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Monday, November 30, 2009

I Did It!

Well, I did it. Seven hours shy of the deadline, I squeaked past the 50,000-word mark and hit my goal--50,043 to be precise. And for those who know the saga, I'm right at the point where I've arrived at that hideous (and hilarious, in hindsight) housesit in England. So I'm actually quite eager to continue telling my wickedly honest tale.

I'm two for two now doing NaNoWriMo, I'm happy to say. Less happy to admit that neither of these two books is finished--yet! But some people manage to knock off a book a year, others a book their entire lifetime, so I'm not giving up hope. In fact, I fully anticipate applying the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair tomorrow...well, after picking up my neighbor from the airport, going shopping, stopping at a friend's for dinner...

Perhaps, on second thought, it'll be Wednesday when I hit that chair again. Give the poor, weary chair a day off. It's earned it, right?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing Down the Home Stretch

It's Sunday evening, with just slightly more than 24 hours to go before my writing deadline.

The heading on this post is misleading. I wish it were the home stretch of the book itself but, no, it's just the first 50,000 words. Still, that's nothing to sneeze at.

I've been working steadily now the past few days and have managed to creep up to 46,353 words, leaving me just a few hours of work hanging over my head until I'm ready to submit my coded manuscript to NaNoWriMo.org for validation.

Although the first draft has a long way to go, particularly in the upcoming revision period, I'm starting to feel like it's actually beginning to resemble a book...kinda sorta. But standing at 50,000 words when it only reaches as far as the end of 2007, well, I'm lucky that it's not a novel. Novel lengths are typically 80-100,000 words whereas non-fiction can sometimes slide in as high as 200,000. I think if I'm not too afraid to wield that scalpel--or sword as the case may be--I can probably cut out the dead tissue and get it down around 100,000 words when it's finished.

In the meantime, I look forward to submitting my coded draft tomorrow night. Tuesday my neighbor returns from the UK and he's fully expecting to jump into my home improvement projects within a day or two. It's my hope to get the downstairs rooms presentable before my next house guests come at Christmastime.

Entertaining is wonderful. It really forces me to tackle projects like cleaning and reorganizing that I so easily toss onto the back burner. Much like my writing, I'm afraid. But that's where entertaining November as National Novel Writing Month comes in, to move me from beneath that Sword of Damocles and in to the operating room where I belong.

God knows, my not so patient little puppy can't wait. She's already trying to excise my toes as punishment because I'm ignoring her.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Writing at Top Speed

Well, it's day 28 and I have taken just way too many days off this month. If I'd kept up with the daily average, I'd have 45,000 words under my belt but I'm only at 38,700. Still, I was horribly behind upon waking yesterday and worked all day. So there's still hope I can catch up and make my 50,000 words by midnight Monday, or 7:00 PM EDT.

Still, things are flowing. I've left Spain finally, in my narrative, and am now enjoying a few weeks in northern Italy. It's wonderful, actually, reliving the experiences, even the bad ones.

I did take off a couple of days to have a Thanksgiving dinner of sorts. Since it's not a holiday celebrated outside the USA, none of my guests had ever been to one before. We had it on Wed, not Thu, due to other people's commitments--again, it's not a holiday here!--and did we have fun. Hardly traditional as you can't get a turkey to roast, not that my oven can roast anyway. Too much steam buildup, a problem with tiny ovens I'm told.

So we had stuffed pork tenderloin in pastry with an apple sage sauce. The pork, admittedly, got slightly charred in the toaster oven as I had no confidence in my regular oven that the pastry would brown, but none of us missed the bird and I thought it came out tasty enough for an experiment. Or maybe it was the pomegranate Champagne cocktails that took the sting out of it. Or the surprise chocolate birthday cake for one of my guests who'd just celebrated a birthday two days earlier. Any way you slice it, it was a fun evening.

For anyone who wants to try the Champagne cocktails, chill 5 ounces of Cointreau or Grand Marnier with 5 ounces of pomegranate juice and 1 ounce of fresh lime juice. Pour into Champagne flutes about 1/4 to 1/3 full and top with sparkling wine or Champagne. Makes 8 yummy drinks.

I hope everyone who celebrates the holiday had a lovely one. But now it's off to cram in some more writing if I'm to make my Monday deadline. No wonder the characters have worn off my keyboard....

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Writing Continues

Day Five and I'm at word count 9154, putting me at nearly 20% of my November goal.

It's been a stressful day not because of the crazed dogs wrestling all over the place or the pressure of hitting the 8335-cumulative-word mark I'd set for today, or even being unhappy with the quality of my work. It's because I was writing about my first day in Spain.

That was the day I was robbed on the motorway. March 3rd. 2007. 1:30PM. On the AP7-E15 Motorway from Barcelona, just south of Valencia. Due as much to my own stupidity and lack of sufficient caution--I've never been the suspicious type--as just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Reliving the entire circumstance word by word, trying to portray the very real fear I'd experienced, caused my hair follicles to tingle and my skin grow clammy. A sweat while writing? Come on! But maybe it means the telling is good; I can only hope.

Those aching, rigid ropes in my neck are telling me it's time to call it a day.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Dedicated Month for Writing

Today is day four of my 30-day November National Novel Writing Month commitment. (See http://www.NaNoWriMo.org for details, if you're interested.)

All renovation and decorative work has come to a screeching halt so I can hit my daily quota of 1667 words per day. I'm cheating actually--being what is known as a NaNoWriMo Rebel--by using this goal to work on my nonfiction travel memoir instead of penning a completely new novel as is the general point of this now international project. It appears more than 270,000 folks around the world are participating this year. My goal is to hammer out as much of this first draft by end of November as I can.

I tried this project last year and despite an ambitious travel schedule through various states on my trip back to the USA, I managed to get 50,000 words written on a historical fiction draft. That book has been set aside while I work on the nonfiction, simply because it's allegedly easier to publish nonfiction.

The challenge this year is to do it despite babysitting my Tilly's brother for an entire week while my friend is visiting the UK. The two of them tear around like absolute maniacs until they have no choice but to drop from sheer exhaustion. One might argue they keep each other occupied and therefore free me up to write. But we're still in the house-training stage and accidents happen mainly when they're doing just that, playing hard. And they're irresistible when tearing around at top speed playing tag.

If my fingers could fly across the keyboard as fast as they fly across the floor and up and down the furniture, well, I'd probably finish the entire book this month. Now there's a goal!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Painting and Pet Peeves

A few days ago my neighbor and I took a break from the exterior stone work on his house to redo the interior walls of his bedroom.

We removed layers of pink and turquoise wallpaper down to the plaster. (I was told the doors, now an off-white, were bright yellow when he moved in.) The idea was to paint the room a simple bright white as, facing north, it can be quite dark.

Christopher opened his new tub of paint and we looked at it aghast. Mind you, I'd been previously warned how bad the paint can be here, and how brutally expensive nonetheless. This looked like milky water with a dollop of white resting on the bottom. Despite prolonged stirring, the watery mix dripped off the wall without any pretext at concealment. Chris looked at me in despair. However, I had a solution.

I possessed a 15-litre container (roughly 4 American gallons) of what I was told was the best French paint, Dulux Valentine, for 100 euros (about $150.00). Thus far, I'd used it on two small walls in the kitchen and a bit of the bathroom so I had most of it left. Christopher retrieved it from my house while I entertained Tilly, my 11-week-old puppy. I'd brought her because she has exhibited real separation anxiety issues and will yowl for hours on end if I have the temerity to leave her home while I go next door to work. You can hear her yowling through the closed windows. It's heartbreaking. Okay, okay, she's got me completely wrapped around her paws and she knows it.

Anyway, it wasn't long before we were back at work, me up on a ladder doing the brush work along the trim while Chris eagerly slapped the roller over the walls. Unnoticed by me, Chris had slopped a large blob of paint atop the flattened cardboard we were using in lieu of a drop cloth. Unnoticed, that is, until I descended the ladder.

I gasped as I looked at the blob in horror. Tiny white paw prints led straight from it to the bedroom door, beyond into the kitchen and out of sight. Now it was my turn to howl.

"Oh, my God, she's walked through the paint!" Chris immediately said not to worry; it would clean up easily.

"But where is she?" I cried. I envisioned sweet little white paw marks drying on his dark chocolate brown sofa...or worse.

Fortunately, Tilly's penchant for brushes and brooms meant she'd only gotten as far as the tiled kitchen, pausing by the fireplace to steal the dustpan broom Christopher uses to sweep the ashes from his wood-burning fireplace. As we burst into the room, she sat contentedly by the fire chewing the sooty bristles, ignoring us as her paws gripped the handle, contrasting a gleaming white. "Blanc satin luminieux" to be precise.

Well, at least she hadn't licked her feet.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Madame Vitesse

There was recently a bit of excitement on our otherwise sedate street outside the village of Martizay.

Emil, a neighbor, is an elderly stone mason of substantial repute. At age 72, he's often seen scrambling across his roof with no safety equipment, and is currently single-handedly building an addition to his house, cutting each and every stone by hand. This is when he's not tending his massive garden, often sharing the bounty with my other neighbor Christopher or me, as well as his ongoing advice regarding the stonework Christopher's doing on his house.

I was taking a brief break from my mortar work to make Chris and me some coffee when I crossed Emil's path. He was doubled over, clearly in pain. When I reached him, I saw blood dripping down his hand past his wrist. To my horror I saw he'd virtually severed his left index finger. The bone was exposed a quarter-inch, the flesh neatly chewed off on all sides halfway down.

I called for Christopher as Danielle, Emil's wife, emerged from the house sobbing, bandage in hand. We quickly wrapped the finger and I raced home for my car keys; Danielle was clearly in no shape to drive. When I pulled my car up, I was horrified to see Emil removing the bandage to show some of the neighbors. I shouted at him to stop but it turned out it was a good thing--one man raced off and returned moments later with a huge bag of ice. Christopher got Emil and Danielle into the backseat and jumped in beside me. The street was lined with neighbors by this point (talk about bad news traveling fast!) as we flew by, heading for the emergency room in Le Blanc 20 kilometers away.

Mercifully, the road to Le Blanc is mostly straight and does not meander through frequent villages as most roads do. I haven't driven this fast since I was on Germany's autobahn. We hit over 160 kph (100 mph) on this 70-kph/44-mph route and I knew in my bones we were going to be pulled over for speeding. We were. A policeman stepped out into the road, his expression incredulous, and waved us in angrily. I'd already been rehearsing what I might say in my limited French, fingers clenching the steering wheel. I called out, "L'amputation. Son doigt." One look at Emil hunched over a bag of ice, bloody bandage visible, was enough for him to step back and wave us on. God bless him. We took off.

Moments later we roared into Le Blanc. Thankfully Christopher knew precisely where the hospital was and I found I could even follow Danielle's directions in French despite the stress of the moment.

Christopher and I got a coffee, sat outside and then took a short walk into the village to burn off our anxious energy. When we returned, we were told that they would reattach Emil's finger. Danielle appeared, almost cheerful in her relief. We took her home. On the way, she nicknamed me "Mme. Vitesse" or "Madame Speed." The nurse had told her that it was only because we arrived so quickly that they would be able to reattach the finger.

Reattach it they did. Emil was discharged the very next morning and Danielle brought him home. He was immediately out in the garden harvesting bunches of grapes, peaches and tomatoes to gift us, returning a second time with a huge bucket of walnuts. I alternately thanked and scolded him, saying he should rest his hand. He smiled. Later we heard him outside working again. Christopher and I looked at each other in disbelief.

It remains to be seen whether the surgery will be a success. Chris has since spotted Emil carrying a weighty bucket in his heavily bandaged left hand. But for now Emil seems to delight in showing everyone how a mere severed finger won't slow a Frenchman down.

Christopher says if construction doesn't work out for me, I might have a career as an ambulance driver.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is There a Construction Site Career in My Future?

For once I finally have a viable excuse for neglecting my blog so shamefully. I've got a new job--of sorts.

The day of my last post a month ago, my neighbor Christopher suggested perhaps we would both make better progress on our houses if we worked together, a barter system of work hours. He's been pointing the exterior of his house for months now and I can't begin to imagine how tedious it's been working alone. I would have quite given up in despair long ago.

For those of you unfamiliar with pointing (as I was), it consists of drilling out most of the existing mortar between the stones and replacing it with new. In this case, a rendering or top coat of stucco completely conceals the stone and must be chipped off before the pointing can begin.

This photo is of the far end of Christopher's house. The upper right portion of the photo is the original condition of the house. Below it the rendering has been removed and it's awaiting new mortar between the stones. On the left, running down the length of the house where the stone is less apparent is the finished product--new mortar has been applied, scraped off when partially dry and then, when completely hard, the stones have been burnished with a wire brush to remove any stray bits of mortar and whiten up the limestone block.

Christopher's and my houses were once all part of the same farm, his being the main farmhouse. In fact, the elderly farmer who was born in that house and grew up there still comes by occasionally to see the progress Christopher's making on 'his' house. He's an extremely nice man, this farmer, and was one of the first villagers to attempt to engage me in conversation. He was passing by while I was doing an archaeological dig of sorts in the garden--I knew there were plants buried in there somewhere! At the time I didn't know he once owned my house as well as most of the other buildings on my street. The entire street was apparently part of the farm once upon a time. (My house, I'm told, was built some time before 1850.)

But I digress. Christopher's tentative suggestion that I help him out was received with far more enthusiasm than he'd expected. I want to expose some of the stone wall in my living room interior so this would no doubt be an excellent introduction to what would be involved.

The work has proved far more exhausting than I'd anticipated but I find I enjoy it nonetheless. I man the cement mixer (not so unlike the commercial Hobart in my sister's former bakery), making up the mortar or chaux blanche of wet sand, lime chalk and water. I then wheel barrows of it to the scaffolding where I either hoist buckets up a ladder alongside the scaffolding to where Christopher is working or, if he's near the roof line, tie the buckets to rope and he hauls them up.

I did manage to overdo it while trying my hand at the jackhammer drill (it chips the rendering off to reveal the stones beneath) and strained my wrist but I think my biceps are starting to rival Michelle Obama's!

Here you can see the stones awaiting re-mortaring on the bottom; on the top is the finished product.

Mornings are now spent pointing while afternoons we switch to building a garden wall with all the extra stone lying about the farm. We fill the core of the wall with all the rubble from the rendering, a great way to clean up and recycle!

It's my hope that once Christopher sets a price on the two rooms he owns that abut my house that I can afford to buy them. Then we'll really have a renovation job on our hands as they're nothing more than stone shells. I envision them as a future kitchen and dining room.

In the meantime, perhaps we can collaborate on a new book: Pointers on Pointing!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I Have a New Roommate!

Not quite two weeks ago, a friend asked me to accompany her to someone's home in nearby Cussay to see a litter of puppies. She was considering adopting a dog. I was to come to prevent her from making any impulse mistakes. (And she wanted ME for this job?)

Our first indication of danger upon arrival was the sight of the litter's father: a pure white Coton du Tulear, the breed of dog my friend and I had both fallen in love with when we housesat two of them out in Veyrier-du-Lac, a lakeside home in the French Alps. (It is those two dogs whose picture graces the home page of my blog, soon now to be replaced.) The mother was tiny, sweet-tempered, and the color of ashes; a terrier of some sort.

The danger became full-blown when the puppies emerged from beneath a wardrobe. There were three and the family intended to keep just one, a pale apricot-colored female. My friend would have to choose between the remaining male and female puppies, just seven weeks old at this point. I turned to her and said, "We're in serious trouble here." I knew that whichever one she didn't choose was coming home with me.

My friend chose the male and I was delighted. I was secretly favoring the female which had lovely charcoal and café au lait markings on her; her brother was completely white.

This past Tuesday we returned to bring them home. We are hopelessly besotted. My friend called hers Finlay, or Finn for short, and promptly christened my little one Tilly. The name stuck. No question it suits her.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fruits of My Labors

It appears I've really adapted to the French pace of living. I've been in my tiny new house for two months now: the wallpaper has been torn off in some areas but by no means all; the paint has been applied in some areas but nowhere near all; I need an electrician (the first one decidedly did not work out, and I procrastinate, fearing technical speak in a language I can't yet speak); the faucets in the shower, kitchen and bathroom sinks continue to leak, as does the kitchen sink trap despite my efforts with wrench and Teflon tape; there is still no kitchen to speak of although at least a thoughtful neighbor in the next village who's a professional builder wired up my stove this week as a courtesy while we stood chatting about my kitchen ideas (he's going to install whatever cabinetry I buy); and my food remains stocked haphazardly on the floor in crates. So it's pretty much life as usual here in rural France. At least no one seems to think there's anything out of the ordinary. It definitely takes the pressure off.

One thing I have managed to get up and running, so to speak, is my garden. I've finally constructed 3 four-foot-square raised beds with the help of my neighbor Christopher (well, okay, I held the wood while he did all the actual work). As I prepared to level them, I suddenly realized I no longer owned a shovel. Sighing, I resigned myself to digging out the trenches with nothing more than a hand trowel. Hands bruised and aching, I sat back to survey my work. Well, at least the beds were now level so I didn't have to worry about water pooling in one end and drowning my future seedlings.

I lugged 13 large bags of topsoil, compost, aged horse manure and peat moss (the latter the only item that didn't feel like it weighed 50 kilos), home from the local Bricomarché (France's sub-equivalent to a Home Depot) and dumped them, along with the entire contents of my brimming compost heap, sheets of clean newsprint saved from my packing materials, and as many garden scraps as I could scrape up, into the beds, creating a combination lasagna/square-foot gardening-style setup. I felt a sense of accomplishment far outweighing the actual magnitude of the work done.

Thus, today, during brief spells of sun broken by mad dashes of pelting rain, I've managed to seed one of the three beds with a fall crop: 32 garlic, 32 radish, 16 spinach, 62 arugula and 64 white onion. Elsewhere I have existing two dozen young leeks happily reaching upward--donated by an elderly French woman whose garden vastly exceeds my own; eight tomato plants; various herbs; and a pattypan squash plant that was here when I arrived, and which seems content not only to engulf my garden and patio but has apparent designs on most of my village. I'd write more about it but, frankly, "Little Shop of Horrors" was more entertaining. Only today as I gingerly pushed aside immense prickly leaves in search of squash to harvest, I discovered that, buried beneath, next to the equally dwarfed thyme bush, I have chives growing. Who knew?

Recent days have been spent storing massive amounts of fruits--my neighbor has lots of fruit trees--vegetables, and the ensuing sauces and soups, inside my little freezer to the point where I can hear it groan every time I approach it with yet another container in hand. All this with nary a kitchen to speak of and no work surface beyond a cutting board propped atop two burners. (Thank you for those gratifying gasps of awe. They make it all worthwhile.)

Well, enough boring tales of kitchen garden miscellany. There's a vat of tomato sauce on the stove that's calling my name, barely audible above the wails of the freezer....

Monday, August 3, 2009

Getting Down to Work...Finally!

I just spent the last few days at the wedding celebration of friends in France who live just 90 minutes from me. Now it's time to really buckle down and get at least some work done on the 'new' house. (Can you call it 'new' if it's actually 150+ years old?)

Here you can see the picture of my kitchen or cuisine, as it's known in France, before the furniture arrived but after I'd ripped down all the wallpaper that was, well, shall we say, just not to my taste? I'm told the French love wallpaper. I suspect it's because they don't really have to finish the walls behind it adequately; it forgives many sins. At least that's what I'm assuming based on what I found behind it. But although I'm still living among unadorned walls covered with chipped plaster that often weep stone dust, I appreciate the wisdom of going slowly.

In any case, some of you might be wondering why I call this space my kitchen. Or perhaps the sink gives it away. Because that's essentially all that came with it: a sink and a little cabinet with 2 electric burners on top (incorrectly wired, I'm told by my new electrician who thankfully speaks English.) No other cabinets, no oven, no refrigerator, not so much as a shelf.

Despite the fact that France essentially closes down in August for vacation, I'm trying to put together a semblance of a temporary kitchen. It is my hope to eventually (meaning in the next two years) break through the rear wall into two additional rooms that are part of my house but owned by my neighbor, Christopher. He has expressed a desire to sell them to me and will add some exterior land area which will easily double my garden space. I would love to build my permanent kitchen in the rear of the house. Right now, the two additional rooms are naught but shells in need of complete overhaul, although one room has tiles on the floor; the other has a dirt floor.

But in the meantime, I need to establish some sort of kitchen for myself if only to get my food out of crates and off the floor! The arrival of my first houseguests on the 20th of August--former housesit clients from my 2007 housesit on the outskirts of Vienna who are stopping over for a night while in transit from southern to northern France--is just the motivation I need. Still, I find myself with limited options and will likely be ordering some kitchen storage from an American site on the internet.

Stay tuned....

Monday, July 20, 2009

Getting Settled in Martizay, France

My first summer in France--it's positively breath-taking and, from what I under-stand, the best summer they've had since I first arrived in western Europe in October 2006. Everywhere fields of red-orange poppies have declined to turn the show over to acres of sunflowers. It's breathtaking to drive through empty country roads lined with green crops and hay and suddenly turn a corner only to encounter a carpet of bright, sunny yellow flowers tracking the sun as far as the eye can see.

Here I was thinking that the busiest window of my life--moving to another country--would afford me much material to blog about (and it has, no question), but instead I found myself unable to muster the time during such busy days to add blogging to journaling, not to mention the mundane things like puzzling over how to fit America-sized furniture into a France-sized house, particularly one built 200 years earlier. Closets were unheard of, never mind generous square footage. It's been three weeks and I'm still up to my neck in packing materials. My clothes lie about the floor in shrink bags because the sharply peaked roof of my bedroom has made it difficult to fit garment racks and shelving, and my mattress sits on the floor next to my assembled cherry bed frame because the movers could not squeeze my full-size boxspring up the stairs. No idea how I'm going to resolve that one, shy of sawing the boxspring in half. But would it survive a disassembling and reassembling, I wonder?

This is the first time I've actually downsized and it's quite an adjustment. Most of my furniture, like my large glass dining table, eight padded chairs and Oriental rug, has ended up at the far end of the garden in the dependance, or outbuilding, which is an oversized shed (and not inconceivably someone's former house based on the huge fireplace in the section that now stands as my current wine cellar). The chairs and rug must make their way inside somehow before the mice head indoors to nest come winter or they'll be ruined. Even the garage, which adjoins the dependance, has fully 50% usurped by a huge stone bread oven. But there is admittedly room for my car...at least since I removed my car's roof-based antenna.

I've been busy setting up garden as well as house. Despite the significantly smaller size compared to what I've had in the past, I'm determined to establish a potager or kitchen garden. That required shaving the former overgrown, neglected lawn and covering it with a thick layer of black plastic in order to begin creating planting beds. A potager is something that is standard in all French homes. It's inconceivable not to have a vegetable garden here; flowers and lawn, while common, take a decidedly back seat to edible gardening. Considering the economy nowadays, one must consider the French to be incredibly progressive, not regressive. I hope to get some greens, radishes, leeks and onions planted before September.

Now that I'm finally online and functional here, at least computer-wise, I hope to post more regularly to catch you all up on the humor of starting life all over in another country where the language still presents a considerable challenge for me.

Bon courage, as my friend often says!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tuscany Wine Tasting

No visit to Italy is complete without at least one wine tasting. Tuscany is known for its Sangiovese grape which is used in virtually every red wine made here.

The Avignonesi vineyard comprises a collection of local farms, and makes some very well known wines as well as everyday affordable ones. Their 2004 Riserva Grandi Annate Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was named one of the top 100 wines of 2008 by Wine Spectator magazine. Sadly, it was not among the tasting choices. Neither was their fabled Vin Santo, a high-labor, low-yield dessert wine which runs 160 to 220 euros for a half-bottle and is hard to find because of the low production numbers. It's mainly sold at auctions. But we still got to sample a nice variety, including their 32-euro Desiderio Merlot. I was particularly delighted with their olive oil which I'd asked to taste as well--fruity and very peppery--and bought four half-liters.

I met a nice family from Memphis on the tour--a father (with my eyes closed I swear he sounded just like the actor John Goodman--he was tickled when I told him that) and his son and daughter, the latter who spent the past school year teaching English to primary students in Lisle, just north of Paris. As someone with an eye to possible job opportunities, I later looked into the national language assistant program but, alas, it's limited to those ages 20 to 30. That window's long gone!

Still, it was a lovely way to spend two hours on a hot, sunny Thursday afternoon in bella Toscana.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Respite in Tuscany

I'm wrapping up the first week of my final housesit, at least for some time to come, on a restored farm along a remote dirt road, just outside the lovely village of San Giovanni d'Asso, in the heart of Tuscany in central Italy. I'll be here through the end of May, at which time I'll return to the Loire Valley in France.

The vistas from my little cottage's window are breathtaking, particularly at sunset, when the sun's light is reflected off the terracotta-colored buildings on each hilltop village, causing them to glow as if each edifice sports a deep summer tan. Birds sing here both day and night, and the continual hum of flying insects and chirping crickets is a subtle musical backdrop to the rolling green hills. My cottage is the former hayloft, and consists of a narrow bedroom, bath and a lounge/kitchenette, and despite its diminutive size, is extremely comfortable.

It is here that I have discovered a decidedly enjoyable way to multi-task. I spend at least 90 minutes each day working on my tan while learning French, listening to audio instruction on my laptop. (The irony of studying French in Italy is not lost on me.) This way I don't feel guilty lounging in the sun, and haven't sported a tan this deep since I was on the Mediterranean in Spain two summers ago.

After that, I head for the welcome shade of the porch each afternoon to write, trying hard to ignore the profusion of scary-looking wasps and hornets that abound. (No scorpions spotted yet, although my first few nights I encountered no less than five sizeable centipedes in the bath and kitchen, each easily two or three inches long. Hardly the stuff of Papillon note but disconcerting nonetheless.)

The care of one elderly and slightly infirmed cat in a group of four means I can't venture out terribly far. It may mean missing out on places like Assisi, which I've longed to see, unless I can convince the housekeeper in the main house to do the midday feeding, as Assisi is a 3-hour roundtrip drive. (Beatriz is delightful but doesn't speak English.)

Siena is closer, just an hour away, and I'm sandwiched between Montalcino and Montepulciano, where I've already scheduled this coming Thursday and Friday, respectively, to visit the Avignonesi and La Fortuna vineyards for both wine and olive oil tastings, so it's hardly a complete loss!

If prices aren't too high (gotta watch those centimes now that I'm buying a house in France), I'll stock up on Italian goodies I can't buy in France, including what I'm told is the local prized proscuitto, cinta senese. I'll be sampling some of that on Thursday at the Montepulciano Avignonesi wine tasting. I shall even buy an obscene amount of dried pasta, as it's not easy to find recognizable brands in France, at least in rural areas. Those brands they do carry are unknown to me, whereas at least in Italy, names like Barilla and Di Cecco, popular favorites, abound. That's one advantage to making these journeys by car rather than airplane.

Ciao for now....

Saturday, May 9, 2009

VE Day

Yesterday, France celebrated VE Day--the day the Germans formally surrendered after WWII. I was in Ferriere-Larcon, about 30 kilometers north of where I'll be living come summer.

There, a group of villagers, a friend and I among them, met in the town square for the raising of the French flag. Then we walked up to the cemetery at the edge of town, a cluster of children ahead of us bearing flowers for the war memorial there.

Two villagers took turns reading out the names of those who died in both World Wars. They paused after each name, at which point everyone chanted, Mort pour la France, or 'Died for France.' It was a charming if somber ceremony with a small honor guard. Afterwards, the maire and conseil general read a letter sent to all the town mayors from the French secretaire general. Then we all walked back to the town, to the mairie, where we had drinks.

I was not the only American visitor present. There is a marital blessing taking place in the Ferriere-Larcon church today for a newly married, young American couple. They came to Ferriere in 2007, to the very same housesit I did when I first arrived in France in 2006. They loved the village of Ferriere so much they decided to arrange the blessing, followed by a wedding reception. Village residents volunteered to clean the ancient church (it's rarely used nowadays and has fallen somewhat into disrepair), oiling the doors and scrubbing stone, as well as fetching the flowers and the wedding cake, organizing the caterer and arranging tables and chairs in the mairie's salle des fetes.

The couple's family and friends have been arriving from America over the past few days and have been overwhelmed by the warmth and enthusiasm with which they've been received.

I know how they feel.