So what has happened since your last post in Ireland? (Let the reader note that French keyboards are a disaster, and you are struggling mightily to compose this entry–and possibly all of the future ones as well.)
You stared out the window of the airplane, having just woken up from a near two-hour nap. The Irish guy in the seat behind you read your mind: “Hmm, France looks just like Ireland.” And so it did. The land below was but another patchwork of browns and greens–more browns than Ireland, but a long stretch of varied goemetric shapes on gently rolling farmland, all the same. What did you expect, really? To stare out a window over the “magical” land of South France and see rainbows, faries, and pixie dust? Or, maybe a patchwork of yellows and pinks–do not the French have a giant perfume industry and need to grow thousands of flowers?
You expected to be inundated by the French language–to be overwhelemed and lost in translation. Well, no one really spoke that much, or that loudy. You hoofed it from the Carcassonne airport all the way to town, reading signs in French with relative ease. You stepped into a small shop to buy an apple, and the shop keeper gave the apple to you for free–at least you think, at least you hope. A few random folks attempted to speak to you as you trekked through the city, shouldering your mighty backback and looking plainly lost and confused. Learn to speak and understqnd the language by getting thrown into it–and it was ultimately awkward.
After locating the train station, you decided to march out of the city in order to make camp on the outskirts of town. You knew that it was supposed to be some kind of midievil city, but what you did not expect was to see an enormous castle just sitting a few blocks down–plain as day. You thought surely such an edifice would be closed to the public at those hours, as it was late at night. No. Not only was it open, but it was the center of city commerce–or so it seemed. The castle was enormous and simply staggering. Nothing like the lame Dublin Castle. This was the real deal. Everything you see in fantasy movies.
After thoroughly exploring to castle, you continued on to leave the city, but the sun had long since set. No problem pitching your tent in the dark–but where? As it happened, you passed right on by a proper camp site, bustling with people, providing a lounge, cafe, showers, toilets, and safet–and live music. All for FREE–probably not literally, but you simply walked through the gates, passed everyone, and pitched your tent on the perimeter. Sweet.
The following day was simply an exhausting day of travel. You actually–unbelievably–seamlessly made your way by train from Carcassonne to Nimes, by bus fron Nimes to Alès, and by bus from Alès to Les Vans–located in the Ardèche, which is a mountainous region and looks nothing like the bleak view of overly cultivated land you saw from the airplane window. Les Vans is an adorable and bustling little town. You explored for a little while, then decided to hike out of town to make camp. A couple kilometers down the highway, you found a nice little place which appeared to not be private property. Pitched your tent under a wild apple tree, the presence of which you thought to be rather serendipitous. Apples for dinner; apples for breakfast. More stuff for free.
On Saturday morning, you located your hosts at the enormous–and apparently famous–farmers market. Ronna, your hostess, is an older woman, strong-willed, matriarchal; and American, though she has lived in France for over forty years. Her husband, Honoré, is a somewhat goofy little man–reminds you of Mr. Magoo–with mischief in his eyes, and a southern French accent thicker than molasses.
You did not stay at the market long. Ronna had a wedding to go to, and took you with her. Ok, for all the possible scenarios for which you had packed, a wedding was not one of them. Fotunately, it was an informal event; the bride and groom had already been together for 35 years. You watched the ceremony, ate some food, and fumbled through infantile conversation with a few women curious about your presence. One older woman, Anne, took a particular interest in you, gave you all her contact information and an invitation to stay with her, and then liberabbly started to roll a spliff next to you. Douglas, her marijuana content put yours to shame. (You did not encounter her again at a party later that evening; which co-celebaqted the wedding and a birthday–and which let you taste perhaps the best cake, fruit tart, and chocolate mousse of your life).
When at long last you arrived at the farm, you found yourself taken aback by the breathtaking views–the height of the numerous mountain peaks on all sides, the way the sun bathed the rock and trees. The house itself is rustic and old. Really old. Many of the stones are 300 years old. Some of the stones date back to 1400. The garden plots are small, narrow, and numerous; they descend down the mountains in steps, and the soil of the slope is held in place by hundreds of rock walls. It is like this all over the area–like a colony of giants built flights of stairs up the face of each mountain.
Now when you say rustic, you mean rustic. Two words: chamber pot. Yup. Because it is pitch black at night, and the sky is dense with stars becquse even the moonlight is blocked by the mountqin peaks. So dark, with so many stars that you can see the Milky Way in a long belt accross the sky. The outhouse is a short and treacherous walk down a path along the edge of a cliff, and it is set so close to the edge that one could literally launch himself from the toilet and plummet to his death in the valley thousands of feet down.
With all those mountains, you were sure to get in plenty of hiking on the weekend, as well as a litte swimming in the river Thines, complete with cliff jumping and natrual water slides–every kids dream. You also explored Thines itself, a tiny historic hamlet high in the mountains.
So much to write and so little time (cyber cafe). You help Honoré in the fields during the day, trucking all over the area to different plots. He is an older guy; so the pace of the work is leisurely. In the evenings you read, or sit around gabbing up a storm with Ronnas visiting American friend, who has lived in France for the last 25 years. Her husband is a photographer, and he taught you how to use your camera and thus improved your French. The language has opened itself like a flower; day by day, you understqnd more effortlessly, increase your vocabulary, and volunteer more converstion. Not bad.
A few perks: you have not had coffee or alcohol, or any other drugs since your last encounter with Soma. Though it has made you none the happier, you do feel healthier, and you are sleeping better. You are also weaning off sugar and have a 90 percent organic diet–these folks grow it all. You are learning the language and also how to farm. Drawbacks: you are being eaten alive by mosquitos, and naturally you are a little terrified of their bites after last year.
Lessons about France:
-Many, many people have horrendous teeth. Absolutely god awful. You started brushing your teeth three times a day.
-Cheese and wine are served at all lunches and dinners.
-You have not encountered someone truly smelly, but have encountered lots of awfrul breath. And yes, many women do not shave.
-French has approximately 65,000 words, whereas English has 200,000–and things in French sound childlike in translation.
-A common French breakast is tea brewed in a bowl, then the individuql dunks his butter and honey toast into it. Another weird thing was a half cantaloupe with brandy poured in the middle. You opted for yogurt and honey in th middle instead, and they thought YOU were werid and “very much a west-coast American.”
-The actual EATING of lunch and dinner lasts, on average, an hour (whereas, in the USA; you eat for about 10-15 minutes), and the French chew their food. Meals are brough out in courses; bread is placed directly on the table, rather than on the plate. Cheese is always served at the end of the meals, but before dessert.
-French people are SKINNY. Painfully skinny; despite their diet rich in sausage, wine, and cheese. God, so skinny they would actually be assumed anorexic in the States. They are not, but as a trainer you can see that the people are ratehr under-muscled. What is truly crazy is that French women have a culturql body language. They have a willowy posture; arms held at their sides with limp wrists and elbows pulled beyond their backs so that you can see a little triangle of space. This causes their shoulders and heads to roll forward. Many, many people have forward head posture, and elderly women are suffering from cervical osteoporosis. STAND UP STRAIGHT.
-There is a serious ORDER OF OPERATIONS to eating cheese, and you apparently committed the most disrespectful act against cheese known to the French by incorrectly cutting intoaq new block of blue cheese placed in front of you.
So you know…. one must cut the milder cheeses first; in wedges so that all pieces are equal. Messier, more pungent cheeses must be cut from one side to the other–never dive into the middle for the blue part. Wipe the cheese knife with a bit of bread. When eating the cheese, again you must begin by eating the cheeses in order, from mild to strong, lest you waste your pallet and thereby waste the cheese by consuming it and inadequartely experiencing its flavor.
Sorry France. You did not know; because you come from a country where there is more “cheese product” than actual cheese.