Sunday, July 29, 2012


dancing for all
Last night we had quite a storm – rain, wind, thunder and lightning, and if the wind had come up through the cow paddock then it would have been a shit storm as well. It made me wonder how the salsa and kizomba afficionados were doing on the streets of Vic-Fezensac, and if the market stalls and street restaurants had been wiped away.

As much as I appreciated the drenching for my garden, my dusty car, and the rugs hanging off my terrace – notwithstanding a few leaky ceilings around the farm – I was pretty glad when the weather settled down today. I figured that tonight would be the peak night for the festival, and our last chance to see it before an exodus of sleepless kizombies started marching out of town.First view

After parking on the town’s outskirts we walked up to the main drag, where we could see revelries filling the streets off into the distance.

Cafe des sports P1100335
Every cafe seemed to have its own live band or at least enough loud recorded music to support a road-ful of dancers in front. While the place was positively swarming, it never felt too crowded or pushy like say the Notting Hill Festival in London. The main town square was actually quite sparsely populated and the bandstand in the middle stood empty. Music from bands only half a street away in each direction blended harmoniously without forcing you to raise your voice to talk.
Amigos del festival  Munson and the laying on of hands
We slowly drifted through the dancers, enjoying the now mild evening and mostly clear skies still like a brilliant blue opal as the last of the daylight departed. It was nearing 10pm and it felt like the night was just getting started. Cars packed with people were continuing to pour into town, although I thought the street control was pretty poor as there were no signs or barriers to divert drivers from the packed space ahead. As a result, car after car came up to the edge of the crowd and then had to negotiate an awkward three point turn to get out again.

creepy crêpes music restaurant
We got about two thirds away along the main street before some mean-looking security guards told us we couldn’t go any further. There wasn’t anything I could see differentiating the next section from where we were, and Munson wasn’t the only dog being walked. C’est la vie.

I don’t think we were there more than an hour, but it felt like much longer. I wondered if this sort of event could be held in Australia, or if booze would wreck it before the night would get this far. It certainly helps that these old Gascon villages can easily mimic a pueblo or barrio street with little distracting neon or long glass façades to invite injury. If I’d been thinking ahead I might have foregone dinner at home for a table at one of the restaurantes cubanos o antillas.

As we left, the street illuminations were standing out more as the sky darkened, with no visible flagging of energy from dancers, and if anything the volume of inbound traffic had increased. It’s certainly the most energetic of all the Gersois summer festivals and tonight was definitely going to be un gran tiempo.
Last view

Friday, July 27, 2012

To market, to dance

Kizomba time
Vic-Fezensac’s Tempo Latino festival of Latin Music opened officially last night. This morning it has its regular weekly farmer’s market, which as good as excuse as any to see what was in store over the coming days. It’s the season for melons, plums, peaches and salsa.

As I drove into town I could see that the influx of visitors had begun with cars parked over every available footpath, tents pitched and caravans arranged in green spaces everywhere. The usual range of market stalls was enhanced by themed restaurants which had either taken over existing facilities, or which appeared from facilities boarded up for most of the year.

There were also full-service street restaurants already seating tables, such as the one shown below, specialising in food from the Antilles (i.e. Guadeloupe, Martinique etc) and Réunion. The latter is a French island east of Madagascar, which makes it one of the most distant parts of the Eurozone.

The menu on the right is for dance classes at a music restaurant tucked in behind the market’s flower stalls. From the schedule I could see that the first class was in progress, the Angolan Kizomba which
is a sensual dance which probably appeals to those who like to Lambada  although there is no close kinship between them.
Menu  Dance menu
D'Artagnan, Lupiac FêteI’m learning to play close attention to posters around the various towns I visit as that’s the best guide to upcoming events, although they don’t seem to be distributed more than 10-20km from their base.

It seems that in a few weeks, Lupiac will be hosting a fête to celebrate the 400th birthday of its most famous son, d’Artagnan. That’s one for the diary.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Folies aquatiques

Munson afloatThe temperatures are in the high 30s still, which generally means I sleep badly and my whole day is out of kilter between late rising and trying to catch up with a nap.

I had too many errands to run today to lose them to sleep and it’s boring for Munson to stay in under those conditions, so we managed to squeeze in a lake swim as we completed the errand circuit.

Unfortunately about 30 seconds after I got into the water, my Canon D10 camera decided that it was no longer waterproof and the live image on the electronic viewfinder was replaced by a dead black square. It’s thirteen months since my little waterproof Olympus camera expired in the waters of La Concha at San Sebastian.

I’m trying to salvage it using the rice cure, but I’m not optimistic, and not happy either as it’s just under a year old. As to whether the warranty will be honoured, well let’s say that my experiences indicate that this will be made so difficult to pursue as to be a hopeless cause.

Munson of course was oblivious to all this fussing and had a particularly good hour in the water. I think he’s been trying to find a way to really play with me in these waters as he can only stand up very close to the shore. However he really likes it when I throw myself forward into the water and splash about with my arms. This brings out a bit of woo-wooing and enthusiastic leaping about. Let’s hope that I can get Canon service on side as easily.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

School holidays

Otto from underwater Minty
Not having kids, and having switched countries more times than is sensible, I can no longer keep track of when school vacations fall. Just being in a different hemisphere destroys all my intuition as to when they fall. Right now the Munsoneers are midway though a really long summer break so I see them much more often at my door or window asking if they can watch  a movie at my place.

Even more often than that, I can hear them squealing in their little above-ground pool. Today it was Munsoneers 2, 3 and 4 taking advantage of my waterproof camera. I won’t call out the usual suspect for doing anything to strike a pose.

Minty Zelie

The tat in the hat

Old hatWe have another few days of scorching weather to look forward to, which means Munson is snoozing on the cool tiles in the middle part of the house. I’m staying indoors as much as possible, awaiting the next local music event to get away from the farm.

The one “cool” job I can do outside is hand-dredging the pond of all the plant matter that has fallen in over the last few months. In my wellies, with a rake and a shovel, I can work in the shade, left to my thoughts and the random odours and insects that surround me in my mud-dled state. Gustav says I’m working out my inner orch or odjur (Swedish for ogre).

Yesterday I dragged out some decomposing branches which released an odour smelling distinctly like naphthalene (mothballs) or some pungent deodjurant. The only natural sources of napthalene are not found around my pond, leaving me with a meteorite as the only wikipedia-approved option. Oh boy!

And the hat? It’s a stockman suede that I’ve had for over twenty years,  just waiting for the day when I would become a  bouvier or vacher. Well I’m neither of those, not vaquero nor the Anglicized buckaroo, so word-wrangler and voyeur des vaches is going to have to do for now.

Apparently the Swedish for “cow boy” is ko pojke, which makes me wonder if it’s the true derivation of cowpoke, rather than being the designation of those who prodded cows onto railroad cars.  Or my hat is too tight.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Cookbook: Around Peter’s kitchen table

Cookbook ISBN 978-2-7466-4958

I’ve been a guest at Peter’s table for about six years, with fate making us near neighbours twice in two different countries: first at his home in London’s Chiswick, and once more when we arrived in France two years ago.

Even though he’s now in his eighties, he keeps the kind of busy schedule that would shame many people less than half his age. His dining table is always surrounded by those who  share his passions for good food, gardening, fine music and leaves from each other’s lives, well told.

Although he kept a small house in this area for many years, it wasn’t until quite recently that he made his main home in Condom close to the town’s central cathedral, and now, with typical energy has put together this cookery book. He writes about it:

It is an idiosyncratic collection of recipes tried and tested over the years. This is the pays of the duck, rabbit, walnuts, melons, figs, apricots and peaches not to mention tomatoes, peppers, and courgettes all bursting with flavour.

One cooks in my experience, not for oneself but to give pleasure to others. These recipes, which have all done that, are intended as guidelines only ... They have been garnered from many sources and some are my own invention.

Interspersed through the book are vignettes from the lives of the people who brought him to these recipes, and a potted history of his own fascinating life, having worked on several continents. From these life experiences and exposure to various cuisines over six decades has come this collection of 101 recipes.

I bought a copy yesterday and have just read through the biographical sections, and skimmed through many of the recipes, making mental notes of the local ingredients I will now know how to muster towards a respectable meal. The ratatouille he served me two years ago has become a staple in my household, and I look forward to multiplying that with other favourites such as his duck with ginger and pink grapefruit, or clafoutis.

Peter Brown’s Cookbook is handsomely laid out, with chapters covering everything from soups to desserts, by way of salads, poultry and seafood dishes, meat and preserves. I’m sure if food writer Elizabeth David knew what industry and taste has been inspired by her books in the 1950s she would be justifiably proud.

The book is available directly from Peter @ 18 € + postage. Contact him via email: petermarin2 @

Sunday, July 22, 2012

So that's what Brasserie means We’ve reached that time in the year when almost every weekend sees another music festival in the Gers. The two best known are the Mirande Country Music festival from a week ago, and the Marciac Jazz festival in August. Between them are the Vic-Fezensac Tempo Latino, the multi-village Musical Nights in the Armagnac and some smaller events that I missed seeing any advertising for until it was too late. I have yet to find a comprehensive website or mailing list, and even many of the individual event websites are surprisingly inscrutable about details of programs and timing. Cuivro Foli'z
One of this weekend’s less-advertised events is the Festival Cuivro’Foliz in Fleurance, which is a higgledy-piggledy one hour drive east of us. Subtitled the Festival of Fanfares, it’s a celebration of street music and brass bands. I don’t know what the actual title means, and in all the event literature and signage, the apostrophe floats around like an itinerant musician. My suspicion is that it’s a reference to many “brass” instruments being made out of copper or cuivre. The result is Spelling Copper Madness. Welcome to the house of fun.

I was further confused about this one as nearby Condom hosts a brass-band event Festival Europeen de Bandas y Penas (apparently that was in May), which is all brass and percussion, or if you take the Spanish title literally: bands and pains/punishments/sorrows. I can see why they use Spanish text to label the festival, as Douleurs de Cuivre doesn’t have the same ring unless it’s the title of some ballad from Les Miserables. However one must concede that Jean Valjean was more worried about French flics than English coppers.

P1100245  P1100244
After stopping in at Peter’s place in Condom for some games of backgammon and free-range Scrabble (I’ll explain this in another post one day), we proceeded to Fleurance for what seemed to be the busiest part of the Saturday schedule, promising spectacles du rue, a parade and Concert de la Fanfar’Classe.

We got there a bit late, but seeing various unattended alphenhorns and cupric virtuosi snoozing in the shade, realised that this was a very relaxed festival.

la Berezina serpents & ladders
Fleurance’s town square has a large old arcade-lined stone hall in its centre, whose western face was the backdrop for some interesting street-theatre. There was an extended piece of brass-backed clowning in progress with various antics on stilts which seemed to involve a story about sleep-walking around ladders. 
P1100263-001 P1100258
After they were done, a parade around the square with all the assembled musicians setting off in raucous agreement if not perfect synchronicity. You could either watch or follow, so we did a bit of both. Some of the more colourful participants in animal costumes I think to be part of the punk fanfare ensemble Monik et les  Sex Pistons.
The last performance we saw was the debut concert of the Fanfar’Classe a group of all ages and skill-levels brought together for a festival workshop, playing and singing as happily as a pack of malamutes.
 P1100293 P1100289

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dirty Deux Ans

2011-2012Last year I posted on the first anniversary of leaving Australia (July 7), but now I’m going to follow up with a post celebrating our second anniversary of arriving in France.

First a big hug for friends and family back in Sydney, some like my niece Anna hitting their 16th birthday, others having more children to make my family-tree runneth over, or moving to Melbourne (hey Vinnie!) , or just being all round talented and lovely people. Try to remember me when you think of Munson.
I looked back over the posts of the year and saw that while we had some road-trips book-ending the time, that it was mostly the domestic and local pleasures that defined our days as we found our rhythm in this sleepy corner of France.

The first year was rather fraught with paper-chases trying to establish our identity for this and that service, with the usual catch-22's (e.g. you need an electricity account to prove your address for a bank account, which requires a bank account first...) compounded with language difficulties. My visitor visa has been renewed for a third year, so it will be interesting to see where that takes us.

The second year allowed us time to "just be" - at least as much as I've ever "just been". In this time it seems we’ve been pretty busy for having joined the class of nouveau paysant, having:

  • driven to Sweden and back, not once, but twice
  • walked half of Offa’s Dyke, unfortunately defeated midway by de feet wif de blisters
  • induced Gustav to leave Sweden to live with me and thus enjoy a colder winter than he’s had before, but somewhat better coffee
  • introduced Munson to Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands
  • reconnected with friends in several countries that I hadn’t seen in 5 - 25 years
  • connected with fellow-bloggers Walt & Ken in the Loire
  • had a wonderfully dirty time cleaning out my pond
  • collected a few hundred vine-posts for firewood
  • re-learned a lot of cooking skills, including roast lamb, cheesecake (of pumpkin and strawberry varieties), biscotti, beef bourguignon and other slow-cooked stews
  • hosted several sets of guests from the UK and Australia, some of whom have been inspired to start cooking real meals again
  • resumed knitting after a twelve-year hiatus with one pullover, one cardigan and a bunch of snoods to my credit
  • continued to work on my French, occasionally using French graphic novels bandes-desinées as a useful tool
  • written over 200 blog posts
  • grown tomatoes, strawberries, apricots, plums, peas, and an assortment of herbs
  • habituated Munson to both cats and free-range chickens
  • wrote and wrestled with my book-in-progress about living and travelling with Bondi
  • traced my Swedish ancestry backwards through five generations and then forward again to the present day
  • learnt a lot about grass that I hope never to be examined on
  • learnt a lot of about the letter F that doesn’t bear further examination
  • attended fêtes, marchés and the like all over Gascony and in Toulouse and Bordeaux
  • eaten lots of cheese and eggs, cooked liberally with duck fat and dropped both my cholesterol and total blood lipid levels for a second year sans medication.
  • vacuumed up a lot of dog hair (of which see 2012-13)
  • read a lot of books, played a lot of piano, turned off the light and gazed at the Milky Way
  • laughed a lot

You folks remember to live and laugh a little too and take care of yourselves, especially if you don’t have a guardian malamute to manage your life.

I love hearing from folks through the comments and emails you share with me. I’ve recently discovered that a number of people have tried to locate me through Facebook and literally years of those messages have gotten lost in that bottomless pit of “Other” messages that I thought was just group spam.

So I’ve recently set up an El Loco & El Lobo page to soak up those messages and to simplify sharing with RSS and web-phobic friends.

Mike / El Loco

Munson's year

Munsong, le chieng

South-western approach to Lavardens

We visited Lavardens just over a year ago to try out the Watchtower Pub located round the back of the prominent chateau. Like many of the smaller bastide communes around the Gers, they seem like ghost towns most of the time, and then there’s a big event and suddenly you can’t move.  Tonight there’s a night-market, which I found out about via some advertising from a Brit expat band performing there.
street stalls truffade
The main street (rather than the two back streets) was fully lined with booths of artisans, food sellers and trestle tables for casual dining. The chateau and eglise are on a higher bit of ground, split off from the lower town by a few connecting alleys and stairways. That divides the commune up enough to be able to have several musical artists performing at the same time without any sound leaking between them. That was a small relief, as the woman singing some old song about having no regrets to a backing tape of synthesized accordion-playing wasn’t as interesting as the two combos playing at the other ends of town.
connecting alleys
Al Fresco performing
The crowd was pretty mixed between Gersois locals, resident foreigners of many nations and French people holidaying in the area, with accent being my only guide to sort them out. Generally some subtle difference in physiognomy, dress or gait will help sort them out and then some Dutch person or Brit teenager with unaccented French will fool me.

On my first transit of the main drag I witnessed one peculiar conversation between a mother and her young daughter. The child pointed at Munson and said something about  “un beau chien”, and her mother promptly corrected her with “pas chien, chieng!”, driving in the local Gascon pronunciation over what I guess is the “received French” that might be heard on TV (or language tapes).

We wandered up and down a bit, first to make a dinner selection, and then to rewater Munson back at the car which was parked by the chateau. I took the opportunity to capture this early evening scene of the countryside west of Lavardens from whence we’d come today. Somewhere over the horizon before home is the similar-sounding Lagardère – so don’t confuse them!

Lavardens - looking west

We returned to the front of the town where the band were playing Dire Straits and Van Morrison. I perched on the steps of the winged figure on a pillar while Munson received supplicants and got jiggy with des juiletists – those who vacation in July, as opposed to the later aoûtians of August. Apparently one does not want to be on the roads when these two flocks of migratory birds criss-cross at the end of this month.
Munson spreads the love
Can I just say how nice it is to have companions like Bondi and Munson who bring so much simple and unexpected joy to people in the street? You don’t have to work hard at it, people will find you. I’d been talking to the smiling couple above for a while as they were quite curious about our Australian origins. Because it had been quite a hot day, people were concerned that it was hard for Munson. I would explain that we’re both Australians and this weather is comme hiver (like winter) down under, and then you’re off rocking-and-rolling conversation-wise. Except for the young English guy there who thought I’d said we came from Portsmouth. Maybe that’s as far south as he could grasp.

Anyway the holidayers were impressed by the extra Gascon –eng I was throwing in – so I guess they were easy to please after the Munson warm-up act.

We called it a night about 9.30pm as it had been a long day and Munson was probably keen for dinner. I’m sure things were only getting started in Lavardens that night, but it was time to roll off into the soft light of sunset.
Back to the wardrobe

Monday, July 16, 2012

Touring Inferno

Road closed  Munson checks out the route
The 2012 Tour de France is in full swing, and I gather a lot of my friends around the world have been glued to the telly watching the swarm of lycra-clad coureurs pump their legs around most of the French hexagon. I can’t tell you much about it as I’m being short-listed for the honour of being named Australian Most Indifferent to Sport, and the trophy will look so good on my mantelpiece next to my Empty Schooner award for Aussie Least Likely to Drink Beer. That said, the hoop-la around the event is interesting marginalia in the way that watching a fight break out between two religious processions in Naples is more illuminating than the central text.
Since the Tour Eiffel and La Tour de France are the twin pillars of popular French culture I’m taking today out to witness the event as it flashes through Montesquiou, a small commune between here and Mirande where we sampled the Country Music festival a few days ago. I had to check the spelling on this one as there are several places called Montesquieu around France, but only one Montesquiou.

The event’s website helpfully displays each day’s route in the sort of obsessive detail that you’d normally only find on a CERN particle physicist’s collision charts. I believe this is the first time that the Tour has been through Samatan, today’s starting point, so much of this route may as new to the participants as evidence of the Higgs Boson is to the afore-mentioned. I would certainly be more entertained if collisions between Tour cyclists produced a whole new set of lower-energy cyclists ... but then again maybe such collisions are what generates the long tail of unidentifiable competitors. Now I wish I'd paid more attention earlier in the event. At Montesquiou we’re near the middle of the day’s course, at an elevation approximately the same as start and end points. The commune is a small hilly blip on the course profile so they’ll have slowed a bit on the ascent to where we’ll be perched.

I didn’t pay terribly close attention when Jean said the Tour was coming through Montesquiou at 1.45pm other than accepting we’d need to be there at least an hour ahead of time as surrounding roads were closed off. Jean took a car-load of the Munsoneers off to a point west of the town, while Munson and I elected to dive straight into the melee and found a sparsely populated park at the top of the hill with a generous number of shady trees  lining the roadside.
Les Munsoneers du jour What's it all about
We found ourselves in the company of a group of locals, of which at least one of les femmes was self-professed to be folle sur les chiens and certainly none of them could keep their hands off Munson, who was as they said many times, très sage.  I thought this meant “very wise”, but it more commonly means “very well-behaved”. They were very solicitous to Munson, whipping home to fetch biscuits and water for him, and in turn very helpful with me language-wise.

As I’ve found time and again, if you can construct a few jokes in their language, then barriers fall away, although all credit to Munson working malamute magic in making a connection. I’ve noticed that having all the introductory conversation about Munson with essentially known vocabulary is a good way of acclimatising my ear to the speakers’ individual accents. It also lets them know I’m not a totally helpless boob linguistically.

As our group swelled over the next few hours, the Mingling Brothers Circus did its work. Having progressed from meat-queue to Montes-quiou we’re got our little act down pat, or down! patte! in Munson’s case.
Caravan 1 Caravan 2
About half an hour after we arrived, the first vehicle in the Caravan arrived, a white van selling “show bags” of yellow tour tat, including those notoriously dumb magnetic bracelets that the French have taken to their heart as much as the homeopathic magic sugar-pill potions that line every pharmacist’s walls.
Caravan collage
For the next two hours we were treated to an onslaught of elaborately made-up vehicles, some with cheerleaders and pole-dancing marketing droids, others dispensing sample product and logo-wear to the throngs lining the route. We were at ground-zero for the only ad-break that can be seen from space. I was rather bemused by grown men scuttling up and down the roadside trying to collect Tour tchotchkes, nearly getting hit by the trucks breasting the top of the hill with even more manna from Carrefour. I learnt the folly of this when I picked up some juice samples in foil packets which promptly leaked into my pocket, nearly destroying my phone, and leaving a giant juice slick through my shorts and over my thigh. Where, i wanted to know were the sample steak knives, hurled into the eager crowd. If you’re going to have a thirty-kilometre long advertisement, why not make it a gladiatorial event?

Tour tchotchkes Munson avoiding the sky falling on his head

After our group had collected a large stash of flimsy caps, a detergent truck arrived to distribute product samples to wash them with. Munson on the other hand, saw this hail of trashkes as just evidence of the sky falling in, and as any sensible Malamute is wont, kept his head under cover. Even if he were feeling unwell, he could have relied on the constant laying on of hands as he snuggled up against the back of the viewers’ deckchairs and they reached around to give him a scritch or gentle massage.

I should totally hire a car and enter the caravan next year with Munson. I can disperse malamute hair for 2000 kilometres without coming to the bottom of my vacuum cleaner bag.
More coqs than a Sydney Mardi Gras parade
Every twenty minutes or so a burst of police cars and other officials would arrive, and I would take that as a signal that the peloton had arrived. Alas, it was just a burst of local officials getting their day in the sun, and we quickly returned to our program of 99% advertising. It wasn’t till I consulted a time-chart that I confirmed that the caravan was scheduled for 1.45 and the peloton for 3.15 or so. Well I wouldn’t have missed the roadside camaraderie and there was little chance of escaping now anyway since my car was trapped behind late arrivals who had simply stopped their cars in the middle of side roads and walked away.

A guy standing next to me pointed out that a television showing the progress of the course could be clearly seen through an open door across the road, so we were able to gauge where they were from the surrounding terrain. However, the best judge of time was the cloud of press helicopters that presage the cyclists. A few people referred to them as chameaux (camels) but I can’t identify the connection, or maybe I misheard something that very definitely wasn’t hélicoptères.
At 3.18 the advance group of escapees swept past, greeted by my Aussie Aussie Aussie Oy Oy Oy which would have been totally unexpected if heard by Cadel Evans.
Two and a half minutes later the main platoon came through in about the space of a minute, with the tail-end of the bus or gruppetto dragging out maybe ten more minutes. One of the cheeky Munsoneers du jour in my group asked me if I’d seen the Australians. I explained that they were trop vite pour voir (too fast to see) which earned me a wink and a wry smile.

At this stage you can see a number of the cyclists are chatting amongst themselves as if out for a leisurely Sunday drive. With the end of the Tour only a few days away, they’re not out to make any upsets.

3.21 pelaton continues
I popped back to the car for a moment to return Munson’s bucket of water and then asked loudly if any of the French cyclists had been seen or if they were still back in Samatan eating foie gras. Ooh la la! The protests they made, but only half-heartedly as they could see the truth in my remarks.

After the tumult died down, some pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela trundled past, bemused by the crowds lining their path. "Où sont notre cadeaux?" I cried!

And so my sports coverage comes to an end. If you turn to Channel Jean, you can read her account of the day with the kids.