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

La Nostalgie

It is truly spring, and sandal weather, and as I walk by the guest room with its French balcony doors open, the breeze sends me a whiff of the honeysuckle scent from the flowering lemon tree. I’ve always wanted a lemon tree, and now that I live in the south of France, I have one.

Lemon tree blossoms

Sometimes, I am asked what I miss from the US. After all, we’ve been here just about three years (is that all???) without a return, so we’ve had plenty of time to register what’s lacking in our lives in France.

The answer? Not that much. There are big differences, of course, and frankly some of those are less than pleasant on the daily.

Nevertheless, overall, I am grateful to be here because I am never bored, have lots to photograph and stay very active because of the walkability of the city and the good weather. Nice is starting to feel like home, albeit one with all the frictions of being a foreigner.

So, if I were to return to the US, actually, Oregon, what would I enjoy reliving? Here’s a list:

A good naturopath. There are a few here, but I don’t know that their training is as rigorous as it is at the school that certifies naturopaths in Oregon.

Micro-breweries. France cannot compete, nor does any brewer here seem to want to, with the great beers of the Pacific Northwest. We found a few micro-breweries in Brittany, and there are a few in this region, but there isn’t the cult of beer here that is necessary for the great stuff to proliferate.

US-style dental hygiene visits. It’s pretty basic here, essentially plaque removal with a sharp instrument and that’s it.

SIDEWALKS CLEAN OF DOG POOP! Everyone who moves to France complains about the filthy sidewalks. Few dog owners pick up. And everyone has a dog.

Really great food. Yes, you read that right. Nice is not known for culinary sophistication. As in the US, my favorite eateries here are “ethnic.” I’ve got a favorite Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, North African and Italian. But in August, I miss the sweet corn tamales and soft tacos I used to get on Powell Blvd. Sometimes I lovingly recall the Korean dumplings in Beaverton; the Middle Eastern grocery store and its butternut hummus and fresh baked pita; the sour cherry ravioli at the Russian restaurant; the steamed clams and Dungeness crab dinners on the Oregon coast. Inventiveness and the diligent use of exceptional ingredients in cooking has moved to spots like Portland in the US. French menus are often tired, and that’s because restauranteurs know their clientele and their devotion to traditional french dishes. I’m not taking about Paris, here, which is a different story.

If you are planning to visit us from the US post-Covid, I’ll have a list of things for you to bring!

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Le Mimosa, ou Acacia Dealbata

The end of winter in the Riviera is celebrated with the arrival of the Mimosa, the bright, yellow, fuzzy pompom that grows on trees in the hills of the region and takes up residence this time of year in every florist shop. You don’t have to actually see it to know it’s there, as its presence is signaled by a pungent scent of honey and citrus. This year, it arrived early along with a preternatural warmth, and in the current Covid gloom it was, even more than usual, a joyful sight.

At the height of the season, I went with a couple of friends for a hike through a Mimosa forest in a park above Mandelieu-La Napoule, the flower’s capital. A mad headache drove me to rest in a shady spot, most likely attributed to an allergic reaction to the flower, which grew on every bush and tree surrounding me. I suppose Mimosa is a pleasure best taken in small doses.

Nevertheless, thank god for that outing. We are in lockdown this weekend and next, to prevent families from indulging in risky group behavior during the spring school holidays. As in the first lockdown last March, the Promenade and the beaches are off-limits. There’s talk from the Prefect of a prolonged lockdown in the départment, one of 20 most highly affected out of a total of 94. The 6pm to 6am curfew is still in force every day.

I’ve had my two doses of the Pfizer vaccine (I was fatigued and felt malaise for one day after the second) and David starts his on Monday. With less than three million vaccinated, France is far behind on its vaccination campaign, and that’s part of the reason ICUs in our départment are at 102.8% capacity compared to 68% nationally. Another is the highly transmissible UK variant, responsible for more than half of all cases in the country.

When this Covid era is finally over, I imagine we’ll be over-indulging in kinds of pleasures, floral and otherwise. Travel, cinemas, restaurants and hugs are recalled nostalgically, but I wonder, outside of the hugs, how fast all those other activities will be taken up again. Personally, I’ve enjoyed enduring the winter without as much as a single cold, which must be due to general mask-wearing. Furthermore, how long will it take post Covid restrictions to feel comfortable in a crowded indoor space, or to even socialize in a small group? How many of the favorite old establishments will return? Rumor has it that various global mafias are buying up closed shops and restaurants to launch money-laundering schemes.

For better or for worse, it’s difficult to believe everything will be as before.

From the beach, Nice, France before curfew

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Le vaccin Covid

Last Friday, I got the first of the two Covid jabs. It came about by luck, as no one else I know has yet had their turn, and I am not in any of the top priority groups.

A routine doctor’s visit started it off. My doctor mentioned she had received doses for the residents of the old age home where she provides basic care. She was worried that she’d have to throw out some doses, as she had received more than she could use. “Sign me up,” I told her. And so she did.

I now am in the national database as having received the first vaccination, and have also received a personal code entitling me to the second dose whether from my doctor or the national vaccination plan.

Which, by the way, operates efficiently. You register on a website and wait to be given an appointment or make one on the site or by phone. David received his “convocation” for a jab in email (and ended up not getting it due to a contraindication). According to the anti-Covid app, 824,000 have been vaccinated so far. The health minister has said the entire population will be vaccinated by August.

There are a few obstacles that must be overcome before that can happen. While not the only country experiencing vaccine shortages, France is running out of supply and some vaccination centers are no longer accepting appointments. Then there’s the usual French skepticism about everything, with anti-vaccination sentiment the highest in Europe. How odd, for the country that pretty much invented vaccines (see: Louis Pasteur). We need 80 percent uptake for herd immunity, don’t forget.

One factor that does bode well for uptake is that the vaccine is free under the French health plan. Another is that 11 childhood vaccines have 90 percent adoption, because they are required by law and for entering school. Here’s hoping that habit transfers. And, by August, if people want to get on planes for vacation they might have to show a vaccination certificate.

Meanwhile, France is one of the worst affected countries in the world. Yes, the world. The anti-Covid app reports almost 23,000 new cases in the last 24 hours, no improvement over figures from one month ago. A group of British students vacationing in Savoie have tested positive, and it might be the dreaded UK variant. I’m hearing rumors of another lockdown in February, and the health minister has not ruled it out.

My light at the end of this tunnel is the next vaccine dose. It won’t mean I can go mask-free, or that I can’t catch the virus, but it is almost certainly a guarantee I won’t get sick. By the way, I didn’t experience any side effects from the jab.

Stay safe, all.

Nice, France

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Le Noël Covid

Nice, France, December, 2020

It has been raining for two days so I have been spending this day of gloom determined to finish reading Romain Gary’s “Chien Blanc,” only breaking for hilarious Hugh Grant interview videos. Of late I have had a penchant for random entertainment, possibly as a mental break from the ennui and predictability of our prolonged confinement. Last week, it was about the Steven Sondheim song, “Someone in a Tree,” every version of which I watched repeatedly over the course of a few days.

The new Covid variants, radical lockdowns in the UK, suspension of flights and once-again delayed family reunions are enough to make me feel an emotional kinship to Jetski Man. Don’t we all just want to bust out at this point? And yet.

In France, new Covid cases are at a stubbornly high of about 15,000 per day, and until that number drops to 5,000 social restrictions will not be relaxed. Restaurants, bars, cafes, gym, yoga studios are still closed — sadly, a necessity in my opinion — and a curfew is in force from 8pm to 6am. There will be no exception for New Year’s Eve. A low-key celebration is proscribed, with no more than six at a festive table.

A report by the Pasteur Institute finds that most new Covid cases in France come from family, friends and co-workers. If you are going to socialize indoors, it is recommended to keep the number down to six people, wear masks, open a window, and disperse within an hour.

My perception is that the French are taking the viral threat quite seriously. Virtually everyone wears a mask, and for the most part, properly. Only 2.5 percent are traveling for the holiday, way down from the usual 25 percent.

Man in mask, Nice, France, December, 2020

The social isolation is getting difficult. It’s come to the point where I get excited for a masked face to masked face visit to the doctor. Luckily, Nice is relatively warm during the winter and we can meet friends outside, for a walk or a chat in a park. Some cafes are open for take-out to serve this sort of situation.

That’s likely how we’ll spend our Christmas. The forecast is good, so a long walk and some spot visits outdoors with friends is what we can hope for.

For all of you, my best wishes for a brighter, healthier 2021.

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