Christmas in Lauzun: mulled wine, mince tarts, and madness

“Christmas in Lauzun is wonderful,” Ian told me before he and Sue left for their road trip. “There’s lights, festivities, carolling, and wine—lots of wine.”

I was in their chateau looking after their cat Friday while they road-tripped through Spain and Portugal. Ian and Sue were scheduled to return on December 17 and they had kindly offered to continue hosting me so I could experience a Christmas in Lauzun.

It started with a SSAFA evening in the nearby village of Castillonnès. Neighbours Martin and Tess sang in a local choral group, and asked if I’d like to join them for carolling, mulled wine, and mince tarts at the community hall.

SSAFA Christmas in Castionnes France2
Guests mingle and nibble on mince tarts at the SSAFA Christmas in Castionnes, France.

I learned that SSAFA stood for Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Airmen’s Families Association, a British organisation that fund-raises for British armed forces families in need. Apparently there were so many Brits retired in France that SSAFA expanded here, with 60 aid workers providing support throughout the country.

This evening’s affair was the village’s eleventh annual Christmas event. It was a full and beautifully-organized affair with musicians, a guest vocalist, Christmas songs in both English and French, and readings from the Bible.

SSAFA Christmas in Castionnes France
Pierre Sicaud, accompanied by Patrick Brugalieres on accordion and Stanley Hanks on keyboard at the SSAFA Christmas Carol Concert in Castionnes, France.

A few days later my Christmas turned “blue” when my computer’s failing hard drive presented me with the Blue Screen of Death. I had the name of a computer tech in the nearby village of Eymet so I packed the computer into my bike bag and cycled there to get it repaired.

It was market day, and Clementine oranges were ready for Christmas stockings.

Clementines at Thursday market in Eymet France
Clementines at the Thursday market in Eymet, France.

Later that day, Alan, Vera, and William picked me up to drive to the nearby village of Monteton. I had met Vera over Kir (a cassis and white wine apéritif) at the Café des Sports a few days earlier. When she asked if I’d like to join them for a Christmas church service including carolling, mulled wine, and mince tarts. I eagerly accepted.

Alan Vera William in Monteton, France
Alan, Vera, and William in Monteton, France.

The Monteton church perches on a hill top, so the views of the surrounding pastures, as well as the church’s silhouette, was stunning.

Church in Monteton, France
The church in Monteton, France.

Inside, I experienced my first Anglican Christmas service (I was brought up Roman Catholic). In the readings, I was very surprised to hear that Joseph chose not to “divorce” Mary when he learned that she was pregnant.

I also discovered that many of the carols I knew as a Canadian had different melodies and words here in Anglo-France. In “Come, All Ye Faithful,” for example, I was a little shocked to hear, “Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb!”

I had joined Carol Barkley’s beginners’ Pilates class soon after I arrived in Lauzun. It being Christmas, Carol emailed us to request that we dress festively, as there would be a little bubbly after class.

Carols pilates class in Lauzun France
Carol Barkley’s Pilates class in Lauzun France. Carol teaches three classes every Tuesday at the Salle Jules Ferry. Carol is second from the left, front row. I’m in black, with black antlers.

Fueled by the Christmas spirit, Ros and I headed to the Cafe des Sport for an early-afternoon Kir Royal (a cassis and champagne apéritif) and greeted Lauzun councillor Jean-Paul who was painstakingly decorating street Christmas trees with styrofoam ornaments.

Jean-Paul Christmas tree in Lauzun France
Jean-Paul ties light styrofoam ornaments to a Christmas tree attached to a lamp post in Lauzun, France.

The next evening, Martin and Tess asked if I’d like to join them for a Catholic service with carolling and mulled wine at the church back in Eymet. They cautioned that I’d need to find a ride as they’d be going over early, and so Alan and his neighbour Jan stepped forward, on the condition that we’d skip the mass.

Christmas carolling in Eymet France
Christmas carolling in the bastide square in Eymet, France.

It was a good crowd, mostly British (someone told me almost 40 percent of Eymet’s population was from the UK), and I was again mortified to hear that Christ abhorred not the Virgin’s womb. I did not see any mince tarts, but I did notice that Le Pub Gambetta across the square offered a café et mince tarte for 5 Euros.

I found myself wondering what French people do for Christmas here in France. Someone heard that they ate oysters and drank champagne. Someone else said they don’t sing songs. I wondered if I’d find out.

Ian and Sue arrived back from their road trip on December 17.

Ian and Sue Renault Kangoo in Lauzun, France.
Ian and Sue with their fully-packed Renault Kangoo in Lauzun, France.

A few days later Paula set herself up in Sue’s kitchen to cut and colour our hair. It turned out to be a riotous event, with Maggie showing up to wash her hair with dish soap in the kitchen sink, and then Sandy lugging a frozen turkey.

Paula haircut in Lauzun France
Paula colours my hair in Sue and Ian’s kitchen. Paula told me she’s been doing hair for more than 25 years and loves coming to peoples’ homes. Lauzun, France.

Sandy said she didn’t need a haircut, but she did need somewhere to store a turkey. While Paula worked away, Sandy and Sue struggled to fit the turkey in the drawer of Sue’s compact freezer. The turkey won: Sandy made a phone call to Ros who agreed to store it in her freezer so long as everyone remembered it was there.

The turkey was in fact Maggie’s. A former caterer, Maggie would be hosting Christmas feast this year, and this turkey would be feeding 16 friends and neighbours for a multi-course, sit-down dinner accompanied by Champagne.

In preparation, Sue, Ian, and I cycled to Issigeac to shop at their Saturday market. The village has existed since Roman times, and the market for almost that long.

Sue + Ian Sunday market in Issigeac France
Sue and Ian at the Sunday market in Issigeac, France.

Sue bought seasonal root vegetables for the Christmas dinner: potatoes, carrots, and swedes (rutabagas) the size of babies’ heads—at about 6 LB each.

Sunday market in Issigeac France
Sunday market in Issigeac, France.

Christmas eve, Sue cooked up a traditional French-Canadian dish, tourtière, which we enjoyed with Champagne, of course. The next day, all 16 of us assembled at Maggie’s place for a feast of turkey, vegetables (eight of them, when I last counted), wine, Champagne, mince tarts, plum pudding, and various liquors.

Festive dinner at Maggie's in Lauzun, France.
Festive dinner at Maggie’s kitchen in Lauzun, France. This photo is from a previous meal of just 8 people–our Christmas dinner involved a beautifully-set table for 16 people.
Maggie Morton Lauzun Dec2015
Maggie stirs a custard sauce for a festive meal. Maggie was one of the first Lauzunaises to locate to this part of France with her husband Barry (photo behind her) more than 30 years ago.

Christmas dinner was a beautiful time for me as a visitor. I was surrounded by lovely, lively people who I’d met over the past two months and who had welcomed me into their lives. I felt very grateful to be there.

The village of Lauzun was quiet for the next few days as everyone took time to connect with their families—over a meal or over Skype. I was away from my home of Vancouver, Canada, and yet I felt very much at home—fed, comforted, included, and accepted.

On the main street of the tiny French village of Lauzun, all was calm, all was bright.

Christmas lights in Lauzun France
Christmas lights on the main street of Lauzun, France.
Christmas street lights in Lauzun France
Christmas street lights on the main street of Lauzun, France.

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“Vide grenier” is a car boot jumble swap garage flea market sale

“I got that at a vide grenier, and it only cost a Euro!”

I arrived in France a month ago, and I heard that phrase so many times I knew I had to visit one. This weekend a handbill announced there would be a vide grenier in Lauzun on Sunday, so I decided to check it out.

Table at vide grenier lauzun france
The vide grenier spills onto adjoining roadways of the local Salle Polyvente.

The village of Lauzun has about 400 people, and I’ll bet more that double that crowded the grounds of the Salle Polyvente (local community hall).

Similar to flea markets in Canada, it’s a lot of knick-knacks, junk, and old stuff. But here, it’s French knick-knacks, junk, and old stuff. That adds a certain exotic allure to me.

Kitchen tools at vide grenier lauzun france
Tea strainers and butter knives for 2 Euros each – some rusty, some not.

I met a vendor who was selling old bicycle parts. He offered me a shoulder bag I could use as a musette when cycling the back roads.

Vendor at vide grenier lauzun france
At the corner of his blanket, boxes of beautiful French bicycle components. And for fans, a needlepoint portrait of Shirley Temple.

He wanted two Euros, but I talked him down to one, explaining (poorly) in French that it would take a Euro’s worth of savon to scrub off the grease mark on the back.

Nearby, another vendor was selling old bicycles, and an old moped.

Motobecane bike at vide grenier lauzun france
This Motobecane moped’s motor is mounted over the front wheel.

I should have asked how much they wanted, because this Motobécane moped  looked in good shape. According to Wikipedia.com, Canadian Walter Muma rode a 50V Motobecane 11,500 miles on a 3-month trip that began in Toronto, brought him to Alaska, and back to Toronto. It reminded me of my little Symba Honda Cub (100cc) adventure, where I rode 2000km around western Canada.

After a couple of hours the day had warmed up and I was done browsing. It was time to go for a different kind of bike ride—the kind with no motor.

 

A Canadian Thanksgiving in France

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in America. In Canada, Thanksgiving was in October. In France, Ian and Sue’s thanksgiving was a few weeks ago.

I’d arrived at the French village of Lauzun at the beginning of November. It was warm and sunny and once my hosts had settled me in, fed me pastries, shown me cycling routes, and written out a schedule of social events, they went to work preparing a thank-you “Canadian Thanksgiving” feast for 24 of their friends and neighbours in the village.


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Roland Rouchon, today you made me cry

Yesterday at your funeral, more than 400 of the people you touched—perhaps literally, you were a retired hair stylist—gently and quietly entered the cemetery in the tiny village of Bourgougnague.

There, in my awkward French, I heard that you usually make people laugh.

I wanted to cry but, shy and hiding in the crowd, I feared I’d look ridiculous at the eulogy of a person I’d never met.

We didn’t know each other, M. Rouchon, but we ever so briefly passed lives. I was newly-arrived in the village of Lauzun and had completed my first solo bicycle ride in the country of France—12 kilometres from Miramont to Lauzun!

As I bravely pedalled the last, steep stretch into the centre of town, I passed the doorway of Coupe & Coiff, your old salon. You were standing there, a spaniel at your feet, grinning and waving and calling out, “Bonjour! Allez, allez!

Who is this man? I asked myself. And why is he being so friendly?!

That evening over shared dinner, neighbours George and Ros told me that you lived above the salon with your wife Evelyne and that you could always be seen standing at the doorway and smiling to passersby. George said you like to call out “Allez!” to passing cyclists as if we were riding the Tour de France.

That was last week. It’s been a week of many deaths in France, but yours touches me most personally.

I didn’t greet you yesterday at your grave site, M. Rouchon, but I wanted to.

So today, with a blistering side wind from the north and a shocked, shining sun in the south, I cycled 4.3 kilometres to visit you. I imagine the cars flying by must have wondered why a woman in a red jacket with a black beret and a green bicycle was braving the D1 roadway on such a windy day.

I arrived at the Bourgougnague cemetery gate, walked the bicycle to a tree near your site, and rested it there. Huge bouquets of beautiful, colourful flowers covered where you lay and the memorial plaques told me that you are a beloved family member and friend. I learned that you play cards, and perhaps you like to go hunting?

I laid a sweater down on the grass, sat, and my eyes rested on the flowers, the farmers’ fields beyond, the steeple of the Bourgougnague chapel, and my bicycle. P.H.’s bicycle.

That’s when I began to weep.

Like you, Pierre-Henri Cade loved the Tour de France. He loved cycling and he loved the countryside. But he left France to come to Canada.  When I met him he had three bicycles, and this avocado-green cyclocross he called “Guacamole” was his newest baby, one he’d lovingly assembled himself.

He rode this bicycle from Canada to Mexico and I rode with him part of the way because I was in love with him. He promised me that one day, we’d come to France together and he would show me his favourite country roads.

But today, P.H.’s bicycle is here, and I am here, and you are here, and he is here, in his own cemetery, somewhere near Lyon. I hope it’s as beautiful as this one.

M. Rouchon, before I arrived in France, I busily prepared P.H.’s bike so I could bring it to France. A painter called Harald Strasser helped me inscribe the frame, and the mechanics at Ride-On Cycles carefully packed it for the plane. My friend Ian unpacked and reassembled the bike, and I rode it from Miramont to Lauzun.

Inscription of Surly bicycle
“In memory of Pierre-Henri Cade of Lyon. He cycled on this bike from Vancouver to Mexico in 2002.”

And all through that time, I didn’t shed a tear.

But when I saw your casket yesterday, I suddenly remembered that the last casket I’d seen was P.H.’s. My eyes prickled with tears at the realization of it, but I held them back, because I was afraid.

Today, I didn’t have to be afraid. No one was around except the sun and the wind and so I sobbed. I cried for P.H., for his loved ones, for you, your loved ones. And for myself,  I admit.

Eyes still moist, I rolled the bike back to the gate, and rolled south. I pedalled contemplatively and felt the sun on my face. I watched the wind blow the billowing clouds, and a hawk circle a field, plowed. And then I wept again, because it was so beautiful, and people like you and P.H. should not miss such a beautiful, blue-sky day.

Roland Rouchon, today you made me cry. And I thank you for that.

PH holding up his bicycle near the Golden Gate bridge
PH lifts his Surly bicycle “Guacamole” at the Golden Gate Bridge on his Pacific Coast journey from Canada to Mexico in 2002.

To read more about me, P.H. and our journey through life and death, visit You Are Free – Your Suicide, my story, in 20 parts.

Feature image photo source: L’Artisan Aquitain – EDITION GIRONDE Automne 2014

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Bells, baguettes, and bread pudding

At 9:15 in the morning, I hear beautiful music. It’s the telephone’s ring tone, and neighbour Ursula is calling to ask if I’d like to go shopping at the Intermarché in the nearby village of Miramont. It’s a big, all-needs store similar to the Real Canadian Superstore I cycle to back home in Vancouver. I need a few ingredients for a bread pudding recipe, so I grab a reusable shopping bag and jump in her car.

On the way out of the village, a man in glasses waves her car down. They have a quiet exchange in French, and then Ursula steers her car towards the main road.

“Will you be around at noon?” She asks. “They’re going to gather in the village square and have a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris bombing.” I was in Goa when the terrorists attacked Mumbai in 2008, and again in India at the time of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015. I stare at my shoes and wonder about the world.

“Yeah,” I nod. “I’ll be there.”

Wine compartment

French shopping cart with front compartment for wine and baguettes in Miramont, France

At the Intermarché, Ursula gives me a coin for the trolley and we agree to meet in 45 minutes. Freezers of seafood greet shoppers as they enter the massive store, and the scent of the fish follows me into the hardware, kitchen accessories, chocolate, and vegetable aisles.

Senses buoyed by French food shopping, I concentrate on not being distracted by exotic food choices and packaging. Both eggs and milk wait at the back of the store, and they are not in coolers as they are in Canada. The milk is sealed in plastic bottles or Tetra Paks, and I must choose between full-fat and half-fat selections.

Naturally the wine takes up five entire aisles, dubbed The Cave. I choose a Bordeaux red for less than 3 Euros, and all it says is, “Bordeaux—Appellations D’Origine Protegée.” The back of the bottle says it is from the Gironde region.

This may be plonk, but I’m guessing it’s solid, Bordeaux plonk.

I wait for Ursula at the cash register and notice that the shopping cart has a carrier for children and a carrier for — wine and baguettes. I ease my first purchase of Bordeaux into its special compartment in the trolley.

Bells for Paris

Back in Lauzun, I join Ursula and fellow village neighbours in the main square, the Place de la Liberté. I recognize many faces from the Armistice Day procession just a few days ago.

Armistice Day procession in Lauzun, France

The flag-bearer is here, and the Mayor. At noon bells ring twelve times, then fall silent. Then they ring again, and continue ringing with no hours to mark, only lives. A white car tries to nudge through the small crowd of bowed heads, and Allan steps in front of it. Its engine falls silent, joining our own minute of silence.

Bread and butter and Floc de Gascogne

Stainless steel pot filled with sliced baguettes on a kitchen counter

I return to the chateau, fire up the pellet stove for heat, channel KEXP.org for music, and slice my collection of stale baguettes. There are so many slices, they fill a stew pot.

I turn on the electric oven, convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, melt butter, heat milk, cut apples, and blend spices. I’m not sure where Sue keeps the vanilla, so I reach under the counter and avail of her offer to try a local sweet aperatif, Floc de Gascogne. I had wondered about the word Floc when I first arrived in Lauzun, as a nearby cafe is called Floc ‘n’ Tea.

Label of Floc de Gascogne

According to Wikipedia.com,

…The Floc de Gascogne is a regional apéritif from the Côtes de Gascogne and Armagnac regions of Sud-Ouest wine region of France. It is a vin de liqueur fortified with armagnac, the local brandy. It has had Appellation d’origine contrôlée status since 1990.

Sue had explained the specialty to me and invited me to try a taste, so I splashed a bit in the custard and then a bit in a glass. It’s light, sweet, and easy to sip – quite unlike the cashew-based local liquor I’d tasted in Goa, Feni.

I fill a glass baking dish with baguette slices but rather than lay them flat, I carefully stand each slice on end. Then I cover the entire dish with cinnamon-rolled apple cubes and raisins I’ve scavenged from a bag of GORP.

Bread pudding made with sliced baguette in France

I carefully load the pan into the electric oven, set it to 190 degrees Celsius, and wait. And wait. And wait. It takes 45 minutes for the eggs to set but the kitchen smells great.

Baked bread pudding from baguette slices

I figure the bread pudding will be a relatively healthy breakfast alternative to the buttery, apricot-based oranais pastries I like to pick up from the nearby bakery.

As it gets dark outside, the village bells ring to count the hour. Three bells, four bells, five. I read in the newspaper that three men were identified. And I read that France dropped bombs, 20 of them, in Syria.

I walk a block to the Café de Pays for a small coffee. A jet flies overhead, but my neighbour George observes that it didn’t shake the window panes with its sonic boom, like others before. I reach for the newspaper, and it’s in French of course, but I read it as best I can.