Friday, 31 May 2013

Reflections on what's been

I am once again in the train station of Toulouse, not quite two weeks after my entry "Reflections on what's next." Now I know! And it's been good! Although not without periods of angst and hunger. So far the impetus to seek out more French language has not been the criteria that's yielded the easiest connection. But hey, I came here to muck around a bit, clarify my intentions, right?

So here's what I learned: 1) It's hard work to understand French spoken by French people! Which has heightened my desire to study the language, to listen more to recordings, to practice reading and writing, to get coaching on my speech, so that it flows more easily into my head and out of my mouth. I'd love to sound like some of the train announcements -- picture an elegant, mature French woman with excellent diction and clear direction. This is not something I will accomplish on this trip, and at this point I'm okay with that: My overall travel fatigue has left me more at ease with taking the easy road and speaking English when my host can, too.

2) Just because I'm in France doesn't mean I'm eating well -- either because my host doesn't keep much food in the house, or doesn't have a refrigerator or even running water, or because it's near torture for me to wait until 10pm, or later, for dinner. (This is why I have steered clear of visiting Spain!) Not all of the bread, or cheese, or meat, in France is good. I've even heard it's possible to have bad wine, although perhaps because of my ignorant taste buds I cannot yet corroborate that!

3) Those amended desires just keep being born, since those experiences do, too. I'll paste below a journal entry two days before I was determined to move on from my last host's place, when I was all aglow in appreciation. Not to say that I am now without appreciation, far from it! It just changed, into looking ahead to how much I wanted to appreciate clean hands, a break from bread, clear energy. (Which I totally got!)

And now, I am again waiting for a train, amused and pleased at how in the last two weeks I've eaten the best ever white-chocolate-raspberry cake baked in a wood-fired oven, made steady progress on a French novel, weeded garden beds of strawberries, vegetables, and herbs, helped build the frame of an outdoor kitchen, looked down the sheer side of an enormous dam on Le Canal du Midi-Pyrénées, swum and soaked in thermal waters, and met people from Scotland, Russia, England, Tunisia, Australia, and Estonia, as well an authentic Basque descendent, the last of a lineage from the 11th century. I shared some spiritual yoga with a new old friend, read Tarot, admired a rainbow over Mount Bugarach, passed through a psychic barrier at Rennes-le-Chateau, savored a chausson de pommes* that made the ones in Paris taste like chausson de vieux chaussettes**, played table tennis and climbed a jungle gym. I even ran into people I knew, recognizing outside a Carcassonne giftshop the Australian couple I'd met in a café in Rennes-les-Bains. Small world!

Not bad, eh?!

* "chausson" translates as slipper, and is a pastry the shape of a slipper, filled with baked apples.

** slipper filled with old socks!!

Journal entry, May 27:

I am having a really good time here with Anne. It's a primitive, Gypsy set-up. I'm thankful for the life experiences that have made it possible for me to acclimate comfortably to a scenario like this! It's a change, but I can handle it. I like giving myself the opportunity to be adaptable. I like feeling able to respond positively to all sorts of scenarios. It's fun to see how other people live. It's nice to be welcomed into so many homes. I like getting more clarity about my preferences, for hospitality, meals, company. It's fun to see how the universe fulfills all my requests! Like my motorcycle ride yesterday – yay!! I'm so glad I did yoga on the field beforehand, since it took a lot of work on my legs. But what a marvelous way to see the countryside. It made me consider whether I would get a license myself to drive a motorcycle through the mountains and countryside of France. I really am having the time of my life. It's all coming together perfectly. I didn't realize how much of the trip would be affected by other helpers, as much as hosts. Nor the weather; I think I might have been more uncomfortable if the weather was as sunny as usual. There's still so much to discover, and I feel certain that I'll get to. I can totally imagine doing this sort of thing again! It's fun to travel this way. There have been wonderful aspects to every situation. I'm curious what will happen next, and eager to see how delightful it will be. I really like this. I'm having a really, really, good time! And did I mention I answered the phone this morning? And spoke to someone in French, and it went fine?! It's becoming more comfortable for me, my vocabulary is expanding, I like it more and more. It's fun to speak French, to hear it, and it especially fun to understand, and feel at ease expressing myself. This is a really, really good experience.


Monday, 27 May 2013

What's most important

Bugarach mountain

The sun came out today - a big change from weather that has been unfathomably cold and wet for the south of France. It was my first day awakening in the yurt-like home of Anne, my host in the forest at the foothills of Mount Bugarach.

Gluten-free, raw food tables

Anne arranged for a ride to the market for the two Estonian Helpers already here, while she and I and 9-year-old Peter walked down the road toward Rennes-les-Bains until a neighbor gave us a lift to the hippie market at Esperaza (notable for the didgeridoo, dreadlocks, and unmistakeable aromas ;-) For lunch Anne and I had a raw food plate ("assiette cru"), the Estonians some Indian fare from a food truck.

Look at the size of the paella pan!







We walked from the market to her friend Hughes' house, where Anne's mother Joan has been staying while visiting from Scotland. Normally Joan stays with Anne, but we're here occupying all the beds, and it's been cold and raining and Anne's kitchen burnt down in February, so she's more limited in her ability to host. Today was Mother's Day in France (why they have a different date than every other country that celebrates it, I don't know!), and we celebrated all afternoon with a picnic, Hughes on guitar, Johannes on drum, and an open campground field to dance in and watch the dogs play.

An afternoon picnic

How amazing is it to have conversations - in the first afternoon of meeting someone - that touch on the spiritual nature of existence, on reverence for the natural world, on the essence of music, on what's most important in life? I felt an immediate appreciation for Joan, who is soon to turn 86 (from her head-high leg kicks and air-dueling with her grandson, Anne, Hughes, and Yusef, you would never guess!!). She told me many stories of her life, from first meeting her husband, living in Africa, losing a child of 14 months to malaria, being sent to live with a "horrid" aunt after her father died when she was 15. What struck me from the beginning was how frequently she said, "I'm very lucky." In every one of those stories, she felt lucky: it was several coincidences that brought her husband into her life; she has a visual memory, and so always remembers a happy moment with her lost child; being subject to her aunt's disdain strengthened her spirit. Through all of it, she declared, her sense of humor is what she values most about herself. It's what's helped her find the goodness in every situation.

Anne and Joan dueling

I'm thinking of all the ways I am lucky. I've lived such a beautiful life so far, filled with adventures and friendships and boredom and heartbreak. I'm lucky to have my own mom to celebrate, and so thankful for Skype that's allowed us to stay in touch while I'm traveling. I'm lucky for all of it. I came to France hoping to experience family life, and I've been welcomed into so many homes. I'm lucky to encounter so many warm and genuine people, to see how they live, to break bread with them, to contribute to their gardens, to recognize our kinship.

And I'm lucky to have all of you, reading these words, as part of my extended vibrational family. Thank you!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Tarn, Southern France, 19-25 May


View of the Black Mountains
My host Jef's back yard
Jef's driveway and entrance
Jef's kitchen
"Discover the POMPET, specialty of Sémalens" - a lemony pastry, wonderful!
Bakery in Sémalens

St. Ferréol

Wild thyme
Geyser from pressure of the canal, Saint-Ferréol, park at the museum of the Canal du Midi-Pyrénées


Bell tower of L'Eglise Saint Martin, which was destroyed in 1573 during the religious wars.

Winner of a flower competition for street scene! Wouldn't you like this neighbor?!
Still-hot bread oven in Sorèze




Sunday, 19 May 2013

Reflections on what's next

Finalement! It's been a long while since I had some time to just sit and reflect. My two weeks at Domaine Gaury were magnificent; Kathleen and Yves prepared delicious meals for us every day and kept us busy with work and sightseeing. Jess and Dave were fun and easy-going and great to hang around. The location was spacious and serene. All told it was the perfect antidote to the prior homestay, as well as the three weeks in Paris preceding that, and indeed - what moment of my life up to now was not in some way bringing me to exactly this place??

I'm just so interested in how the process works, of encountering a new environment or person or having any sort of experience, that immediately new preferences are born within me. As soon as a need or desire is met, an even newer and amended version lies ahead, beckoning me onward. Even wondering if or when I'll desire to linger longer sparks a new potential to be satisfied with staying put, in a way that didn't exist before I found myself inclined to move on. It's like an eternal pendulum, always seeking but never resting in perfect equilibrium. I like that. It makes me think of water, cycling through all its phases, whole and complete at every step along the way - and always moving on to the next phase, unless it's not... As in when resting for a spell in a lake, or ocean, or in those great voluminous clouds that are powerful and yielding, full and full of nothing, all at the same time.

It's fun to notice what my new preferences are. I'm on the train now, heading south toward Toulouse then east to a small village. My next host is French, which was my most prominent amended request from where I've just been. It was a relief to be able to speak English with my hosts to clarify what was said in French, but with two Canadians also around, it was just too easy to slip into talking English all the time... And then when Yuri the Russian arrived, and he could speak no French at all, I knew I had to go. I'm eager and nervous to converse with a native French speaker, but (aside from seeing the country) that's what I can't do at home! The food, it's true, has been wonderful; but Asheville is already such a foodie town with amazing markets and farms and import shops, I'm not lacking for cultivated tastes (nor appreciation for both the fine cuisine available in France, and for my own discretion about eating the same kind of supermarket crap you can buy here as well as in America).


Saturday, 18 May 2013

Past and Present Countryside

Grotte Préhistoriques de Cougnac

My host Kathleen and co-Helpers Dave and Jess and I went to one of the ancient caves in this region (the Lot, southeast of Dordogne). There are many caves in the area, new ones discovered every year, with incredible concretions: stalactites, stalagmites, and columns formed from mineral-rich water dripping over eons. Our visit included two caves, the first with sparkly columns and millimeter-thin straw-like stalactites.

Concretions de Grotte de Cougnac
Fistuleuses de Grotte de Cougnac

The second cave was up a hill, and after a short walk we entered a cellar with stone carvings from a era of the nearby town's history, then descended to the cave. Photographs aren't permitted, to protect the cave paintings - the oldest of which were made 25,000 years ago!! It was awe-inspiring to see such ancient creations by humans with incredible sensitivity to movement, dimension, and beauty.

Cave art: Grotte de Cougnac

Dégagnac Countryside

A few days later, my co-Helpers and I took a walk through the countryside. We started in the tiny town centre, passed through an educational garden, on to gravel and dirt trails that skirted hamlets and fields. We sat on a garden wall to eat, admiring lilac and rose bushes, and thanked the owner when he came out to wish us a good lunch!

Herb spiral and garden beds
"The four life stages of a butterfly"

A few days after that, four of us saddled up for a trail ride! Kathleen and I actually took a lesson the day before, which was great for my confidence and hard on my thighs ;-) but the views were amazing and we all enjoyed our horses. (Yes, my horse was shorter than me, and no - I didn't mind!!)


Thursday, 9 May 2013

Festival day

Farmer girls

Today was a free day, since yesterday Kathleen my host, Jess the Canadian Helper, and I worked overtime and sheet mulched a garden bed. First I want to say how pleased and honored I am that they trusted me to direct this garden project - their first taste of permaculture! - that included procuring a cartload of manure from a local equestrian centre (I was amused that I referred to it as "poo" and everyone else felt free to call it "sh*t"!)

Today was a national holiday, so we started at a busy "vide grenier" or "empty your attic" sale on the main street of Salviac.

You don't find this in American attics!
Old postcards found by Jess and Dave


In a restaurant - no need to translate!

In the afternoon we went to a festival of plants and horses at Cazals, another small village. There were Occitane dancers, horse games, birds on display, and plants for sale. Check out the riding video for a clip of some serious athleticism! (And a witty comment by Jess ;-)

Golden pheasant



My hosts and fellow Helpers are all easy to get along with, friendly and generous. Tomorrow we are planning a trip to the local caves with prehistoric art.

Kathleen, Yves, Dave, Jess


Monday, 6 May 2013

Space to breathe in

Cheese truck at the market!

It seems prescient that, in one of several ill-fated attempts at conversation with the English bloke at my last (my first) HelpExchange home, I read this quote: "Sometimes on the way to something good you go through a neighbourhood you're not all that happy being in. But it's all part of the clarifying process and without it, you wouldn't be where you are. And you discover that in hindsight all the time."

"Good bread workshop: Baked by wood fire"

I tried all week to make peace with being given The Silent Treatment by the bloke, feeling terribly awkward at meals and being shut up in my attic room so as to give him the wide berth he requested. My host's family was friendly, generous, talkative, and had excellent taste in food and wine, but when they weren't around I felt definitively suppressed by his presence. In short, I was happy to go.

Domaine Gaury
View from the porch-and dinner table

After scenic bus and train rides, Saturday I arrived at Domaine Gaury, the home of Kathleen and Yves from Belgium. Two years ago they purchased this property and turned it into a chambre d'hôtes, with three gîtes (vacation rental cottages). They can host up to 20 people on a magnificent parcel of land that borders a small fishing lake and farms of cereal grains with walking trails through neighboring woods. Kathleen is almost exactly one year older than me, and we spent the afternoon walking the grounds and conferring about life, punctuated by lunch and dinner and rounded off with watching The Tourist (the first movie I've seen in weeks!). I am staying in on of the cottages that I will shortly share with two other Helpers, a couple, arriving Monday.

The gîte where I'm staying

I am deeply appreciating the freedom I have, both to travel and to stay put when the gettin's good. I'm noticing with humility small details I could have all-too-quickly dismissed or diminished, and glad that the contrast against last week makes this stay feel even better! I'm happy to be a welcomed part of this family for a while, working in idyllic scenery and enjoying meals and playtime with new friends, their girls Amélie, Elisa, and Noëmi, and Trine the au pair from Denmark!

Enjoying a sunset walk
Noëmi with a bird whistle


Bella and Kira, my walk companions

Oh, and did I mention they opened the pool today??!

"All Moments Are Good"

There is never a step backwards. There is no regression. There is never a step backwards. There is never a step backwards. It's all motion-forward.

The thing that is tricky for humans to hear, because of your irrational and squirrely pictures of what you all think god is or goodness is or source energy is. It's hard for any of you to accept -- but you must, that sometimes on the way to something you really want, you will take a detour into something less wanted in order to clarify what IS wanted.

The best way we ever said it is: sometimes on the way to something good you go through a neighbourhood you're not all that happy being in. But it's all part of the clarifying process and without it, you wouldn't be where you are. And you discover that in hindsight all the time. But when you have the ability to have the foresight of that, that's when all moments are good, no matter what.

Asheville, NC, 10/24/12