Chapter 23: Bastille Day Eve – 13 July 2019

Our penultimate night in Thonon-les-Bains coincided with the eve of Bastille Day, 14 July.  Expecting fireworks, we booked an outside table overlooking Lac Leman at the town’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Raphael Vionnet.  In the end, the only fireworks came in the form of food and wine – which were both crackers.  Here’s a sad story of my delinquency.

Greeted by the warmly hospitable David, we were shown to our terraced table with a gorgeous glimpse of the Lac and boats beyond the trees.  The lovely thing about outdoor eating in France? NO INSECTS.

A beautiful scene.

Commencing menu explanations in French, he quickly realised we could not keep up and switched to English.  Later I overheard him doing it again in Italian;  same with the young waiters and Sommelier-in-Training.  None of them looked over 25; all of them could converse happily and intelligently in multiple languages.  I suppose that is necessary to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant and I applaud it for the high standards of servitor it attracts.

Our first Amuse-Bouche was a cone of mozzarella with prawn paste, a square of “fera”-flavoured something on a biscuit base, (the Lac has two kinds of edible fish all year round, the perch and the fera), and a toastie thingo with stuff on top – by now who cared – all gorgeous.  I ordered a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (and thanked Peter and Angela Wilson for my introduction to it) as my pre-dinner drink and Keit a G & T. 

The astute observer will note I have deliberately dropped the “h” off my husband’s name.  It is not that my standard of spelling has dropped, it is simply that the French cannot say “Keith”; “Keit” is the closest they come.  Many more standards will be dropped on this heavenly evening, I promise.

By now we’d worked out we would have the five course “Menu Confiance” with matched wines.  “Confiance” means trust, and we felt in a place of this standard we could trust the chef to provide us his finest, not yesterday’s left-overs and the over-stocked wine from the cellar.  Less expensive options existed but we chose the OTT pick.

The next amuse bouche was a soup course – a hot thick bisque flavoured with fera and served in a glass coffee cup.  You could either spoon it up (Gail) or slurp it from the bowl (Keit).  It was the best bisque we have ever eaten.  I washed it down with the rest of my champagne, legitimately called champagne, and was now mildly inebriated.  You who know me know that I apply a one glass limit but tonight I had bravely stepped into the world of matching wines.  Aw heck, they’d promised 8 cl servings (80 ml) which is smaller than a standard drink.  And it was Bastille Day! 

Soup was followed by the first course.  A forbidden dish arrived!  Of course it did – this is France!  Accompanied by a pimento-flavoured sorbet in the shape of a pimento (!), we were served the smoothest foie gras, like velvet, like silk, moulded then sliced around a knob of fresh lobster.  Did I decline it on principle?  No, of course not.  I was trusting the chef and anyway they gave me a Sav Blanc called Gaia made in the Loire Valley in a beautiful glass.  The Sommelier-in-Training sloshed some extra into my verre.  He was very cute so I batted my eyelids and ascertained his name – Paul.

Fish course was the ubiquitous fera.   Michelin starred restaurants are supposed to take advantage of local produce and present it to its best advantage.  I was loving fera I can tell you.  I wash loving everything.  It wash served on a duxelles of noix, (bed of crushed nuts – I have never crushed nuts in bed), a petite amount of fera crème, some tiny, weeny, itsy-bitsy baby girolles (mushrooms) in a cute line across the plate and topped with truffe d’ete – truffle of summer – which in this case was bark-like, (trees not dogs), brown and grated on top.  The wine was a viognier made by Julien Pilon in the Rhone Valley.  Good on yer, Julie-Baby.  Yer tops, you know?   My BEST frenn Paul looked after me again.  Love ya, Paul.

Our meat course was not meat.  It was duck.  A large piece of duck was served, ordered so rare it could have flown away.  It was served with roasted shallots – the real ones not the puny petty green and white things we call spring onions in Australia – and gravy of carnard.  That means duck.  Thish next wine was one I knew.  As Paul was now bringing it to the table to be photographed before pouring, I saw from 20 yards away it was a Saint Emilion and I KNEW, because I know my wines, that wine.  “Saint Emilion is BORDEAUX!!!”  I happily carolled to the benefit of the restaurant.  My visit to La Cité du Vin had not been wasted.  It was a Chateau Mangot from 2012 but it tashted NOTHING like Mangoes.

The cheese came.  Who cares what-ish was?  It wash CHEESE.  It could have been Tomme, Beaufort or Comté.  The really cute waiter called Nicolas said, “Madame is correct.  This cheese is Tomme, embedded with black peppers and a William pear compote”.  At this point Paul elbowed him aside, or did I elbow Nicholas aside?, to pour a Trousseau (that’s a grape I never heard of – where was Cité du Vin in need?), Grande Domain made in 2017 in the Jura.  “Oh”, I cried, “in Switzerland”, showing off I am exceptionally good at geography.  “No, Madame, the French Jura” replied Paul stiffly.  Who woulda thought gorgeous young Sommeliers-to-be could be SO sensitive?  He only poured me HALF a glass this time.  Petulant Paul.

A long wait now ensued before dessert.  Did they think I was drunk or summfing?  This afforded the opportunity to enjoy the fabulous last vestiges of a flaming sunset and canvas the other guests, silently abusing the Italians for smoking in an outdoor restaurant – bloody Italians!  I stood up to go and remonstrate with them, knowing I could carry this off in my best Italian, but Keit pulled me back into my chair.  We debated driving down to Evian to see their fireworks, but if you think Paul had been generous with ME, well you shoulda seen my squiffy husband whose name I could no longer say either.  Keit was gently, sunnily, beaming with bonhomie, didn’t want me to take on the Mafia, and didn’t have the car keys.  He reminded me we had walked to dinner.  Oh.  Yeah.

Very nearly the same scene as before just more beautiful.

Surprishe!  Next came a “pre-desshert” desshert.  It was a tiny little cup of fennel and chopped frais.  As a combination they are divine.  They generated a long discussion between us.  Keit said they were strawberries.  I said they were raspberries.  Keit said they were strawberries.  I said they were raspberries.  Keit said they were strawberries.  I said they were raspberries. This intelligent discourse went a little longer, until I, as only a wife can, told him that he was (an idiot and was) thinking of “frambois”, not “frais”, (you see the confusion right there), and painstakingly set out to assemble on my plate enough portions of the chopped frais to convince him he was looking at a raspberry.  This took a while.  I ecstatically chased minute portions of frais around my plate to assemble a whole.  It was thoroughly absorbing and mentally engrossing.  The waiters all stayed far away from our table during this process.

The evening was winding to a close.  It was around 11.00 p.m. and still a beautiful warm evening, when dessert was presented.  It was layers of fine meringue interwoven with layers of framboise.  Keit had learned his lesson and pronounced “strawberries”.  A triumph!  I was very proud of him.  Expecting a Monbazillac from the Dordogne, a dessert wine famed throughout the world, I was denied the opportunity to show off again when a white muscat made by Domain Lafage – Grain de Vigne – was poured at the table by a surly Paul who muttered it was made “South of the Rhone Valley, Madame” and avoided my other 17 questions.  He has a LONG way to go that boy.

Now stuffed, inebriated and ready to ride home by molecular transportation, the offer of “mignardise” tempted me to remain.  These were tiny chocolates served with coffee for Keit and tea for Gail.   Back to fireworks, the bill was a rocket, a sparkler and a whopping eye-opener, especially when mentally converted into AUD the next morning,  except my eyes couldn’t stay open, so who cares about fireworks?

This was a really great Bastille Eve so I wore my red, white and blues to celebrate. See? Shoes matching dessert.

Did I tell you that our apartment has a glorious view over the Lac?  That it is built on the top of a steep hill giving it this elevated vantage point?  That from our Lac-side location we had to get up this hill on foot to go home?  I am SO glad we did not drive.  We now had to attempt to climb some Alp, worthy of anything we tackled on the Camino, in our over-fed, over-drunk condition.  Holding onto each other, pausing whenever our hearts raced fast enough to kill us, counting ten steps at a time, we clambered, staggered and climbed our way home in the dark and fell into our mutual comas.

This morning, we rated Chateau de la Treynne a better meal, this one in Thonon second over everywhere in Australia we’ve fine-dined, vowed never to do matching wines again, and recorded this blog for you to enjoy.  Vive la Bastille! Vive la Vie…


Chapter 22: Charlie and The Chocolate Factory

Thanks to Roald Dahl, a more fitting title cannot be imagined for the day we went to visit Chaplin’s World in Vevey, Switzerland, then continued up the motorway to Nestle’s Maison Cailler to study Swiss chocolate manufacturing and see what all the fuss was about.   Although Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were two very different museums, each represented the pinnacle of their art-form.  We came home full of respect and chocolate.

Part I:  Hats off to The Tramp.  Born in 1889 in London’s East End, Charles Spencer Chaplin’s parents were an alcoholic father who deserted the family by the time Charles was two, and who died from cirrhosis of the liver at 38, and a mother who could not support her two sons (Sydney Chaplin was Charles’ older by four years half-brother who stood by Charles all his life), and left them twice in workhouses before Charles was nine, while eventually committing herself to an insane asylum (syphilis) where she spent the rest of her life in care.

Hating workhouse schools, at nine Charles joined a troupe of clog-dancers then ended up in vaudeville, encouraged by Sydney, where he learned the kit bag of all vaudevillians – juggling, tight-rope walking, dancing, magic, singing, pantomime and mime.  His obvious physicality and later precision of movement came from these years. 

Not satisfied with dancing, he wanted to work up a comedy act.  A perfectionist in all he did, his work on his craft got him noticed by the prestigious Fred Karno Company in 1908, then on a Karno tour (with Stan Laurel in the same troupe) of America, by Mack Sennett in 1914, and his life at Keystone Studios began. By 1918 he was a global superstar earning $15.4 million (in today’s dollars) for a one year contract, making him one of the most highly paid people in the world.  With this money he built his own movie studios and in 1919 formed United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Mary Pickford, and DW Griffith, to control his own productions.

All of this can be found in Wikipedia or books on Charlie Chaplin, on how he rose from the worst poverty to become an international icon who mixed globally with royalty, celebrity, wealth and intellect.  His life has been described as “the most dramatic rags to riches story ever”, by his authorised biographer, David Robinson.

What Wiki cannot describe is the feeling you get about the man as you travel through his home, Manoir de Ban and life at Chaplin’s World, in Corsier-sur-Vevey.  Here he lived with wife Oona O’Neill, debutante and daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill who severed relations with Oona after her marriage to Chaplin at 18.  O’Neill did not approve of her wishing to become an actress and Charles was a thrice-divorced 54 year old East-Ender – any father’s nightmare!   They lived in Beverley Hills for ten years, then when Charles’ visa was cancelled for his Un-American sympathies in the McCarthy era, they moved to this home in Switzerland and raised their eight children in this happy and beautiful place.

The Manoir is large and beautifully decorated.  Only the Study, Sitting, Bedroom and Dining Rooms are available for viewing but the curators have more than made up for that by creating a series of world-class exhibits about Charlie’s life in those rooms.  Placed throughout are larger-than-life wax mannequins which at first sight are off-putting but eventually lend a spirit of mischief and comedy to the house, trademarks of The Little Tramp, giving one a sense of lightness about this happy home.

The Study relates the stories of all the scripts he wrote and movies he directed.  A workaholic, he never stopped.  It contains authentic originals, hand-written notes and jottings on his directorial scripts, although it is a fact that as an actor and director he never worked from a fully developed script – projects just “happened” as they went along, such was the art of his genius.

The Sitting Room overlooks the French Alps and Lake Geneva from the Manoir’s 36 acre parkland.  It exhibits his violin, which travelled everywhere with him in youth, music scores and myriad photographs of home and movie life.  All the while, the timeless score from Limelight plays in the background.

In the Bathroom is a pictorial and news clippings of the friendship he shared with Einstein.  (There’s that equation again!!  e = mc², – see Chapter 21: The Particle Article still haunting me).  In the stairwell is a mirrored diorama of all the famous people he mixed with, stretching infinitely up and down in countless reflection, while Sophia Loren greets you (A Countess from Hong Kong).  Charlie greets you in the Entrance Hall giving The Tramp’s famous little kick, while in the Dining Room Charles and Oona watch countless home movies with you.

It’s from these home movies you get a sense of the man.  Perfectionist, obsessive, commanding the centre of attention, he was always performing for the camera, even at the expense of the children and Oona.  When the camera rolled, Charlie was “on”, and you knew it had to be done his way by the way in which he directed his children and rehearsed these home movies and photos before they were shot.  I mean – home movies! But these clips were entirely choreographed.  You felt he never stopped working, never could really relax and always had to prove himself.

At the same time, you also had to admire his extraordinary physicality, from these and from the movies clips shown later in “The Studio”.  For any actor who has studied Movement, here is The Master, the best of them all.  Every movement is deft, economical and perfect.  Nothing is wasted.  Every gesture, kick, glance, and motion is specific, genuine and has purpose.  His work is better than a Movement Master Class. 

From the Manoir, one moves next to The Studio, to watch a 12 minute biography.  The surprise comes at the end, sorry for the spoiler, when you are invited to walk through the screen to back of house, descending through the set of Easy Street, and spending many happy hours wandering through other re-created sets, watching his movies, reading about his filmography, admiring his awards and studying the perfection of the character he created in The Tramp.

Here I felt another sense of, and complete admiration for, this man’s work.  Working without any script or dialogue, you laughed, felt and cried.  When he hands the rose to Virginia Cherrill in City Lights, you feel all the poignant loss, hope and waste of unrequited love. The final scene of The Circus when he crumples the star of Stardom and kicks it away as he more jauntily resumes his exit, speaks volumes about his attitude to the fickleness of Fame.  Finally, in The Kid, as he scales walls and leaps buildings, worthy of any Parkour competitor today, to rescue his adopted son from the orphanage, you know he is rescuing his child-self.  The famous scene of Chaplin and the four year old Jackie Coogan pouring tears as they are reunited provokes your own.  No one watches that scene without tears in their eyes; all the visitors around us, even the Germans, were crying.

To recover, one leaves The Studio and takes a stroll around the park, a promenade he enjoyed daily with Oona, even in later years when he could only go in a wheelchair.  Knighted by the Queen in 1975, he died in this house on Christmas Day 1977 (88 yo) as Sir Charles Chaplin, previously having at last been invited back to America in 1972 to accept an honorary Oscar for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century” and given the longest ovation ever by the Academy – a full 12 minutes.

Even in death he was controversial, with his grave robbed of its body and coffin and buried elsewhere for two months while a ransom was demanded of Oona.  The Swiss police recovered it, and he now lies in reinforced concrete in a private corner of Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery, Oona by his side (dec. from cancer at 66 yo in 1991), overlooking the French Alps and Lake where I like to believe he found true happiness.

The depth of my understanding of this complex man was enhanced by this visit, and my admiration is now boundless.  Like all geniuses, I’ve come to believe they are difficult and obsessive people, and perhaps they have to be to make their point.  I think the world is blessed that Charles Chaplin made his, that Vevey so honours us with this wonderful museum, and that he left us a legacy of beautiful, timeless movies and music, some of them the best that can ever be seen in any era.  I think we can overlook the fact he didn’t like his children walking in the snow in front of his study, as it left tracks on the purity of his view – can’t we?

Part II:  A different kind of museum was founded by Nestlé at Maison Cailler, just up the road, so we drove up into some Swiss mountains, past steep green hills with pointy-roofed houses and cows ringing bells, to Broc, next to Gruyère.

Travel Luck got us onto a tour within two minutes of entering, or we would have had to wait an hour.  Through audio guides held to our ears, pictures, dioramas, sound and light worthy of Disney, one moves through the history of chocolate and ends up in the tasting room. 

The Aztecs first got hold of the cacao bean, then Cortez arrived from Spain and took it back to Europe, who put sugar with it and invented a hot drink that took polite society by storm, while being the drink of choice for lovers.  Marie Antoinette purportedly ordered hot chocolate as her last meal.  Once the Industrial Revolution got going, the middle class could afford chocolate and artisans began making it into a solid blocks or shapes.  In Victorian times, chocolate art flourished and the French took it over, as they do with all great food, and set the standard for its multiple uses. 

Maison Cailler was founded in 1819 in Switzerland, where the milk is the purest because it is from high country, grass-fed cows.  Monsieur Nestlé took over Maison Cailler in 1931 but retained the brand as the highest, best example of fine Swiss chocolate.

It’s all a load of bunkum of course, because there’s very little cacao in chocolate and hardly any milk other than milk powder.  It is of course made from sugar!  Even the vaunted dark chocolate is more than 25% sugar.  See these pictures to prove it.

But then, who cares?  The point of the tour is getting to the end to taste it!  Here one is taught the five steps of tasting chocolate – experts rate it just like wine.  It’s very educational.  One is invited to take a piece and walk it through the five steps with you, to taste at the end of the lesson. 

The first step was to look at its dull shine.  At this point I ate mine so had to start again with another.  The second step is to smell it.  Mine didn’t make it to my nostrils, finding my mouth first so I went back to Lesson 1 for another piece.  The third step is to break it and listen to the snap; dark snaps differently from milk.  To make sure I got that right, I went back for another as the dark had melted in my hand and would not snap.  Then the milk (preferred by 65% of the world – see I DID learn something), would not snap either so I went back to the start.

The fourth step was to place it on the tongue and savour it.  Mmmm.  I savoured it alright.  I lovingly and lavishingly lingered over it.  And needed another so I could languorously and longingly love it.  I melted it in my cheeks, rolled it under my tongue and   … oh, heck, it was gone … back to the start.  The final step is to taste the after-taste and detect the myriad post-eat-flavours.  I didn’t like this step at all;  I never look back, preferring to live in the present so I went back for another.

Now expert, one studies some machines and things that make chocolate go round and round, then extrudes it into pieces so that robots can wrap them in foil.  Ho-hum.  At the end of this exhibition, one is invited to taste ONE foil-wrapped praline thingo and exhorted not to take any more than one.  To me, that’s an invitation to rebel, which I did, secreting another two foil-wrapped thingos in my bag.

When all else is done – really great tour – one thinks it is complete.  No.  This is where chocolate saturation only just begins.  In the tasting room, slabs of layers of pieces of samples are laid in a line which you traverse, tasting every one of Maison Cailler’s products.  There are about 19 of them.  After the fifth, Femina, milk chocolate with nuts, which I think I decided was my favourite, the rest became a blur.  Keith who had finished ahead of me, (because I happen to read everything in museums), came back to warn me of chocolate overload.  It was too late!  I had expended my desires in the earlier tasting tests, and this was pure gluttony that I could not much longer endure.  I managed to make it to the end of the 19 products, but turned up my nose at dark chocolate and dark chocolate with marzipan.

Staggering into the café, I ordered a cup of hot tea to wash it all away, while Keith had a most disappointing cup of luke-warm chocolate.  Somewhat fortified, we examined the gift shop but found the thought of eating any more chocolate induced a gag reflex.  We departed empty handed, knowing we had eaten more chocolate than at any other time in our adult lives, and feeling sick from the generous sampling at Maison Cailler.

We drove to Gruyère but could not face the thought of tasting cheese after so much chocolate, instead taking pictures of the Chateau and winding through the back hills – beautiful, ordered, clean, delightful Switzerland – to Vevey, Montreux and home.

On a day spent with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we felt like we had won the golden ticket.  This day was a feast for all our senses; we ended it feeling like Oompa Loompas.

PS:  Thinking I had done with chocolate for all time, later that night over our cuppa, Keith wistfully lamented not buying any that day as he now felt like a piece.  I remembered my thieving and triumphantly produced two melted, misshapen morsels of pure joy.  In postscript I add that this Swiss chocolate IS better than Belgian chocolate; there’s that argument settled imho, (and despite the gorging, I will never stop loving either).

Chapter 21: The Particle Article

Keith was so excited to get onto a tour at CERN (Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire), in Geneva.  It was another Travel-Luck thing as these tours are usually booked months in advance.  Not even realising that CERN could split the atom, my learning curve was stupendous and thoroughly boring.  Read on if interested.

Let me give you a quick lesson on particle physics.  Coming from me, who thinks Newton is a tennis player and Galileo is a line from Boh Rhap, this will demonstrate how well CERN explains everything via a series of exhibitions, a guided tour with a nuclear physicist, three movies, (one in 3D) and visits to a Detector Control Room (ATLAS) and a cyclotron.  What a feast!  Speaking of which …

… Imagine you are a contestant on Master Chef and you’ve been ordered to make a banquet featuring every dish ever made by all cooks in all countries in all times.  That’s every roast meal, dim sum, taco, burek, pig’s trotter, camel stomach, cake, BBQ, foie gras, apple pie and hamburger ever created, and you’ve got just two things in the cupboard – let’s call them fish and chips.

Fish and chips together make a meal (an atom), but, let’s face it, fish are so much more interesting than chips, and you can do so much more with them, so you split them into two using electricity, (I think nuclear bombs are made this way too), and discard the chips (electrons).  This leaves you with a bucket of protons, I mean fish.

You pour these along with a great deal of hydrogen gas, so they can swim in it, into an airless horizontal tube laid flat in a huge 27 kilometre circle buried 100 metres underground, and you encourage half the fish to swim in one direction and the other half in the other direction.  Guided by magnets, they swim faster and faster, whizzing round and round the circle but never hitting each other until they are travelling at immense speeds.

When they are zooming along at 99.999999% of light speed, (which means they go around the 27 kilometre tunnel at 11,245 times per second) you direct two opposing fish into a head-on collision.  The impact of those fish hitting each other at such a high speed explodes them into gazillions of tiny particles, from which any other food in your banquet can be made.  In other words, you’ve reduced your fish into their particle matter, and we all know that everything in the world is made from particle matter.  Now go ahead and observe the particles and design your menus.  Note you cannot make anything with them, just observe them and plan menus, because the study of particle matter is pure theory.  I hope you win Master Chef; I certainly won’t win a Nobel Prize.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the tube described above, and it’s the biggest machine in the world, built in 2008 after two smaller colliders (cycloctrons) were not adequate to really explode the fish.  Think of a giant hollow hula-hoop made from 1200 pieces of tube about one metre in diameter, each placed at 0.333. degrees to the next to form a circle 27 kilometres around. It operates nine months a year whizzing protons at one another until they are manoeuvred to explode in front of one of the four Detector stations positioned roughly equi-distantly around the LHC. 

These explosions simulate the birth of the Universe at exactly a moment one trillionth of a second after the Bang went Big, 13.6 billion years ago.  This allows scientists to study particles, how they explode, which direction they explode in, how many particles are thus created, how the Universe was formed, what it’s still doing, what is likely to happen to it, and from this study they publish papers, win Nobel Prizes and spend a lifetime being able to relate to only about 3,000 other people on the planet, the number who work alongside them at the LHC in Geneva.

But I think it did good things for nuclear medicine, which I also don’t understand, and they invented MRIs at one time, so it must be good for all mankind that these geniuses spend their lives studying particles.  I mean, what else is there to do?  Cure cancer?  Solve world poverty? In fact, they did one good thing at CERN – the World Wide Web was invented here.

The statistics at this place are phenomenal.  Once a proton explodes, the computers have to process 10,000 gigabytes per second of data and need special software to do that.    The massive amounts of data captured at exploding time are too big for any one computer to handle so a grid of 170 computers across 35 countries shares the load.  This is the biggest computer grid in the world and so far it has analysed 6 quadrillion proton-proton explosions.  It produces 25 petabytes of data a year, that’s 25,000 terrabytes or 25 x 10 to power 15 zeros.  (To help: Avatar used 1 petabyte of data for CGI effects; Google processes about 24 petabytes a day).

The magnetic arrays (hundreds of them) that keep the protons on course weigh 100 tons each.  The control room equipment could place Man on Pluto, (not the cartoon dog), and the particles are measured infinitely.  They cannot be counted in fact, and previously no one could work out what gave them substance (matter).  They should have been dead, lifeless and unmoving, because part of an atom had just been busted apart, like two fish would be that exploded at light speed, but they still contained energy, and e=mc2 tells us that where there is energy there is also mass – but how/what?

The “standard model” of particles theoretically places them in one of four columns, each layered into three, so there were 12 types of particles sorted by density.  (Are you feeling dense yet?)  Okay – each of the fish particles still has some calories (energy). There’s even a calorimeter measuring that. But which one gave them mass?  Meet Peter Higgs, one of a team from 1963 who theorised that particles could be excited by bosons, (which are even smaller than quarks but I’ve already done the Foie Gras Blog). 

Finally, at CERN using the LHC in 2012 they confirmed that a boson – the Higgs’ boson – gave physical energy (mass) to all the other particles.  This was incredible.  It was really exciting.  He got a Nobel Prize for Physics for that and is up there with Newton, Galileo and Einstein.  I’m sure you’ve read about him – it was in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. If not, you may have heard about the “God particle” but he scorned that name as too sensationalist.

This has to be the most exhausting tour I have ever done – not for the distances which were about 750m – but for the mental gymnastics, stretches, races to keep up and twists that trying to grasp all this does to one’s brain.  There is no gift shop or cafeteria, just acres and acres of large sheds, computer rooms, large scale models and geeky scientists collaborating to study particles.  I guess someone has to do it – it furthers mankind’s knowledge and intelligence and all that.  Me?  I am just happy menu-planning and eating fish and chips.

Chapter 20: Cool, Cooler, Coolest

Aching for a respite from the heat, and finding little air conditioning in France, we decided to spend a day in the French Alps.  What we only realised over a delicious plate of charcuterie and chilled rose was that in experiencing cool, cooler and coolest we had been in three countries in less than 24 hours.  Europe is like that.

Part I: On Saturday 29 June our old friend Elton John invited us to swing by for a natter and to catch one of the 108 concerts he has performed in nine months on the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.  This two year long extravaganza, five years in the planning, truly is the last time Elton and the Band will go on the road.  While I suspect, being the performer he is, he may do one-offs here and there, or solo gigs sometimes, the band all wants to retire after up to 49 years together (Nigel Olsson on drums), and Elton wants to spend more time with his children, as he publicly professes.

He is not stopping work however, with a book about to be published, Year 2 of the FYBR Tour to complete (41 concerts in Australia and New Zealand coming), music just finished recording for The Devil Wears Prada, and the global launches of the new Disney version of The Lion King to attend.  There’s fund-raising for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, commitments at Watford FC, raising a family, supporting a vast infrastructure and being available to friends like us.  This man is a busy workaholic and extremely happy to be “at the best time of my life right now”.

We met in his dressing room in the only room of the Stade Saussaz in Montreux that had any air conditioning.  I was almost as delighted to get into the air con as I was to see our dear mate.  We received an effusive greeting, swapped stories, chatted on screen with his boys in Windsor, and also caught up with David in New York.  Elton is always incredibly interested in our stories, shares our love of France, and forgets no details of our lives.  I cannot believe how good he is at remembering everything; he even congratulated me on becoming the finance head of world parachuting!  How would he know that?  He is the COOLEST man. I guess Keith bragged about it.

As usual, the conversation and quips were lightning fast and very funny as he sought our opinions on politics, fallen movie stars, fund-raising event winners and life in France.  We were together about an hour during which the photographer and dresser got sent away until EJ was ready to dress around 7.30.  We escaped, and he dressed, then did a Meet and Greet with Quincy Jones, Shania Twain and others, while we found our seats.

The concert he gives is SO generous.  Over 2.5 hours of oldies and newies, all sung in his rich baritone, (if you expect him to go “la-la-la-la-la” in falsetto to Crocodile Rock, forget it), and played with extraordinary musicianship and talent on a piano that makes sounds a piano was never supposed to make.  The band comprises five musicians, each a giant in his field, and they are given full credit for their work and a chance to strut their stuff.  Ray Cooper is a one-man show all by himself on percussion.  The visuals are fantastic, and produce a melange of past Elton John footage and shots which I found poignant, as was the finale.

As usual, I enjoy an Elton John concert enormously and am full of admiration for the talent of this performer, his compositions, his presence, his costumes (!), and his playing.  He is at the height of his vocal powers, not fading away and unable to hold a key like many ageing rock stars over 70.  At the same time, the man on the stage is not the Elton I know, a track-suit wearing, (although you should SEE the tracksuits), no glasses, no makeup, funny, warm, super-intelligent, generous and passionate man who clearly adores the man I adore too – Keith Francis.  We have that, and so much more, in common, at a personal and human level.

Getting out of Montreux at the end of the night was the easiest we have ever gotten out of an EJ concert.  From VIP Parking onto the AutoRoute in less than 30 seconds, we whizzed back to Thonon in about 30 minutes.  I love the way the Swiss organise things.

Part II:  To stay cool I sleep under a damp towel.  It’s a good trick and it works when your apartment doesn’t have air con, although overnight the Lac keeps us around 20-22C.

On waking I announced to Keith I “needed to see snow”, so after our usual breakfast of fresh fruit salad, finely cut up by the Master of the House, baguette and cheese, and cups of tea, we pointed the new Renault Duster (our second leased car in France; we loved the Duster so much the first time (Jan – May), that we leased another one for the next six months), at Chamonix-Mont Blanc.

Mont-Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe at 4,810 metres asl (15,780 feet).  That is over half the height of Mt Everest, not quite as tall as Mt Kilimanjaro, and ranks number 11 in the world.  I felt sure I would see snow there, even after the record hottest heat wave, in timing, extreme and duration, that France has ever experienced.  My instincts were correct.

On approach, it started to get exciting when we saw the first whispers of white stuff lacing the mountains ahead.  Suddenly, we were climbing through a valley and the mountains in all their majesty were crowding upon us.  With pine, fir and beech trees lining their slopes until they became too steep to support trees, the mountains reared up to snowy peaks and I mean reared.  At one point I could feel them over the top of me and it was exhilarating; they are so steep, so sheer, so straight up.  Our excitement at being among these monsters was palpable.  We exclaimed and pointed like kids at rock fall barriers, rock fall nets and rock fall remnants.  These sights are very rare in Australia where our aged, rounded mountains don’t shed any more, nor provide cliffs and slopes as vertical as these French Alps. 

Our photographs do not do justice to the sight of their youthful (in mountain years), vibrant, grandeur but maybe I’ve conveyed some of our joy in words.

Chamonix at its foot is the archetypal ski-resort-in-summer.  Keith last visited Chamonix in 1962.  Relatively recently, I visited Chamonix in 1987 when I spent a week skiing here, but the town today bore no resemblance to the snow-covered, mulled wine serving, snow-off-boots-stomping village I recalled.  It has grown larger and taller as more of the world comes to ski here, in a world where ski slopes are diminishing due to global warming.  However, it manages to retain that Swiss-chalet feel in every building that developers have built, while every ledge displays flower boxes in a profusion of colours and scents that render the town absolutely charming.  This, combined with the pale green-milk, glacial stream that rushes through its centre, the aged and respectful church, the absence of vehicle traffic, the variety of plazas in a medieval scattering and the dozens of para-gliders descending from vast heights like giant butterflies, creates an enchanting effect.  As Keith commented, “this looks like Main Street in Disneyland”, and he was correct.  Chamonix is charming, enchanting and beautiful.  It transported us into a delightful day.

We found a restaurant with air con, but sat outside in the street anyway with the cool air wafting through the open windows behind.  It was only about 28C.  Lunch became tapas, beer for Keith and Sex on the Beach for me.  Don’t worry, Mum; it’s just the name of the coolest cocktail on the menu.  Anyway, it’s too hot in France for sex.

We wandered and walked and marvelled at the sights, then decided to do what I had done years ago – drive into Italy for coffee.  As one does.  The 11 kilometre long Mont Blanc tunnel departs from Chamonix, travels under Mont Blanc, and emerges in Italy.

It is a testament to the poor coffee we’ve had to endure in France, that we would pay €56,90 (plus tolls each way getting there = AU$100+) for a return drive through the tunnel for a cup of coffee, but that’s what we did.  And also because it and we were there, and you only live once, and it promised to be cooler over there, and all that stuff.  It was a very easy decision.

Tunnel driving is not for everyone, but we love it.  This tunnel is in a dead-straight line with regular phones, escape routes and fire extinguishers, while one is exhorted to keep “two blue lights distance” from the car in front.  They cannot afford accidents as it is single lane each way, and a crash could really hold up the commerce between two nations.

Emerging into Italy, we found a restaurant at St Didier and settled in for the afternoon.  Now my head spun.  Asking questions about and ordering from the menu in French as we’ve become used to, suddenly didn’t work!  A very rapid head-switch found us digging deep for our long-forgotten Italian (which, in my case, has turned into Spanish from being recently so long in Spain), but these waiters were so good they offered to speak in our “most comfortable” language.  We chose French!

Our view was of the same mountain range with the tip of “Monte Bianco” just showing, only with far less snow as the range now faced south.  There were three glaciers to study, multiple mountain tops to admire, people to watch, wine and beer to drink, the BEST-EVER plate of charcuterie to devour along with thick brown Italian bread, adventurous types catching the gondola to go up and climb, hike, trek and traverse, and a potential avalanche waiting to tumble.  We hoped and prayed it would crash while we were there, but it didn’t.  I am sure those adventurous types were happy about that.

It was while sitting here that we realised that we were yesterday in Switzerland, today in France and right now in Italy.  It’s worth a giggle and something everyone would enjoy doing, I am sure.  The challenge of language, the study of different cultures and seeing the huge built and natural diversity in this world is endlessly fascinating.  It’s why we love each other’s Facebook travelogues so much.

It also gives one again that incredibly powerful reflection that country borders are artificial, man-made, political constructs based on ancient struggles for power and wealth that are meaningless in a world where we are connected by, and sadly polarised by, social media, instant news, fake news, and lightning speed communications.  All people we’ve enjoyed time with in the last 24 hours carry the common aspirations of people globally:  To be secure, to have purpose, to grow, to be accepted and to love.  Imagine there’s no country?  Imagine that.

Finally, we headed for home, back through the tunnel where the Italians were far more controlling than the French free-for-all, and allowed cars through only once every ten seconds.  There’s that cultural difference right there.   It was now 26 in Chamonix but still 36 in Thonon with only 100 kilometres between them.  My day in the hills had come to an end, I know.  My heart was blessed by the sound of (Elton John’s) music last night, by the beauty, majesty and grandeur of the Alps, by the enchanting Chamonix, by the fabulous food, and by Sex on the Beach.  When I got home, I took a cold shower.

Chapter 19: Coasting

Yesterday we explored Yvoire just 16 kilometres and 21 minutes down the coast to our west. If a lake can have a “coast”? Good question. Regardless, we coasted.

(and if you think you’ve missed Chapters 17 and 18, then so have I. They are still in Draft.)

Wiki will tell you Yvoire (Ivory) sits on the Leman Peninsula, delineating the “grand lac” from the “petit lac”. The “lac” is of course Lake Geneva but the French will not call it by that name. It is “Lac Leman” here. Divided roughly down the centre, France shares the management of Lake Geneva with the Swiss, but owns slightly fewer millions of gallons, so gets a bit sulky about naming rights.

At the very west end of Lac Leman is the city of Geneva with the fabulous Jet D’Eau, but we will go there another time. That is in Switzerland. We only went to Yvoire because we figured we could see the giant fountain from its little peninsula. In the end we coasted into Switzerland anyway, just because we could.

The huge Jet d’Eau (fountain) at Geneva, just down our coast a bit.

Yvoire is a little gem. It’s a medieval town built around the 14thC and has made a reputation for itself as a “floral village”. Certainly the geraniums, lillies, daisies and roses send up a heavenly scent. The tourists have started to arrive and this place is a tourist haven. In fact, I don’t think I saw a local or where a local would possibly live, so Yvoire is possibly a completely artificial town maintained to extract the tourist euros.

Yvoire houses and flowers.

The shops were divinely sweet, the arts and crafts really interesting, different and not-Chinese, and the port with its surrounding chateau, Alps and lake is movie set quality. See pix.

Arts and crafts.
Port d’Yvoire showing Chateau and man in red shirt with white hat.
Port d’Yvoire showing Church with steel steeple and woman in identical white hat as previous .
Clear water. “Ensemble in Blue and White”.

We strolled around in 27 degree heat and matching white straw hats. It was a relaxing half day. We ended up with a beer and frites in a shady corner, watching people, which is one of our favourite things, and patting dogs, which is another.

France is heading for a heat wave of up to 48 – sorry Melbs – but on the “coast” of Lac Leman we escape it and only hit about 33 in Thonon. Nevertheless, we have discovered a number of “plages” nearby where one can swim in water that goes immediately deep, and therefore is bitingly cold, as Lac Leman plunges to its ultimate 1,000+ foot depth.

Nearby, we have Mont Blanc. We can also drive a fair way up its 4,800m height to discover snow, or stop anywhere on its flanks where it promises to be about 19-24. This we will do this week for a day trip. On the way home, we will drive into Italy for a pizza and return through the Mont Blanc tunnel. One can do that here.

This is not Mont Blanc. This is our closest snow-capped peak in Thonon, the Dent d’Oche, meaning “toothache”. It is also the view from our kitchen window.

In the same casual way, we went to Switzerland on Sunday. Having come so close after Yvoire, we crossed the border to see if it “felt” different. Of course it doesn’t, people are all the same, but the price of gas suddenly shot up to €1.79 a litre not €1.39 as in France. Locals, (read NPP – aka Nail Parlour Professional) will tell you that they all seek a job in Switzerland where the salaries are higher, but to live and shop in France which is much cheaper. Also, the hypermarkets around here are the BEST ever, all designed to attract the Swiss around the coast to shop in France. I agree. The Intermarche between us and Evian is the best supermarket I have ever been in, even better than Phoenix Walmart.

This is very interesting. I have to go to Switzerland tomorrow, (Tuesday) as I am doing some work for the IPC at the FAI headquarters in the Olympic HQ city of Lausanne. I am catching a morning ferry across Lac Leman to go to work, with my computer bag etc, only this sure beats a commute by Metro to Melbourne for the same purpose. Maybe I will bring home some Swiss chocolate for Keith if 1. It is not a stupid price and 2. It won’t melt in the heat wave and 3. It is better than in France, (which I don’t expect).

Storm about to hit Lausanne, from beach in Evian. Not a foretaste of my work there on Tuesday!

To wind up Sunday, we drove pretty close to Geneva for views but will go there another day. It is our nearest big city. On Wednesday we are going to Montreux, also in Switzerland round our coast to the east, to check out Charlie Chaplin and Freddie Mercury tributes. We return there Saturday to see a friend in concert.

And perhaps in this heat we will have a little swim in a bitingly cold lake with a pebbled beach as per this divine picture of Lausanne taken from the plage at Evian. Or go skiing. Or coast around to Switzerland some more. I love France.

Chapter 16: Little Labours Loom Large

When you live long-term in another country, you need services that tourists don’t require.   Short-term travellers generally do not have to seek out doctors, tailors, printers, haircuts, nail parlours or car washes; for the vast majority, they wait until they return home.  For us, these everyday services present comical challenges.

Take for instance, my need for a doctor in the French medical system.  I delayed this visit for some weeks in the hope my chronic pain would subside rather than drop my pants for a strange doctor in a strange land.  Eventually in extremis I asked my neighbour how to find a doctor and he directed me to the Maison de Santé, an encouraging name which literally means “House of Health”, sounding much nicer than the austere “medical clinic”.

In reception I asked for an “appointment” with a “docteur”, which met with blank stares.  The mobile translation app told me I should have asked for a “rendezvous” with a “médecin”.  Mentally rehearsing days of the week in readiness for scheduling the appointment, I was much relieved when the rendezvous was made “maintenant”, and I was directed to the waiting room.

I was about to rendezvous with a Dr Friekout, a most unfortunate name,  which in French is the much nicer, “Free-Koo”.  The bursitis in my hips had flared after all the country lanes I’d been trekking, and I desperately needed cortisone injections.  So while not truly intimate, I was nevertheless steeling myself to lower my jeans for a strange man while trying to remember if I’d worn my best undies, not being prepared for “maintenant”.

When the door opened, there stood a tall, well-built, distinguished, good-looking man of about 55, looking for me.  I was getting ready to swoon when he opened his mouth and asked for Madame Bradley in his deep, radio-voice baritone.  Right there, I fell.  I am a sucker for voices.  Ready, willing and able to drop my daks, I hastened inside, explained my problem, which I’d neatly typed into the translate app in readiness, and he listened without wincing too much then told me I’d need an ultrasound.

My heart sank.  I’d expected this.  Back home this was big bucks, weeks of waiting for appointments, long delays.  Not in France.  He indicated the room next door, I popped up on the table, having surreptitiously unzipped my jeans to find my undies did not disappoint, and he performed two ultrasounds right then and there.  I really like “maintenant”.  “Now” means “now”, in France.

Sent away with a prescription to buy two doses of cortisone and a rendezvous three days hence, my heart sank again, thinking the drugs would be where the costs lay.  No.  €5.11 for the prescription.

The end of this adventure saw three visits to Dr Friekout, plus four ultrasounds and two doses of cortisone for under €100, ($AU160).  And the cortisone must be stronger here because I have not had any pain since and I have no more reason to see my gorgeous doctor.  Shame.  The ONLY blemish with him was learning he drove an Audi, not a Mercedes.

We’ve leased a diesel Renault Duster.  Never having had a diesel before, we didn’t know what to expect, and it turns out we didn’t know quite a lot of other things either.  For two Car-People, this was very sad.

In France, there’s a carbon-emissions reduction scheme in play that requires you to load up any diesel car with “blue” at regular intervals.  Ad-Blue is a liquid you pour into the tank next to the diesel tank, found under the same flap.  It mixes with the exhaust to lower the carbon somehow.  Great green idea.  We were warned not only was it illegal to not top up your blue tank, but if you failed to do so, the car would fail you.  Lights would come on, alarms would blare and the car would refuse to budge.  Huge fines would be levied too. I think our Renault delivery man, standing on a bleak dock in Calais in biting sub-zero winds, was exaggerating a bit.  Like me, he just wanted to retreat back inside but had to make a BIG impression about the confounded Blue.

After 3,000 kilometres, we decided it was time to “blue” the car.  Keith went to the service station and asked for one litre of le Bleu please.  He was told it doesn’t come in one litre bottles.  OK – so he brought home five litres of the stuff with warnings it was highly corrosive.  Sacrebleu! 

We had no idea how much of this liquid from Hell to pour in, much less anything to pour it in with.  Thinking it was probably not a good idea to use the house’s kitchen funnel, which we couldn’t find anyway, (Bruce – the house needs a funnel!), we returned to the servo to buy a funnel suitable for delivering Blue Hell.  She patiently explained via mime that if we opened the lid of the five litre container, we would find a funnel for inserting blue on the reverse of the cap.  I will leave her mimings to your imagination.

After that, we consulted Google to learn the Duster’s blue tank held 18 litres.  Now better equipped with knowledge and tools, we donned gloves, filled water bottles and dampened old rags ready for a stray splash from this major operation.  Avoiding touching the heinous stuff, the funnel lid got carefully screwed on, Keith tipped up the heavy five litre container and inserted the funnel into the car’s blue-tank.  It immediately backwashed, pouring over my boots.  I ran screaming into the house yelling “it burns, it burns”, while Keith chased after me most perturbed.  It didn’t.  I was hamming.

Success in adding just three litres on that first occasion left us concerned some weeks later when a blue light appeared on the dashboard.  Along with that light was a yellow arrow pointing up.  These days, they don’t give you service books for new cars; you are expected to download them.  We hadn’t.  Yet.  Once we did, Keith combed the manual, then that fail-safe, Google, looking for the meaning of these lights.  Did the blue mean more blue was needed?  It made sense.  What did the arrow mean?

We retrieved our remaining blue and poured in another two litres, this time feeling quite light-hearted about our hands or boots.  The blue light remained.  So did the arrow.  Subsequent combing of the manual proved that, ashamed to say, the blue light was simply a warning the engine had not yet warmed up – advising you not to floor it until the light disappeared – and the yellow arrow was an indication to shift to a higher gear.

Shifting gears … Keith regularly washes the car, especially these days after pouring blue.  Just like back home, the idea is to beat the washing mechanism, inserting as few euro coins as possible before it stops working.  As a consequence, we are often found in a half-washed Renault Duster, but it least now the blue is topped up and the lights are known.

Needing a printer for some signing pages, I searched, you guessed it, Google and was surprised when it located Imprimerie du Progrès, right here in Belvès.  Who would’a thought?  Expecting a laser printer in someone’s front lounge room, I walked up the hill to find a modern print shop near the Mairie with a vast machine capable of churning out text books at 10,000 per hour, staffed by the affable Gilbert. 

I wished I’d prepared my request in advance as I did for my doctor.  Asking for four pages printed from my USB was going to be a challenge.  I knew quatre, but not “pages” nor “USB”.  While he most pleasantly waited, I looked up on my app how to phrase my request.  It was quatre pages de USB, svp.

We’ve learned on multiple occasions if you cannot quickly find a French word, use the English equivalent and say it with a heavy French accent.  Chances are, it will be the same word, as it was on this occasion, although Keith sounds like Inspector Clouseau while I am Michelle from ‘Allo ‘Allo.  Securing my four pages, which he printed maintenant, I scurried home having paid him one euro, gratefully 20 cents more than the 80 centimes price.

On another visit, however, when we needed 15 pages printed for signing our next car contract, he asked if we could wait a few hours or preferably à demain (until tomorrow).  The machine was occupé.  What print job we wondered, could be so large as to bring the entire town’s printing services to a halt when people needed their work maintenant?  It amused us that the village had just one printing machine, so that all other commercial printing must cease when one large job arrived.  As on other occasions in France, you are made to wait, and that’s not a bad thing, to slow one down after an obsessive life-time of wanting it maintenant.

Later we discovered it was printing dosssards (yes, this word has three esses) for the Belvès Cent, the 43 year old, 100 kilometre run through the Périgord that Belvès annually hosts.  This footrace, on the second Saturday in April, brings not just the printer but the whole town to a halt.  Suddenly there are camper vans in the camper van parking lot, rubbish in the bins, huge white marquees erected in the town’s only parking lot, road deviation signs in place, women cutting bread for over 1500 runners, start/finish line inflatables pumped up, music pumped through the centre of town, (I feel Janis Joplin’s Bobby McGee jars somewhat with a 13th century medieval marketplace), a huge pasta party scheduled, but no printing services.

I’m sure this will be a wonderful fête and we fully intend to participate, though not as athletes on this occasion, by wandering down to watch the runners eating their carbohydrates after our Friday night at the Café de Paris.  I am sure it is very beautiful on the television, too, as the runners thunder past some of the grandest chateaux in the world, skip alongside the divine Dordogne and stagger up the steep pavé streets of nearby towns.  Like Le Tour de France, this breath-taking landscape is completely wasted on the completion-focussed, pain-wracked runners, but the spectators will love it.

I have had occasion to get my nails done twice now.  They are known as ongles and one has to learn words like remplissage which I’d carefully rehearsed and requested, to refresh my existing nails rather than replace them.  Enlightened, I learned the locals call it rempli.  The alternative was to endure la pose complète (chablons).  This sounded like some people I know after drinking wine. 

I learned a chablon is a piece of stiff cellophane, sticky on one side, to which a thin, fake, gel nail is stuck.  The shaped cellophane is inserted under one’s own nail, placing the new gel nail over the top.  Hard to describe; fascinating to watch.  When the chablon is removed, one possesses a new nail, much thinner than an ordinary old tip back home, and able to function as a real finger nail should, not a thick gel nail that is hopeless for purposes such as being used as a screwdriver, opening pull-top cans and sliding new keys onto a key ring.

Nail parlours are operated by real French ladies.  No one here greets you with, “Come in-si-down, you choose corrour”.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  Some of my best friends….

I’ve had my hair cut and coloured twice so far.  I met the talented and super-skilled Michel this way who turned my overly-yellow hair red, and razored it short.  He owns two hair parlours in Belvès and Bouissons where he employs his sister, her daughter, a cousin, his son, a second aunt and the cousin’s mother.  There is no thought any of them would work outside the family business or follow a different career. 

Having once spent seven years working in Toulouse, Michel avowedly hates city life and retreated to the Perigòrd countryside of his heart and ancestors.  His son will inherit his business but has to go up to Brantôme to do his apprenticeship and attend school.  It’s 60 kilometres away and Michel is heart-broken his son will be absent until he qualifies and can return home.  I asked his son, who was washing my hair, if he had travelled much outside France.  Oui he replied, in French, “I went twice to Barcelona”.

I am reminded yet again that the simple rural life these people know, the family values they exhibit and the contentment they find in working and living in such a small universe, is something quite enviable.  We have lost this in Australia, where we live largely anonymously in huge cities striving to be noticed, known and validated.  Perhaps that’s not necessary if your community provides you with love and belonging.

Conversely to needing my pants taken down, Keith needed his new trousers taken up.  This time Google failed us in searching for a tailor or seamstress in Belvès.  What does one do next?  One asks the only dry cleaner in town, of course, on Rue Jacques Manchotte, where to go.

A visit to this purveyor of information informed us of many things.  Firstly, we were looking for a couturier (I thought that this profession only made bespoke, ultra-expensive garments in Paris on Avenue de Montaigne?) but there was none in Belvès.  He could have the trousers sent out to be hemmed, but I would have to pin them myself, and it would take three days.  As I was pretty sure I was right out of dressmaker pins, (Bruce, the house needs dressmaker-pins; while you’re at it, a sewing machine, dressmaker dummy and long table could be useful),  I was heartened to hear a couturier named Nadine resided in Le Bugue, only 17 kilometres away.  He waved his arms in exaggeration of her skills and convinced us no other couturier could hem Keith’s trousers as well as she.  Whereabouts in Le Bugue?  À gauche, Madame; on the left.  May I know the address?  Pas de necessaire!  À gauche, Madame.

Thus armed with all we needed to wander a foreign town in search of a seamstress called Nadine, we drove to Le Bugue.

Le Bugue is just like all other small towns in Dordogne.  It possesses breathtakingly beautiful medieval houses, narrow cobble-stoned streets, an ancient church/ abbey/ cathedral/ basilica/ convent built in the 12th/13th /14th Century, destroyed during the Hundred Years War/Wars of Religion/French Revolution and restored, and a super-narrow one way system lined with unbending wooden/steel/concrete bollards and fixed flower boxes.

Entering Le Bugue, so intent were we on identifying anything on the left that looked like a couturier’s house with a resident seamstress called Nadine, that we must have missed the signs that said déviation.  Only later did we discover there were no signs that said déviation.  The locals just knew the local ancient church was having its pavement restored that day and workmen’s trucks would be closing the street.

Nine car lengths into the one-way main street, the truck in front suddenly put on its reverse lights, engaged gears and began bleeping backwards, way too fast for us to do similarly.  A short horn honk from us (illegal in France except to avoid an accident, which this behaviour clearly justified), caused a momentary cessation, then he continued to roll backwards.  Not arguing, we engaged reverse and did likewise.  The domino effect had begun.  The guy behind us started to inch backwards and the one behind him followed/led.

We have past experience with unbending wooden/steel/concrete bollards and fixed flower boxes and the damage they cause to new rental cars.  We don’t argue with them, so took our time remaining straight on the line, ably assisted by most of the town directing us à gauche or à droite with wildly spinning gesticulations to turn the wheel.

Further back, some stubborn mule refused to budge.   The majority of drivers, all passengers, most passersby and all shopkeepers, individually visited his car to explain the necessities of street unblocking. 

Given so much attention and arm-waving, the mule obligingly opened the bottle at the neck, and we eventually reversed into the roundabout guided by the shopkeepers.  None of them, however, was called Nadine; this was definitely a masculine domain.

Forced to navigate to the top end of town, at the other end of the one kilometre, one-way system, we despaired of finding Nadine’s house on the left, but nevertheless parked (in our acquired French way we no longer pay to park), and resolved to walk back the street’s length to locate her.

However, only four paces into the street, à gauche, we saw a shop marked “Couturier”.  Upon enquiry, I learned her name was “Tatiana”, she was definitely a Russian, and someone who had never heard of Nadine.  Instead, she offered to hem Keith’s trousers, maintenant, to save us a return trip to Belvès, 17 kilometres away.  Such service!  Such competition with the local French-woman!  Bien sûr, we acquiesced.  I’ve had great tailoring from Russians in Collins Street;  it must be a national skill.

This gave us time to explore the ancient church/abbey/cathedral/basilica/convent built in the 12th/13th/ 14th Century.  In this case, it was a lovely church with its very new concrete pavement being washed. We also had coffee, bought a baguette and wandered the length of Le Bugue just to say we’d been there.  At the other end of the town, I found a shop à gauche marked “Couturier”.  It was easy to find.  It was on the left.

“Is Nadine here?”, I asked in French, not knowing what to say had she been.

 “No, Madame, she could not work today as the street was closed”, was the reply.

Happily exonerated, within 45 minutes, we returned to Tatiana, our new favourite couturier, to collect Keith’s  trousers.  They were perfect. 

As in all the little labours we’ve bought here, we remember them because our needs loom large, and we must rehearse our requests.  Without exception, the local providers are craftspeople, proud of their standards, determined to provide their best, living according to their clocks, not ours.   When you want it now, you must needs wait.  When you expect to wait, they deliver maintenant.

I am happy to abide by the unexpected.

Chapter 15: This is a Dog Story

It was Ghandi who said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”   France must be the epitome of civilisation if this is the case.  It certainly is when I reflect on various doggy-scenes I have observed in France. 

I am sitting in the first-class carriage of an SNCF train in France, travelling from Agen in Lot to Lyon which is somewhere far away.  It’s a seven hour trip, following an hour and a half drive south from Belvès.  I am required to travel for seven hours because the train network doesn’t go across France very easily; it goes around France.  While Lyon is only five hours east by car, by train I must go south to Toulouse, around through Montpellier and Marseille, then north again to Lyon.  The Massif central is a BIG obstacle. 

Sitting opposite me is a divinely cheeky and affectionate Silky Terrier.  His Mum has bought him a canine ticket in First Class, so he has the right to occupy the seat next to hers.  She spreads his rug over the seat, puts his water bowl on the floor and at lunchtime orders him canine pellets from the menu.

A first-class passenger.

This is so foreign to me; dogs are considered such an integral part of French people’s lives that they are accorded human respect.  In Australia, where I have raised eight Guide Dog puppies, I am acutely conscious always of not overstepping the boundaries beyond which humans will not tolerate dogs, even when I have a genuine card-carrying Guide Dog Puppy in tow that is supposed to be allowed everywhere.  Even then, I have had to gently insist on our rights on occasion.  Pet dogs are barely tolerated and must be neither heard nor seen.

In France, dogs are not just tolerated, not just welcomed, but positively embraced and accorded human respect.  I love France for this.

Let’s meet? Two first-class passengers.

In the main street of Lille, two little dogs began yapping at each, very excited.  This is not unusual.  What was unusual was that each was being carried in a special small-dog harness worn by its owner, akin to the baby harnesses we most often see being worn by young fathers to tote their newborns.  Except these were two small dogs being taken out for a “walk”, requiring no exertion from them but a lot of love from their female carriers.  (French men would not be seen dead carrying a small dog).  The fact there was snow on the ground, and each small dog was suitably dressed in warm doggie-gear, was totally endearing.  Who would, after all, make their small dog endure sub-zero temperatures?  Not the French, for sure.

I laughed later when I found a shop dedicated solely to the sale of dog clothes.  C’est vraie!  I don’t believe in humanising dogs, I think it’s beneath their dignity as a dog, but when it’s minus one outside, I may concede the point.

At the airport in Paris, a woman walked past us with her tote bag slung over her shoulder.  It was a brand like mine which naturally attracted a scant glance from me.  This time, I looked longer.  Poking its head out of the end of the handbag was a miniature Chiahuahua.  This little person clearly had just landed on a domestic flight and was being taken to collect his parent’s bags from the carousel. 

Dogs, (and cats, but who cares) in a bag weighing less than six kilograms are considered cabin baggage.  They must be greater than eight weeks old, vaccinated and not be one of the snub-nosed varieties which have trouble with cabin pressure.  Pit Bulls are completely banned.   Yay!   

“Do you want to check the Chihuahua or carry it as hand-luggage, Madam?” I hear the airline desk clerk asking in my imagination, and it elicits an out-loud chuckle from me as the pup sails past.  That would cost her only €20 for a flight in France.  All Guide Dogs are allowed in airline cabins, regardless of weight, which is the same in Australia, while larger dogs (and cats) over eight kg are carried as checked baggage.

Dogs are never left in cars.  There is no need!  They are ranked “Access All Areas”.  On leashes, I have seen them in chateaux, art galleries, museums, shops, supermarkets, caves, restaurants and wineries, and running free beside rivers, through parks and in the country.  They are universally adored, universally well-behaved and the owners seem to have learned the “pick up” message that 25 years ago in Paris caused one to have to pick one’s way very carefully down side streets, not being able to look up at the most fashionable of buildings for fear of collecting a message on one’s shoe.  Not any more.  We rarely see dog merde on the pavements.

The village markets are the day to parade one’s pooch.  It is not enough for the French to dress themselves up for their weekly display and meeting with all their acquaintance at the weekend market, they must needs present a coiffured canine.  It is not acceptable to bring one’s dog to market unless it is clean, shining, friendly, adorable and wearing the best brands of leather.  These outgoing, beloved animals are well behaved, controlled and welcomed.  If they decide to sleep in the middle of the aisle to the local café, the waiters just step around them.  If they come to meet you at your table, you are required to admire them.  All eyes are drawn to the biggest, glossiest and shiniest, with exclamations of admiration. 

In Belvès market, it is Max who reigns.  He is a black English Setter, and he is divine.  With the deepest black glossy coat, trimmed whiskers and combed feathers, he knows he is simply beautiful.  His job is to nobly acknowledge each person’s presence with a slight wag of his tail as they genuflect.  Should one of his subjects reach down to rub his ears, he sighs and leans on their legs, encouraging more worship.  He may gently wave his nose in the direction of one’s food, but it is beneath His Maximillian Majesty to either beg or to accept food treats by hand.  Disdaining raucous dogs and Bacchanalian behaviour, he gently lowers himself onto the sunny cobblestones to sleep, confident in the knowledge that his coat gleams like black patent leather and that nary a person would dare to stand on one of his beauteous trimmings.

By contrast, in the Café de Paris in Belvès on a Friday night, the owner’s dog, Touschie, whose 87th ancestor may have been a Terrier, greets each customer with welcome bonhomie.  A rough-coated, white, grey and brown mutt, of cabin-baggage stature, he wanders from table to table making sure each guest has everything they need, including the doggie cuddles he offers if they so desire.  Not at all offended by some customers more engaged with their pizza than himself, he wanders to another table for a bit of a rub, a short scratch behind the ears and a gentle gouge of the g-spot above his tail.  When all guests have been thus greeted, he lies in the centre of the tiny aisle between crowded tables and watches everyone with one eye.  People step around him.  That’s a given and accepted practice.  No one kicks a dog out of the way in France.

Do you love me?

Should new customers arrive, and once they have been attended to by the human greeters with menus, glasses, water and order-taking, Touschie wanders over to assess their friendliness-level, and is a grateful recipient of all or nothing that they have to give.  One gets the feeling that any customer’s future welcome by the owner will be scaled according to the attention they give to Touschie.  Certainly, I gave him everything he asked for, and we were plied with free wine by the end of the evening.  Voila!

Yes, you DO love me! My tail wags so hard you cannot see it.

Yes, I hear you say, that might be OK at the Café de Paris, but what about at the posh places?  Here is a perfectly behaved Beagle, who accompanied his owners to La Home the other night, the best restaurant in Belvès now opened in time for Easter.  His presence was not even questioned by the owner, Natalie.  He knew it was his job to go to sleep under the table while his parents partook of some delicious foie gras, (there it was again!), duck magret served with raspberries, and chocolate profiteroles.

Well-behaved dogs are seen in restaurants everywhere, here at La Home.

Even more posh, at Château de la Treyne, where we stayed for a glorious five-star weekend overlooking La Dordogne, including my best-ever dinner at their Michelin-starred restaurant, the Guest Information Book simply states “we know your well-behaved dog will not sleep on the couches or bed”. To them it’s a given that guests will bring dogs. The owners Stephan and Stephanie feature their own Golden Retriever in all hotel publicity and as he is the Chair of the Relais and Chateaux Group, he sets the social standards:

It’s also fair to say that social standards are applied to canines as rigorously as they are to people.  Two behaviours are infradig, causing certain, social ostracism.  Begging for food by hand is never seen, not tolerated and never indulged.  From Puppydom, French dogs, like French children, are raised to be socially acceptable and possessed of exemplary good manners, quiet courtesy and gentle behaviours.  Secondly, barking is NOT DONE.  It is totally frowned upon in a country where any noise or racket, other than those produced in food manufacture or by F1 racing cars, is socially unacceptable.  This is why, I imagine, my French-Portuguese neighbour across the valley goes to such lengths to quell her barking German Shepherd on the Balcony.  She is raising, quel horreur, a barking dog and social outcast.   See Chapter 11:  I Fall in Love with a Balcony.

From an entirely different angle, allow me to present Olaf.  Olaf is a Border Collie, five years old.  Olaf was named by the family’s ten year old granddaughter on a frozen night in winter so there’s no surprise where that name came from.  He works on the family’s 30 acre farm.  His job is to herd geese and ducks.  There is no better breed for herding the family’s valuable bird-assets than a Border Collie, because he is not intimidated by the height of the bird, has no natural instinct to “fetch” them as a Labrador would certainly do, and is a natural herder.  Given their 1,000 geese and 1,600 ducks annually are moved from paddock to paddock as they grow up through staggered five month cycles, Olaf is kept busy. 

He is also responsible for bringing these avians into their final indoor barn where they will have their livers stuffed for two weeks before being collected for foie gras.  Olaf doesn’t know any of this.  He is simply the genial personality, part of the genial family, in the genial gift shop at the end of the tour, encouraging you with his love, leaning and licks, to purchase more of the family’s fatted produce.  I don’t know that I have met a dog more craving of pats than Olaf.

Topiary dog in the Gardens of Eyrignac Manor.

Back to Lille in January, a group of four of us were trudging through the snow, sludge and mud to the supermarket one afternoon.  Our perilously slippery walk was alongside a very busy freeway with four lanes.  See picture.  We had to watch our feet carefully for fear of going under a truck.  Suddenly we became aware of a large sandy dog, a huge one, one thousand parts of every breed, running around the freeway, cheerfully criss-crossing lanes.

Cars were swerving, braking and honking.  I realise now they would rather hit each other than strike a dog, but this Sandy fellow was going to cause carnage soon and we didn’t want it to include him.  So we called him over to us and he willingly came.  How does one say “Come” in French?  It didn’t matter.  He wanted love like they all do, but he wouldn’t jump the low barrier rail.  So I ran back along the freeway, calling and encouraging him to travel beside me along the railing until we reached a place where there was a break, where he came inside and dived on me.  So much love was lavished on this Australian, I wanted to adopt him immediately. 

In the meantime, a car had stopped on the freeway (there is no emergency lane on these freeways; he just stopped) and the driver had leapt out to the rescue, seen that I had secured the dog and was already calling the police.  While I hunted his ears for a micro-chip tattoo and others held Sandy with their scarves, I swear it took nineteen seconds for the police to arrive.  These were Dog-Police and what happened next was stunning.  They instantly collared and leashed Sandy, gave him some treats, while all the while his tail waved.  They scanned his body with the scanners carried on their belts like guns.  Finding what they needed in terms of his identity, they thanked us, loaded Sandy in the back of a divvy van, and took off, all in under thirty seconds.  The other helpful driver and I shook hands, he congratulated my group who had all participated in averting a disaster, and we expressed huge relief. 

We saved a dog’s life here.

And here’s the finest example of the homage French people pay to their dogs.  As the Dog-Police drove off to return Sandy home, they turned on their sirens and wailed away to Sandy’s home, knowing how imperative it was to return this important vagabond to his anxious parents.  At least, that’s what we wanted to believe as we laughed and trudged on. 

Now I may have stretched belief with this final surmise, but I assure my reader I have seen nothing to the contrary that tells me anything other than that the French have a superb and admirable reverence for dogs, a respect for discipline which ensures their animals are a welcome part of society, and is one that leads the way for the world.  I am sure Ghandi would give top marks to this nation’s greatness and moral progress. Vive les chiens!

On the wall at Chateau de la Treyne. Says it all, really.