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I don’t care what the weatherman says ….

‘If the weatherman says its raining, you’ll never find me complaining’ goes the Louis Armstrong classic ‘Jeepers Creepers’.   Which some days, in fact some summers – this we are told is the worst for 100  years for sunshine and the worst since 1977 for rainfall,  is just as well.

You might recall that we had started out for Paris at midnight or thereabouts and arrived just before 6 a.m.  By 11 O’Clock I was clear of the Embassy and we walked a little before heading back to the car and out of the city for the long drive home.  And it is still a long drive – that 500 km to get to Paris is exactly the same on the way back.  We decided to stop for lunch in Orleans, capital of le Loiret in the region known as Centre because that’s just exactly where it is.  In the centre. And in the centre we found a lovely restaurant which filled us full of fish (me) and pork (him).  The waiter had clearly stepped straight out of Le Cage aux Folles sporting the skinniest of skinny jeans, a very chic loose white shirt with a smattering of flowers, Converse low-tops which matched my own and hair tied back in a tiny tight bun. He spun and pranced with zesty aplomb and I could happily have taken him home and put him in my wardrobe to pull him out when I need a breath of fresh air in my life.  The rain had persisted down on Two Brains and The Bean whilst they waited for me in the park opposite l’ambassade and it increased as we drove south.  We were cold and wet when we arrived at the restaurant but a replete belly does much  to improve damp spirits and after a quick flick round the city in the car and a decision to visit in the dry some day we set off again through the rain towards our ultimate goal.

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Some time ago, I expressed a desire to see Bourges (capital of the Cher also in Centre).  I pass by the signs whenever I do the long drive to Calais or back (or, indeed the slightly shorter trip to Paris).  Where Orleans is a pretty plateful – half timbered buildings, a cathedral that ranks with the finest in France and the river running stately through the middle, Bourges is frankly gluttonous.  Everywhere you turn are cobbled streets lined with those beauteous half timbered houses reminiscent of Stratford (upon Avon not Olympic Central).  The Cathedral is enormous, monstrous even.

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Overall and oddly Bourges didn’t do it for us.  It stuffed us full but left us feeling empty.   It confused us and that was the problem – Bourges doesn’t quite know what it is.  But the fact is that it is so much easier to have a strategy when you are one thing.  If you are a small and perfectly formed medaeval or whatever epoque village or even a middle sized or large one you have an identity and your planning can and should encapsulate that.  If on the other hand you have been an important place since Roman times, have a plethora of half timbered Shakesperian houses, a volume of 17th and 18th Century masters dwellings and a cathedral which mushroomed in a mere 60 years to be a soaring gothic monster you have an identity crisis in your melting pot.  DSCF8516Of course a melting pot can work,  but the real problem comes when the place has been ripped to bits by allowing nondescript modern buildings in the centre and no thought has been given to the way they harmonise with the old.   Of course the heavy hitters all over the world, the big iconic cities, can cope because they have huge budgets born of investment and commerce but for a place like Bourges with an embarrassment of historic gems but a total reliance on their tourist income it must be beyond challenging to manage.   If someone comes along with an idea and a desire to be in the city then taxes and the prospect of employment force the good folks of the town to say yes, eager to enhance the towns coffers – those same coffers that must be stretched to breaking by the voracious needs of so many historic treasures.  We have since discovered that the town has quite the problem with vandalism and youth crime – this, it seems is the fate of such places the world over and I wish I was smart enough not just to question but to dish out the answers.   The people, though,  were thronging and despite the looming skies and damp underfoot it still looked the fine historic town that it is.

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We made our way to a cafe and as we sat down the sky unzipped and a deluge of biblical proportions (not the first and not the last of this journey) flashed down.  We sat outside, The Bean sensibly hiding under the table which, though protected by an awning began to puddle nicely. The place was staffed by three men – the oldest, clearly the boss and a younger man who swiftly took our order, coffee and creme brulee for me and chocolat chaud and a mousse au choc/vanille for Two Brains.  Picked up off the table and cradled like a baby in our arms, it remained dry enough to eat swiftly.   We watched a young woman with a baby in a buggy all enveloped in a rainhood with the older child wearing her coat to protect him.  Sleeves down to the floor and dragging feet he clearly felt it unfair that the baby had the luxury of cover whilst his mop of hair was stuck to his head with cold water that then ran down his cheeks in pesky rivulets.  She smiled and smiled and the little boy will look back one day and realise what a good mummy he has.  We attracted the attention of the youngest of the trio of staff and asked for more drinks.  He looked at our now sodden bill, loped inside and 15 minutes later was still affecting to clean behind the bar.  Older man passed.  We said we had asked for coffee and he leapt indoors shooting the boy a look and saying a very few words that proved suffficient to galvanize, nay ignite the youngster.  Smiling to himself the boss retreated.  One day the boy will look back and remember what a good boss he had ….

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PS:  Like many I’m a sucker for a gargoyle and amongst all the amazing carvings surrounding the cathedral was this absolute gem who looks for all the world like Voldemort in J K Rowlings Harry Potter series.DSCF8508

We’ll always have Paris ….

Last week the usual suspects – the two of us and the extremely small  dog got into the car at midnight ten and headed for the bright lights of Paris.  It’s about 500 km to Paris and we had an appointment at the US Embassy just off Place de la Concorde at 08:50 sharp.    Dog settled under her blanket in the soft basket she travels in when we drive – the definition of a ‘litter’ is a mode of transport powered by humans (often slaves) in which the high-born travel in luxury.  That pretty well says it in terms of The Bean in transit.

The two of us are well versed in long drives living where we choose to.  So one of us drives for 2 hours and then we swap, the theory being that you get some sleep.  We at least rest.  Nonetheless, arriving as we did in the City of Lights at a little before 6 a.m was slightly hallucinagenic.  I was driving as we headed down the right bank of the Seine and Two Brains snapped like a Jap as le Tour Eiffel loomed ahead.  Frank (pronounced Fronk after the wonderful wedding planner in ‘Father of The Bride’), our SatNav, called us ever onwards to our destination and was surprisingly accurate in finding a carpark right opposite our destination in Rue Gabriel.  So amazed were we that he had pinpointed what we had asked for (he has a talent for getting tired and emotional at the most inopportune moment) that we drove past and had to do a sweeping circuit back again.  Safely parked we surfaced into the great iconic square and this is the point – it was almost empty – insignificant traffic around, the sky lightening and for once an almost uninterrupted view of a landmark.

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The drive was entirely worthwhile.  Whatever awaited in the Ambassade (and for that you will have to wait) somehow didn’t matter in that moment in the slicing chill of the early morning which could only come close to being spoiled by a hugely rude waiter at breakfast.  And believe me, he tried ….

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PS:  The quote is, of course, from Casablanca and is attributed to Howard Koch one of several screenwriters who came and went in the process of producing that miracle of a film.

I’ll be your dog!

We walk.  The Bean and me and HB2, when he is here makes three.  There are 340 marked PR (petit randonnees) across le Cantal and I have set myself the ideal of walking all of them.  In keeping with the rest of France these are marked walks, mostly circular and varying in length and difficulty.  The simple colour coding system tells you if it is easy (blue), longer and more difficult (yellow) or very long and varying in difficulty (green).  One weekend recently we decided to drive to the far north east of the departement (a drive of about 1.5 hours) and do a nice long green walk.  The duration was estimated as 4.75 hours for the 14.5 km.  We packed a picnic of cheese and bread and tomatos and set off.  The day was glorious – sunny, hot and with a fair scattering of the fluffiest white clouds dancing across the bluest of blue skies.

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The walk was glorious too … and along the way we three became four.  About 5 km into the walk having marvelled at a tiny Roman bridge, failed to find a museum founded by two young boys aged 11 and 16 in the 1990’s housed in a pain four they restored themselves, and nattering contentedly whilst watching The Bean foraging and ferreting as she does, we entered a petit hameau.

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 As we exited the village it could not escape our notice that a young and very boisterous German Shepherd dog, ears yet to stand upright so probably no more than 8 months old, was running along beside us.  We stopped and shooed him home.  We walked back up the road to encourage him but, oblivious, he continued out of the village.  After a kilometre we were concerned – he was haring in and out of fields, he was very very happy, joyous in fact, but he clearly was not clear about where he lived.  Let me put this in to context – this is a huge and rural area … houses are scattered and he did not appear to belong in the hamlet we had traversed.  The Bean was getting fed up with being carried to prevent canine fisticuffs so we decided to release her and let them bond or not.  DSCF8108At this point I named the dog Boomerang for not so subtle reasons.  We spoke to him in French – he was quite forgiving of our accents but he obviously had absolutely no notion whatsoever of discipline.

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An hour later, so three hours into the walk, we decided it was time for lunch.  The puppy sat nicely on the other side of the track on whose grassy verge we had plonked our behinds and watched intently as HB2 wielded the Opinel (as essential a French accessory as a mobile phone to an adolescent, this is a wooden handled foldable knife which comes in a huge variety of sizes … the blade on ours is about 3 inches) to cut cheese and bread.  What lovely manners I murmured – he clearly knows not to disturb his humans when they are eating.  DSCF8109The words barely vapourised in the air, he leapt up and floored me and I, like a beetle on my back, was helpless to fend off his face-licking.  ‘Non’ bellowed Two Brains at which the dog fell back looked around and seized up my spectacle case before bounding up the path and lying down with his trophy triumphantly pinned between his front paws.  We hastily finished our peturbed picnic and packed up.  The dog surrendered the glasses case and off we set again.DSCF8142

The day was hot and of course got hotter as hot days always will, so when we entered the sweet and tiny hamlet, no more than a farm, a couple of houses and the remains of a church now welded to a barn, we were gently fatigued.  DSCF8123Actually we failed to notice the welded church as we searched for the table d’orientation so that we could regally survey the landscape laid out below us.  We found, we surveyed and we assumed l’ancien eglise must have succumbed to the elements at some point because it was no-where to be seen.  Assume, as our youngest daughter regularly reminds me, makes an ass out of you and me.  And as we walked on now following yellow markers (we had been following green and then green and yellow together which is not unusual – the paths often link for a while) and occasionally consulting the book for reference points the terrible truth began to dawn.  We, The Bean and the adopted dog which showed absolutely no sign of fatigue were on a different walk.  And the walk was taking us in entirely the wrong direction.  In this terrain it is not a simple matter of backtracking so we took the decision to continue in a circle back to the village with the viewing point.  And from there try to find our own walk.  That this meant in total a deviation of 6 km with a stray dog seemed perfectly reasonable to our heat-shrunk minds.  And so it was that this raggle taggle foursome made its way back into the village and joy of joys there, beside the welded church which we had failed to notice before which was indeed (as the book told us it was) opposite a table d’orientation (not the one we had found earlier but one looking in the opposite direction – so we have now regally surveyed the entire 360 degrees of landscape laid out before us in this lovely spot), joy of joys in addition there was life – there were people.  Real people.  A woman coming out of her milking parlour, two little girls of around 6 years old and a smaller little boy and, as it turned out, the most joyous of all – Granny!  The imposter dog disgraced himself by hurling upon the children with us shouting – ‘he’s not ours – he’s following us’.  But as deranged as this must have sounded these lovely people helped us.  Granny really.  The younger woman did not understand a map which is entirely reasonable given that she knows perfectly well where she is and doubtless can find her way anywhere necessary with no problem at all.  They clearly thought us mad to be wanting to walk but Granny showed us the way, even tipping us off for a shortcut and with much waving, sighing relief and many thanks we continued on what would be the last 5 or 6 km of our epic journey.  The dog was still with us – Granny had advised us to find the mayor in the town and pass the problem to him.  We felt rather bonded to Boomerang by now and agreed that if we were by now in our own house with a garden (the search is on) we would keep him.DSCF8141

It was on this last part of the journey that I realised that he had clearly been a commando in a previous life.  He took to leaping up high banks and running ahead of us only to explode down on us again when we least expected it.  This was very funny except when we were walking high above a small river and he decided the best approach was to divebomb The Bean and see how funny she would look bouncing down the sides of what, in my tired, vaguely emotional and borderline delirious state seemed to be a very steep ravine.  We put him on her lead (perfectly adaquate for her, this slender piece of leather looked more than faintly ridiculous on the overgrown puppy).  It was clearly a new experience and took all of Two Brains strength to keep him vaguely steady.  At the end of the path, relieved that we were coming into the last village before our destination, we let him run again.  We were just congratulating ourselves at how clever we were to train him a teeny bit in the hours (and by now it had been 5 hours) he had been with us when he bowled us the googly of the day.   At the entrance to the village was a huge, very old and very deep water trough – the sort that entire small herds of cattle could take their fill at when moving from field to field or field to barn for milking.  The sort that appear in Constable paintings of rural idyll in the 18th Century.  DSCF8152Rambiggles the divebombing commando dog went over to look, braced himself and leaped in.  Being steep sided he could not get out.  That in itself was bad enough but I should tell you that the water was gloriously embellished with hugely swollen cowpats across its entires surface … how, why, I know not.  I prefer to keep it that way.  Sighing the sigh of the resolute and exasperated, Two Brains walked over, hooked the dogs collar and pulled.  I held my breath so hard I think I may have turned blue because Two Brains can’t swim.  Images swam infront of my tired eyes of me, anchored by The Bean, having to pull the pair of them out.  Or me diving in and shouldering them as The Bean hooked them out.  I was well and truly scared.  I am happy to report that none of this came to pass and the dog was liberated.  And liberally drenched us with stinking water as he shook himself dry.

Onwards to our destination and we sank onto the tailgate of our car, changed our boots, ate biscuits and wondered what on earth to do … Sunday night is not the night to find a mayor and we didn’t feel like ringing 112 and declaring an emergency.  Lights from the Auberge called us like moths and we walked in – it was quite a chic establishment and we looked and probably smelt like something you would cross the street to avoid,  but thankfully the lady in charge was sweet and accomodating and took control.  Dog was fed, shut in and the Mayor informed in the morning.  We have since heard that he has been returned to his rightful owners.  For how long is a dubious question – this dog is in dire need of a high fence, a strong lead and Barbara Woodhouse (or for those of you not old enough to remember her … Dog Borstal!)DSCF8132

PS:  The necessary PS.  So touched were we by the lovely attitude of the family high up on the rounded hill who helped us that the following week we returned with a box of sweets to thank them.  The look on the face of Granny and the children was enough to warm my heart for the rest of my life.  We chatted for a while – she said she was pleased to have helped us, that she could no longer walk where we had walked but she used to and is sad those days are behind her.  She told us she had been to our part of Cantal and that she liked Saignes (about 10 km from us) because of its beautiful Roman Chapel.  The children, dark limpid eyes fixed earnestly on the tin with its sweet delights to come, listened, smiled and waved us off as we drove away.  I am certain that they thought us dotty but they didn’t judge us, had never expected to see us again in their isolated spot where they have lived and will live out their lives, and will live in my memory for the rest of my life as an example of who I would like to be.

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This surreptitious scion of summers circumspect ….

 …. In fairness, Emily Dickenson was not specific about which mushroom was ‘the elf of plants’ but I like the poem and it fits the moment.

Two Brains, The Bean and I strolling into the square last week were stopped in our tracks by Didier, one of the characters of our village.  He is the most delightful and gentle man, reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Lennie in  both stature and his mode of dress – typically dungarees with a long sleeved collarless vest under and a hat, woollen tea cosy in winter and cotton with a little peak more hunter-worker than baseball in summer.  I should be clear that he has tonnes more wit and hopefully is not liable to break necks nor baby animals with over-zealous caresses.  He lumbered over towards us gesturing and grinning and delightedly told us that the Girolles (you may know them as Chanterelles) have arrived and exactly where in the masses of forest surrounding us to look for them.  Indeed, he reported,  one local had bagged 17 kg of the golden lovelies that very morning.  Our joy at this sharing was two-fold … in the first instance we happen to love edible fungus and Girolles rate very high on the richter scale of delicious mushrooms, but the more important delight came from the fact that we were being treated to information that would not normally be shared with random strangers.  Actually, the information is guarded jealously by locals who prize the flavour at their own tables and make a good profit by selling to restaurants and market stalls and shops …. it made us realise that we are slowly slowly ever so slowly fitting into our community.

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Girolles, Chanterelles call them what you want are amongst the nicest fungi to eat.  Delicate on the tongue, some say they smell of apricots – I can’t say I quite recognise that, but their colour is spectacular – amber-yellow, on the apricot side of orange, and their shape beauteous … the way the narrow gills flare upwards to the crown, forcing it inside out and the raggedy edges – like a tiny shiny golden shamrock when they first appear and when fully mature like the thinly beaten bell of a primitive hunting horn.

We have picked three bags full between Didier’s sharing of the good news and the writing of this little blog  – parsley from our balcony  to finish the gently sauteed darlings and then bound in eggy splendour enriched with a dollop of creme fraiche they make for a delicious omelette –  the more so for the scrabbling in the woodlands, the sun speckling through the canopy of leaves, the ground slightly damp and the air scented faintly musty.

 

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If we could train only The Bean to seek them out how rich we would be but absent her interest in any such sport, we will content ourselves with the delight of spotting the little elves in moss and grass and the thick carpet of years and years of dead leaves.  Later in the week we will stroll into the bar and thank Didier with a drink and a smile.

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PS:  Remember, there must always be a PS, there are two types of mushroom, Le Fausse Girolle (literally, false Girolle) and Lactaire Orangé Fauve which are easy to confuse with a Chanterelle the first is edible but only when cooked and the second, though not deadly will make you ill if eaten.  Alongside a good book and the advice of a local (whom one hopes is neither trying to fool you nor kill you) in France you should take fungus to any pharmacie where they will identify them for you with authority.