31 March 2007


I could talk about pollen allergies for days. Mine began suddenly in early April 1992 when Walt and I moved from San Francisco to Sunnyvale, in Silicon Valley, to be closer to our jobs. When the reactions started, I didn't know what was happening to me. I went to an emergency-care clinic, where a nurse told me it was the most impressive allergy attack she had ever seen. She gave me a shot of cortisone.

One year in March I flew from San Francisco to Seattle for a conference. In California the allergies were raging. When I got off the plane in Seattle and went to my hotel room, I took a shower. It was a miracle. All the allergy symptoms were gone, just like that. I figured it was because spring came later in Seattle than in SF.

Scotch broom — in French, genêt à balais.
The genêt plant was the symbol of the Plantagenêt dynasty,
which long ruled over this part of France and all of England.

Another year we flew from San Francisco to Las Vegas in early February. In California, I hadn't had symptoms yet that year. As soon as I got off the plane in Las Vegas, it was as if somebody through a bucket of pollen in my face. I spent a miserable weekend.

One spring down south of Palm Springs we drove into a huge orange grove that was in full flower. I didn't think I would get out alive.

Gênet à balais, thanks to the French Wikipedia

Once I flew from San Francisco to Philadelphia on my way to Ireland for a work trip. I thought I was going to die on the plane to Philly. It was October, so I was taken by surprise. I don't know where that plane had been and what kind of air was circulating in the passenger cabin, but it caused a major allergy attack in me. When I got to Philly, I went to buy some tissues and to make the decision about whether I would be able continue on to Ireland or not. The man in the shop where I bought the Kleenex was concerned about me; he wanted to call a doctor. After an hour in the airport, the symptoms started to disappear. I flew on to Ireland, holding my breath (as it were) and hoping I wouldn't have another attack. I didn't and was fine for the rest of the 10-day trip.

Scotch broom covering a hillside

In 2002 we flew from San Francisco to Paris on April 1. We always enjoyed coming to France, but coming over here on April 1 was an experiment. When we left California, my allergies were raging. On the 11-hour flight, I remember Walt saying to me that he thought I was going to die. When we got to Paris, we took the train from the airport into the city, and every tree in sight was covered in little white flowers. I was sneezing and my eyes were red, puffy, and teary. I said I didn't think I was going to be able to stay in Paris — we would have to go somewhere else.

We got to the apartment we had rented, I took a shower, and, as in Seattle, the symptoms just went away. I was fine, even though there were flowers everywhere. We went out to Normandy for a couple of days and the millions of apple trees up there were all in flower. Didn't bother me a bit. That's when I realized I was allergic to something specific to California and finally went to see the allergist when we got home. The allergist helped me decide that Paris, Normandy, or elsewhere in northern France was the place for me. He said he could try to treat me but that the best solution would be for me to go live somewhere else. We ended up in the Loire Valley.

Scotch broom has invaded all these states in the U.S.

In 2004, after we moved here, we took a driving trip to Madrid. That was about 12 hours on the road, and the highway was lined with Scotch broom plants that were covered in yellow flowers. I had a severe reaction — so much so that I was unable to drive. Walt had to drive the whole way. By the time we got to Madrid, though, there was no more Scotch broom visible, and it was over. So I figure I'm allergic to that plant's pollen, along with cypress, orange, and olive tree pollen.

When the two big fir trees right next to our house are releasing clouds of yellow pollen that covers our deck and window sills, it doesn't bother me at all. Strange, isn't it?

Pretty yellow flowers, right? Yuck.

Some allergy symptoms hung on yesterday but in a much milder form than on Thursday. It's Saturday morning and I'm feeling OK, except that my abdominal muscles are sore from all the sneezing I did during the worst of the attack.

30 March 2007

The weather, the window, and the dog

It rained most of the day yesterday and was very gray. The weather system came in from the west and seemed to bring with it a lot of some kind of pollen that I'm allergic to. I had a miserable day — sneezing, teary eyes, dripping nose — like a lot of springtime days I used to suffer in California when I lived there.

One of the reasons I wanted to leave California was because I had such bad pollen allergies back there. It would start in February and I would have debilitating hay fever from then until the middle of May. An allergist tested me and told me the pollen that I was most allergic to was coming from all the cypress trees that grow along the northern California coast. Olive tree pollen was also an irritant.

San Francisco, March 2003. A long way from Saint-Aignan.

Given that diagnosis, going to live in northern France seemed to be a good plan, the allergist said. Another option was the Pacific Northwest — Oregon or Washington State. The American southwest was out, the doctor said, because it's home to several species of cypress trees. I had experienced that myself when I had a terrible allergy attack on a trip to Las Vegas one spring. And the south of France was out — too many cypress trees and too many olive trees grow down there.

So here I am. Now I think I am also allergic to the plant called Scotch broom — genêt in French. And it is blooming all around us right now, with bright yellow flowers.

I've had very few miserable days of hay fever since we moved to Saint-Aignan nearly four years ago. Yesterday was one of the worst, but today I feel better. It's strange how I'll have one or two days each season, but never a longer stretch, of sneezing and nose-blowing and itchy eyes. I guess you just take what you can get. The attacks, when I have them, are impressive and debilitating. I must have sneezed 50 times yesterday. It's not safe for me to drive a car when I'm in the middle of an attack.

It's cold this morning — about 37ºF, or 2.5ºC — and very cloudy. It rained a lot overnight.

La Renaudière, near Saint-Aignan, March 2004.
Contrast with photo above. Quite a change.

The window contractor came by yesterday and we signed off on his bid to put in the new window. We decided to go with the undivided glass and a roll-down shutter for that window. I'm pretty happy about it. It'll be so great to have a sliding window in the kitchen. I spend a lot of time in that room, and now I'll be better able to control the environment in there.

Earlier this week, I went out for a drive all around Saint-Aignan to look at the windows in houses of all different styles and ages. I saw a lot of windows of both styles, paned or clear. There is no obvious local style.

This week, I read a New York Times article about some Americans who bought a house in Spain and hired a local architect to help them modify and modernize it. When they told the architect what they wanted to do, he stormed out of the house in anger, saying he refused to preside over the Americanization of a fine old Spanish house. Oops! They found another architect who was willing to work with them.

Our window guy, Mr. Roch, said he would be able to install the new kitchen window in late April if it is ready by then (it has to be custom-made) or, if not, toward the end of May. He's already booked for the first three weeks in May.

We decided to call the new puppy Callie, by the way. Instead of a longer name like Calisson or Californie that would give us the nickname Cali, we just went with the nickname itself. Callie is five weeks old now, and we won't bring her home from the breeder's until she's 10 weeks old. That'll be the first week in May. Maybe the weather will have improved by then and we'll be able to spend a lot of time outside with her in May and all summer. By September, Callie will be six months old and pretty grown up.

29 March 2007

Rites of spring

Burning yard debris — a first sign of spring.
It was nearly all burned up at this point.

One of the first tasks we have "assigned" to us when the winter weather finally breaks is picking up all the little tree limbs and clippings that have accumulated around the yard over the past five months of winter. And then we burn them, along with the rest of the "burn pile" that has accumulated since last summer.

Forsythia in the back yard

Yesterday was a beautiful day with almost no wind, and we burned the burn pile. It doesn't seem like that big an accomplishment, but it did mean moving 5 or 6 wheelbarrow loads of clippings and trimmings to the garden plot, picking up all the rosebush clippings (watch the thorns!) and a bagful of pine cones, and hauling across the yard the remains of a small tree that Walt cut down last September.

Primroses appear in February and bloom into April.

It's too bad to have to cut them down with the mower.

It didn't take too long to gather everything up and light the fire, but we stayed outside for about 4 hours That's the first time since last September that we've been able to stay outdoors for such a long stretch. The good news is that is was actually warm, and we pulled out a couple of chairs and just sat watching the fire burn for about 2 hours. Walt said: "It feels like we're on a camping trip." And it did. At the end of the afternoon, he said he felt as if he had had a mini-vacation.

Grape hyacinths (muscaris) in flower

The next milestone will be cutting the grass, which has grown up high because we haven't had a cold winter, and because it didn't get mowed last October — we were in the U.S. But the ground is still too wet, really, and the lawnmower needs some maintenance — mostly a new blade.

The vineyards still have their winter look.

Besides, cutting the grass means cutting down a lot of wildflowers that appear out there starting in February. There are cyclamens, primroses, and, now, grape hyacinths. It's a shame not to enjoy them as long as possible while they are in bloom. But soon, maybe next week, the day will come, and we will have to sacrifice the flowers to the needs of the lawn. We can't let it grow up too high, or we'll have to go at it will the weed-eater instead of the mower.

The still-bare linden tree at sunset
shows that spring is just beginning now.

Yesterday the temperature got up to about 65ºF. Today it's cooler, and cloudy. It's supposed to rain. But next week the temperature will get up to 70ºF or higher. If you're in California, that might not seem like anything to write home about. For us, it is big news and an exciting prospect.

28 March 2007


The little pond just outside our back gate is the scene of much springtime debauchery. All the toads that live under bushes and rocks for hundred of yards around gather there in March and April to produce the year's crop of new toads. For a while the pond is wiggly with tadpoles.

Sometimes on a warm summer evening you'll hear something rustling the leaves under a bush near the house. A snake? A rabbit? Some rodent? No, it's a toad. They are big, brown, and pretty ugly, most would say.

They eat bugs and slugs though, so it's good to have them around the property. Every spring, when I get out the rotary cultivator and start tilling up our vegetable garden, I uncover a toad or two. They have buried themselves in the loose soil to hibernate, I think. I try not to run over them.

Powerful swimmer

Oh, toad in French is crapaud (krah-POH). Thought you'd want to know that. I just looked at the Wikipedia article on crapaud in French and it says: « Tous les crapauds (au sens large du terme) sont des espèces protégées en France. » Which means that there are several species of toads in France, and they all are protected by law. (No wisecracks, please.)

The French Wikipedia article also points out this about the common toad: « Fréquentant les milieux humides, il vit sur terre la plupart du temps, dans l'eau uniquement durant les périodes d'amour. » Or, "frequenting humid surroundings, [the toad] lives on land most of the time, [and] in water only during periods of love." That's a literal translation.

I'm happy to say that toads do not appear to be endangered at La Renaudière.

27 March 2007

Ces fichues fenêtres

If you are sick of hearing about windows, you can skip this posting.

Nearly everybody who has commented on the window replacement choices thinks we need to have a divided-lights window put in the kitchen. You know who you are. I for one am still thinking about it. I believe that deep down, Walt agrees with you all. I think I'm still leaning toward the clean, modern look myself. The $400 price difference between a more expensive divided window and a less expensive plain window is also a factor. After all, we are living on what is euphemistically called "a fixed income," and the dollar shows no signs of gaining strength against the euro.

One reaction to my Photoshop mock-ups of the window with divided vs. undivided panes was that the picture of the divided window actually exaggerated that style and look. That might be true. Maybe subconsciously I was trying to make a point.

The problem is, I really like the views out of the windows on the back side of our house, which feature undivided glass. Instead of focusing on the window itself, I think your eye focuses much more on scenery outside.

This picture I took in Montluçon is just
window-dressing, as it were.

The fact is, one of the window contractors who bid on the job (and whose bid was definitely on the high side) said we'd be surprised how much more light comes in through undivided window glass as compared to divided lights. I had never thought that would be the case. Nevertheless, he recommended divided lights for our kitchen window.

I asked him if he recommended that look for the sake of consistency, since the big French doors that are also on the front side of the house have window panes in them. He surprised me by saying he would recommend not keeping the divided glass in those doors when we replace them, because it's nicer to have clear glass doors that emphasize the impression of spaciousness and minimize the separation between the outdoors and the indoors. Go figure.

That took care of consistency, if there had ever been any. Did I mention that the windows in the house overall never have been of a consistent style? In the back, upstairs, the two bedroom windows used to have small, separate panes, but the two bathroom windows did not. The window and door downstairs in the back have always had undivided glass. With the windows we had put in three years ago, all the glass in the back of the house is now undivided.

Montluçon: Get your hair cut here.

In the front, the downstairs windows are undivided and the upstairs windows are divided. So I have eliminated façade consistency as a factor. It's a room-by-room decision, as far as I am concerned.

Could we be seen as Americanizing our house? No, I don't think so, since I see many houses with windows of the style and look we have been putting in. In fact, the Americanization, if there is any, is probably in our preference for sliders instead of French windows.

Let's be Cartesian about it. The sliders really make sense in this house; they are more logical. The rooms, with the exception of the living-dining room, are fairly small. The windows are big. French windows aren't practical, because when you open them they sweep across a huge section of room.

Even the man who installed the sliding windows for us didn't think we would be happy with them. He probably thought we were kind of crazy. A year after he put them in, we asked him back to give us an estimate on another job. I told we had called him again because we were pleased with the work he had already done. "Do you like the sliding windows?" he asked. When I said yes, they were great, he looked surprised. He was probably thinking, « ils sont fous, ces Américains... »

Any guesses as to what business this sign might be advertising?

Some British people I know have remodeled their house and put their toilet, shower, bathtub, and sink all in the same room, Anglo-American-style, rather than having a separate room for the "water closet" or "loo." Having separate rooms for the toilet and the bath is the rule in France (though my impression is that that configuration it is slowly being abandoned, just as having a bidet in the bathroom is becoming a thing of the past).

I've heard people object to the combined bathroom style that seems to be favored by us Anglo-Americans, however. When it comes time to sell the house, French people won't be as eager to buy it because it is configured in a way that they aren't used to and that they don't think of as the standard. I imagine the same thing is true of our windows. Some potential French buyers might consider sliding windows a weird thing to have in a house, and that might lower the selling price.

Then again, we have no plans to sell the house any time soon.

26 March 2007

Gratin de chou-fleur

If winter is still hanging on where you live, the way it was here in Saint-Aignan last week, and if you can get fresh cauliflower, make a gratin. It's comfort food for a cold day. We've had a mild winter, and cauliflower is plentiful, beautiful, and inexpensive right now.

Cut the cauliflower up into florets and cook them in a large quantity of boiling water until they are just beginning to get tender. They'll cook more in the oven.

Cooked cauliflower florets with a cheese sauce
and grated cheese over the top, ready for the oven

Make a sauce béchamel by cooking flour in butter and then gradually adding milk until you have a fairly thick sauce. Season it with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add a big handful of grated Gruyère or other cheese and let that melt into the sauce.

Put a little of the cheese sauce in the bottom of a baking dish and arrange the cooked cauliflower florets in the pan. Pour the rest of the sauce evenly over the cauliflower. Sprinkle another good handful of cheese over the top and put the whole thing in a hot oven until the top is golden and the sauce is bubbling.

Browned and bubbly — let it cool for a minute before you dig in.

Don't leave out the nutmeg. It's always good with melted cheese. If the cauliflower and sauce are hot when they go into the oven, cook the dish at high temperature to brown it. If the ingredients are cold when they go into the oven, bake them at a lower temperature so they will have a chance to heat all the way through before the top gets too brown.

Serve with red wine and a green salad. It makes a great lunch or dinner.

I'm still thinking about the dog and the kitchen window, but still, you have to eat, don't you?

24 March 2007

Heure d'été

Even though the weather outside is still wintry, today France moves the clocks ahead an hour and we begin 6 or 7 months of what is called daylight saving time, or heure d'été — "summer time."

When I say it's wintry outside today, I mean it is 5.5ºC (41ºF), gray, foggy, misty, and even drizzly. It's too wet to do anything outside. Walt just told me this is the "warmest" morning we've had in a week.

This morning, Sunday, the sun rose at about 8:00 a.m., and it will set tonoght at about 8:00 p.m. I noticed that when the U.S. moved the clock ahead an hour about two weeks ago, as a result the sun was rising at approximately 7:00 and going down at approximately 7:00 there (in N.C. and in Calif.). Our time zone in France is set such that we were already getting sunrise and sunset at those hours, and now the sun is rising and setting later.

By June, our sunset will occur at about 10:00 p.m. and it will be light until nearly 11:00. That is a nice time of year in France. We'll get our garden planted in May and the long hours of daylight will make all the plants grow really fast through June and July.

We didn't have much of a winter this year. There might have been one day when the temperature didn't get above freezing at all, and in fact there were very few mornings when the temperature even got down to freezing. Now it is officially springtime but the weather is chilly and damp. I suppose that's normal, but I want warm sunny days now, merci beaucoup.

We'll be starting to get the yard cleaned up, and the garden plots tilled up, as soon as the weather improves and the ground has a chance to dry out a bit. Meanwhile, we have to kitchen to do.

I did these mockups in Photoshop to see the difference between divided and undivided windows. Here's what the view out of one of our bedroom windows looks like now, through the new windows we had installed three years ago:

And here's what it would look like with petits bois, the traditional divided-lights style:

Isn't it nicer when you have a clear view of the outside?

Avec ou sans les petits bois ?

In April, while we are waiting to get the new pup, we'll be working to get our kitchen spruced up. We got two bids for a new kitchen window and shutter yesterday, and now we are trying to decide whether we want divided lights (in French it's called a window with petits bois) or just plain glass in the new kitchen window.

The other windows in the front of the house have divided lights. True divided lights, with small panes of glass separated by wooden mullions, are definitely a "look" that some people prefer. Our house isn't historic, though, so trying to keep some "period" look is not really an issue. The fact is that true divided lights make windows a real pain to clean. So one of the realities of life is that such windows are dirtier than they ought to be most of the time.

Why did windows have divided lights in the first place? I believe it was because glass technology hadn't been perfected to the extent it has now and that large sheets of glass were prohibitively expensive if they were available at all. So small panes of glass were fitted into frames with mullions — wooden dividers — to make large expanses of glass possible and affordable.

A summertime view of the house as it is now

We take window glass for granted but in my life I have known at least one person who said the house he grew up in didn't have glass in the windows. Glass was too expensive. The windows had oiled paper in them that let some light shine through, but the paper was not transparent, of course. The house was in south Florida, so cold weather was not a big issue. I'm sure some people in my town in North Carolina didn't have glass windows much before the beginning of the 20th century.

Nowadays, divided-light windows don't present the same difficulties as before when it comes to keeping them clean. You can have that look without having true divided lights. In double-glazed windows, the mullions are installed in the space between the two big sheets of glass that form the window. So they can't get dirty, and the glass you have to clean is one smooth sheet on the inside and another on the outside. Cleaning is a breeze.

So there are three things we are sure we want in the new kitchen window: glass (!), double-glazing, and sliding window panels — not another window à la française. As Josette, the previous owner, said to me one day, the windows in this house "are too big for the rooms." That comment mystified me at first, because the large windows were one of the features that attracted me to the house in the first place.

A mocked-up view of the house with a new kitchen window.
I don't think a kitchen window without mullions looks bad.

Then I came to understand what Josette was talking about. When big windows open inward the way French windows do, they sweep across a big section of the room. You can't put anything in front of them, or even near them.

In the kitchen, the French-style window does the same thing. And it's hard to leave it open when you want to, because just a slight breeze can catch the open window panels and cause them to slam shut. A sliding window will be much more practical, even if we lose the ability ever to take advantage of the full window opening, as you can with the French window.

Not only has window-glass technology improved greatly, but so have computer technology and graphics. To see what the house would look like with the two different kinds of windows — divided lights or no divided lights — I can now take a picture with a digital camera, open it in Photoshop, and "remove" the mullions to see what the window and the façade will look like without them.

Why worry about having divided lights or not when ease of cleaning is not an issue? The fact is that an undivided window light lets more light into the room. You can see outside more clearly. It's a totally different look, from the outside and from the inside. And adding fake mullions to a double-glazed window adds about 30% to the cost. So if you want the divided-lights look, it will cost you.

After above, and before below.

We already had new windows put in our bedrooms and bathrooms. We got rid of the divided lights. We also put in sliders to replace the old French windows. I really like the result, inside and out. The windows are so easy to clean that you are motivated to clean them more often. The views out over the back yard and the vineyard are better without the mullions.

The new shutter we're getting will be a roll-down model with a crank inside the kitchen (ha ha ha, I know some of you would say the crank has been in the kitchen for nearly four years already) to open and close it. That's the kind of shutter we have in the bathroom, and it's very practical. You don't have to open the window and let in all the cold air when you want to close the shutter.

French-style window shutters don't really work with sliding-glass windows, anyway. They are made to cover French-style windows. When you pull the window panels toward you to open them, you have total access to the window opening and the shutters, which then are easy to close or open.

With a sliding window, you have to open one side, fold the shutter back to open it, and then open the other window panel and do the same on the other side. Closing the shutter is even more difficult, because the latch is right in the middle, where the window frame is. It's hard to reach.

Isn't this fascinating? It's one of those lessons you learn when you have sliding-glass windows put in but neglect to think about how they will work with the shutters you already have. Some people don't bother closing the shutters, but I'd rather do that every night than have to have heavy curtains on the windows.

In the winter it gets dark as early as 5:00 p.m., so you need curtains or shutters for privacy. You feel like you are on display, otherwise, especially in a house with big windows. In summer we don't often close the shutters at all. It's light until 10:00 or even 11:00 p.m., so there's no need to.

23 March 2007

Puppy pictures, of course

In France, dogs born in 2007 are supposed to have a name that starts with the letter C. We are looking for a name. Here are some that I am favoring at the moment: Câline, Calisson, or Californie. If the new dog gets one of those names, I would call it by a nickname, Cali. That works in English or in French.

The C*** pup, 21 March 2007. She just woke up.

We have until about April 10 to come up with a name. That is when the puppy will be registered in the Livre des Origines Françaises (LOF). We are working on finding and seeing eye-to-eye on a name. There are of course many many options.

So you expected something other than puppy pictures in this posting? Ha!

The W*** holding and petting Mlle C***

I'm still dealing with negative feelings about actually buying a dog, as opposed to adopting one from the SPA, the Société Protectrice des Animaux. The dearly departed dog, Collette, came from the Silicon Valley Human Society. We were just lucky the day we went there, I think, to find such a beautiful and affectionate animal. I took us three weeks to come up with a name for her, and we finally picked one out of a dictionary.

The C*** pup's père, Vince du Vent des Moissons...

...and her mère, Ruby du Berger de la Vallée des Géants

The élevage where we are buying Mlle C*** seems very rustic by California standards. It really is a farm. The dogs and puppies live in a stone barn. The courtyard out front was all mud when we were there, and when the daddy dog, Vince, was brought out to greet us, he was all muddy and jumped up on us.

The Kennel of the Shepherd of the Valley of the Giants.

We spent only about 20 minutes with the puppies and now it will probably be six weeks before we see the C*** pup again. We have a busy schedule for the month of April, so the time will pass quickly. And then it will be a busy summer. Talk about "dog days."

This is the C*** pup. I didn't get a lot of good pictures.

We plan to do crate-training with the new puppy. It's something we never did with Collette. We didn't know any better. But we ended up having to buy a crate — a kennel, called simply une cage in French — for Collette to travel in when we moved to France. So now we'll be able to use it again, along with the collars, harnesses, leashes, bowls, and other pieces of doggie paraphernalia we have stored in the garage. That includes a dog bed my mother made for Collette, who always refused to have anything to do with it. She just stood and barked at it when we tried to get her to sleep on it.

And this is one of the C*** pup's littermates
who was nice enough to pose for a picture.

Near the kennel, there's a funny old church with a twisted steeple — un clocher tors. It's in the tiny village called St-Bonnet-de-Four. There's also a little forest called La Forêt du Château-Charles. Since my first name is Charles, I liked that coincidence. I asked if there was actually a château, but it seems there is not.

I think these funny steeples are not uncommon
in France, but I don't remember ever seeing one before.

22 March 2007

Speeding train takes aim at wall

« Train roulant à tout berzingue se dirige vers un mur. » That's the headline I imagine reading this morning in the local Nouvelle République newspaper.
[Walt just pointed out to me that my train wreck metaphor is not clear at all. What I meant was that I hope that this upcoming puppy-raising experience won't turn out to be too hair-raising. This seems like a big decision and a long-term commitment, and I'm hoping we've done the right thing. Don't need no train wrecks. I'll be writing more about it, as you can imagine.]
Meanwhile, I can't say that Montluçon has an awful lot to recommend it to the casual tourist. Maybe it was because we were there at lunchtime and a lot of shops were closed. No, I don't really think that was it. Maybe it was because it was snowing and sleeting, and a cold, biting wind was blowing.

We were the only people lame-brained enough to be
out on the streets of Monluçon on such a cold day.

The old town looked a little sad, but not nearly as sad as the sprawling industrial area that seems to occupy three-fourths of the city's territory. Because I had read on Wikipedia that the population of Montluçon was 42,000, I pictured a charming, bustling little city set in hilly countryside. I remembered it that way from an earlier visit in 1995. I guess I was jet-lagged that day, having arrived from California only 24 hours before.

In a nice courtyard in old Montluçon, an architect's offices

Montluçon yesterday seemed much bigger than the population figures would indicate. It seemed a little grimy too, but then a lot of places seem gray and run-down when the weather is dreary and cold. We left Saint-Aignan at 9:20 a.m. and drove on the A-71 autoroute at 80 mph to an exit about 15 miles north of Montluçon (toll: 10.50€). It was only 11:00 and we figured we could take the "scenic" route along the Cher River for those last few miles.

It wasn't all that scenic, however, and we drove through an extensive built-up area, with much traffic and many stop lights, before got into the town itself. It reminded me of Vierzon or Châteauroux — not exactly picturesque. We parked and after a minute or two it started snowing a cold, wet, wind-driven mix of rain, ice pellets, and heavy snowflakes.

We had already had lunch by the time we saw this restaurant.

We walked around, damp and freezing, until we had seen and had enough, and then we ducked into a café and ordered a glass of white wine while we waited for the clock to strike noon. Walt said: "This is your typical French experience for the day," referring to the very plain, slightly seedy, and deserted café where Serge Lama's plaintive 1970s classic « Je suis malade » was blaring out of the sound system.

The rooftops of old Montluçon

Trudging through the medieval town and up to the château built by the Dukes of Bourbon, we had seen half a dozen restaurants along the old pedestrian streets. One was Indian, two were Chinese, and the rest were pizzerias. We picked one that served pasta and pizza. We weren't the only customers, I'm happy to report. Walt had snails and I had a salade niçoise as a first course, and then we both had pizza with ham, cheese, and mushrooms. We weren't disappointed with the food.

A church and an old house in the historic district of Montluçon

We ordered a bottle of red wine from the nearby Saint-Pourçain wine area, which we had never heard of before. A card in one of those little clear plastic stands on the table said the wine was made from Gamay grapes, the same as our Touraine wine and as Beaujolais. It was a 2004 and it was good. « C'est du cent-pour-cent Saint-Pourçain », I told Walt.

After lunch, we drove about 30 km east past the towns of Chamblet, Commentry, Doyet, and Bézenet before turning south toward Saint-Bonnet-de-Four and our destination, Ventuile (commune de Blomard). There we arrived at the Élevage du Berger de la Vallée des Géants and — this is the part where it becomes clear that the train is headed into the wall — signed the papers to buy a border collie puppy that was born on February 22 and that will be handed over to us vaccinated, de-wormed, microchipped, and registered in the LOF (Livre des Origines Françaises).

Irrésistibles — the unnamed puppy that
is licking Walt's hand is the one we're getting.

We'll drive back to Ventuile sometime around the first of May to bring the 10-week-old puppy home. Despite all the good advice (can you say "warnings"?) of good friends, we ended up being hard-headed about it. We really wanted a puppy this time, because that's a time of life we didn't get to enjoy with Collette. She was about six months old when we found her at the SPCA.

Chant with us: We hope we know what we are doing... We hope we know what we are doing...

Maybe this rainbow we saw when
we got home yesterday is a good sign.

21 March 2007

First day of spring

While we are waiting for the warm-ish weather to come back, and waiting even longer for really warm weather to settle in, here are some late winter pictures that might make us feel more optimistic.

Monday, 19 March 2007: the weeping,
flowering cherry tree in our front yard

We'll be leaving in an hour or so for our drive down to Montluçon and Montmarault, where we'll meet with a border collie breeder early in the afternoon. The weather report says we should expect snow showers, but nothing worse.

Masses of pink flowers on the cherry tree

We'll be on the autoroute this morning, so it shouldn't take us more than about two hours to get down there. We'll probably have lunch in Montluçon, a town of 42,000 on the upper Cher river.

Close-up of the flowers

Montluçon is built on a site that once was occupied by a Roman fort. It was also the home of the dukes of Bourbon, whose line produced the great kings of France from 1590 until the 1789 Revolution: Henri IV and Louis XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI. Louis XIV reigned for 75 years and was called the Sun King. Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine on the Place de la Concorde during the Revolution.

The Bourbons also reign in Spain. Ha ha, but it's true.

One more fact: the actress Audrey Tautou grew up in Montluçon.

The ornamental cherry tree at La Renaudière

Montluçon is in the Allier department of France, which is also where you'll find Vichy and its waters. And today you'll find us in Montluçon around noon, probably in a pizzeria.

20 March 2007

Last day of winter

It snowed up north of us in Normandy and down south of us in Auvergne where the elevation is higher. That's what I heard on the radio this morning. Here, you can't exactly say it snowed, but it is cold today and there is a very light frosting of snow on the grass, hedges, and outdoor garden objects. Walt just noticed that we are having a snow flurry right now.

Ice on the barbecue grill out in the back yard (20 March 2007)

Today is the last full day of the '06-'07 winter. Spring starts tomorrow. But in French they say April can be cold — don't put on your summer clothes yet ( en avril, ne te découvre pas d'un fil).

There are signs of springtime, as you can see in these pictures. The weeping ornamental cherry tree in the side yard has been in flower for more than a week. The daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia, and primroses are in bloom. But it's cold enough for ducks (il fait un froid de canard) this morning.

The roof of the neighbors' house this morning

The anouncement of the official candidates for the French presidential election was made yesterday afternoon. There are 12 of them. More than 40 wanted to run, but only 12 got the necessary 500 "sponsorships" from qualified elected officials. Four of the twelve are women, and eight are men.

Five candidates are representatives of the anti-libéral far left, including the head of the French Communist Party, three Trotskyites, and the environmental, anti-globalization activist José Bové.

Grapes in the back yard — no leaves yet

Another candidate represents the French Green Party.

Three of the candidates are on the extreme right. The best known is Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National, who once described the Holocaust as "a detail of history." Another is an anti-Europe activist who has extremely traditional views on social issues, and the third represents the French Hunters and Fishermen party.

Frosty flowers on the cherry tree, which
produces a lot of flowers but no cherries

The three candidates who will likely get the largest numbers of votes are socialist Ségolène Royal, centrist François Bayrou, and current rightest government minister Nicolas Sarkozy. These three and Le Pen together will probably get 75 to 80% of the total vote in the first round of the election on April 22. The two top vote-getters will face each other in a run-off on May 6.

All the candidates get equal time on French TV and radio starting today.

A sample of this morning's weather in our back yard

For me, it's time to go to Intermarché. They have cauliflower on special this week. Also pork chops.