Sunday, March 17, 2013

Les sapeurs-pompiers

Behind the house there's the old railroad bed, now a walking path and also a widening of this path where there used to be poubelles, the ubiquitous waste and recycling bins.  Already parked there for the weekend was a jolly green giant of what I call a "Lull", a construction tractor for lifting roofers and materials for the Glancy's new roof next door.  So it was amazing when the fire department arrived this morning--Sunday!-- and parked a rescue truck and captain's car alongside.

I looked around among the guys (and one woman) and eventually caught sight of Pascal Martina the
Pascal Martina
mechanic who has been keeping out Kangoo on the road for the last 5 years.   He's the chief of the fire and rescue team and was puffing on a gnarly little roll-your-own cigarette.  He said they were just training this morning, teaching or refreshing memories on the harnesses and other equipment that might be needed to pluck someone out of the water somewhere I guess.

The helmets are pretty amazing.  If I joined it would be to wear a helmet like this once in a while.  I find it a little odd that the rest of the uniform is so totally functional and non-glamorous.
This is how to hold your lips when pronouncing the "u" in super
I didn't see the pretty girl wearing her helmet

 I wondered if this style dated back to the WWI era so I browsed Wikipedia.  Didn't notice anything about the helmet but got to the bottom of the sapeur part of the title.  A pompie, that's obvious enough, someone pumping water to put out a fire.  But sapeur goes back to well before the trenches of WWI where they got really good at sapping on both sides, digging tunnels under trenches and laying explosives.  In the case of incendies, buildings on fire, in the Middle Ages they sometimes had to sap the houses around a bad house fire to prevent the whole neighborhood from going up in flames.

Happily they weren't in sapeur mode but seemed to be just practicing using harnesses and climbing equipment.  It took around a quarter hour to attach what appeared to be a hoisting rope about 16 feet along the bridge.  The sign on their truck read, "Assistance to victims" but nothing about being a "fast squad" as in Vermont.  (I used to get a kick out of the volunteers from Fairlee who had decals on their pickup trucks that actually read, "Fairlee Fast Squad")

It seems to me that Andy Siegler was right, that the French "do systems really well,"  The two teams were obviously well prepared and each had an older and wiser person in charge, Pascal on the downstream side.

One of the last times I had the Kangoo in his shop, Pascal got to talking about fire departments.  This Castlefranc department had recently come door to door with calendars and the contribution that they were too discrete to actually come right out and ask for.  I told Pascal he looked great on the calendar but should have been wearing a bikini with his shiny helmet.  He was very proud of their training.  He said that if there were an emergency at local chemical factory, they had strict instructions to dial the red phone at the prefecture in Cahors.  He said that when there is an accident on a divided highway in France, two crews are sent out:  one directs traffic around the accident and the other deals with the inevitable accident in the other directons that results from rubbernecking.  He said the deaths and injuries among the firefighters at 9-11 resulted from a macho cowboy mentality that never would have happened in France.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

mean street

If anybody asks you, "Is it easy to forget?"
I'd say "It's easily done.  You just pick anyone and pretend like you never have met."

Bob Dylan Another Side of Bob Dylan  1964

Monday, February 25, 2013


It's the construction site itself, not singing, that is
forbidden to the public.  The public is encouraged to sing.
Floiras lay dying below Belaye at the intersection of the D8 and the D45.  You could almost see blood draining from the wounds of this chateau:  these stone walls are nowhere nearly as solid as they may once the roofs start to go, the soft central core of the walls dissolves and complete collapse is just a matter of time.  

All groaned in passing this relic.  There were all kinds of rumors about why the owner would allow this to happen.  As usual, the privileged explanation was a family feud resulting from French inheritance laws.  There was a petition to do something;  the mayor acted and got the national historical architect involved.  There were rumors that when the mayor told the owner he might try to take the building by eminent domain as a danger to passing traffic, the owner defiantly declared he would have the parts in danger of blocking the road bulldozed.  Someone told me the owner believed himself to be the Bourbon heir to the French crown.

A La Dépêche article in 2007 identified the former owner as one Thierry de Bercegol du Moulin de Fitz.   Note not  one, not two but three particles of nobility.  We're dealing with some serious pretention here.  Somehow  M. Thierry (writing the whole name out would only copycat famous the Monty Python routine.) eventually sold to a British family according to the article.  It didn't sound good the report that this family's first move was to try to unearth anyone old enough to remember what furniture had been where in the chateau.  The place was teetering on the brink of destruction.

It isn't clear what happened to the British family but the place sat vacant and more moribund with each passing year.  Realtor after realtor posted for sale signs.   Then amazingly enough, a builder from up north stepped up to the plate.  He said he figured it would take 15 years to do the renovations.  The crew of historical construction specialists dug in first on roofing one of the typical Quercy towers.

So this much of the ice cream cone they built on the ground.  They did finish tiles on the upper part before liftoff but left the lower part to be completed on high.  Why?  Just to reduce weight?  This lower area would be the easiest to reach.  

I doubt that this crane was the one used to lift up the ice cream cone.  They must have brought in a larger one and then continued working from this smaller one.

This dude, who has definitely been around the block a few times, seemed to be working solo the day I was taking these pictures.  The construction is in numerous layers:   the framing, interior sheathing, intermediate, light sleepers (chevrons),  exterior sheathing, and finally special tiles.   The tiles are slightly curved but even so, up close-ish, the appearance is of a shaggy surface. 
The site has been in hibernation ever since they buttoned up the tower roof.  Are they waiting for better weather?  Has the new owner already run out of steam, 14 years too soon?  Stay tuned.

PS  "Floiras" is hard to pronounce correctly, like the family name "Langlois" that became notorious from a well-known commercial where hotel clerks from around the world slaughtered it.  "Flwahrahs"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

El Rocio

In a restaurant near Granada, at the other end of Andalusia from El Rocio, the waitress told me about how she and her family and friends all make a pilgrimage to El Rocio in May.  She pointed out the photos that lined the walls, images of the virgin statue, shots of oxen-drawn conestoga wagons, people riding horseback in the streets.  The Romeria, they call it.  We were told a lot of Spaniards from El Rocio migrated to the US West.

There seems to be a lot of competition among Andalusian towns and cities but danged if I know over what.  The Pallio in Siena, Italy is a horse race and I understand horse races.  The competition here seems to be over which town team gets to carry this big image of the Virgin Mary around town.  There are supposedly lots of fist fights over this.  I don't get it either.

The town has a half dozen streets but all of them are gigantically wide.  We saw pictures that confirm that as many as a million people come for the Romaria.  Oh, and I should say we were told there is a lot of hanky panky of all types during the week or so celebrations.  Lots of fighting, drinking, and lovemaking.

These streets after a couple days of rain really looked like Vermont roads at mud season but scaled up 20X.

Some of the streets had been graded to confine the water to a center strip.

El Rocio is pronounced "rothio"  I loved all the contagious lisping in Spanish and spent the whole visit lisping in English too.   

The pilgrims are not just devoted to the statue, they are as loyal to their "hermandad", the "confrerie" as my father was to his bowling team.  The lots of Andalusian towns sponsor a hermandad which means, in most cases, they have a sort of clubhouse in El Rocio.  I dont think these clubhouses are lodging but I'm not sure.  I couldn't find an open real estate office during my off season visit, but we heard that ordinary houses sell for in the neighborhood of a million euros.  You have to book a house or hotel room a year or more in advance.   

Here's the layout of the town.

Malaga is one of the biggest cities in Andalusia but its "clubhouse" was not even the fanciest.

Pilas is the oldest Romaria towns and the smallest.

Here's the gorgeous saltwater marsh that El Rocio is built along.     

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

the blitz garden

 We've been calling it a garden all these years, the space between the house and the toll-taker's cabin, between the rail bed retaining wall and rue St Roch.  For years it's been the most disgraceful yard in all of metropolitan Castelfranc,  where I stored lots of old floorboards that never came in handy,  rocks, boulders, bricks, useless mirrors I couldn't throw away, one or two cement mixers.

This compounded by the amazing amounts of rotting leaves that the huge weeping willow, itself dangerously rotten, constantly dropped.  There was a small shed at the rail bed end with a particularly unappetizing roof of corrugated fiberglass originally erected to protect a heating oil tank from the elements.  The ground everywhere was soiled with tinted plaster, dead mortar, dead sand, putrefying sawdust.  A sad heap of sand gradually experienced a continuing rise in catshit content.

Years ago Robert siphoned out the filthy fuel oil and took the tank to Mas Maury for scrap.   Last year I finally demolished the horrid shed and built a wooden one on the opposite corner of the yard.  Step two was the massive pruning of the willow, so severe it momentarily left Mrs Snoutworthy in tears.  This filled the whole yard shoulder deep in willow waste until Passedat's guys carted it away.  The whole of our next sojourn, earlier this year, I looked out my window at the now-elegant willow which had grown out beautifully wondering what to do with all the rest of the junk.  Some I carted off to the dump in the Kangoo  

The idea had been to save money by building the little wall myself.  But so out of shape have I become that I strained my shoulder just rooting around for the first layer of stone from among the piles of rubble left over from construction. 

In the end, it proved a lot easier to watch from a safe distance.  The Passadat crew ripped through the the project, getting rid of the piles of waste, building the wall, laying irrigation tubing, installing anti-weed fabric, planting and laying cobblestones in 4 days.

I still rub my eyes in disbelief looking at Passadat's great work through the beautiful gate that Didier, Karim, and Philippe collaborated on.  What happened to the junk pile?  How did it all go so fast?  What will I do when the bills come in?

Monday, October 22, 2012

satanic bolete

Here are some of the things I'm enjoying about my first time here in Autumn.

At the marché last Friday a woman was selling boletus edulcis, the king bolete, the cepe, by the pound.  Big monster boletes 10 inches across and several inches thick.  Why didn't I buy one?  At 20€ a kilo, they weren't expensive.  $11.86 per pound.  She must have had at least 200 lbs.  It's a good year for boletes and a lot of other mushrooms. 

This afternoon, riding up through Belaye and on to Floressas, I came across a relative, Satan's Bolete.  The jury is out on whether or not this one is even edible but it was the better part of 8 inches across.     

I tore it open to see the inside and discovered the blood red veins and the blue staining where I bruised it.  They are supposed to smell like "carrion" when ripe which is why so few people are poisoned by them.  Cooking them reduces toxicity but what sane person who wasn't starving would volunteer for its stomach flu symptoms. 

The possibility of finding a cepe glues my eyes to the roadside as when I have lost a tool or some other possession on a ride. It's mesmerizing after miles and miles of never losing track of the roadside.  At 12 mph you surely miss lots of mushrooms half-buried in leaf litter, disguised as leaves or stones.  Are mushrooms generally hiding like  prey animals or advertising themselves?  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


A friend who was to stay here in this house over the summer had to leave.  He said that the house "didn't like him;  it was like wearing someone else's clothes."  The rest of his family didn't feel anything of the sort apparently,  just him.  I keep looking around wondering what went into giving him this sensation.  For the sake of argument, let's assume--perhaps correctly, who knows?-- that it has nothing to do with me.  Then what is it about the place that produced this hostile vibe?  I look around me and see the tinted rough plaster with all its blotches, the happy friendly band of tile above the cherry cabinets, all welcoming and warm.

I would have said that we completely transformed this house, almost literally turning it upside down.  We even moved the stair and aimed it the opposite direction.  Couldn't be the kitchen, could it?  With it's view of the river and big round table.  The living room with its African hangings from the nice ecological lady's shop in Cazals, the silly elephant table, the simple chestnut staircase.  Living room, ok.

The spare bedroom?  A hard space to get your head around:  it's where, for the time being, you enter the house.  For some time it was the shop and even now harbors the old hollow piano case into which I intend to use to insert the electronic piano I bought from Karl.  Otherwise it has a huge bookcase with giant curtains that conceal our stock of toilet paper, wine, the peanut butter stash,  kitchen overflow.  The ancient oak ceiling joists are painted a possibly gruesome brown that sometimes reminds me of an Elks Club bar room minus the mounted, moth-eaten 6-pointer.   The floor here and in the main bedroom is click clack and the furnishings pretty much pure Ikea.  You must pass through the laundry room with its odd slanted ceiling of frosted glass.  Behold the bathroom, a bright but low-ceilinged, roomy room.

By the time you reach the main bedroom from the entrance you have made no fewer than five 90° turns.  An amateurish design if there ever was one, but hostile?  The main bedroom has light from three directions and the dark brown click clack plasticky flooring gets lost beneath the beautiful cherry armoire and oak chest and the veneer drawers on loan from Kim's house.  The rose tinted plaster has lots of splotches.

Did the tinted plaster suggest a Rorshach test to my friend?  It's occurred to me that it would have been terrific grist for an acid trip in 1968.

So if we're assuming it's not me and we've absolved the decor, then that leaves the psychic remnants of previous inhabitants.  The house for a long time belonged to the Miran family, skilled woodworkers who made fancy Louis XIV furniture.  There's a hamlet called Miran over by Fages and Mirans buried in the Castelfranc graveyard.  One of them committed suicide in this house.

Or it could be previous inhabitants.  God knows how old this place is.  I wonder how far back tax records go?  Did they survive the Revolution?  The town itself seems to go back to around 1250.  Opinions vary on when this house was built, whether before or after the Revolution.  And Rue St Roch lies along the long Roman road that ran from Lyon to Bordeaux.