Wednesday, May 31, 2006

from Pierrerue: local time

It cooled off considerably overnight, but the sun remains brighter than bright. No matter, I spent most of the day in Pierrerue. For me, there is no greater motivation to get stuff done than to have the reward of places to go, foods to eat there, waiting. And so I settled in to work.

Not that Tuesday was a total throw away in terms of indulging the senses.There is something to be said for keeping your nose to the local ground. For example: in the morning, I went out in front of my stone hut to search out the legendary bread woman who careens around the villages with the daily supply of breads and baguettes. She came. I purchased.

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And so my breakfast is on the front step of my hut.

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could not resist a bite

From the step, I watch people in my village move into the fields and I visit with my neighbor. I swear she has the tail of another breed of animal. She sits between the two flower pots for most of the sunny hours of the day and comes over if I so much as look her way.

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At noon, I take a short walk around the village, stopping by the notice board at our one intersection. Announcements included a fete coming up on June 10, the "bar" will open in the village center at 19:00 (is there a center? Is it where the number of houses is equal to that going the other way?), dinner at 20:00, make your reservations, here’s the menu. Other announcements: watch out for these caterpillars in your garden. Children, there is a nature walk scheduled for you at this time. All: visit the exhibit of 1936 photographs from the region, at St. Chinian, until May 31st.

I hear it takes twenty years to live in a French village before you are accepted as authentically one of them. And yet, the sense of good will, at the superficial level of greeting, of explaining, of helping, of inviting is there from day one.

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Back to work. By 6, I am ready to quit. I have already worked probably three hours longer than the average French person. I take a walk along the country road. No great sight in the world could inspire a sense of tranquility in the same way that a country walk can, especially amidst blooming golden brush and rocky hills, with freshly green vines filling every spare crevice.

The soil is so poor here, but so pretty to look at. Red soil, gray rock, green vine, golden brush. A palate for an painter. The sun now feels warm, but the winds are there, famously strong. They account for the cloudless skies here. And for the huts built in fields, so that the farmers can find shelter when they gust through unexpectedly and dump stuff on a winter soil.

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In the evening I am with car, but I stay local. One more attempt at finding a good eating place at St. Chinian. Yes! It’s there! I am your devoted client, your fan, your admirer for life, well no, for three weeks. Madame Suzanne, you are a genius. Or, your husband (M. Regis) is, or both of you are. We shake hands at the end. She knows she’s got me in the palm of hers.

It’s called La Caleche and it is right on the village square. As in every French restaurant, there is a set menu and I leap to try it: menu du terroir – of the region, combining the flavors of St. Chinian.

I wont fill you with details. A quick photo run should do it – from the melted chevre with pine nuts, in puff pastry, to the duck breast with fig sauce and a cheese ravioli, selections from the cheese board and a warm local chestnut flan.

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with melted chevre and pine nuts

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with fig sauce and a cheese ravioli

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from local chestnuts

I am so glad to have the car to drive back up the hill to Pierrerue at night. If I use it for nothing more than that, it will have been worth it. (Ridiculous statement. Of course I use it for more. The very next day.)

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

from Pierrerue: good men, bad men; good food, bad food; nudity and all beautiful things surrounding water and being fifty and then some

[Caution: this is an awfully long post. Tomorrow’s will be shorter, I promise.]

Should a woman, traveling alone, be cautious about putting herself in potentially troubling situations? Well, yes, but without necessarily avoiding potentially interesting (and information generating) encounters. I go with the motto that so long as there are people around, no harm can come my way. The accompanying motto is do not give out your real name or phone number if you are at all thinking that you may actually have someone make use of it.

On Sunday I had my worst meal yet of the entire trip and I had my sleeziest encounter as well. Not deterred, on Monday, I had a wonderful meal and a wonderful encounter. Both had innocent beginnings and, thankfully, innocent endings. I’m used to traveling alone and I am used to reaching out to strangers. And I am used to this leading to good outcomes and occasionally a not so good one.

I was psyched for trying out one of the three or four eateries in St. Chinian. This is to be my town, the place where the waiters will know me by name and kiss both cheeks every time I enter, the place where I know the menus by heart. Okay, I am eliminating from further consideration the place I went to Sunday eve. It may be fine by North Dakota standards (no insult there, it’s just that I’ve not heard anyone ever rave madly about an eating establishment in North Dakota), but here, you come to expect a lot more.

But before even sitting down to dinner, I was passing by a rowdy group just outside a bar next door. They were so exuberant! So I asked one guy to explain what was going on. It turns out they were supporters of a local rugby team. The team had lost that day, but this certainly would not keep anyone from coming out to cheer about their non victory.

The guy I asked was a chatty type. In providing full and detailed explanations of everything having to do with the sport of rugby, his home town and all in between, he bought me what he considers to be a local aperitif (kir, claimed as local by nearly every village in France) and he got quite close. You know, so that he could be heard. In the ten minutes I spent there in that crowd, I had nearly a dozen people come up and tell me that I should watch out for this dude. My camera and my entrance smile make me look quite like the innocent abroad. In any event, it’s never impossible to leave when you are in such public places and so I did. Only to have a bad meal. It was a gloomy and very dark fifty minute walk back to Pierrerue that night.

On Monday, I took a public bus (with all the village high school children from this area) to the big town of Beziers. They were going to school, I was going to pick up a car. I cannot move much without one and the intended motorbike rental turned out to be too difficult to contemplate.

In Beziers, I finally had one of those moments where you are in love with your setting. My setting actually wasn’t that spectacular – Biziers is just alright, acceptable only if you are passing through ever so quickly, but the café and croissant were nothing short of magnificent.

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And so now I have this car. And I am on this morning close to the coast. I had wanted to see what the coastal towns and beaches were like here, at the point in France where it is almost Spain but not quite. And I wanted to see the first segment of the Canal du Midi.

You know about the Canal du Midi, right? It is more than a three hundred year old canal and it came to be built because of the pirate issue around the Rock of Gibraltar. One good way to avoid the pirates is to dig a canal through France between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

The canal is a fascinating 240 kilometers of locks and water slopes, connecting waterways all the way to Toulouse where it dumps boats into the rivers leading to the Atlantic. It is also a work of art, with the recognizable rows of old, evenly spaced trees making it all extraordinarily photogenic. So expect to see a lot of Canal du Midi photos in the next three weeks.

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resting places for barges and boats

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But the other body of water that I fell madly in love with on this day was the sea. I was driving along the coastal road up to the historic port of Sete and finally, I could not resist it. The sun was strong, the water was breathtakingly beautiful, there were gusts of wind and really, you cold not ask for a finer day to walk along hot golden sands.

Two things surprised me. There were cars parked along the side of the road and every several dozen feet there would be an umbrella or two, but not so many. Surely this place will swell with people in July and August, but now it is extremely uncrowded.

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one umbrella here

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on this windy day, another one here...

And the women are topless.

We are not talking about a nudist beach. There are those as well, but this is just one very public stretch of sand, right next tot the road, and there they were, not all, but a great many, old and young, walking around and wiping an occasional grain of sand from under an often sagging breast.

It was such a beautiful hour, there in that Mediterranean sun. I stretched out by a dune, rolled around some in the warm sand, walked by the water’s edge and studied these:

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...wait, friend or foe?

…and generally thought evil thoughts about Victoria’s Secret and the post sixties generation that rejected early attempts to burn that damn bra for good (except for jogging – I can see its virtues then).

I did not stay too long because, brown as I am, I am not brown all over and without sunscreen, you can do some serious damage to yourself on those beaches, but I have to say that this was one great hour of bliss this week.

In the town, my little info booklet told me that I should climb up a hill to take in the spectacular layout below. Surrounded by sea on two or three sides, connected to the mainland by strips of sandy beach, broken up by an old canal running through the town center, it really is quite the marvel.

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canal down the middle

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looking at it (later) from the top

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to the south, the beaches

And so I ask for directions of a person who looked like he might know the area.

Diego lives here, alone. He looks local, speaks local, eats local. Early in our conversation, he had been telling me about his beautiful grown up children and so I pointedly asked:
do you have a…(momentarily the word for wife escaped me)
Concubine? He asks, completely seriously. No.

He had once married a Parisian woman, had children with her, then decided she worked too hard and he wanted, instead, a life of beaches and fishing and singing late into the night (he is Catalan and earns money as a Flamenco singer). You could call that either romantic or foolish. She saw it as the latter and stayed up north. He’s been here for years.

He was giving me directions, in fact leading me up toward the proper roads when I interrupted to ask where I could get a good lunch salad. Sete does not lack eateries. There are lots and lots of them and so one must be suspicious, particularly after last night’s poor dinner.

Diego’s accent was thick and sprinkled with dialect, but he knew to speak slowly and I could easily follow along.

These places, they are mostly bad. For tourists. But there is one place that you will really like. Le Pique Boeuf. They make excellent salads, fish dishes, local foods. It is excellent. I know it well, I sing there every Saturday evening.

I ordered the bouillabaisse. Anyone who has eaten with me in seafood restaurants knows that I always order a bouillabaisse if it is on the menu. And here I am, practically at the birthplace of this flavorful concoction.

The staff was effusive. They brought tasting plates of mussels and olives and dates and on-the-house aperitifs (it’s a local one! Kir!) and I was there for more than two hours. Diego invited himself to accompany me, sipping on a cup of sweet tea and watching me find pleasure in eating.

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a little extra, on the side

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displaying what he'll place in the bowl

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almost ready

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He invited me as well to come back and hear him sing. I protested – it’s a two hour drive to Pierrerue. He assured me that I could stay over at his very large apartment, but that violates my motto number two and so I nodded and spoke of trying, but really I will not do any of it, interesting as a night of Catalan-Flamenco would be.

Several post scripts and then I’ll stop. First, The waitress there was thrilled that she could chat up an American. She has this dream. She wants to be a make-up specialist for film. The kind that puts on fake old noses and wrinkles the skin some, etc. She is adamant about this. She will go to study in the one school here that teaches this craft (in Strasbourg) but she feels sure there is in America a school that does it better. She was not able to find anything on the Net. I told her I’d ask around. Let me know if you know of one.

Secondly, Diego, my all around problem solver for the afternoon, also finally cleared away my coffee issues. I am renting the apartment from an English woman. The English haven’t the need to start the day with a great coffee and so their coffee making utensils are of the uninteresting kind. I wanted to purchase my own stove top espresso maker for my use here. But where? So far I had wasted time on this found nothing.

Diego told me that I needed to go to what he referred to as the Arab bazaar. Sete, as most cities in France, has a significant community of Muslims. They tend to form clusters in the poorer sections of a city and they operate a number of stores which are geared toward their own families. And sure enough, my Italian moka pot was there, at the bazaar, priced at 5 Euros (one fifth of what I would have paid in a department store).

Thirdly, so long as I was in this bigger town, I decided to also put to rest my search for sandals. I cannot find anything ever for the summer in the States that fits well, looks stylish enough and is reasonably priced. In France, none of these are a problem.

Indeed, I found two pairs in a cool store and I loved both. So much so that I was working hard on developing my justification reasoning so that I could convince myself that buying both was okay.

A woman, a shopper, herself stylish, of course, paused and looked at me inquisitively. I can’t decide between the two, I explained.

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which one?

She pointed to one and said: that one of course. The other, it is for a little girl.

With those words, she unwittingly dismissed half the women’s footwear sold back in Madison. Practical and like a little girl would wear.

And here is why I love being my age and in France. This is the age that you look forward to here. You have style. You have superior knowledge. You teach young women how to do right by themselves and young men how to make love with care. You are in your prime. People look up to you, admire you. Being young isn’t nearly as attractive as being in your fifties. A midlife crisis must manifest itself when you are experiencing great frustration that you are not yet there. Like purgatory, it is your limbo time. The summit has yet to be reached. And when it is reached, it appears to last for a long long time. It is an attitude I love and share.

Monday, May 29, 2006

from Pierrerue: living the good life

Several corrections to the previous post: first, my patron (neighboring) town, St. Chinian, is bigger than I thought. In addition to the grocery store and bakeries, it supports at least two meat stores.

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St. Chinian, from across the river

Second, I do not mean to imply that the French opt for leisure the minute the week-end begins (sometime early on Friday). They work hard, for example, at eating. 24/7. It is, therefore, no surprise that food stores are open Sunday morning and St. Chinain’s market days are Thursday and Sunday. And it is a big deal market. More on that later.

Third, though it is true that St. Chinian is not geared for tourism, neither is it 100% French. It is 95% French. And 1% miscellaneous European (guess German), here to sample and buy up some good wine options. And a solid 4% British. I could tell from the market. They were there, turning pink under the fierce southern sun (this part of the country is in the midst of a heat wave so that it is sunny and bright and in the low nineties, though nicely breezy and not at all humid).

I think the British must be doing well by themselves because they are the new Japanese as far as traipsing around European destinations goes. No cameras though. Just hats to keep the sun at bay and walking sticks. They seem to like a good walking stick to help push things along.

We first encountered them in Dubrovnik. There, they were just passing through. Lots and lots of pensioners, slowly passing through. A day, no more, and off to the next destination.

In St. Chinian, they are here for the season. Or for good. They have purchased simple homes and they go to the market and they turn pink and I’m sure they thank the Lord that they are not up north under the murky drizzly British skies.

My landlord at Pierrerue is such a person (hence the lovely flowers at the doorway). She lives somewhere in the vicinity of St. Chinian and she keeps this flat for occasional family use, but mainly I imagine to help the budget along. And she is not the only one. Downtown, I saw a real estate agent’s ad plastered on the wall with “English spoken” written at the bottom.

At the market today, I was a puzzle since I obviously am not local-sounding but I also do not turn pink; I am actually quite dark by now as a result of Sicily, Croatia and now here. The newset guess is --Spanish? I did overhear several of the sellers muttering a few English words, clearly prepared for the invasion from the Isles.

The British expats do seem to retire for the day early. Last night, when I stumbled into town late in the evening, I saw none of them. But the market brings them out. They drive in from their country homes, in their modest cars, and they shop and sip a beer or coffee and chat up the other expats mingling about.

Okay, that brings me back to the market. It was one of those extravagant markets that brings to town all that is needed to make life move forward. Half food, half practical clothing, it is there to ensure your survival until the next one (Thursday). I took some photos of course, but only of products I myself bought. So if you see it here, you can assume that it made its way home with me (among other unphotographed purchases). Heavy bundles, hot walk, uphill most of the way. But with a water bottle. I learn.

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called a "country baguette," it has a thicker texture and a beautiful crust

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I've been asked if food is more expensive here, given the emphasis on quality. Is it?

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farmer's son gets to pick his own cherries

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which would you buy?

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absolutely passionate about his organic oils

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I ask, so, what's local here? He answers, I am!

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everyone carries one; it saved my foods from becoming soup on this warm day

I did also visit a wine store – it is this town’s raison d’etre, after all. And I am glad, because wines of this region (the general area of Languedoc, running basically from the western edges of the Mediterranean down to the foothills of the Pyrenees) are my staple back home. I love a good Bordeaux, but my budget loves Languedoc wines even more. Needless to say, here, they a steal, rarely topping 5 Euros a bottle.

I desperately need visitors. I cannot myself drink all that I want to sample.

St Chinian (the AOC ones) are predominantly red so that makes it a little easier since I am a predominantly white enthusiast. But still, they have a fantastic selection of my very favorite summer beverage – French rosés and so I am back to panicking that my three weeks will end and I still will only begin to know the different choices. Life can be so difficult.

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at a store selling only wines of Languedoc

Back at the apartment I would have collapsed, but remember, I am a changed woman. Not only do I sit down for lunch in cities, I cook my own if I happen to be in a village with nowhere to sit down except at my own table. The market foods need to be cooked and eaten otherwise I cannot justify shopping for more next market day. Again, guests are welcome to help move things from market to table, only please find your own place to stay. It would be too cozy in my little apartment for more than the most intimate of guests.

N.b., I had fancied myself eating lunch on the little terrace with the spectacular view, but it’s not going to happen. It is toasty hot in the afternoon and the shade of the tree only means that the are wonderful little tweetie pies out there, mating and eating and basically using the patio as their loo. Inside the cool stone house it will be and I am not sorry. I feel like others in the Mediterranean region who retire for several hours, close the shutters against the heat and do the eat and sleep number. Only in my case, it’s eat and blog.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

from Pierrerue: quiet

A one hour hike, a half-hour bus ride, a two hour local train, a three hour TGV (French bullet train), an hour bus ride, a ten minute car ride, a three hour Internet installation process. That was my Saturday. You guess which one from this list failed me.

You think it’s the Internet set up, right? No! I am on! Slow, but chuggin' away! Then was it the local buses? No! Like clockwork. Well then the hike. Walking for an hour from the Savoie restaurant-with-rooms to the bus stop, with my supremely heavy backpack, wheeling the suitcase up hills, down hills, around hills – foolish, yes? Maybe, but I managed (and saved Euros by avoiding monsieur le expensive taxi).

What failed was the TGV: the bullet train stopped in Montpellier and could not get itself going again. For hours. Oh, technology.

No matter, thanks to miracles and favors along the way, I made it to the village of Pierrerue – home for the next three weeks. I am living in a tiny apartment in an old stone corner of a long-gone castle courtyard.

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Some enterprising soul ran wiring and plumbing in through the original walls. The place has two tiny windows, but if you take the trouble of walking over to one, the views are of the countryside. Like this:

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Pierrerue is in the heart of the hilly wine making region of St Chinian. Pierrerue itself has maybe a dozen houses, a church, a rooster, and a bus stop. I understand a bus comes through once a day. Oh, and on weekdays, the bread man comes through the village. He rides down the street shouting his presence and people come out to buy their baguettes. The French cannot live without a fresh baguette daily.

I am a forty minute walk from the town of St. Chinian (downhill getting there, very uphill coming back). St. Chinian is not a tourist destination. It has no hotel that I'm aware of, no internet café. It is small. But it has one large tree shaded square, four bakeries, four restaurants and a grocery store. And a market twice a week.

I am where I want to be – in the deep French countryside. Happily, the rooster is a French rooster: he comes out on a fine evening looking and sounding great and then sleeps in the next day. Even the church bells are quiet this morning. It’s Sunday, a do not much of anything kind of a day.

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

from Le Bourget du Lac : in search of something

It became clear as anything that, in spite of my purchasing a year’s subscription to France’s Internet (no, I am not moving here; this was the shortest and cheapest way to link with the world from the apartment I am about to inhabit), I need more equipment to proceed. I need the special, ridiculously idiosyncratic French phone plug. Their sockets appear to be (sometimes) different from ours.

And so the day was allocated to a morning of work and an afternoon of bus travel to big Chambery (not that big by our standards, but certainly bigger than, say, Janesville) where I was to acquire a phone transformer-connector-whatever, words fail me as I continue my search for a more stable solution to my Internet problem.

I purchased the phone plug immediately, but I stayed in Chambery for a while. The town is enchanting.

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The entire region of Savoie is France as you imagine France to be and Chambery is as you imagine a French town would be on a fantastically sunny Friday afternoon. People fit the stereotype here. Shops sell fantastic pastries, waiters stand around caressing their girlfriends and people in general do nothing, brilliantly.

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I noticed that France has changed me. It is no longer even a question. I eat lunch here. I read the descriptions of their salades on posted menus and I rush to order one. Today, after great deliberation, I settled for the one with warm, toasted local chevre. I am in Savoie, damn it, I must do as the Savoieuse do (I’ll pass on kissing waiters; not that they don’t tempt, but there such a thing as trying too hard to fit in).

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One thing has not changed though: my love of clothes shopping here. I find the stores in this country far too tempting for my own good. Maybe it has something to do with admiring the French sense of style. Maybe I have a hidden desire to be like them, to look, move, speak like them. They seemed to have mastered the art of presentation so well. In any event, when the stores start pulling up the shutters at three to reopen for an afternoon of business, it’s best that I leave town.

And so I head for the Tourist Office and pose what I think is a natural question:
Can you suggest a trip into the true Savoie countryside? Like I see in posters? You know, with fields and goats and spring flowers and stuff?
The woman behind the desk takes it in stride. She must be used to tourists asking ridiculous things. But there are limits to what they can offer us. I haven’t a car and it is getting late in the day. Their mind is probably already on where to eat le diner, not on where to seek out pastures and poppies.

Still, the French are resourceful. I am told to take a bus from the station to the village of Challes-les-Eaux. Not too far. From there I can walk into the vraie Savoie.

I am a fan of French buses. They are inexpensive, clean, comfortable, they run on schedule and the bus driver not only greets every passenger, but also bids him or her a cheerful au revoir and bonne journee at the end of the ride. And since passengers get off toward the rear, the bus is filled constantly with hearty back and forth wishes for pleasant afternoons and good days. It’s all rather reassuring and motivating. It makes you want to step down and try your hardest to indeed have the finest day possible.

In the village of Challes-les-Eaux I think I should solicit advice. True Savoie countryside doesn’t just throw itself at you, you have to state your claim and head up the proper paths. And so I seek out the tiny regional office of tourism. That this office is underused and overstaffed is possibly the understatement of the day. I would bet anything they had not had walk-in inquiries for weeks. Madame could hardly move herself from her comfy chair to the front desk. She was not used to dealing with, well, people.

But behind that tired from doing nothing countenance there was a person with knowledge. As I went into my pathetic I want to see poppies and cows and pastures and farms and true Savoie countryside little jingle she sat back and studied me in the way that one does when one is trying to determine if the person is serious.

You know, we have a flying school not too far. You could see a lot from up in a little plane… Can I direct you to it?
My God, no. I want to step on soil, smell the hay... Ultimately, we settled for something more down to the ground. She took out a map, worked her little highlighter all over it and directed me to exactly what I had been searching for. Something that fit my images of what Savoie countryside is all about: cows against the backdrop of the Alps. Beehives, poppies, fields of wheat. Poplars and blooming acacia. Windows with lace curtains and flowerboxes. If you look for it, you will find it.

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Several bus rides and another hike later, I was back at my corner table at Atmospheres restaurant. Evening was setting in. The doors and windows were open so that the sweet fragrance of acacia blooms and roses from the outside came in to tangle with the savory kitchen smells. Alain outdid himself. I ordered from the standard menu: an appetizer, fish, meat, cheese and dessert, but Alain threw in extras. I ate and people watched for hours. It was a good thing fresh plates of food appeared on a regular basis or I would have dozed off in sheer contentment. Fresh country air, great food, Savoie wine, doing nothing. Mellows you out completely.

Just two photos, of two desserts – one blending basil with berries and the other blending a hot chocolate soufflé cake with a cold icecream on a stick. Perfection.

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