Monday, February 28, 2011

Bric à brac

Things that came home with us;
A brightly colored tablecloth, two tiles with vibrant flowers, a wooden toy for Lauris, a glazed flowerpot to hold our orchid,, “The Cat in the Hat Dictionary in French.”

Things that almost came home with us;
Giant ceramic platter in the shape of a fish.

Not much is open on a Sunday in Clermont-Ferrand. The occasional bakery or café, and the marché aux puces. Yet year round, rain or shine, on Sunday mornings the Place Gambetta and Place Salins fill up with vendors. From big trailers to tiny little hatchbacks, from items laid out on the ground to large displays, there are bargains to be had and junk (or treasure) to be bought!

The variety of vendors is the draw in this flea market. There is a man selling geodes he probably found himself, and an old woman selling her jams. At least half a dozen tables are selling every cell phone, computer, GPS and other charger that has ever been made. Antique books, comic books, children’s books; all kinds of books and all in French. Accessories and clothes, jewelry for your toes, the African art and the wine push-cart; vases, bowls, perfume and trolls, tarnished silverware and shoes without a pair! On one end there are a few food vendors; potatoes and carrots possibly dug up the previous day, mussels, locally-produced honey. Hungry now? Why not buy a big plate of sausage or truffade, cooked up on the spot, in pans a meter across. On the other end you can find brand new knives, postcards from Venice, collectible John Deere tractors and old toolboxes filled with unidentifiable metal chunks.

Flea markets aren’t for everyone, but most of my family are fans. In the States garage sales are abundant in the spring, consignment sales are a newer thing and there are even online classifieds like that specialize in gently used stuff. Roberts likes the occasional garage sale where he can rifle through old fishing lures. Years ago in Georgia, he deviated from lures, buying a white tux with tails from, as his business card proclaimed, “the junk man.” And me, I keep hoping to find that perfect painting, that funky old necklace or maybe just a little comfort in something that reminds me of home.

Of course there is also plenty of junk; useless tchotchkes that are the trademark of all flea markets. But the marché is full of shoppers, sellers, treasure-seekers, tourists and families out for a stroll. And all of them – bargain hunters and negotiators.  Final verdict – thumbs up. Something for everyone, if you don’t come for the junk, come for the atmosphere!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

En letton!

For those who don’t speak Latvian, please look for the translation down below!


Nesen mana poļu draudzene man atrakstija, „vismaz vienu reizi mēnesī raksti latviski!” Sāku domāt, kamdēļ biju izvēlējusies angliski rakstīt. Tas bija ar cerībām dalīties ar mūsu Francijas piedzīvojumiem ar maksimālu grupu no cilvēkiem. Šis blogs ir domāts, lai ğimeni un draugus informētu par mūsu dzīvi šeit Clermont-Ferrand, un tomēr ir tie draugi kuŗi nesaprot latviski. Zināju, ka lielākā tiesa ğimene un draugi kuŗi saprot vēl arvien lasītu kaut es rakstu angliski. Ar maniem amīšu draugiem tā nebūtu.

Tīmeklī nesen visur pārrunāja Amerikā dzīvojošā ārsta Aivara Sluča aicinājumu sākot ar 1. martu tiem, kuŗi savstarpēji prot runāt latviski, nerunāt krieviski. Ja neesiet to izlasijuši, to var atrast Nacionā tīmekļa lapā. Es jau nerunāju krieviski, bet tomēr uzskatiju to par aicinājumu vispār runāt vairāk latviski. Man laimējās apprecēt latvieti, un ar ğimeni arī runāju galvenokārt latviski. Ar draugiem, kā ar kuŗu, bet cenšos. Lielākais mērķis ir izaudzināt Lauri, tā lai tas var tekoši saprast un runāt latviski. Un tagad nācis klāt izaicinājums Laurim iemācīties franciski! Latviešu valoda ir mums svarīga jo tā ir mūsu senču valoda, veids kā mēs varam šeit ārzemēs nodrošināt, ka latvieši un Latvija mūžīgi pastāv. Bet franciski runāt, tā būs priekšrocība Laurim nākotnē, un veidos veselīgas smadzenes tagad. CNN ziņās atkal parādijās raksts par šo tēmatu, „2 languages make your brain buff.” Un kā māte protams vēlos, ka mans dēls būtu ‘buff!’

Pati pašlaik mācos franciski, klasē un arī ikdienas dzīvē. Esmu ļoti tālu no tās dienas kad varēšu tekoši runāt un izteikties, bet katru dienu lēnām ko iemācos. Lauris cerams apgūs daudz ātrāk šo valodu, itsevišķi ja viņš iet uz crèche, franču bērndārzu. Grūtāk nāks to valodu uzturēt reiz kad aizvācamies atpakaļ uz Ameriku, tāpat kā turpināt latviešu valodu. Un tā arī atklāju, ka šis blog ir man vēlviens veids kā uzturēt manu latviešu valodu, ja tik reizi mēnesī, jo valoda ir kā augs; ja to nekopj, neaplej un audzina tumsā, tā novītīs un nomirs.


Recently my Polish friend wrote to me, “Also, write at least one entry in Latvian per month!” I started thinking about the reasons why I had chosen to write in English; it was with the hopes of reaching the maximum amount of people with these stories of our adventures. This blog is meant to keep family and friends informed about our life here in Clermont-Ferrand and there are quite a few friends who don’t understand Latvian. I knew that most of my Latvian speaking family would continue to read despite my writing in English, which wouldn’t be an option for non-speakers if I wrote in Latvian.

There was an article circulating on the internet recently written by an American doctor, Aivars Slucis. It was a challenge for Latvians in Latvia to not bow to pressure of political correctness, and to speak the national language, which is Latvian, when speaking to other Latvian citizens. Although I live in France, I still took it as an invitation to try to speak more and better Latvian. In marrying another Latvian I truly lucked out, and the majority of my family also speaks Latvian. It varies with friends, but with those that understand I try. The big challenge will be raising Lauris so that he can fluently understand and speak. Now we face the additional challenge of teaching Lauris French! Latvian is important to us because it is the language of our ancestors, as well as a way of maintaining our ethnic heritage in the US and abroad. But French is important for a whole different set of reasons. We hope that speaking French may open doors for him in the future, but more importantly learning additional languages has been proven to improve cognitive function and have other benefits to ones brain. If interested in this topic you may want to read “2 languages make your brain buff” which appeared on the CNN Health site recently.

I’m currently learning French, not only in class but in the course of everyday life. I’m still far from being able to fluently understand and express myself, but with each day I learn a little more. Hopefully Lauris will learn more quickly, especially if he goes to crèche, the French daycare. It will be harder to maintain the language skills once we move back to the US, just like it will always be a challenge to maintain the Latvian language. And so it comes about that I write a few entries here and there in Latvian, I find it to be just one more way for me to practice my Latvian. Hopefully my English-speaking readers will understand.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Le Puy-en-Velay

2 days, 485 kilometers (300 miles), Michelin driving tour # 10, the Vallée des Merveilles, check! Not even one hour south of Clermont-Ferrand is Lempdes sur-Allagnon, where we left the highway and entered the loop of the driving tour for day one of our adventure. The plan was to follow the tour as we saw fit, stop to walk in the places that interested us, and quit when we ran out of daylight. We had a bed and breakfast booked at the south end of the loop.
The first stretch followed l’Allagnon river south. The towns were small and the scenery fantastic. Soon after leaving Léotoing, the first town mentioned in the Michelin guide (tMg), we arrived in Massiac. Roberts especially loved the main thoroughfare; we found that many times the road led straight through a town, seemingly with only a car’s width between buildings. From Massiac we left the valley headed east for Brioude, a town situated on a terrace overlooking the Allier plain. Here we found Basilique St-Julien, the largest Romanesque church in the area. As Lauris was soundly sleeping, we left the tour for another time and headed south along l’Allier river, to Vielle-Brioude, or old Brioude. The town is perched on a rocky spur jutting out towards the river, and as we zigzagged our way down and out we could see an impressive winepress which according to tMg dates back to 1873.

Our next destination was Lavoût-Chilhac where I had hoped we could lunch. Although the restaurants were closed we found other motivation to walk around; the village is on the banks of the river, and the water washes up right to the base of the houses. We took advantage of the gorgeous backdrop to take a few pictures before continuing on to Chanteuges. Before Prades, another town that made Roberts’s list of favorites on this trip, we caught a glimpse of Ste-Marie-des-Chazes Chapel across the river, a beautiful chapel at the base of a basalt rock. In Prades we crossed the river yet again, and hiked in along the river a very short ways in order to better see the basalt cliffs. When we drove up to the top of the gorge we could see many columns of smoke; locals were using the weather (which was warm, sunny with little wind) to do some prescribed burning. In some places they were burning brambles off of fence rows, in other places it seemed that the grass fires would enrich the soil and prompt fresh growth.

We crossed the Allier again in Monistrol-d’Alier, a very beautiful little town and heading west rounded a curve to suddenly have Sauges appear laid out in the valley below us. At the spot was a nice little picnic area complete with a giant wolf chain-saw work of art overlooking the town. We stopped to pick up a baguette, cheese, sausage and chocolate at the local grocery before heading out back east to the Allier (Sauges is in la Seuge river valley, a tributary to Allier). On our way we passed through St-Préjet-d’Allier which has two dams spanning l’Ance, and kept on west to the Lac du Bouchat. The circular lake lies at the bottom of an old crater, and although no river or stream is known to flow into it, the waters are super-clear, suggesting they are constantly being renewed. And with that we turned back east, having already pressed our luck with daylight to see the lake. Soon we entered my favorite village on the trip, Chapeauroux, which was nestled right on the Allier. The old buildings once again bordered the road through, and train tracks stretched off into the distance following the gorge and passing through long tunnels and over tall bridges. I remembered visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and staring at the model train exhibit, wishing I could enter the tiny world; the architect must have been to Chapeauroux to take his inspiration!

With the day’s last light our Nissan climbed the gorge opposite, higher and higher, finally passing through St-Cristophe-d’Allier and then reaching our inn, the Gite la Source. It seems that we were the only guests for the night, and we were shown to our comfy (if a bit chilly at first) room. Dinner was served in the dining room with two long tables; the three of us were at one, and the owner with her extended family at the other. With a giant fireplace that now contained a busy wood burning stove along one side we settled in for the traditional French dinner. First we had delicious country bread along with charcuterie and salad. This was followed by the main course, the best mashed potatoes with homemade sausage, and finally the cheese course, all local, all delicious, all served with a decanter of red wine. By this point we were so stuffed we had to decline the apple pie and only have ice cream…

The next morning was a simple breakfast, toast and jam, yogurt, coffee with milk which she specially warmed for us (and bowls to drink from). We said thank you and au revoir to the host and then off! through Chapeauroux departing the Allier gorge for that of the Loire. Our first stop was Arlempdes, where a medieval castle is perched on a spur of volcanic rock. With Lauris in arms we were ready to explore the ruins, but it turns out entry is seasonal, and so we settled ourselves with a drive down to the river to take in the view from below.

At last we arrived at the main attraction, le Puy-en-Velay, located in a plain set in a depression out of which rise enormous volcanic peaks. We parked and set out for the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in the center of the city. Now a World Heritage Site, it was expanded in the 12th century, restored in the 19th, houses the Black Virgin and is at the base of the largest of the volcanic peaks, Corneille rock (or Mont d’Anis) crowned by a giant sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. We climbed it after quickly exploring the cathedral (we discovered that despite the numerous signs appealing for complete quiet, Lauris insisted on singing his praise of the beautiful interior). At the top it was very windy, and after climbing up inside the statue (which was made from 213 Russian cannons captured at Sebastobol nearly 200 years ago) we descended and wound our way back through the old town to our parking spot. We drove a very short distance to St-Michel rock which is crowned by St-Michel chapel, and although we decided to climb it another time, we circled the base on foot to gain a full appreciation for the steep cliffs stretching to the sky.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame

As we headed northwest we made a small detour past Polignac, whose fortress is situated on a basalt plateau. Next, Château de St-Vidal, a castle which was the fief of Baron Antoine de la Tour, governor of Velay in the 16th century. Then, Château de Rochelambert and finally Château de Chavaniac-Lafayette, the residence where Marie-Joseph-Gilbert, Marquis de La Fayette was born in 1757. Although all three chateaus were open for tours, we were content taking a look from a distance, from where one can see the château and its surroundings better. At some point we will have to explore a few of these castles, many have been turned into hotels and are themselves destinations.

Now we turned north to follow la Senouire. Surrounded by Parc Naturel Régional du Livradois-Forez, there were ample signs of timber harvests the whole way. We passed a comfortable looking inn north of Mazerat-Aurouze, and stopped in a woodworker’s shop to buy a little wooden pull-toy for Lauris. And finally another turn in the road and we could see Église Abbatiale St-Robert, the famous abbey of La Chaise-Deau. Rebuilt as it is today in the 1300s, it was restored after WWII and repairs on the great organ were only finished in 1995. Once again daylight began to fade and so we headed towards home, crossing the Allier in Auzon.

As we unwound from the many hours spent in the car, we agreed that we would return. The preferred valley was l’Allier valley, even though the Loire seems to be a more popular destination. With nicer weather and a less ambitious itinerary there would be plenty of time to explore a section of the gorge, once again staying at a small bed and breakfast somewhere along the way. Roberts remarked that he never had imagined France to have such topography outside of the Alps, and I was still remembering the beautiful churches and views along the way, but we both look forward to more trips to the region.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Frais & doux

We celebrated Lauris’s six month birthday our first week here in France. The celebration entailed a bottle of wine with dinner (for the parents) and not much else due to all the things happening that week. Being the milestone to start solid food, we might have started a little slowly; a few days later he tasted his first French bread, a few days after that some rice. We continued with the fruit, bananas, apples and pears, and for a few months combinations of the above were the bulk of his “real food” diet. Sure, there were the occasional carrots and peas, but his reaction wasn’t the most favorable and so we stuck mostly to the sweet stuff.

Upon his eight month birthday we started to approach the whole thing a little more seriously, Lauris was eating solids three times a day. The oatmeal and rice were accompanied by some sweet fruit in order to pass the “taste test.” Not-so-sweet veggies made recurring appearances until he finally would accept a few spoons at time. The big addition this month was dairy – he seemed to accept yogurt similarly to oatmeal, as long as there was some fruit to sweeten the deal, it was ok. By now I was buying apples and pears in larger quantities, processing them and freezing little ice cube size portions to eat the following week. As we are still waiting on our vast library of baby books to arrive, we consulted the internet, my parents and friends to find more safe foods to try. Among the suggestions were pureed meats, cottage cheese, sweet potatoes, eggs, well cooked pasta, beans and many more food items I now remembered my younger brother and sister eating (and smearing, throwing, burping up…) when they were Lauris’s age.

A few weeks ago in the store we were scouring the aisles for some of these new options when we discovered that not all of these things are available here; although sweet potatoes are occasionally available in specialty stores, we couldn’t find any, nor could we find semolina pudding (manna putra is how I’ve always known it, I’m not sure of the translation). We decided to try several different yogurts and cottage cheese brands, as well as a few more teething cracker-type biscuits.

As I mentioned, the yogurt made the cut, and then a few days ago we decided to try the cottage cheese. Lauris wasn’t a fan… fruit or no fruit, it didn’t matter, and the opened package went back in the fridge. Yesterday I pulled it out and asked Roberts if it was still good, I thought we would try again and being that I am not a fan of cottage cheese, I wasn’t about to try a taste. Well, Roberts checked it, and discovered that we had fed our son sour cream with his applesauce.

Which brings me to the point of this entry; it is hard enough shopping for a nine month old when it is your first child, but even harder when everything is in French! However, we will continue our new food adventures (sans frais & doux) and our search for Cheerios and sweet potatoes, because Lauris likes to eat!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jour des crêpes

Happy Candlemas day! A Catholic holiday to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of baby Jesus, here in France it is called la Chandeleur, Fête de la Lumière or jour des crêpes. Although not participating in the fortune telling, we will have crepes for dinner.

The good news is that once again we all seem to be over our colds. Luckily this time they didn’t disrupt our plans, except for a few missed play dates last week while Roberts was out of town. Originally we had thought to rent a car and drive down to the Puy-en-Velay region, but this excursion will have to wait as we received an invitation to visit the village of Chatenet, about two hours due east.

It might not be considered normal to invite people you’ve never met to visit for a weekend, but the Latvian connection has made it possible. I’m originally from Chicago as is the woman we went to visit, only she has lived in France some time longer. My grandmother was her girlscout leader, I’ve danced in a folk dance group led by her brother, and ultimately we had heard of each other but never met. Through her brother we discovered that she lived in the area with her husband and son, who coincidence has it is only one month older than our Laurīts. So having exchanged multiple emails we rented the car and headed east on our first excursion to the French countryside.

Having read multiple books by (insert country that is not France here) ex-pats who have moved to France for a (insert number) of years to buy a (select one: vineyard or farmhouse) in (select one: Provence or the French countryside), I was looking forward to seeing a small village and the farmhouse that our new acquaintances were living in. The husband is from Britain and although our new friends divide their time between the two countries, this was their first winter in France.

Chatenet did not disappoint, it was everything I had imagined and more. The husband had bought the main house some time ago, and the other house came “accidentally” with the barn more recently. This is the house that has the wood burning stove and heaters for winter habitation, and so the house we overnighted in. The interior is beautiful, with wood beam ceilings and wood accents everywhere. This turns out to be the work of the husband, reclaimed wood was utilized in everything from cabinets, doors to the bathroom sink. The original house also has beautiful wood everywhere as well as a few surprises, including a room hidden behind a fake bookcase. I wish my memory were better and I could recount how old the houses were and when certain renovations took place; one owner had cut a giant hole in the ceiling next to the fireplace in hopes that the warmth would rise to the bedroom on the second floor, another owner had added rooms as a giant support on one side to help keep the structure upright. My favorite room was the library/workspace, I can imagine throwing the windows open on a warm spring day and curling up with a good book.

We took a long walk each of the days we were there to see the surrounding area and enjoy the fresh air. Saturday we followed the ridge leading from the village, and there were some amazing views due to the fact that the ridge separates two watersheds and is the highest ground in a very large area. The two boys were content to relax in the carriers and observe the scenery while the dads did all the walking; this reminded us that we need to invest in a new carrier for Lauris, the baby bjorn is too small for him, and his weight would be easier to carry on the back, not the front. Sunday frost was clinging to every twig and every blade of grass, and looking off into the distance, forests appeared fairytale white. Our hike led us through a timber harvest which was the first experience I have had with forestry on this side of the lake. We were having such a good time that we were much later in leaving than originally planned, and even took the scenic way home to take a look at some more small villages along the way. A big thank you to our hosts for the wonderful meals, the loan of several books, the great company (especially for Lauris) and the chance to get out of town for the weekend. It was a pleasure meeting you and we look forward to not only having you here in Clermont, but also (hopefully!) a return visit in the spring/summer to experience Chatenet at that time of year.

So can I see what the draw is on owning a place in the country? Definitely. In addition to the fresh air and nature that is lacking in the city, there is also the large garden, the woods, all the chestnuts you can eat in the fall, space to try your hand at making wine (or apple cider which our hosts truly succeeded at!) and a peace and quiet, much like you would find in the country in the States. Maybe I am just a country mouse, but all these things appeal to me. However, we have decided to spend these next years in Clermont-Ferrand living downtown to see how we like city living, because although we were in the city in Greenville, we were not “in the city”. Of course we welcome any invitation to visit the country and enjoy some peace and fresh air…
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