Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Little House In The Big Woods- Chapter Four

Bugeat (pop. 900) is the next biggest town to ours and it boasts two grocery stores (one being a small food co-op), a post office, a pharmacy, boulangerie, a hardware store that doubles as a souvenir store and a butcher. This works okay for our day to day needs but occasionally we need to go in search of something bigger for when we need a new bathing suit for Vaughn or more importantly, more peanut butter. The area is peppered with these tiny, provincial towns, many even smaller than ours. Numerous times we've muttered, "What is this place?" and I start to worry that maybe we've wandered into the French version of Children of the Corn.

Sometimes I wonder if there are certain things that maybe just haven't made it here to the same degree or if they are actively being rejected for some reason. Like window screens. Maybe the French don't want screens. Maybe they enjoy their bedtime ritual of one person standing on the floor and one on the bed, passing a fly swatter back and forth to get that buzzing fly and smattering of mosquitoes while wondering in the back of their minds just how many Daddy Long Legs in a bedroom are too many?

Last night we had a massive thunderstorm and the window blew open. After trying in vain to get it to lock I decided to just leave it open and deal later with whatever arc of insects that was going to wash in. We've had thunderstorms and rain for the last few days. This doesn't phase me though since, being from Portland, I already feel I've gotten the three nice sunny days I'm allotted each summer and, unlike Portland, it actually does clear up during the day.

This is our final week here on the farm and I have to admit, my family is feeling a little bit of cabin fever. The hot air balloon puzzle he is obsessed with might be the only thing keeping Jacob from complete Shining madness (indeed, there is something sinister about the way he is always accusing me of "not doing my fair share" on the puzzle).

On Saturday we take off to head to Nyon on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, just 25 km outside the city of Geneva. Our host for three nights is a woman named Claudia and her three children, the youngest of which is 11 years old. We'll be there until September 6th when we go to Zurich to pick up my dad and his wife Martha.

Our plans have changed somewhat recently. We've decided against going to Greece and Turkey and instead are going to head from Italy to Croatia to Budapest to Prague and then make our way across Germany back in the direction of France to drop off the car before flying to Israel.

** With the exception of the picture of Vaughn with the sheep, all the other pictures in this post are from the little three-mile walk I take each day down the road. I'll miss this place.

Little House In The Big Woods- Chapter Three

I've misplaced my sunglasses again and Jacob is, like a trooper, using Google Translator to learn how to say, "I've lost my glasses. Were any left here?" in French despite the fact that the chances I left them in the grocery store are slim. Speaking of French, the other day one of Menna and Jem's friends from neighboring Bugeat drove up to the house to check on us and make sure we were getting along alright. Javier spoke no English and we speak no French so we had to work with Spanish, the one language we both spoke (him fluently and us barely). I've realized that speaking Spanish makes me sweaty- there is so much pressure and you have to think quickly while realizing you may say something foolish. Luckily the amount of words we know leaves little room to say anything TOO creative unlike the lifeguard at the pool who told us that the entrance we used (presumably for lifeguards) was only for "people who save people in the wars." I'm guessing that either it was a special Veteran's Day at the community pool OR that he has an overdramatized view of his job OR he may have done a bit of colorful translating. The poor lifeguard was very kind as he explained to us that not only did we come in the wrong way but I was also not allowed to bring my shoes into the pool area and Jacob and Vaughn were not allowed to swim in short-style swim suits. Vaughn is going to have to decide if he is content with going to the lake or if the allure of the slide at the pool is enough to break the Speedo barrier.

Actually, one of the funnier language interactions happened in Barcelona where Vaughn was surrounded in the ocean by a couple of younger kids who kept talking to him. I believe they were speaking English to him but their accents prevented him from recognizing it. He just looked at them sheepishly and finally said, "Gracias?" which set them off laughing good-naturedly.

The other day Jacob and I were tallying up all of the notable things that have happened with Vaughn since we set out on this journey a month and a half ago. In that time he has: conquered his fear of going underwater and learned to swim; stopped taking melatonin to go to sleep; started washing his own hair; started consistently using correct capitalization and (for the most part) punctuation; started boogie boarding and skateboarding; improved his spelling and made good headway on his multiplication tables up to 12. On a sadder note, after much pressing we finally copped to the fact that we are Santa, which he took pretty well.

Although it is often hard, spending so much time attached to us seems to have been good for him and he's not showing any signs of being homesick although he does find life on the farm a bit boring. Jacob and I are loving the languid pace that allows for lots of cooking, walks and reading but it can be a little tedious for the solo child. Still, it is hard not to get excited with every lizard, toad and giant grasshopper we see and we're trying to max out the fun things to do in the area. Yesterday we rented a paddle boat (Jacob pleaded with me for an hour in vain to let him post the video of me dancing on the front of the boat while I sang the opening notes to China Grove) and today we drove an hour and half to a site where they built a re-enactment of a peasant farm from 600 years ago. It was a beautiful day and fascinating to see. I did get bit by a pig because it is obvious I'll never learn (no skin was broken but that pig and I will never be friends now).

I'm writing this outside now while waiting for the sky to become dark so that we can use Menna and Jem's telescope to check out the night sky. Jacob was less than enthusiastic about this activity, claiming that it merely transforms "minuscule twinkling lights into very small twinkling lights" but I said that I did not come to rural France in the middle of summer to spend two and a half weeks in the idyllic countryside to NOT do some wondrous stargazing as a family, damn it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Little House In The Big Woods- Chapter Two

How to live intentionally and make decisions in a conscious way. These are the thoughts that run through my mind as I walk through the woods on Menna and Jem's property. Do you see, Gentle Reader, how just two days in the woods has made me all wise and Thoreau-like? Actually, this WAS one of the primary motivations for this sabbatical but on this day I'm just trying to get my confidence back. Yesterday I lost years off my life which I'm going to blame on a heightened predator/prey response honed by years of horror movie and mainstream media watching.

The plan was for me to get a good hike in on the 100 acres of woodland property while Jacob and Vaughn hung out at the house and then we'd all go for a drive into town about an hour later. Jacob is still pretty sick so they wanted to lay low and play games. As I set off on my meditative quest, I passed a car on the road just before turning onto the drive for Menna and Jem's new property. A man was driving the car and we exchanged glances but there were no smiles or friendly waves. I didn't give it another thought until I was about a mile up the driveway, just past the point where the road narrows to such a degree that it truly becomes a path in the woods. Menna and Jem's house is the only property off this gravel road and so there is no reason for any other car to be on the road. In fact, there are hardly any cars on the main road here because most of the properties are only sporadically occupied but as I trekked along I suddenly became aware that a car WAS slowly driving along the path through the bushes in my direction. There could have been many rational explanations for why a car would be on the road but in that split second there was only one plausible explanation to me - that man from the road had come back to hunt me down and kill me. Why else would someone be driving through the brush? With my heart racing I jumped off the path and crouched down low in the bushes and waited. The car stopped and I wondered if the driver was going to get out. I have no idea why my thought pattern went this way. I guess being in the middle of the woods in a foreign country with no one around plays tricks on your mind (I had only just stopped thinking that I might encounter aggressive wild pigs).

I waited for several minutes until finally the car backed down the road and after several more minutes, I quietly crept out of my spot. The whole way back through the woods I walked as quietly as I could while clutching a decent sized rock. When I got back to the house Jacob said, "How was the walk? We wanted to go to town early so we went looking for you but couldn't find you" and I immediately burst into tears.

So today's walk was an exercise in regaining a little sanity and touch with the real world. On the way back to the house a couple of the sheep were making a terrible racket so I went down the hill to make sure they were okay since keeping these guys alive is really my only job right now. It turned out that a couple of them had become entangled in the blackberry bushes and were bleating helplessly. However, as I approached them, their fear of me outweighed their entanglement and they pushed themselves free. After they got their wits about them it occurred to them that maybe I had come not to kill them but rather, to bring them kibble and they swarmed me expectantly.

How many times in life
Are we trapped
Only to find we have the ability
To free ourselves

I'm just kidding - I haven't gone THAT Thoreau (but how awesome would a series of Choose Your Own Adventure philosophy books be?!).

To end on a reasonable note: Menna and Jem told us that on very warm days, at night it is not uncommon to open the door and find three fat toads that come to hang out on the still-warm stone steps out front. All three of them have been named Trevor after Nevile's toad in Harry Potter. I've looked for these guys every night and last night one of them finally appeared (sadly, there is a smushed toad in the road that might be one of the original trio). They remind me of the big toads I used to see growing up and never see in Oregon. Tonight I'm going to try and get a picture of one for this blog post but there was a thunderstorm last night so the step might not be warm enough by the evening.

The attached picture will be from my forthcoming book: Creative Breadmaking- Baking When You Don't Have Measuring Spoons or Any Idea What the Oven Temperature Is.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Little House in the Big Woods - Chapter One

After about 7 hours of driving yesterday we finally arrived in Viam, France. Our hosts are Menna and Jem and we are watching their property and caring for their animals while they are away for two and half weeks. They bought this house nine years ago and spent eight years fixing it up before moving here from Wales with their daughter Lily (age 9) a year ago. Now they are selling this one as they've purchased their dream property which sits on over 100 mostly forested acres just down the road. The property they've purchased is a collection of old stone buildings (including a cattle barn and a grain mill) that haven't been lived in over 50 years. To say it is a fixer-upper is a huge understatement. Most of the wood is rotted and they'll be living on a gigantic 10 person tent on the property while they mill the wood themselves. There is a fire pit up at the new house with the tent and we're welcome to go and camp if we feel like it.

Menna and Jem are down-to-earth, outgoing and good-natured who clearly love animals and their life in this rural setting. It's a little hard not to feel like soft city-folk, particularly when Vaughn starts shrieking about the flies or bees or things poking in his sock (although I do have to say he handled me removing a tick from him that evening like a champ).

I've been referring to it as "the farm" but really we're mostly surrounded by wood. The seven sheep we're taking care of are up the road at the 'new' house and my mind is blown to see that they have actual tails. I think I would have only slightly more shocked if they had had wings. In addition to the sheep there are about a dozen chickens (including some youngsters), a few roosters, maybe four ducks and two young gray geese. In the evening we go out and toss them pasta as a treat and they all clamor around and get rowdy like kids around a parade float. There is a broody chicken sitting on three of her original five eggs and with any luck in a week there will be a few new chicks. We are also responsible for an outside bunny, two indoor mice and a door mouse that Lily rescued up at the other property and is rehabilitating. We've also been told that if we open the front door at night we're likely to see three toads that come and hang out on the front step.

The house is huge and lovely with a stone floor in the kitchen and an actual old bread oven built into the wall. There are four large bedrooms upstairs and the attic has a master bath with a clawfoot tub up on a platform under a skylight. In the other half of the attic (which is only partially completed and likely to remain so now that the house will be sold) is Menna's painting studio. Jem is a sculptor and the house and yard are filled with their art.

Jacob is a bit under the weather and I didn't sleep well last night so between that and yesterday's long car ride, today was pretty much just about laying around. We'll likely do a bit of exploring (Menna has listed out some local attractions for us) tomorrow. I may be overtired, but I do believe I'm finally beginning to relax.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Marganell, Spain

I'm not a big city person - I'm just not. The masses of people, the traffic, and the way that everything focuses on shopping wears me down. So while we've had fun in Barcelona, we decided to pack up and head north toward the mountains for a little camping.

It's funny how when you are traveling, there are expenses that you grossly underestimate or things you just don't plan for (like your car breaking down back home or your computer breaking down on the road) but sometimes you get a really sweet break that comes in the form of a four person tent for just ten Euros and sleeping bags (albeit child-sized bags - sorry Jacob) that are a pittance at just six Euros. These savvy scores might not propel me into Rick Steves-esque book deals but we felt pretty pleased with ourselves.

Even better was the fact that we found Laura on CouchSurfing and she invited us to camp on her property just outside of the town of Marganell where she lives with her three other housemates (two of whom we met) and a young cat. The house has a picturesque view of the Montserrat mountain range which is just about a 20 minute drive away.

Laura met us in town to escort us up to her property, which was great since it is doubtful we would have found it on our own. After we got the tent set up and Vaughn and Jacob went for a swim in the pool, we drove off to get in a late afternoon walk.

Without really intending to, we ended up walking into and around the Benedictine Abby, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Had we planned on going there, we'd probably have done a little research before and known that the Abby hosts one of the world's oldest printing presses (in operation since 1499); The Escolania, one of Europe's oldest boys' choir; and the sacred Virgin of Montserrat, one of Europe's "black Madonnas" (so named for their darker skin color) from the 12th century. But since we didn't know we were going to such a revered pilgrimage site our thought process went a little something like this:

"Dang, look at all these people- this is like a Catholic Disneyland."
"Are all those booths really selling the same cheese and honey?"
"Alcohol tasting for one Euro?! Don't mind if I do!"

We actually had a really nice time wandering around and taking the stone steps up a bit higher up on the mountain.

The next day we embarked on a short hike that felt a little like our own personal pilgrimage given the intensity of the afternoon sun on our unshaded trail. We made it about an hour before my traveling companions began the rallying cry for an afternoon swim so back to the house we went to enjoy our final evening in Marganell.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Back to France

An exciting aspect of this trip has been leaving things open to possibility. Jacob and I both love that right now, October and November have no set agenda- we could go ANYWHERE (that our Renault contract permits). So it was with that sentiment in mind that we decided we'll leave Barcelona early and head to Correze, France for a couple weeks to house-sit. The family we are house-sitting for has sheep, chickens, ducks, goslings, chicks, a pair of mice and a rabbit so I'm really excited. Living in a rural setting with a hobby farm has been my dream so this lets me try one on for size and hope nothing expires on my watch.

In the meantime, we're going to enjoy the remaining week in Barcelona - be it ever so large and muggy. Last night we hung out and drank a couple pitchers of sangria with a Portland couple that we met back home through Couch Surfing. They are a bit younger than us and their Barcelona goals include finding a place to smoke hookahs and making it out to one of the islands for an all-night rave whereas we hope to finish our hot air balloon puzzle and maybe get a refund from the parking garage for leaving early. But despite our divergent interests, we spoke the universal language of desperately wanting to have a full-length conversation in our mother tongue. And it was a great excuse for us to get out and have a drink in the warm evening air.

Today we met a woman from Belgium and her 9 year old daughter at Cosmo Caixa (the science museum) and tomorrow we'll be camping on some property in the mountains for a couple nights - another Couch Surfing connection. Camping at actual campsites here is expensive (we were looking at about $50 a night) and we couldn't get a good feel on-line for the tolerance and safety around "unofficial" camping so this is perfect situation for us. Plus, our hosts have a pool we are welcome to use. Couch Surfing just continues to pay off for us left and right in ways that we didn't expect or imagine.

The pictures I've posted are from our visit to the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. The museum is built from the ruins of the Municipal Theatre which was destroyed in the Civil War. Dali oversaw the design and layout of the museum and it contains his drawings, paintings and sculptures from the 1920's all the way through the 1980's. I can't say we were able to see everything as it was very crowded and, in true Mestman fashion, we ignored what has to be the best warning ever to grace a brochure:

"A warning! If we take into account the idiosyncrasy of Salvador Dali, the origin of the Dali Theatre-Museum, then perhaps we ought to recommend you not to follow a preconceived route. However, despite this a one way route has been laid out. This only has the intention of guiding the visitor form the entrance to the exit without his missing any part of the Theatre-Museum. It does not have, nor does it wish to have, any systematic function nor chronological sense."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Barcelona Days - Chapter Two

For the most part, we are settling into life in Barcelona. We know where the nearest basketball hoop is and when it is most likely to be available but for the life of me I cannot get down when stores are open. Some are closed all day on Sunday, some on Monday and most close at some point in the afternoon and maybe they reopen early evening and maybe they don't.

After so many weeks on the road we both have our moments of restlessness and doubt- was five weeks too long to commit to Barcelona? Jacob starts looking into the costs of going to Morocco and I start fantasizing about house sitting for some French folks looking to have some
one take care of their sheep and chickens (this is unlikely as they are looking for someone for three full weeks and I don't want to leave Barcelona more than a week early). We're considering a camping trip in the Pyrenees.

About the only one fully settled in is Vaughn who is super happy with our routine of basketball in the morning, beach in the afternoon and maybe a Simpsons episode or two in between. Homeschooling has been a little tough at times. We have had our moments like the morning we broke into two teams (Jacob/Vaughn and me) to research:
  • Why thunder happens
  • What happened when the Pope was shot
  • How Roman aqueducts worked
  • Why the North Pole is magnetic
  • Information on Dr. J
  • The age of the earth
All these topics or questions were generated by Vaughn off of things we read or saw or just whatever popped into his head and neither Jacob nor I had sufficient responses (kudos to you if you do- you are very smart). We each had to come up with at least five facts on our subjects to present to the other group. This is how I had envisioned home schooling- creative, natural and student led. I firmly believe that all children have a natural curiosity and drive to learn that will present itself if coaxed out correctly in a way that works for the child. Sounds pretty idyllic right? The reality is that despite having hours with nothing to do, Vaughn is often resistant to the small, structured assignments we give him. A skilled manipulator, he will point out that it is still technically summer and has even gone so far as to suggest that despite what his teacher, report cards and our own instinct tell us, he is not at the 4th grade level and therefore all the assignments are too hard for him. Like the parent of a picky eater who has to sneak in vegetables, we have to slip leaning activities in a way that does not suggest that he is actually working.

I have made an unofficial friend though. The first day that we went to the park so that Vaughn and Jacob could play basketball I sat on one of the benches to read. Lost in thought, I was startled to find an elderly woman shuffling my backpack off to the side of the bench to make room for herself. Smiling at me with her three little remaining teeth, she began chattering away in Spanish. As my brain worked furiously to decipher what she was saying I casually scanned the park to try and figure out why she had not sat on any of the other 12 remaining benches. I explained to her that I was sorry but that I only spoke a little Spanish (This is really my only full phrase but I think I say it with enough confidence that it somehow suggests I speak more than I do. I need to learn a follow-up phrase like, "No really - I don't speak Spanish" and maybe a back up, "Please stop thinking I speak Spanish because I have no idea what you are saying"). She slowed down and we made it through a few phrases before other octogenarians showed up in what was clearly a daily ritually of gathering at the park for gossip and chit-chat and she moved over to a bench where she could say more than, "It is hot" and "Yes, is hot." Older folks are out and about here in a way that I've not witnessed back at home. They're always dressed up and cruising around with their canes and walkers and it's nice to see.

So I've seen her a few times and she really helped me out in a pinch by lending me her cane when Vaughn's ball got stuck in the net (repeatedly) one day but I'm always thankful when others are there to chat with her because, as mentioned, I really don't speak Spanish. Today she got sort of frustrated with me when I couldn't understand her and actually started poking me in the chest with her bony finger after each word, like maybe my translator was broken or something. A few of her friends were gathered around it made an already awkward situation more awkward and kinda painful. Finally she left me in peace and I decided at that point to reclaim my anonymity and start sitting on the other side of the park.