Category Archives: Travel Journal

Lessons in French – Part 4

Laurel and Paul and I made our way along the footpath to Montaigne’s tower for the 4:00 tour. We joined a small group that was gathering in the chateau’s inner courtyard. The brown donkey, still dusty from an earlier bath, poked her head out of a barn door. Laurel slowly approached her, murmuring softly (probably in French), and they had a little visit while we waited. A few minutes later a young woman announced that the tour was starting, and handed out laminated translation sheets.

Inner Courtyard of Chateau de Montaigne

Upon entering the tower, we were told to watch our feet as well as our heads as we climbed the narrow, stone stairs. The temperature was refreshing, and as we stepped into the chapel, I was taken by how tiny it was. Our tour group barely fit inside. I pressed my back against the cool wall, letting the unused translation sheet drop to my side. I took in my surroundings, staring at the altar as our guide spoke reverently of Montaigne, the skeptical author and accidental philosopher who had once worshiped in this room. I wondered if he had found comfort here, and I could imagine that he had.

Slowly we climbed up and up, through Montaigne’s bedroom and study, and then we were in his library. We were told to take no pictures except from the open leaded glass windows that overlooked the gardens. The library ceiling held long, wooden beams. I had read about the beams. On them were inscribed quotes and passages, in both Greek and Latin. And now here they were. It was said that Montaigne would walk around his library, deep in thought and contemplation, and gaze up at the inscriptions, as if gazing up at the stars, looking for guidance and inspiration.

After others in the group had taken their pictures, I strolled over to one of the narrow windows. The view was of a bright sky and motionless clouds. Below was a grassy area shaped like a lion’s paw, surrounded by hedges and trees. As I stood there, it struck me that Montaigne had done the same, in this exact spot, almost five centuries before me.

View from Montaigne's Library

I don’t know how long I was there, but after a few minutes I turned away from the window and looked around for the others. But the room was empty. The small tour group had moved on, and I found myself alone in his library. A sudden melancholy came over me, from where I didn’t know. Maybe Beethoven’s music had seeped into me and mingled with that bittersweet feeling of knowing that I would probably never see this place again. I would never walk through this tower, or stroll in the gardens or pass the vineyards. I may never again know the rustic and elegant beauty of the south of France.

I wanted to somehow capture and take with me the essence of the people and the places and all of my experiences. But how does one do that? How could I possibly hold onto my memories and share all that I had seen and done? I let out a long breath, and felt a deep appreciation for my life. I was so grateful for the gift of travel, and for my chance to explore other places and cultures, and to expand my awareness. This I would take with me and forever hold close.

As I was about to leave the library, I turned around for one last look, and I again thought of Montaigne. Though a nobleman, he considered himself an ordinary man; a man many say invented the essay as a literary genre.  Now, he is sometimes called the godfather of blogging. What made him extraordinary, I think, is that he took the time to explore and write honestly about his observations and ideas on the human condition.

He wrote of love and death, of friendships and dreams, and of cats and everyday events. His thoughts on the psychology behind successful confrontations would soon play out for me in real life. Montaigne couldn’t abide cruelty, having witnessed the atrocities committed during the never-ending religious wars of his time. And yet he trusted in the goodness of people, and welcomed all through his unlocked doors.

Montaigne wrote and re-wrote his Essais about all of these things and more, not as a way of telling others how he thought they should live, for often, after the completion of an opinion, he would doubt his conclusion by asking, Que sais-je? Instead, he explored his life and the lives of others, and shared with us how he lived, and in doing so, offered us a reflection of our own lives. Perhaps he was trying to say that in the end we are all the same, human and animal, and all lives matter.

I thought about this as I carefully navigated the steep stairs of Montaigne’s tower, a path he must have taken a thousand times. I wondered what he would have thought of blogging, about having a way to instantly share one’s stories. I’d like to believe that Michel Eyquem de Montaigne would have approved. But then again, Que sais-je?

Garden at Chateau de Montaigne

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Lessons in French – Part 3

We left Duras in the early afternoon and headed north, along the D708. Our plan was to make it to St. Michel de Montaigne, and to Montaigne’s chateau, in time for the 3:00 tour of his tower. When we finally arrived in the town we missed the tiny sign directing us to the chateau, so we turned around and soon found our way to the entrance of what looked like a large, leafy park.

We drove slowly along the fenced lane, surrounded by clusters of trees and grapevines and an occasional farmhouse. There was nothing touristy to catch our attention. We might have been on an afternoon drive to a winery in California’s Napa Valley.

A sign led us to a grassy parking area. The place was still and quiet and quaint, and it felt as if we’d stumbled onto someone’s private property, which in some ways we had. An old, white-washed barn stood nearby, so we walked over and stepped inside.

The interior was cool and dark, and was filled with pictures and postcards, and homegrown wine and other items for sale. A young French woman standing behind a wooden counter told us that the 3:00 tour was full, but that another would start at 4:00. She said she wasn’t sure yet if the tour would be conducted in French or in English.

We purchased a bottle of wine as a gift for our hosts back at our gite, and since this day-long pilgrimage during our Vacances Français was my idea, I treated Laurel and Paul to the entrance fee of €8 each.

We went back out into the afternoon heat and walked around and explored. There was a tree-lined path that offered shade, so we stepped inside and took our cool time. Bees were buzzing in the nearby trees. At the other end of the path there was a grassy lawn and short hedges, suggesting a garden. But what caught my eye, and took away my breath, was the tower, and beyond it the fairy-tale chateau.

There it was.

Michel de Montaigne's Tower

A narrow footpath circled the property, so we strolled along, and then we sat for a few minutes on a stone wall that overlooked the lush valley below. We continued to the front of the chateau, which we’d learned was privately owned and not open for tours.

Of Neo-Renaissance architecture, the chateau and connecting buildings had been re-built after a fire in the late 1800s. The only structure not damaged by the fire was the circular tower itself, which is the main tourist draw. It was Montaigne’s “Room behind the Shop” and housed his chapel, study, bedroom, and the library where he wrote his Essais.

As we were making our way back to the tower, we passed a walled-in side yard and spotted two donkeys coming out of a barn. One was brown and the other grey. The brown one, maybe the mother, lay down on a round, well-worn patch of dirt and had herself an afternoon dust bath. We stood for a while and smiled and took pictures of this little ritual. It was so peaceful and rustic and real.

The moment became surreal when out of the silence, in the distance, I heard piano music. It was most certainly coming from the chateau. Someone was playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and its minor chords wafted over to us. I closed my eyes and listened. I was at Michel de Montaigne’s home in the south of France, on a summer day, with my friends and these animals and this music, and I was alive.

Chateau Michel de Montaigne


Lessons in French – Part 2

Although there are far worse things in life than becoming lost while on a drive with friends through the French countryside, we were all tired and ready to stop for lunch. So Laurel, on a hunger-fueled navigational mission, studied the map and confidently led us back to the main road. Paul then pointed our little rental car northwest, in the general direction of Bordeaux and the Château de Montaigne.

We drove through green valleys dotted with grapevines and patches of forest, and soon came to a market village called Duras. As we followed along the road that skirted the town, we passed the impressive Château de Duras on our left. We then spotted a sign for Office du Tourisme, so Paul quickly found a place to park and we hurried over. We were relieved to find that the office was still open, and not yet closed for the midday break.

The large room was bright and full of colorful maps and brochures lined up along the walls. Neither of the young people working there spoke English, but much to our delight, a woman I hadn’t noticed when we walked in started talking to us. Though her English was filtered through a French accent, hearing our own language spoken while in a foreign country was like running into an old friend.

The woman had graying hair and an easy smile, and seemed to be waiting just for us. After we got a detailed map of the area, as well as a brochure about the Château de Montaigne, we asked the woman if she knew of a good place to eat. She said she did, and started to explain how to get there, but then changed her mind and instead decided to show us. So we walked together, in the heat of the day, zigzagging our way up narrow lanes framed by weathered buildings, and eventually entered a pizzeria called Don Camillo.

Don Camillo Pizzeria, Duras, France

We thanked the woman for her kindness, but she wasn’t done with us yet, so we followed her through a couple of mostly empty dining rooms to the back of the restaurant, and out onto a shady eating area. We stood with her for a moment, looking at all of the crowded white tables, thinking we’d be in for a bit of a wait. But almost immediately another woman approached us and warmly greeted our guide. We were introduced, and then we said our good-byes to the lovely French woman. As we took our seats, we were kind of stunned at what just happened.

Despite the heat, I ordered a pizza as well as my usual coffee with cream and sugar, café crème avec sucre. As we waited for our orders, we spread out the map and determined that we were still about 40 kilometers from Montaigne’s château. It was hard to gauge how long it would take us to get there, as I had learned soon after arriving in France, what looked like a short distance on a map could easily turn into a very long drive in the French countryside.

Just as I was marveling at the fact that I was really here, in the south of France, about to walk through Michel de Montaigne’s tower and library, two light-colored cats suddenly appeared at our feet. They looked us over, perhaps having heard me order something with “crème.” They might have also pegged us as tourists and therefore easy marks for handouts.

After their greeting, our feline freeloaders strolled over to a shady area and plopped down on the cool cement to watch us and wait for their meal. I might have imagined it, but they seemed to be purring to each other in French, and I wondered if they were talking about us. This thought struck me as perfectly appropriate, considering our destination for the day was the home of a 16th century cat lover who had mused, “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”

Once our meals arrived, I noticed that my café already had the crème blended in. The cats must have realized this and soon disappeared, without even an au revoir. Maybe they weren’t looking for a free meal after all, I thought, but had merely stopped by to welcome us. Anyway, after a delicious lunch and a relaxing walk back to the car, we were again on our way.

Michel de Montaigne

 


Lessons in French – Part 1

It was already hot as we set off from our gite in Verdun-sur-Garonne, in the south of France. Paul was driving, with Laurel sitting next to him. As the navigator, Laurel was constantly looking down at the map spread out on her lap. Each roundabout brought on a few anxious seconds of, “Okay, let’s see, do we turn here? No not yet, it’s the next one.”  There seemed to be a lot of roundabouts, and as we approached each one I wished, mostly for Laurel’s sake, that we’d paid the extra euros for a rental car with GPS.

I lounged in the backseat, behind all the navigating going on up front. I had the luxury of doing absolutely nothing but relaxing and looking out the windows and taking in the views. I was quiet as I listened to their back and forth marriage dance, and remembered my own from long ago. I was both happy that I didn’t know it anymore and a little sad that I didn’t know it anymore.

I stared out the windows as we passed meadows and pasturelands, and fields of tired sunflowers, their faces now drooping in the sun. I studied the leafy forests, with their narrow trunks lined up in symmetrical rows. As the morning moved on, the landscape slowly gave way to grapevines and vineyards as we made our way to Château de Montaigne, home of philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne.

Chateau Michel de Montaigne

At some point, as we were winding our way along the back-roads through gently rolling hills, we realized we were lost and should probably ask for help. The same thing had happened a couple of days ago, when we were on our way to Albi to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. On that day Laurel said she would ask directions from a utility worker we had just passed on a small country road. So as Paul and I waited in the car, Laurel grabbed her map and jumped out and approached the man.

When she got back she described him as having dreadlocks and a sharp piercing right below his lip. She said that when she asked him if he spoke English, “Parlez-vous anglais, Monsieur?” he replied, “A leetle.” He then showed her on the map how to get back to the main road. She said he was really friendly and seemed to enjoy practicing his English. Thinking back on it now, I’d say Laurel enjoyed the exchange as much as he did, and that if our rental car did have GPS, human interactions like this one would never happen.

I smiled as I thought of Laurel, and was impressed with her willingness to strike up conversations with strangers, in a language she barely knew. She seemed to like it, and maybe the other party did, too.

I thought about my own limited foreign vocabulary and my reluctance to use it. So far all I’d managed were a few basic phrases, certainly not extended conversations like Laurel. I was watching her, though. She always started with “Bonjour” and then politely asked the other party if they spoke English. Most of the time the answer would be a shy smile, a little shrug of the shoulders, and “un peu.”

That’s when both parties tentatively began their conversation, which consisted of a little English, a little French, and a lot of body language. Mutual smiling, confusion, nodding, gesturing, and understanding looks made for a successful connection.

Though I couldn’t know it then, these observations would prove useful to me in a few days, after we’d left our gite and flew to Paris and I found myself face-to-face with a thief.

But this day, in the peaceful French countryside, was for carefree adventures and gentle discoveries.


Welcome to Café de Flore

You follow the maître d’ to the back of the café, where, with a flourish two tiny tables are moved aside so you can tuck yourself in. The tables are quickly pushed back in front of you and here is your elegant waiter. He has a kind smile and nods as you slowly order hot chocolate in your practiced French. He’s heard it all before but that’s okay.

Then the presentation and the richness of the chocolate and yes it’s that good and now you’re smiling.

Your waiter winks as he hurries by and catches you taking a picture. And there’s an American actor sitting a couple of table’s down, beneath a window. And then you enter the flow of the place and notice the art deco and the lighting, and you catch your reflection in a mirror and she’s a tourist but that’s okay.

There’s a wooden staircase to explore and you climb it, just because, and on the way up you pause at the pictures. The famous faces and the dining and the drinking and the history. You turn and you are still for a moment as you inhale deeply and take it all in. Welcome to Café de Flore.

Cafe de Flore, Paris