Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Trail angels

This woman and her child live in St. Julia de Bec, France. I don’t know their names or their story, except on Wednesday they were my trail angels.
To long-distance hikers, trail angels can be life-savers or just someone who makes the sojourn more comfortable so you can make that summit or even get back home.
I was in the middle of a 19.8-mile round-trip from Quillan to 2,600-foot Mazuby, known locally as "the elephants" because of its hump topography, when I ran out of water. It was 91 degrees under a cloudless sky.
No problem.  I had planned to refuel in nearby St. Julia. However, I had forgotten to check for restaurants, bars or stores there before setting off. Walking through the small village I came across the woman and asked where I could buy water and food.
No place near, she said.
Le Tour Mazuby? she asked.
Eau? She made the motion of drinking from a glass.
Non, I said pointing to empty bottles.
She motioned me to come inside her home. She pulled out two store-bought bottled waters, one with bubbles and one without. I didn’t want to take water she bought.
Tap, she said.
Oui, merci.
She filled a glass of water. I finished it in three gulps. Then she filled my bottles.
Fruit? she asked
S’il vous plaît.
She handed me two peaches and a banana.
I left her a few euros for her kindness over her protestations. Like in the U.S., Good Samaritans in France don't expect payment. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I gave a couple of merci beaucoups, waved and left. Only down the trail did I realized I hadn't asked their names.
The peaches were the sweetest I’ve ever had.
I’ve encountered trail angels hiking in Appalachia, like the elderly guy who parks his pickup along a road that splits a trail to pass out oranges and water to hikers, or the local couple who drops you off at a hotel in town.
Now, it’s good to know they’re an international phenomenon.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What's in a name

We live in Quillan, France. It's  a lovely village of about 3,400 through which the Aude River runs fast enough through downtown for competitive kayaking training. 

It sits in an amphitheater of the Pyrenees foothills. It's an hour from the Spanish border. Each July and August is packed with festivals, fairs, car and cycling races. In 1929 it was the rugby champion of France.

The main industry used to be Formica, now tourism is closing in. That's due in big part to 10 percent of the 3,500 occupants being Brits, Americans, Australians and a few other English-speaking cousins.

A favorite sport is petanque, a French form of boules or lawn bowling where you toss a hollow metal ball overhand to get as as close as possible to a small target ball, a cochonnet (piglet). It's the French version of Italian bocce in which you roll underhand a larger, solid wood or resin ball on a smooth surface to get as close to the target. A petanque tournament is held each year in Quillan.

So why is a bowling ball and three pins similar to bowling alley pins on Quillan's coat of arms, instead of petanque balls and a cochonnet?

In French, quille is bowling, a game that's been played in Europe for hundreds of years, including in Quillan whose name was first mentioned in the 12th century, according to the village's official website. Back then variations of bowling consisted of three or more pins and small wooden balls depending on where the game was played.

Still, why bowling pins and balls and not petanque balls?

Ah, let us return to the Pyrenees, a big attraction here. The mountain range was created by the movement of the African continent, which left behind numerous pointed, sharp peaks in the Quillan area. According to several sources the peaks resembled the tall bins used in lawn bowling.

Three quilles in Quillan
as seen from L'Amour Vert.
In the western U.S. there are the Grand Tetons, which arguably was named by a (probably lonely) French explorer and in French means "large teats or nipples." Could not Petit Tetons have been more appropriate for the range around Quillan? Perhaps not. What symbol would you have then put  on the coat of arms?
I expect to receive a blistering comment from a town native that my research was in error.
"Non, c'est faux. Idiot!"

Actually, the point could be considered moot since the village has since adopted a stylized symbol, right, that more accurately features one of the area's main attribute. Those are mountains, just to be clear. I assme.

Friday, May 18, 2018


Europe's long history includes many examples of unconscionable inhumanity. Preserved reminders such as death camps and memorials to victims dot the landscape.
Yesterday, we stopped at Oradour-sur-Glane in the department of Limousin in western France. The village remains in the same burned-out condition German SS troops left it after slaughtering 642 men, women and children on June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day.

The Germans arrived shortly after 2 p.m. in several armored cars and trucks. At first, the villagers were more curious than worried because Oradour had been left alone during the war. But then everyone was ordered to the town square.

The men were separated and taken to six sheds and barns. The 500  women and children were taken to the village church.

The men were machine-gunned, shot in the legs first to prevent them from fleeing. Those who showed signs of life were shot point-blank. The Germans covered the bodies with wood and straw and set it afire, while those not yet dead screamed in agony. Several men escaped in the smoke and flames.
A building where men were executed.

Soldiers then went to the church, where the women thought they and the children might be released. Instead, two soldiers lit a poisonous device and hurried out the doors, which they locked behind them. The troops shot women and children who tried to escape or hide, including a boy and girl later found in the confessional. Only one woman escaped, by jumping nine feet out a window. None of the 246 children survived. The only child in the village to live was a refugee boy who knew to flee when the soldiers first arrived.

Before leaving, the Germans torched the church, barns, sheds and most every building.
The church where the women and 246 children died.
President Charles de Gaulle ordered the town be preserved. Crumbled buildings still show charring from the flames. Only the rusted metal remains of cars.
The school for girls.
Several sewing machines stand as reminders of domestic life.

Walking the streets of Oradour where at one tick of the clock were filled with the peaceful sounds of ordinary life on a warm June afternoon, of men and women chatting or going about their work and children playing after school, and the next transformed into a silent tomb, was overwhelming.

About 30 residents avoided death by fleeing when the Germans arrived or being away from the village. Six unfortunate young people who happened to bicycle  through the village while the Germans were there were were seized and killed.
Entire families were killed.

The officer who ordered the massacre and many soldiers who partcipated were killed in the Battle of Normandy.

Surprisingly, several German and Alsatian troops (the latter from the Alsace region of France at the German border) convicted in the 1950s and sentenced to death or prison terms, were later pardoned.

The Germans either denied involvement in the attack or said it was retaliation because the village was a hotbed of French Resistance activity. Historians said if the latter excuse was the case, the Germans likely attacked the wrong village. Another French village, Oradour-sur-Vayres, was an important Resistance center.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

‘Victoire à la France’

We spent what we in the U.S. call VE Day on Tuesday with folks in the French village of Loubillé. Here it’s Victory in France.

In Paris, it involves a huge parade down the Champs Élysée. In Loubillé, population 400, about a score or more of villagers walked 2 kilometers out of town to a memorial at the edge of some woods. Here German troops executed three men on July 24, 1944. They were members of the French Resistance formed after France surrendered early in the war.

Mairie (Mayor) Gérard Collet  read an account of the incident. The men had been captured elsewhere. The truck carrying them stopped in the woods, where they were shot and left to lie where they fell.

Collet also played an anthem of the Resistance: 

"... tonight the enemy will know the price of blood and tears ...Take the rifles, the machine gun, the grenades out of the straws."

France’s Vichy government surrendered in part to spare the country a repeat of the horror from WWI when its military lost 1.4 million killed.

In WWII, the French army lost 210,000 killed. The number includes 68,000 freedom fighter deaths. More than 390,000 French civilians were killed by the fighting or executions.

The U.S. suffered 420,000 military deaths and 12,000 civilians killed, mostly merchant seamen.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Freedom to speak

For 40 years I've kept my opinions to myself as a professional journalist. I never let them influence a story and I never joined a protest, until now. I retired from my last newspaper job in December and on Saturday took part in my first demonstration, March For Our Lives.

Me and some guy with something in common
at Saturday's march in Aix-en-Provence.
It wasn't in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, or in D.C. It was with 120 other expats or vacationing Americans in Aix-en-Provence, France. It's been my wife's dream to live in France. I bought into it and we're spending the year deciding whether we actually will take the big step next year.

If we do, I'll still be a taxpaying American, still concerned with what happens in my homeland, in part because I have three grown children facing gun violence, outrageous health-insurance costs, cuts on environmental protections and politicians demonizing a free press when it doesn't kiss their ass. So obviously I'm a liberal. I like to say center-left.

I bit my tongue when unreasonable gun enthusiasts called the newspaper to complain about gun control "nuts." I listened to their arguments, discussed both sides with them and hoped that they at least had found a sounding board for their opinion. It's a proud tradition of newspapers, or should be.

I no longer have such professional constraints.

I support banning all semiautomatic rifles. You want to have one, join the military, where one day you might get to use that gun for its sole purpose, to kill many enemy troops. Hopefully it will be in the defense of democracy and the country.

Or go rip off as many rounds as you want at a firing range. Just leave the gun there when you're done. I understand the thrill. I attended an FBI citizens academy where firing a Thompson machine gun and a semiautomatic rifle were the highlights.

You want an AR-15 to hunt? You're a lousy sportsman. Hunting rifle or shotgun should be all you need. Or try a bow and arrow if you're really up for a challenge.

You want it for home security? A handgun or shotgun is ample protection.

You have some crazy theory of government troops taking your gun during a military coup? Good luck with that pea shooter against a tank. This isn't 1776.

Have a handgun, shotgun, hunting rifle with a five-round magazine if you want. There's no practical reason for a civilian to have an AR-15 with a 30- or 60-round magazine or similar weapon. And don't hide behind the Second Amendment. The luxury of allowing these killing machines has cost us too many dead children and concert-goers.

I know I might get a lot of opposing comments. Save your carpal tunnel. I'm not here to debate. I won't change your mind and you won't change mine. Post your own blog.

This mid-term election, you vote for your gun-rights candidate and I'll vote for my gun-control candidate.

That's how we solve these issues in a democracy.

If you win, I'll be out there protesting. If I win, I'll expect the same from you, my fellow American.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Burger vs. baguette

The Americanization of French food has hit a new high, or low considering your viewpoint. More hamburgers on a bun were sold in this culinary-crazy country last year than the ubiquitous "jambon-beurre baguette," sliced ham on a buttered French loaf.

Chalkboard ad outside Marseille restaurant.
 "Du moment" is the new "du jour,"
 or "today's special."
The tally was 1.46 billion burgers compared to 1.22 billion baguette sandwiches, Gira Conseil, which monitors the consumption of food in France outside the home, told the Reuters news agency. The French ate 14 times fewer burgers a decade ago.

"But the French are now crazy about burgers. You find them everywhere, from fast food to Michelin-starred restaurants," Gira Conseil director Bernard Boutboul told Reuters. 

It's not just Mickey D or Burger King steadily gaining in popularity. Of French restaurants, 85 percent now offer a kind of burger, Boutboul said.

I recently  participated in this sea change having ordered a burger off the menu at a bistro in Aix-en-Provence.

I made the mistake of ordering a French hamburger during a visit several years ago. It was barely edible. This time was an experiment. I was expecting another odd-tasting concoction as if its origin was an animal of a different hoof than a cow. It would be on the red side of pink because I ordered it medium. (Ask for medium-well or well down in France, you usually still get medium.)

I was surprised at how good it was. The patty wasn't bleeding all over the plate and tasted close to a burger from a good American restaurant or bar. However, as the French are wont to do, it was topped with a different-tasting sauce; good, just different. Ketchup, mustard or steak sauce would have made it an excellent fit for my Midwest palate. 

Paulita with almost-daily baguette.
The bun was a little dry, but that's sometimes the case at American joints.

"The rest of us had leg of lamb," francophile Paulita noted. 

Like I said, it was an experiment. I'm not about to give up my frequent ration of a baguette with ham and cheese. But I might have a burger now and then, with frites, of course.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mountains vs. ocean

I might be facing a dilemma.
I retired in December and we decided to spend this year living in France. If we want to make it permanent, we'll buy a house here next year.
We've rented a home in the small village of Quillan in the southwest of the country in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Sunrise over the mountains around Quillan.
I love the mountains. Back home in the States I'd try to backpack as often as I could in the Appalachian chain or West Virginia or southern Ohio. I preferred camping on mountaintops for the wind and view instead of  designated campsites in the hollers.  Quillan is perfect because we can literally walk less than a mile to several trail heads, every day. We feel healthier after a 2,000-foot climb and walking to the town center for food, the market or a drink by the Aude River. However, I don't know if overnight camping in the mountains is allowed in France.
A big plus, though, is that the housing prices in Quillan are within our budget. Perfect, I thought. I could definitely live here.
Then some friends let us stay at their condo in the Atlantic beach town of Chatelaillon-Plage south of La Rochelle. It's an ocean-front apartment with a terrace.
Sunset on the Atlantic at Chatelaillon-Plage.
We can hear the breaking of the waves, walk along the huge sandy beach and watch the kite and wind surfers and sailboats glide across the crests. It reminds me of our years in St. Petersburg, Fla. We'd go to the beach with friends to have a beer and blackened grouper at the Hurricane restaurant and watch the sun set over the Gulf. Sometimes I'd go by myself and stay until the sun went down, listening to the waves and finding myself feeling calm and even dozing off.
When I was younger I always thought it would be cool to live in a waterfront tourist town. Even when I was older, the traffic and tourist hassles were worth living close to the water.
Then I saw the prices of homes in Chatelaillon-Plage. Reality check. They are way out of our reach, and the same probably is true of any beachfront home in France, or even St. Pete.
Maybe we can find a less expensive place close to a beach in a less touristy area where there are ample amenities like restaurants, markets, wine shops and patisseries. Getting an idea of our priorities?
We have the rest of the year to decide whether France will be our new home, and where.
Right now, the mountains are calling. But who knows?