Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Trip to Castres

The past few evenings have been quite chilly, which made me think this morning there might have been a touch of frost on those pumpkins we saw in someone's garden yesterday while on our walk up the hillside. I wore a t-shirt under my long sleeved shirt with a light cotton jacket to start out but the jacket came off by 11 a.m. and the t-shirt was all I needed in the afternoon. Quite different from the 40 degree Celsius weather the locals experienced last week before we arrived. I'm hoping the warmer weather will return but it is still very pleasant.

We started off on today's adventure around 9:30 a.m., six of us in two cars. Gwen was taking us on an excursion to nearby Castres (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castres), a small city about 40 minutes away by car through the French pastoral countryside. It appears to be the end of sunflower season, although the flowers have not yet been harvested, they are still standing in the fields looking very dry and faded with their heads drooping down, rather sad to see.

Our first stop was an art store. A little bit of everything was available, but Gwen thought their supplies were much diminished compared to earlier in the summer. Most of us stocked up on sketchbooks and drawing pencils, intending to sit in a cafe later in the day and sketch but somehow this did not come to pass. Hopefully on another day.

After the art store, we went to the fabric store, where again, we all found something we had to have.

We then headed into the centre of the city for a short, scenic stroll before lunch at a restaurant called La Victoria, a five course meal that was quite delicious. We have decided it might be better to eat a heavier meal at lunch time and a smaller meal in the evening, rather than the other way around.

After lunch, more strolling about. We found a street that was filled with optical stores and Kate, Doriot and Dawn all bought new glasses for themselves. Meryl, Gwen and I tried on various frames but did not buy any, as the ones we liked seemed rather out of our budget's reach in the 250 euro range.

We then spent some time in the village square, which reminded me of St. Mark's Square in Venice only without a big cathedral on the east side. The same vast expanse of space, with stores all about and cafes spilling out into the square. Especially since we had stopped to look at the houses on the Agout River first (see photo on left). We sat for an expresso and a little people watching after Meryl hit the Orange store for a French SIM card.

Then it was time to head home to Durfort, with a quick stop at the convenience store in nearby Soreze for milk, fruit and bread for both dinner and tomorrow's breakfast. We had a champagne tasting before dinner (together with pistachios and these tiny little bits of goat cheese decorated with savories like pepper or onion that looked a bit like sushi but were oh so creamy good!) followed by a dinner of pasta, salad and fresh fruit - delicieux!

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Slow Day in Durfort

Today was supposed to be a bit of a quiet day for us but it turned out to be anything but restful. Thank goodness I had my camera with me all day as already I can barely remember what happened when now that the day is almost over!

Initially, it was a day without any plans. We breakfasted on warm chocolate croissants that simply melted in one's mouth and then 4 of us decided it would be nice to take a walk up the mountain road that leads out of Durfort. I had done this walk two years ago and remembered it as being very interesting, an easy uphill climb and lots to see - pretty villas, photogenic gates leading into interesting gardens, lots of flora and fauna. I was glad to find that my memory was correct and it was all of those things. The road follows the flow of the river with lots of pretty waterfalls glimpsed through the trees.

Two hours later, we returned to La Cascade and made lunch. We ate the last of the roasted chicken we'd bought at the market on Saturday, and leftovers from last night's dinner (we ended up saving the leftover cassolet for tonight's meal). Afterwards, Gwen suggested we go to nearby Soreze to take photos of the buildings there. Kate and Doriot stayed behind and Dawn, Meryl and I went along with Gwen.

When we arrived in Soreze, Gwen first took us to her friend Glenda's house, who joined us on our walk after showing us inside her lovely home (see photos of her street and the front of her house, both of which are so picturesque) and then we went around the corner to Ann's house, who also came along after giving us the grand tour of her incredible home as well.

We strolled up and down various streets for about 2.5 hours, with Glenda filling us in on various bits of the town's history and all of us snapping our cameras here, there and everywhere. Doors, windows, flowers, doorknockers, stone walls - you name it, we photographed it. Suddenly there are 455 photos on my disk that need to be downloaded, how did that happen??

We stopped outside the shop of a local artist to take pictures of her doorway and she invited us inside. This woman, Madame Fontane, was incredible - she will be turning 98 years old in 3 weeks time and she still has 20/20 eyesight, paints beautiful portraits, makes dolls and puppets and has written 10 books about her life story. The latest one is being published in a few weeks' time. She was delightful to listen to and luckily, I understood much of what she was saying.

We rushed back to the house in time for a 6 p.m. visit Veronique and Bernard, who run the bed and breakfast in a converted mill just outside the village where I had stayed my first night last time I was here, when I arrived the day before the rest of the group. It was great to see Vero again, she is a fascinating woman, an artist with a very unique style. They have installed a museum of kitzchy items in the ground floor of the mill that was quite entertaining.

It's now going on 9 o'clock and we still haven't had our dinner yet. I am quite tired but at the same time energized by all the wonderful things we have seen today.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

French Flea Market Heaven

We were up early this morning in order to be on our way to the flea market by 8 a.m., after a lovely dinner in Soreze, a slightly bigger small town a 5 minute drive away from here. Four of the five of us sampled the cassoulet, which is a bean stew with several types of meat in it, usually duck and pork sausage. The chef, Gigi, has won prizes for her cassoulet and we were not disappointed, it was delicious. They served us in one huge pottery dish (see photo and notice the "ice bag" for the wine to the right of the dish) and there was so much left over, we simply had to ask if we could take it home (which is rather gauche here in France) and they very kindly packed it up for us. Guess what we're having for dinner tonight? :)

We spent several hours touring the flea market this morning. Usually there are several vide greniers held each Sunday in the summer but today there was only one, so we took our time. Eleven a.m. found us sampling champagne at Alain's stall - could it get any better than this? My companions bought several bottles. After all, we are here for two weeks, n'est-ce pas?

We went around all the stalls twice, sometimes together, sometimes on our own. I bought several things, none of which cost more than 3 euros (more photos in a later post). I was excited to find some of the hydro insulators I had so admired and photographed last time I was here two years ago, and dismayed to discover it was three glass pieces attached together that I could barely lift, let alone transport back to Canada. Oh well.

After a sausage sandwich served on a baguette with Dijon mustard (so French!!) and a cool drink under a shady tree around noon, we decided we would just take one more quick trip around to make sure we hadn't missed anything. And my goodness, am I ever glad we did! I found this amazing game box, filled with a small cardboard checkerboard, several bingo cards and wooden game pieces for each - a fabulous find and the most expensive thing I bought (25 euros, about $30) but it had a lock with a key and I couldn't resist. While I was paying for this, Kate had found a wonderful metal first aid box she thought I should get, and I did - it was equally exciting and only 3 euros! Hard to decide which one I am more excited about, I love them both!

When we got home, we sat out on the sun-dappled terrace and had show and tell, oohing and aahing over everyone's treasures. We got some amazing deals, everyone was quite delighted with their purchases.

After that, we headed into the village of Durfort to explore the local shops. It seems to be the place for people to come on a sunny Sunday afternoon as the town square was full of parked cars and lots of people strolling from shop to shop, checking out the copper and leather goods. After the bargains of the flea market, everything seemed too expensive and too ordinary to me! 3 of us sat at the local cafe, Le Cyrano, and had a cold drink while enjoying the summer afternoon (did I mention we're in France???) before the 2 minute walk back to the house.

Next on the agenda was a walk to Soreze for Kate and I, which Kate remembered as being 10 or 20 minutes but turned out to be 45. Nevertheless, it was delightful, well worth the climb for the view from the top of the hill, and Meryl kindly picked us up in the car at the other end, where we stocked up on fresh bread and chocolate croissants for dinner and breakfast.

C'est manifique!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

France - Day One

Today is my first full day in France. I am sitting alone in the studio on the third floor of La Cascade, feeling the essence of all the students who have created art here in the past, listening to the waterfall through the window behind me and the church bells as they chime the hour and half hour, watching clouds drift across a blue sky while a plane cruises over the crest of the nearby mountain through one of the skylights above me. I cannot describe how wonderful it feels to be here at this exact moment in time, it just feels totally right.

Arrived safely yesterday after flying from Toronto to Paris and then a 2nd flight from Paris to Toulouse, then a 1.5 hour drive to Durfort. The cross-Atlantic flight was not bad in the grand scheme of things but there were lots of little annoyances that added up to a not very pleasant experience overall. Things like, my reading light turned on the light on the table of the guy next to me who slept most of the way and had already complained to the man on the other side of him that it was hard to sleep with his light on. So I wasn't able to read when I couldn't sleep. And I wasn't sleeping because people walking by in the aisle seemed to knock me often or yell out things when directly beside me that would jolt me out of a sound sleep. Then there was the unhappy, crying, whining toddler one row behind. And the lady across the aisle that seemed to think it was acceptable to take her shoes off and prop her bare feet on the armrest of the man in front of her (I did not need to be that familiar with her toes). I felt like I was travelling on an ancient plane, as they only had movie screens in the aisle every 10 rows or so and I was in row 9 so almost too fa away from the screen ahead and too close to the screen above my head. Which didn't really matter because first they showed Shrek 4, followed by The Bounty Hunter (with Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, which got terrible reviews). But how 1990 is that, Air France? Where was the screen on the back of the seat in front of me with dozens of TV shows and movies to personally choose from??? Heavy sigh. It was a means to an end - that Boeing 747 may have gotten me to France but it wasn't pretty, that's all I can say.

Here's our happy group of travellers, just after we first found each other at the airport (L to R: me, Kate, Doriot, Meryl and Dawn. And our luggage, naturalement!)

Now that I am here, of course, all is wonderful and those minor irritants are quickly being erased by the wonderful sights and smells and people all around me. We had a very French dinner at a restaurant last night that was delicious, joined by our hostess, Gwen Gibson, swapping stories and making plans for how we might spend our days for the next two weeks. As soon as the meal was over, jet lag set in and we hurried home and went right to bed, in order to be up in time to go to the Saturday morning market in the nearest town at 9 this morning.

On Saturday mornings, a farmer's market takes place in the village square. While we were there, we stocked up on fresh fruit, cheeses, ham, bread (Gwen showed us "the best baker" as compared to the other "not so good" ones), roasted chicken, potatoes, olives and a few bakery treats. My first order of business was to go to the soap stall, where I had bought soap two years ago - a lovely oatmeal and lavender concoction. Three bars lasted me an entire year but I was one year overdue for a new batch! Happily, I am now stocked up for the 2010/2011 season, but I might pick up a few more bars next weekend (between us, we bought out all they had!)

We came home and made ourselves a delicious repast with all our purchases and ate outside on the terrace overlooking the waterfall, under the grapes garlands shading the table. Ah, heaven!

(photos: Dawn and Meryl serving lunch, Kate and Doriot ready to enjoy our meal)

Friday, August 27, 2010

First Day in France

By the time you read this, God willing, I will be in France, making my way from Paris to Toulouse to the small village of Durfort, just east of Toulouse in the Mid Pyrenees (did I spell that correctly?)

I am taking my laptop with me and I plan to blog on a regular basis, as part of me wants to continue my regimen of blogging daily since I haven't missed a day yet in 2010. However, part of me is so darned tired of staring at a computer screen at work all day, every day for the past several months that the idea of not blogging and possibly not even turning on said computer for 17 days is mighty appealing.

So if by chance you visit my blog over the next couple of weeks and only see my smiling face in a field of sunflowers (as per the photo above), please forgive me. If that happens, click on the link to Kate McKinnon's website on the right and read her journal to see what my travelling companions and I are up to and know that I am having a wonderful time somewhere in the south of France with one good friend and 3 lovely ladies I am meeting for the first time.

But chances are, you'll know all that from reading about it here. Stay tuned!!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

No More Sleeps!

I am flying to France TONIGHT. I can't believe I'm finally able to say that, after all these months of counting down! One more day of work to get through first. I am looking forward to being able to tell people, "Sadly, I won't have a chance to deal with that before I go, someone else will need to assist you." Hopefully it will be over the phone so they won't be able to see the smug smirk on my face as I say it. :)

For now, wish me "bon voyage" and stay tuned to this space for updates and tales of our adventures across the pond.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

1 More Sleep

I am taking my darling Max to his cat sitter tonight. This will be difficult as I will miss him terribly while I'm gone and I know he will miss me too. But I am comforted by the fact that the woman who is going to be looking after him is very kind and very much looking forward to having him visit, so that helps. Hopefully she will be willing to give him back when I return!
My suitcase is packed, all that is left to do is charge various batteries, round up cable cords, load up my carryon knapsnack and hopefully find a moment or two to relax tonight.
Only one more sleep. I can hardly stand the excitement!!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2 More Sleeps

I am feeling a little panicked tonight, as if I won't have enough time to get everything done. Or rather, that I don't have the energy to do it. I've been waking up at 5 a.m. for the past couple of days, my mind suddenly wide awake and going full steam ahead with plans and things to remember, while my body is having trouble keeping up with the lack of sleep. Losing that extra hour over a day or two can really make a difference. It doesn't help that work is so busy, no time to relax and just breathe. Just two more days, I tell myself. I shall sleep the rest of the righteous on the plane and arrive in France, rested and raring to go! On the plus side, getting up early has given me extra time to work on my travel journal, so that is a bonus.

Tonight's plan is to pack my suitcase. I picked up a portable luggage scale at a silent auction on the weekend which I'm sure will come in most handy, especially when I am flying back and wondering if all my flea market purchases will put me over my 23 kg limit.

But first, last minute trip to drug store for missing toiletries? Check. Gift for friend's birthday tomorrow, made and wrapped? Check. Calls to bank and credit card company to advise of travel plans? Check. Pedicure? Check. Nail polish in soft French blue colour? Um, not exactly. More like an electric turquoise, but it is growing on me!

Monday, August 23, 2010

3 More Sleeps

Time is whirling by and I still feel like there are a lot of things left on my "to do" list. Tonight's schedule includes hemming a pair of pants and a pair of totally cool pyjama bottoms with owls on them that my friend Heather gave me (oh, how I wish Target would open stores in Canada, if only so I could buy Nick and Nora pyjamas there!), deciding what beads to take with me and balancing my chequebook so I can pay a few bills before I go.

At least I am sleeping easier now that we discovered this past weekend the answer to the age old question, "does a bear sh*t in the woods?". Evidently, no, not if he can go in the middle of the road instead and become the main topic of conversation for all the cottagers that day!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

4 More Sleeps

I can hardly believe that the time has finally come that our trip to France is so close. I now need less than one hand to count the number of days, there are only a few workdays to get through and no weekends between now and when I climb on that plane to fly across the ocean.

It was bittersweet to have this past weekend at the cottage, knowing that when I return again in a month's time, summer will be over here in Ontario and we will be solidly into fall. Some of the signs of autumn's approach are already visible: hay stacked in the fields in round or rectangular bales, starlings beginning to flock together, lined up on the telephone wires as if they haven't a care in the world when really they are preparing to migrate a vast distance to wherever it is they go for the winter months, leaves on a very few trees starting to change colour and the squirrels scampering across the lawn with their cheeks bulging with acorns.

Given that I was feeling that way, it was totally appropriate then that I should follow this boat for a while on the drive up!

Luckily, I will have two hot and sunny weeks in French sunflower country to compensate me for missing the last few weeks of this glorious summer of 2010 we have had here in Ontario.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Magical Cupboard

Here's a picture of a fabulous cupboard I didn't buy two weekends ago at the Aberfoyle antique market. But I wanted it the minute I saw it. I don't know what I would have put inside it or where exactly I would have put it, but I would have figured that out. I just couldn't justify the $800 price tag (did I mention I'm going to France in just FIVE MORE SLEEPS???).

Check out the rustic paint job:

the very trendy hook and eye latch and empty keyhole:

and even more incredible hinges.

Even before the vendor told me it was Russian in origin, this cupboard made me think it belonged in the circus for some reason, I think it was something about the old paint. It made me think of one of those circus wagons that look like they've been travelling around the country for years and years. Maybe this cupboard rode inside of one of those wagons, holding the lion tamer's whips or props for the guy who threw flaming knives at a beautiful woman in a fancy costume.

Two weeks later, I'm still sorry I couldn't give this magical cupboard a home.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Stamp Detail

Thought I'd share some photos of a few of those stamps I was telling you about yesterday, the ones I bought in Aberfoyle two weeks ago.

I love the postmark on this one, from Madison Square Station in New York City in 1938:

How psychedelic is this one? It doesn't have a postmark but could be from any other time than the late 70's? I think not.

Or how about this one, asking people to stop traffic accidents:

There was also a little tiny waxed paper envelope with these stock transfer tax stamps inside:

I find stamps fascinating. I've never been a true collector but I do recall ordering a bag made out of thin cotton from an ad on the back of a comic book when I was a kid, which arrived chock full of stamps, which I then stuck into a book I had. I'm kind of wondering whatever happened to that book, it would be interesting to see what's in there all these years later. I can't imagine throwing it out but I don't know where it would be otherwise. But now that I have this new stash, I might have to start paying more attention.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Aberfoyle Purchases

Another successful antique-hunting outing occurred two weekends ago at the outdoor antique market at Aberfoyle.

I picked up some beautiful old National Geographic maps for $5 each. One of "The World" (copyrighted 1932 but may not actually be that old, I can't tell); one for The Great Lakes Region (1953) with a fabulous border repeating the province and state names in an appealing font; and a third one which is entitled, "Historic and Scenic Reaches of the Nation's Capital" (1938) - the artwork was irrestible!

For $10, my friend and I split a huge bag of old stamps, most of which appear to be from the U.S. in the 60's and 70's but some of which have postmarks from the 30's and 40's. Many of them are still attached to the corner of an envelope and a few even have the return address. I'm tempted to write and see who lives there now!

For another $5, I got this collection of bits and pieces - 20 inches of vintage chain, a watch face, a little bottle with what appears to be lamp wicks inside and an old wooden ruler from a dressmaker's supply company in Toronto.

My best deal of the day was this jewellery box. The label said $12 but the vendor sold it to me for $9. Isn't it sweet?

My most expensive purchase was this old printer's tray, which I got for $15. It is seriously water damaged, discoloured and totally distressed, which made me love it all the more.

Man, I love antique markets. And in just about 10 days time, I'll be checking out the deals at the Sunday vide grenier somewhere in the south of France - can't wait!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Buried Treasure

Did I mention that I am leaving for France in just NINE days??? I am so excited, I can hardly stand it. I have been planning for this trip since March of 2009 and the time is finally almost here.

I've started making little piles around my apartment of stuff that I want to take, cross-checking against my various lists. One thing I hadn't done before now was check in my "travel box", which is one of those boxes for storing photos that looks like a colourful shoe box, to see if I had any euros left over from my last trip to France in 2008. Eureka, I did. Two hundred dollars worth, in fact!

It feels like buried treasure, finding money that you had tucked away a couple of years ago and forgotten about. Of course, it was worth about $50 more back then but it's still found money, no matter how you slice it, and it will spend just as easily!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In The Gloaming

Someone used this expression last week in a comment on Kate McKinnon's blog (alas, I can't find said comment now, so apologies to that individual who shall have to remain nameless at this point in time).

I have always loved this expression. According to a CCN link I found on Google, "The gloaming is the hour when dawn or dusk works its spell, making all the world as purple as the Scottish highlands on a summer night." If you can imagine, there is even a blog called "Scotland in the Gloaming,"( http://scotlandinthegloaming.blogspot.com/) where I found this fabulous photo taken by Jim Downie:

CNN used the above description when writing about a story by the same name written by Alice Elliott Dark, which was a 1997 movie starring Glenn Close and directed by Christopher Reeve, about a son with AIDS who comes home to die. I had never heard of the book or the movie before I Googled the phrase today but having now read the first chapter, thanks to a spot on the CNN website called, obviously enough, "First Chapters", where they post, natch, the first chapters of various books, I shall have to seek it out at the library. Here's where you can find that first chapter: http://archives.cnn.com/2000/books/beginnings/02/03/gloaming/.

When I hear this expression, I always think of a song I learned at summer camp more than 30 years ago, "Fire's burning, fire's burning, draw nearer, draw nearer, in the gloaming, in the gloaming, come sing and be merry..." Of course, most Girl Guides these days sing "in the glowing" instead, but I prefer the more magical original lyric.

Although I have to admit that these days, it also makes me think of this "Twilight":

as I have just started reading the first of the series of novels written by Stephenie Meyer, after resisting the hype of the books and the movies for many months now. I am only about 107 pages in but I have to admit, the book is well written and catches your attention from the very first page. Although so far, there has been no mention of vampires, so I'm not sure if I'll feel the same way if the fangs come out and people start getting bitten. I'm still not recovered from Stephen King's "Salem's Lot" all these years later!