Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Handsomely Beautiful, Exceptionally Foolhardy

This is the tale of three handsomely beautiful and exceptionally foolhardy Frenchies.  A trio that were to be the first kayakers to descend the Green and Colorado Rivers. 900 wild and wooly miles of water between Green River, Wyoming and Lee’s Ferry, Arizona.

It all started in 1938, when a young adventurer, Bernard de Colmont, returning from Central America to France, fell in love with the southwest of the United States. As soon as he saw the waters of the mighty Colorado and her majestic canyon he wanted to experience and conquer that wildness. Crossing the Atlantic by steamship gave him plenty of time to think through how the project might be accomplished.

He figured that all previous descents had been made with traditional wooden river rafts that inevitably shattered at some point on the monstrous rocks strewn in the raging river. He decided to try a different strategy. He would the trip in kayaks, reasoning that their greater maneuverability would make it easier to avoid rocks.  As soon as he arrived home he started construction of three kayaks with rounded hulls instead of the typical rectangular form of the day. He based his design on traditional Inuit kayaks he had seen on his travels. The idea was that the shape would be more agile and replacements and repairs could be made more easily. This proved true as at one point when Bernard’s kayak was damaged. He was able to repair it with found wood in the bottom of the canyon.

Bernard easily convinced his new bride, Geneviève de Colmont, to join him on this adventure. Now they just had to find a third member. A telegraph was sent to an affable, competent, hiking friend, Antoine de Seynes. 

“I am organizing an expedition to Colorado, would you like to be the third member?” 

Antoine had to get out an atlas to look up where Colorado was. With no hesitation he said, “Yes.” He was 28 years old, graduated from Agricultural School, running the family farm, and regretting giving up his dream of going into Oceanography. 

The three spent just 15 days in training on the local Ariège River, which has rapids that ripple more than they roar. Then the threesome was off.  Paris to Le Havre, Le Havre to New York where they bought a used Lincoln. They drove cross country arriving in Wyoming on November 4th.  They asked for official permission to make the descent and were told they would have to leave a $10,000 deposit - the amount required for the inevitable rescue of these three crazy kids. Having spent all their money on travels and supplies they could not come up with this large sum. They set up camp along the Green River anyway and started to prepare in secret. Somehow a journalist got wind of their plans and published an article in the local paper. The day of their departure found the banks of the river crowded with onlookers. Some there to wave goodbye, some trying to dissuade these foolhardy foreigners, and some just there out of curiosity.

These young explorers were well equipped for the time. They had the latest in technical fabrics, helmets, water tight sacks that would also float, and Geneviève had a special water-resistant watch called a ‘powder case watch’. Most important of all were the kayaks, incredibly light, easy to take apart and covered in a waterproofed fabric shell. 

The three novice kayakers were off. Sixty days and 900 miles down the Green River to the intersection of the Colorado. They had to stop here as winter had become too bitter. Along the way they filmed each step of the voyage, from preparation, to rest stops, evenings in camp, and a lot of the descent - all on 16 and 35 mm color film- a rare thing for that time. They also used 8 mm black and white film, took copious amounts of photos, and each kept a journal of the journey. Unfortunately, only Antoine’s journal is known to still exist.

Their expedition was an enormous success. There were articles in many magazines and Geneviève was even on the cover of Marie-Claire. The men gave several conferences on the project. But their the world slid into the Nazi invasion, occupation, and then recuperation. There were more important things to concentrate on. Bernard continued to write for outdoor activities and Antoine continued kayaking, exploring the rivers of France.

In 1944 Antoine was helping in the Resistance. Two young men passing through France wanted to make their way to the Allies in North Africa. Antoine gave them his kayak from the Colorado expedition. The young men were picked up by the Spanish. However, their daring crossing set an example for the Allied parachutist units. Antoine’s kayak is now displayed at the National Center of Commando Training.

Now you ask, how did this story get dug up 75 years later…?

Fifteen years ago a historian from the University of Salt Lake City contacted Antoine’s son asking for more information on the trio. The American, Ian McCluskey, had fallen under the spell of this story after discovering a historical marker on the Green River at the launching of his own descent. Ian and a crew came to visit Antoine’s son and were handed over photos, the journal, and Antoine’s 8 mm film. Along with Antoine’s childhood memories of his father’s tales. 

Ian’s quest led to a full length film retracing the journey. 

Check out this site for more information:

**My information comes from an article in the SudOuest Saturday Magazine. Some information was a bit vague and I may have misinterpreted a few things. Still it makes a good story and maybe you’ll find a way to see the movie to get the straight story. I’ve ordered it to watch when I’m home visiting family. Dad will love it after years of taking us canoeing on the not so wild rivers of Virginia. Maybe we’ll even get out some of his old films of our adventures - he still has the projector!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Bordeaux Rooflines

Every now and then I get a jones for a little more action than the small village of Bourdeilles (“bor-day”) has to offer and I’ll head over to the big city of Bordeaux (“bor-doe”).

How quickly the scenery changes from rolling farm fields, to flat vineyards, then abruptly to a city skyline in the sort-of short two-hour drive to Bordeaux.
My toots to Bordeaux are intermixed with shopping, people watching at cafes, and wandering. 

It’s hard to say which is more alluring, the beautiful shop windows or the city folks dressed up to the nines. Trying to blend in, I’ve dressed my best, but somehow I still manage to feel like the country cousin from the sticks. Maybe it’s my practical, all-weather foot wear that gives me away.

For the first part of the day I’ll leisurely wander around window shopping. I love the french expression for this: “faire du leche-vitrine” which translates to “lick the shop windows”. After awhile my tongue is dried up and my feet are quietly saying “give us a break”.  Selecting a cozy cafe I’ll take a pause to recharge. But it’s only so long that I can sit in the cafe watching the beautiful people passing by. Soon I start getting ideas that maybe instead of just licking the windows I better go back out and cross a few thresholds. These beautiful people are sporting a new fashion statement that I wouldn’t mind copying. The problem is that because I am in ever-so-elegant Bordeaux, this must have will surely break the bank and will make me look like a city slicker back in Bourdeilles.
 So before heading back out on the streets I place my wallet in one pocket and my camera in the other. Sort of like a cowboy with her double holster. I’ve proven to have a pretty quick draw with the wallet so I keep it on my left side to slow down my action. My camera, loaded and ready, is in the right pocket. 

Time now for some aimless wandering. I am lured to turn left or right by glimpses of architectural elements. I’ve said the big city of Bordeaux, but actually it isn’t all that big. Population 250,000. The city center is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th century. Paris might be bigger and grander, but Bordeaux comes in second for the highest number of preserved historical buildings in any city in France.

Today the low angle of the winter sun highlights the mixed architectural elements of the city’s rooflines. It seems extravagant that so much time and money was put into elaborate details almost out of sight and often in shadow.

I love how passersby stop to see what I am taking a photo of. Their gaze follows the angle of my camera to see what the heck I could have spied.  I’m glad I give them a reason to pause and  observe the art show passing above our heads.

The city’s rooflines are a mix of plain and elaborate. Some rooflines are proof of a clearly rich builder. Other rooflines were clearly built by folks whose means were modest, but whose ambitions were grand. I want to see them all. 

My feet may be tired, but maybe even worse is the crook in my neck. I wander the city for hours, or until my feet and legs can go no further. Even my country walking shoes are no match for the miles covered on hard pavement. However I pass up a ride on the city bus. I want to continue to pursue the beauties of Bordeaux between the city center and the apartment where I am staying. It would kill me to be on the bus and see some beautiful facade pass by in the blink of an eye. Better to suffer tired and weary feet than fall to frustrated curiosity. Now is the time to soak it all in before heading back to where I belong, the small village of the country cousin with ugly shoes.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Au Contraire

If asked what our favorite season is here in Bourdeilles Tom and I both immediately reply “winter”. It would seem that the late arrival of the sun and the early arrival of night fall would make this a morose time of year but, au contraire, it is starkly beautiful and surprisingly enlivening.

Our winter mornings are so dark that we might as well sleep behind closed shutters like the French do. There’s a hint of light at 8:00 as the sun struggles to push past the horizon. Some mornings it’s even harder for the poor soul to breakthrough the thick, silencing blanket of fog.
After turning the thermostat up and putting the kettle on, it’s a quick glimpse at the thermometer to confirm just how hard last night’s frost was.  A frosty morning means sunshine. The rosy glow of ice crystals covering everything is like waking up in a jewelry box with the lid cracked open to let the light in. What a glorious way to start the day.

On winter days there is no need to rush around to get to anything. There are no crowds to get ahead of. The schedules of those of us that live here year round do not often overlap. I am accompanied on my errands by the clop, clop of my own footsteps. Mourning doves sing, coo coo hoot coo coo hoot. If I walk across the bridge I can clearly hear the gentle gurgle of the river. The gaggle of ducks might stir a little and if I am lucky the great heron will startle up and silently circle overhead to quieter waters. Bourdeilles’ church bells ring crisply in the cold air or are muffled by thick low fog. The village is like a stage set waiting for action, waiting for the players and the audience to arrive. Yet in winter none will.

Winter shopping takes a bit longer as it would be impolite to scamper in and out of the two shops without a bit of chit chat, not just the quick scraps we banter over strangers heads in season. Our conversations are calm, we take time to catch up on how the family and the business made it through the crazy season.  What are you making for dinner, have you heard how Monsieur X is, why did the town do this or that?

Later in the day Tom and I will head out on our daily walk. The dogs and I love the fine, fresh winter air. Tom likes that we won’t see another soul. Our peaceful souls wander into the big sky, out over the fields stretching away. There is silent, powerful drama in the setting. Oak trees with their limbs etched against the sky.  The animated skeletons of walnut tree’s dance in the fields. We note the pacing of the new growth of winter crops. We comment on the day’s light. Rock against sky. Cold against cold. Grey against blue or grey against grey.

We’ll see farms, hamlets and chateau that are exposed only in winter. Human places that are silent of human voices. Silence that adds a bit of mystery, of pathos to the air. Silence that allows ones mind to work on that mystery, build it up, tear it down.

Silence again - can you tell that for us it is an important part of this season. Silence that allows calm, allows slowness, sloth, dreaminess, and undistracted reflection. 

As the sun sets there is a brief moment of glory as the angled rays warm the scene. Stone flames up golden or pink. Fields are greener than green. The cutout shapes of black birds stand out in the fields or circle above in the fading light heading to their roost. All the day's events are wrapping up as the sun drops over the horizon at 5:00. It’s dark, it’s time to be tucked in like the rest of the silent village.
Winter evenings we have a quiet dinner, a roaring fire, and a good book. It isn’t just a cliche.  It truly is a good way to end the day. One by one the animals move off the radiator to someone’s lap. By the end of the evening there is barely room for everyone on the sofa. The silence is only broken by the turning of a page or the rustle of a blanket being pulled up. Winter boredom and regeneration are a lovely thing.

“Oh, I’m sleepy.”

“Me, too.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Neat or Not at All

Seldom a month goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I was raised proper - well actually raised to be proper. Between my grandparents, that I would listen to, and my parents that I tried not to listen to, I learned to say please and thank you, look adults in the eye when greeting them, and a long list of other niceties that, with a lot of prompting, became ingrained, automatic behaviors.  Credit should also be given to my great uncles who taught me how to shake hands with just the right amount of pressure, to be on time or get left behind, and how to drink whiskey neat or not at all. 

Now here in France every social event makes me feel like that youngster learning how to comport herself all over again.

Here on “the other side” of the ocean there is a very different set of rules on how to act proper in the world of French adults. Here I thank my lucky stars that I have an adoptive family that is willing to answer questions and gently teach this old dog new tricks - even though one of these French rules says that it is impolite to correct another adult. 

An evening out will start by being careful to calculate our time of departure so that we will arrive at the home of our hosts no earlier than 15 minutes late. My childish brain says I have to be ready at the appointed hour, so I am.  But I don’t want to start off my special evening in the dog house, so I sit all dolled up in my house, tapping my toes until the clock has struck the “official” hour and then sit there for another 15 minutes listening to the voices of the great uncles saying, “What the heck are you waiting for?”

Upon arriving I no longer get to show off my just-right American handshake as I introduce myself to a new acquaintance or say a quick hi to old friends. Here it’s a round of kisses to all. Then the doorbell rings and it will start all over again. I guess the best thing about being late is you get all this hello-ing over in one fell swoop. 

At some point we are all seated at the dinner table.  Now is my big chance to put to use a whole bunch of my new tricks. I hear my grandmother’s words “keep your hands in your lap” over and over.  But at the same time my mind is working overtime to remember that in France, it’s, “Keep my hands on the table”. 

Dinner served I am thrilled that my unbreakable childhood habit of eating “continental” style is now de rigueur. Here there is no need to: cut my food, put down my knife (right hand) and fork (left hand) and then pick up the fork in my right hand. Something that has raised eyebrows my entire life will go unnoticed here.

I’ll drink my wine as slowly as I can and wait until I am served more instead of having the audacity to ask for more - even if my glass has been empty for 3 or 4 minutes! 

I hold my breath that I will not be the first person that has to cut into the cheese plate and I count on the person before me knowing cheese cutting etiquette that I can copy cat. 

I put my bread directly on the table. 

I stay seated while my hostess does everything. Like a child I watch everyone to see what they are doing and try to mimic or change whatever American mannerism that is trying to sneak back to the table.

I have made great progress in my French comportment but, until last week there was one rule I had heard about, but was doing my darndest to ignore. Then some new Americans moved to town and they really wanted confirmation of what I was convinced could only be rumor. We decided that we could ask this crazy, slightly embarrassing question here in the confidence of a family from whom we knew we would get an honest response. 

We had all heard that one is never to use the bathroom when you are a guest in a French home. So sometime in the middle of Christmas dinner I screwed up the courage and asked my French hostess the question, well actually I stated it as a fact. “I have heard that when one is a guests in someone’s home they cannot use the bathroom”. The immediate response was “absolument” - this pretty much translates to of course you can not! There was an audible gasp from the Americans. Not go to the bathroom when one might be a guest for 4 - 6 hours. Now that is a rule of etiquette gone too far! I thought of the times one of us had used the bathroom here in this very home - not to mention others- and how no one had ever corrected us. (This particular friend has been a great guide to living in France and has gently guided me in other niceties. How could she have neglected this bit of info? It probably never occurred to her that we didn’t know this rule.) This great prudish problem in a country where men can pretty much pee in public pretty much anywhere they like!

I have to confess that I have taken this new trick under advisement, but as of yet there are not enough years of voices telling me that I cannot make myself comfortable if things are becoming urgent - plus my curiosity of what the rest of the house looks like often gets the better of me. I guess someone forgot to drill into me that curiosity killed the cat and that for old dogs some habits are just going to get worse not better. At least when it comes to drinking with proper French adults I never get left behind when it comes to a quick nip of 100-proof eau-de-vie and that’s a good southern way to show you have right proper manners!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Strasbourg Christmas Market

Streets lined with bright sparkling garlands of lights, windows filled with Santa and his Elves, reindeer and polar bears, snow covered cabins filed with Christmas decorations, and cauldrons full of sauerkraut and sausages, mulled wine and salty pretzels, these are a few of the delights that awaited us on our recent trip to the splendid city of Strasbourg and it’s annual Christmas Market.

Strasbourg and it’s market are just a small part of the concept of Christmas, but the light, and wonder, the joy that was there are a big part of what keeps us connected to each other and the Christian message of love.  Love that is the message of all religions. Let us all continue to search for ways to share our light, joy and love.

Wishing you Peace, Joy and Love from our small village in France.