On a sun-drenched summer afternoon, sitting on our terrace in southern France, looking out on densely forested mountains dotted with yellow blossomed genet d’espagne bushes, a gentle sigh escapes my lips; a sigh of contentment…a sigh of bliss.
This is our 5th summer adventure in France, not counting the initial 2-week backpacking adventure along the eastern portion of the Cathar Trail —the 2 weeks which captured our hearts and changed our lives forever. Where has the time gone? And, perhaps more importantly, how many more of these tranquil, languid, amazing summers are in my future? Seven or eight? Twenty? Thirty? As I step toward the precipice of my 50th birthday it is my sincere hope, no…indeed a prayer, that each and every summer of my remaining days on this earth will be spent right here, on this very spot in Southern France. This village of Axat: where the hours drift by all so slowly, and the days pass all too quickly. Where the gentle sounds of the high village waft up to my ears; sounds of babbling water running down from the mountain top into the drainage system, of our dear friend Poul working on yet another project at his daughter’s house up the road, of Pierrot repairing a gate or repairing one of a myriad of objects, of Madame Paulette commenting on the comings and goings in her unique 80+year old Occitan way. The tolling of hour, and the half-hour, from the ancient church bells. The whistle of the approaching tourist train, whisking history eager tourists to and from the Axat station. And best of all, the chorus of birdsong all through the day; from pre-dawn till well past dusk their voices melodiously filling the air. From the mournful dove, to the tiny yellow finch with its mesmerizing coloratura melody, to the evening screech owls, it’s a feast for the ears and a balm for the soul.
So often we are asked ‘Why Axat? Why here?’ And the answer is as simple and elusive as the puffy seedlings of the cotton trees; all around us and yet impossible to gather together. There is a peacefulness – a sense of centering – when you find the place where your heart, your mind, and your spirit feel most calm, most at home…that is ultimately where you should be. As composer and friend, Ola Gjeilo, has taught me, it is my ‘Innisfree’.
So what have we been up to since last I blogged, you may ask? So many adventures! Where, oh where to start?
We hosted a dinner party for some of our closest neighbors, and never in my life did I wish I had a larger place to hold such an event…I wish I could have fed everybody in our High Village this wonderful multi-coursed dinner I spent 2 days preparing:
1- freshly toasted crostini w/tomato spread, thinly sliced cured filet of pork, and grated Brebis cheese – served with olives & muscat wine
2- chilled asparagus soup – served with champagne
3- butter poached cabillaud (Atlantic cod) w/beurre citron sauce – served with salad & champagne or blanquette (choice)
4- slow cooked beef stew provencale-style over fresh, buttered noodles – served with red wine from a local producer (Languedoc-Roussillon)
5- Desserts en verrine from a local chef/friend: chocolate mousse, crème speculoos, fromage blanc with red berry compote, and panacotta with raspberries – served with Banyuls
I ran our rental car into a ditch. Now, that may seem like a total pain the a** to many of you, but here it become a bit of an adventure. So here’s how this happened. See, there are only a few options on where to park in our High Village, and pretty much once you choose your place – you keep it. Our place is not exactly in front of our house, but rather down one level and in front of our house (we’re on a very sharply descending hairpin turn). So, when I returned home from errands on a recent afternoon, and Gerrard was parked in front his his gate, and Poul was parked in front of a turn-around spot, and the people up the ascending road were parked in their spot…well, I had to keep going up toward the grassy overflow lot at the very tip top of the village to turn around to get into our usual spot. (hindsight tells me I could have easily parked in Giselle’s spot…as she’s not here now….but that’s the beauty of hindsight) So, as I crossed the railroad tracks over the skiddy gravel, and rounded the sharp left turn, gravity took me a smidge off the gravel road and put me off the right side of the road…which had about a 2 foot drop off hidden by tall weeds.
What to do? Get out, walk down the gravel road, see Bernard a bit in the distance, tell him I’ve run off the road, and stay out of the way as men come of out of houses here and there to offer the help. It was truly amazing watching the initial assessment, the decision making, the attempts to free the car, the re-evaluations, the call to the local mechanic for advice (assertaining that there IS no tow-truck), the bringing in of wood planks, boards, and assorted equipment to free the car….and finally the pulling back onto the road in a successful motion with wood/rope/jacks and lots of ‘Doucemant! Doucemant!’ Cool beverages in hand around table to recount their success – the men go their ways proud of their manliness and happy for the diversion. It is my understanding that by early next morning I was the talk of the town as my foibles, and their heroism, was recounted over coffee in the local bar/cafe. Let me just say, that what’s told in the local bar/cafe is never to be questioned. What happens in Axat…well, you know the rest.
When we bought the house it came with the appliances. No, this is not the norm in France. Generally speaking, you get a house with nothing in it….no appliances, no cupboards. However, I flexed my American muscles when informed that the homeowners intended to ‘take the kitchen’ and said that would be fine – but I’d pay them 5,000 euros less for the house. End result: I got a fully equipped kitchen which I’ve been quite happy with…except for the fridge. Yes, it works very well, but it’s just too little to handle my obsession with buying fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats at the weekly markets. So I’ve been wanting one a little larger since 2011. Unanticipated house repairs and other financial events have prevented this desire from becoming reality – until last week when my brand new frigo arrived at the Esperaza Intermarche store and I have been truly giddy since. Significantly increasing the refrigeration capacity, with more efficient layout, design, energy efficiency, and bottle storing capabilities for blanquette, rosé, muscat, banyuls, bubbly water, still water, luscious milk, and multi-fruit juice, while significantly decreasing the freezer space (only needs to hold ice and vodka…seriously) has made me the happy camper of the year. Topping my sundae of happiness was the price: 100 euros less than I expected to pay! Hee Hee Hee! When’s the next market day?
Ah, and then there is the physical education side of our living here. Joe is my coach and personal trainer. It’s a great arrangement: I eat anything I want because he knows that he’s going to take me up something so high, so rugged, so physically and emotionally demanding that all those calories, and then some, will be burned away in the process. As I approach my 50th birthday I announced that I would climb Canigou to mark the date. Canigou is just west of the town of Perpignan, and is the highest mountain peak in the Eastern Pyrenees at 9137 feet tall. There are two ancient monasteries at the foot of Canigou, and to mark the festival of St. John, each June 23rd during the evening, climbers bear a giant torch up the mountain to light a gigantic pyre to honor the beloved Saint. This fire is then brought down the mountain to light smaller pyres in regional villages.
Needless to say, Joe needed to get me ready to summit this mountain – and how better than a series of climbs? Up and around the Devil’s Spine above Belvians: a 5K hike along a French sculpture path near Mayronnes: up to the rocky outcrops above Axat through steep logging paths, and no paths, to breath-taking heights above our little village:
and finally, up Le Madres; a 3800 foot climb to a height of 8100 feet! The 8-hour trek had me exhausted nearly to the breaking point mentally and emotionally, but happiness, accomplishment, and satisfaction prevailed. Only 1 minor slip upon descent, resulting in a truly unremarkable bruise on my left shin…perhaps a record low on the injury scale for me, has me feeling positive about the impending climb up Canigou next Tuesday. It is amazing to me, how when we got past all other human life (in this case a troop of nearly 25 pre-teens and their parent leaders), beyond the foot prints of any others, how the world opened up to us. The sky was wider. The birds were more plentiful. A herd of 35+ wild alpine deer eyed us with intrigue and caution. Marmots whistled warning alarms, yet stood their ground as we took in the beauty of their furry being. A wild goat, perhaps an ibex or ibex/goat cross, bounded by us with a grace, speed, and agility I have never before witnessed. His sheer confidence carrying him over rocks and boulders like a gust of wind. Beauty unparalleled. Sights I never imagined I’d see with my own eyes.
Welcome 50. You may find me with a few wrinkles on my face and an artificial tint to my hair, but I welcome you with a twinkle in my eye and a sense of adventure in my spirit. I will not greet you with a reduction in my butter or wine consumption, but I will feast of the goodness of this earth – and I will make it up that Mountain!