Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in France: The Flight of the Pig

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W and I were walking along the tarmac road a bit ahead of the D’s when we heard an almighty rustling in the shrubbery on the bank to the left and above the level of the road.  At first I thought it was a gust of wind, but no, there was movement.  There was a shout from behind us.  There was definitely something moving in the shrubs above us.  I saw something white and brown through the brambles.  I looked around and the D’s were gesticulating madly.  Behind them four small trucks had appeared, and a squad of guys clad in international orange vests poured out of the trucks.  There was caterwauling in the shrubbery.   Was it an escaped convict?  A terrorist attack? No, D&D explained. They had seen a pig the size of a small sheep dart across the road.  These were hunters with a pack of dogs.

 Just then the dogs burst out of the shrubs, yelping merrily, one stopping to deposit a trace on the roadside.  There were foxhounds, a setter, a border collie, and a couple of serious-looking shaggy gray animals whose job would probably be to try to take down the pig if they ever caught up with him.  All sported orange collars which seemed to be fitted with GPS trackers. The dogs took off to the right of the road and down the hill into more shrubs.  The hunters jumped into their trucks and roared away at right angles, hoping for a road which would bring them closer to the hounds. As we walked along, we saw the hunters stopped, back-tracking, roaring off in another direction, then returning , sometimes with a dog or two added to the back of the truck,  sometimes not. All seemed to be having a great time.  I was just happy that the pig had not jumped from the bank as we were passing – what an ignominious end, to be on a hiking tour in France and be crushed by a flying pig!img_20160916_115459164doc

Can you spot the pig? (Neither could we!)

Freeway-free in France:Medieval Market and Marketing in Sarlat

 

Exploring the medieval village of Sarlat out-appealed  walking in the surrounding countryside,  and gave us each an opportunity to occupy our time without being one wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle.  DM and I did shopping in the justly- famous Sarlat Saturday market, while DB walked the self-guided city tour and W did tai qi and sudoku in the park. We met for lunch at a quaint courtyard,  then DB went back to the hotel to relax while the other  three did the city tour. We all spent an hour or so doing email and post cards in the mid-afternoon and then the D’s invited us up to their roomier (set up for handicapped) suite for a pre-prandial cordial. So we are learning how to be apart as well as together –  A good travel skill. september-2016-410web

The Saturday market in Sarlat attracts vendors from all over the regions, with lots of opportunities to sampled the  key products: olives and their oil, walnuts and their oil, and (less lavishly set out for tasting) duck and goose foie gras.  The market fills several streets, the main public square, and the inside of an abandoned church whose entire back wall has been converted to a giant portal allowing free circulation of both air and people to the market stalls inside. 

 20160917_021452docHaving figured out the advantage of attracting tourists to their market on Saturday morning, the city fathers of Sarlat have lost no time in figuring out ways to keep those walking cash dispensers in town as long as possible.  On the Saturday of our stay we were tempted back onto the streets long after the market closed with an evening sound-and-light presentation called “Un Patrimoine sous les Etoiles” [A Patrimony under the Stars]  in the old city starting at 9pm.

 

 

 

W and DB begged off, but DM and I set out after dinner to find the streets and ramparts lined with votive candles , the public buildings and cathedral lit with patriotic blue, white, and red, an artist drawing calligraphy with a light torch in the public square, and a buxom artiste on a balcony reading patriotic excerpts from Sarlat’s leading literary light Etienne de La Boetie accompanied by a cello.  The ostensible theme of the evening was something to do with the responsibilities of citizenship, but the real point was to see how different and how cool the old city looked with candle-lit paths and colored light effects. 

 

Freeway Free in France – Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One (cont.)

september-2016-377webAt about the halfway point of our first day of hiking (9km) we felt raindrops.  Drizzle turned to gentle rain, enough to rate dragging out our rain gear – all except DB, who had left her poncho behind to save weight. (DB has some curvature of the spine and her backpack is not very comfortable, so she chose to leave some basic stuff, including sufficient water.  Fortunately both W and I tend to err in the opposite direction, and were able to keep her hydrated with our extra bottles, and fairly dry with my little polka-dot umbrella.). The ponchos added an unnecessary extra layer of warmth, so we kept trying to do without every time we felt the rain slacken, and then had to re-don when we got out of the sheltering woods or the rain renewed its attack.

september-2016-382webWe oohed and ached over a chateau whose ruined towers loomed above the woods on the left (it was burned by the Nazis in WWII) and exclaimed over weird fungi growing on logs and near the edges of the path.  We noted pear orchards, apple trees heavy with fruit, an occasional vineyard lush with grapes awaiting harvest.  We sampled wild blackberries at the side of the road, and tried to open chestnut husks to get at the chestnuts inside. (Chestnuts are stickery!”  And we were counting down the remaining KM by tenths.

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Finally we made it to Sarlat  after about 7 hours on the walk.  (It was supposed to take 5, but we missed a couple of turns, and some of us were pretty slow on the up hills)  The usual hotel for this tour company was booked up, so they put us in a backup – W and I are sharing a tiny room with two twin beds, minuscule night table shelves, one chair, and a clothes rack hung over the door on which we must try to dry our wet / sweaty clothing.  But the shower has cold water for my feet and warm water for the rest of me, and after the appropriate ablutions I am snuggled under the matelasse bedspread in my nightshirt while W in her night shirt is rapping out emails at the skimpy shelf-desk in the corner.   Our dinner reservation is in a half hour and we are hoping to be able to walk that far.

Today’s walk was the second longest of the 7.  Tomorrow we will be in Sarlat for the whole day; there is a “suggested loop” of 14 KM which takes about 4 hours per our tour route guide, or we can just wimp out and enjoy the famous market and explore the car-free streets of the old medieval town.  I’ll see what a good dinner and night’s rest does for me!

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But at the moment wimping out sounds great.

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)

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After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!

 

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Freeway Free in France: Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One

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W and I are in our shared room decompressing after our first day hiking in the Dordogne.  The day started out well, with a street market going full blast out our window, a good night’s sleep after our six course kickoff dinner the evening before, and a good assortment of stuff on the buffet table at breakfast suitable for stuffing into a surreptitious bag for lunch.

20160916_025454docWe were dropped off in Roufillac after a brief orientation on French hiking route markings, and told to “go between the houses and up the path”.  Packs on back, hiking sticks in hand, we set off.  The sky was partly cloudy, the temperature was in the low 70s, couldn’t have been nicer for our purposes.  We wound up through wooded hills past houses and barns built of glowing yellow sandstone, some with tile roofs, many with stone roofs.  We came to a small village perched at the top of the hill and realized we had climbed quite far, and there was a ruined castle inviting us to explore just at the tip of the cliff overlooking the valley.20160916_005258doc

Some of the ruins were Roman, some 12th century, some newer. The castle had been a stronghold against the Gauls, the Huguenots, Charlemagne, and the Moors at various times.  This day, two friendly and muscular young men were busy setting up the stage for a music festival inside the keep starting this weekend.

We continued on down into the valley and up the other side.  By this time the air was warmer, and we stopped to take off our jackets and have our noontime snack of bread, cheese, and fruit from the hotel buffet.  We were already starting to keep track out loud of how many kilometers we had come and how far we had to go – a bad sign. But we felt good, and eager to see what would be coming around the next corner. (To be Continued)september-2016-379doc

 

 

Freeway Free in California: Feet on the Streets for the Women’s March Jan 22,2017

I was proud to be part of the worldwide demonstration in favor of equal rights, science, facts, and tolerance of differences. Here are some pix of my self, friends, and family in San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento. (note Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom in lower right, along with my new grand-daughter in her pussy hat.)

Freeway-Free in France: Paleolithic Art and Mystery

20161222_175622cropThe Dordogne area of southwestern France is rife with sandstone caverns, many of which hold spectacular displays of calcite formations, and several of which hold samples of Paleolithic art, most preserved unseen for over 20,000 years because the entrances to the caves collapsed, cutting off access.

We first went to Peche-Merle, where the art and other man-made markings have been dated back to about 28,000 years.  Here one is allowed to descend into the actual cave, which has been artfully illuminated to simulate torchlight on the drawings.  The calcite formations are dramatic – curtains and columns and needles and disks and strange formations that look like children’s toys – a spinning top, a set of marbles.  All done by seepage of water through the calcite.

 Most of the drawings are linear evocations of mammoths, deer, and aurochs with one sweeping line outlining trunk, tusks, head, hump, and tail.  There is one very clear image of a cave bear scratched into a wall with some relief effect due to the bumps in the wall.  There are several partial hand prints.  There is one image of a man who appears to be pierced by spears (images of people, we learned, are very rare in Paleolithic art.). And at the end there was a spectacular image of two horses, both with small heads, black fore quarters, and black spots on the rest of the body for an Appaloosa effect, the most complete and vivid picture in the cave.  We tried to imagine how these pictures were created, by artists using pigment made from burnt clay, stamping or brushing or even blowing the colors painstakingly onto the wall.  The how of doing it is hard to imagine, the why is a complete mystery.

The next day we went to Lascaux II. Fifty years ago  my group of American students was among the last visitors to the original cave, as it was closed to the public in 1963, the year I was there.  The re-creation, however, does a much better job of recreating the sense of being in a cave, the mystery and unknowability of the purpose and practice of the artists, and the general overall experience than, say, the digital recreation of Alta Mira in Spain that  I saw two years ago (See my blog post from 2014). Again, one descends underground, into a cavern whose dimensions and irregularities are within one centimeter of the original cave.  The paintings have been recreated copying the original pigments and techniques.  And what paintings! Horses walk, trot, and gallop in a frieze, herded (maybe) or protected (maybe) or stampeded (maybe) by several gigantic bulls. There is a delicate drawing of a deer with intricate antlers alone on one wall.  There is a procession of ponies.  There are ibexes with sweeping horns.  There is one animal which seems to combine features of several others.  And many of these animals are carefully and realistically shaded and colored, unlike the outlined figures of Peche Merle.  They are beautiful.  No one knows, or can ever know, what they mean.

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Freeway Free in France: Grappling with Griselda (the GPS Lady)

20161222_175841map1We have a French road map courtesy of AAA.  Three out of four of us have the same road map.   If you want to get to point A, the map is useful for finding out some waypoints along the way, since signposts in the French countryside mostly point just to the next town, not to the next major town.  The road numbers on the map almost never match any of the road numbers you actually see on the road signs, so that’s no help.

On the map, toll roads are blue with red borders, divided highways are yellow with red borders, “Principal roads” are red, “main roads” are yellow, and there are some grey roads.  There are large areas which seem to have no roads, but that is not the case.

20161222_175841docmap2We have a GPS which came with our car.  We had some interesting trips in the first few days, because it seemed to have been preset to avoid toll roads and major highways at all costs.  We saw a lot of red roads (they have striping, shoulders, left turn lanes, and lots of roundabouts) and yellow roads (center striping, no left turn lanes, fewer roundabouts, no shoulders, and grey roads (no striping, no shoulders, stop signs, just room for two midsize cards to get past each other) and a fair set of the invisible roads, which are basically one-lane roads bordered by very solid stone walls where you just have to pray there is no one coming around the next curve.

By the time we had wrestled with Griselda the GPS lady for a few days, we were ready to take matters into our own hands and get on the toll road in order to get to Peche Merle, the prehistoric cave where the only English language tour was going to depart at 10.  We ignored Griselda and set off for A20, the toll road.  Bad move.  Little did we know that in this case Griselda was right:  the toll road took us way out of our way and we narrowly made it to our destination on time (helped by DB’s having mistakenly (she says) told us 10 when our actual tour was at 10:30).  We found that W’s smart phone, though not connected to the Internet, could be set using the hotel Wifi and subsequently gave us excellent access to Google Maps, so we had a cross check.  On our return, we found that what had taken us an hour and a half using our “common sense” was reduced to under an hour using Griselda ‘s and Google’s byroads.

The next morning we set off again, this time feeling confident in Griselda’s advice, but common sense began to worry when she insisted on taking us northeast when the old-technology map showed we needed to be going almost due west.  We stopped and checked. Turned out Griselda operates by names of towns, not tourist attractions, and “Lascaux” per Griselda was a little town halfway to Tours. We reprogrammed her for the TOWN closest to the Cave de Lascaux where we wanted to go, and off we went, threading our way through tiny lanes that looked more like sidewalks, twisting through villages almost too small to have names, until we finally regained the yellow road which led to our goal.  We were so delighted to regain center striping!

For the rest of our trip, we made use of Griselda, Google, AND the paper map.  Of course, once we were alert to the foibles of each, we had no discord between them.

Freeway Free in France: Awesome Albi

 

I had always wanted to go to Albi ever since in college I saw a poster a roommate had, which looked almost other worldly in its having no relation whatsoever to my ideas of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals. Somehow I missed Albi when I was a student traveler, and when I saw that a small detour could take us there, all it took was to point out that Albi is also the home of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum to convince my travel mates to make a stop.

20160912_024628docAlbi did not disappoint.  The cathedral of Ste Cecile is the largest brick building in the world.  Brick, not stone, not concrete. It rises from the central plaza in Albi at the side of the Rhone River like some kind of fantasy, all smooth curves and unbroken surfaces. Only slits for Windows.  Towers that just keep on going.  Our first glimpse had us tripping over our jaws. We walked around from the back of the church looking for the entrance, and found a welcoming Gothic/Baroque carnival of white stone at the top of marble steps leading into the brick fantasy. 20160912_030001doc

Our guidebooks told us that the original cathedral had been build with an uneasy eye to the local Albigensian sect, a group which had been declared heretic by the Pope, but was thriving in Albi.  The new bishop designed his cathedral as much as a defensible fortress as a place of worship, just in case the local heretics got rebellious.  Only a hundred years after the completion of the vertical cathedral had the welcoming entrance been added.

Once inside, our jaws dropped again. If Escher had combined with Joan Miro and Provençal fabric designers to color the interior of this building, they might have come up with something like this – a riot of pattern and geometry in bright reds, yellows, greens, and blues, ending in arched recesses painted in equally diverse designs, one a yellow sun on a blue field decked with stars, another twining with ivy, etc.  september-2016-239doc

Most cathedrals draw your eye to the front with a representation of Jesus triumphant at the right hand of God with Mary beaming proudly and all the apostles lined up.
  How sissified.  Ste Cecilia devotes the entire wall to a representation of the Last Judgement, with the apostles, yes, lined up, and then maybe 1/5th of the available space devoted to the saved, in order of rank, with the clergy first, Archbishops and bishops leading, followed by virtuous royalty, and then by the hoi polloi, many of whom have the list of their good and bad deeds hanging in book form around their necks.  Some of the dead are still rising from their graves, while the ones who are not saved are already beginning to writhe.  The bottom third of the space shows most graphically what kind of punishment awaits the greedy, the lustful, the proud, the gluttonous, the envious, and the slothful. But where is Anger?  And where is Christ sitting in judgment?  Oops – the Bishops wanted to expand the nave and create a special chapel for themselves, so Christ and the Angry sinners made way for a nicely arched door behind the altar.

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After touring the cathedral (a well arranged and narrated audio tour takes about an hour) we went for another outdoor lunch at the Clos de Ste. Cecile, in an former school behind the cathedral.  Excellent.  More Foie Gras, more goat cheese, more dried duck breast, more walnuts.  20160912_042141web

Then we started on the Toulouse Lautrec museum. This is the worlds largest collection of TL, but much of it is devoted to sketches and preliminary studies for the works we have seen in the Musee d’Orsay.  Still a lot of information.

We finished our trip with a short stroll around the Bishop’s Garden, a formal boxwood arrangement whose floral elements are changed regularly to reflect the theme of the season. Oddly, this season’s theme was a tribute to Joan Miro, so the floral elements reflected the colors of his painting in non-symmetrical arrangements. Quite interesting once you figured out what they were trying to do.

So far, no hassles, no arguments, no breakdowns, and nothing but sunny (though a bit over-warm) weather. Cross fingers.

Freeway Free in France: Golden Carcasonne

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The city of Carcasonne is a World Heritage site, a well preserved/restored medieval castle and keep perched above a river in southern Languedoc.  The castle was originally built to protect villagers, merchants and serfs from raiders who plagued the Mediterranean coast from Africa, but later the attackers included Charlemagne, who laid siege to the town for months, and after that crusaders led by (later St.) Louis IX of France against the Cathars  (AKA Albigensians), who had been labeled as heretics by the pope.  Tolerance has not been much of a feature of Christianity in historic times, it seems.20160911_075143web

Carcasonne was in ruins after centuries of decay, when an Victorian- era architect/achaeologist who had been involved in the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris took an interest in restoring the city.  His first proposal was modest, aiming to restore only a portion of the site, but public response was so positive that he aimed higher and took on the whole site.  The result is amazing. Two fortified walls circle the city, there is a tournament ground for jousting and swordplay, the old lord’s castle is almost intact, and at the same time there is a thriving village of 200 households living within the keep, mostly occupied in tending to the thousands of tourists who flock here in the summer.

We arrived noonish after a lovely drive through Languedoc’s vineyards.  After a quick lunch we started on the castle tour/ battlement walk.  There was fascinating history in every room and great views from every arrow slot and murder hole.  Then we ventured into the church, with its gothic rose window, and caught a concert of traditional Provençal ballads sung by two white- clad ethereal women accompanied by a harpist and base player.  The plaintive plainsong- style music echoed amazingly in the old church.

We dined in an open patio at a restaurant recommended by one of the travel writers admired by both Winifred and Dianne, the Auberge de Lice.  We agreed that we had each enjoyed the best meal ever for 80 euros – three delectable courses beautifully presented  divided among four people, and an excellent bottle of local red wine. After dinner we walked along the exterior battlements, lit at intervals by recessed lights with the effect of torches.  As we walked back to our hotel across the 13th century bridge, the castle shone golden behind us.  It was magical.20160911_121923web

Trivia note:  Carcasonne played a major supporting role in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” appearing as the village of Nottingham and Prince John’s castle.

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