Monday, September 28, 2009

albi revisited

Nicholas had to go to Albi, a local town, to do some research on barns for the renovation, so I went along for the ride and to see somewhere new. I had passed through on my way here but I was hitch hiking, carrying my big pack and it was over 30 degrees so I didn’t explore very far. This time I was better prepared and didn’t have the challenge of finding transport to get home.

A well preserved old town, stunning brick built cathedral, the only one in europe, with completely painted interior, amazing gardens, indoor market and plenty to keep me occupied for most of the day. Check out the photos.........

a series of small walls

Nicholas has finished requiring mortar every couple of hours and has found me other tasks that need attending to. Earth needs to be moved from in front of an doorway so that it can be properly enclosed for the winter. This meant shovelling soil into buckets and carrying them down the garden out of the way. The wheelbarrow wheel was punctured so no good at all. Positive attitude, a bit of exercise and a bit more exercise, that is one of my goals - to get fitter, it’s in the sunshine early on, with shade during the heat of the day and there may be treasure to be found.

Two days later I have longer arms, and now a wheelbarrow that works, three impressive piles of excavated material, one of stones and two of earth but no treasure. I have begun to find interesting things, well, to some. A series of small walls extending from the corner of the present building in several directions, one was expected and the other not, a third may give clues to an old well in the cellar, but as with anything archaeological, it is all guesswork. The corner of earth that was my original objective has been followed by several further cubic meters of spoil as we (I) (Nicholas is still fixing the roof) uncover things further. Imagining what went on all those years ago, monks fortifying their old barn against attack from bandits or quietly tending their gardens around the tower filled my imagination. I was surprised how fascinating it became and was keen to find the next clue. Was this the original wall, of did the other one come before it? THe only way to find out is to dig further and deeper. One wall crosses the other, it can clearly be seen by the foundations that run lower than the other, it also explains other constructional anomilies (help with SP required) within the buildings, a huge fire place in a small room, beams running the wrong way and on and on. There are any number of things to ponder when working on a building this age.

For a change I bottle beans and tomatoes from the garden to fill the cellar for winter, the beautiful weather continued to fuel bountiful harvests, baskets of produce every day. Collect the walnuts from the trees as they fall and spread them to dry in wooden crates, they will be shelled and taken to be processed into oil in late winter, they have to dry first. Plant cabbages and broccoli in the garden and keep the weeds under control.

We chat about the history of the place and the work that has to be done, discuss options on layout of rooms and the practicalities of saving grey water and solar panels. The opportunities to travel the world and discover amazing people, places and things. What we have done and where we want to be in the future, how being gay has influenced our choices and steered our paths. Amusingly named fruit trees that may be planted in the orchard and marvel at how chickens can turn the odd scrap of food, some grass and dirt into eggs every day. LIfe is fun and relaxed and the weather is treating us to the most amazing warmth this autumn.

I have cycled from the village along deserted country lanes for hours, enjoying the sun on my back and the amazing views, if I go far enough I can see into the surrounding valleys and ponder on the imensity of the size of france, it really is a huge place, feast on juicy blackberries and wish that i had a bag to take some home in or just find a shady tree to rest under for a little siesta (they are rather popular here, especially in the heat of the summer).

Scrabble, on line, has me hooked. That is partly the reason that I haven’t written in a while, every time I open my computer I just have to have a game, it has become quite an addiction and strangely sociable at the same time. Have played folk from Canada, South Africa, OZ to name a few and chat to people from around the world.

the changing of the seasons

I caught up with Agnes last Sunday and went with her to an afternoon dance. Not something that I would think of doing myself, but it had been talked about the previous night whilst we were having dinner at her place and I thought I would give it a go.

Agnes is a wonderful french lady who lives a few miles away from where I am staying at the moment, she is also restoring an old property and hosts at least ten helpers for most of the year. It was fun being part of a large gathering that evening, after spending a couple of weeks at the tower with Nicholas the bustle of a crowded dining room with wine and much laughter and Pictionary in french and english made a great change, there were people there from all over the world. Half, however, from California, which was strange as I hope to be heading there any day now.

Anyway, she picked me up after lunch and we headed off to a nearby town. Two hours later we arrive in a small medieval town perched on top of a large rock in the middle of a valley, parked the car and hurried up steep cobbled streets to find the dance venue. One of the participants had cleared space in her gallery, an ancient building, teetering on the edge of the town with marvelous views of the countryside to the east, and silhouetted against the sky, the outline of an old church to the west.

We were just in time, within a couple of minutes the church bells tolled three and a surprisingly large gathering of people of many nationalities joined hands in dance. Jenny, our excellent teacher took us through the moves before each dance, in english and french, without music and then to tunes from around the world. We moved in sync, footwork, bodies swaying and arms joined, the occasional twirl or rush to the centre of the room, but for the main part in a large circle swaying and moving in unison and in step with the music.

Once I got the hang of the steps of each dance and stopped looking at my feet, it became a wonderful experience, looking across the room, walls covered with beautiful colourful tapestries and artwork, to see the smiling focussed faces of fellow dancers all moving in the same way. Very Totnes and very enjoyable. The group created or was joined by a wonderful energy, fuelled by our dancing and enjoyed by us all. We danced for three hours, with a couple of small breaks for tea and refreshments to music from around the world. Welsh, French, Israeli, Greek, Turkish, Maori, English, Irish and on and on, it was a wonderful experience and a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The event was timed to celebrate the changing of the seasons, at the time of year when the days and nights are the same length. The autumn equinox. An important time in astrology and in many other beliefs.

Everyone had taken something to eat and a great buffet was served once the clock had struck six. Agnes was in a hurry to get home so we stayed a short while, chatting and snacking from the table of plenty. We headed off into the evening for our drive home charged with the energy of the dance and prepared for another two hours of intensive french conversation training. Great.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

still here

I am still at the tower, mixing mortar and hauling it up to the roof. Got to go up yesterday, excellent opportunity to see where all the mortar was going, along with piles of planks of wood that have also made their way up via the pulley.

It was precarious to say the least. None of the boards left on the lower floor can be trusted as weight bearing, so safe passage meant striding from one beam to the next then up another long ladder balanced on a stone windowsill, the only solid base for it to go. Remains of the old plaster clung to the walls inside the tower, decorated with faint outlines of the once decorative paintings of the day. The eventual plan is to patch the plaster and restore the artwork. Through a small hatch onto the makeshift work platform right under the roof. Thankfully I was secured with a rope and harness, just in case anything gave way.

There was plenty of space to work amongst the beams and great views of the village and surrounding countryside. Had the tower remained at its ultimate hight there would have been a view of Rodez cathedral in the distance, but it was reduced in height a couple of centuries ago.

Nicholas was busy securing boards onto the timber frame in readiness for a waterproof membrane. This will keep the structure dry through the winter and next year the piles of stone tiles will be reshaped and put back in the traditional way. I could see my mortar between the beams, securing the top of the stone wall against further decay, it will soon be inaccessible as more boards go on. More needed to be treated, and that was my job for the day, so with the sun shining and a cool breeze blowing I set to work with a paint brush and old saucepan of solution, painting both sides of each board and restacking them in another corner under the rafters.

I am back on the ground today, busy bottling beans and freezing garden produce to keep the household going during the winter. Another sunny day, working at a table under the walnut trees with the chickens begging for scraps around my feet. I can’t think of a better way to be spending my time at the moment, waiting for that news.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


It is strange still not knowing what my plans are for the future. Every day I check my mail to see if the work visa has been accepted, and every day there is no answer. Thankfully there are plenty of things to keep me occupied, new things to learn, people to get to know and new areas of France to explore. I think that I would be going a little crazy by now if I had a set routine every day.

I have now arrived at one of the first places I bookmarked when I started looking at places to stay in France. A cistercian tower restoration that is being carried out almost single handed by a french guy, Nicholas. There have been hoards of young helpers here all summer, repointing, sorting stones and doing some excellent work, but they have all moved on now as work needs to be done to complete roof reconstruction before winter sets in. Nicholas has been unable to progress with so many people about as they have needed constant supervision and guidance throughout the day. It is quiet now and the weather good, an excellent time to get the work done.

My work mainly consists of hauling buckets of rocks, lime mortar and tools up to the roof by pulley, mixing the mortar and being on hand to find other things that are needed. The tower is nearly completely empty inside. Most of the floor boards and joists have rotted away over the years, leaving a hollow shell. Difficult to get to the roof without climbing skills but easy to haul things up from the inside.

I send up full buckets, and empty ones come back down. Occasionally there is a stack of wood to go up, also by pulley or another mix of mortar to prepare. We have been out to a cutting, just down the road, to quarry sandstone for the reconstruction, at almost exactly the same spot that the monks extracted their building sand centuries ago. The lumps of rock are then smashed back into sand with a sledge hammer and used on site. It is great to be getting some decent exercise whilst working, and a wonderful change from weeding.

A group of architects and historians called in on Sunday to check out the progress of the tower. They have been touring the region, visiting buildings of note, including a famous chateau just down the road at Beaucastel. An old ruin that has been partially restored so that it is habitable, but still retains the illusion of abandonment and decay. I got to hear a great deal about its history and saw it from a distance when we visited the village yesterday evening.

Twenty four arrived mid morning and stayed for lunch. Nick gave them a tour of the tower. Aperitifs were served, followed by a meal of traditional local fare, a garden salad, huge spirals of Toulouse sausage, cooked on the barbeque, Ailgou, which is superb, a blend of mashed potato, soft cheese, cream and garlic, all heated and stirred together until the cheese melts and it all sticks together, creating great long, creamy strings of gloop, served from a big pan on the fire. People amusingly helped themselves, holding out their plates and lifting the ladle up out of the pan with strings of Aligou stretching up like elastic spaghetti, waving about and refusing to break. It was a real crowd pleaser. This was followed by bread and cheese, including the most wonderfully creamy Rocquefort I have ever tasted, grapes and coffee. In true french style the meal continued at a leisurely pace, outside in the sunshine, and it was well after four in the afternoon by the time the last guests has said their goodbyes.

Tidying up went on at a sedate pace for some time after. The chickens pecked about under the table, doing an excellent job of finishing up the last morsels, left-overs reheated for dinner and everything neat and tidy for the start of a new week.