La Normandie

Our final attempt to ditch the hot and sticky summer 2021 weather in Nice led us to breezy and cool Normandy for two weeks. We’d never been, and I was excited to finally — since freshman year in high school — see the Bayeux Tapestry. We planned to visit the D-Day landing beaches and cemeteries too, and to roam the countryside as usual to find pastoral serenity and charming villages.

The Tapestry was indeed a marvel to see. It is 70 meters long, like piece of film reel, that pictorially tells the story of the 11th century Norman Conquest. Poor Harold of England. He gets an arrow in the eye.

The landing beaches and the contemplation of the bravery of those WWII soldiers make for a sobering experience. In Arromanches, remnants of the breakwaters and artificial harbor miraculously placed in position by the British remain. German bunkers and bomb craters dot the coastline. The silence contrasts with the sounds of war blasting in our imaginations.

At the American cemetery, where 10,000 tombs face in the direction of the US, we heard Taps as we were leaving, then the Star-Spangled banner as we approached the parking lot, and the roar of a fighter jet overhead as we got into our car. As it turned out, the liberation was being celebrated that week. This part of France is one of the few where Americans can experience an open welcome, to this day.

I thought I liked colorful Honfleur a lot, but then I saw Barfleur. In terms of mood, it was more my liking. It’s gray, like the Norman sea and sky, with the largest lighthouse in France, and a stretch of lonely beach to make my heart sing.

Barfleur, Phare de la Gatteville

If you stay out of the big (although not unpleasant) cities of Caen and Rouen, and avoid the boring, slightly trashy upscale beach resorts like Deauville, there are few people. There are almost as many cows.

Normandy

This is French dairyland! Vegans be warned, every dish comes smothered in cream and butter. It is a very traditional culinary region, so there are plenty of hearty meat dishes to choose from too. Luckily for me, there are markets galore with plenty of alternatives available. I admit I overdid it with the slabs of wood fired sourdough bread and fresh market butter, but I’m recovering well.

Our explorations were mostly restricted to the Calvados region of Normandy, known for apple ciders and brandies. Stopping at a creperie on our way to Beuvron en Auge, I did a double-sip of the glass of cider served. We were on the Route de Cidre as it turned out. It was the only thing about Normandy that topped Brittany in my experience.

Ah, yes. Normandy did not disappoint. But, Brittany. There’s next summer for that.

Posted in expat, expat in France, expat life, France, Normandy, Travel | 10 Comments

L’Ecosse

About two weeks ago we returned from visiting our daughter in the Scottish Borders, a big region comprising of a few dozen small towns and hamlets and lots of countryside between Edinburgh and England. It is possible there are more sheep than people there, as it is mostly made up of impressive hills and several rivers, the Tweed being the principal waterway. Just what you need in a pandemic.

Getting to Scotland under Covid restrictions was an expensive hassle — pre-purchasing two self-administered Covid tests each, staying in a cottage rental for ten days of mandatory quarantine, mailing in our Covid tests, filling out lots of paperwork, and of course taking the required Covid test before traveling. And that’s for fully vaccinated people. Unvaccinated, forget about it.

But that’s life now, so we got on with it. Once in Scotland, we ventured out for long walks, mostly uphill, and for a driving tour of villages, but little else. There was, and still is, a lot of the Delta variant among the population so it was best to avoid the general public. Sheep weren’t a problem, though.

Ram

One day, I hit a milestone of 18k+ steps, mostly uphill. Ah yes, one could become quite fit living among the shepherds and villagers of the Borders. That’s assuming you don’t develop a taste for the Border Tart, the Selkirk Bannock or the Bran Scone, like I did.

The Borders doesn’t have the dramatic, moody scenery of the Highlands, but it is a tranquil and green region, while being much warmer and sunnier. In fact, it got quite hot for a few days, up to 80F/26 C. That used to be unheard of, but now, of course, it’s common enough.

All day long the bleats of sheep make up the background noise, so much preferable to city sirens and horns. I honestly think the sound and proximity of sheep calms the heart. One big thrill for me was stopping my walk uphill to watch the Border Collies herding sheep in a pasture, then having a chat with the shepherd about his dogs (Scot and Jude). (For more on that, see this. Speaking of dogs, note the Border Terrier originated in these parts.) There are no shortage of walks, for as long as you’d like, all connected across all the entire region.

Scottish Borders

In Scottish summer, the days are very long. That permits walking in the evening when the the fading sun over the countryside is prettiest. It illuminates the stone fences, rocky paths and wild grasses in gold. The ripples of hills alternate being cast in light and shadow, and usually clouds diffuse the light. Night falls on contentment.

Scottish Borders
Posted in COVID-19, expat life, quarantine, Scotland, Scottish Borders, sheep | 7 Comments

Freed from Captivity

Yesterday morning, after our Day Eight self-administered Covid test, we received a text from the National Health Service that we were free “to return to work.” I interpreted that to mean we were free in general. Off I went to tour the town.

We are in a wee village, surrounded by fields and hills, across the Tweed river from a slightly larger town, Melrose. From our rented cottage, I turned down a narrow road past the “Pink Cottage” and “Tweed Cottage” and “School Cottage,” to a tree-lined road past some grand estates and meadows, arriving at a small suspension bridge over the river where I took a dirt path towards the town center. People filled the cafes and shops. It was a jolt to be in larger company again. 

Several gardens were open for visitors and I ducked in. The British are fervid gardeners and it shows. For a long while, I lingered in the fresh open air admiring their handiwork. In the rugby field a game was on, and across the street a small group in chain mail was having a joust. The ruins of an ancient Abbey loomed. 

Melrose Abbey ruins

Like people with strong traditions everywhere, the Scots work hard to preserve theirs and thus distinguish themselves from the English down south. Haggis remains a popular item in the butcher’s, tweed and plaid line shop windows, and bagpipes are essential to every main event. Watching teens and dogs play in the Tweed on a hot afternoon, I enjoyed the pre-digital vibe and felt a spiritual kinship with the Scottish insistence on preserving their culture.

on the Tweed River

And yet, there are those winds of change, some not so good, as in the cherished biscuit brand McVitie’s closing down its Glasgow factory. Covid is putting pressure on the ruling party.  Brexit is inflicting pain on traditional industries. 

But that’s all for later consideration. It’s Sunday in the Scottish Borders. The gardens beckon.

Posted in expat, expat life, Scotland, Scottish Borders | 4 Comments

Voyager au temps du Covid

Armed with official negative Covid test results, our vaccination certificates, three-page UK Personal Locator Forms, proof of pre-purchase of two additional Covid tests to be administered in Scotland and proof of a ten-day quarantine accommodation, we flew from France into Scotland by way of Amsterdam. 

The layover in Amsterdam was just long enough to allow us to catch our connection despite an extra stop for a mandatory “document review” (I love looking at the Dutch, who remind me so much of their ancestors as seen in the painted masterpieces of the 17-18th centuries). In Edinburgh, we took a taxi with a chatty driver all the way to Melrose, an hour away but only seven minutes from our daughter’s place (I love observing the Scots, who look and sound like they came out of an episode of “Outlander”). We were not permitted to take public transport or have a family member pick us up, vaccinated or not.

Our captivity will take place in a wee cottage, off the main road of this village in the Scottish Borders.

I’ve just had a call with the local butcher who will deliver Shepherd’s Pies and stovies, and there’s a great fish and chips joint that delivers too. Our daughter stocked the fridge with vegetables and other necessities. We won’t starve. 

Our Scottish cottage

We have a small pile of books, so we won’t lack for literary distractions either. And then there is British TV and all that streaming allows.

Still, here we are, barely through Day Two, and I’m itching to walk to the hill I can see from our back window. Brown cows dot the green slope, under fast moving dark clouds and I want to feel the bracing wind in my (short) hair. UK-Gov has been in touch by text, warning of spot checks to make sure we don’t leave the property and the 10k pound fine if we do, so I’m dissuaded from venturing out. 

At least we are out of the heat and humidity of Nice. We turned on the radiator today. My kind of summer! By Monday the weather will turn to warm and sunny, and soon — now in nine days — we’ll be out and about. We won’t go far, as the highly transmissible and possibly vaccine resistant Delta variant is rampant but we’ll have long walks with “the kids” and Lily the poodle along the Tweed or Ettrick rivers and across sheep pastures. Family time. That’s what we are here for.

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Le Perigord Noir

Finally, we were able to take a trip out of Nice.

Rural France always beckons, and I had had a hankering to see the Lascaux caves since middle school geography class so off we went to the Dordogne River valley, otherwise known as the Perigord Noir.

The Dordogne River Valley

The crowds were thin this time of year, because Covid restrictions have kept away the large number of British second-home owners in this area. We didn’t hear one single British accent, and normally there would be plenty.

But the Perigord Noir is touristy for good reasons. It is ravishingly beautiful, the river cutting through limestone escarpments pockmarked with caves and topped with medieval villages that endured endless battle during The Hundred Years War (basically an English-French war of succession). Vines of roses crawl over stone houses everywhere, poppies fill the fields in early June, chateaux welcome visitors to their formal gardens, and you never want to go indoors.

vines on a house in the Dordogne

It is also famous for its prehistory: many caves are full of carvings, drawings and paintings made around 20,000 years ago. We visited the Lascaux Cave replica, well worth the time. Yes, I’d like to see one of the originals, and there are some lesser decorated caves you can actually enter, but there is much to learn and be awed by even at this duplicate. Lascaux was vast and grand. It was a major work of art and accomplishment for its time, like the Parthenon or cathedrals later on. I was particularly taken by a painting of a cow, which to my eye could have been contemporary. Their maker would probably have a lot to talk about with painters working today. How I’d love to go back in time and meet them. 

People then didn’t live in caves, as there was a bit of an Ice Age going on and below ground was just too cold, but they used them for ceremonies. One theory is that the paintings were intended to come “alive” with flickering lights, and in fact remains of oil lamps have been found. Check out @DilettanteryPod on Twitter for an interesting thread on this very topic. 

So, what about regional food? Not my favorite. The Perigord is famous for foie gras production,  magret de canard, gizzard salad and various things cooked in goose fat. But, it’s also smothered in walnuts and as a result one can sample delicious walnut liqueur, walnut jams and walnut cake. We ate the latter every day without fail. Lastly, there’s the rustic sourdough, baked in a wood-burning stove for a smoky char. 

Levain au feu de bois
Gateau de Noix

We stuck to our usual pattern when traveling: drive to a couple of hill towns and walk up to the top to admire the views, stop midday for lunch and rest, then resume. We sought out the smaller villages on the Dordogne or Vézère rivers, where we’d linger under willows and raucous birdsong. France has a lot of places like that. I hope we see many more of them. 

on the banks of the Vézère River
Sarlat-la-Caneda, Perigord Noir

Posted in Dordogne, expat, expat in France, expat life, France, Perigord Noir | 18 Comments