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.

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