Chapter 14: Fact, Fiction, Fêtes and Foie Gras

We live in the world’s foie gras centre.  It’s a bold claim, but when you consider that Dordogne is the centre of foie gras production for France, and France is the centre of foie gras for the world, it’s not too big a stretch, unlike the necks of the geese which are stretched for force-feeding. It’s a wonderful, valuable delicacy and divine to eat.  This is one you have to decide for yourselves, but my experience is first-hand, always a great place to gain conviction. 

Foie gras quite literally means “liver fat”, and is made from the livers of ducks or geese that have been force-fed to produce an enlarged, super-fatty liver.  At least, that is what French law demands for using this name.  French law states that, “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France”.  So if you want to produce it somewhere else using force-feeding, or do it with natural feeding such as in Spain, you cannot call it foie gras.  That’s another reason we are at the centre of foie gras in the world; it cannot be made anywhere else, anyway.  Finally, of the 30,000 people working in the foie gras industry in France, 90% of them live in the Dordogne.  We think we’ve met at least half of them.

It’s no surprise then, that as we immerse ourselves in this rural countryside and attend markets three or four times a week, foie gras is forced into our faces, a bit like feeding the geese.  We got curious and decided to investigate its ever-present presence.  This was precipitated by Fest’Oie, the Festival of the Goose, held in Sarlat-la-Canéda.  Sarlat is our nearest “big town”, 25 minutes away.  It is a wonderful medieval town which also has  modern and useful shops outside its ancient centre, and we go there often.  Annually on the first weekend in March, the Goose Festival attracts thousands of people from all over France to celebrate all things “oie”, (pronounced “waah”).   It afforded a wonderful opportunity to dive in and start discovering.

Fest’Oie is also good for merch.

Firstly, the taste.  We’ve probably all had foie gras at some time in our lives.  Goose foie gras has a delicate liver-like flavour, (what else?), with the texture of pure silk.  It is simply divine; delicate, moist, graceful – it tastes like no other food.  Duck foie gras is almost indiscernibly coarser, and more strongly flavoured but the top of this pinnacle is definitely occupied by King Goose.  Foie Gras may be used in other dishes to flavour them, as an aperitif, or by itself as a tiny main course.  No one lavishes foie gras on anyone else because its retail price is €90 per kilogram, or AU$155, for goose and only slightly less for duck.

We have seen myriad ways to procure foie gras in every market.  It has been pushed at us in tins, cans, bottles, terrines and glass jars.  Its purveyors all claim that their foie gras is the most superior, cooked according to their ancient recipe handed down by their seventh generation farmer ancestors.  As fattening the goose can be dated back to 2,500 BC, this makes them relatively inexperienced.

The varieties are huge.  Part-cooked, fully-cooked, steeped in sherry, roasted in honey, poached in pears, filling up figs, pasted inside prunes, draped around dates, eaten with walnuts and wine, sold inside leftover goose necks, sliced into pork fillets, churned into rillettes – the ways of preparing it and selling it, are limitless.  The one thing it has in common, is that it is the man-fattened liver of poultry.

Until this point, we have ignored its manufacture, and bought tiny smidges of it here and there at various markets while cooing and mumbling at its gorgeousness.  Fest’Oie promised 18 different foie gras vendors, all hawking their wares and tempting us with the offer of “free tastings”.  It was irresistible, but having a conscience, we decided to also visit a Goose Farm to see the happy birds growing up and learn for ourselves the truth behind the purported torture.  I didn’t expect we would see the gavage, the force-feeding.  I had read that most bird-stuffing took place between November and December in readiness for Christmas, and at the time of the annual goose migration. 

Wasn’t I stupid?  At €90 per kilo, of course this industry operates all year round.

Driving beyond Sarlat, we arrived at our Goose Farm – no names given to protect this lovely family business.  A huge field of at least four acres, nicely grassed, surrounded by a 12 cm high, single strand of wire, contained a flock of around 200 geese.  These seven week old goslings (bought for €7 euro each), were resting, feeding, foraging, honking, and looking the picture of mellow contentment.  The fact it was March and they should have migrated from the country about six months ago did not seem to affect them. 

Idyllic farm scenes.

They were provided with plenty of water and lots of porridge-style food containing wheat, maize, corn and corn starch.  They were free-range and could eat anything else in their paths too, at their own time and pace.  What if their wings were clipped to prevent them flying away?  No problem.  They could waddle and honk into their huge, warm, straw-filled shed at night and huddle into sleep.  Around 400 Barbary Ducks were similarly free-ranging in their two acres, with views over the rolling countryside, a trickling river down to a lake, warm sun and blue skies.  There is no doubt these birds are maintained in an idyllic setting and are pampered kings and queens. No “waah” from us yet.

I am reminded that the Spanish similarly maintain their fighting bulls before their massacre in the bull ring, and was similarly sceptical.  See my bull fighting article June 2016 somewhere in the digital sphere.

The bouncing, large, happy farmer’s wife, Mother Goose, who runs this property with her two adult sons, met the guests with smiles and energy.  Beaming, she introduced us to her seventh generation family farm.  Great.  I was in one of “those” farms, one with real authority.  Beaming, she began the story I’d heard in other places.  It’s a litany they all deliver.  I’ve heard it so often I knew the PR Agent for the foie gras industry had been here too, doing excellent work.  They all sing from the same honk-sheet.  It goes like this…

“When geese are about to migrate in Autumn, they always spend the prior three months gobbling down all the food they can find, to fatten themselves up to prepare their bodies for the long flights ahead.  This is a natural process, which we copy by fattening them up more rapidly”.  There it is, the Fake News, that geese don’t mind being force-fed “because they were going to do it anyway”.

I suspended disbelief, because I didn’t know that I was soon to witness the gavage; I could dismiss it as a Christmas-only torture.  My commercial instincts had quite fled, lost in the enchantment of old, golden stone houses, beautiful barns, warm straw and that peaceful barnyard.  It was pure Enid Blyton. 

Happy birds in beautiful, sun-filled barn.

We were shown inside the big barn where the birds spend the last two and a half weeks of their lives.  They never come out of this shed again.  Now five months old, they are put into large, clean, steel pens with wire grating floors so that their merde can flow straight out into the concrete merde-pool one metre below.  The goose-poo is systematically hosed away and used to fertilise the fields of corn, wheat and maize that are then fed back into these flocks.  The economic sustainability is excellent in this closed loop supply chain.  The son is justifiably proud that they use no chemicals or preservatives and follow the ancient techniques of farming that are centuries old, long before his great grandfather three times back discovered that fat goose livers would make him a millionaire.

The geese live 15 to a pen.  The ducks are in pens of 20.  None is crammed in.  These are big pens about one metre wide by three metres long.  Four goose pens are presently occupied with a total of 60 geese, six duck pens with 120 ducks.  It’s clean, well-lit and not smelly due to the steady floor-washing.  I cannot imagine how it stank in the olden days.

Barbary Ducks with loads of room to move.

Down the centre of the two rows of pens runs a large square steel vat on rollers, out of which extends a flexible hose like a vacuum cleaner hose, with a narrow, polished steel feeding tube, about 3 cm diameter and 30 centimetres long.  Like a milk maid, the son takes his seat on a stool in the centre of the pen.  Naturally the birds have moved to the end of the pen furthest from him, as their instinct would dictate they would.  The fact some of them look like they are scrambling over each other in their anxiety to avoid contact with him, must be my imagination.  I am certainly suddenly overwrought as I realise I am about to see a gavage.  Like at a horror movie, I am fixated.  Now it has become “waaaaaah”.

He grasps the first goose by the neck, holds the bird vertically so its neck is at full extension, inserts the tube part-way down the goose’s throat, and presses a button.  A measured 400 ml dose of corn porridge made with corn kernels and corn starch is electronically delivered down the neck of the bird, and it’s all over in a few seconds.  The goose is pushed to the other end of the pen, sated for the next few hours.  It doesn’t need to forage now, does it?

Quick and painless force-feeding.

The geese receive 1.6 kilos of food a day, spaced over four feedings, hours apart, for better digestion and absorption.  And less distress.  I am sure wild geese could eat this much if they really tried, pre-migration, couldn’t they?  Meanwhile, my gag reflex has responded to the tube and I feel greatly “wah”.

The process looks painless, the goose is wagging its tail as it is freed (I have to remind myself this is not a dog and I know nothing of goose behaviour), and the son is smiling bucolically at the visitors.  If I think I see a bird stumbling, or sinking to the ground because it can no longer support its own weight, I must be mistaken.  This is Mother Goose Land and everything is happy here. 

Whistle While you Work.

At the end of 17 days, the geese are “felt” for their extended livers, humanely slaughtered in “the killing house” where we are taken next, and donate most of their body parts to other causes.  It is a European standard that an animal must be put to sleep before it can be killed.  Nice one Europe!  I wonder if England will have that after Brexit? 

In the killing house, which we are fortunately not made to see but which is happily described, a two pronged zapper is applied to their beak and eye and 1,000 volts generates Sleeping Goose.  Their throats are slit, blood quickly emptied and the bird placed in a huge tub of hot water for three minutes to soften and clean everything.  Now sterilised, another machine strips the carcass of feathers and down.  What happens to those, I ask?  “You’re wearing it” he says, indicating my goose-down parka.  Oh.  Yes.  Of course.

Each ex-goose is lovingly handled, and meticulously zapped, killed, boiled and scraped, one by one.  It’s highly labour-intensive.  I am glad Mother Goose has two strapping eighth generation sons to manage the family enterprise.

Our questions answered by the English-speaking Daniel, we are invited onto the terrace of the ancient farmhouse to admire the vista with delighted ducks splashing in the lake and to partake of foie gras samples, foie gras rillettes and foie gras stuffed dates.  Some Monbazillac white is a perfect accompaniment.  As the heaven-sent flavour of stuffed liver slips down our throats, the fact is reinforced that the geese are humanely raised, humanely stuffed and humanely killed.  They would not be born in the first place if it weren’t for this delicacy, and 30,000 people would be out of work.  An ancient tradition would die if we stopped eating it, simply for humanitarian causes, wouldn’t it?  Anything resembling animal torture must be fiction.

Livers and liquor on the terrace.

Invited finally to the gift shop to buy purchases for home consumption, lovingly welcomed by the gorgeous Border Collie, Charley, who loves one up into buying more, I find myself spending too many euros on duck confit, duck farci and goose foie gras.  It’s a spur of the moment, gift shop thing to do after a fascinating tour on a mellow Monbazillac-soaked afternoon.

Weeks later, when the excitement of Fest’Oie has waned, which was a joyful evening spent standing, eating and drinking with our new American friends Joseph and Hannah at long tables set up under marquees, where hundreds of visitors from as far away as Holland and Toulouse come annually to celebrate the goose, where we enjoyed bands, wine, catering, dancing and conversation on a really fabulous and happy night, I resolved that I would not eat foie gras ever again.

Streets scenes in Sarlat during Fest’Oie.

We ate our last gift-shop tin by the end of March, and my mind was now made up.  On principle, I will not forget the over-fattened geese, their stumbling waddle and their horror to escape the man with the feeding wand.  That was not fiction; that was fact.  Foie Gras, you have just joined bull fighting, in my view, as something to be despised and banned for ever more!  On principle!

Later that season, we book a luxury weekend at a five-star chateau with a Michelin starred restaurant overlooking the glorious Dordogne.  We want to celebrate our love of the Périgord as we prepare to leave it in early May.  First course here in the centre of the foie gras universe …?  I’m not telling, but I know it’s a wonderful, valuable delicacy and will be divine to eat.  Waaah…

Is she licking her lips?

Chapter 13:  At the Café de Paris

Crossed between Cheers, “a place where everybody knows your name” and ‘Allo, ‘Allo, cast with divinely comical characters, is the Café de Paris, the social hub of Belvès.  A community heart beats here larger than Phar Lap’s.

When we first arrived in Belvès in a cold February, we found most everything was closed.  This included restaurants, most attractions and some galleries.  Fortunately it excluded all the local chateaux, villages and caves (grottes) where we’ve spent our days sublimely being the only tourists on site and enjoying uninterrupted panoramas and sightlines.  Sadly however, it also included most of the local restaurants which only re-open in April.

The Café de Paris in Belvès does not close. Ever.

As described previously, somecafés are open on market days and generally there is a
crêperie to be found serving gaufres (waffles) and glaces (ice cream).  It is difficult to find a good place for lunch and sometimes impossible to find a sandwich shop, as everything closes from 12.00 – 1.30 anyway, so the French may have their main meal – lunch.  I mean, why would they want to be serving lunch for paying customers, when they can be eating their own?  Go figure.

The Café de Paris dare not close.  The village would lose its beating heart if that were the case.  Arteries would dry up, veins would empty, the pulse would cease.  Everyone would go away to die.  The value of the life-support system provided by this pulsating pixie of a place is incalculable.

On our early forays into the labyrinth of Belvès, we carefully avoided the Café de Paris.  Exploring quiet streets, peering through archaic arches and photographing 11th century towers was inconsistent with the rowdiness, music and noise generated by the smoking people sitting outside.  It always seemed so vigorous and well-populated that we were a little bit scared of it to be honest.  They were all French locals doing French-local business and it was not our place.  And anyway, it had Smoking People with Loud Voices who must all be terribly common, we thought.  Our culinary excursions were, by necessity, limited to coffees on market days, sandwiches in Sarlat and myriad duck recipes at home.

Life changed for us after the Troglodytique Cave Tour when French-Scottish Tour Guide Carol, of the arched house variety, farewelled us with an imprecation to “sayh yoooo at the Cafée de Paree on Fraydeeee night”.

Clearly, a sign!  The casual manner she tossed this off meant it was expected that you would be at the Café de Paris on Friday night.  We hardened up and resolved to make our first appearance the next night, which happened to be Friday.

What does one wear to a commoners’ café with Smoking People with Loud Voices outside when it’s eight degrees by 6.00 p.m. and two degrees by the time you will be staggering home via Rue Foncastel?  Obviously coats and scarves were mandatory, but what does one wear inside a dubious-looking café where we’ve never been before and where so much of our future acceptance by the community depends on our first appearance?  We didn’t want to get this wrong.  Our social cachet, local gossip and all future relationships depended on this first night.  I felt like a debutante all over again.  Well, somewhat.

Clothes had to be carefully selected to force-fit that je ne c’est quoi air of studied nonchalance.  Hair and makeup were done in the afternoon, jewellery donned.  Shoes needed to be able to navigate the cobblestones of  Rue Foncastel in the dark, yet be fashionable enough to be admired under fluorescent lighting.

With deep breaths and nervous tickers, at 6:00 p.m. we left home to ascend the four minute walk to the centre of the universe and our social future, planning to have a few drinks, maybe some nibbles, and eat later.

Did I say the Café de Paris never closes?  Of course it does.  Like all sensible French cafes, it was never going to be open as early as 6:00 p.m.

Glad for the sensible heels, totally chastened by our lack of sophistication, happy we were only seen setting out for dinner at such an unfashionable hour by one other late-luncher returning home, we retreated to our house rather than be found frozen in the street too eagerly awaiting its opening at 7:00 p.m.

A humbler pair returned to the Café de Paris one hour later to find a transformation had taken place.  The town had descended upon it and the place was afire.  This café is modest.  Really modest.  It has one room with whitewashed walls, fluorescent down-lighting, uncovered, unadorned wooden tables, mismatched chairs, one ancient print, a long bar, a kitchen pumping burnt oil and garlic smells from the rear and two Lotto/horse-racing/gambling TV screens mounted high up.

And it was nearly full with Seniors like us, leaving the young folks to flow outside wearing their impossibly skinny jeans, warm coats with furry trimmed hoods and equally impossibly high heels, ( I mean, in this town?), smoking their fashionably skinny cigarettes and cohorting on all Matters Young.

A table was found for us near the front window, two laminated menus were presented listing a cost-effective range of pizzas, salads and omelettes, and Axelle presented herself to us to take our drinks order.  Axelle the Angel, I have come to call her.  In the weeks since, when we have unfailingly made our never-to-be-missed appointment on Friday night at the Café de Paris, I have come to love this gentle woman.  Young, around 30, slightly plump, sweet faced, wearing skinny jeans, flat shoes and a t-shirt, this patient, kind, understanding sweetheart has always found us a table, helped us with our struggling French and made suggestions off-menu to help us.

It turns out anything goes, and the laminated menu is just for the tourists.  Same with the drinks.  She taught us to never order from the wine list, but to trust her choice of 50 cl of red wine, served from a tap, a box or a cask – never a bottle – and always delicious.  It is  probably “found” somewhere locally by the owner, Ignace.  At three euros a litre, no one is asking.

Ignace is around 45 or 50, very round, red and grey.  He is the René of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but without the need to be as calculating.  Everyone loves him and he vigorously loves them all back. Always funny, always happy to see you, he now runs from behind the bar to give me, on sight, the classic two-cheek French kiss.  He stumbles through some English, corrects my French, allows me to massage his ripped shoulder which has been hurting for over a month now, and holds a table for us every week without prompting.

Ignace and Axelle

On all subsequent nights, we have been promoted.  We sit near the back of the café away from the regularly opening, gust-producing, draft-making front door, nearer the warmth of the oil-burning, garlic smell-producing kitchen from whence come the best pizzas in town from the genius hands of the greasy apron-wearing chef, seen occasionally when he emerges with a bell to summon one of the girl waiters to fetch the next meal.  The fact he has a cigarette perpetually in his hand or mouth, and a stein of wine or beer regularly delivered, only shows he is beyond food-licensing regulations and beyond caring.

On our first night, aside from realising we may have over-dressed except for the table of four terribly British Seniors who had donned attire suitable for their next visit to the Queen, we were immediately relaxed by the people who visited our table.

First to arrive and greet us was “Van … as in Van Gogh”, a phrase that rolls out in English as easily as the thousands of times he has said it before.  A Dutchman of some 70+ years living in Belvès, he has long, greasy, grey hair, four languages, no occupation that he is prepared to reveal, one outfit of clothing and a drinking problem.  Actually, it is not a problem for him.  He simply knows to descend upon newcomers in a friendly way and they will eventually buy him a drink.  As we did on our first night.  As we have done ever since.  Sometimes we flip him a slice of pizza too.

Never appearing drunk, he nevertheless should be the Town Drunk.  He is always to be found at the Café de Paris, usually with a drink someone has bought him near to hand.  Others may call him a tramp. He looks homeless.  I have had long conversations with him and I know him to be a kind and intelligent guy.  He owns properties. He hates the Dutch.  He has grand children who adore him and they visit regularly from Bordeaux or he takes the train there.  I am proud later to have my photograph taken with him.

The next visitor was “Tay Tay”.  That is not his real name which even he claims to be unpronounceable and has probably forgotten.  He says when he was young he had long hair tied in a “tay tay” and people have called him that since his university days, now some 50 years previous.  While I doubt “tay tay” means ponytail, I go with it because he has twinkling eyes and wears more impossibly skinny jeans plus a brown leather jacket tailored in Paris and has a fabulous French way of wearing a scarf that makes him look “just so”.  Tay-Tay is très, très chic.

Formerly a geologist and professor of geology at a university, he is now retired and keeps himself occupied running geology-based tours for scientists and tourists of the abundant grottes along the Dordogne and Vézère valleys.  His speciality is Le Roque Saint-Christophe at Les Eyzies.  He says he is still studying it, that it is still revealing the secrets it has held for thousands of years, and he cannot wait to get underground again.  I sense he’d really rather be underground by himself running geological assays than hosting visiting Chinese tourists but it keeps him in wine which he shares liberally.  Van is bound to him for this reason, if not for the fact both are educated men.  On our first night, Tay-Tay buys us a round.  We have taken turnabout ever since.  And seeing our kindness to Van on Night #1, Ignace provides us with a free round too.  He has done so ever since.  Or Axelle has.  Or someone has.  Maybe Van has?  As they say, what goes around …

These are the main characters.  Others include the two waitresses who are about 18 and are descended from an African race.  Their Zulu-formed height and preying-mantis thin bodies are clad in the most impossibly skinny jeans of them all.  With beautiful skin, bound-up curls, white teeth and winning smiles, they are ‘Allo ‘Allo’s two waitresses, only Ignace would never think to have an affair with them because he has too much innate integrity.  They are funny, French and patient.

Various British people appear and go.  The Dutch come in groups of six or eight, well-dressed and Senior.  Apparently they live in a “Dutch camp” down the mountain and everyone dislikes them because they hang out with Dutch people, eat Dutch food and don’t buy locally.  Van talks to them though; in Dutch.  They buy him a drink.

The Belvès dining public passes through these doors in one night.  This café is the only restaurant open in town.  If you want a pizza, food or a drink you either come here or order importer, take-away.  There is no delivery van, no Uber Eats.  To collect your order, you have to turn up.  This means coming inside, picking up your boxes, kissing everyone you know before you leave, and buying Van a wine.  Everyone kisses everyone all the time, and maybe this is the secret of this café?  In a small community, you come here for gossip, wine and to be kissed.  It makes you feel as if you belong.

As the nights get warmer, more families return to Belvès.  They come out to dine in the overflow tables and chairs now spilling into the streets.  Their children are left to play in the street, trusted by their parents who kiss, sit, drink and gossip.  Suspension of judgement by me kicks in.  I watch the children play, remembering playing with our grand kids, wanting to join in, and wondering who is supervising these littlies and would stop me if I tried. They appear to belong to nobody, and no one comes to tell them what to do.

And then I remember – this is France.  The kids are being raised by the village and their lifestyle is secure, idyllic and free from the neurotic over-worried, hovering of Australian parents.  Everyone knows who they are, and who they belong to, and keeps an eye on them as they almost politely dash and dart, not too loudly or aggressively, pretending to be aeroplanes or pirate ships or cars or soldiers running through the secret tunnel, perching on medieval windowsills, falling onto medieval cobblestones and crying a little until another kid comes and picks them up.  Is this what life was like sixty years ago?  I think I remember that.

While the inside of the café seats 24 covers for Seniors who get cold easily, the exterior provides 38 chairs at tables, where the Smoking People with Loud Voices once sat, who I now know to be young teenagers in skinny jeans comparing notes and flirting, or parents of kids who want to play outside without disturbing other customers, or just middle-aged people who prefer fresh air to kitchen smells, because not that many people in France really smoke any more.  I am told when it gets warmer, the tables and chairs increase with the hours of daylight.  In summer, the chairs of the Café de Paris fill all of Rue Jacques Manchotte.  I wish I could see that.

Threading through all of this, is the café’s and my, favourite character, Touschie.  Touschie is Ignace’s mutt, a mongrel dog made more beautiful by sharing with his owner the same bonhomie, welcoming acceptance, gracious hospitality and joyful nature that he obviously expects in return.  All customers are individually greeted, then Touschie returns to his place in the centre of the room, from where he can lie in the narrow aisle ready to greet the next arrivals. He asks for nothing.  He expects only that you will step around him.

Touschie’s tail is a blur as he wags it too fast for the camera-phone to catch.

If the heart of Belvès, its central meeting place and gossip exchange, is the Café de Paris, then the heart of the Café de Paris is the generous and joyful Ignace, and the heart of Ignace is embodied in the character of his dignified, happy and gracious dog.

One gets the feeling that if he could, Touschie would buy Van a drink.

Chapter 14:  Fact, Fiction, Fetes and Foie Gras

Chapter 12: La Belle Belvès

Belvès is fascinating.  While some may see antiquity, a declining population, ageing residents and à vendre signs, to us who have never lived in a rural community, especially a French medieval one, we delight in fresh new discoveries every day.  Allow me to introduce you to “La Belle Belvès”.

The main thoroughfare through Belvès is loosely shaped like a capital M lying on its side.  We live in the bottom stroke, therefore winning the unimpeded view of the shallow rift valley over which she presides.

When I say “main thoroughfare”, it is of the type most often found in medieval villages, whereby if two oncoming cars need to pass each other, one has to scream up onto the minuscule footpath to allow passage of the other.  Pedestrians at this point flatten themselves against the wall or find refuge in the nearest door well.  As the maximum speed possible around these bends is about 30 kph, there is time to save one’s life.

It has become second-nature for us now, after each drive, to bend Freddie the Duster’s side mirrors flat against the  car to protect them from being side-swiped in our “main thoroughfare”.  If I am your passenger in Australia in future, you will have to restrain me from performing this strange ritual on your E-Type.

To get into town, we walk up Rue Foncastel.  Rue Foncastel is not the steepest street in the village;  that title belongs to the beautifully named Côte de l’Oratoire, the Street of Songs, a thigh-burning, heart-racing, breath-robbing bastard of an ascent about 500 metres long at about 50 degrees to the horizontal.  That may be literary licence – see picture here.  Nevertheless, having done it twice, I prefer to walk a further three kilometres to bypass it. 

Côte de l’Oratoire

Rue Foncastel is the second-most street of that description, but it requires only 183 tortured, dragging paces upwards.  It serves as our daily, Dr Michael Mosley, two minute workout.  Arriving breathless at the top, one staggers into the town’s central medieval marketplace.  This covered market was built in the 14th century and has hosted a Saturday market ever since, with produce not that much different in 650 years.  It still has the shackles used in that era for restraining thieves, vagabonds and gypsies for their crimes, where they were handcuffed to a wall and publicly shamed into repentance.

Covered market, Belvès.

Our public shame, without repentance, is to be heaving and gasping for air as we totter sharply left to stumble into Café des Sports for “deux grandes crèmes, s’il vous plaît ”, the only correct way, we’ve found, to order two normally-sized coffees with milk, in this otherwise shite-coffee drinking country.   At Café des Sports, one sits outside to bask in the sun and watch other people, everyone’s favourite pastime in France.  In February, the plentiful sun shines into a marketplace topping no more than three degrees, and the people are non-existent, so we don’t stay there long.  By the time March rolls along, the sun is 17 feeling like 27, the people have returned, and we are addicted to the national activity.

No longer heaving from the effects of Rue Foncastel, we reflect upon the misfortunes of the rival Pourquoi Pas? café directly across the square.  It suffers two major setbacks.  Firstly, it is located next to the Pharmacie.  The only people available to study, comment upon and pass judgement over are old people seeking fulfilment of their prescriptions.  This is not as much fun as the middle-class wealthy, with dogs, on the other side.  Secondly, it sits on the eastern side of the square, sheltered from the sun by buildings. I predict a seasonal switch to Pourquoi Pas? when the summer sun arrives and am vastly amused by imagining the mass conversion.  Actually, Pourquoi Pas? has better coffee and their hot chocolate is divinity.

On Saturdays, the market heaves with people, produce and personalities.  We have become regulars making regular purchases.  Our first stop is at the duck and goose-selling team of wall-eyed Jean-Luc and his wife Marie. 

They speak not a word of English but radiate bonhomie.  Due to my addiction to all things canard, (be careful – that is not carnal), we seriously converse in French about the respective qualities of this week’s magrets (breast), ailes, (wings), confits (entire in fat), and aiguillettes (tapered cut from the pectoral muscle), a conversation which ends with a purchase, a recipe for preparing it and an imprecation to return next week.  In fact, when I was absent in Lyon one time, Keith was quizzed “ Où est Madame?”, but to be told I was away judging tunnel-flying was beyond their comprehension.  In the same vein, so are the recipes they give me, but the exchange is always joyful.

Next stop is Alain the Fishmonger.  Weekly he parks, under a shelter, a long, ice-laden trailer on the edge of the square, from which he displays an astonishing array of fresh and filleted fish and shellfish.  The oysters and scallops are sold in their shells.  Once ordered, he shucks them in front of you, a process I watch with fascinated horror as he wields a very sharp knife, very rapidly, plunging it into the shell, twisting it open, cutting out the membrane and plonking the meat back into the shell.  I mean, I’ve seen this in Australia many times, but usually performed by fumbling amateur fisherfolk more prone to cutting off their own fingers than extracting fish.  Alain is the Alain Prost of the shellfish shuckers.  Now say that quickly.

Again, Alain speaks no English.  It is therefore impossible to ask him what all the fish names mean.  We recognise perche and buy that a couple of times, then feel brave enough to point at other unrecognisably-named dead pescatorial varieties and bring them home.  While comfortable enough with truite, saumon and thon, we run out of ideas faced with bar de mer, cabillaud, espadon and ailes de raie,  other than as “ailes” are the wings we buy on ducks, it must be Flying Fish.  That is incorrect.  It is Skate Wings, while the others are trout, salmon, tuna, sea bass, cod and sword fish.  Of course they are. 

Knowing none of this in our early forays, we smile, chat, point and ask for recipes.  Alain always gives us the same recipe – fry in butter.  No battered fish, no casseroles, no oven-baked specialities, just do what all the French do in order to perfect every meal – add butter.   He is right of course.

He knows us well enough now to “hold” our fish for us as we wander the market, keeping it on ice until we are ready to carry it home.  Upon delivery, he loads our bag with fresh lemons and parsley.  It’s what they do in this market.

Fruit and vegetables are variable.  We sometimes buy here, sometimes elsewhere, as we have become market aficianados who know which towns host which markets on which days.  All fruits and vegetables are much smaller than in Australia but more colourful, more fresh and more tasty.  It seems in our American-led pursuit of oversizing our portions and creating blemish-free supermarket produce, we have sacrificed colour and taste.  You already know this so what can we do about that?  Buy in Farmers’ Markets, even if they are not 650 years old. 

Market Day, Belvès, where the fashionistas shop.

We are a bit shame-faced as we scurry past Dieter’s stall with a cheery “Bonjour, ça va”?   It’s not that this German’s fluency with six languages including German, Dutch, French, English, Serbian and Turkish is damn daunting, it’s that his Turkish börek, Serbian gibanicas and French quiches are not to our taste.  We had his quiche once.  It tasted like a borekian, gibanician quiche to us.

Cheese I will only buy in one stall in St Cyprien’s Sunday market, because he wins the Nobel prize, the Oscar and the Grammy for his cheeses.  He must be the rudest, most unsmiling cheese-monger on the planet, but now he knows us he will occasionally crack a smile.  His daughter, Bernadette, compensates for all his aloof bad manners, beguiling us with small taste portions, laughing at our funny speech, helping us in English and upselling portion sizes like crazy.  Even so, three great quality, perfectly matured cheeses around 300 gm per piece, which by the way last just one week in our household, cost a quarter of their price in Australia.  I indulge aggressively but buy only cheap red wine at the neighbouring stall to compensate.  The sacrifices one has to make!

In Belvès, we have finished our market shopping and saunter down Rue Jacques Manchotte, the main commercial shopping street, to our boulangerie.  There is another Rue Jacques Manchotte very nearby, running in another direction.  I have not yet been able to learn why there are two.  When I ask why, people start giving me directions – to which one, I have yet to learn, but it sure confounds the tourists.

As main commercial shopping streets go, Rue Jacques Manchotte The Greater, is a bit different from the average High Street.  It is too narrow for cars, but they are banned anyway.  It has golden cobblestones.  Its glass-fronted shops are lovingly towered over by second storeys of balconied houses that threaten momentarily to fall into the street below.  A gutter runs down its centre, that once upon a time was the town’s lavatory, sewerage system and garbage disposal.  To avoid the street, people constructed ropes, ladders and bridges to link the upper stories.  There are several examples of 500 year old skyways in Belvès.   See below.

The shops in Rue Jacques Manchotte include one tourist souvenir shop, several restaurants, the still-closed Hotel Clement V, two real estate agencies, a hairdresser,
Crédit Agricole, children’s clothing, art gallery, adult clothing, vegetable shop, charcuterie and the boulangerie run by Céline and staffed in the afternoons by Natalie.  Both women are funny and friendly.

We lovingly and carefully select our baguette from the many types on display, but do not touch it of course.  It is understood in France that the customer does not handle food, trusting the vendors to select the prime pieces for their best customers.  It is also more hygienic.  I made the mistake early on of handling my chosen bananas at the market in Sarlat, to be scolded by the vicious Vietnamese vendor in front of her phalanx of customers.  Regardless of the time it takes to shop, the seller serves one person at a time until their needs are met.  Totally humiliated, I have returned to her time and again, assured I would only get her best selections and the benefit of her undivided attention.

By contrast, we have a humorous exchange at Celine’s.  The French still make coins in one cent denominations.  Included in the copper range are two cents and five cents.  No vendor wants these.  I have tried on occasion to change them into the brass ten, twenty and fifty cent pieces but they just laugh at me.  At Celine’s I have learned she keeps a pot under the counter to collect the coppers.  I neither know nor care what she does with them, and hope they go to a charity.  In the early days, I offered her “les petites” and she offered me this pot.  Now I know to ask her for the poubel, her “waste bin” of copper coins.  See how much French I am learning?

Daily we tote home our baguette to consume at lunch, dinner and breakfast, and for cassoulets, aperitifs, soups, sauce-mopping and toasted for breakfast the next morning when it is already hardening.  Eating a whole baguette a day, bread made without yeast, preservatives or other yucky modern chemicals to keep it fresh, is to be recommended for general health, regularity, gut-improvement, weight-loss and simple yum.

The walk home is gratefully all downhill.  From Rue Jacques Manchotte the Greater we could return to Rue Foncastel and totter down it, hoping not to do a face-plant.  It is kinder on our shins however to take either Rue du Château or the secret tunnel. 

Rue du Château is misnamed, although there is a rather large house at the top of the hill with a turret (see above), but not in the order of the châteaux we have subsequently discovered in the Black Périgord, this region of the Hundred Years War.  Nor can it be found on any street map of Belvès. However, we know it twists several times on its journey down, finally passing under the roomed archway which links the two halves of Carole’s house.  Seriously, her home has a public archway right through its centre!  She and her Scottish husband, Andrew, can cross between the two sides of their home either through their arch on the first storey, or by opening one street door, crossing Rue du
Château and entering the other street door.  Again, I am vastly intrigued.

Carole and Andrew’s house, Rue Pelevade or Rue du Château or Rue des Penitents.

Carole is the English-speaking French tourist guide of the Troglodytique Caves.  Due to Andrew, her English is perfectly Scottish.  We met her on our cave tour, and learned she is our neighbour.  Now we greet her on the days she is not working in the Tourist Bureau, sitting in the sun outside her home.  There is a bench under her archway, and I guess so many people have sat there smoking over the years she was forced to install a modern ashtray along with a request to use it.  Sweeping up countless filter tips would have driven me mad too, but the system works and everyone smoking there politely uses her “poubel”.

The alternative route is my favourite – the secret tunnel.  Built to allow easier and rapid access for soldiers to the ramparts, concealed in thick two metre walls, diving under a tower or darting through medieval airwells between houses, it is now open to the public’s exploration.  Except it is not signed, so you just wouldn’t know it was there unless you were a sticky nose like me who follows every byway, then asks Carole.  At the price of a banged head if you forget to duck, this route is laden with history, adventure, imagination and careful side-stepping of dog poo. 

One emerges just above the old village well, where I rendezvous with Keith who prefers to use Rue du Château, thus carefully avoiding tapped temples and turds.  Holding hands, less for romance than for remaining upright on the bottom slopes of Rue Foncastel, we pass the ancient well, descend the stone steps, and stroll in single file along Rue Pelevade to our home, doing the occasional body-flattening exercise when cars pass by.

There is more to relate on Belvès.  Still to come are the Troglodytique Caves, the Knight’s Templar temple, the seven towers, the rugby, the cemetery, doctor and school.  These fascinate me.  So do Michel our hairdresser and the Nail Parlour’s Sandra.  Beyond Belvès I have stories to tell about local bastides, more markets, finding the English, the movies, châteaux, geese and foie gras, caves, Cro-Magnon Man and Saints.  But towering over all is the next story, the tour de force, the meaning of life, the very centre of the universe, that is … the Café de Paris.  A bientôt.

Chapter 13:  At the Café de Paris

Chapter 11: I Fall in Love with a Balcony – Valentine’s Day 14 February 2019

Today I sat on our balcony in France and fell in love.  The fact it’s Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with my romantic mood.  February 14 is still Winter in France and the overnight temperature was two degrees, but as I sat working on my computer, the lure of some sun through the window was too strong for this Australian to resist.  I was captivated in a second by its bright warmth, and returned inside only momentarily to collect my cell phone so I could continue working outside.

Our balcony in Belvès, Dordogne, overlooks a green valley.  About a kilometre away is the D710, the main road to Toulouse, and in the foreground, but distant, is the railway line which offers a train service four times a day to Perigueux.  To my left, the terraced rows of medieval houses which comprise our bastide village, tumble over each other like children’s blocks as they fall down the hillside from the turrets, towers and ramparts up top.  To my right, the town’s only road with a “D” number passes other yellow, gold and brown stone houses as it wends its way down to the lumber mill, the service station and the small supermarket.  They are out of sight and out of sound.

My view.

I became conscious of the sounds as I worked.  Firstly, there were myriad bird calls, from large black crows winging overhead, mating and shooing away the eagles with their unmistakable “aark, aark” cry.  Tiny sparrows, happily absorbed in collecting worms, flitted from branch to branch in our green, treed garden.  Other French birds, unidentifiable to me, chorused and carolled.  I am convinced even the birds here warble with a French accent.

From afar there is the occasional sound of a car on the highway.  Maybe once every 15 -30 minutes, a car or truck ventures through our village.  This is rush hour.  From the hills on the far side, I hear cattle lowing.  They are mainly bred for beef here; I have seen neither milking sheds nor udders on my walks.  Nearby, someone’s backyard chickens are cackling and crowing.  There are a lot of backyard chickens here because in rural France, they are a food source for both eggs and meat.  People here are quite easy about decapitating the family chooks, because they’ve done it for the last, oh, one thousand years?  We buy our eggs locally, and their yellow yolks put daffodils to shame.  The chuckling and cawing evokes an ancient and visceral response; it feels like security.

A large truck noise comes sawing up our hill.  I glance right to see a tip-truck laden with sand labouring up our street, past our house, to climb further to my left.  I call this “Ramparts Street” because it follows the ancient walls.  Completely absorbed now in the business of my town, I wonder who has ordered the sand, and hope that it may have something to do with the restoration of our Eglise Notre-Dame de Montcuq.  Built in the 12th and 15th centuries, someone is funding its slow renewal.  It is on the Camino de Santiago and is a sombre place, but feels more holy than all the shining gilt ones.

In February, the bare trees allow me to peer through to the houses on the left and hear their proceedings.  One such house is possessed by a large German Shepherd dog, which lives on the walled balcony by day, overseeing passersby on the very steep street below.  I have walked on that street.  The slope is such that it forces one to clamber very slowly upwards while being barked at in a “I am guarding this house but I like you very much” kind of bark. 

My left view of Belvès.

Today, he-she-it is on duty, barking at a leaf or something.  The owner ventures out through long French windows onto the open deck to manage her vocal pet.  She is middle-aged, very short and very dark, like many older people in this town.  Her voice is a deep reflection of her Mediterranean heritage.  As she scolds the animal, and shoos it into submission, I can hear every word as if she were next to me but, such are the acoustics of my valley, she is 300 metres way.

Later, she comes out on her terrace with a cell phone.  Again, I hear everything, but understand nothing except “way”, “way” and “allez”.  French has not yet clicked into my mind and I am still lip-reading as I struggle to translate local vendors.  However, where one month ago I stated I “understood every 15th word”, I now claim to comprehend “every 14th ”.  Progress, indeed, but my neighbour across the way is at no risk of being eavesdropped upon.

Higher up the hill and to her left, lies another dog.  He-she-it is very large and very white.  At first I thought he was one of those moulded plastic chairs until he moved.  Making no noise, but definitely interested in the proceedings below, he stands to peer over his balcony into his friend’s house.  His owner also emerges through her long French windows to investigate, then returns to preparing a large French lunch, the main meal of the day for most people here.

I reflect that I, too, have a large meal to make, comprising a cassoulet made from pork sausage meat, white haricot beans, tomatoes, vegetable puree, yesterday’s stale bread, handsfulls of herbs, garlic and shallots.  We shall sop this up with more of today’s bread, lavishly buttered with local sweet, low-salt butter, and drink our Bordeaux red we bought yesterday.  There is some blue Auverne ripening in the kitchen to follow.  If there’s any room left, we have bought two chocolate pattiseries to celebrate this day of love, and our love of chocolate.

I am thoroughly baked in the sunshine.  The cell phone tells me the temperature is 13 degrees.  It feels like 23.  This is the first day I have been able to enjoy the balcony, and I am in love with our outdoors, as seen and heard from this vantage point.  As Spring advances, the trees will clothe themselves in verdure and I shall no longer be able to peer into my neighbours’ houses.  Our balcony will be enhanced, too, by this natural cloak.  But I know I will always be able to listen; that chickens, birds, cows, donkeys and dogs are the orchestra of my present day.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

Chapter 12:  La Belle Belves

Chapter 10: WWW – The Wonders of WiFi and Washing

The wonder and bewilderment of our first night in Belvès was compounded, and nearly confounded, by two pieces of technology, the wifi and the washing machine.

As any modern Senior couple does on arriving in a new place, as soon as food, sleep and showers have been sorted, they turn to wifi to get connected.  In Spain last year, it was constantly called “wiffy” and henceforth it shall be called thus.

We could see the network on our phones and computers, but it wanted the key to be entered.  The owner has provided a fabulous “House Book” in plastic covers which holds all the information one needs to live here.  In it are the instructions for using the television, microwave, hair drier (now that was helpful), slow cooker, heaters, hot water service and mail.  It contained lots of information about the garbage services, doctor services, tourism services and church services.  There were lessons about cooking foie gras, hints on purchasing duck and geese, (dead ones for eating), recipes for (dead) duck, a delicious looking onion tart and potatoes fried in goose fat.  All absolutely essential, but no wiffy key.

After an hour or so of frustrated struggling, we rang Australia and got the owner out of bed.  It was morning.  Being an IT Executive, it is not a given that he knew how to use technology, but in this case he did.  Step by step, he guided each of our devices onto the internet by the simple expedient of placing the piece of equipment within reach of the router, and pressing the button on the back off and on again.  So easy.  (I will not say “simples” any longer!)   No key!  I still don’t know what the key is but I know I get really great strong wiffy every day, and unlimited free calls to Australia on the house phone.  I just want to add that the wiffy here is far superior to our ADSL2 at home, and most everywhere else we go, Orange has us covered on our phones.

Now it was time to conquer another piece of French machinery – the washing machine.  Two weeks’ worth of smalls had accumulated, requiring our immediate attention.  While you’d think washing machines are reasonably intuitive, we didn’t want to break this front-loader either, because most machines I’ve used in Australia are top loaders.  I have only recently had experience with a technically competent, extremely proficient and completely precious Miele washing machine in my friend’s home where we stayed before departure, so I faced this one with some fear.  After all, her Miss Miele would refuse to wash, pout its lips, give a flick of its hair and deny me access if I so much as pushed one button in the wrong sequence. 

As you do, we loaded all the clothes in first, then started looking for the cavity, pouch, pocket or tray where the washing powder is loaded.  Having identified three possibilities for placement, the next question became not where, but “which one is the washing powder?”  Our Owners had provided not just a selection of boxed powders, bottled powders, hand rinses, fabric softeners and wool washes, but a veritable collection of same.  Manufacturers would carol with joy if they saw the vast range of products on offer.

When perplexed, what do any modern Seniors do?  Revert to Google of course.  A happy 20 minutes was spent typing the names of all the products into the Translate app and learning their meanings.  In the end, there was just one plain and ordinary washing liquid so we chose that one, and learned via the “House Book” that it went into the left-most tray.  The directions on the bottle told us to pour in 50 ml, so we poured 25 ml.  We are green that way.

Excellent progress had been made.  It had only taken an hour so far.  We had clothes in, door closed, liquid in, and now just had to press a button.  Simples?  I mean Prelavage is easy, non?  It means pre-wash.  We were confident our undies didn’t need that one.  Were they Chemises?  Not quite, because we also had socks and thermal underwear which are less delicate than that implied by chemiseLaine I could work out was wool, because we are a great sheep-producing country and understand “lanolin”.  We are not stupid Seniors and all was good so far.

This process of elimination left us, however, with four incomprehensible buttons and bellies that ached from laughing.  Google told us that Traitement intensif jeunesse meant “I did CIF antenna processing at the beauty parlour”.  When asked, Q’est ce que “soie”?, the answer was “mouse”.  I hoped our dirty underwear hadn’t gone that far.  Bottes de cresson yielded “watercress boots”.  I’m sure we had none in our possession, nor were we ever likely to.   Finally Rajout de linge allowed us to part-way through the cycle add our lingerie.  Or was that linen?

When the laughter subsided, and I promise it was so much that we may have needed to launder our current underwear, (except we are both very fit if you take my meaning), we realised we had typed into Google old searches or mistyped others.  It was time for the fat fingers to stop tapping and point the camera at the machine instead.

This gave us Essorage which means “spinning”, Vidange which means “emptying” and Rincage which you can probably guess means “rinsing”.  Armed with a wholly new washing machine vocabulary, whereby Essorage Delicat was now a snap, we confidently pushed the one button I’d been taught by Miss Miele, Machine à Melbourne.

As I pressed it, I was confident my mouse (mistyped as souries not soie), my watercress boots, my newly processed antenna, my linen, lingerie and laine were all going to be cleansed.

… I pushed “Express”.

Chapter 11: I Fall in Love on Valentine’s Day

Chapter 9: Belvès the Beautiful

It’s always chaotic moving into a new house, but when yours is deep in the heart of rural France and abides within the curly streets of a mediaeval town, with not an English-speaker in sight, you know there are going to be some humourous challenges.

At last we arrived in Belvès, around 4.30 p.m. on Wednesday 6 February, having spent the night curled by the fire at a friend’s house some 200 kilometres away, drinking wine, eating fine French food, and jawing the night away in joyful reminiscences.  In Australia, “200 kilometres away” in the country means two hours’ drive (or less if Mr Plod is not around), correct?  We had time up our sleeves for a fabulous (English) breakfast, and departed around lunch time.

Two hundred kilometres through rural France, however, is not two hours.

On finally consulting Google Maps, we learned the most direct route would take three and a half hours.  Oopsies.  Once you are off the main auto routes, the A, (Motorway), N (National) and E (Europe) roads, you get to tackle D roads.  These are maintained by local councils and are as variable as Roquefort is to Camembert.  I mean the cheeses.  The maximum speed we could travel was 70 kph, with frequent roundabouts in tiny villages along with a small Himalayan mountain crossing.  A wrong turn in Périgueux left me trying to figure out if the D7 would be a better option than the D953, because its number was closer to one.  It wasn’t; but we saw some mighty pretty country, and found another rubbish tip, which we are particularly good at driving into thinking they are the “second exit”, as well as another Himalayan mountain crossing.

Four hours later, we rolled into Belvès, it was nearing dark, the owner had changed the front door key code, and we’d lost that email, resulting in the neighbours being aroused to let us in.  The neighbours, Jose and Rose, yes it’s funny, speak no English, but do play charades rather well. 

Once inside our 16th century, three storey, three bedroom house, we found the owners had ordered  the heaters to be left on, and delivered us champagne and chocolates.  It was “home” immediately.

After a cursory exploration, our first challenge was transporting 72 kilos of possessions up a narrow, almost fully spiral wooden staircase, that ascends immediately and vertically up to the bedroom level.  Those 13 irregularly spaced wooden steps were navigated one step at a time, with us on either end of a very large bag, huffing and puffing like the wolf in The Three Little Pigs.  In our case, our three little piggies were three bulging suitcases, each weighing in excess of 20 kilos.

We found enough hanging space and racks across three bedrooms, to install our clothes, a number of which went into the wash, for playing with the French washing machine later.

As the fridge naturally was empty of food, it became imperative we dashed out again to the local Spar supermarket – it’s the equivalent of a small IGA in Australia – to buy some dinner and breakfast provisions.  At last we were doing our own shop!  What should have been a leisurely stroll through shelves and shelves of gorgeous French food became “difficult”. 

As tourists, we have bought frequently, and often, in France what tourists buy, i.e.: cheese, wine, olives, biscuits, bread, preserves, salad greens, dressing and fruit.  When you are buying to actually cook and eat something, it is worlds’ different.  You need essentials like flour, cream, toilet paper (thank heavens plentiful in the house), cooking oil, butter, meat, vegetables, yoghurt, pepper, herbs as well as cheese, wine, olives, biscuits, bread, etc.  A quick whisk through the turnstiles simply is not possible when all packaging is foreign.

At first it was fun, pointing our phones at various items, and using Google Translate to tell us what the contents were.  Farine is flour, although the packet looks like porridge, flavoured with oie means goose not olives, mais doux (“but sweet”?) is sweet corn, which we were intelligent enough to spot from the picture on the can, and persil is not an old brand of soap powder, but parsley.  Estragon is not oregano, it is tarragon, while origan meets the former need.  More mystifying was sel, I mean we all know it means salt, correct? – but what was sel rose de l’Himalaya? – we were reminded of the two mountain passes we had tackled today and decided not to buy pink salt from Kathmandu.

Armed with two weeks’ worth of provisions and two years’ worth of herbs and spices, we went to McDonald’s. (pause)

This is not true, although didn’t I say that’s always the thing you do once in a strange town?  Fortunately, there is no McDonald’s, nor any other chain of fast food in Belvès, as we were to discover the next day.  This first night we relied on a trusted and true favourite, fresh ravioli heated in bottled Bolognese sauce, liberally sprinkled with origan, basilic and persil, and a laurier to boot.  Look that one up for yourself!   Wine and cheese finished the meal, and a sneaky Sablés with thé.

As it was now three degrees outside, we felt we had to warm the bedroom and bathroom before sleeping.  This was easy.  We turned up the modern heating.

One is always a little wary of how much one will sleep in a new bed.  As Keith romantically had carried me over the threshold on arrival, I was expecting a reasonably active night.  Of course, I refer to the fact we are two Seniors with the usual range of fused back, broken back, recently repaired broken feet and bursitis in both hips.  What were you thinking?  The Bed looms in importance for needing to be large, comfortable and warm for our ailing bodies.

All night-time descriptions cease here, but let me tell you now about waking up.  Our house is made of stone and constructed when Queen Elizabeth was on the throne.  I mean the First.  Fortunately, it has had a renovation and modernisation when Liz Two was the English incumbent.  However, old medieval houses, and even modern houses in France, are fitted with wooden window shutters for warmth, security, night time darkening, and edging those adorable potted-plant photographs we take in Summer of stone medieval houses.

We had forgotten, as we didn’t know – it was dark after all – to close ours.  On my first morning in Belvès, I was awakened at 0800 by a full bright sun streaming onto my face.  This ailing body actually ran to the window to see the sublime view and hear the myriad birds.  And right there my love affair began.  I was sleeping in a wonderful bed with a wonderful guy.  My things were unpacked; I had “nested”.  There was food in the fridge, warmth in the air, the prospect of châteaux, caves, rivers, markets and food ahead, with birdsong arching over all. 

I know in future Acting Classes when I am asked to visualise my “Happy Place”, my heart shall return to this, precise, exact moment and this precise, exact feeling.  I call it, “Deeply Contented Happiness”, and believe I shall suffer from it every day.

Chapter 10: WWW – The Wonders of WiFi and Washing 

Chapter 8: Fromelles and the Battle of the Somme

Wall after mind-numbing wall of names, names and more names line the myriad memorials for the Battle of the Somme. Fought from 1 July to 18 November 1916, over three million men took part with over one million casualties.  The opposing fronts moved back and forth across 10 kilometres of land, on a line about 32 kilometres long, defending the French from further advances by the Germans.  For the Australian Army, fresh from Gallipoli, it began at Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916… 


Raging senselessness makes me angry when I am not grieving.  The battle of Fromelles was a joint British and Australian assault on the Sugarloaf high ground, 16 kilometres south of Lille, designed to exploit a perceived weakness in the German forces which were deploying troops further south to the Somme.  And it turns out we, unskilled in trench warfare, unfamiliar with heavy artillery assaults and unused to cutting barbed wire to advance, were outnumbered 2:1 and gained, then lost, just 400 metres of ground.

This battle is regarded as the worst 24 hours in Australian history and caused the greatest number of Australian deaths in one day.  Of the 5,513 casualties, there were 500 prisoners of war and over 1,800 deaths.  In one night at Fromelles the Australian casualties were equivalent to those in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars combined.  Two divisions had so many casualties they had to be rebuilt.  Our commander, Brigadier-General Harold “Pompey” Elliott had anticipated a disaster and tried to have it cancelled, without success.  The deaths brought him to tears.  And me…

While 400 of our fallen soldiers were buried after the battle at the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, the only uniquely Australian cemetery in France, the Germans buried more of our men in unmarked trenches behind the German lines, and there they lay until their discovery by a farmer in 2002.  By 2007 a geophysical survey indicated a previously unknown mass grave contained the remains of 337 soldiers, of which 250 were recovered and 173 of those were determined by DNA to be Australian.  These were re-buried in Fromelles in Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in 2010.  From the DNA samples, 75 were able to be formally identified. 

And this is how and where I got to know Lieutenant Eric Chinner, most likely killed on 20 July 1916, who joined the AIF in 1915 at age 21 … and his grieving Mum.

Mrs Chinner always remained hopeful her Eric’s body would be found and given a proper burial.  In 1920 she wrote to the authorities and asked if his body were found, could these words please be inscribed upon his grave:  “Matchless Son and Brother, Ever Tenderly Cherished in Our Hearts”.  92 years later, he was found, and that request was finally able to be honoured. 

I took the photographs for this story, found Eric’s gravestone in the cold, and scraped the snow aside to see the words.  I sobbed fit to break – for his young life so senselessly lost, for his grieving mother who lived her life always hoping, never knowing, and for the ultimate honouring of her wishes long after both their deaths. 

At VC Corner is the famous statue of “Cobbers”, cast in 1998.  A replica of it adorns our Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.   The story embodied in bronze tells of the soldier, Simon Fraser, who, in carrying an injured soldier from No Man’s Land in the days after this horrendous battle, heard the plaintive cry for help, “Don’t forget me, Cobber”.  The compassion and courage of the Australian soldiers saw over 250 wounded men recovered from this battleground, under enemy fire, in the next three days.

Now deeply involved, over our next three days we moved into most of the battlefields of the Somme where Australians had fought and were commemorated including Péronne, Mon Quentin, Longueval, Pozieres, Albert, Amiens, Bullecourt, Villers-Bretonneux  and Le Hamel.  Not limited to our countrymen, we also visited the massive monuments for the British (Thiepval), South Africans (Delville Wood), Irish (Thiepval), Indians (Neuve Chapelle) and Canadians (Vimy & Arras).  We found it doesn’t take only a nation to commemorate its dead; that on every road and byway small monuments were built to remember smaller units of men such as those belonging to football clubs, towns, battalions, factories, villages, States or counties  They were everywhere.  Even the French, who had the privilege of building on site, erected monuments in all their tiny villages plus one exclusively-French large-scale cemetery at Rancourt.

Here is my article, previously published on Facebook.

The Somme

Thinking one could be immune eventually to cemetery after cemetery, another story sends me off again. Each battle has its own story, and none holds any glory. Each was always about mud, bombings, exhaustion, lice, blood, barbed wire, hunger, thirst, death, maiming, incompetence, poor communication and service. Some cowered and shivered in the mud and refused to “go over”, others gibbered in raving madness in shell holes, the majority followed orders, made sacrifices, did their job, and disbelieved the horrors around them to stay sane. Even so, 13,000 Australian servicemen by the 1930s were on PTSD pensions, only back then they weren’t called that.

These memorials are not gaudy, glittery or grand. Instead, they possess a restrained, sombre grandeur, setting the mood for reflection, impelling quiet, generating whispers and forcing one to focus on the names – always the names – the missing, the known, the remembered – all dead. The sadness is shocking. I mourn openly and honestly, letting the tears run. It is the only way to deal with it.

In Pozieres, at the site of The Windmill, a German command post taken by the Aussies, they have also made an animal war memorial. Over nine million horses, mules, pigeons and dogs lost their lives in this war too. It was another story that made me cry today.

Australians are big in this part of France; in fact they are HUGE. The presence of our boy soldiers and the roles they played in WWI, are in evidence in all ways, some well-known and big, like Fromelles, Pozieres or Le Hamel, others tiny.  Over 270,000 chose to go to war, (the Conscription Bills were defeated twice so that every Aussie here truly was a volunteer), seeking an adventure, a holiday, a break from the farm or a chance to see the world. It was dressed up as patriotism, but as the losses at Gallipoli came thundering home, and then the stories of Fromelles, Paschendaele and Pozieres, the volunteer numbers slowed.

Casualties amounted to 60% of this number, wounded, lost or killed. Disfigurement, dismemberment, gassing, shell-shock and mental scarring were the spoils of war for this civilian army returning home, along with 3,000 wives and many babies. There they found few jobs awaited them, most did not return to the farm, some tried Soldier Settlement but gave it up in the long drought of 1922-1929, and then the Depression compounded their depression. Others became mayors, politicians, engineers, tradesmen and doctors. For all, the war was a blot they wanted to forget, and few spoke of it.

For the grieving, of whom few could afford the expensive six weeks passage to Europe, they needed a place to mourn and pay tribute to their loved ones, and thus we have those memorials that you will find in every town of Australia. We lost 20% of our eligible male population in this mud-blood horror. Every town offered up its tears.

In France too, the people mourned for, thanked and celebrated our Australian boys. They also vowed to never forget the huge debt they felt they owed our five Australian Divisions. Thus, while we now see huge memorials, vast graveyards and row upon row of silent crosses, we also see the small things contributed by locals.

At the primary school in Villers-Bretonneux, for example, a sign is displayed in the school yard – “Do Not Forget Australia”. The school is named “Victoria”, which collected the funds and donated them to start this school, in a town synonymous with an Australian victory, and the nearby Le Hamel, so famously won by and associated with Sir John Monash, a huge and great leader.

The eponymous centre where we spent most of today is marvellous, the jewel in the crown of all war museums here, built at the base of our 1938-built Australian War Memorial, pock-marked with World War II bullets when war once again raged through this area. Bastards! Opened in 2018, we can be proud of this $100 million Sir John Monash centre, commemorating in sound, light and high technology, all the stories of the Western Front together. 10/10 Must-See. We came yesterday, saw how good it was, and returned to absorb more deeply.

At the end of a sojourn here, one is invited to use the technology to identify a soldier and pay him a tribute. On a huge screen, mounted high, his name appears, attaches to a poppy and flies away with thousands of other poppies. Caught off guard, knowing no relative of mine was lost in WWI, I entered the name of my Fromelles soldier Eric Chinner.  It was a little thing, a tiny tribute in this monument of monumental stories, but caught off guard once again, as Eric’s poppy floated away I burst into tears once more.

Back to other little things…in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens, there are few modern embellishments in a church built in 1222 over 70 years. However, there’s a photograph of the Aussie soldiers in front of its sandbagged walls, just after liberation. One learns that the first service here after peace was signed was conducted by the local priest for the Australians. The Bishop had fled to safety, (although he DID intercede with the Pope who asked the Germans not to bomb the Cathedral. Good Safe Bishop. Why didn’t he ask the Pope to ask the Germans to actually STOP the war?) Anyway… it’s the only photograph in the church.

On another wall is a carved tablet upon which grateful thanks are carved. You will see the Rose Window in the back. This is the biggest Gothic Cathedral in France. It’s twice the size of Notre Dame in Paris. And it’s the highest. This vast palace honours our boys still.

In the front prayer chapel, look closely and you will see the Australian flag hanging, with other Allied flags, in the most important chapel.

On the railway bridge in Dernancourt is painted a slouch hat and a kangaroo. The restaurant in Villers-Bretonneux is called ‘La Melbourne”. Road signs in Arras are shaped as kangaroos. Hailing from the war, there is a Rue de Kangaroo and a Route de Kangaroo in two different towns. In Péronne is the Rue d’Australiennes. There’s an emu in a wall carving.

These are the small things, tiny tokens of a huge debt. You miss them if you are not alert, and they pale beside the enormous losses, huge monuments and vast scale of this war. But they put a lump in your throat every time. You are reminded that families, mothers, fathers, daughters here, also lost over one million of their own. Yet, still, they find space and time to honour our Australian dead, as we do.

And all of this makes you very, VERY, proud, to call Australia “home”.

Chapter 9: Belves the Beautiful