Monday, June 7, 2010

Week 2: Of Golfing, Gardening and the Hundred Years War

 On the way to the club house, an aquatint

Golf is one of those things my parents did enthusiastically and thus something I scrupulously avoided. One of the disadvantages of coming of age in the sixties was that you felt you must rebel, just in principle, even if what you were taking a stand against could actually have been fun. Certainly golf is a wonderfully civilized sport, requiring a minimum of strength and endurance, neither of which I’m long on.

The drive to the golf course was through some emerald green countryside where I counted 10 castles along the way. The day was a bit glowering, but Anne and Christine were in great form and as usual kept us laughing and chattering away. The course itself, one of three in our immediate vicinity, is immaculately maintained, even if it is right in the middle of pastureland. Virginie, our teacher, roared up in a golf cart and Christine and I piled in, leaving Anne and Rick to walk the rather long path to the driving range. As we careened off the road, lurching over uneven terrain, I held on for dear life. Once at the range, and after having some basic instruction, we stood on little squares of plastic turf and whacked away at bright yellow balls delivered to our buckets from a large slot machine. This went on for an hour.

My DNA must include some driving iron command. The club seemed to perform fairly well in my hands and Virginie asked if I had played much before. The group named me the “champion.” Not being terribly “sportif" as they say over here, that was an unusual experience for me. It was fun getting that satisfying thunk as the club hit the ball just right.


Early June is the best time of the whole year for gardening and this week the weather has mostly cooperated. Our patch is a few minutes walk from the house. We pass the church and turn up the hill just past the bar/tabac named La Salamandre. At the top, as the road evens out, the private gardens begin. They are called “jardins ouvriers” which I heard at first as “jardins ouverts - open gardens” since they are lined up one after the other like community gardens, exposed to the pathway and thus conductive to conversation as people stroll past. They are quite open. But the phrase really means “working gardens” the idea being that they are meant for growing your vegetables and not for lounging around or having a barbecue. The first one along the road belongs to an octogenarian friend whose name we do not know. We just call him “garden man." He is there almost every time we come past and he always stops what he’s doing, leans on his hoe and engages us in pleasant conversation, which often runs something like this:

“On your way to your garden then?”

“Yes, got to do a little mowing and weeding. Your potatoes are looking very nice.”

“I've been weeding all morning.”

“That rain we had recently was nice for the garden.”

“It was good, yes, but not nearly enough, not nearly!”

It’s nice to know that someone can appreciate rain in June. I certainly don’t.

Our garden breaks the mold. We grow flowers, which are quite practical for our bed and breakfast business. We need them all season to decorate the house, and they’re expensive to purchase. But to the locals using a garden for something other than vegetables is an extravagant waste of precious terrain! Of course people here aren’t actually critical of our use of space and they give us a lot of slack, since we’re etrangers (foreigners), and thus clearly don't know better. Secretly I think they enjoy our aberrant garden design. Many people who walk by stop to admire our patch and sometimes they simply stand at the fence and watch us working for minutes at a time before moving on. Last year we created a rather formal geometric design for our flowerbeds, bounded by grass pathways, which have now grown lush and verdant. We created a big square space, bisected with paths running from corner to corner creating a small brick bordered herb bed in the middle and two trapezoidal beds on each of the four sides. We defined each with a color family: red, orange and yellow in the north, blue on the west, rose and purple in the south quadrant and white on the east. We’ve had people tell us our garden is “nickel," “trop beau," “modele,” and “top”. Extravagant compliments for these reputedly restrained northern folk.

Garden man once asked us if the form was meant to represent the British Union Jack, assuming as most French people who don’t know us do, that we are English. We assured him that it was not. There is only one other garden along the road that isn’t planted in straight rows of potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, cabbage, onions and leeks. That belongs to the librarian, but hers is hidden behind a large hedge.

Speaking of the English, we had tea at John and Lesley’s house this week. We hadn’t been there in months. They live just a few kilometers down the hill from us and run a gite (self-catering cottage) and fishing enterprise. Their project is on an heroic scale, as they have a huge piece of land, several buildings, an enormous lake, acres of lawn which is kept meticulously mowed, and a forest. They are possibly the hardest working people I know. Being not much younger than us, it’s impressive to see that between them they can spread 11 tons of gravel (for a driveway) in a day, for instance. Last year they had hundreds of poplar trees cut down and hauled away, but what they hadn’t realized was that the lumberjacks would cut the trees several feet from the ground, leaving ragged stumps, strip off all the branches and leave a pile of debris about 6 feet deep over one entire side of their lake. They worked 10 hours a day for most of 6 months cutting, splitting and stacking wood, gathering twigs, burning scraps and clearing out their field and it has hardly made a dent in the pile. They will have several lifetimes supply of firewood and years of work to keep them busy.

Their flower garden is magnificent and if they are not painting patio furniture, building new decks, canning fruit, pruning fruit trees, or dredging their lake, they are tending to their clients. They are solidly booked from early spring to late fall. All their clients are British and come to either camp or stay in the gite for a week at a time. They fish for carp, which are stocked in the lake. The whole operation is catch and release, so it’s not about a fish dinner. Not to mention that carp are not terribly delicious. I’m ignorant about these things, but apparently carp are fun to catch and grow to be 40 lbs and more. Having your photo taken with the biggest, ugliest brute in the lake seems to be the main point of the week-long adventure.

The English and French have a centuries long love/hate relationship. There are lots of Brits in northern France. They come for the quality of life but object to a lot of the Frenchness of France, particularly the language. Many Brits live here for years and socialize only with other English speakers. Of course Normandy was part of England only a few hundred years ago, along with a huge part of what is now western France. The hundred years war, fought, not surprisingly, for about a hundred years, was a tug of war that revolved basically around a simple disagreement:


“No, mine!”

That famous meeting held in the castle of Montmirail between Henry II Plantagenet and Thomas Beckett, hosted by Louis VII, the king of France, took place a decade or so after the younger Henry first met Louis. At the beginning of his reign in England, Henry popped by Paris to pay his regards to Louis, the more experienced monarch. After a brief stay the English king left the court and took Louis’ wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, along with him. She was married during her lifetime to both the king of France and England and with her went a huge chunk of land that is now western France (the Dordogne, the Lot Valley and Bordeaux). So this morsel, so excellent for wine, went back and forth between the two countries. Normandy also was once English-ruled. Some British feel it was only an unlucky and unfair quirk of histroy that erased these lands from the English map, and that they should still be part of England. One Englishman told us they were reconquering the land one house at a time! It’s true that there are villages in our region and in the Dordogne, where there are more English than French. Our friend Jonathan lived in the Dordogne for more than ten years and never learned to speak a word of French. All his friends and clients were fellow Brits.

The blackbird (merle in French) is a continuous happy presence outside our windows this time of year. As they make their nests, lay their eggs and hatch their chicks, they sing a varied, sweet and never repetitious series of melodies. After their babies are born, they stop their singing. I guess they're too busy. Their song is another special part of early June.

One of the most interesting clients we had this week was a brave and adventurous 20-year-old named Mia who happens to be the daughter of a friend of my sister back in Santa Cruz. She went a long way out of her way to stay with us and, in fact, missed the last train from Paris the first night she was due to arrive here, so had to find a place to stay near the train station. (She found a room above an Asian restaurant.) She is traveling around Europe crisscrossing the continent to visit her various pen pals. She has about thirty of them. She went to England, Finland, back to England, to Paris, back up to Lille, down to Portugal, back to England, then Scotland and finally back again to England one last time and home. I had no idea that people actually have pen pals anymore. What a cool way to travel around the world! It’s her third summer in Europe.

 After dinner on the terrace. The weather was warm enough to eat outdoors. It stays light until almost 11!

Tomorrow brings Bud Allen to the Maison Conti. He reserved a room with us out of the clear blue sky about a month ago. I had never heard of him, but he turns out to be Rick’s old roommate from prep school, who he hasn’t seen or been in touch with for 42 years. We look forward to finding out how he discovered us. Should be interesting week!


  1. Nancy, your life is a mix of fun, interest, discoveries, training, new experience, all very well told with humour and sensbility. I particularly appreciate your note about hate/love between french and english people, so true, so incredible and "decadent" as James would say !

  2. Me again, just to tell that a weekly post is very nice because we wait for it, we have time to read it and it is a very pleasant mway for starting the week. You could also name them 'Monday posts

  3. Well aren't you the chatty gal today! Loved every word of it...such interesting tidbits of your French life. Enjoy the visit with Mr. Allen and I look forward to your next post ;-)
    votre ami,

  4. A perfect luncheon companion. Thanks, Nancy.

    Is that your adorable village that adorns the foot of today's blog?

  5. 哇~酷哦~推你一把~正文(・(ェ)・)........................................