Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 13

Where I Eat Pig’s Cheeks and Like Them

The week before Easter was bright and sunny in the mountains.  Perfect for some last minute spring skiing and going to the garden center to fix, once and for all, my window box issues.  You will remember that I had 80 geraniums wrapped in burlap hanging upside down all winter just chillin’ in the garage and that my not-too-sturdy planter boxes were, literally, tied with string to my balcony railings.

As those of you who follow this blog on Facebook know, all of the geraniums in the garage were goners.  They were SO dead, they were growing some kind of powdery, grey, lethal-looking fungus.  They were quite scary and they went immediately to the dump before they killed somebody.

Mr. Big bit the bullet at the garden center and pulled out the credit card for 15 heavy-duty planter boxes that screwed into the railing, all the while muttering “one time purchase, buddy, one time purchase” to himself.  I was a little confused as to why there were no geraniums at the garden center and why all the ladies were standing in line with flats of pansies, of all things.  Pansies?  Aren’t you supposed to plant pansies in the fall?  Where are the geraniums, O Giant Garden Center?

Please note that this was Clue Number One that went sailing right over my head.

Leaving my beloved at home cheerily installing planter boxes, I ventured over the border into Switzerland in search of geraniums.  The Swiss are nothing if not timely and regimented.  If it’s time for geraniums, the Swiss will have geraniums.  Lo and behold, the Swiss garden center had racks of them.  They were still in their packaging straight from the nursery wholesaler and were not even on display yet, but I was so excited I pulled four flats of them right off the big rolling carts and rushed to the cashier.

Clue Number Two:  my little geranium spriglets had no price tags on them and it took forever for the clerk to even know what to charge me.

By Wednesday, all my little plants were snug in their new beds and soaking up that glorious sun.  By Easter Sunday, they were dead.  Yes, it snowed a few inches overnight and, even though they were only two inches high to begin with, they now had that rubbery, droopy, frozen look about them.  Go figure.

Well, as you can imagine, I was depressed.  Mr. Big was, I’m sure, just wondering how much those dead little spriglets, which he only got to enjoy for about 72 hours, had cost him.  So, to take our minds off of the fact that it was blizzarding during the second week of April when we were supposed to be getting out the spring clothes, we did what any normal people would do.  We took a road trip to search for sunshine.

France is a big country.  We have been a lot of places in France but we haven’t been to ALL the places in France, if you know what I mean.  There are fly-over “departements” in France just like there are fly-over states in the US.  For instance, I’ve never been to Missouri.  I actually couldn’t tell you one thing about Missouri except it has a big city in it called St. Louis and it’s somewhere in the middle, maybe near Nebraska.  This is the extent of my knowledge about Missouri.

Me:  Dude, get the map.

Big:  Why?

Me:  We are going to Missouri.

Big:  Why?

Me:  Because I am sick of looking at this snow and if I leave, maybe the Geranium Fairy will come and bring my spriglets back to life.

That is how we found ourselves in the region of Auvergne, France.  Basically, you drive south until you finally get out the Alps and hang a right.  Drive due west for 3 hours and voila, you are in the region called Auvergne.  Perhaps you have heard of the larger cities in this region.  Clermont-Ferrand?  Thiers?  St. Etienne?  Issoire?  No?  Well, me neither.  Which was, of course, what made it so perfect.

Before we left, I googled “The Most Beautiful Village in France” and “Auvergne”.  Eleven!  Auvergne had 11 beautiful villages!  It was beyond my wildest dreams.  I was hoping for one and I got eleven.  Who knew?  I jotted down the eleven names for Mr. Big to plug into his GPS and off we went.

The minute we got out of the mountains, the snow stopped, the sun was out, the rolling hills were green and starting to bloom and my spirits improved immensely.  You will remember that I make Mr. Big take only little backroads on these excursions because of my motto that states “Nothing Exciting Ever Happens on the Freeway”, but he was enjoying himself as well.  The scenery and the villages in the middle of France are really special and there wasn’t a tourist within a hundred miles.

It being Easter Sunday, it took some doing before we found a restaurant open for lunch but we did find one in a little town called Vienne on the Rhone river.  The restaurant was packed with big tables of locals with three generations at each table and there were no “a la carte” menu choices available. We were allowed to pick our drink of choice and then decide between two main dishes—pig cheeks or langoustines.   I went out on a limb with the pig cheeks because I’ve eaten beef cheeks and halibut cheeks before and they were both delicious so I wasn’t scared.  Mr. Big played it safe and opted for the shrimp.  The only reason I’m telling you this is because, when Mr. Big’s shrimp course arrived, while it appeared to be both lovely and tasty, it came with, inexplicably, a side of chocolate dipping sauce.  I do not know if this is a local “thing” or if the chef was just trying to be creative or what.  I mean, it wasn’t some Spanish “mole” sauce or some fancy dark chocolate/pink peppercorn sauce.  It was straight ol’ Hershey’s syrup.  Pig cheeks won that round.

Four courses later, we roll our stuffed selves out of the restaurant and continue on our merry way to Auvergne.  At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. Big turns to me, (because it has finally occurred to him that we are, literally, in the middle of nowhere), and says, “Trailing Spouse, which one of your eleven beautiful villages do you think will be our final destination this evening?  Because, Love of My Life, you need to make sure that whatever place we wind up in has the internet.”

Oh, crap.  I had forgotten about the Mr. Big Will Only Remain Calm If He Has Internet Rule.  Yikes.

Maintaining my composure whilst silently thinking to myself, “Man, I am so screwed”, I chirp, “Usson.  It seems to be pretty big.  Big enough to have the internet, anyway.”  Yeah, right.  I was soooo lying!  I didn’t think for a minute that there was a chance on God’s Green Earth that any of those medieval villages were going to have the internet, but, whatever.  It’s a marriage, right.  It involves compromise and an inherent understanding that one doesn’t kill one’s spouse over lack of internet access.

We pull up to Usson at about 5:30 and it is just beyond cute.  Unfortunately, it was really, really tiny.  Think miniscule.  Think hamlet.  Think whistle-stop.  As we get out of the car to go exploring, all I’m thinking is “please have internet, please have internet”.  Y’all.  There was only one inn in this entire village, population 233.  One.  I girded my loins and entered the establishment.  In my mostest, bestest, beggingest French I emplore the Madame to bestow upon two weary travelers a) the internet and b) a spare room.

Voila!  Oui, bien sur, Madame, nous avons l’internet!  (Yes, of course, ma’am, we have the internet!)  Usson, my new favorite place in France.  After I smirked a little bit at Mr. Big and flaunted my fabulousness at finding him the internet in the middle of Missouri, Madame Proprieteur took us upstairs to have a look at our room before we agreed to stay there.  This is completely normal in Europe, especially out in the countryside.  You get to approve your room before you agree to stay.  If you don’t like the room, you just ask to see something else and you wander around the establishment until you find something more to your liking.  Seriously.  It’s true.

Could you see the hotelier’s face in America if you said, “well, I’d like to see ALL your available rooms before I agree to stay here”.  He would kick you out in a New York minute and send you on your merry way to the Comfort Inn down the street.

Seriously, if you ever find yourself in the middle of France in the departement of Auvergne in a region called Puy de Dome in the petit village of Usson, go there.  The inn is called Auberge de Margot.  The food is awesome.  The proprieteurs couldn’t be any nicer.  The views from the rooms are so peaceful.  The history, all about a French queen who was exiled in this tiny place for 15 years in the 1500’s, was fascinating.  Not to mention, they have the internet.  Alright, moving along.

We only made it to 5 of the 11 villages.  The best ones were Usson, Blesle and Montpeyroux.  We found multiple, random chateaux (castles) along the way, just sitting out in the middle of nowhere waiting for a spare princess to come live in them.  The whole area was just amazing.

For example, in the little village of Blesle, founded by nuns and monks in the 800’s, yes, as in the 9th century, you or I or any old John Doe can just meander in the church, look around, touch anything you want, light a candle or whatever.  Hanging on the wall was a wooden sculpture of Jesus that had been mounted in that very same spot since 1100-something.  No ropes to keep you 10 feet away, no Plexiglas, no sign forbidding flash photography.  Just a 930-year-old Jesus hanging on the wall like it was his job.  He was hanging above a marble table THAT I SET MY BOOKBAG DOWN ON TO TAKE HIS PICTURE before I read the engraving in the marble that said that the Pope, as in THE POPE, had donated this table to the nun who founded the Blesle convent in 832 AD.  832 AD!  AND I SET MY BOOKBAG ON IT!

That would never happen in America.  Okay, well, maybe in Missouri, but not in the rest of the country.

I have to tell you one funny story about Montpeyroux before I close.  This is an old, medieval village that sits up on a hill.  The only remaining part of the original fortress at the very tippy top is The Donjon.  Now, I don’t know who coined the term, the English or the French, but they mean two completely opposite things, so there was an obvious mistranslation somewhere back in the day.  In France, a donjon is a tower.  In English, we would call it the Keep, as in where you “keep” the prisoners on bread and water rations until you cut off their heads.

Anyway, the Donjon in Montpeyroux is still standing and available for visitors to explore.  Let me just tell you that if you are A) fat or B)claustrophobic or C)scared of heights, you need not apply.  Getting to the top involved the skills of both a rock climber and a cave explorer.  I felt like Katniss Everdeen.  So, here’s the funny part.  The toidy, the toilette, the lav, the loo, the potty for the prisoners is still intact.  Apparently, the prisoners perched on a board that was situated about 500 feet in the air and let ‘er fly.  The hole in the board was/is, (although it is now covered with a sheet of Plexiglas so that no one attempts to test it out), positioned OUTSIDE of the rounded stone walls of the tower.  Yes.  Picture it.  So, if you were a prisoner in 1075 in Montpeyroux, your feet and lower legs were inside the donjon, but your butt was hanging off the edge into space.  Get it?

Can you imagine?

Hey, Missouri, you got anything like that?

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