Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

France is a civilized country.

I'm not just talking about the fact that people are very polite, although that is a big part of creating that civilized feeling. At the boulangerie, at the charcuterie, wherever, they stand patiently in line, exchqge 'bonjours' with the clerk when it is their turn, and when the transaction is completed, exchange 'merci, au revoirs' also. We have been in small bars where the newcomers greet all of the patrons on entry. I would never think of just leaving money on the table and departing without saying 'merci, au revoir' to the server. That would not be civilized. France expresses her passion for civilized living in many other ways.

As I am composing this, I'm sitting on the patio of our B&B high on a hillside above the small city of Millau in south central France. This is 'causse' country, the land of limestone plateaus which are separated one from another by river-cut valleys, steep, deep and rimmed with fantastically-scuplted cliffs. Until recently, this valley of the Tarn River was a major gap in the autoroute that speeds Parisians to the Mediterranean. The old road climbed steeply down one side of the valley and up the other, forcing large trucks and those Parisians with their tiny cars pulling camping trailers to creep down and then up again. The grand solution was to leap across the valley by creating the Viaduc de Millau, a 2.4 Km long, 270 meter high bridge that joins the adjacent plateaus. The statistics only begin to convey the daring design and engineering achievement that have created this breathtaking, enormous work of installation art that soars lightly across the sky. Leave it to the civilized French to transcend utility in favor of art and, not incendentally, create a new tourist attraction in the bargain.

Yesterday we visited the famous cheese-ripening caves at Roquefort. Leave it to the French to elevate a yucky mold to a gastronomic delight. Quelle civilisee!

Our hosts here at the B&B are producers of some of the sheep milk used for Roquefort, specializing in the organic milk. They feed us organic yogurt for breakfast along with home-baked bread, home-made jams and their own honey, all organic. Only the juice comes from a bottle and it too is organic. Their sheep are quite civilized. There are sheep dogs, border collies, but they mostly ride in the quad with Monsieur as he leads the sheep to and from the milking parlor. All 600 docilely follow along, very civilized animals.

For someone who is accustomed to the the wild and empty spaces of the American West, the French countryside is incredibly civilized. Every square meter, it seems, is managed. The forests are all planted in rows and the hedgerows are neatly manicured. Every roadside monument has its neatly tended flower border. Even in the mountains where one might think that cultivation would be impossible, tiny meadows are mowed by small tractors and the hay hauled down the hill loose instead of in bales. If the terrain is too difficult for machines, animals are turned loose for the summer. You might be hiking along and find yourself face to face with a small herd of large white cattle. All this civilization of the wild has its downside, of course, since it's hard to get truly away from everyone. But on the positive side, that mountain trail almost certainly leads to a bar restaurant, handily situated just where the thirsty traveler would want it. Now that's civilization.

Bad connection--pardon the typos!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Disappointments: Every trip has them and the longer the trip, the more of them you can have without ruining the whole experience. Some disappointments are set up by unrealistic expectations, like my failure to find the Great Bustard (a big bird, for you non-birders) in Spain. Others occur because you took the advice of someone who has different ideas than you. Ronda, in Spain, was a major disappointment that we drove way out of our way to see based on guidebooks and the personal recommendation of someone we thought we could trust. Dinard and Honfleur in France are examples of disappointments caused simply because they were not what we wanted at the time.

So you learn to take every opinion and recommendation with a grain of salt. But what really stings is when you set up the disappointment for yourself.

Yesterday we went to Monet's gqrdens at Giverny. We had been there in September almost five years ago and wanted to see it in a different stage of bloom. Big mistake.

We arrived at midday, midweek in mid-June. The tmperature was approaching 90. The tour buses were disgorging their hordes. We braved the crowds, skipped the house and headed for the gardens. You couldn't exactly stroll because of the crush of people, each one seemingly intent on filling up the contents of their camera's memory card with a detailed documentary of the experience.

Digression: I ilke my digital camera because I don't feel like I'm wasting film processinig costs. But since I know what happens to snapshots, I still don't take that many photos. Everyone else in the world now takes 10 or 20 or 30 times as many photos as they did with their trusty Instamatic. And they expect me to wait while they do this, tying up traffic as a result. Enough is enough already and Al has developed the technique of damn the photographers, full speed ahead. After all, they can just delete the shot, right?

As if the crowds of adult tourists weren't bad enough, the French have added schoolchildren to the mix. Why, pray tell, is it necessary to schedule five busloads of children into the gardens at the same time? And who thought it was a clever idea to spread them out to sit all over the Japanese bridge while they did their sketching assignments?

All this might have been tolerable had the gardens been fantastic. Alas, they were nice but not that great. September is a wonderful time to see them as it turns out.

The two curmudgeons beat a retreat to the air-conditioned comfort of the car.
Al and the Normandy Invasion Beaches

June 6, 2006, marked the 62nd anniversary of D-Day but interest in the Normandy Invasion seems stronger than ever. Many of the museums were expanded and spiffed up for the 50th anniversary, which many thought might be the last big one, and today they are still undergoing expansions. Battlefield tourism is also an expanding industry to judge by the small vans zipping around with names like Battlebus.com emblazoned on the side. The parking lots are full of license plates not only from France, The Nethrlands and Belgium but also from as far away as Denmark, Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic not to mention the hordes of cars and camping cars from Germany. The ranks of uniformed re-enactors driving restored jeeps around the countryside contain not only gray-beards but also young men of an age to have died on that first D-Day. It seems as if the Greatest Generation lives on if only in memory.

Al has been interested in the history of WWII since the seventh grade and while not a serious student, he thought that he had a pretty good grasp of the subject. Our first visit to the area was only a few days but on this extended visit, he's added tremendously to his knowledge and also to his understanding. In addition to going to more museums, and learning something from each one, we've been able to visit and revisit some of the sites and to take the time to understand the routes and the villages impacted by the invasion.

In the museums, he's noted the numbers of artifacts that have been donated in the past few years. It appears that the old soldiers are dying off and someone is making sure that their collections have a good home. Just another way of ensuring that old soldiers never really die.

The apartment that we're staying in is in a building that dates back to 1752, which is actually pretty recent for the area. Since it stands a mere kilometer inland from Juno Beach, where the Canadians had better luck than the Americans at Omaha Beach, one supposes that these stones have seen their fair share of war. After all, it predates the French Revolution!

One also assumes that the building was significantly rebuilt after the invasion like so much of Normandy. This rebuilding had to be done with a drastically reduced able-bodied population thanks to the enormous number of civilian casualties. If you get your history only from the military or Hollywood perspective, it is hard to appreciate that the Allies were directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Fench civilians. We believed then, as we believe now, that it was a necessary action, but one might not blame the French for having different emotions. Despite this, every D-Day they dress up as American GIs and fly American flags.
A Rainy Day in Normandy

Last evening there was quite a thunderstorm which continued into the wee hours. This morning when I opened the curtains, the sky was a low and featureless gray and the soft rain had been falling long enough to form a giant puddle directly in front of our doorstep.

We have been in Europe for two months now and, hard as it may be to believe, this is only the second day we've had actual rain. That first rainy day in Evora, Portugal, Al asked the desk clerk at the hotel where we might buy an umbrella. In response, he was given one that boasts the hotel's logo and which we have never needed to use since the downpour ceased before we finished breakfast.

Although the past few days have seen temperatures near 90 even here on the coast, you can tell that it rains a lot in Normandy. It reminds us of where we grew up, in Washington State. Everything is green, green, green and the hedgetrimmers, weedwhackers and mowing machines are in constant use to ensure that the roads, paths and squares are not choked by the rampant growth. The lilacs are past their prime, although we've been told that they are usually in bloom on D-Day and that the British veterans speak of smelling their fragrance during the invasion. The roses and peonies are in full bloom and every village has groomed its municipal flower beds immaculately. Flower baskets adorn window ledges and lamp posts alike. The annual plants are familiar ones but the perennial borders are full of species that I can't identify even though I used to be quite a gardener when I could still bend over.

Every French home with a little bit of ground has its vegetable garden. I have yet to see a weed among the potatoes, peas, parsley, lettuce and artichokes. If there is not space for even a square meter of garden, then one must rent a plot in the community garden, side by side with your neighbor who is no doubt comparing his plot with yours since each of them seems to be ready for judging in some obscure competition. One used to hear the stereotype that the French are a nation of shopkeepers, but today it looks more like they all aspire to be truck farmers.

The last time we were here, it was September and the crops had all been harvested but now we can enjoy driving down the farm roads and inspecting the state of the crops. The corn has grown visibly since we've been here and some of the grass-type grain crops look ready for harvesting, the heads bowed down heavily. One crop I could identify is one I had never seen before, but when you see a field of flax in bloom, the literary image of flax-blue eyes pops right into mind. Production of this raw material from which linen fabric is made is widespread in this region and the lovely blue fields add a welcome note to the palette of green, yellow and tan created by the other crops.

This being Normandy, there are also cows everywhere, doing their best to produce cream and butter for the rest of France. We've been sampling the regional specialities and cheese is high on the list. I've decided that Livarot is a bit strong for my taste and that Pont L'Eveque is perhaps a bit tame. What is perfect, of course, is Camembert, but any Frenchman could have told you that up front. What a shame that we have so little time because there is to much to learn about the art of ripening the cheese to the exact point at which it is perfect. Alas, one can only eat so much.

For the past two weeks we've had a kitchen and I've been doing simple cooking as an alternative to always eating out. Our village has a daily fish market, a group of stalls down by the harbor, where the catch from the previous night is sold. Some days there might only be one stall open, other days as many as six. The fish are generally whole and many of them are pretty scary looking. I recognize a couple of the species but most of them are a mystery. I bought a couple of pieces of what turned out to be whiting when I got back to my dictionary. Cooked with good Normandy cream, some shallots and a little white wine it was pretty darn good.

We have also tried the local oysters and mussels. For two euros you can buy enough mussels to feed two people, so of course we bought a lot. Easy to cook, just a little white wine and butter, and just as delicious as well as much cheaper than in the restaurant. However, I'm here to tell you that I've finally eaten enough mussels, something I never thought I'd say. Now, if I can only find some more of those tiny scallops which cost about two euros to feed two, I could work on eating too many of those.

If I don't feel like cooking, all we have to do is go to the local hyper-market for take-out. Last night we bought a lovely dish made of rabbit and sausage in a sauce that contained carrots, leeks and something else that made it absolutely scrumptious. I've never seen that at my local supermarket.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Remnants and memories of WWII............

Although the most well-known WWII sites are probably those in Normandy, thanks to Hollywood, there are notable remnants of the war elsewhere.

The German submarine pens at St Nazaire, just south of Brittany were designed to withstand Allied bombing so it is no wonder that they defied post-war attempts at demolition. Occupied with other tasks, the French just rebuilt around this enormous concrete structure. Last time we were here, we couldn't find it but this time the location had been marked on our detailed map by Carl, the Canadian sailor we met in northern Spain. He had tied his boat up for a night in the basin across from the pens. In the inimitable French way, there were no signs to the structure until you were upon it, but as soon as you come around the corner, there is no mistaking it. Nowdays, it houses as a tourist information office, a boutique and display explaining the present-day shipbuilding industry--the Queen Mary II was built here--and it is a major bus transfer point. This leaves a lot of space left over through which you can wander. An elevator takes you to the roof where there is a photo exhibit explaining what went on here and there is a marvelous view of the surrounding area since this is by far the tallest building in the immediate area. You can see the 'old port' which was completely flattened during the bombing but which was, in another of those inimitable French ways, rebuilt to a reasonable facsimile of what it looked like before the war, tall skinny buildings jammed into narrow streets. The sub base only surrendered after the Allied victory and it is said that they had enough food to hold out for two more years.

Around the corner to the north is another concrete behemoth, now styled 'Le Grand Blockhaus' museum. Today this tall blockhouse structure perches incongruously at the edge of the rocky shore surrounded by summer homes but during the war it guarded the approach to St. Nazaire. It still has a great view and good beach access and is one of the most interesting museums you'll find, crammed with period memorabilia. There isn't a lot of room inside and the day Al visited, he had to share it with a tour-bus-full of German tourists. Talk about deja vu!

Both of these structures were deliberately designed to withstand destruction but we also visited another site that the Nazis never expected to endure. Inland, near Limoges, the original village of Oradour-sur-Glane was the site of a horrible massacre by SS troops. The entire population of 648 was assembled in the square. The men were then forced into three barns which were then set on fire. Would-be escapees were shot. The women and children were herded into the church, which was similarly incinerated. Only six survivors remained to testify to the atrocity. After the war, no one remained to rebuild the village and General de Gaulle declared that it should remain as a memorial.

Today you can wander down the deserted streets where each roofless building bears a plaque explaining its former use. There were hotels, cafes, a barber shop, a dentist, a couple of dressmakers, at least three bakeries--everything a small village needed. Scattered among the ruins are rusted sewing machines, a dentist chair, other implements once used in everyday life. The soot stains in the church serve as a reminder of how these people died so cruelly, but on another level, the village remains as an illustration of the way that they lived then and thus continue to live in our memories and imaginations.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

D-Day in Normandy

The French have not forgotten the Normandy invasions. Not have the Belgians or the Dutch. In fact, thousands of them have been here in Normandy the past several days for the 62nd observance of the day. What is really weird, though, is that a lot of them are dressed up as American GIs and are driving WWII era vehicles and camping out in American Army tents. Who knew that there were so many re-enactors? Certainly not us. Quite uncanny to see a group of Yanks standing around in combat gear, smoking cigarettes and chatting away in French. Driving down every country lane you'll meet a convoy of Jeeps, trucks, whatever, but if you look closely, they have French license plates, or maybe Belgian. The big difference on this D-Day is that the sun is shining, there are no big guns going off and everyone is smiling.

On Saturday we had lunch in the square at St Mere-Eglise, along with a whole campful of re-enactors. On Sunday, we returned to see the 82nd Airborne drop about 150 paratroops over the famous bridge. Us and several thousand others, mostly French but some British and some Americans. An amazing number of old warriors showed up, although their ranks are thinning rapidly. Quite a thrill to watch the old-style round parachutes spill out of 4 C-130s at an altitude of about 1000 feet.

On Monday, we visited the Pegasus Bridge site and accidentally arrived just as the wreathlaying ceremony was beginning. This was the British sector and what those guys did is not fully appreciated by Americans who get their history from the movies. The Brits know how to do pomp and ceremony, that's for sure. There was a full military band, a bugle corps and, of course, a bagpiper. Also lots of active military in dress uniform as well as the old soldiers with their chests full of medals. I just want to know who designs those uniforms--a bit over the top in my opinion, but they sure do make the show!

Today we attended the wreathlaying ceremony at the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. The Americans don't send many active duty troops (although I'll cut them some slack for that paratroop extravaganza) but the politicans were in full view. The eyes still get pretty moist when they play the US national anthem on the carillon and lay those wreaths. Of course the rows and rows of crosses are enough to get me going anyway. Omaha is always a multi-hanky visit. There must have been a lot of Americans in the crowd because there was quite a chorus singing along with the 'Star-Spangled Banner' but again, many people from France and elsewhere in Europe to judge by the license plates in the parking lot.

Somehow it seems not quite right that the US ambassador arrives at a D-Day commemoration in a huge BMW.

After that event, we went down to the actual beach level (the cemetery is on top of the cliff) and saw a wreathlaying ceremony at the First Division Monument, the Big Red One guys. The entire color guard was made up of older French men, including the one carrying the Stars and Stripes. The guest of honor was a man who had landed on the first D-Day with the First Division; He had his great-granddaughters on each side as he accepted a medal from the mayor of the town. Another tearjerker.

All of Normandy is wall-to-wall tourists. I don't think there is anyone left in the Netherlands and there can't be many in Belgium either. Surprisingly, there are quite a few Germans including some tour busses.

It's pretty amazing to drive around this beautiful part of the world and think what it must have looked like 62 years ago. I can't even begin to comprehend what our troops went through and what the French civilian population had to endure. Americans are very lucky.