to myself. And although I know she doesn’t think less of me, I’m sure she was thinking something like, “oh, another thing to teach my little Americane friend” when I see her next week J

Monday, March 15, 2010

Jamais Arretez

15 March 2010 “Jamais arretez” or Never Stop

If you didn’t already know, a few years ago, Hank, Caleigh and I started taking French with Arlette in Topanga. It was a wonderful weekly conversational course taught over a class of Rose (Provence being where Arlette is from) & bon bons and although Arlette was/is an incredible teacher, we definitely did not deserve all of the A++’s she often gave us (well, Hank generally received A- for misbehaving and thinking that saying “voulez vous couche avec moi, ce soir” more than once was actually funny). For one thing, we did not practice or study as we should have, but our lives were crazy and we did what we could. At least we had this weekly family night and also met wonderful Arlette and her husband, Andrew, who have since returned to Provence and have been inspirational to us in considering this move to France.

In addition to taking a weekly French class, I also listened to French CD’s on my drive to and from work for over two years, wrote and emailed in French with our current proprietor, not to mention, a few French schools, visa officials and even tried reading French literature. Okay, “Le Petit Prince” and Caleigh’s children’s books don’t count as literature, but let’s just say I tried. All the while, Hank and Caleigh did not study at all, unless you can call Hank’s daily, “Et, voila!” or “Merde” a form of practice.

So, after arriving in France, one would think that out of the three of us, I would be our “guide,” our French interpreter. I imagined translating menus, and signs and thinking that Hank and Caleigh would be so jealous and wish that they had practiced more. Well, it could not have been more the opposite. Caleigh gets tossed into an all French-speaking school and although there are some bilingual American and British kids to help her with translations, everyone speaks French in class and her teachers make a point not to speak any English and expect her to do the same. Does she complain, cry in frustration or refuse to go to school like I am pretty certain I would? Not once. Yes, she was frustrated since she could not understand anything for the first few weeks, but she eventually began to get it and her grades have continued climbing to the point that she is sometimes scores highest in her classes. Damn, I am proud of her.

Then there is Hank. Oh, he’s going to need my help, I am sure I think to myself. Well, after our first soiree at Isabelle & Thierry’s when we met the carpool parents, he not only pulls what little French he knows out of his ass and has the whole French-speaking table cracking up, he speaks it with a Spanish accent. I kid you not. He is now known as the American with the Spanish-accented-French. What Hank does successfully is remain confident and since he has an uncanny ability to remember everything he has ever heard or read, he really manages to pull it off. So much in fact, I am sure that he inadvertently criticized a winemaker’s process when discussing his filtration process and I doubt we will ever be invited back to his vineyard.

Then there is moi. I have written about my little struggles and of course, the petite successes. But all in all, I have had to come to the realization that I really have not gotten it. When my buddy, Richard in England asked me how my French was coming, I was honest and said, it was just more difficult than I had imagined.

“So you were willing, but not able” he joked while reciting my supposed humorous family motto.

“Yeah, so I was.”

So, once we knew we were returning next month, I initially thought to myself, just give yourself a break and stop with the studying and setting yourself up in these constant situations to fail. It felt like a huge relief for about a second, but then it just didn’t feel right. I did not want to give up. I remembered this expression that Thierry kept saying over and over one night at volleyball when we were behind. “Jamais arretez!” as I looked at him blankly or quizzically or a combination of both as I typically do when someone speaks French to me. Instead, I kept hearing, “ja-may saret-tay” and just could not figure it out. “sarettez?, sarettez?, what the hell verb is that?!” and then I couldn’t remember if “jamais” meant “never” or “always”. I never did end up understanding him at the game (we lost that night). But later that night I looked up “jamais”and confirmed it meant “never”(go with your gut next time Cindy) and that the sound of “SA – retay” was just the “s” blending into the verb “arretez” which of course everyone knows, means “stop.” Of course.

Never stop.

So that’s what I have decided to do. Never stop trying. I found this new BBC series on language that I am practicing every morning. I am going to finally finish reading “Le Petit Prince” and who knows, maybe I’ll progress to a non-children’s book next. I boldly went up to the boucher the other day and ordered 1 kilo of de daube du boucher (special cut for making the most incredible beef stew) and later went back to ask for 200g de petit sale (non smokey or salty bacon product). I almost asked a fellow shopper where I could find a “faille de laurier” (bay leaf), but located it before needing too. We are also preparing a powerpoint presentation in French for a local event in the nearby village of La Sauvetat du Dropt being held later this month. In fact, Isabelle comes by in a few minutes to check our translations so I better get going.

So in the meantime, don’t forget, “Jamais arretez!”

Friday, March 12, 2010


12 March –Searching for signs of Spring

I know we’re another week out, but this Dordogne winter has been brutal (locals have repeatedly told us that this winter has been atypical) and I have been scouring every shrub, tree and grass patch for signs of Spring. I’ve never in my life been so bud crazy as I am now and I am just waiting for those suckers to bloom. Living here in the country in the dead of winter has definitely taught me a lot about the seasonal plant lifecycle and I actually appreciate the fact that I got to know the winter cycle very intimately this year. Got to try everything once, right? For one thing, I finally understand what, “plant after all danger of frost” means on the back of a seed packet. I never quite understood it before and definitely never considered that this instruction applied to me living in Southern California.

When we arrived here in Dordogne on January 1, most of the vines had been pruned back to one or two single vines (depending on the grape variety or growing style apparently). Most would probably think this the most unattractive season for a vineyard and I guess I would have to agree, but at least I could finally see firsthand how a grape vine is pruned which is something this avid wine drinker has a certain interest in. And speaking of pruning, my lord, the French do love to prune their trees. I have never seen anything like it and it is hard to believe that they survive after such a hatchet job, but I do know for a fact that indeed they do in the most beautiful way.

We have also been following the farmer’s tending their fields and preparing them for planting soon (after all danger of frost is gone I’m sure). I know it is very hard work, but there is something so peaceful about watching a farmer plow his field in the late afternoon. I haven’t changed my mind about still wanting to be a farmer when I grow up, but I just cannot figure out how to make a living at it (not to mention having absolutely no knowledge of farming really). It just seems so much more noble a field than advertising. I still have to figure this one out though. It’s been the million-dollar question on this trip and I’m unfortunately no closer to the answer after three months.

But, I digress, we also witnessed many of the lambs and calves that were born this winter, being raised for Spring and it is definitely a bit more difficult to order agneau or veau in a restaurant when you see the little cuties taking their first steps in the fields. But I do (still order both as they are prepared so incredibly well here) so, so much for that brief nod at sensitivity.

Luckily the hills and fields stayed beautiful and green all winter and the leafless trees actually made it possible to see the many chateaux and rivers that are usually hidden during the Spring and Summer.

Spring came a little early back home with the birth of Aiden Brown, my brand new adorable nephew on March 5th.

But I am afraid that it won’t feel like Spring comes this year for a dear friend whose mom is battling cancer.

Such is the cycle of life & death with its own joyous or equally, devastating season.

All in all, winter in the Dordogne has been amazing and as Hank and I like to joke about how we “wintered in the southwest of France,” I really wouldn’t change a thing or the season we visited. Although some of the sights were closed in January and February, we have been able to see and do just about everything we wanted without lines or crowds. It has felt slightly apocalyptic at times without a soul at some of the major sights and restaurants, but we have been with the crowds on previous trips and this time it was quite different while we received un-divided and always, kind attention from the French. Yeah, those people “who hate Americans.” Hardly.Oh, I have been frustrated like you would not believe about my inability to get the language on this trip. It’s been a little over three months and even though I do have my “moments” of clarity when buying a rabbit for example, but for the majority of the time, I’m pretty damn pathetic. And as our countdown to return home looms over me, I am desperate to absorb as much as possible as I will no longer have these wonderful audio and visual aides (not to mention, real, live people to converse with) to assist me when we’re back.