Powerlessness

I have sat down and written numerous blogs in the past six weeks. Most of them in my head. When I actually put pen to paper or start typing on the computer, in a very short time I run into an obstacle that I can’t seem to overcome. At first, I treat it as a challenge and struggle with it. So far, I have gotten discouraged, felt exhausted from pushing the proverbial rock up the hill and abandoned whatever I was working on.

This all led me to thinking about powerlessness not a topic often discussed in this kind of blog. With the latest blog that I tried writing, I got stumped by trying to upload my photos. I would click ‘upload’ for a photo (or six of them before I gave up), and get a message saying that whatever I was trying to upload was empty–no nothing to upload, nada, rien. For an hour, I tried countless ways to make sure each photo was a .jpeg and ‘uploadable’. In the end, I was staring at the screen, out of ideas, mystified (to put it lightly), and completely discouraged. It always seems better to stop before I start my rant at inanimate objects.

This week, I received an e-mail from my credit card – Chase- travel agency informing me that half of my round trip reservation to San Francisco had been cancelled by the airline. I was to call them: the travel agency, please, to re-book something. I made my first call on Monday morning ten days ago. They told me it wasn’t the entire trip but the second leg from London to SFO that had been cancelled. I had been re-booked on an earlier flight which gave me twenty minutes to get to the gate after landing from Paris. I informed the woman that I was talking to that that wasn’t enough time and she needed to come up with another option. She seemed completely at a loss of what to do. I suggested an earlier flight out of Paris. She told me there wasn’t one. So I suggested the night before and I would stay in a Heathrow airport. That was fine and would only cost me $6000 more. I thought she was joking and laughed. She wasn’t joking. I can’t print what I was thinking and wished to say to her. In the end, two and a half hours later, I asked her to keep my two booked flights and would she please confirm with the airline, Virgin Atlantic, that I would make the second flight in the short time they were giving me. Her superior documented all this and said I would hear back within 72 hours.

When I hadn’t heard back by Thursday, I called again and had to go through everything all over again. This woman was slightly more competent. She said it was simple. I just had to take the earlier flight out of Paris. WHATTTTT??? I had been told there wasn’t one. She was so sorry for the inconvenience. Then there was a problem. Even though I had asked the first woman to keep the rebooked reservation, she had not. So the new person told me there was no longer a seat in my class on the second leg. After a couple of minutes, she said they would contact the airline and ask for an upgrade since it was the airline that cancelled. Twenty-five minutes of trying to contact the airline (we were both on hold, I assume), she told me they couldn’t get a representative and it would be documented and I would hear back in forty-eight hours.

That was seven days ago, many hours of haggling, screaming, trying to be patient, being told “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience”, and I still don’t have a reservation. No one seems to have any power except the airline and the people at the Credit Card travel agency can’t seem to get in touch with the airline–in ten days!! And because I did this through a third party, I’m not allowed to do it on my own behalf.

As I write, I’m on hold. I’ve been on hold for over an hour after thirty minutes of trying to get another incompetent woman (just try asking to speak to someone in the US–it’s impossible) to fix my problem. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I will get a flight. No one has said “don’t worry, we’ll get you there.” They are just so sorry for the inconvenience. They each sound just like the other, like robots that have been trained in certain sentences, and I wonder do they really think they sound empathic. It’s hard to believe.

I just tried adding up the hours I’ve spent on the phone. It has to be at least eight hours. I’ve thought about how much peace of mind I’ve allowed those people to steal from me because I can’t keep my frustration and total anguish at my powerlessness at bay. And I still don’t have a flight.

And the worst part is: I’m not alone. I’m sure what is happening to me has happened or is happening to many others. One friend says it’s because service people don’t get paid enough so they don’t really care. Another says it’s because of Covid, airlines haven’t hired help. Travel Agencies are just getting back on their feet. I say it’s because organisations can get away with it. They can pay people as little as possible because everyone is looking for work. And they export out these jobs. It used to be to India but I think India wised up as it got more savvy in technology. Now it’s the Philippines. So no matter about making America great again, Americans lose to countries whose people will accept much less money for a lot more work. Everyone pays the price.

Countdown: twenty-five days until my flights are supposed to leave for the US. I’m breathing. I hate the feeling of powerlessness but what can I do? More will be revealed as they say in twelve-step programs.

A bientôt,

Sara

Cambremer, Pays d’Auge

Tucked in a valley, approximately half-way between Lisieux and the seaside resorts of Cabourg and Houlgate, Cambremer is another beautiful small village of four blocks and lots of horses. Like Lessard-et-le-Chêne, it is situated in the Pays d’Auge and the larger district of Calvados.

The center square of Cambremer

I have come here for two weeks. As my American readers will probably remember, wealthier Parisians leave Paris for the month of August. It is a “right of summer.” I was negligent in what usually is very good planning this year and, by the time I got around to trying to find a place to stay, most everything was booked. No Americans this year again. No Japanese or Chinese. Plenty of Germans, English, and, of course, French. I was lucky. I found a B&B not far from where my friends live in Lessard called Le Pressoir. As it turns out, I am the only guest so Bijou and I have an entire wing of a house to ourselves. Our host’s name is Claude. She lives here with her two dachshunds, five horses, one rabbit, and two goldfish. She is my age and could not be nicer. I explained before my arrival about my food allergies and she has given me full use of her kitchen and refrigerator. From the dining room table, I can look out on a huge lawn with mature trees which, like so many of the Normandy homes, lends an air of calmness and serenity.

My home in Cambremer “Le Pressoir”

This area is not just famous for its horses and stud farms but also “The Cider Trail.” The Pays d’Auge is replete with apples, every form, size and taste. The Cider Trail of forty kilometers is a loop that takes an interested traveler by a minimum of twelve showrooms. Normandy cider has a golden yellow to amber color characterised by a light foam and fine bubbles. It has a buttery aroma. Since I don’t drink alcohol, I am quoting from the Normandy website!

Chapelle de Clermont

I am interested in the walking and hiking. I returned to Beuvron-en-Auge and picked up some hiking pamphlets and on Thursday I hiked uphill to a small Chapel called L’Eglise St. Michel. It was not open for visitors but one could walk around the narrow dirt path that surrounded the small building. From the front of the chapel, one can get an extraordinary view of the Norman countryside as far south as Saint Pierre-sur-Dives. The trail from Beuvron started out on concrete but quickly became a wide dirt trail that progressively grew smaller the higher I climbed. On the way back down, I passed some huge and elegant looking Stud Farms. One rented out rooms but also was available for large events like weddings.

The next day, I met my friend who lives in Dives-sur-Mer which is sandwiched by Cabourg and Houlgate, at a fascinating place called La Maison Bleue.

La Maison Bleue

La Maison Bleue is not well known even to residents of Calvados. It was created by a man who worked as a day laborer all his life. After Laika, the dog whom the Russians sent up in their sputnik in 1957, died, M. Costas, the architect of LMB, created a memorial to her. He took pottery shards he found on the street or at brocantes and set them in cement. He placed a rocket at the top and a photo of a dog near an opening. From there, he began to tile, with shards, every inch of his and his wife’s living space. He became more more religious, found icons at cheap stores, and by the time he finished his chef d’oeuvre, twenty years had passed.

Memorial to Laika

La Maison Bleue is open only three days a week and only for two hours on each of those days. It is run by volunteers who are devoted to the artwork.

A short walk of less than a mile from Le Pressoir is Les Jardins du Pays d’Auge, another privately run enterprise for people visiting the area. My friend, Marjorie, told me that it used to be a large nursery serving the entire area. She and her husband bought many of the plants, trees, and bushes that now bloom in abundance at their home in Lessard-et-le-Chêne. At some point, the nursery closed and some people had the idea of creating a large garden with about thirty different “rooms.” There is a water garden, a romance garden, a moon garden, a sun garden, and many more. There are also replicas of a forge, a shoe-maker’s hut, and a variety of different needs and talents that keep a farm running. It is well done and quite popular. On the day I went, there had to be fifty or sixty people, including children, visiting. Also on the site is a popular restaurant La Creperie.

During the months of July and August, Cambremer has its own outside market every Saturday morning: La Marchê Ancienne. It is teeny for a marchê!! There was one vendor selling chickens, two vendors selling fruits and vegetables, and four different artisinal vendors: wooden pens and bowls; children’s clothing; crocheted key rings; and specialty jams and conserves. What made the marchê exceptional was a live band and singer who entertained with great confidence marching around the square and making everyone smile.

This may look hokey but it was a lot of fun to be there!!!!

And that concluded my first week in this delightful village in the green and abundant Pays d’Auge area of Normandy France.

Evening descends on Le Pressoir

A bientôt,

Sara

Photo journaling in Normandy

Bijou looking out on the Normandy countryside
Monday Marché — Saint-Pierre-sur-Dive: late in the morning .
Sara and Thais in Dives sur Mer after an 8 mile walk
Hanging out with Marcel Proust in Cabourg
Upper area of Calvados region in Normandy
Young fouls playing at Haras de Marancourt
The Boardwalk in Cabourg
Looking out at the sea in Cabourg
Beuvron-en-Auge
Dives-sur-Mer Port-Guillaume
Store in Beuvron-en-Auge
Town Hall in Lessard-et-le-Chêne
Apéro/Dinétoire Lessard-et-le-Chêne
My new friend, Toto
Sunset from the bathroom window

Flying in the time of Covid-19–Part 2

Thanks to all who responded so helpfully to my last post. My three weeks in California were hectic and, unfortunately, I didn’t see some of the responses and I wish I had. With all the guidelines and country requirements for entrance being so fluid, it was difficult to know how to prepare and what to do for my return flight. The one thing I was sure of was that I needed a negative Covid test to board the plane back to France. That involved many of the same hoops to jump through as I’d had in preparation to coming to the USA. Again, I had to stop in Frankfurt, Germany. Germany and Ireland seem to be the strictest countries over here in terms of who can enter and how long before entering the country the Covid test must be done. Notice I said “entering” the country. At the time that I was scheduling my test, France required a 72-hour window before boarding a flight. Germany required a 48-hour window before entering the country. even the small print made it difficult to understand what would happen if one was just passing through Germany but entering another Schengen country.

On June 4, I did the best I could with the information I had and made a reservation to get a test from Kaiser Richmond on Sunday, June 20 at 3pm–70 hours before boarding the flight from SFO. I hoped to forget about it for awhile.

The next week, June 9, France opened up to American tourists. The USA was classified as an “Orange” country. What did that mean? In order to enter France (as opposed to boarding the plane, one needed proof of vaccination – two jabs – and a negative Covid test). Then exactly one week later, France upgraded USA to a “Green” country meaning, that to enter France, one only needed proof of vaccination. There was no rhyme or reason for the change. In many states, the numbers are rising again. One in every five cases is now the Delta variant. Biden has not reached his goal of 70% vaccination by July 4th although the media says the goal will probably be reached sometime in July. However, a large percentage of the southern states’ population is refusing any vaccination. From what I hear, this is all political. Any argument of the vaccine having been developed too soon without enough time to really test its efficacy has been erased. Most people know now these vaccines have been in developmental research stages for years. This is not the first Covid. Ergo the number 19. The trick a year ago was to target this exact virus and add the variable to the vaccines already under development.

By the this time, almost two weeks of my time in California had passed (more of that later), and it really was time to start paying attention. Every day, I checked both the UAL (United Airlines) website and the French government website. The real anxiety was going to be Kaiser. As of this writing, Kaiser will not guarantee a test result by boarding time. I hadn’t really thought of alternatives until I didn’t get the result 48 hours after I’d had the test, had already turned my rental car in, and thought I might actually have to turn around at SFO, come home, and fly out the next day. EXCEPT the result then would be past the 72 hour window. So I managed to find a mobile test center that would come to the house, give me the test, and guarantee the results within 6-8 hours for a mere $499. Ain’t the US health care system grand??? I didn’t think I had a choice so I made a reservation. And just like the old adage “if you want the bus to come, light a cigarette”, my Kaiser result arrived in my e-mail box one hour later.

Not ready to totally let go of anxiety (!), the printed out version of the test result looked so unofficial. You had to search to find the words Kaiser Permanente. So I spent an hour cutting and pasting to make it look really official.

At the airport seventeen hours later: While checking in, the lovely woman asked me if I had filled out the form required by the French government. I said No, that I was a resident. So she checked my residency card but then decided I needed it anyway (I didn’t). She took my phone and took a photo of the website, sent me to the domestic terminal to have the form printed then told me to fill it out. After a 20 minute walk to the domestic terminal, I learned there was no printer to be had and, that maybe, possibly, there was a printer at the travel agency next to the United counter at the International airport. I sat down, had a coffee, and told myself the check-in person was wrong. I had read the French website backwards and forwards many times and I was willing to take my chances. So I called two friends to say goodbye and sat peacefully until boarding time.

At the gate, and this was a gate of every possible definition, there were two people asking to see one’s passport and one’s boarding card. My boarding card did not have an OK with a circle around it. So one of the gatekeepers had to ask a superior who had to ask another superior if I could come into the boarding area. I suspected that I was supposed to return to the United Check-in with my printed out form, that I didn’t need, filled out and then she would ok me. But I kept my mouth shut. The third superior decided that the person had just forgotten to put the OK on and they let me in.

The circled red OK saying I’m allowed to enter the boarding area

Then we were all called to order by a power-hungry United staff member who was going to whip us into line if it cost him everything. People were going to board in the order he said and he didn’t care what Group your boarding pass said. AND no one was to stand in HIS boarding area if they weren’t boarding. Which no one paid attention to. I had gotten that far and I was not going to get more anxious, so I just giggled inside as he tried to “herd cats”!!! I made it onto the plane without further ado.

Waiting to board at SFO, the arm of our “little dictator” trying to herd cats

We landed in Frankfurt eleven hours later. After the two hour connection stop-over wait, I got in-line to board my flight to CDG Paris. First we had to show our boarding ticket, our passport, and our negative test result. Mine caused another flap but by this time, I was just too tired to get overly anxious. She asked me where I had come from four or five times, what time and day I’d had my test which I answered four or five times, and seemed on the verge of not letting me on the plane. I finally said that I had my vaccine certificates with me, would she like to see them? Well, yes she would. I showed them to her and that did the trick. She smiled and showed me another line to stand in and soon I was ushered towards the aiport shuttle bus that traveled the entire length of the Frankfurt airport (I swear it went around a couple of times. It took almost ten minutes to get to our plane) and dropped us off. It was raining. There were two entrances, front and back, to get on the plane. The majority of people ran towards the front and stood in the rain to board. So, even though I was in the first eight rows, I ran to the back, didn’t get too wet and, like a salmon swimming upstream, pushed my way to my seat.

A little over one hour later, we landed in Paris. And just as always, CDG is a breeze to get through. My passport was stamped, I waited all of five minutes for my luggage, walked through customs without a question, and was in line for the taxi twenty minutes after leaving the plane. My Cambodian taxi driver thought I was the nicest, sweetest person because I chatted with him all the way to my apartment. I was willing to give him cash instead of my Carte Bancaire and I was his best friend for life. He was willing to give me a receipt so he was ok in my book.

I opened my apartment door, called for Bijou, and waited. She came trotting up lazily and if she could have smiled, I think she did. I was home.

Bijou on her new bed

A bientôt,

Sara

Flying on a jet plane—in the time of Covid-19

Last Wednesday, June 2nd, I flew from Paris to San Francisco. From the time I got both my vaccination shots, I counted out the three weeks it would take for the vaccine to be effective and started thinking about flying overseas. Just the thought of it made me tired. It had been seventeen months since I visited Oakland where I lived before moving to Paris. I have traveled by train within France but that is as much as common sense said it was wise to do.

The first thing to do was book the flight and try to figure out all the ins and outs once I had committed to traveling. Anyone who collects airline miles knows that once you have a significant number of miles, you are held hostage by that company. Mine is United. If I can, I like to upgrade for these flights of eleven hours or longer. Sometime in Spring of 2020, United stopped direct flights San Francisco to Paris and return. So I had to book a trip that took me first to Frankfurt (flying East) in order to fly to SFO (flying West). In theory, it didn’t seem too bad. In reality, it is a lot of trouble.

The next thing was to try and get the information about what the airlines were requiring as far as certificates for vaccines and negative Covid tests. It became clear quite quickly that no one was sure and information was hard to come by. The one thing everyone agreed on was that a Negative Covid test was required within 72 hours of leaving CDG airport. I worried about how I would show I was vaccinated. As it turned out, I wasn’t asked once about being vaccinated. I was the only who cared. I had to show my negative test when I checked in and again in Frankfurt even though I never left the no-man’s land part of the airport. France is very efficient about the test. I had it done first thing Monday morning, May 31, and had the results in an e-mail Monday late afternoon. Here in California, I have made an appointment to get the test and they cannot promise that I will get the results in time. The best they say is 1-3 days. I’m so tired of worrying and having anxiety about travel that I am just saying that I will get the result in time or I won’t. Maybe I’ll have to fly out the following day.

Two days before I was about to leave, I received an e-mail from Lufthansa telling me they had changed my seat and they hoped it wasn’t causing me too much inconvenience. In reading the e-mail, I noticed that the flight was leaving from Terminal 2B. United is in Terminal 1. It is a long distance one to the other. In the US, one checks in with the airline that the reservation was made with. But I had a niggling memory that it is not the same in France. In trying to find out which Terminal to go to to check in, I learned how incredibly under staffed United and probably most airlines are. The France number for United was no longer working. Lufthansa kept me on hold for 4o minutes then hung up on me before giving me the info. I called a friend and together we decided that I should go to Terminal 2B because it was not just a flight operated by Lufthansa but also a Lufthansa plane.

So to be safe, I went as early as I could tolerate. Terminal 2B is a brand new terminal. June 2, the day I flew, was the first day it was open. There was more “help” available than there were passengers in the Terminal. It was so smooth and easy, it was dreamlike. I found an area that had comfortable armchairs and couches to wile away the time. Everyone was masked and was friendly. Much was closed and will probably open up June 9th when international travelers will be welcomed into France.

I was tired by the time I arrived in Frankfurt, too tired to get upset about much. So it seemed seamless making the trip from A13 where the first flight came in and Z25 where the United flight was to leave. I boarded and, for the first time in memory, I slept the entire way.

My last hurdle was Customs at SFO. When asked it I had any food with me, I honestly said that I had my dinner with me. I think my flight was the only flight that arrived at that time because the airport was empty. But I was escorted to Customs A whereas everyone else went through Customs B meaning they had nothing to declare. There were no cute little beagles running around sniffing luggage. Yet I was treated quite nastily about having my dinner. They threw everything out and wanted to throw out my fancy container. I begged and they made a big show of sanitizing it about six times before giving it back to me.

Then I got to leave the airport. I had arrived in California.

They only thing left to say is that it seems no one is prepared for travel to be picking up this fast. Uber has doubled in price because there aren’t enough drivers. Rental car agencies sold off much of their fleet in the past year to keep afloat and don’t have enough cars. So they, too, have upped their prices by about 40% and, what used to be a quick “pick up your car and get going”, now takes over an hour.

And that’s the story from California where the sun is shining, everything is green and beautiful, and the fires have not yet started. I had three days of jet lag and can write today keeping a focus and even have a baseball game on in the background (The A’s are losing to the Rockies in the bottom of the 5th. While proofreading, Murphy, the catcher, hit a homerun, so it is now 2-1. The A’s may yet pull it off!).

A bientôt,

Sara

What is happening in Paris today?

As many of you know, (and if you love and miss Paris, you are probably paying attention), today, May 19th begins the second phase of the ‘déconfinement’ that began for some establishments last October. For Parisians, the most important thing happening is that terraces will open for cafés and restaurants. The minute it was announced, I noticed chairs and tables being moved outside in preparation. Some two weeks ago. One café that I pass every day on my walk built a new terrace. Everyone will need umbrellas. It has been raining on and off almost every day for two weeks. And it’s chilly. I’m actually getting used to this. People talk about Springtime in Paris but in the eight springtimes that I have lived here, there may be a burst of warm weather in February, March or April, but nothing permanent until early June. Then we’ll have three days of Spring and voilà, it will be summer with the canacules (heatwaves) just around the corner.

Preparation for May 19

Our 7pm curfew will become a 9pm curfew starting tonight. It has been tough. Unless one has an extremely urgent reason for being out on the streets after 7pm, we were to be at home. Last night, it wasn’t dark until just after 10pm. I am fortunate, I have a large lovely terrace with some wonderful plants on it. So I can be outside in nice weather. But there is something glorious about walking in Paris, along the Seine, in the evening. Especially as the lights turn on and are reflected in the water. Not that any of us have seen that scenario much in the past 15 months but we can dream! And there is the possibility that it lies in our future.

Just before 7pm during the semi-Confinement

All stores will open today. Clothing stores have been closed as have been everything considered non-essential. Hair salons are essential, nail salons are not. There will probably be a queue around the block at my nail salon. According to The Local in France, there will be strict limitations of how many people inside a store at one time so we are advised to also expect queues at popular small stores. I have received e-mails from every department store including Monoprix Hyper and Carrefour to let me know that many of my favorite things will be at a 30-40% discount. Especially linen clothing which is so popular here in the summer.

A member of staff serves a customer at a cafe in Paris on May 19, 2021, as cafes, restaurants and other businesses re-opened after closures during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. – Parisians have returned to their beloved cafe terraces and museums after a six-month Covid-forced hiatus, a glimmer of normal life resuming but India grappled with a record daily number of coronavirus deaths. (Photo by GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

Museums, theatres, and cinemas will also open today, and also be under strict guidelines of the number of people allowed inside. As was true last summer, everyone is advised to buy tickets in advance especially at popular museums. With France open to tourists of many countries starting June 6, Parisians are well advised to get to museums now while there is still a chance of not getting lost in a crowd even a small crowd.

More from the Local: “Outdoor sporting activities will again be allowed (also on the condition that they respect specific health rules). Sports stadiums can reopen with a limit of 800 spectators in indoor spaces and 1,000 in outdoor venues.

Gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed in public spaces (up from six currently). There is no actual rule on gatherings in indoor private spaces such as homes, but the guidance is to keep groups limited to six adults.

Spas can also reopen for cures thermales – spa treatments prescribed by a doctor (yes, that is a thing in France and sometimes the State will even pay for it) but not for the general public.”

A member of staff serves a customer at a cafe in Paris on May 19, 2021, as cafes, rest0rants and other businesses re-opened after closures during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. – Parisians have returned to their beloved cafe terraces and museums after a six-month Covid-forced hiatus, a glimmer of normal life resuming but India grappled with a record daily number of coronavirus deaths. (Photo by Lucas BARIOULET / AFP)

The UK opened up from lockdown Monday. Johnson has been greatly criticised for allowing flights and travel from India. Health officials are warning people to still be very cautious. France has not allowed flights from India but starting today, travel between the UK and France is opening up. So I’m guessing the same warnings would apply to us. The Indian variant of Covid is said to be very dangerous. On the other hand, health officials are saying that those who have the Phizer vaccine and the AstraZenica vaccine have had a 99% anti-body build up after 14 days and the second vaccine. That is better than advertised.

A medical worker wearing protective equipment uses a swab to do a PCR test for Covid-19 on a woman wearing a face mask in front of the city hall of Paris on August 31, 2020. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)

OK, and here is the very best thing for all of you thinking of traveling over here this summer. Again, according the Local.fr “France is one of the only countries to offer free PCR tests – which can cost up to €120 in Spain, £100 in the UK and €300 in Sweden – to residents for all purposes, including travel. But now that is being extended to tourists who visit the country over the summer. The French government hopes the free testing will make the country an attractive tourist destination, and will also allow it to welcome back tourists while staying safe.  Announcing the new policy, Europe Minister Clément Beaune told radio station Europe 1: “We need and we want to continue to be the first tourist destination in Europe and the world, in safe conditions.” https://www.thelocal.fr/20210517/france-to-offer-free-pcr-tests-to-tourists-and-visitors-this-summer/

What is still to come in this multi-phased ‘déconfinement’? June 9th The curfew is pushed back further, to 11pm. Gyms reopen (with health rules and limits on the number of people allowed in at the same time). Cultural or sporting events with up to 5,000 people will be allowed, but on the condition that participants provide a health pass proving that recently tested negative for Covid-19 or have been vaccinated for the virus.

And sad news: The square in front of Cathedrale de Notre Dame has been closed due to fears of lead poisoning. The best place to glimpse the front of Notre Dame is on the bridge that is closest. However, if you want to see all of Notre Dame, where the work is happening recontructing the spire and everything that was not destroyed by the fire, it is best to walk eastward along the Quai on the left bank. You will have better and better views of the side and the back. Breathtaking views.

A bientôt,

Sara

The further adventures of Sara and Bijou

Perros Guirec is a village in the Cotes d’Amor department in Brittany. It has been a seaside resort since the end of the 19th century. Along with other villages along the coast, it is famous for the pink granite rocks which have been sculpted over the years by the sea and resemble animals and objects. In the winter, the population is around 7200 people. During the months of July and August, when Parisians and tourists alike descend on the many beaches, the population quadruples.

Men playing with mechanised sailboats in the port area
The marina of Perros Guirec

This is the part of Brittany that Bijou and I have landed and spent the last almost four weeks. From my window where I work, I look out on part of the English channel (Perros is directly south of Bournemouth). Today, though cold, the weather is magnificent. The sea is that turquoise blue with whips of white toped waves in the distance. The sail boats are out in force. There is hardly any Covid in this area. A boy at school reportedly was diagnosed with the virus last week but no one else has gotten sick. At the marché and along the streets in Centre Ville, everyone wears a mask. Walking along the sea, people have masks on their wrists or under their chins. They put them on if they pass another being. But one can walk for two or three miles and only pass a handful of people.

Along the shore walking towards the town of Louannec

Two weeks ago, Brittany suffered some of the coldest weather ever known in this area. It can be much like the Bay Area in California–warmer in winter and colder in the summer. But in early February, it snowed, stuck to the ground and one morning, I awoke to a huge patinoire (skating rink) that was the roads and driveways. Wednesday morning, as it was starting to warm up, I walked down to the marché at the port of Perros. There were twice as many stalls out as were out two weeks ago. People look forward to the three marchés in this area: Friday morning, there is one near the Poste in centre-ville, and Sunday morning the market is in La Clarté, high on a hill overlooking the beaches. Many people prefer the outdoor markets although most French have become habituated to American-style supermarkets. They can get eggs that were laid the same morning, vegetables with dirt still on them from being pulled the night before, Bretagne honey and Bretagne beer made in this region plus the hundreds of cheeses from all over France but the freshest are from this area.

Wednesday morning marche at the port of Perros
Les Fromages

This was the area I was to visit over Christmas and due to the new variant from the United Kingdom, I chose not to deal with the train station and the rest of the places it would be hard to socially distance. When it seemed a good possibility that France might have a third lockdown, my friend, Roland who lives in Perros, said “Come stay with us.” “How long will you be gone?” some friends asked. “If there is a confinement, I’ll stay to the end. If not, probably two weeks.” Yet, here it is almost four weeks later, no confinement- although all of France still has a 6pm-6am curfew – and I am still here. There is so much air and there is no Covid. For some unknown reason, my friends have not gotten sick of me. They beg me to please stay longer. I’m not sure I would have that kind of tolerance!!

Bijou watching the birds near the sea
View from my bedroom window, looking out at the point of Perros Guirec and one of les sept îles

Prime Minister Jean Castex and health minister Oliver Véran have been holding press conferences as the health situation has deteriorated sharply in France over the past week.  https://www.thelocal.fr/20210225/what-can-we-expect-from-the-french-prime-ministers-latest-announcement/ According to the French, they are the best at everything. Not true. There is still very little vaccine and what there is is not being given to the 65-74 year old group because “it hasn’t been proved that it is helpful for those over 65 years of age.”

Moon rising over Perros last night

So here I am in this beautiful area of Brittany where there is no Covid, contemplating going back to Paris where there is plenty. It is only because of the kindness of my friends that I even have a choice. Since I have Bijou with me, there is no reason to rush back. Each day, we watch the news wondering if Brittany will have the 6pm curfew lifted. As of yesterday, Friday, it seems they are thinking in terms of regions and not one size fits all. Dunquerque and Nice have been hit very badly. Both cities and areas around them are in a weekend lock-down. Paris was warned that if things didn’t improve, they will also be put in lockdown for as long as three weeks. All this will be decided Saturday, March 6. So I’ve accepted I’ll be here for awhile. My hortensias on my terrace may die from lack of care but I will probably be safe. And taking more long walks along the beautiful blue sea.

jonquils blooming along a walk down at the Port
Huge dice made out of pink granite, which is everywhere on the Côte de Granit Rose

A bientôt,

Sara

Don’t Give Up Before The Miracle

I am in Normandy with two friends for the week. I seem to be the only person I know who, until Wednesday, had not made a visit to the WWII beaches, the American Cemetery, and the Memorial Museum in Caen. Even though they’d already been, my friends insisted we had to spend one day visiting these memorial sites. So, on Wednesday, with the skies threatening rain, we set off. First stop: Caen.

Memorial for History and Peace in Caen

Once you hit the outskirts of Caen, there are numerous signs guiding you to the Memorial. It is a large rectangular building fronted by the flags of the many Allies and surrounded by green.

Inside the front doors is a huge entry way with a Boutique on the left and a Bistro for light snacking in front on the mezzanine. Below that is the ticket counter and on the right is a restaurant for a sit-down lunch and the auditorium that runs a film “1944: Sauver l’Europe (Saving Europe)” every 30 minutes.

We bought out our tickets, tucked all our belongings into a locker and set out for a journey through history that began with 1918 and how Europe and Germany were set up for the totalitarian take-over of Germany and the next World War.

The museum is designed so that the spaces are chronological. The exhibits take on the form of newspapers, photos, uniforms behind glass; short videos remastered from the 1930s and 40s; detailed explanations in English, French, German and Spanish on the walls. There are photos of Hitler that I’d never seen before and ordinary soldiers that have survived the years and give illustration to the explanatory words.

Map of HItler’s land conquests by the 1st of Sept, 1939.

I began by reading everything, looking at everything, soaking in old and new information. When I got to the area that detailed the extermination of the Jews, I had to skip those rooms. It’s the part of WWII I know most about. With the world once again on the precipice of vanquishing huge populations of non-white people, I can barely stand to voluntarily look at the past and it’s horrendous consequences. As I looked at the horrifying map of the trains that led to the death camps, I found it ironic that I loved a similar map of the paths of all the pilgrims walking to Compostale in Spain.

I moved on to the next rooms and realized I’d been in the museum for almost 90 minutes, reading, looking, absorbing history. I was exhausted. My brain went on strike and even though I had sat down at almost every video, my feet ached. For me, this museum would be better experienced as a two day venture. Being lucky enough to live in Paris, I could return.

A still from one of the videos

I walked to the end of the exhibit on the bottom floor and found that my friend, Susan, had come to the same conclusion. So we found our way to the Bistro – a large space with many tables that seemed to be able to accommodate everyone. Her husband joined us for a light snack: he had lasagne and salad and she had the most gorgeous bruschetta I’ve ever seen. At the Bookstore/Boutique, I bought The Longest Day, a film my mother had taken me to see when I was fifteen years old and had never seen again. I plan to watch it and “Band of Brothers”, the TV series that I’ve seen three times and never gets old.

We piled back into our rented Peugeot and headed for Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. There are five landing beaches on this part of the Normandy coast. Omaha and Utah beaches are the two where the Americans landed. Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches are where the English and the Canadians landed. In between Omaha and Utah is Pointe du Hoc.

As the rain came down harder, we told each other how great this was. “We are having the true 3D experience. When the troops landed on June 6th, it was raining hard.” Once we arrived at Omaha beach, stepped out of the car and into the cold, biting, stinging rain, we were miserable. The only way to get some respite was to stand on the side of the large monument memorialising the beach.

The side of the monument behind which we escaped temporarily from the fierce wind and biting rain.

Within five minutes, the strength of the wind and the sleet-like stinging of the rain caused us to re-access what we were planning to do. To see anything, we had to step back into the unkind weather. Susan’s husband, Dewey, suggested we give up on Omaha and head to Pointe du Hoc. “Anything that will get us back in the car.”

Omaha Beach
Ode to the Americans who risked their lives to land at Omaha Beach. English translation in the middle.

We drove about 8km along the coast and arrived at Pointe du Hoc at 4pm. Here, on June 6th, 1944, parts of the 2nd Ranger Battilion scaled the cliffs seizing German artillery hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches. They surprised the Germans who never thought they’d attempt the cliffs. They held on against fierce counterattacks. The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission on January 11, 1979 for perpetual care and maintenance.

After going through TSA-like security check, we entered a small building called The Sacrifice Gallery and watched a video with personal stories of the “sacrifices that made the Allied victory possible. Of the initial attacking force of 225 men that participated in the Pointe du Hoc mission on June 6, only 90 were still able to bear arms when relieved on June 8”–Brochure of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

You can imagine the scale of the cliffs by the shadows and the cliffs in the front view.

We began the walk along the point. We came to a bunker that was taken from the Germans and became the command post of the Rangers, medical aid station and morgue. We could see, 75 years later, the huge holes in the ground that cannon balls had made. These provided some shelter for the Americans. Because of the rain and wind, we didn’t make it far enough to actually see the scale of the cliffs. Photos showed the rope ladders that had been thrown up and the soldiers climbing to get to the top. It is breathtaking and heart pounding to see what was done by the Allied Forces to save the world from totalitarianism. 

I called this blog Don’t Stop Before the Miracle because so often in my attempts to break a bad habit or do something that seemed beyond my skill level, people would say to me: Don’t stop before the miracle. I took that to mean that I should just keep trying with the belief that I could succeed. As I walked through the Memorial in Caen and the beaches on the coast, I couldn’t help thinking what an example, at such a terrible cost, of continued efforts to do the right thing. At one point, all hope of the Allies winning the war seemed lost but, in the end, they prevailed. It was a miracle. And today I pray for our world and that a second miracle is in the offing. I will do my part.

A bientôt

Sara

http://www.abmc.gov

Nérac, Calignac et environs

Having spent three weeks in the little village of Calignac, I have fallen in love with this area. I’m told that Lot-et-Garonne is one the poorest areas of France. This most southern part of the district that abuts Le Gers is more like Le Gers. Nérac is a bustling large town that is busy all year long. The river Baise flows from Agen and it is very popular with tourists to rent a boat and take a week going from town to town along the river.

Here the river runs under the bridge with old Nérac on one side and the Chateau where Henry IV spent his teenage years and newer Nérac on the other side.

The Saturday outdoor Nérac market is one of the largest in the area and attracts natives and tourists alike. It goes on rain or shine although many of the non-food stalls don’t show up on rainy days.

At the Saturday Nerac Market
The Saturday Nerac Market is one of the largest in the area.

During the heat wave (canicule), if anyone was silly enough to go outside, we sought places that were shady to rest. Like the small mini-park below that is just before the bridge in Nérac.

Walking along the river Baise in Nérac.

I visited an artist friend in the small town of Francescas, which lies just before one enters Le Gers. There are miles and miles of small roads all numbered D131, D112, etc, winding around each other, going in and out of these small towns and hamlets. Some have only houses left although they once would have had an ironsmith and a boulangerie. Others will have a café that might also sell bread.

Francescas

In the town of LaPlume on D931, the ruins of an old church, L’Eglise St. Nicolas, sit without a roof, its insides empty but a thriving and full cemetery. LaPlume has a new church (around 1856) but it seems that the old church is being somewhat restored. There will probably never be a roof but in the future, it may be much more presentable. Meanwhile wire mesh keeps teens and partiers from going in.

The Cemetery at LaPlume looking out over Lot-et-Garonne

No matter how lovely a balade en voiture is, it is always nice to head ‘home’ at lunchtime for a nap, a good book and food out of the garden.

Heading home to Calignac
Vegetables out of the garden here where I am staying!!!
Lavande from the garden.
Looking out the window from the room I’ve been writing in.

As all my readers from last summer know, sunflowers are everywhere. Huge fields of them, alongside all the roads, next to hiking trails, visible from house windows. They are planted in late Spring and reach their peak in mid-July. These sunflowers aren’t grown for cutting flowers. They are grown for sunflower oil which is prolific down here. People cook with sunflower oil and use olive oil for eating. Now a couple of days into August, the large, heavy heads of the sunflowers are bowing down toward the ground. They will eventually turn black and in early Fall, will be mowed down and their seeds will become huile de tournesol.

Sunflowers at sunset

A bientôt,

Sara

Le Gers bis

France is divided into 101 departments, 96 of which are in mainland France. The first two numbers on the postal code tell you which department you are in. 75 is Paris. 32 is Le Gers where I spent the summer last year. 47 is Lot-et-Garonne where I am at this moment. I tried very hard to find a place to rent or house-exchange in Le Gers but no one wants to leave in the summertime! So I am in a very small village called Calignac, next to a large town called Nérac and both are about 30 minutes driving from Condom which is close to where I stayed last year. So I’m still telling people I’ve come down to Le Gers but really it’s Le Gers bis (just behind or next to)!

I arrived last Monday evening. For whatever reason, I had a hard time leaving Paris. I have been looking forward to this vacation for a year but as I said good bye to Bijou and closed the door of my apartment, all I could think of was how much I love Paris. I made the train on time and, voilà, down in Le Gers. I slept on and off for the next two days.

Calignac

One of the reasons that people don’t leave Le Gers in the summer is the music. There are festivals in every area of the department. In Condom, during the summer, there are organ recitals every Tuesday evening at 6pm in the Cathedral. They are followed by an optional tour of the Cathedral followed by what’s known as the Night Market. The night market is an extremely popular event all summer long and one could go to one every single evening of the week. In french, it is known as the Marché des Producteurs régionaux. Different “companies” or farms bring gourmet meals in trucks to sell. Long tables are set out in the town square or nearby. People come in droves to eat together or meet and party with their neighbours. Often there is a band or bands playing and the evening will go on until the sun finally sets around 10:30pm.

Cathedral of Condom–evening of Les Amis de l’Orgue

We went to the first organ recital of the summer last Tuesday. Gospel music on the organ and trumpet in the confines of a huge cathedral space! Absolutely divine!! Literally.

One of my favourite towns is La Romieu. It lies west of Lectoure and east of Condom. All three towns and villages are on the Compostale of Saint Jacques. This weekend is the the 9th Music Festival en Chemin. And last Thursday, the 18th, was the Avant-Premier concert held in the Gardens of Corsiana, a private large garden reminiscent of Longwood Gardens in Penna. My friend, Barbara and I, arrived early to see the gardens quietly before everyone else arrived. We brought a picnic dinner which we ate on one of the many picnic tables on the property. At 8:30pm, an outbuilding that has been constructed for weddings, small concerts and events was filled up with at least one hundred people and the concert began. The quartet was made up of a family: 2 brothers and 2 sisters on violins and a cello. They are young and only recently have been traveling and now are winning awards for their interpretations of Mozart and their playing. It was a magical evening and a wonderful start to my summer vacation in Le Gers.

The Quartet Tchalik

If only I could figure out how to attach my videos, I would also include the sound of the summer music. But…..

A bientôt,

Sara