We have no oven. We do have a bedroom door for the first time in weeks, which makes the adults in our trio very happy. * wink* We currently live in a “Gite” in a little Village called Villegaihenc, population 1,624. Well, technically 1,627 now that we “live” here for the next month. What’s a gite?
gîte /ʒiːt/ 1 self-catering
Ours is extremely charming. It’s ancient with all the modern conveniences. Nestled on a large property beside a creek, it’s a former water mill from about 1750 called Le Moulin that was used for grinding flour. That explains the enormous stone wheel in the living room and the one under Lyla’s bed. Interior design wise, gigantic granite wheels are totally this year! This is our home for the next month or so while we take French classes in the majestic city of Carcassonne. We conjugate verbs and learn how to express our love of wine, dogs and hockey. The family upstairs who own this big old stone home are sweet British ex-pats (Helen and Mick) and their two teenaged sons (Jack and Harry). These boys have no idea how hot they will be to the young ladies back in England with their perfect french and their continental fashion sense. Right now, like most teenage boys, they just seem chill and very sweet. Helen and Mick moved here about 7 years ago to try something new and to escape the crowds and escalating costs of London. Their story sounds an awful lot like that of Vancouver with it’s growing congestion and unaffordable real estate market. They are vibrant, funny and extremely helpful with the details of french life that confuse us. Like shopping hours for example. Don’t even try to figure those out. They also have a zippy, aloof little mixed breed dog named Lily who makes Lyla squeal and helps with the Mocha (our dog) withdrawal. She takes Lily for walks when she walks through the village along to pick up her daily ‘flute’ which is a thin baguette. It’s very cute. Lyla is also taking full advantage of the pool, which is not heated so she’s the only one brave enough, the trampoline and the badminton net in the back garden.
As we walk from our pretty little parking spot along the river Aude (this morning we watched a heron, ducks and an otter have breakfast) to our class each morning we have a spectacular view of La Cité. The medieval castle and fortified city that originally began in the 3rd Century AD with the Romans! Oui, you are reading that correctly, it dates back 2,500 years. A concept that is just crazy to wrap your head around when the oldest buildings in Vancouver are only about 140 or so. Just think of the kings, queens, knights and damsels and all the ruckus they caused over the centuries. I imagine them boisterously singing and spilling tankards of ale on the ancient cobblestones while taunting each other with devious instruments of torture. At least that’s what it looks like in the pictures at “La Musee de l’Inquisition et Torture”. For some reason these imaginary characters always have robust rosie cheeks, a twinkle in their eye (the men), heaving bosoms (the women) and dirty fingernails. Just walking around inside the walls is a trip back in time and an awe inspiring pleasure. The word ‘awesome’ is overused these days in my opinion but in this case it’s completely valid. We look at each other and just shake our heads in astonishment.
There are french lessons together for three hours each morning with the patient, kind and funny Dominique. Most afternoons are spent over a leisurely lunch of crêpes or mussels or a big salad with duck or cheese and a big glass of red wine in an effort to help the verbs, adjectives and prepositions absorb into our blood streams. Why cheese is masculine and a fork is feminine I’ll never understand. Dominique just shrugs her shoulders and laughs “beeecause eet eeez French, zer eeez no reeeezon”. The learning is actually more work than we thought. All that thinking! We’re simply not used to it. Or maybe the booze is affecting our mental processing? We wander around during the afternoons counting our blessings and taking in all the differences we see. How every door and window is it’s own form of rustic gorgeous, the drainpipes with detailed faces and gaping mouths at the bottom for the water to come spitting out of and the patisserie on every block. Who is eating all of these visually stunning sweets? The chocolate and pastries make us drool in the windows. They are very dangerous and we are moths to the sugary flame. By the time we get home to the peace and quite of Le Moulin we are satiated zombies in need of a nap. Or maybe that’s just me.
Still, we are oven-less which makes roasting a Thanksgiving turkey difficult. But not impossible. When I asked the local butcher last Friday if we could have a turkey he asked “for Christmas”? It’s not the kind of thing you can find in a hurry here in ‘deep France’ as it’s been called. Still, he gamely called his farmer connection on the phone just to check. “Non, ce n’est pas possible. How about next week”? But Thanksgiving is THIS weekend I told him in my very kindergarten-esque french. He looked confused. My attempt at explaining the Canadian devotion to turkey as a celebration of the Fall harvest only caused his expression to darken. As luck would have it, they do roast lovely young chickens every Sunday as part of an ancient promise of a chicken in every pot each Sunday so we decided to reserve one for our feast. Any foul in a storm.
Our dear friend Sal was visiting for the weekend from her University dive pad inToulouse and we wanted to throw down some thick Canadian beats for her, and for us. As our bird was little small, not for a chicken but compared to your average butterball, and we are ever-so-clever we decided to make lemonade out of our lemon. Like the Vitamix that overheats when you use it for more than six minutes so the glitzy marketing department decided to turn the flaw into an advantage and tell every one it makes soup! What a remarkable feature!! Ya, I got sucked in on that one too. What do you call a runty animal like a purse chihuahua or those tiny pigs that have no other purpose but to sit around looking cute? Voilà the ‘Teacup Turkey’ was born. (creative credit: Sal Woodley Wiltshire).
As shops are never open during lunch from 12 – 2:30 or on Sunday afternoons, or Wednesday afternoons, or occasionally Mondays, or sometimes Thursday mornings so the proprietress can go grape picking etc… We had to claim our bird Sunday morning at 11 or not at all. Because we didn’t roast the bird ourselves we were faced with a critical problem. I begged the very kind manager for some of the drippings so we could make the imperative gravy. He seemed to understand the importance and scooped some out of the bottom of the roaster for us. I just knew that the fancy metal tupperware I brought from home would come in handy one day!!
Then we went to the Boucherie for some sausage à la maison for the stuffing. We used yesterday’s baguette, a local apple, some herbs and some of the teacup turkey sauce to moisten it. Once that was put together we borrowed a lovely platter from our new upstairs friends, nestled our little birdie on the nest of stuffing and went out to enjoy the day.
There was a confused feeling in the air, still warm but with a brisk autumn shiver hiding underneath. Like diving into the ocean with that warm top layer and the refreshing chill below. We explored some of the intricate locks of the Midi Canal that stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. We watched families on narrow boats rise and fall using the ingenious devices created in China and perfected by DaVinci. Boat elevators are really cool. The leaves of Napoleon’s plane trees crunched under our feet and we could smell wild mint on the breeze. We returned to our little home fresh faced to put the rest of our feast together.
We made yams with cinnamon and sugary butter à la Lyla, mashed potatoes with heavy cream, gravy that would make any good gluten free vegan cry out in protest and salad to counteract it all. We couldn’t find cranberries as they are too weird even for here and we all agreed that nobody like brussels sprouts anyway. Cam splurged five whole euros on a fantastic bottle of Côte du Rhône. During yesterday’s wander around Carcassonne we had purchased a most heavenly chocolate hazelnut mousse cake for dessert. OK, I’ll cop to stopping at one of those fancy patisseries! Shhhhhhhh.
Upstairs Helen and her visiting Mom Val loaned us the oven to warm everything along with flour for the gravy, brown sugar for the yams, extra pans and just generally let us know that if we need it to make this patriotic meal happen they were our wing men. Thanks ladies!! Once it was all ready we sat down together and toasted. Having Sal at our little round wooden table felt somehow right to me, more balanced and whole. As though, for once, there was no one missing, no empty chair. Sal was born 5 days after our son Holden. Her parents were the first to meet him. Sal and Holden have known each other since birth. I miss him terribly and though he couldn’t be here, she held his proxy well, while being her own delightful gentle self. He was back at home eating turkey and birthday cake (Happy Birthday Mom! Love you!! ) with my Mom and family nine hours later.
We felt thankful as one does on Thanksgiving for health and happiness but this day had a special flavour. We were happy for the simplicity of each other’s company in this far away place and this amazing year we have been gifted. Grateful for freedom and peace, for the amazing experience that life can be even when it doesn’t go as planned. Thankful for opportunities to help others and to ask for help. When you ask for help you get more than you asked for. You find new friendships and gravy and scuba lessons (another story) and divine cakes and teacup turkey.
Love and thanks from Villegailhenc,
x ~ tara