#5 Tuesday March 6

Today the “Reseau” met at the center.  There are three classes: One English intermediate class, one French intermediate class and one advanced French class.  We are in the advanced French class taught by a delightful French couple of whom the wife has genealogical connections to the first Quakers who settled in this area.  In fact, their property includes the site and building of the first Quaker Center.  We hope to get to know them better and through them other French families.  The methods of teaching French are the old way of exposition de text and we are about to embark on studying Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as the play is about to open in Nimes in a couple of weeks.  So we get lots of advice on pronunciation but little chance to actually use the language.  One woman came to discussion/lunch with her huge black lab/mastiff dog who spent most of his time scratching fleas.  Speaking of fleas we also found a woodchuck in the hedge and it too is known for supporting a large flea family in its prickly hide.  Cute as can be though and apparently they are good to have around as they eat mice.  Must be careful picking up rocks in the garden – vipers and tiny scorpions are not often seen but are sometimes present.

Wednesday le 7 mars 2012

Took a local train down to Montpellier today.  Lovely big square and plane tree bordered avenues.  Amazingly we were able to have our visa arrival papers verified lickity-split without any obligation to return for a follow-up medical check and payment of 300 Euros that would make us eligible to apply for an extension of the long term visa.  However, if we have to leave France for any reason it would be impossible to get back in without having had this follow-up verification process done so we hope for no crisis that would warrant that between now and December.  This effectively makes it impossible for us to attend Najoua’s wedding in Casablanca in August but that was a wild card anyway as we are likely to be too busy at the Center to leave anywhere for consecutive days.

Libby, an English Quaker living here permanently,  drove down to the village of Vergeze  – about a 10 minute drive – where we bought tickets and made sure to have the tickets stamped in the composter machine before getting on the train.  Haven’t seen a conductor so far.  The local train goes south frequently and within ½ hour we were in Montpellier.

A big tourist office is just up from the train station but first we found a sunny spot in the square to have coffee, eat the pastries we had bought at a bakery stand near the station and watch the children riding a very elaborate carousel. There are trams that take folks around on guided tours and trams in from the big parking lots of the outskirsts of the city.  The tourist office will give you a map that indicates where these parking lots are located.   My first grand crème was delicious. Libby had a noisette and David a noir.  Very good especially sitting in the sun as the temp in early morning was 32 degrees.  By noon it had warmed up to be a perfectly lovely temp for walking around the old city.  The women here are much more chicly dressed than in the villages.  Winter clothing is very skinny-legged jeans and boots or leggings in boots.  Young women wear dresses and skirts as short as they were in the 60s so walking can be very picturesque.  In the old city the shops selling desserts or hand made chocolates make your mouth water.  However, the average price for a fruit pie is 22 Euros – only for special occasions.  The symbol for Montpellier is an alligator because Anthony was stationed here and went he off to Egypt and had his fling with Cleopatra the symbol of the alligator from the Nile came back with him to Montpellier.  There are garden at the university that are the oldest gardens in Europe.  Budget cuts have seen them become a bit neglected but important plant research goes on at the university.  There is a garden called La Bambouseraie of exotic plants in Anduze, somewhat north of here.  Looks like they would be mostly Asian vegetation.  Coming up in March is an sale of rare plants at the Jardin des Plantes in Montpeller.  They have a succession of exhibits throughout the year.  After our stroll through the narrow streets and shops of the old town we stopped for lunch by Les Halles – mostly a meat market including horse meat and lots of good looking fish.

We were surprised to find that our Capital One credit card did not work at the Super U supermarket.  They only accept American Express or Visa cards, other places do not accept credit cards that do not have the embedded chip.  Getting cash from an ATM has worked so far but it seems that it is hit or miss what cards places will accept.  Hard cash from the ATM seems the best bet.

On the way back from the train we saw the sign for the source of Perrier water.  Perrier has recently been taken over by Nestle and people are not happy about it.  There is a big stable on the way to Congenies – animals are kept in small pen like areas year round – rather sad.   It might be worth a visit.  The park for playing boules was full of men today.  Unemployment is high so the park is very popular.

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At the moment I am lounging around with thewheat berry neckwarmer the former resident left behind wrapped around my neck.  David is downstairs in the Centre office trying to call the states about specifications etc. for the carport that is being installed in our absence.

I took my second little stroll up to the local bakery early this morning – the bread is actually trucked in from somewhere else but the baguette were still warm from the oven when I arrived at 7 a.m..  The length of the baguette has been decreasing in recent years reflecting rising prices.  Now to buy what was once the normal size baguette you have to ask for a long baguette. Must say we are eating more white bread than we feel is healthy – bread is served with everything and hard to resist especially when the cost of a whole wheat loaf found the nearby ‘bio” (organic) store was about 4.50 E for a loaf the size of a Ninth Street Bakery loaf. 

Today, Friday, March 2nd, was bedmaking day at the Center.  Each bed has a plasticized cover. sheets, a duvet in its own cover, a top cover and two square fluffy pillows.  Extra blankets are stored in a wicker basket underneath the beds as it can get quite cold November through February.  We do the washing of the sheets here – the washing machine is very tiny so I don’t know how we will manage to wash all the sheets with a full house.  No dryer – everything hung outside on one of those square drying racks on a pole.  There are additional drying lines underneath the summer kitchen porch on rainy days.  Apparently this works okay as even on rainy days in the high season it is supposedly windy and hot enough to dry clothes.  We’ll see. We must have had new towels in our apartment when we arrived because they were very fluffy.  Towels dried on the line are not fluffy unless the Mistral is blowing hard enough to whip them around.

We were treated to lunch once again in Calvaisson, the nearest little village where a few of the already few Quaker members live by one of the British Quakers here –  Jacqueline – who is Irish/ German and once lived (and still owns property) in Spain.  She has now been in France long enough to qualify for medical coverage – everything covered for about 1200 Euros a year so she plans to stay here forever and enjoy warm mornings at the café reading her newspaper and becoming a part of the local French community.   Once one qualifies for medical coverage determined by the length of time one has lived in France with proper documentation the French medical system accepts folks in their medical plan without asking whatever about kind of medical problems one might have had in the past. She is very happy with the care one receives in France.

In Calvaisson we had lunch with the plat du jour at Le Creperie Savante and then had pointed out to us the cathedral, former nunnery, the butcher shop whose butcher who has apparently won some kind of regional honor for his butchering, the place to buy used English books etc. and then we went on to visit the regional dump which was quite fascinating as there is, even for such a small village like Calvaisson, an intricate set up for recycling: Big bins for greenery—garden debris (leaves, pruning etc), oil, glass, paper, metal, cardboard, wood, industrial waste, toilets and bricks  etc.  Even the Centre has 4 separate bins inside for recycling and each must be taken out on different days. The green debris from the dump is composted and then sold to farmers.  After the visit to the dump we went to visit to a local nursery.  Lots of plants more suited for northern European countries are sold, as well as plants more suited for the tropics.  Most of these do not do well here at all. E.g. azaleas, lemons, oranges, petunias etc.  but they are planted as annuals for color or in attempts to create English gardens.  The soil here is very dry.  Snails and worms are found a good way down in the soil as the surface heat will scorch them to cinders pretty fast.  When it is sunny – most of the time except during the period of equinox, it is very pleasant but there is also, it seems, a fair amount of dust in the air. Climate change has caused a change in growing patterns as the dry area moves farther north each year

There is a lot of digging up of vines here as vinters move to more mechanized ways of harvesting grapes.  Some old timers swear by the old ways but consensus is that machinery allows harvesting in the middle of the night which apparently is a better time for getting grapes off the vine than during the day with the sun shining as this prevents the grapes from fermenting in the cart and can degrade the quality of the grapes  You see miles short, black stumpy vines abound everywhere this time of year.  There are also  as many olive trees as vines and a goodly number of almond trees that  are currently blossoming – quite lovely.  There is an apricot orchard just down the road.  The Center has a lot of fruit trees in the yard so I am looking forward to making plum and fig jam.  We saw mature olive trees for sale in the nursery for about $175.  The nursery also had a couple of palms—apparently the palm trees in nursery can survey the mite/moth invasion endemic in this area as they use pesticides.  The garden at the Quaker Center is pesticide free and therefore the palms have all died and are in the process of being chopped down.  The rationale for the garden here is to establish a low maintenance garden because of the long-term prognosis for the area is increasing soil dryness.  Plants must be chosen that are drought tolerant and hardy.  

Vinters are buying up land north of here and planting varieties that have traditionally done well in this region as it is expected that within five years it will become too dry here for the current wine varietals to produce well.  For example, the Cote de Rhone wineries may have to move their vineyards further up the Rhone River.  Nevertheless the climatic conditions have meant good wine here since 2000 with the last two years resulting in wines with especially good flavor.  David bought a 5 litre jug of local wine here today for 5 Euros.  The local wine cooperative has wine on tap where you just go in with your jug and your jugs can be filled up from a wine spigot.  Apparently 4 or five local wines are offered for sale although there are lots of bottled wines on display, and tastings are available.  For us, all the wine en vrac wine we have tasted so far has been either good or better than good, even the very cheapest,  so there is little  incentive to buy better known bottled wines. 

I bought some basil and cilantro seeds and a little pot of mint at the nursery as it is hard to resist buying herbs. The mint will have to grow in a pot to keep contained. Rosemary bushes are seen everywhere.  It seems to be commonly used in every garden setting like in front of stores etc. Quite a nice little patch in the Congenies square by the Marie.  Some replanting of the herb garden at the Center is garden work is focused on replacing the plants lost to both drought and the unusually cold winter weather.

We took part in a silent vigil this morning in the central square.  There is a silent demonstration in many cities against the treatment of the refugee population.  Detention, deportation like in the USA only here whole families are detained under pretty poor conditions.  The deportation of Afghans seems to be a particularly sensitive issue. The local mayor puts out barriers for the demonstration on the first Friday morning of the month  tp revent cars parking around the central square.  The demonstrators alternately stand in silence or walk around the square for about ½ hour and the demonstration ends with some kind of homily about one’s Christian responsibility for the rights of others.  There are bunch of signs people have made – cardboards pieces –one for the front and one for the back attached by string that ones wears while demonstrating, pamphlets and a big banner are a part of the demonstration as well. Some Quakers do not participate because some of the sayings on the posters don’t jibe with their own beliefs.  I am sure most people believe it is Quaker inspired given the Quaker long history in this region but, in fact, this is a French organized protest that takes part in many cities at the same time across France.  That said, the majority of the demonstrators today WERE Quakers.  I felt very much a fish out of water demonstrating in France even though I sympathized with the concern about immigration policy.   I sense very much that I am an outsider here and really am uninformed about local policies.  Also I have more or less given up the idea that protests are an effective way of changing policy in this day and age unless there is simply no other way to make one’s voice heard.  After watching tv with is coverage of the noisy demonstrations against Sarkozy because of the changes in public services etc. a silent demonstration must appear either as very novel or just quite ineffective. There have been train strikes in this area the last few days and a call for calm in Montpellier as folks demonstrate against reductions in social policies etc.  No doubt as election fervor increases so will the public protests.  We are NOT escaping election hysteria at all.  Sarkozy visited the Basque region of France the other day and although he claimed he could visit any part of France he wished as he WAS president of the Republique he ended up taking refuge in a café with a lot of police protection and probably won’t return soon to that hotbed of political activity.

 

Later on in the day we were taken to Sommieres –  certainly much more touristic locale than Congenies being not only much larger than the 5,000 habitants we have here but also because it has an old town up on a hill with a chateau and a lovely little city in the lower end of town with a  Roman bridge along the riverside.  Sommieres has had several really bad floods in recent years.  Once two floods in one year.  The bridge is very high – hard to imagine the river rising that far but when we walked through the streets lines noted the height of the flood waters and those marks were high up on the walls and certainly many, many feet above our heads.  As Jacqueline says,  “The Romans really knew what they were doing when the dwellings in Roman times in this town were built above the height of the arches and not on ground level.”  It is really only about 10 minutes from Congenies to Sommieres by car.  Lots of winding little streets behind the walls of the city.  Be sure to have a sweater along with you as the temperature drops inside these walled enclosures.  The Saturday market here takes up several streets and is supposed to be something not to miss.  Around the borders of the villages/towns/ cities one finds every type of store you can imagine: Home Depot places, organic store,  supermarkets, electrical stores, a brewery, etc.  You could easily spend a couple of days exploring different parts of Sommieres.  One store makes a special type of meringue cookies that quite defies description. 

We will spend a good deal of time with the same people here I think.  The British/French study group meets at rotating locations once a week and ends each time with a potluck.  I must say that French potlucks make your mouth water.  I have to cook for the one next week and am a little nervous as our array of spices, cooking utensils etc. are pretty meager.  Apparently a new gas cooker with an oven has been ordered for us and that should arrive next week.

The guest rooms look better now that the beds have been made, and smell better too as the rooms have been aired out after the winter.   There are 5 rooms for rent.  Each room can sleep at least two people.  On the top floor where our studio is located there is one room with twin beds with the bathroom /shower next door. This bathroom is across the hall from the biggest room which can sleep 6 people: 1 double bed, 2 twins, a roll away and a cot although the cot and roll away are not set out.  There are other two rooms with twin beds and each has its own bathroom.  One of these rooms is slightly larger than the other and has a fold up table in it. The double twin room downstairs is the prettiest and although its bathroom is across the hall, there are no other guest rooms on that level.  The room prices vary from 48 Euros a night to about 58 Euros with each room having a specific price.  The price is per room and not per individual. and the prices stay the same all year not rising in the summer high season months.  One can ask for a discount if the stay is a week in length.  If you are friends of ours there is a 10% discount on the per night cost.  Breakfast is provided:  European breakfast: Coffee/tea, bread, butter and jam although fridges are available if guests want to store things.  If people are staying more than one night they can make meals in the kitchen.  There is a guest cupboard and fridge available.  Breakfast is laid out in the kitchen and guests can eat in the kitchen, in the meeting room, outside on the terrace or in the summer kitchen  (There is a summer kitchen with fridge, sink, dishes, tables etc. for campers).  There will be wi-fi available but although I have been able to connect by Wi-fi there are still some bugs to be worked out for access from all guests rooms.  Although mobile phones are much in use here, the cost is as expensive as they are the USA.  25 Euros for 2 months phone coverage without internet, more with internet coverage.  Of course, if one has Wi fi capability one can depend on hotspots I suppose.  We went to an electronics store and I saw huge numbers of Samsung products and Blackberry phones but not the latest models.  My phone, an LG , was not stocked at either of the electronics stores we visited. 

 

The best time to visit us would be the mid April and May, and June too but tourists really start coming heavily in June.  July and August are the busiest but they are also the hottest months. We have had a mixture of hot days and cool days since we arrived. Reservations are starting to come in as March 1st was the official opening and the regional tourist office starts sending folks our way.  Rooms are let on a first reserved, first come basis.  I plan to take some pictures tomorrow of the rooms but I think they are posted on the Center website as well. 

 

There are greenways for biking between here and Sommieres, the crossroad city since ancient times.  4 miles away.  Pretty flat most of the way with a very gradual gradient as one descends into Sommieres.  It can be windy on the greenway.  There is bus service between towns but, as I understand it, school buses have stopped taking kids to school, so the local buses often have a lot of middle and high school students using them to return to their small villages from Nimes where the upper grade schools are located. 

 

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