Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Munson the pink-nosed reindeer

Santa Claws
Last night I went over to the big house for champers and cheer with my French family. Lucy and Minty put on their Xmas eve show, not as long as last year’s but their vocal performances have grown more confident and polished.

the gang
The only clothing I have to go with my Santa hat is my Welsh football jersey, which earned me a lot of interrogation from Otto as to what “Cymru” means.
Michael and Zelie
Jean prepared a roast veal for us all on Xmas day, and I contributed a gratin of brussels sprouts which came off rather well.  POSTSCRIPT: The leftovers make an excellent accompaniment to scrambled eggs.

I had made vague plans to join Gustav in Sweden for Xmas this year, but the costs of driving up and back for a second time this year put it outside the budget. Nonetheless I’m very glad to have shared a third Gascon holiday season with my funny French farming family.


Dee Why
My grandfather Griffith Llewellyn Williams was born on this day one hundred years ago in North Sydney. At that time the two sides of the harbour were only connected by water transport: the Sydney Harbour Bridge started construction in 1923 when he was ten, and opened in 1932.

His parents, the Melburnian Beatrice and Welsh-born Griffith were both new to Sydney. She had returned to Australia in late 1911 after five years of exhibition swimming and diving in the UK where she had met her husband-to-be, and he had arrived independently (it would seem) by March 1912, and they were married in Redfern in April.

It is not clear how why they decided on Sydney when Beatrice had strong family roots in Melbourne, but there is evidence that they did spend some time living there when my grandfather was a child. I have a letter from Griffith Sr written on the Sydney-Melbourne train in May 1913, addressed to “my darling wife & baby & Mam”  -  the latter I presume to be Beatrice’s mother, the widowed Sophia Kerr who had chaperoned her daughter to England and back, and was yet to embark on her final three marriages.
Williams family c1919 192x Beatrice & Llyn  Griffith jr + unknown 1930ish
At some point the family ended up in the Bondi Beach area of Sydney and his father became a distributor for the Edison Phonograph Company. Now I know very little about the location or details of this (I eagerly await gentle suggestions from my uncles), but I read from a list of Edison’s companies:
National Phonograph Company, Ltd (Australia)
This company was incorporated on January 4, 1906 to sell Edison phonographs, records, and other products. It was succeeded by Thomas A. Edison, Ltd. (Australia) around 1912 and continued in business until its dissolution on May 12, 1936.
This coincides quite neatly with Griffith Sr’s arrival in Australia and the period up to his early death (cancer?) in 1937. He was also an alderman on Waverley Council from 1925-1931, and the golf-course Williams Park at North Bondi is named for him.

My grandfather, Griffith Jr or “Llyn” as he was known was a very good student and apparently topped NSW in the state School Leaving Certificate. One of his school chums (Sir) Asher Joel became a well known parliamentarian. Llyn went on to Sydney University to study medicine but the harsh economic climate of the Depression saw that direction closed off to him and he spent some time digging ditches. He confessed to me that he could never wrap his head around biochemistry anyway.

He married my grandmother in 1936 (described in her centenary post) and son number one arrived in 1937, although I’m not sure if Griffith Sr ever got to see his first grandchild.  Both of my grandparents were an only child, but seemed to have had no problem raising a large family through difficult war years and beyond.
Image32  Image49  Image53
Llyn worked for the NSW Fisheries Department as an inspector, and took his young and quickly growing family up and down the coast over the years – Brooklyn, Macksville, (Nambucca Heads?, ??) – enabling all the children to be well exposed to the coastal joys of  swimming and sailing.
Image64  195x - with Peter
When my father left school, Llyn took him to get a job at the bank "because he would get a coal allowance”. In later years when my father was working his way through the ranks of various small inland branches of the CBC bank, he introduced his father to golf. Apparently Llyn scored a hole in one on his first game, and while this enabled him to claim that the game couldn’t be that difficult, he did become part of the large golfing clique within the family. I didn’t share so much enthusiasm for the game, yet I remember a day on Mona Vale golf course when the club pro came out to fix us up for equipment. When he paged “Mr Williams” at least seven of us responded.
Beatrice & Llyn - LoveFromMum  Beatrice, cousin Tessa , Marjory, Llyn 1961
Llyn’s last posting before he retired was as inspector for the Sydney Fish Market. My father said that the family got to eat so much confiscated fish during his childhood that he could no longer face seafood – and so I don’t think I ever had anything more exotic than fish fingers for most of mine.
L&M~1970 50th Wedding Anniversary
I don’t remember ever spending much time alone with him away from the rest of the family. From early years I gave him the name “Pipe” although I don’t remember him smoking one – perhaps I just couldn’t get “Pop” right. We did have one night together as the family representatives at the launch of an exhibition at the State Library commemorating his mother’s swimming career.
Mitchell Library exhibition ~1988He passed quickly in 1992, ten weeks’ short of his 80th birthday, in the Dee Why unit where I’d visited them so many times. Although he could be rather gruff, I cannot remember a stern word directed to me. With so many children and grandchildren he had opted for the safe and very charming memory strategy of calling everyone “dear”. Supposedly he was once pulled over in his car by a policeman, wound down the window and asked “what have I done dear?”

As always there are so many questions and conversations that could have been put and had. I’m under the impression that he knew very little about his father’s Welsh background, although Beatrice used to talk it up by saying that he was descended from Llewellyn, the last true prince of Wales. ( However, before chasing that lineage back six hundred years, we run into a problem of an unknown paternity for her father-in-law. Oops. )
The armchair he lived in - with granddaughters Stacey & Kyliethree generations

Monday, December 24, 2012

Rocking up to Roquebrune

view from Kenny's farmhouseLate this morning I drove towards Mirande to drop off a surprise gift of an armagnac prune cake I’d made for friends Kenny & Zamira who have a farm a few minutes north of the town. With the clear views to the south, it’s awesome weather to be driving towards the Pyrenées.
over the wire at Kenny's  Saint-Arailles
As it turned out they weren’t home, but I stepped out to enjoy the southwest prospect they enjoy from their front door. I wandered over to one of the barns to take the picture over the hay-feeder below and brushed up against the gate-rope, which I now know to have electrified wire in the rope. Oh for Munson’s furry insulation!

Turning north again we passed through Montesquiou where we’d viewed the Tour de France in July, and a little later I saw the church spire of a bastide village off the road to our right. Following a narrow avenue and then a brief ascent and entry through the town gate, we arrived outside the mairie of Saint-Arailles. While quite tiny, the row houses behind the mayoral office seemed to be in very good condition, the most recent renovations in the commune’s seven centuries. The town’s name derives from the third century virgin martyr Saint Eulalie of Barcelona who was murdered by the Roman governor Dacen by being placed in a barrel of broken glass and rolled down an alley.
Saint-Arailles mairie

Castet dous aousets e de las flous


A phrase engraved on a gatepost caught my attention

Castet dous aousets e de las flous

It seems to be somewhere between Latin and modern French, Occitan or even Catalan.
Ten kilometres further north another bastide beckoned. This was the even tinier hamlet of Caillavet with an old chapel bearing a frame of four bells. There was barely room to turn the car outside the (locked) chapel and I stayed only for a few minutes as nothing else caught my eye within the commune or on the horizon.Caillavet (apologies for windscreen reflection)
Our last stop was to be the  commune of Roquebrune  which lies between the two roads running south of our closest market town, Vic-Fezensac. The word “roque” appears in many place names in this part of France, and is etymologically more Spanish in its meaning of “rock (formation)” or Italian rocca rather than the French “pierre” which also shows up in many variant spellings. Roque  is variously fused with French words and particles to give us Larroque, Roques or Roquebrune (brown rock), rocca gives us Rocamadour. With the Portuguese roca for cliff, you can see how the various usages often assemble in one site that has has rock formations, cliffs and (subsequently) a fortification or castle. Roquer survives in French as the verb “to castle” in the game of chess.

This was the most developed and spacious of the three communes we stopped at. Walking with Munson up the main street towards the well and half-timbered house shown, I saw a sign announcing a “point de vue” , which led us around the edge of the rock roque rocca promontory on which the village sat towards a little grassy area which managed to seem both secluded and spectacular with more than a three compass-point sweep across the countryside.
Munson @ Roquebrune point de vue
Not a bad day, and we have a spare cake to eat….

Sun arise and drive away the darkness

When the crack of dawn falls after 8am it’s so much easier to get lovely photos of my Gascon world coming to life. As the ground became visible, a troop of chickens came into view, nabbing the early worms. Even six months ago there were dozens of rabbits around here, but they’ve been moved on thanks to Tosca’s appetite hunting prowess.

Munson watching sunrise  8.13am Pyrenees over pond

So this is Xmas weather?

Two days to Xmas and it’s warm enough (16C) to be out in t-shirt and shorts. Munson not so much, but I can leave the door ajar at night for him without worrying about a chill. The sun’s warmth never feels so good as on supposedly wintry days like these. 

Two years ago I was pulling up vine posts for firewood from several of the fields behind me. There’s still plenty of firewood left, but I’m not using much this week as even the nights have been mild. Poor Gustav has been suffering back home in Sweden where it’s about fifteen degrees cooler. In lieu of vine-posts for daily exercise I’ve brought out my hoe to do some thistle and bramble clearing on our rounds.
back of farm
It’s projected to get a little warmer still in the days ahead. Even if the skies stay as clear as Sydney at Xmas  it helps to stave off the winter blues.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pyrenéan peak-a-boo

Pyrenées from 150km
We’ve had the most amazingly clear views of the Pyrenées today, nothing quite like it in the two years we’ve been on the farm. With clouds over our patch of turf, but sunshine over the mountains accentuating every patch of snow, the usually formless ridge was now exposed in great detail. On a good day I can see them across my terrace and the pond while still lying in bed, but it’s not easy to get them in focus. Stepping outside the house, away from intervening trees, I captured this view down our driveway to the peaks 150km beyond.

Click on the image above to get a much higher resolution picture than I generally publish. It’s 6000+ pixels wide so you should be able to zoom in still further.

A little closer to home, I was over at the big house (it’s like a juveline version of Sing Sing) when the two youngest members of the family piled into my lap. Minty always tries to own the space in front of the lens, while Zelie just wants to take over any touch screen. Put them both in front of a touch phone camera and anyone else recedes further into the background than our distant mountains.
Minty, Mike & Zelie (1)  Minty, Mike & Zelie (2)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Factory

PC191143 PC191146
One of the interesting stalls I saw at Auch’s Marché de Noël on Sunday was a collection of recycled and reinvigorated furniture from a local cooperative  Valoris. From their garbage collection and recycling activities, they operate the ressourcerie La Fabrique workshop.
2012-12-19 Auch
In the workshop I saw a few kitchen cabinets which I wish I’d seen two years ago when I was furnishing the house here. The flat-pack cabinet that I bought at Conforama may be the most complicated piece of kit that has ever travelled the route from Auch to Vic-Fezensac, along which fuselage-sized Airbus parts travel regularly. While I can put almost anything from IKEA together very quickly, the last time I saw anything like this cabinet’s parts list and exploded assembly diagram was when I visited the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington.

La Fabrique did look a bit like my lounge during the three days it took me to put together the Conforama nightmare, albeit without my blood and tears as garnishing. They are however a lot more creative with the raw materials. There were some small figures made from metal and glass at the Xmas market that I really liked but they had already been sold. The “robot lamp” below is another witty piece.

robot lamp

I had a good poke around the workshop and found a small item that hadn’t already been sold, but I will check back with them in a month or so to see what else they’ve conjured up from scrap.

The Ressourcerie may be found at 21 Rue de Repos, 32000 Auch (across the road from the cemetery). They’re open to the public on Wednesday afternoons 2-6pm, and Saturdays 9-12 & 2-6.

Munson entertains the factory artisans

Monday, December 17, 2012

Weaving across the Gers

Auch Marché de NoëlI really thought I’d done with Xmas markets for the year, but since we’re being spoiled with yet another sunshiny almost warm day, I felt that we were wasting the opportunity for a glorious drive through the Gascon hills.

First stop was Auch, capital of the Gers department and somewhat oddly, the least likely community to stage any major cultural events*. The Maison de Gascogne in the centre was pretty busy with two-levels of stalls, and I was relieved that the offerings were more varied than I’ve seen in the Gers so far this year. With apologies in advance to any senior madames reading, I do find that most of the Gascon stalls are rather twee and old-ladyish or turned towards expensively-boxed selections of armagnac and duck bits which are in all the supermarkets anyway. Today I picked up a handwoven rug from Scott McNutt, an Irishman who’s been living in the Gers for ten years or so and continues working at a loom as part of the family tradition he learnt in Donegal. As I’ve travelled around Europe it’s these handmade practical articles that I have most appreciated, that connect me most to the memories of my time in different countries. While the Gers is devoid of any large-scale industry I’m sure I’m missing out on some smaller-scale craft that is native to the area and not just the output of expatriate artists and craftspeople. Is the creative impulse just expressed in terms of food and wine? I don’t know.
shetland ponies
When we popped out the other side of the market hall, I found that other visitors had parked their malamute-sized beasts on the street. While Munson would have been delighted to meet these ponies, it’s just not a wise thing to surprise them in a public place.
Pyrenees on the horizon
Next stop was Marciac, about 48km southwest, and while a familiar destination, I’d not taken this particular route before. It proved to be a glorious choice as we followed many east-west ridges parallel to the Pyrenées that allowed us to enjoy the autumn colour and the snowy peaks for most of the journey. Closer to Marciac, the sun dropped behind the tallest peaks, giving them a blue halo and then as we descended from the last ridge, mountains were replaced by tree plantations, bare of leaves but gripped by beads of mistletoe up and down the trunks as if designed to be towering  abacuses.
3D mistletoe abacus
We reached Marciac at 5pm, just as the street-lights were starting to make a difference. One year ago, it was so cold in this square that the turnout was very low and we rapidly went on to the Mirande fair. Most of the activity was sheltered under the arcades around the square where we did a slow circuit, stopping to talk to familiar stall-holders and some folks we’d bumped into at the Arch market hours earlier.

Marciac Marché de Noël
Munson and the muffins
It was quite dark when we set off for home, the day time scenery now hidden and new buildings brought into view by electric lights, completely changing the character of the route.
Auch - Marciac
*I recently discovered Auch has an annual musical festival Éclats de Voix (literally: shards/splinters of voices,  or as Google Translate suggests more mundanely “Shouting”) which is not advertised or cross-promoted with any of the other popular music festivals in the area. I belatedly learnt of concerts by the likes of Angelique Ionatas, Dame Felicity Lott and a bunch of intriguing new names which I would have leapt at when they were staged in June.

As I drove into Auch I saw a billboard indicating a week-long exhibition of artisanal works at the Parc des Expositions and that today was the final day – unfortunately I have no idea where this parc may be, and there is no listing on the town maps or in the phone book. I walked around to the tourism office, but it was closed, and had just a tiny map taped to the window. Before we drove on to Marciac I spent about half an hour trying to find it. My best guess was the Parc  d’Endouminge where the country fair is staged so I drove towards that - not helped by two signs on adjacent roundabouts pointing at each other to indicate where it was.  I do hope someone turned up to give these craftspeople some return on their time. I know from talking to vendors at various markets that it’s very costly for them to put aside time for such an event, and they often find an event is cancelled and no notice given.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Marché de Munson

Especially Munson  Espace Saint Michel - Marché de Noël

It has been bloody cold all week, so we’ve been be-rugged and be-slippered indoors before the fire most days. Today surprised us not only with a 5-6C lift but also some sunshine. Through the middle of the day I took Munson to Condom to view the Xmas market in what is called Espace Saint Michel. I thought that might just be outdoor area as no address was listed – it’s quite common in the Gers for such public buildings to be simply addressed with the town and nothing more – but it turned out to be a small deconsecrated church.

From the moment we reached the entrance, Munson owned that place, and it doesn’t hurt to be told how sage and bien élevé he is. A little bit of high-fiving hand-to-paw goes a long way. I was asked several  times if he was a chien de traîneau du Père Noël (sled dog for Father Christmas). Bien sûr!

The red panels at the end of the espace are a small exhibition of old photos of Condom. It made me wonder how many digitised photos from today will be available for public viewing in future times.

Not quite the Serengeti

the boys watch the cat watch the cows go by

Occasionally my terrace view of glorious sunrises, misty mornings and horizon-spanning lightning storms actually has some animal activity. The herd was being moved by Brent and Jean from the newly-fenced field below the pond to the corral. Naturally one of the barncats – Candyshop this time – came to assist.