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Spring is springing!
It's our last day at the current sit in Bussières-Badil, a small village on the northwestern edge of the Dordogne, just a few kilometres from the Charente. Tomorrow we head south again, this time to a small hamlet about an hour north of Toulouse. Hopefully, it will be as springlike there as it has been here the last couple of days.
Both yesterday and today have been fabulous - in the 17-18C range. The hills are greening up like mad, the crocuses are popping up all over the lawns, and the birds are singing their little hearts out. We heard a weird but neat hootling noise today and were puzzled as to which birds it might be (crows? jackdaws?) and what it might be that was getting them all excited. And then, when the noise moved overhead, we looked up and saw that it was coming from migrating cranes. They flew in loose upside-down, overlapping Ws of a few hundred birds, calling all the while. Then on a sandy hillside facing southwest, we were surprised to see scurrying lizards. Wow. This is wonderful. All of this while back home they're just getting over two months of snow and have segued right into four inches of rain. I almost feel guilty. Almost. But I figure the best and most sane approach is to simpy enjoy these days to the max and store up delightful memories for the future.
For our last evening, we've been invited down for drinks with the English-speaking expat community who have been very good to us, telling us about local trails, suggesting good markets and villages to visit, and babysitting the dog so we have time to go exploring. We'll be heading down to Chez Lola, whose Irish 'parents' have been particularly great.
Yesterday we went to see a small village over the ridge to the west, St-Sever-de-Rustan. Straddling a decent sized river, the village is the site of a Benedictine monastery originally founded in about 800 AD. The abbey was destroyed time and again during the various wars over the centuries, but nevertheless it grew into a tall, sprawling citadel that is now mostly derelict. Various bits even got sold off. The city of Tarbes bought the cloister back in the early 20th century and moved it down to their formal gardens. Strange...
The surrounding village is quite typical of towns around here - mostly two and three story houses butted up against one another along narrow, twisting streets:
Then today we drove north to Miélan for the market. It was a lovely drive up the valley, surrounded the entire way by cultivated fields in a patchwork of golds, browns, russets and green. The market itself consisted of only a few vendors, but we got to see another town, and we bought an absolutely fabulous croissant at the small bakery off the town square. We also checked out the church, rather time-worn around the edges, but not over-the-top like the Spanish churches, and obviously well used. It's great to be able to do some small-scale exploration like this. The round trip, including our shopping and a brief amble around town (it was bitterly cold, so we didn't stroll for long), took just over an hour.
The French roads are great. The main roads are smooth, wide and clear. The smaller, rural roads run through beautiful wooded areas and, though not terribly wide, have hardly any traffic. Quite often, we go to our destination and back without meeting more than half a dozen cars, if any at all!
Mazerolles Farmhouse, South of Here
Besides all the birds, there is abundant wildlife of the mammalian kind.
First, we see deer pretty well on every walk. They bound across the fields in small herds of three or four, though once we saw a group of nine. We usually see them only at quite a distance, though once we flushed three from a small copse right beside the lane. Luckily, Ibis, the Dalmation cross who spends her time quartering the fields and who can run like the wind, is either unaware of or uninterested in them.
Then there are the Wild Boar. We've never seen any, which is not surprising considering that they are nocturnal animals. They do, however, leave traces. Lately, beside the roads we've found huge areas that they have rooted up with their tusks. The dogs are particularly keen on these. It's probably a good thing that the boars are nocturnal. On Wednesday I had to take one of the dogs to the vet for a vaccination. We ended up waiting almost an hour because the vet had been called out on an emergency. Apparently, one of the local hunters' dogs had been gored by a boar.
Finally - and this is huge - we saw a fox! I've only even seen one other, and that was in the wilderness of the Alaska coast. This one was poised, motionless, over a burrow in a field scarcely 10 meters from the road. The sight of it stopped us dead in our tracks. (My Beloved had never seen a fox.) After a few moments, it became aware of us and turned, sat down facing us, and calmly watched us for a few minutes. Then, having satisfied its curiosity, it turned and walked slowly off into the forest. It was a gorgeous creature with a thick reddish-gold coat and a magnificent tail. How exciting!
Everybody knows about the Spanish siesta, but who is aware of the French shutdown from 1200 to 1500? It's a good thing that our hostess warned us. The French take lunch very seriously, so all the stores like the butcher and the wine shop are closed for three hours in the middle of the day. How civilized.
The day was warmish and dryish, so I went out painting. I took a folding chair from the patio and my painting kit, slung them into the back of the car, and headed back down a point lower in the valley that I'd sussed out on our walk earlier in the day. It was quite walkable from the house, but it would have taken me at least an hour getting there and back, and I'd rather spend the time painting.
Looking South to the Pyrenees
It was great to get outside and work en plein air, and I relished it. However, the highlight of my afternoon was the Woodpigeons. While sitting there quietly going about my business, I heard a soft noise not unlike the rustling of leaves. Realizing that it was the sound of bird wings, I looked up and there they were. Directly overhead was a huge flock of pigeons, weaving and folding its way through the sky, not unlike a flashing school of fishes. I was spellbound... So if there are unexpected hard edges in my paintings, blame the birds!
Apparently when you can see the Pyrenees clearly, that means bad weather coming. Well, it certainly rained last night!
Mazerolles consists of a few dozen farmhouses scattered on the hillside near the church. Here's another rather pathetic watercolour, but at least it gives you an idea of the village:
This being France, we had expected to find good wine, bread and coffee. And France has not disappointed! One thing we hadn't expected was the amount of wildlife. Every day on our walks, we see much to amaze us.
This is the land of the raptor. There are kites, large raptors with forked tails, that can hover over the fields as they stalk their prey. The one we see most is the Red Kite, Milvus milvus. There are buteos, known locally as buzzards, with large bodies, large wings and rounded tails. We see several Common Buzzards, Buteo buteo, on every walk. There are also sleek harriers such as the Hen-Harrier, Circus cyaneus, and falcons such as the Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus.
And what are they hunting? Well, there are lots of House Sparrows, Passer domesticus, (they belong here!), as well as Blue Tits, Parus caeruleus, Great Tits, Parus major, and miscellaneous LLBs (Little Brown Birds). On a slightly larger scale, there are all kinds of pigeons - The elegant Collared Doves, Streptopelia decaocto, the common, everyday Rock Doves, Columba livia, and, most astonishingly, literally thousands of Woodpigeons, Columba palumbus, locally known as Palombes. These occur in huge, dense flocks like murmurations of starlings, and are a wonder to watch as they swirl and twist in balletic patterns across the sky. I could watch them for hours.
This area of France is very tiddly. There are recycling depots in every tiny village, and there is no rubbish anywhere along the roads or in town - quite a change from Wales, which was a great disappointment. It reminded us of Nova Scotia, where the roadsides are strewn with litter. Perhaps it's indicative of the state of the local economy, where the population has little or no hope and consequently takes no pride in their surroundings. The French, on the other hand, are very proud of their country and heritage, and beware anyone who dares to litter. (Mind you, this injunction does not apply to dog poop... Strange.)
So, I'm finally getting around to doing the blog again. I felt I couldn't do it without a painting (photos don't count), and since I have been very lax in the visual art department lately, the blog had to wait. However, yesterday was a warm, sunny day (finally!), and I could get outside. Mind you, now that I'm so desperately out of practice, the resulting watercolours were pretty pathetic. Time to start working to get my chops back.
View of Pyrenees from Mazerolles, France
Here we are in Mazerolles, Hautes-Pyrénées, France. It's a lovely little village of a few dozen farmhouses scattered around the church. It lies on the west side of a valley nestled between two forested ridges. The valley bottom is all fields, mostly maize, with a small river (like one of our creeks) running down the eastern edge. The fields are small and bordered by rudimentarily paved access roads. One can wander for miles, and dogs can run free. There are also trails through the hardwood forests on the nearby hills. "NO TRESPASSING" signs are absent (walkers are welcome), but there are signs everywhere warning against illegal (non-permitted) mushroom harvesting. Nobody messes with their mushrooms!
If one looks south, you can see the Pyrenees looming in the distance. They're generally hardish to see because of the mist, but when they're clear you know that there's a change of weather coming. Yesterday, they were quite visible; today we are having rain for the first time. Generally, it has been sunny, clear and cold, down to -5C at night sometimes. With the cloud cover, things have warmed up to around 10/11C during the day and above freezing at night.
The house is an old, traditionally-constructed farmhouse. Around here, that means an L-shape with the people part in one wing and a covered 'abri' (shelter) and barn on the other wing. The two-foot thick walls are of pressed mud, mixed with field stones, then plastered. The beams are all visible. This house has been modernized with central heating, running water, big windows in the bedrooms, a couple of wood stoves and a Raeburn in the kitchen. It's really quite lovely.
The owners, ex-pat Brits who have been here for 14 years, are very nice and treated us like royalty in the couple of days before they left on their trip. We look forward to seeing them again on their return. Our charges are three dogs and two cats, all pretty well rescues, and all very sweet. We take the dogs for a long walk every day, which is truly exciting for them - at least judging by their reactions as soon as we put on our boots and coats. Not to mention the way Fizz grabs the leads and tugs on them even before we have them on the dogs.
We get our provisions in a somewhat larger town about 15 minutes' drive away, Trie-sur-Baïse. There's a big market on Tuesdays, a small one on Sunday, a few boulangeries/patisseries (great bread), a boucherie, a cave (with unbelievably cheap, good bulk wine - try $3 per 1.5 litres!), a produce store, and more, plus a big supermarket just down the road for anything you haven't found just off the town square. Prices are similar to Vancouver Island, though some meat is quite a bit more expensive. That's fine, since the produce is plentiful and of good quality.
As you can see, we've found a little piece of paradise.
(as seen from the one good window for painting)
Here it is, already the end of the year. And I have been extremely remiss in not keeping up this blog. My only reason - though no excuse - is that I haven't been doing the paintings to illustrate my blog. In my defense, I can only say that it's not always easy to find a subject or a warm, bright enough place in which to paint.
After Anderson Island, we did a couple more sits, one in Victoria, BC, and one in Port Ludlow, WA. A solitary, lovely, lonely, bored cat in the first, and a sweet but rather dumb dog and two great cats in the second. From a tiny apartment with one pot and one pan, to an architect-designed waterfront home with more mod cons than anyone could possibly need. From city streets to the second-growth of northwestern Washington. Unfortunately, neither particularly great for walking.
After a mad dash back to Victoria, we were off to the UK. So here we are in Wales, at least for another couple of days. The trip here was relatively uneventful. Though every leg of the journey ran overtime, we still somehow managed to make all our connections and find ourselves climbing off a bus in Bridgend/Sarn, Wales. There we were greeted by Hayley, a bubbly, sweet woman who bundled us into the car and back to her amazing home in the countryside. The house is like something out of a movie - part of a 1,000-year-old monastery, complete with stone walls over two feet thick (impermeable to Wifi, so there need to be separate routers for different areas of the house), tiny windows, and even an 8th-century crypt. Over the next couple of days we got to know the family - the podiatrist father, the teacher mother, and the two delightful young teenage daughters. They had already garnished the house for Christmas, complete with decorated tree, numerous crêches, dozens of twinkly lights, and a huge herd of stuffed reindeer all the way up the staircase. After the family flew off the the wonders of South Aftica, there were just us and the zoo: two dogs, two cats, three guinea pigs. To put things mildly, they have kept us hopping. We take the dogs for good long daily walks, share the bed with the kitties (sometimes I can barely turn over), and keep hoping to really get to see the guinea pigs before we leave.
So, as the year winds down, how has it been, this housesitting gig? Well, there has been a very steep learning curve - not so much about animals as about our interactions with them. We ended up growing quite fond of them all, even the pets that we didn't warm to at the beginning. Others just slowly wormed their way into our affections until it was quite painful saying goodbye. We've seen some very nifty places, though never as thoroughly as we expected or hoped. This mainly has to do with the huge responsibility of caring for someone's beloved pets and houses, and also the cost of travel.
We still have three more sits, all in France. We're looking forward to them, but once all of our obligations are fulfilled, we'll be very happy to return to BC and make a home for ourselves back there. Alone. With no animals, at least for a while.
The Welsh seem to love their dogs. Everywhere we go, be it the beach and dunes at Porthcawl or the trails at Bedford Park, we run into owners proudly escorting their pups. They don't seem to mind when Dex and Pic, our two rather exuberant pooches, come running up to greet them. In fact, they seem to relish the attention of someone else's dogs. Unfortunately, however, a large number of the owners do not pick up after their charges, and consequently we also run into dog bombs all over the place.
What a week.
The American election.
No pretty picture at all.
Today's our last full day here on Anderson Island. So we spent the day doing the last minute tidying, taking the dog for a walk (on a trail where he wouldn't get too, too dirty; we didn't want to have to give him a bath today), and, of course, packing. The latter got the dog pretty worried. He started to follow my Beloved everywhere, even trying to go into the bathroom with him. Poor little guy, He's pretty high strung, and he frets when he feels insecure. So we had to sit down and cuddle him regularly to reassure him. Just wait until his owner gets home in the next hour or so!
Luckily, it was just a gorgeous day. I wish we could have gone for a more ambitious walk. I did take a minute this afternoon to try to capture the mountain one last time. One always has to work fast anyway, because in the time it takes to rough out a drawing, the clouds can come in and totally change everything!
Mt. Rainier before the Clouds Moved in
Today was a day of changes. Tomorrow, we head home to Vancouver Island. We had been schedulled to stay with friends, but they got the flu. Another friend who had extended an open invitation had renos starting tomorrow. What to do?
This is when the whole housesitting thing gets a little hairy. What do you do when your plans fall apart at the last minute, and even your backup plan strikes out? You improvise.
We ended up booking a couple of nights at a motel. There's a 'suite' which includes a kitchenette for only an extra $5. Since meals can run up the expenses pretty quickly, getting a place where we can cook for ourselves is the best option. (We often prefer our own meals, anyway.)
The beauty of a sudden revision is that you can throw anything into the mix... In the end, we decided to stay in the Cowichan Valley and take a gander at what it might offer in inexpensive housing. (We really do need a home base. Trying to do it all on the wing sounds great in theory, but not having a permanent address plays havoc with Canada Revenue, OAS & CPP, BC Medical Services, VISA, etc. As well, if we had a pied-à-terre, we'd always have someplace to go in between sits.)
In the meantime, the mountain keeps playing hide and seek:
Mt. Rainier at Dusk